Rainy Days


Waking up always used to be my cue to groan and roll over, and tell the world to go away and leave me in peace for another hour at least -- two if I could wangle them! Mornings are not my favourite time of day; they herald another round of effort and danger, and as resigned to both as I've become, I relish neither enough to greet the dawn with whoops of youthful enthusiasm.

But that morning I drifted up out of a meaningless dream, and if my nose hadn't told me exactly where I was, the weight on my chest would have; there was nothing surprising anymore in waking up in this bed, and my body had grown accustomed to the hot, sharp-boned feel of another man's body almost at once. Christ, but Ray had got thin. They had kept him in hospital for just over a month, and he had been home for a fortnight, slowly getting his strength back, trying to stay warm, doing the half-baked little exercises the physios had given him. If he was eating regularly, I didn't know about it, but try as I might, I couldn't get him to look at food yet.

His bones have always been just under the skin, but after the long climb back to health and even this marginal fitness, he was as thin as a kid, weighing so little I had the impression I could pick him up with one hand. The exercises were working, though; Macklin turned up trumps, organising a programme that wouldn't hurt him and could be done indoors, because there was too much rain about and it was much too cold out there to let him go out for long. Brian's a funny bird; if you're on the job and competitive he'll break you in two, but he's so gentle with Ray that I've honestly started to suspect he has a soft spot for him. Fraternal affection, or something -- the big brother complex. That I can accept and smile; I'm not that jealous. Yet.

The muscles in Ray's back and shoulders were starting to knot up again, bunching under the thin skin, and his legs were just beginning to harden up; still, he wasn't really strong, and his wind was ruined. He'd be in agony when he started to run again, I knew, but Macklin had warned him off that for weeks yet, so there was nothing immediately frightening about the prospect.

And in any case, those lungs would tone themselves up naturally now that he'd started up with me. In bed, that is. I can get him out of breath just by stroking him, even now, so at the time, lovemaking was something strenuous for him, poor bloke.

Still, he was getting desperate for it. It was seven weeks or so since he had been touched by anyone except a nurse or a doctor, and when we finally got it together he was almost starved, not just for a healthy release of the tensions in him, but for affection.

He turned to me late in the afternoon, letting me know with an exasperated smile that he'd been seeing the love I was still trying to hide, and that he was hungry for it. You could have knocked me over with a feather; I'd been ravenous for him for so long I'd started to think I'd have to give Cowley my heart-felt resignation and run, fast and far, away from him, because it was hurting me. Wanting him used to make me ache something fierce, and chasing girls was not the answer. I tried that, got the reputation of a super stud with bad social manners, and all I got out of it was depression as I was shown, time and again, the difference between sex and love. The sex was great; good girls, every one of them. But it was love I was aching for... And him I wanted it from. Him I wanted to give it to, share it with.

Am I a sentimentalist? Maybe. He thinks I am, teases me unmercifully at times. But he's a fine one to talk, him with his big, bruised eyes and his mouth that goes soft and swollen with love and wanting. So, late in the afternoon, when he turned to me at last, just smiling and stroking my cheek, I let out some sort of strangled sob and went to him, cuddled him for hours.

He was hurting; the bloody operation sites were giving him hell, and from what I know of these things, they probably always will. Years from now he'll pull an adhesion and be in pain, but if that's the trade off for being alive, it's fair.

He was rigid, stiff against me; I thought at first that he was uncomfortable with the idea of being with a man, but it didn't take long for it to dawn on me that he was aching. I took his shirt off -- and my fingers shook, I'll admit; how long had I wanted to do this? -- and warmed my hands in front of the gas heater before I rubbed his hurts away. He's like a kitten, stretching and purring when he's enjoying being touched; that was just one of the joys of being with him I learned that afternoon. I learned about a hundred more that night.

Last night he had been starved for affection, wanting me with a passion that startled me, and it wasn't until he came in my arms that I realised what he was saying, breathily, into my hair.

I'd been riding high on the rapture of touching him, living out my fantasies, and hadn't even realised he was speaking until I heard the word 'love,' realised he was telling me he loves me. I must have whispered the same words back a dozen times before we drifted off to sleep.

We smelt a bit strong -- the bed did, come to that, which is only understandable, all things considered, so as I swam up out of that meaningless dream I knew where I was long before I woke. The weight on my chest was hard and bony, but the poor little bugger wasn't heavy enough to make it hard to breathe, and I knew it was much more comfortable for him to sleep pillowed on me than trying to find some comfortable way to lie on the mattress. He had slept there most of the night, and I was stiff with immobility, as I'd no intentions of waking him after what I'd done to him.

I'd exhausted him, and felt guilty about it; there was no way he could keep up with me yet, and he shouldn't have tried. I'd wanted him to lie on top of me, afraid that my weight would hurt him -- for God's sake, a few weeks ago his chest was laid wide open, and the scars were still livid! But in a couple of minutes he was pouring with perspiration and shaking, and there was nothing for it. When he was underneath me I kissed him and told him to lie still, that I'd do it all, and by that time he was so wrung out he was glad to do as he was told.

The first time he'd ever done it with a man, I thought, grinning like an idiot as I woke up and felt the moist breaths tickling my neck. I'd had as shadowy a past as you'd expect of a bloke with my list of dubious accomplishments, which is to say, I wasn't averse to male company if there weren't any girls to be found and it was some time since I'd even set eyes on a skirt. I'd always preferred girls; men were just a convenience, until I wandered off the squash court that day and hunted up an orange juice, and met him.

I won't say it was love at first sight -- I'm not that daft; lust maybe. There are parts of his anatomy that would get to a nun who's been dead for ten years. No, the love came later, when I got to know him, first to like him, then to want him so much I was sure he had to know. I guess he did know, at least for the last couple of months; the way I hovered around when he was ill might have tipped him off. My girl friend left me, said I'd neglected her once too often and pushed off with a pilot... I wasn't sorry to see her leave, because my whole world had begun to revolve around him anyway.

Loving is a funny thing; can be absolutely terrifying and, Christ, it can hurt. All that wanting and yearning and aching.

Then, here I was, wriggling my toes and grinning at the ceiling in sheer joy as he began to stir on top of me, yawning and filling my left ear with a damp draught before he lifted his head and smiled down at me out of green eyes that were soft as a doe's and not really awake yet. Blue jaw and all, he looked as lovely as ever, and I reached up to kiss him.

It's all in the eye of the beholder, I expect; from the neck down we all tend to admire the same physical attributes -- a beautiful body is a beautiful body, and that's that, except for the outlandish cases, like the Man-Mountain bodybuilders and the other extreme, the concentration camp refugees, which are very much an acquired taste (which isn't to say people don't acquire it!); but from the neck up, it's all personal preference.

I've heard Ray called ugly, heard his eyes called 'funny,' and his face 'round and cheerful.' Well, I'll defend to the death a person's right to his or her own opinion, of course, just so long as they don't ask me to agree with those definitions!

I saw him in profile first, and he was squinting, and it was his nose I noticed before anything. Like something on a marble statue, I thought, and then he turned away from the light and let me have it with those eyes, wide open and unblinking; to say that my knees turned to jelly is something of an understatement, because a moment later he smiled hello at me and I had to lean back against the bar at once. He has a mouth any woman would -- or should, if she's got any sense -- kill for, and a voice that could make a shopping list sound like a love letter.

Beautiful? Another understatement. So I started taking notice to him on Day One, and what followed is history. He didn't move a muscle as I kissed him, just lay there and opened his mouth to me, and I wanted him again. He smiled sunnily as he felt me getting hard under him, and rubbed his hip against me. Still not up to par, he took a few seconds to respond to the idea, but I was still astonished at how fast he turned on. The time I'd been knifed, it took a month for me to remember what my equipment was for, and I hadn't been anywhere near as ill as him.

He wriggled around until he was comfortable, put his head down on my shoulder again, and rocked against me as long as he could. Macklin's exercises were doing him good, I thought; a week or two ago he'd have been exhausted in moments; not that he had much staying power even now, though. I could feel his breath getting short and gave him a prod in the ribs with one finger. "Trying to do yourself a mischief, sunshine?"

He lifted his head and looked at me with an apologetic sigh. "Trying to make it good for you," he murmured. "Can't. Not yet. Will one day, though."

Trying to make it good for me? Didn't the idiot know what he was doing to me just by being here like this, plastered against me with his cock digging into my belly. I think I gave a hysterical giggle, and took hold of him with the kind of exaggerated care I was used to now, lifting him gently onto his back and moving over on top of him, like last night. Too thin, I noted absently, feeling his ribcage under my chest, but he was game enough, wrapping his legs around me. Maybe I could start force feeding him with chocolates or something.

It was sweet, God, so sweet, feeling him tense up with the needing to come, trying not to, hanging onto me for dear life while I stroked every bit of him I could reach and let my mouth rove between both his ears, exploring everything along the way, eyes, nose, and every part of that mouth. He was too knocked out to do more than lie still and hold back as long as he could -- that's a hell of an effort for a fit person anyway, and he was doing bloody well.

Thanks to Brian and his exercise programme, I thought with a vaguely delirious sense of the ridiculous as I got close myself and followed him into that kind of sticky, exhausting rapture that never lasts half long enough. It's odd; with a girl you're always wondering what she's feeling, but with a man you know for sure. Makes being with a man special, somehow, but I'd never wanted to love a man before him.

Definitely sentimental, I thought as I climbed off him as soon as my ears stopped ringing, and groped about for the box of tissues. It was empty. He was laughing. "Phew, this bed smells a bit on the strong side," he said, wrinkling his nose. "I wonder why that should be?"

I was using a bit of loose sheet to mop us up. "I really can't hazard a guess," I said drily. "Could have something to do with a certain person getting an attack of the randies all of a sudden... Well, two people, to be fair." I kissed the middle of his chest, suddenly wishing I'd bent to taste his essences before swabbing them away. Well, do that next time; in fact, suck the gorgeous creature into oblivion next time, I thought with a thrill of anticipation -- that'd save a bit of the mess too. Then I wondered if he'd suck me and shivered; it might take him a while to get around to that, but I could wait. I remembered my first times, as a kid, at sea. It can take a bit of getting used to, I'll be honest; but if he so much as kissed me where I'm tenderest I'd be off. No doubt about it, so I wouldn't be asking for much.

He stretched and yawned, and I watched his skin stretch tightly over his ribs. "Breakfast," I said decisively. "Before you lose any more weight. Making love takes a lot out of you, and if you're going to start wantin' it at every verse end, you'll have to put back what the rave up takes out."

"Not ready to get up yet," Ray yawned, rubbing his chest.

"Not aching, are you?"

"A bit. I'm getting better though," he said with a sleepy smile that stole the breath from my lungs.

I kissed his forehead. "You stay put, then, and I'll see what I can rustle up." Breakfast in bed, for Christ's sake... I was losing my brain. I realised that as the first sign of utter insanity as I pulled on his red robe and headed for the kitchen, half expecting him to appear in my wake.

Give my Raymond an inch, and he'll part the car in it. He was still in bed when I went back to the bedroom; he'd fluffed the pillows up and was reading a magazine, one of those pop-science journals, where the laws of the universe are rendered into words of one syllable for dodos like us. He was tousled and very pale, but smiling, and I forgave him for the self-indulgence of the morning's lethargy. After all, he'd made love twice in twelve hours for the first time in seven weeks, and just two weeks ago he'd been so woozy and light headed that he'd had to be wheeled out to the car, and his favourite nurse and I had picked him up between us.

I dumped the tray down on the empty side of his bed and shook up the bottle of baby oil. "Okay, sonny Jim, which is the bit that hurts, back or chest?"

"Back," he told me, chucking the magazine away and sending his fingers in search of a bacon sandwich from the tray.

"Turn over, then, and eat your brekkie while I do the honours." He did as he was told, pulling a pillow under his shoulders and chewing on the hot sandwich while I rolled the unfresh bedding out of the way and oiled up my hands. I hadn't had much of a chance to look at him last night; he'd been so tired by nine o'clock that he was in bed by the time I got back from the bathroom, so I hadn't undressed him or seen him properly. The night was chilly, too, so we'd made love with the blankets up around our shoulders -- hence, the state of the sheets.

Now, he was flat out in front of me in all the Doyle glory, and I was having a hard time breathing. The scar on his back was ugly, really awful, enough to curl your toenails, like fingernails on a blackboard, but it would pale out and just about vanish. I've had dozens of worse scars, so I wasn't all that concerned about it. Besides, it wasn't his scar I was looking at, it was his rump. Backside, rear portion, situpon, posterior, anything you want to call it, but I will not refer to it as his arse, because one does not apply vulgarity to works of fine art; and believe me, it's a work of art.

It wasn't the first time I'd seen it naked, of course; it wasn't even the first time I'd touched him. I've been groping him for years, without making much ado about it. But this was the first time I'd been free to touch it with him quite aware what I was doing, and with my hands covered in oil. My heart was doing foolish things; I stooped and kissed it, and he gave me a backward glance, heavy eyed and sultry. "Oi, I thought you were going to massage my scars, not my bum."

"I am," I affirmed, manfully looking away from the sight of the Doyle rear, unclothed. "For now." My fingers were as gentle as I could manage, but I knew I was causing him more than a little discomfort, so I avoided the scar itself. working on the shoulder and the ribs which had been spread so they could get at his heart. I still shudder, every time I think about bullets in his heart. Christ, if he'd died --

But he hadn't, and he was purring at last as I managed to get the aches to subside, his teeth working on the last of his sandwich. "At least you're eating," I told him, trying to sound stern, which isn't easy when you're breathless. I was working down around his lumbar region now. I'd noticed that he was not as stretchy in this part of his back as he had been before; too long spent lying on it, not enough using it, I guessed. Brian had given him a set of stretching exercises which he glanced at briefly before dragging out a book on Yoga that had the dust of ages on it. He knew what he was doing, and it wouldn't be long before he could tie himself in knots again.

"Was hungry," he said, licking his fingers, then putting his head down on the pillow and giving himself up totally to my ministrations.

"Good sign." I kissed the nape of his neck, just under his hair. They'd cut it short for the sake of ease in the hospital, but he was going to let it grow again, or I'd know the reason why. With his hair cropped he looks like Little Orphan Raymond, all big eyes and cherub-cheeks. It's not until he lets it grow long, almost down onto his shoulders, that you see the Mona Lisa look starting to show through; turns me on to see him either way, to be honest, but when he looks like a refugee from Boys' Town I get this urge to smother him with protection, and that'll drive him right up the wall, he's so damned independent. With his hair long he looks like something off a Leonardo canvas, infinitely desirable, and it's not my protective streak he arouses. Oh, no. I shuffled backwards, working down toward his hips and kneading the crunched-up vertebrae until he yelped at me to be careful. It can be a bit painful, but you have to get the circulation going somehow. I had other ideas about that, but I didn't think he was up to it -- yet. One day, though. My hands accepted the invitation of his buttocks, and I wasn't massaging so much as caressing by now. He was oily and floating away on the pleasure of touch, and didn't notice what I was doing until I was stroking much more intimately. I held my breath, wondering if he would object as I trickled my fingers through his cleft and pampered the pucker of tight muscle there with one loving thumb, but the sexy little animal just purred and wriggled, bending one knee to make it easier for me to --

What I wanted to do sent my pulse rate through the ceiling, and I took my hands away, climbing over him to lie down beside him and wipe my hands on the already crumpled and ruined sheets. He pried open his eyes and rolled his head on the pillow to look at me. "What did you stop for? I was enjoying that."

"I know you were," I nodded. "That's why I stopped."

He frowned, tiny lines appearing about his brow. "Huh? Make sense, Bodie, it's too early for guessing games."

"Who's guessing?" I demanded ruefully. "Come on, Ray, you know full well what I want to do with you. What I'll want you to do with me when you're strong enough."

Colour flushed up in his cheeks, two roses, like an Irish milk maid. "Oh. Yes, of course," he said huskily. "Well, I don't see why not. I mean, if a few little strokes like that felt so good, it'll be fantastic when you... When you..." He cleared his throat. "Hey, am I big enough?"

This conversation was starting to turn my brain into pasta. "Course," I said, trying to be reassuring. "But you're not strong enough yet. "You go on the way you're going, and you'll know when you're ready for that."

"Okay, love," he said happily, kissing my nose. "Thank God one of us knows what he's doing!" His expression softened and the smile was a little wistful. "Can't tell you how nice it was waking up with you this morning."

"Mutual," I whispered, trying to get my thoughts into order before I started behaving like something out of those sickening romantic novels. Drowning in his eyes, or something equally nauseating. Trouble was, those women who write that guff have got it right; I was drowning in his eyes, going down for the fiftieth time and knowing I'd never come up again. In simple self defence I rolled out of bed, collected the tray and yanked the bedclothes off him. What a sight he was, flailing around, giggling, glistening with oil. "Shower," I told him sternly, "or your clothes won't be fit to be seen.

"Share it with me?" He asked, sitting up and scratching at those skinny ribs.

"Love to, but I have to get my breakfast now," I said... The truth was, I already wanted him again and if I got under the hot water with him a half erection would become the real thing, and... I didn't know if he was strong enough to take this much loving, and even if he was, could he get aroused so soon? If he couldn't, he'd feel at a distinct disadvantage with me turning on like the Blackpool Illuminations at every verse end --

What he didn't know was, I hadn't been with a girl in almost as long as him. Couldn't face them, couldn't get my mind off him, and couldn't bear to sink into the wonderful realm of fantasy in the chasteness of my own lonely bed, because at any moment the phone might be ringing to tell me it was all over. Weeks of worry; then, finally, relief. The relief, when he began to get well, brought the love I'd been hiding right to the surface; I couldn't have drawn a curtain over it if I'd wanted to, and by the time I went to pick him up at the meat works, I didn't want to anymore. If he'd objected to what I was feeling, I knew he'd chase me, or give me a lecture on the sins of bisexuality.

Thank God he didn't. It wasn't until we were home, and he was relaxing, in the week that followed, that I started to realise how bloody frustrated I was getting. The sight of him doing Brian's silly little exercises and shaving in the morning, and eating cornflakes while he read the paper, and drinking beer while he watched the football, was starting to drive me to distraction. I hoped he wouldn't see it, but when he did I was more relieved than he'll ever guess; I'd managed to sneak back to my flat for an hour or so alone now and then, but a head full of dreams and a talented right hand isn't the same at all, and if anything the frustration was getting worse.

Now we'd finally got it together, the faithful old male urges were all demanding attention at once. Shower with him? Tonight, maybe, but not right then, no way.

I put bacon on to fry for myself and emptied cornflakes and dried fruit into a bowl, determining to force feed him if he refused them. He was singing in the shower, a husky baritone, dead in tune, something from My Fair Lady, I think. He's the film buff, not me. I was half way through my own breakfast when he appeared, padding into the kitchen with two towels around him, his hair streaming down his back. His skin was China-white; it was the middle of winter in any case, and he'd been anaemic after losing buckets of blood. The paleness scared the willies out of me, and I jumped up, sloshing milk onto the cornflakes and scraping a chair out from the table.

"I already ate," he argued.

"So eat again. And park yourself, while I dry your hair."

"I can dry my own hair," Ray said loudly.

"Yeah, but I want to dry it," I wheedled. "Never done it before, want to do everything. A bit at a time."

He heaved a sigh of resignation and sat down, lifting the bowl and playing with the food. I folded the towel around his head and rubbed at the tangles gently. Two minutes later the cornflakes were going soggy in the dish. "Eat!" I told him, not prepared to brook an excuse. "Eat, or I'll tell Doctor Ross you've got a phobia about food, and let her rip into you with Herbie to their evil hearts' content."

"She hasn't got a heart," Ray said, muffled under the towel. "Herbie's okay, heart of silicone. But Ross? A heart? Surely thou dost jest with me."

"All the more reason to shovel the cornflakes away," I added, finished with his hair and dumping the towel in the sink. I kissed the top of his head and sat down on the other side of the table. "Got the rest of the day," I observed with relish. "What d'you want to do?"

Ray was staring out through the window. "Go out."

"Freezing out there," I said doubtfully. "Was raining an hour ago, it'll be raining again by this afternoon."

He heaved another huge sigh. "I'm starting to think the sky's made of white plaster," he grumbled. "Want to go out, Bodie, before I start getting a phobia about flats!"

"How about the museum?" I suggested. "A film?"

"I said out," he repeated. "Sky, trees, you know."

It was the middle of winter. The day he'd been shot the trees were golden. I remember watching him striding away toward his car, the last time I saw him on his feet for so long; boots crunching through the fallen leaves. Next time I saw those boots they were stretched out on the carpet and he was --

I forced the image out of my mind, haunted by it, knowing I could never, ever forget it. "All right, but wrap up," I said sagely. "If you end up back in hospital with double bloody pneumonia Cowley'll skin me alive."

"You're not my keeper," he said defensively.

"Tell that to the Cow," I grinned. "He's accepted that I'm in charge. My natural genius, I expect. He knows he couldn't trust you to take the top off a bottle of milk!"

Those serpentine brows of his gathered in a frown as his teeth worked on the cornflakes. Little Orphan Raymond, I thought, and had to laugh. I reached across the table, wanting his mouth... I'd been kissing him for less than a day and couldn't get enough of him. I got a mouthful of cornflakes for my trouble, and chewed the soggy fragments blissfully while he shook his head over me.

"You're just about ready for certification, mate," he told me succinctly, but the laughter was there in his eyes and he was keeping a straight face with an effort. "Okay, so I'll wrap up. It isn't exactly snowing, is it?"

"Cold enough to," I told him. "Be Christmas in three weeks, remember. Speaking of which, what do you want?"

"For Christmas?" He blinked at the unexpected question. "Haven't given it a thought."

"Well think about it, because if they run out of rocking horses, I don't have access to a magic wand, do I?"

He guffawed, choking on the last spoonful. "Don't need a rocking horse. Got you."

For the first time in about twenty years, I blushed... Little monster. I might have realised that his smart mouth would get back into shape along with the rest of him. Then I remembered the morning, and last night, and being thought of as a rocking horse didn't seem so bad. In fact, with him up on top of me, it'd be bloody lovely. And I told him so. His eyes misted up suddenly and for one awful moment I was sure he was going to cry. Sentimentality, I suppose, and eve if he had cried it would have been a measure of how good he was feeling. Still, I didn't want to push him in any direction.

He studied the empty dish and tapped a beat on it with his spoon for a while, then cleared his throat and said, "Charleton Heston."

I blinked. "You want Charleton Heston for Christmas?"

"Prat. The book, The Actor's Life. Been meaning to read it, tried to get a copy while I was in hospital, but Frank couldn't find one. The nut forgot to order it, too."

"Oh," I said sympathetically. "Well, I'll see if I can turn a copy up. Frank's your brother, isn't he?"

"Older brother," Ray nodded. "Works for Shell -- he was a diver till the necrosis caught up with him, then he turned over to the administrative side of it, geosurvey, that kind of thing. Oil exploration."

"Sounds fascinating." I stirred, glancing at the time. "It's eleven o'clock. If you want to go out, you'd better get ready. Buy you lunch somewhere. And for Christ's sake, put something warm on, you haven't been out of the shower long."

"Yes, mum," he said acidly, sweetening the rejoinder with a kiss, a little offcentre of my mouth.

"I'm not your mother," I shouted after him. "If I was your mother I wouldn't have designs on your body, would I?"

"If you were my mother," he shouted back, as I heard the wardrobe door slam open, "I wouldn't have designs on yours!"

There was open acceptance in the remark, and I sat back and stared at the table with a smile. He wanted me; and last night, damned if he hadn't told me he loved me. It may have been threatening rain outside, it may have been the middle of winter, but to me it was a wonderful day. Felt like we should have been leaving for a honeymoon, not an afternoon out in the cold; but tomorrow I was back at work, and that would bring me down to earth with an unpleasant thump.

When I made it into his bedroom he was dressed; jeans and onion-like layers of clothes. Vest, tee-shirt, shirt, pullover, brown leather jacket, and that scarf wound around his neck. He looked down at himself and demanded, "will I do?"

"I think so," I said generously. "What about a nice wooly cap to keep those shell-like ears warm?"

Ray was trying to pantomime bad temper and not managing it; this was the first time he'd been outside for more than a few minutes. We'd gone to collect his laundry one semi-warm day, last week, but he'd been worn to tatters in the walk from car to launderette and back again. Big plans, foiled by the unco-operative nature of his legs.

He was through the door ahead of me and eager to be out; I watched him shiver as the wind blasted right into his face for the first time, and jingled the carkeys. "Where to, sir?"

"Park," he said at once.

I made a face; after all the rain we'd been having it'd be mud up to the elbows. But if it was what he wanted... So I spoil him. It's my prerogative. The sky was leaden, it would be chucking it down in an hour anyway, so I knew the rain would drive us back to the car soon. The trees were like skeletons, forlorn, lifeless, but he was right, it was nice to be out.

I had taken a fortnight's holiday, starting the day he got home. Before the shooting, I'd been intending to get over to France with Wendy, get out of Ray's life for a good long time, try to forget what he looks like, try to focus on the rest of the world for a while. That went straight out of the window in half a second, I didn't even remember Wendy and the proposed holiday until he was out of intensive, and by that time I was spending my life either at work or at the hospital. Cowley let me do it; he could have had me chasing off across half the British Isles, but he kept me on little domestic jobs until I got back onto an even keel. I suppose, as an old army man, he knows well enough what it's like when your mate's been shot.

Except, I don't think he's got any idea about Ray and me; not yet anyway. Don't know what he'll make of us when he does catch on. Tear out what remains of his hair, maybe. Leave a hole in the ceiling on his way through it. Sack us. Love on the dole can't be all bad!

For a while Ray walked quite strongly, but he started to lag a quarter of a mile out from the car and I slowed up to give him a chance. He was blue about the lips, which was rather disconcerting: he'd been blue for a fortnight after the operations, which is a dead giveaway of heart trouble. So, was he just cold or was he starting to suffer? I had visions of him going down clutching his chest and me making a bee line for the hospital, eighty-five miles an hour.

It started to spit with rain and we ducked into the bandstand to wait it out. He put me between himself and the wind and I didn't say anything, though 'I told you so' leapt to mind. He can be stubborn to the point of foolishness sometimes, but he's not a complete idiot. When the rain stopped he got his feet moving in a determined shuffle, not at all like the Doyle walk that's been knocking 'em dead since he was fourteen, and he was heading back toward the car.

"Lunch?" I asked. "How about a dover sole at Hammond's?"

"Sounds terrific," he muttered, teeth chattering.

He only picked at his food, and drank two cups of tea, thawing out in the cozy little restaurant, gazing out, heavy- eyed, at the winter wonderland on the other side of the steamed-up plate glass. I was going to suggest going on to the museum or a film, but one look at him was enough to make me think better of it. He must have walked most of a mile, anyway; that was good going, up and down hill. Lunch at a restaurant and a drink at the Rose and Crown on the way home -- not a bad start to his return to normal.

He drank a gin and tonic with an expression of real, unabashed satisfaction; the first time he had tasted gin since the day before he'd been shot. He'd been with me then, too. The Lin Fo case had been dragging on and on, and we were existing on a knife edge, wondering if we were going to be suspended, charged or given the kind of reprimand that crisps you ears. It hadn't been our fault that the two young loonies had got themselves blown to hell, but that never seems to matter. Our fault or not, we get the joy of carrying the can back almost every time. Ray reckons the old man's got a soft spot for me, but if he has, I've never seen it. If I put one foot wrong, he has me by the shirt front -- I blew my stack once in the cells when a youngster had been killed by that South African hit man. I was having the horrors about Ray, out there on his own with the real Van Niekirk on the loose. Can't even remember what I said, but Cowley actually grabbed me... Ray can get away with blue murder, I've seen him take the old man to task and call him 'Cowley' with a look of murder in his eyes, and all the Cow does is harness that fury of Ray's, make it work for him. Okay, so maybe Cowley has a soft spot for us both.

I drove home and got the heating on. It was half past one and Ray was feeling like hell. He didn't say anything, but he didn't have to; he just slumped down into a chair and put his head back, looking like he was going to fall right through the cushions. I put my hand on his head, expecting him to be cold and instead he was hot.

"Feverish," I observed, "You've given yourself a chill."

"Feel lousy," he admitted.

"What have you got, aspirin?" I was heading for the kitchen, where he kept his pills and potions in the cabinet. Digitalis, also a big yellow tablet for blood pressure, sleeping pills, pain killers. He was onto ordinary Disprin type things now, and didn't need the sleeping pills, but they'd told us that he'd probably take the digitalis for years, maybe for good.

I put him to bed at three and dickered about calling the doctor, but he said he was just shivery and very, very tired, and I believed him. He's not thick enough to lie about his health when there's really something wrong. I read and listened to music, letting him sleep, and at six I heard the loo and he appeared, flushed and tousled, almost asleep on his feet, the red robe clutched about him. He sat down with his toes in the hearth and I put the kettle on.

"Want anything to eat?" He shook his head. "Sure? I mean, why don't we send out for a pizza?" He shook his head again and I sighed. "Don't mind if I send out for a pizza for myself, do you?" Another shake of the head. "Talkative," I said drily.

"Teeth are aching," he admitted. "Cold wind."

"Little hot house flower," I teased, handing him a cup of tea, very hot. "There, slosh that 'round 'em."

I ate the pizza, watching him sleep on the couch while a current affairs show played out on the box, nothing really interesting, just politics and who's been murdering whom. He was coming slowly back to life, but he looked far less than chirpy, and by nine he was out on his feet.

This time I undressed him, enjoying the simple chore, thinking back to the big plans I'd had that morning... I'd been going to taste him, suck him till he thought he'd been sent to heaven. I sighed; there was always tomorrow. Luckily, one of life's greatest pleasures is just cuddling him, so I swallowed the frustrations and held him instead. He was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.

Silly sod, he wasn't well for days, and I castigated myself for letting him out so soon. Cowley and Macklin would roast me over a bonfire if they found out.

A week later, I got home -- I'd been at Ray's for so long that I'd started to think of his flat as home -- and was just about to shout 'yoo-hoo, honey, I'm home,' which was a standing joke between us, when I heard voices. He had company, and I wasn't surprised to see Brian in the lounge. He had Ray stripped to the waist, there was a blood pressure thing on the couch and Ray was standing on one foot, knee bent into his middle, one arm about the bent leg, the other outflung for balance. Macklin was looking on and nodding his appreciation.

"Better," he was saying as I showed my smiling face, "but your hips are getting stiff. What are you doing to stretch them out?"

"This, mainly." Ray sat down on the rug, careful not to twist his chest, which was giving him hell, still, if he moved without thinking, or overdid it. He spread his legs and took hold of his feet, bending until his nose was a few inches off the rug. "I'm getting there."

"Not bad at all," Macklin agreed. "Muscle tone in your back is not good, though. Doing the dynamic tension things?"

"When I can," Ray told him, getting back to his feet and pulling a face as he got a twinge from his chest. "But much of that and the ribs hurt like blazes. I asked the surgeon about it; he says they spread 'em, that they're going to be sore for a couple of months, but there's no real damage."

"That's what they told me," Brian agreed. "No, just keep going, Doyle, you'll get there... Ah, Bodie. You living here?"

"Just about," I said brashly. Make something of it, Brian, just say something I thought defensively.

The Big Blond Bruiser, as he's affectionately known around the gym, just gave me an odd look and said nothing, but I, in my paranoia, could tell what was going through his mind. Ray and I were starting to look married, I was sure of it, and if he'd cottoned on... Maybe we were done for.

Brian packed his stuff up as I went looking for a cuppa. He'd brought one of those blow-in-the-tube devices that test your lung capacity, and a stethoscope. Contrary to popular opinion, he's not out to murder Cowley's operatives, he's here to keep us alive. Somehow that thought doesn't make you feel very confident when you're on the receiving end of a refresher and he's beating the crap out of you, but it's his job to look after our physical welfare, and that meant making sure that 4.5 was keeping to schedule. Ray was taking him seriously, too; he'd been mauled by enough physiotherapists at the hospital to make him see the sense of it, I expect.

"Fair enough," Brian said at last. "You're coming along, Doyle. What about your vitamins?"

"I'm taking the pills," Ray said, trying to keep a straight face as we both remembered the old joke.

"Not eating much, though," I chimed in, shoving a cup of tea at the Bruiser. "I can't get him to eat his greens for love or money."

"Naughty naughty." Macklin grinned. "Want me to have Kate Ross come over and read you a lecture on the virtue of cabbage?"

"She's a trick cyclist," Ray said loudly, "not a dietician, and why is it that everybody's always threatening me with her?"

"Because everybody's scared stiff of her," I chuckled.

"Kate's okay," Macklin shrugged. "She knows her job... She saved your skin, Bodie. Those Hell's Angels would have creamed you, you were so far out of trim."

He would be reminding me about that for the rest of my life, I guessed. I'd been a real idiot, but to the likes of me, that comes like second nature. I backed out of the conversation till he left, and caught Ray as he literally fell into my arms and hugged me. God, but he felt good, skinny and hard and hot. He wanted to kiss me, and I was delighted to oblige.

"So the sadist's pleased with your efforts," I asked.

"Sort of," he said while he nibbled on my ear.

"What do you mean, sort of?"

"He says I'm underweight."

"You are underweight. Never thought I'd see eye-to-eye with Brian, but it's finally happened. You're stronger, at least." That was no exaggeration. He'd taken a few days to get over the thorough chilling, but the way he'd bounced back, I knew he was on the mend. I was remembering last night as we stood there, toasting ourselves in front of the gas heater and kissing. Last night he'd managed it; he'd woken me up at about eleven, climbed up on top of me and really surprised me. He'd been turned on already before he woke me, and I hadn't taken more than three seconds to light up -- I was starting to get a bit desperate by then, with him being unwell for so long. I'd intended to let him go on until he got tired, but damn me if he didn't manage it, take me all the way.

He slept like a log after that, still asleep when I went out to work in the morning, and I stood in the bedroom doorway, watching him with a peculiar sense of pride in his achievement. He was curled up like a hibernating squirrel, the quilt pulled up around him, his mouth open, dead to the world at seven, just the passage light half-illuminating his face, because it was still dark outside.

It had rained all day and I was wet, hanging my jacket over the back of a chair to dry as he gave me a parting kiss and padded off into the kitchen. I could smell something good cooking, and wondered what he'd been up to before Brian got there. He'd been making Eve's Pudding, which he knows I love, and custard, but the lasagne came out of foil trays, sent down by the Italian nosh house on the corner.

"He reckons I'll be working again in spring," Ray said as we ate.

"No hurry, take your time," I said, trying not to burn my mouth on the lasagne and slopping fruit juice into glasses.

"I'm getting bored," he complained.

"Which means you're getting better." I reached out for his hand, squeezing his fingers. "Christmas in a fortnight. Make the most of the holidays like everyone else -- nobody on holiday gets bored. Pretend."

"I get bored on holiday," he said, trying to sound disconsolate through a mouthful of lasagne.

I'd moved along to the pudding by now and was making noises of appreciation. "Hey, this is good. Going to make someone a good wife one of these days."

His eyes darkened by shades as I watched. "Oh yeah? Got anyone in mind?" There was a husky catch to this voice.

I forgot about the food for some time. Silly things go through your mind; idiotic thoughts you wish hadn't happened... Like asking someone to marry you when it's absolutely, bloody impossible. The law in this country won't let two men get married. Or any other country, come to think about it."

"Ray," I said quietly, "I think maybe we should talk."

"About what?" He asked, abandoning what was left of the pasta and moving onto the dessert.

"About us," I said coaxingly. "Come on, sunshine, don't play the dim wit with me; we've been sleeping together for a week, and I've told you I love you half a dozen times. What are we going to do?"

Ray's the kind of person who likes to slam the shutters up between himself and the rest of the world, and I was terrified that he'd do that with me now. I knew I was pushing him, I was wondering if it was too early to push so hard. For a long time he didn't answer me, as if he couldn't make up his mind about something, and then he looked me in the eye, his own eyes green and glittering. "I won't take second place." It sounded like a warning.

Second place? What was he talking about? I frowned into my bowl of apple pudding, trying valiantly to work it out before I admitted to defeat and said, "you what?"

"I said I won't take second place," he repeated. "I won't be a convenient lay on the side when you need sex in a hurry."

"You little bastard," I said levelly, without heat. "You think I'd do that to you? Read my lips: I love you. Get it that time?"

He frowned at me, and I could literally hear his brain ticking over. "So what does that mean?"

"What do you want it to mean?"

"I..." He heaved an enormous sigh and pushed the dessert away, no longer interested in eating. "Back at the hospital, I just used to live between one visit and the next. Got to the stage where I was watching for you, every day. Didn't come alive till you got there, died again after you'd gone. Do you know what I'm saying?"

I did; call it empathy. "You're saying you want to have me around," I said, allowing a smile to show through.

He nodded, and he looked miserable. "Yeah. "Not just at work; not just at weekends. All the time." Another vast sigh followed the words. "I want you to live here... And I know I'm asking something that's bloody impossible. I mean, you and your birds! I know you'll be wanting to chase 'em by the flock, and I understand that, really I do. But..."

"You won't take second place," I repeated. "I heard." I reached for his hand again. "Hey, you want solemn vows?"

"Maybe," he said defensively, and then shrugged out from behind the table, wrapping his arms about himself and leaning against the sink. "Maybe later. Let it settle down, let us get used to it before we talk about -- about settling down."

"Sensible," I admitted. "How long? Talk at Christmas?"

"Another fortnight," he said seriously. "Maybe. I mean, in another fortnight of my company you'll know if you want a girl or not, won't you?"

I got to my feet and went to grab him. "What about you? You might want a girl yourself."

"Me?" He blinked in astonishment. "I told you, Bodie, I love you. Don't want to sleep with a stranger with I'm in love!"

I cuffed his ear gently. "Kindly do me the same justice!"

"Oh." He smiled at last, impish and irresistable, and hugged me tightly. "It's good in bed with you," he muffled against my neck. "I knew it would be. Lay there in hospital thinking about how it would be. Was good last night, wasn't it?"

"You're getting stronger," I observed. And he felt much harder under my hands, too; you could feel the muscle in his shoulders and back. Chalk one up for Brian. He was starting to do a few chores around the house; I'd come home one day and he'd rearranged the furniture; for a moment I thought I'd wandered into the wrong flat. He sent the curtains out for cleaning the week before Christmas; that made him sore. He must have overreached himself nicely getting the damned things down, and I gave him a rocket about being stupid. I told him there was nothing altruistic about my anger, that when he was unwell I got abandoned to the woes of chasteness, which is bloody frustrating, but in fact it's just that I can't bear to see him hurting so much. It's his pain that makes me angry, not the nights I spend cuddling him while he aches, because I've discovered that worrying about your loved one plays hell with your libido.

Ray bit my neck like a randy little vampire and wriggled out of my grasp. "Brian reckons I can start running in the New Year," he said, with obvious satisfaction. "Not far, at first, of course, but I'm looking forward to it."

"I'll bet you are," I moaned. "Dragging me out of a nice, warm bed at some ungodly hour and trudging through the slush."

"No snow in the long range forecast," he told me with a smirk. "Just rain, rain, rain."

I made a face. "And there was I, dreaming of a white Christmas." I heaved an enormous sigh, pantomiming disappointment. In fact, the prospects of Christmas with him were nothing less than enchanting, and I was scouting for things to give him as I drove around with Murphy at work.

I'd booked my holidays from Christmas Eve noon to Boxing Day, and unless World War III started up all of a sudden we'd have two and a half days of pure domestic bliss with holly and tinsel. There was a party at the office, but it wasn't getting into gear by the time I had to leave; it wouldn't get going properly until three or four in the afternoon, and I was out of there like a bullet at 12.05, two stops to make on the way home. One, the department store, two, the offlicence. Ray was not supposed to drink much, not that he really soaks up the booze in any case, so I stuck to wine and champagne, and just one bottle of brandy.

At the department store I only had to pick up the things I'd bought, because I'd had the girl giftwrap them and store them for me until Christmas. I could have taken them back to my empty flat, but I hadn't been there in over a week and didn't much fancy tackling the dust and mould on this of all occasions. I'd got him a sweater, fluffy angora wool, with a big, loose turtle neck, pristine, virginal white with an aquamarine stripe around the shoulders and cuffs; and a gold chain, as heavy as I could afford, rich yellow gold; and his book, Charlton Heston's dairies; and something I'd read about, Peking Royal Jelly, said the ad, was the greatest tonic known to mankind. I wandered into a health shop, had a heart attack at the price, and bought him two months' supply. I hate doctors; I'd sooner die than go to one, and so alternative medicine is a particularly attractive proposition. Certainly, Ray's been swearing by it for years; so the Royal Jelly wasn't just a gift, it was something practical.

Juggling parcels, I took the lift up and fished for my keys; I'd asked for duplicates of his keys, and Cooley didn't bat an eyelid, just handed them over. One of these days, I guessed, the old man was going to put two and two together and come up with five, and I was braced for the storm. "Home, Ray!" I called as I slammed the door, assailed by a draught of hot air as I shut the cold out.

There was no answering bellow from inside, and it wasn't until I had dumped the parcels on the table in the lounge that I noticed why. He was stretching awake, dopey and smiling; he'd fallen asleep on the rug in front of the heater, right under the corner table where we'd decided to put up the tree. It was mostly decorated, all the toys and tinsel on it, and only the fairy lights were still to be added. There was an angel on top of it, very old and threadbare, an heirloom: the lights were old too, they went back to the [text missing] and were huge and heavy by comparison to the Christmas tree lights they make today. They and the angel had belonged to Ray's grandmother, and she'd given them to him for 'his family,' whenever he got one.

They had been in a box in the back of the cupboard for years. I stumbled over them once, while I was looking for the oil and rags and pull-through, to clean the guns, and he gave me a sketchy story of a wonderful old woman who barely spoke the English language at all, and who had come over to England at the turn of the century as a young widow with several kids at her heels and not a penny in her pocket.

We'd decided to get a tree on a sentimental whim; I've always liked Christmas. It's a time when you can put the cares of the world behind you for a few days, remember what it was like to be an ordinary person, maybe remind yourself what love means, because in the real world, you forget so easily. I had forgotten about the lights and that threadbare old angel, but obviously he hadn't. He'd bought the tree, toys and tinsel the day before; arriving home, I'd tripped over the boxes in the dark, in the bedroom, so hadn't been surprised when he looked absolutely knackered after his shopping spree -- shopping at this time of year is enough to tax an athlete, never mind a person getting over open heart surgery.

The tree looked lovely; and so did he, stretching himself awake right under it. "Well," I said, taking off my jacket, "I asked Santa for something nice under the tree, and I guess he was listening, for the very first time ever."

He blinked at me dopily, then caught on and laughed as he sat up. "Went to sleep."

"I can see that." I knelt down beside him, wanting to kiss him. "Been drinking port," I noted, tasting his mouth as he wound his arms around me and pulled me down onto the rug. My fingers and toes were starting to thaw out and tingle, and the gas heater seemed to be roasting me; he felt literally molten.

"Rain on your hair," he smiled. "Still chucking it down?"

"Just a bit of drizzle," I yawned. "Got the booze. Got a couple of things for you, too." "Which reminds me." Ray squirmed around, reaching for the parcel on the table behind him. "Got this for you."

I sat up, taking it from him, weighing it between my hands; he'd had it wrapped in blue-and-silver paper, and there was a card taped to it: 'for Bodie, with love.' Funny, seeing it in words choked me up, and I covered the emotion with a pantomime of guessing. I shook the box, but heard nothing; it weighed a few pounds, measured perhaps one foot by two by eight inches. "Good heavens, what can it be?"

"Open it, you twit," he said, exasperated.

"No way." I handed it back to him. "In the morning."

"You're not a kid, Bodie," Ray grinned. "You don't have to wait till tomorrow -- I bought the bloody thing, Santa didn't drop it down the Chimney!"

"Tomorrow," I said firmly. "Now, let's get the lights on the tree. I want to see if they work after being there in the back of the cupboard for ten years."

"They work," he said, levering his way to his feet by leaning on my shoulders. "I tried 'em in the box before I went to sleep. Oh, I got a Christmas cake and a plum pudding too. All full of white flour and white sugar, and very bad for you. But we'll eat them anyway."

The afternoon was lovely; we ate too much lunch, sat by the heater while the rain pelted down outside, and watched the television. A documentary about a volcano in Africa, and a production of Swan Lake that sent us both to sleep, curled around each other on the sofa. He woke in a panic, remembering the chickens that were crisping in the oven, and I trailed him into the kitchen, bewildered by his industries as he produced dinner. I'm not a cook, never was, don't intend to become one, and I told him that at the start. Sugar in the potatoes and incinerated lamb chops, if you let me loose in the kitchen. Fair enough, said he, you look after the vacuum cleaning and the rubbish, and wash the windows, and we'll call it even.

Domesticity... At one time I'd thought the whole scene was an incredible bore, a bit like cleaning your kit when you're in the field. Something that has to be done, but you don't do it for fun and you're delighted if someone does it for you. I suppose it's why men get married! I'd shocked myself when Ray divided up the labour... I didn't mind. Wash the windows, take out the refuse and push the Hoover around the flat -- fine by me, I said, and only when I'd said it did I realise what I'd agreed to. By that time it was too late to take it back, and I shocked myself again: I didn't want to take it back. I was pleased to do 'the roughs' in exchange for home cooking... Damn, if we weren't settling down into marriage, what the hell were we doing?

By nine he was yawning and put the electric blanket on. As a rule, I can't stand electric blankets, but I've learned to make an exception... When he's cold he's cold. Cuddles up like a kid, icy feet making me shiver, octopus arms strangling me, but kissing is as far as he'll go. When he's freezing, all he wants to do is get warm, and I can't say I blame him. When he got out of hospital the cold made him ache dreadfully, and I got used to sleeping on wires in the first few nights. Then, when we'd started making love, I soon discovered that he doesn't want to know about it until he's toasting... After that, I started putting the blanket on in plenty of time, because wanting him is as much a part of life as breathing.

Christmas Eve, snuggled up with the blankets up to our chins. This was heaven, I thought, especially as he started to kiss me without being prompted at all. Those elegant hands of his were all over me, teasing and pampering, and he ducked like a seal under the blankets to suckle my nipples, emerging pink and tousled and laughing. Revenge, I thought, panting like a broken winded horse, and grabbed him, manhandling him right where I wanted him, pinning him down with my weight, both hands between his legs. Christ, but he turns on with a vengeance; he spread his legs for me, moaning inarticulately and writhing around, making a mess of the bed, until I stopped to let him get his breath back and simmer down.

He looked debauched, heavy eyed and languorous, and he wriggled his fingers under the pillow, bringing out a tube of cream and handing it ceremoniously to me. "There. Use it."

I blinked at the tube for a moment, knowing exactly what he meant -- I wasn't that dazed -- my heart hammering and my mind refusing to get itself in gear. "Ray? You mean it? You want me to --?"

"To do me," he nodded. "I'm strong enough, now. Brian was over here the other day, had me doing pressups. If I can do bloody pressups, I can stay on my knees for a bit." He reached over and kissed me. "Go on, I won't break."

"Going to hurt a bit," I warned. "I'm not sure I want to hurt you on Christmas Eve."

"Oh, Bodie," Ray said huskily, "if I didn't want it, I wouldn't be asking for it, would I? Look." He reached over the side of the bed and produced a folded towel. "I've even thought of a way to keep the bed dry. Not going to lie in a puddle tonight. That's a vitamin cream, oily and everything. Stop worrying and get on with it. I'm not an innocent -- I worked with all sorts with the Police."

He turned over and put his head down, and I watched with somewhat glazed eyes as he tucked the towel into place under him. He was serious, he'd thought it all out, he knew what I was going to do, and approximately what it would be like. I swallowed, hoping to God that I could be gentle and patient.

I needn't have worried; loving someone makes you worry about them first, about what your beloved's feeling, whether he's enjoying it. Doesn't matter a damn about yourself -- you could explode or have a coronary for all the interest you have in your own body. I lay on his back for some time, getting him used to it, because it's strange the first time. Let him feel me, pressing up behind him, very hard and very hot, and then I put plenty of cream on both of us, my fingers inside him, stroking there. I'd stroked him this way a couple of times, so he knew what it felt like, and by the way he was purring he was loving it.

"Bend your knees a bit more, love," I whispered. "Lift up a bit... bit more... that's it." Down under the blankets I could feel that incredible little backside presented to me, and I swallowed, wanting desperately to make it good for him. I thought he was scared -- he was shaking -- but in another moment I realised it was frustration making him shake. He was hanging on to his strangling desire with an enormous effort, and as soon as I realised that I relaxed a bit myself.

In... In... God, he was so tight I couldn't believe it. Hot. He moaned under me, his muscles grabbing up, which is involuntary, and I stroked his cock and kept still until he relaxed again before pushing on. I didn't think I'd be able to enter him this deeply, and was stunned when he took all of me, but by that time he was rigid with pain and trying to regulate his breathing, waiting it out until the pain subsided and turned into pleasure. There was nothing I could do to help except keep still and stroke him, and I was waiting for him to either tell me it hurt too much, or that the pain had gone now. That's the way it goes, and he must have known, because he just kept still and waited it out.

Little by little I felt him relax, and when he gave a moan I could tell the difference. That wasn't pain, that was sheer abandon. He wriggled, caught his breath as it started to hurt again, waited till the pain was gone once more, and pushed back against me, letting out a howl as the pleasure swamped him. I knew what he was feeling and relief washed over me. The hard part was over. Only then did I suddenly realise what I was going through: my body was in agony, I had cramp from holding back and keeping still, and my heart was going like a hammer.

It was okay to move now, though, and I did. He wailed in rhythm to what I was doing, noisy little bugger, and I knew he was getting close when he tensed from head to foot. Climax racked him about two seconds before it hit me, and he yelled again as I came, probably scalding him. I think we collapsed. I know I collapsed, and as I came back to my senses my first worry was for him -- Christ, if my heart had been working like that, what had his been doing?

He was practically asleep, flat out under me, my hand trapped under him, still holding him, and I hadn't even moved to withdraw yet... I didn't want to pull out of him; I wanted to stay there forever, but I was worried about squashing him -- I'm no feather weight -- and, he might not realise it right at that moment, but he was going to suffer shortly.

With great reluctance, I clambered off him and still he didn't move. "Pet? Ray? Say something!"

"Ungh," he said into the pillow.

"Ray, you okay? Ray!"

"Don't yell, Bodie, I 'aven't gone deaf! Bodie..." He took a breath and tried to move. "Oh, God, my hips are broken."

"Cramp," I muttered, grabbing for tissues to mop up before we messed up the bed. "Just move a bit at a time, love."

A fraction at a time he got his legs together and turned over as I pulled the towel out from under him. "Hey, you're right, the bed's dry."

"Won't be soon if you don't do something brilliant with those tissues," he warned, and as I did something, he yelped. "I'm a teensy little bit sore, my sweet. Give us the cream."

"Hold still," I said scornfully, and did it for him, dumping everything onto the floor. "There, how's that?"

He wound both arms around my neck and pulled me down to kiss me. It was a long, deep, searching kiss, and half way through it I tasted salt. When I lifted my head I saw the tears on his cheek. "Hey, what's this in aid of?"

"Just happy," he whispered, not letting go of me. There was a pause, I knew he wanted to say something terribly important, so I kept quiet, let him get his thoughts together. If his brain was as pulped as mine, it would take some time. "Bodie, was it... was I any good?"

"You what?" I blinked at him uncomprehendingly.

"I mean, was I okay? I mean, as good as a girl?"

"As good as --?" My eyebrows had vanished into my fringe.

"Yeah. I mean, will you be needing a girl, because I'm not... because I can't..."

A girl was the furthest thought from my head, and I told him so. "Still that frantic brain of yours, mate, and turn off your imagination," I ordered huskily. "As good as a girl? As good as? You crackers?" I grabbed him and squeezed the breath out of him, only remembering his painful chest in the nick of time. "Best I ever had, Ray. Honest."

"Honest?" He squeaked as I crushed him.

"Honest. Skinny, bony and hairy as you are." I kissed his nose and eyes. "And before you say anything, I like 'em skinny, bony and hairy. You're beautiful, so don't start putting yourself down."

"Wasn't going to." He sounded the tiniest bit smug now. He knew he'd done well, and now that I'd affirmed his impression he was sure of himself.

"Merry Christmas," I said gruffly, reaching over to put out the light. "And good night." I yawned hugely. "I think I"m about to go into a coma."

The silence lasted through five companionable minutes in which both of us floated blissfully on the brink of sleep, and then I heard him take a deep breath to say something into my left ear. "Bodie?"

"Humph?" I was half listening. "Can I... I mean, will you let me..."

"Do it to me?" I chuckled wickedly. "Counting on it. But get used to it first. No hurry, is there?"

Silence for another minute or so. "Bodie?"

This time I had to struggle to listen. "Yeah?"

"It was fantastic. I love you, mate."

It was barely a murmur, but it got through to the bit of my cortex that was still functioning in a second and gave me a deep, warm glow that was something else on top of the wonderful afterglow of love making. I woke up without a jar, wanting to tell him how much I loved him, but by that time he was sound asleep, and I just propped myself up on one elbow, looking at his dim outline in the reflection of the street light across the road. He looked like a kid, cheekbones too sharp, jaw too sharp, with the weight he'd lost, eyelashes dark against his skin, which was still as pale as porcelain. God, so beautiful he took my breath away, and besides -- he was mine. I had his virginity, and if that didn't prove it, what did?

It was eight when he woke, still almost dark, and all Ray did was roll over onto his face and go straight back to sleep again. I sat up, yawning and scratching my chin, and debated the virtues of sleeping in and the alternative, going and fetching us some breakfast.

And the presents, I thought suddenly, and that decided it. I slid out of bed and scrambled into his robe, commandeered his electric razor out of the bathroom cabinet and used it while I made tea and toast, and by the time I arrived back in the bedroom he was stirring awake properly. I had the tray in one hand and the boxes and packages in the other, and I dumped the lot on top of him as he sat up, putting on the lamp to augment the meagre daylight.

In the mornings he looks like a dissolute leprachaun, all bleary-eyed and barely awake, with a blue chin and heavy lids. He looks so vulnerable in that moment that it brings all my silly protective characteristics to the fore at once and I have to watch what I'm doing with especial care, or I'll make a real idiot of myself. I kissed his nose and busied myself with the tea.

There was the sound of ripping paper, and I watched with a good deal of satisfaction as he discovered the sweater. Going by the look on his face it was what he'd wanted for ages but was too tight fisted to buy for himself. He grabbed me and kissed me just as I took a bite of toast, and then sat giggling as I licked the butter off his chin.

"That's one down, two to go," I told him. "Go on!"

He opened the big box first, and did a double take as he saw the Peking Royal Jelly. "Hey, I had the same idea myself -- Jesus, Bodie, the price of this!"

"All in a good cause," I said with mock resignation. "And I'm going to stand over you and make you take the stuff!"

"Won't have to," he told me, popping the top off one of the lovely little brown glass phials and swallowing the contents. "Mm, takes like cherry brandy."

"It what?" I demanded, and took a sniff at the empty glass; wiley Chinese. They'd packed the bitter liquid in a liqueur -- no wonder he was keen to take it. I'd been imagining him having to hold his nose and force it down to 'do him good.'

He was ripping the paper off the little box then, and as he saw the gold chain his chin fell slack. "God, Bodie, this must have cost you a fortune."

"A moderate fortune," I admitted. "I've got a small fortune left, you know -- stuck it in a building society when I got back from Africa. Called it my retirement fund. It's picking up a good rate of interest, so don't look at me like I've gone mad, love, I can afford to spoil you."

Ray slipped the chain over his head; the gold lay on his skin, shimmering. Seeing it was compensation enough, but he was shoving the package he'd bought for me at me and making demands that I rip my way into it at once. "Next to this lot, it doesn't look like much," he admitted, "but how was I to know you'd be buying up half of London?"

"Shut up, Ray." I kissed him quiet and tore the wrapping paper off, honestly curious to see what he'd got. Then it was my turn for my chin to hit my knees. For months I'd been ranting about a new camera, a Nikon FM to be exact.

And there it was, still in its plastic jacket with half a dozen yellow Kodak boxes at one end of the box, and a bunch of free-D&P vouchers taped to the lid. "Ray, this cost a fortune!" I gaped at him. "The whole reason I didn't get one myself was because it was so bloody expensive!"

"Yeah, when now you've got one," he grinned. "So long as you're happy."

"Deliriously," I said, aware that I was getting a little watery around the eyes. I took a sip at my tea and shook my head over him. "You can't afford this kind of money, not on a copper's savings," I admonished.

He was being practical. "Well, we'll be living together now, won't we? So we'll be able to pool our money, and we'll save a fortune on expenses, so we can afford these things." He reached out for my hand and knitted our fingers together. "We are going to be living together, aren't we? I mean, you said we'd talk about it at Christmas, and last night, when you said you liked screwing me as much as a girl, I thought, you'd not be desperate to run off chasing women anymore, would you? So why can't we live together?"

"Ray," I said, assuming as pained an expression as I could while I was trying not to grin at him like a Cheshire cat, "I wish you could hear yourself. Sack full of neuroses, aren't you?"

He shrugged and twisted the gold chain between finger and thumb, studying the blankets. "Never had an affair with a bloke before, have I? So how do I know what's supposed to happen? I mean, the sex is easy, and terrific, but... Little social problems. Like living together. Like me belting you for going off with girls --"

"Possessive," I observed. "Shut up and eat your breakfast, Ray. Don't want to hear any more about us fighting on Christmas morning."

He fiddled with a piece of toast. "So you're going to move in here, are you?"

"What do you think?" I pushed the gifts out of the way and sprawled out beside him. "In case you haven't noticed, I've been here for weeks anyway! Most of my clothes are here, and half of my records, and moving the rest over'll take an afternoon, when the weather clears up. Have you looked outside? It's raining!"

So much for a white Christmas! It rained all day, and into Boxing Day, too, not that it mattered, because we didn't go out. He wandered out of bed not long before lunch, which I fixed -- cold chicken rolls and Christmas cake is within even my limited capacities -- and by dinner time had started to rue having got the camera for me.

Available light wasn't up to much, but I made him keep still for long exposures, making the best of what there was, and shot two rolls of him. He was caught between laughing and arguing about being used as a model, but I just ignored the protests. I wished I could have shot some snaps of him in the raw, but when you're going to drop the negatives off at the chemist, you have to be sensible... Hm. Next item on the shopping list is a home developing kit. Also a pair of boxing gloves, because when I ask him to get 'em off and keep still for the camera he'll do his nut. I think. Or maybe not; after all, he's an artist, he's done 'life studies' of all manner of naked subjects, so what's the difference between working with a brush and a camera? Well, there are differences, I suppose, but one can live in hope.

Christmas with Ray was great; also enough to drive you into schizophrenia. He alternates between little kid and Scrooge, as if he's trying to deny the wonderful time he's having, trying to keep up the facade of cynicism. For myself, I just wallow in it, always have. I spoiled him outrageously, because there had been a time, a couple of months before, when I'd been envisaging drinking myself into a stupor this Christmas. We've celebrated the silly season together since 1977, and if he'd died after the shooting, before I'd even had the chance to kiss him, I'd have been a basket case. Christmas always makes things like that so much worse, because it ought to be so special, so nice.

That first Christmas with Ray was the nicest I'd ever known; I couldn't help looking at the old, heavy lights and the angel, and remembering what his grandmother had said. She'd given them to him for 'his family' when he acquired one. That was me; and knowing that choked me up a dozen times. I smothered him with love, expecting him to fight me off at any moment, but I think he may have been needing it. Making love hadn't hurt him at all, even the soreness had gone by morning, and he wanted it again that way, still trying to get used to it. The second time was easier than the first, and I could let go too, which made it just as mind-blowing for me.

Back to the real world with a thump on Boxing Day evening; I had to set the alarm to wake me, because Cooley wanted me at the office at half past eight. This is the high spot in the terrorist bombing calendar, and CI5 was on standby; I'd known that I could be called in at any time over Christmas, but, thank heaven, it hadn't happened.

Going back to work, leaving him asleep, flushed and warm, curled up in a bed that I'd begun to think of as ours was sheer masochism. I kicked myself for the idiocy of it, and was grumbling about having to work at all as I headed for the car. It was chucking it down, I was half drenched before I got in behind the wheel, and frozen. One of these days, I thought, we'd give Cooley our resignation, retire and enjoy life.

And the thought uppermost in my mind was that it could be a day very soon. If Ray's heart never did permit him to get back into the field, would he elect to be a pencil pusher? A paper tiger -- him? It was a bit unlikely; he'd been a warrior, and to become a clerk is the ultimate come down from that. So, he'd hand in his notice and take his service pension; which would be quite a considerable amount: he'd had almost fifteen years in the Police and CI5 by that time, and been almost fatally wounded. So there would be no real shortage of money, especially as he'd be quite capable of working; and I'm still well fixed from the days of my wild, wooly youth.

As I started the car, watching the wipers battle vainly against the torrents of water sluicing across the windscreen, I was thinking enviously of people who live ordinary lives... Lie in bed till a civilised hour, know you're going to live to see the evening. There's a lot to be said for it, and one of these days... It was all up to Ray and his heart, really. He hadn't said two words about what he wanted to do in future -- at least, not in my presence, but going by the way he was exercising he had every intention of having a bash at the CI5 physical.

Okay, love, I thought, pulling out from the kerb; let's see you do it.

We had company on New Year's Day, and it took us both by surprise. The knock at the door came at half past seven, and by chance Ray was already out of bed. He'd gone off to the loo and decided to make a cup of tea while he was up, and get the heating on, so when the disturbance came he answered the intercom. I couldn't hear who it was -- I had my head under the blankets -- and it wasn't until the door opened and the visitor spoke up that I started to wonder who was so important that he'd actually get in at this hour of the morning.

The voice was very like Ray's, the accent was identical, and the two of them were laughing and joking. I heard Ray ask if the newcomer wanted a cup of tea, and heard the kettle go in, then I drifted into a doze and the next I knew Ray was shaking my shoulder saying, "here's your tea, sleepy head. Want to lie in for a bit?"

I struggled up out of the cocoon of blankets and sleep and grabbed the cup. "Yeah. Who's that?"

"Frank," he told me, sitting on the side of the bed and finger-combing my hair. "Big brother Frank, you remember. He's been to a party, it broke up an hour ago and his car's broken down. Can't get home to Kent until his wife comes out in her car to get him, and since she's minding the kids, that's going to take an hour or two. So he thought he'd come visiting.

"Kind of him, disturbing a bloke's sleep," I muttered, sipping my tea, and I must have looked like a hibernating lounge-lizard, because he laughed like a drain and kissed my forehead.

Just as he kissed me, there were footsteps in the passage and a voice said, "Can't find the Shreddies, Ray, where d'you keep -- oh, my God."

Ray straightened with a sigh, and I watched his eyes sweep over the messy double bed, the hibernating and obviously naked me, and the communal heap of clothes at the foot of the bed, all dumped on the floor ready for the wash, clearly discarded a garment at a time by two people standing in very close proximity. "Serves you right, Frank," Ray said over his shoulder, winking at me. "Should know when to keep your nose out. I could have had half a chorus line of high-kickers in here! Instead, I've got Bodie... Okay, you know the worst, so that's out of the way. The Shredded Wheat's in the wall cupboard behind the spice rack. Milk's in the fridge, go easy on it, we're running low." He turned and looked at his brother's gaping face. "Well, push off then, if you were that hungry."

I took a good look at Frank Doyle as I got a grip on what my mind was doing and started to get the panic under control. He was a six footer, maybe taller than me, with broad shoulders and the same narrow hips and long legs as Ray -- very much the same sort of build. His face was boyish in the extreme, like Ray's, roundish and high cheek boned, but his eyes were grey-blue, and his nose wasn't anything special, and his mouth was too wide. I could see the family likeness; he and Ray were very much alike, despite the differences -- just enough dissimilarities to make my Raymond beautiful and Frank 'ruggedly handsome,' or whatever women call it. He was forty- three, as far as I knew from various little things Ray had said about his young life, and he was almost entirely silver, which looked strange but most attractive with that boyish face.

And he was stunned. He stood there gaping at me, then at Ray, then at me again, until my lover shooed his brother out of our bedroom and chased him into the kitchen. I pricked my ears, listening for their conversation, and since they made no attempt to hold the volume down it wasn't hard to hear them.

"Bodie's your partner," Frank began.

"S'right. Hand me the milk," Ray said carelessly.

"But -- but -- you're sleeping with him?"

"Right again." There was a clatter of the little milk pan.

"You're not just sharing a bed with him," Frank said, close to spluttering. "I mean, you kissed him."

"I gave him a peck on the forehead, very chaste," Ray said indignantly. "I didn't try to suffocate him."

There was a long silence, then Frank spoke again and his voice had moderated. "Didn't know you were queer, Ray."

"Oh, I never was, before," Ray admitted. "Never knew I was at all, till I was shot, and it made me re-evaluate everything in my life. All my ways, my feelings. Got to the stage where I realised Bodie was everything I had. Everything I wanted. If that isn't love, what is?"

"That's fraternal love," Frank said. He was playing the big brother, giving Ray the benefit of his extra years' experience. "You didn't have to jump into bed with him."

"No?" I heard the pan go onto the gas. "I started thinking about the physical side of it when I was in hospital; they had me there for so long my libido came back to normal before the rest of me! Thinking about it was just about all I could do, and when I started dreaming about Bodie the rest just fell into place naturally. Pass the sugar over. Want another cuppa?"

"No, thanks, still got half of this one." Frank paused, obviously trying to speak tactfully. "So you dreamed, did you? And after that you just had to experiment!"

"You bloody great prat," Ray said, exasperated. "Always been the same, haven't you, Frank? There's only you knows what he's doing -- only you knows what's best! For your information, I waited three bloody weeks before I said a word to Bodie. I thought about it till my brain was numb, and watched him like a hawk. All the signs were there to tell me how much he cared for me! And while I was watching him it dawned on me how bloody attractive he is. Now, butt out of my love life before I get annoyed and chuck you out through that door. It's got nothing to do with you. Am I gay? Think what you like, it doesn't bother me!" There was a tone of real anger in Ray's voice: I know when enough's enough, when to back off, and I prayed that Frank knew him well enough to do the same.

It seemed that Ray's temper was notorious, because Frank just chuckled. "Okay, okay. You never were the same as anyone else, were you? Always got to do things the hard way. He looks after you, does he? I wondered why you didn't get mum or one of the girls to come in and do for you while you were sick."

"Got Bodie," Ray said defensively. "Don't need anyone else."

Another long silence, then Frank asked, almost too quietly for me to hear him, "you had any other men, Ray?"

"No. Don't want any, either. It's just between Bodie and me. Something between us. Don't expect you to understand."

"If it's any consolation, I don't think you're gay," Frank offered, perhaps as a peace-offering. "If you were gay you'd be hanging around with fellas, wouldn't you?"

"Would I? Well, I don't," Ray said indignantly.

"So you're not gay," Frank said affably. "Oh, keep your hair on, you clot. It doesn't bother me. I could tell you some funny stories about Uncle Al and cousin Tim for a start. Not to mention Aunt Rosie. This family's got so many skeletons in the closet we keep our clothes on the floor!"

At last Ray laughed. "Yeah, well don't tell mum or the girls about us yet, will you? If I ever do have to spill the beans I'd sooner do it myself. Mum'll do her nut, I should think. At least I can put it in the right words if I'm there myself."

"Yeah, okay." Frank was eating his Shredded Wheat by this time. "Hey, Ray, he, um, he's gentle with you, isn't he?"

Ray guffawed. "Like, if he wasn't you'd duff him up for me? Christ, Frank, I grew up about fifteen years ago, I'm big enough to take care of myself!"

"Not while you're sick," Frank said, deeply into his big brother act now. "You're so skinny he could break you in two without even trying. So he treats you right, doesn't he?"

My ears were roasting; the compunction was to dash into the kitchen and take Frank by the throat and tell him to lay off my lover and my reputation. I closed my eyes, wondering how I could ever face the Doyle clan after this -- then it occurred to me that Frank and I had the same interest at heart: Ray, and his welfare and happiness. That made it almost acceptable to have my private life discussed so openly.

"Yeah, he treats me just fine," Ray was saying. "And that is the last we're going to say of it. The day I start asking you about Julie's little ways, you can ask me about mine and Bodie's, and until then -- shut it, Frank. When's Julie going to get here for you in any case?"

As it happened, Julie Doyle picked her husband up about twenty minutes later. I'd bagged the shower without ever seeing Frank's smiling face again, and intended to stay there as long as I could before going out to face the music, and when I heard the door and the woman's voice I sighed in relief. Ray was waiting in the kitchen for me, breakfast on the table, his already half eaten, and he said, "chicken," as I appeared.

"Cluck, cluck," I agreed shamelessly. "Curious sod, isn't he? I was waiting for him to ask the 'how' and the 'how often' of you!" I reached for toast and jam. "Family's a pain."

"They can be," Ray admitted. "But he was just worried that I'd got myself into something I didn't know anything about... You know, you and he are pretty much alike. Both of you spend half your lives worried that I'm going to get hurt."

"Because you're such a skinny little golly," I told him, watching him glower furiously at me. "I suppose I can appreciate what he was thinking. There's a lot of strange blokes out there. What they do makes what we do look chaste and moral."

He nodded. "I saw a lot of it while I was in the Met; saw a lot of rape cases, you know. Men, I mean. It's different when a man gets himself raped... Much worse than a woman." He stirred and went to toss the last, cold dregs of his tea into the sink. "That's what Frank was worrying about, I think. He was wondering if you were screwing me, and if so, did I mind."

"You don't, do you?" I asked, giving him a sultry look.

He laughed. "I'll let you know. Only done it four times. It's getting easier every time, though -- not even getting sore now. And it feels so good."

He was starting to turn me on with that husky voice and those half closed eyes, and I could tell by the way he was looking at me that he was getting turned on himself. Loving Ray is easy; not loving him would be absolutely bloody impossible. He seduced me back to bed, and for the first time I let him lie on his back, sure now that it was easy for him. This way, I was able to watch his face as he came, which I'd never been able to do while I was inside him, before. Pagan is a good word for him. Pan. A faun. Belongs in a forest at the gates of dawn...

"That's five," I said breathlessly as we clung together afterward. "Getting blase about it, aren't you?"

He bit me in retribution for that remark.

January was half way out, and it was still raining, though the pundits were saying there was snow to follow. The overcast was miles deep, we hadn't seen the sun in weeks, and it would stop raining only on rare occasions. Ray was chafing at the confinement. He was feeling better every day now, and I think the Royal Jelly might have had something to do with that. These Chinese are no fools. He'd managed to put on three pounds, and Brian's exercise programme was toning up his muscles beautifully. Macklin had been over at the flat on the Tuesday, taking his blood pressure, listening to his heart, and Ray had had the official summons to the gym on the Thursday afternoon.

I was working, but I drove him over there, dropped him off with his Manchester United carryall, and told him to stay in out of the rain, because I'd pick him up again at five, and we'd shove off home together. As luck would have it, the job I was doing wasn't world-shattering, and Murphy and I had got through all the leg work by four.

When I got to the gym, Macklin was shouting, and for a moment I was sure he was shouting at Ray. Prepared to flatten the bastard, I hurried inside out of the rain, and only then realised that he was shouting at a gigantic Irish setter called Rusty, who was climbing all over him, getting long red hairs all over his brand new white jogging suit. Meanwhile, Ray was sitting on one of the exercise mats, laughing his head off at the antics of the Big Blond Bruiser and the dog.

Rusty had been a sniffer with the bomb squad, and a bloody good one, until a bomb went off prematurely and mangled his back legs. They were going to destroy him, but half the staff had words to say about that, and we all chipped in money to get the pooch neurosurgery. They just about knitted his legs back into shape, and although he limps a bit, even now, three years after the fact, he's a bundle of energy, and a menace when he's in the mood to play.

I noticed that Ray was also covered in long red hairs, and pink in the cheeks from exertion. "Hi, sunshine, how's he been treating you?"

"Like a monster," Ray said heartbrokenly.

"Like his nanny," Brian growled, fending the dog off. "He isn't fit enough by a long shot, Bodie. You making sure he does his exercises?"

"Every day," I assured him. "In fact sometimes he does too many... What's the problem, Brian?"

"Oh, no problem, really. It's just that our standards of fitness so far exceed those of, say, the Army, that that would pass for an ordinary fit person just won't do around here." He reached down, patting Ray's tousled head, which was a curiously tender gesture. "Keep going, old son."

For some time I frowned at Macklin, wondering what the hell had got into him to make him so nice, and then I remembered the story he'd told when he was sharpening us for the Parsali job. He'd been through the mincer too, he knew exactly what it was like. It made him and Ray comrades in arms, I guessed, and obviously the same thing had occurred to Ray, who had started to accept Brian's concern for him. He was calling him Brian, too, which was something new. As a rule, previously, one only called Macklin by his first name to annoy him.

"Okay, let's see it again," Macklin said briskly, grabbing Rusty and chucking him at me. "Look after the pooch, Bodie."

Oh, thanks a heap, I thought, knowing the state my jacket would be in in three seconds flat. So I took it off, hanging it on the back of a chair, and sat down on the mats with the dog to watch my partner work. I'd never stopped thinking of Ray as my partner, even when it was very doubtful that he'd ever be any more than an invalid... It's a way you get into, and it's a trap too. Now, though, Ray was looking better all the time and there was, we thought, every chance that he would actually do it. He and Brian were sparring, and Ray looked supple and nearly as strong as ever. He wasn't quick, though, and his reflexes had gone to hell. Brian was pulling everything, and I could tell he was going slowly, too, and still Ray was lagging.

At length, Macklin threw a towel at him and said, "okay, that's enough for now." He stood over Ray, watching him flop down beside me and fend off Rusty as best he could, and folded his arms on his chest, frowning down at his charge. "Well, I'd say you're about as fit as half the blokes out there," he said with exaggerated caution. "And it's time you started working on your wind now. Your heart's strong enough to take it, and your muscles are getting nicely into shape. You can start jogging tomorrow -- but I'm going to warn you. Don't jog with Bodie; don't let him make you compete, don't let anyone else make you compete. Don't get into aggressive confrontations. You're not bad, as secretaries and shop keepers go -- if you never got any fitter for the rest of your life there's blokes out there who'd envy you. But you're not ready to push yourself to the limit yet and if you do you'll pay the price."

"Pay the price?" Ray panted. "Like what?"

Macklin tapped his chest. "Heart valves need work, my son. Dilate one and you'll get athlete's heart."

"Errol Flynn had that," I said gravely. "Kept him out of the Army. Know how they said he got it?" I met Ray's eyes and we both stifled a guffaw... The rumour said darling Errol for the old athlete's ticker by his antics in bed; that's absolutely, bloody absurd; your heart works no harder making love than it works in running 'round the block, but still, the thought that he got it by screwing made us want to dissolve into hysterics.

"Errol Flynn aside," Macklin said sternly, "take care, Ray. You're doing okay, but you could wreck your chances in half an hour, being foolish. Your heart's running way too fast, but your blood pressure's up to normal, and you're only about five or six pounds underweight now. Chances are your heart will always run too fast now, but the digitalis'll make it regular, and it's getting strong. Even if your heart rate never comes down to what's normal for an athlete, I'd recommend that Cowley overlook that, because it's normal for you."

"Gosh, thanks," Ray said with a seraphic smile.

Macklin gave us both an exasperated look, then turned his stern expression on me. "Compete with him, Bodie, and you could finish him. Understand?"

I sobered at once; Brian wasn't joking. "Of course. I know what I'm doing; I'm not that stupid. I also don't want to see him jogging in the rain, getting bloody pneumonia, so don't you start setting time tables." I could sound just as stroppy when I wanted to. "And if it snows -- forget it."

He blinked at me. "Who're you, his mum?"

"His mate," I corrected, getting to my feet, and only Ray and I knew just how much weight that word carried.

Mate. It's a funny word; but it just about summed us up, and it was the one term I could use in public in all innocence. I trailed Ray to the showers and sat on a bench drinking orange juice, watching him under the water. His scars had started to silver out now, and soon they would be unnoticeable. I wondered if they'd ever tan over, or always be there as white lines among the brown, in summer... Some scars do tan, some don't, which is strange. Mine are a motley collection; old ones, new ones, scars that I can put a finger-tip into, others that looked like death itself when they were new and have now almost vanished. Wait and see, I thought, watching him towel dry and give his hair a blast with his Gillette dryer.

It was only when he was finished, hair all fluffy, jeans and brand new white angora turtle neck in place, that I became aware of Brian Macklin watching me watching him. I gave him look for look: make what you like of it. He just stood in the doorway with a typically inscrutable look on his face; then vanished. Ray hadn't noticed him at all and I didn't say anything. If Macklin chose to report to Cowley that 3.7 was sitting there with slightly glazed eyes, watching 4.5 in the raw, so be it. Cowley could give us the sack for all I cared at that moment. The day's work had been so boring and repetitive that all I cared about was getting home, with Ray, and shutting the door, and I didn't need to work for CI5 to do that!

I picked up his bag and waved him out of the gym. "Out, and we'll pick dinner up on the way home. Italian? Chinese?"

"Chinese," he said after some deliberation. "And a bottle of wine, too."

"What are we celebrating?"

"My health," he grinned. "I can stop taking those yellow golf balls for blood pressure. I'm all normal."

"Normal?" I fondled his backside while I was sure no one was looking. "Mary Whitehouse wouldn't agree with you there."

He trod on my toes by way of answering.

It had rained for two days, and the first patch of clear sky we saw was on Saturday -- a Saturday when I was off all afternoon. For the first time in three weeks...

Oh, the joys of sitting in front of a football match with a beer in one hand and him in the other, I thought as I drove home from work after a morning of unbelievable tedium; but that plan went up in smoke the moment I opened the door. He had his tracksuit on, the new one, which is green and white. He'd bought it just the week before the shooting, and I'd thought how terrific it looked, tight in all the right places. Now, it was a size too big, loose, reminding me that he had half a stone still to make up. "Hello, what are we playing at today?" I asked as he threw a cheese and tomato roll at me. I hate winter tomatoes; they're sent over from Continental glass houses and taste like cotton wool, but it's either that or pickles, and I like pickles even less. That's a preference that goes back to my Army days; as a rule, if they've ladled pickles, or curry, onto the meat or the cheese, avoid it, because it's gone off. They reckon that if they dig the maggots out and cut the green bits off, and put plenty of spices on it, you'll never know, and what you don't know about won't hurt you.

"Going for a run," he said brightly. "Eat your lunch and get changed." He had his jogging shoes in his hands and sat on the sofa to put them on.

"Oh, I'm running as well, am I?"

"Well, it's either that or sit in the car and watch," he said with a cheeky grin. "Seriously, Bodie, I can't run far, so it's not going to hurt you. Christ, I can get out of breath on the stairs. Tried jogging up them yesterday --"

"You did what?" I said, aghast.

"Tried jogging up the stairs. For God's sake, relax. I only go as far as my heart'll let me. I let it get up to about 145 a minute and quit. I'm not a fool."

I started to breathe again. "Oh. And what happened?"

He looked gloomily at his knees. "Managed about two flights and caved in." He pulled the laces tight on his left shoe and knotted them up. "So it's not going to take much to put me away, if you want to run with me. If not, just sit in the car."

Sit in the car and leave him to it? Stupid idea. He was looking a bit like a waif now; too thin, so pale, his hair getting longer and longer... How can a man be so beautiful? I know it isn't a word applied to men much, but that's because there are so few men who inspire it. Those who do have to be seen to be believed... the ballet dancer, Nijinsky, was one; and a few actors -- Tony Curtis as a kid, maybe, and precious few others. I knew another bloke, a lot of years ago, who had that something that grabs your attention and hold you in thrall with his physical attributes, but Scotty was all on the surface, an incredible face attached to a relatively so-so body, out to exploit what he had for everything he could get out of it -- which turned out to be a lot. He took up with a Baron, or a Count, or something, one of those European titles that weren't worth the parchment the pedigree was written on after the war. Then there's Ray. Deep and moody, mercurial, irritating at times, with the capacity to move you to tears with a look, or make you laugh at your own woes, which were breaking your heart only a minute before. Sometimes he isn't beautiful; he can get into a mood where his face becomes frighteningly introverted, brooding, intense, sombre. You'd give a month's pay to know what he's thinking about. All the lines of his face seem to draw down, his eyes get that withdrawn look, his mouth seems to get smaller, and he looks... Not ordinary, far from it. Still striking, compelling, but nearly terrifying with it. Those are the times when I'll play the fool with a vengeance, trying to get him to snap out of it. Sometimes he does; sometimes it takes loving to get him to lighten up... There's no way in the world you can brood and bedevil yourself when you're flat on your back with your knees wrapped 'round someone's neck and your body overriding your mind.

We drove out to the park and left the car under the trees. Not a leaf to be seen anywhere, and the grass was so muddy we made a joke of it (just about ready to play football on this!). I'd changed into my blue tracksuit and had my eye on the sky; we were safe for a while, unless a wind got up and blew the rain clouds closer faster than expected, and I didn't think Ray would be going far enough to make it a worry.

The wind was enough to slice you in two, but the kids were still out. A bunch of them were flying model aeroplanes, the kind on control wires that go round and round sounding like lawn mowers. A school gym class had met to throw javelins and discus, and there were dozens of kids and dogs. I watched Ray limbering up just inside the park gate and said, "okay, which way?"

"Round the perimeter," he suggested.

The perimeter was a bloody long way, and I shook my head. "No way, mate. Forget the distance, think about the time. How long do you reckon you're good for? Fifteen?"

"Twenty," he said carefully, not taking chances.

"About a mile and a half," I judged. "That's about out to the rose gardens, down to the bandstand and back. Okay?"

He judged the distance and nodded. "Okay."

I had hearty misgivings about the whole affair, but we set out with the wind behind us, and he jogged along beside me quite easily for the first quarter mile. Then I noticed that he was breathing heavily and nursing a stitch. Always happens when you haven't run for a while. You can do all the standing-still exercises you like, and when you come to run you'll stitch up. "Wanna stop?" I asked quietly.

He shook his head. "Nah. Keep going."

I was wondering if the silly sod was competing with me, so I slowed up a bit, not enough to make him suspicious, but enough to let him set the pace, which he did. In fact, he just kept up the same pace he had started with, never varying it by a fraction no matter what I did or said. After the three quarter mile mark, he was flushed but I noticed that the stitch seemed to have gone and his breathing had settled down. Rugged and uneasy, but no worse. A mile out, and he got his second wind, loping along with much more ease; I began to relax.

But he was knackered by the time we got back to the car, and, in it with the door slammed to shut out the wind, I put my hand on his knee and felt the shaking of spasming muscles.

"Idiot," I accused.

"Cheers," he said acidly. "I did it, that's the main thing."

"Heart?" I put my flat palm on his chest, yanked down the zip of his top, put my hand inside and felt around for the beat. "Jesus, like a fistful of castanets! What -- 130? 140?"

"That's fine," he said hoarsely, obviously choking for a drink. "Brian reckons anything up to 145 is okay, and I never let it get any faster than that. It's getting stronger, Bodie, and so am I. Quit your fretting, and take me home."

So I did as he asked. We got home in time to shower and eat before the match started, and it turned out to be so damned boring, with Brighton getting massacred 5-0, that by half time we were making love on the couch to the accompaniment of John Motson and a raucous soccer crowd. Should have been absurd, but it was wonderful, especially when he put his fingers into me and watched me so carefully, gauging my reaction.

He wanted to take me, I knew, and he was just about ready to do it. Quite strong enough now, that was no worry, and also mentally prepared for it. He'd learned a fair bit of technique from me and made up a lot of it -- no one could accuse Ray Doyle of not having an imagination! I let him know in no uncertain terms what I thought of those intruding fingers. I moaned and writhed under him -- couldn't have stopped myself doing that in any case, skillful little bugger that he is.

We were dozing, naked and still hot in the lounge room that was like an oven with the heater going full blast and the doors and windows shut, and the match had drawn to its tedious final whistle, when he looked down into my face with a frown, about to pop the question. I sealed his lips with my index finger. "Tonight," I said. "I'm counting on it."

If anything, the colour in his cheeks rose a shade higher, and I watched his throat contract as he swallowed before he buried his face in my chest and went limp. "I'll try to make it right, Bodie," he muffled. "Think I know what I'm doing now."

"You should," I chuckled. "You've had it every which way but standing on your head since Christmas Eve!"

He trembled, I wondered what was wrong, then the laughter escaped and suddenly we were wriggling around in hysterics. At last, thoroughly exhausted, I got up to turn off the TV and get another beer, and sorted out my clothes. I was wondering what his brother Frank would make of the pair of us, making love on the sofa in front of a football match!

Fiction writers talk about an 'agony of anticipation,' and I don't think I'd fully appreciated what they meant until I sat through Murder By Decree between eight thirty and eleven; he was dozing on my shoulder, his legs stretched across mine, on the sofa, and try as I might I couldn't concentrate on the film. All I knew was, some bird in a loony bin had had a baby, and Holmes and Watson had something to do with it. Of all the nights for there to be a film on!

It was a long, long time since I had been bottom man to anyone. I learned all about this on a ship out of Liverpool, and for a long time I really hadn't like it. I learned to like it when I met a lovely man on vacation in Senegal, but after I got back to London, after two not-so-nice encounters I decided to call it a day. Having somebody inside you is beyond belief, if that someone is special, and clever, and careful. If he isn't, forget it. This was what had Frank worried -- worried that one day his little brother was going to get himself simple-raped, and hurt, humiliated. And in that kind of situation there isn't one goddamned thing you can say in your own vindication, because you brought it on yourself. You just get over it, chalk it up to experience, see to your hurts and make bloody damned sure it never happens again.

I hadn't been hurt since the very early days; but I also hadn't let anyone do this to me for over a decade -- let alone encouraged someone to do it. I was, consequently, every bit as virginal, in the physical sense, as Ray had been -- your body sort of takes up the slack and forgets it ever happened at all. I knew it was going to hurt for a while, just as he had; but I was remembering how good it could be, and thinking about how much I loved him as I watched him take his vitamins and brush his teeth and lock up the flat.

For the first time in years I was trembling with that positive agony of anticipation, and so turned on I could hardly stand still as I waited for him. He was worried, but determined to do it. Ray's not your usual, submissive, natural born bottom man. He's a stubborn, independent, opinionated, passionate little aggravation; I knew full well that in this relationship of ours it would be even give-and-take, with riches to be reaped in all ways, and I was only too delighted to have it that way.

His eyes were dark, dilated, and he was breathing heavily as he undressed us; this time, I left it all up to him, didn't lift a finger to help, encouraged him to go all over me with his hands and lips, and take his time about it. Spreadeagled on the bed, panting under the assault, I thought I'd never been given this kind of treatment in my life before, and I racked my brain trying to think of anyone who'd even come close. There was a girl called Sharon, once, and an older woman called Barbara -- a lot older than me, as experienced as a professional tart, with an insatiable appetite. They ran Ray a pretty good second, but he was still out in front; partly because what he did, he did with an enormous delicacy and tenderness, and with love, and didn't giggle; partly because he, being a man, knew exactly what to do, and wasn't at all hesitant; and partly because he had several techniques I'd never come across before... We all have our little ways; some people can be downright disgusting, others can be the greatest turn on you'll ever get. Ray fitted into the latter category. In spades.

Somehow, no matter what he's doing with you, there's a quality of delicacy about his loving that's at once endearing and absolving of the sin of what he's doing, no matter how very personal and intimate it is. He drove me to the point of distraction while he scrounged together the courage to go ahead with it, and by that time he had to lend me a hand to turn over because I didn't have a bone in my entire body. I was slick with his saliva but he wasn't satisfied, and used a lot of that oily cream of his too, and then he was inside me and my mind seemed to have escaped through my ears. Wherever it was, I hadn't a clue.

My senses were overloading shockingly, which is something that happens to me on very rare occasion -- or did, in the past. I knew instinctively that Ray would manage it frequently in future. It hurt like hell, felt like a fire in my loins, and my back was throbbing; and I was so full of him that I couldn't seem to breathe. But the notion that we were the same body for this short time cut clear across the pain and as he paused at last, all the way in, I just held still and let the pain go away. It took a little while, and then the first thrills of pleasure went threading through me, ripples of quicksilver along my nerves. He was sobbing, I heard him from far, far away, and knew he would have to move soon. I was ready for him to move, I tried to tell him, but words were beyond me.

When he moved inside me I thought I'd die. Every nerve was alight, I was dizzy with the anguished, tortured delight of it, and when he took hold of me in an oil-slick right hand I know I cried out, a hoarse yell, warning him how close I was. He must have been pretty near the end of his tether too, because instead of backing off to make it go on he squeezed with his fingers and bucked into me. He was trying to be gentle and I wished he would let go and do it harder, because every tiny bit of friction was like stardust shooting through my nerves.

He came first, his fist tightening convulsively about me, sending me up over the top a second later, and the next we knew we were lying in a sticky tangle, Ray's weight pressing me into the quilt, his softened cock slipping out of me, accompanied by a seeping of oil and semen. It only occurred to me then that I should have used a towel to keep the quilt dry, but it was too late and I was too sated to care much.

"Bodie?" His voice was husky, speaking to me from five miles away, and I felt the tickle of tissues between my legs. "Bodie?"

"Mmmmm," I breathed, ungluing my eyelids to see his face, an inch or two from mine, flushed and debauched, like a wicked angel sent on a mission of sin by Old Nick himself. Temptation. I kissed him full on the lips and wound my leaden arms around his neck. "Nicely done, my lad. Was terrific."

He sagged against me in relief at the confirmation of what he'd assumed, and bit my shoulder. "You're fantastic, Bodie -- so bloody tight! Christ, was I like that?"

"Tighter," I said. "Was purgatory trying to go slow the first time, but worth the effort, right?"

A rather filthy chuckle answered me. "Right. Didn't seem to hurt you all that much. Or d'you just have a high pain threshold?"

"Bit of both." I yawned. "Quilt's in a mess."

"It'll wash." He echoed the yawn. "Tired now. Into bed."

'Tired' was an understatement; exhausted would have been a better word. We went out like a couple of lights and didn't move a muscle till the neighbours had a shrieking session at seven the following morning. I was remembering the loving and woke half hard -- which is often the case with Ray, as well. He wasn't anywhere near awake when I stroked him fully hard and rolled over on top of him. Perfect way to start the day, and we start ours like this about half the time. Doesn't seem to matter who wakes first; I guess we both have one track minds!

"Hey, it's stopped raining," Ray said, twenty minutes later when we both surfaced properly. "Looks like a nice day."

Terrific, I thought; and I had to work. Cowley wanted me at the office by ten, and I'd be finished at six or seven, if we got a break. Murphy was partnering me at the time, and although he and I are good buddies, going to work was the last thing I really wanted to do. I shared Ray's shower and left him putting washing through the machine, whistling in the laundry that's little more than an alcove off the kitchen. Having facilities to do your own washing, drying and airing in a flat is something I hadn't really appreciated before; he'd inherited the machines when his old Aunt Edith died, and we were just beginning to value them. If not for the dear departed Edith Clancy, we'd be making the pilgrimage down to the launderette with so many sets of sheets that someone would put two and two together...

Addings twos was Murphy's favourite game, and he was starting to catch on to me at last. I'd done absolutely everything I could think of to distract him, but when the weeks were going by and I wasn't getting any birds, and I always seemed to be at 4.5's, he couldn't be blamed for seeing the truth. He laughed like a drain for days and teased me unmercifully thereafter, and I bore it all in a noble silence until he got used to the whole idea and gave me his solemn pledge of silence. Either that or I strangled him and buried the body one stormy night on the heath, I warned him, because I didn't want Ray being put through the mincer yet. Time for that later, when he was up to it.

Okay, so Murphy knew; and Frank knew; and Macklin had his suspicions. How long before chatter or a report reached the Cow? Not long -- not even I was optimistic enough to think the peace and quiet could last forever. The bubble of peace lasted until January 29th, and when it broke there was more of a whimper than a bang, thank God.

Ray was coming down with the cold that cost him half of February; he was still not strong, susceptible to things like this, and he'd caught the damned infection from the old girl upstairs. She was a kindly old soul, worried about him, knowing he'd been injured, and she came down with a cake to do the tea- and-empathy bit, sniffing and snivelling all over him for an hour or two. Three days later he was feeling shivery and unwell, and of course that was the day he was due to go up to Central to do the psychological profile thing for Ross.

Maybe if he'd been well he'd have managed to bamboozle the test -- or maybe he did throw up a smoke screen, and Ross is just damned good at what she does. She and Herbie monopolised him all afternoon, and according to Ray he hadn't a clue what she was after most of the time, doing word association tests, pattern recognisition, that kind of rubbish.

Rubbish? Can't be all that stupid, because I was called into The Presence the next morning and Cowley had the report in his hands. He waved me at a chair, I sat, and he examined me from behind his desk like a tarantula about to strike. Funnily, when he spoke his voice was almost kindly, and his eyes -- I could have sworn he was trying not to laugh. Laugh at me? I wondered... No, it was compassionate kind of humour, and that I could tolerate for as long as it took.

"So, Bodie, you and Doyle have become... Intimate. Is that a good word?"

My heart skipped a beat but I kept a straight face. "It's good enough, sir. Sorry, sir."

"Are you?" Cowley asked, something like a strict Victorian father who's caught his son stealing sweets from the corner shop. "How sorry are you? Sorry enough to finish the relationship?"

"No, sir, not that sorry." I was stunned by the notion but didn't let my face show it. Stupid idea! What does he think I am, a vampire, preying on Ray while he's down -- just waiting my chance to rape the poor little bugger when he can't put up a decent fight? I was half way insulted.

"I thought so." Cowley scanned the report. "This is the file Doctor Ross has compiled from the tests run on Doyle yesterday. She did not know that you've been living with Doyle since he got out of hospital, and was just making astute guesses... According to her studies, Doyle is in love with you. Now, it was a simple matter to add this to your occupation of the same flat, and also to observations made by Macklin --"

"The big mouthed bastard," I muttered.

Cowley blinked at me mildly. "Not at all. He was required to give me an evaluation of your chances of surviving as an active unit in future, should Doyle pass the physical. He spoke to me candidly, off the record, nothing in writing, because he was not sure of your situation. All he said to me was that you and Doyle seem to care very much about each other, that you have become closer than most blood kin and are possessive and protective of each other. Nothing more than that."

"Oh." I adopted a guilty expression. Damn. For once Macklin had done the decent thing.

"When I asked you, a moment ago, if it was true that you and 4.5 are intimate," Cowley told me, "I would have accepted an outraged denial from you. After all, to say that Doyle is in love with you is not to say you love him. If he has evolved some infatuation -- a crush on you, well, that's adolescent and emotionally immature and altogether what I'd expect of a man who has been so close to death."

"That's not it at all -- that's not even bloody fair," I said loudly, defensively. "Infatuation? A crush? He's not a schoolboy! Adolescent?" I snorted derisively, remembering the way we were together, the way we made love. Immature? God help the human race if sex gets much more sophisticated than our games, because I don't think our cardiovascular systems were designed to take much more punishment!

"So what is it?" Cowley prompted, as bland as ever.

I shrugged, flushing to my ears, trying to think of some way to say it that wouldn't sound bloody stupid. "Love, I suppose," I said at last. "I fell in love with him ages ago; being ill made him take another look at what he wanted and needed out of life, and what he wants is me. Don't ask me why. There's women by the score who'd run about after him... Mind you, there's no woman breathing who'd be a CI5 wife for more than a few years. Ever looked at your boys, sir? Single, divorced or fighting at home. Or dead," I added, a little cruelly. "If you want us to resign, say the word, sir, we'd be happy not to rock the boat."

He sat back; the chair squealed under him and he shut the Ross file, drumming his fingers on it. "You would resign, wouldn't you? And the intelligent thing would be for me to require it of you. But I need hardly draw your attention to CI5's problems in 1980, Bodie. We lost eight men in 1979, and seven in 1980, and three, Doyle included, are still on the sick list. We are a small unit, compact and interdependent on one another. The truth is, much as I dislike it, I can't afford to cut off my nose to spite my face. If you resign, I lose a founder member, and I've already lost six of those in the last eighteen months. Two of the dead men, says Doctor Ross, were driven by unhappiness at home until they were literally incompetent and got themselves killed... Bad marriages.

"Another two of the younger men, the newer recruits -- 1.1.5 and 1.2.8 to be exact, were squabbling over working hours with their women friends, distracted and worried about losing their companions. This is a common problem in units like ours, and it does not surprise me to watch it happen. But Doctor Ross and I have been reviewing the fine print in our rule book in an effort to streamline our policy."

I knew what he was talking about. "The fraternisation rule," I guessed.

He nodded. "Aye. We have the capacity to pair off within the department, at least some of the time. Susan and Murphy are very fond of each other. Ruth and Lucas would pair off it they were permitted to. You and Doyle have broken the rules -- in your case, extenuating circumstances must be taken into account."

"Gosh, thanks," I said acidly. At that point I didn't give a toss whether he took the shooting into account or not; he could take or leave Doyle and me, and if he said three words in the wrong direction I'd quit, simple as that.

"Aren't you listening, 3.7?" The Cow actually smiled. "I'm trying to tell you that we are about to rewrite the small print. If we allowed pairing off in the ranks, much of the family and personal trouble encountered by CI5 men and women would be alleviated. Now, the only remaining question is if this department can tolerate a homosexual couple."

I winced at the term. "Bisexual," I corrected. "Neither of us is limp wristed or a gorilla, sir."

"Semantics," he shrugged. "Bisexual, if you prefer." He leaned forward. "I want certain assurances from you."

"Like what?" I asked, honestly curious.

"That you won't put the department at a disadvantage; I don't want a public show, 3.7. If I hear that you and Doyle have been seen at gay bars, clubs and meeting places, there will be trouble. I don't want to know about your private life, but I will be exceedingly unhappy to learn that you, or he, has been dating -- outside the 'family', if you will. What I'm saying is this: we are a closed shop. What's kept in the family is tolerable if not encouraged; but if you take your bisexuality out into the street, you can expect to stay out there. The dangers of having the department raked over the coals by the press are hardly new concerns -- we're not popular, we never have been. If we give the opposition ammunition, they'll use it. I expect you and Doyle to be exceptionally discreet together in public, and if at any stage in future you decide to go your separate ways and seek other, civilian, male companions, far be it from me to dictate to you where your preferences should lie -- but I will require your resignation. Clear?"

"Pristine, sir," I nodded, and couldn't help smiling. And this was Kate Ross' advice, was it? Damn --

"Perhaps you could indicate, Bodie, if you and Doyle are likely to separate and pursue other similar relationships," Cowley asked a moment later.

Now, that was a stupid idea, and I must have made a scornful face, because Cowley hid a smile. "Split up, sir?" I hunted around for suitable words. "Well, I won't say it's impossible, given ten or fifteen years in which to get thoroughly cheesed off with each other and squabble one time too often, but... Not in the immediate future, no. And if we did split up..." I tried hard to imagine replacing him with another bloke, and couldn't. "He's the only man I want, sir." I sounded strangled felt silly saying it. "If I couldn't have him, for any reason, I don't think I'd want to... That is, I'm not as gay as all that! Sir."

He let me escape from the office about ten minutes later, after I'd signed a form; it was a release to move into Ray's flat on a permanent basis, and I was trying not to tango down the hallway. The worst was over, I was still in one piece, I still had a job, and I was cleared to live with the one true love of my life. Oh, bliss.

I'd been planning to spend the evening shuttling my stuff over from the cold, musty flat to the warm, cheerful one, but when I got home Ray was really ill. The old woman's cold had taken root and he was wrapped in a blanket with his feet on the hearth, blue about the eyes and streaming. I could have flattened the old girl, but it wasn't her fault he was still debilitated.

Christ, was he ill. I managed to convince him to go to bed at eight and read -- he was still wading through the Charlton Heston book I'd got him for Christmas -- and took supper to bed with me. He was blowing his nose every three minutes and sucking cough drops, and when I kissed him all I could taste was menthol. Kissing him was an experience -- he couldn't breathe through his nose, so he'd yank his head away and gasp every now and again. At last I just gave in and consigned lovemaking to the future. We'd been revelling in each other so much, lately, that it wouldn't be too hard on me to let it lapse for a while, and he was far too ill to even think about it.

I phoned him every few hours the next day, and he could barely croak, and I watched him lose weight again, as he was slow throwing it off. A week went by and he hadn't been up to doing his exercises; Macklin wanted to know why he hadn't shown up at the gym, and I told him... Damn me, but Brian was out at the flat the same day when I got home, talking to Ray like a Dutch uncle about taking vitamin C and keeping warm. I had a bottle of brandy in a brown paper bag behind my back -- I didn't know if Ray was allowed to drink or not, but I was going to put a splash of brandy in his tea, and to hell with them... If you've got to have a cold, have it in style, I say.

One day he stopped blowing his nose, and I heard him sing in the shower for the first time in a week, 'My Old Man Said Follow The Van,' husky and broken, but if he was singing he was feeling better. He was eating again, too, and in bed, though he didn't have much energy, he didn't mind if I stretched out on his back and just rubbed myself in the clench of his incredible rear; I don't need to enter his body to fly, just being close to him is enough. Once, he offered to suck me off, but both of us ended up in hysterics, because it's impossible to suck anything or anyone when you can't breathe through your nose. I couldn't get it up for laughing for half an hour, and he was giggling for a week every time he remembered the pantomime... Eventually, I solved the whole problem by sucking him, and I borrowed one of his menthol cough drops to do it with.

Now, to that point, I had heard about what you could do with a menthol cough drop, but I'd never had a girl who had the slightest idea about them. Kinky? I don't know. But I know what they do to your mouth, so...

He screamed. A full-bodied, lung-deep scream. The neighbors must have thought I was killing him -- I thought I was killing him for a moment as he started to thresh around, but when I tried to lift my head he grabbed me and held me in place, so I really gave it to him, for as long as he could stand it, and when he came I thought he was going to pass out. I had a hard time trying to swallow it all, and came myself without any help at all. After I swabbed my legs dry I scooped him up in my arms. "Ray? Come on pet, are you okay? Did it hurt you or what?"

His hands were about limp, trying to clutch onto me, and he took some time to find his voice. "Isn't something you'd be after every time," he panted, "but, oh Christ, Bodie... Never felt so hot, so cold, so hard, so big, never..." Then he did pass out, absolutely exhausted, which was partially due to being unwell, still, and partially due to the Menthol Surprise.

That settled it; as soon as he could breathe through his nose, I was going to get him to do that to me -- why should he have all the fun? It wasn't until the middle of February that he started to feel really well again, ducking out between showers to jog up and down the streets between home and the river, and when I could hear that his voice was back to normal (if he can do three choruses of What Are Friends For? under the shower, he can breathe) I handed him a cough drop and told him to perform. He laughed so hard I thought he'd get hiccups, and there was a gleam in those beady green eyes that was nothing short of malicious.

For a moment I wondered what the hell I'd got myself into, especially when he stuck the sweet into his mouth and sucked on it until his saliva was as mentholated as the candy, but I got a rein on my cowardice and let him dump me onto the pillows. He pushed one pillow under my hips to forcibly arch my back, which was an incredibly erotic sensation to begin with, then spread my legs and lay between them. I could hardly breathe before he gave me what I'd asked for, and then --

Oh, I screamed. He was right. It wasn't something you'd be demanding every time you have an hour or two to spare, but I'd never felt so hot and cold at the same time, nor so hard. Felt as if I was going to explode, and the ache in my balls was almost agonising. The sexy little bugger knew down to the smallest lick what he was doing, and with the pillow under my hips I was just about helpless. Coming nearly ripped me in two, and how I didn't faint I'll never know, but I saw, dopily and with much satisfaction, that he'd come himself, watching me and listening to me.

Maybe we had something to thank the old woman for. I mean, if he hadn't caught her cold and bought the cough drops...

He was back at the gym, working out almost every day with Macklin, Towser and Rusty through what remained of February; it rained day in, day out, and they were starting to talk about the Thames flooding. Macklin was due leave and gave us all a supercilious grin as he departed for Majorca, dumping Rusty on us. Ray called me at work by R/T to warn me before I got home, or I might have had heart failure at the barrage of noise as I got the door open and one foot over the threshold.

Rusty had got very friendly with Ray, with Ray being at the gym so much. He doesn't really 'belong' to anyone at all; Macklin and Towser often look after him because they have the facilities, at the gym; but Murphy took him for a weekend in Dorset once, and Susan sometimes took him home with her. She has three cats too, but Rusty seems to like cats. Doesn't actually devour them, at least. Ray bellowed out of the kitchen as I called "home R-- yeeh, what the --".

"Rusty, you stupid great fleabag!" Ray bawled. "Get off him, he lives here, you maniac! Rusty!"

Bribed with a bonio, the Irish setter limped away to the sofa and sat on it, crunching on the biscuit, filling the cushions with crumbs and covering them with long, red hairs. I sighed in resignation, catching Ray with a hello kiss. "So how long are we pooch-sitting?"

"Just for a couple of days. Susan's taking him to her mum's for the weekend, and then he'll be staying with Towser next week."

"Why can't he stay with Towser this week?"

"Because Towser's sharpening up Lucas and McCabe to go bodyguarding for some Opec person next week... Come on, dinner's getting cold. Come on, Rusty, who wants a can of Lassie, then?"

The boisterous fleabag settled down quite nicely, to be fair; taking him out for walkies at eleven in the freezing cold was not fun, and neither was his idea of the best place to sleep. Between us. I'm used to sleeping with a certain warm, bony little bundle of affection in my arms, but the bloody dog insinuated himself into the middle of the bed and short of locking him in the kitchen I couldn't think of a thing to do with him to shift him. Making love was a laughable idea -- I do not relish the thoughts of a troy with an Irish setter, and that's what it would have been. On the Friday night, thankfully the last night we'd be minding him, I was thinking about locking him out of the bedroom at least for an hour. Or half an hour. He whined and wailed like a kid wanting an ice cream, scratching at the door, and Ray, damn him, started to laugh. That sense of humour of his'll be the death of me.

He's useless when he laughs. Libido goes straight out of the nearest window, and if I didn't find his laughter infectious I'd get very, very frustrated. But the sound of Ray laughing always has had me in sympathetic hysteria, and at last we just let Rusty into the bedroom and cuddled up, jamming ourselves together before he could get between us, not daring to move because he'd have been in there like a shot in half a second.

Susan collected him at seven on the Friday night; she was going out to her mother's farm, somewhere in the wilds of Devon, and Murph was going with her. They make a gorgeous couple, and she was introducing him to her mum as her regular go-steady now. I was delighted for them, honestly, and hoped that Cowley would team them, partner them, in the same way as Ray and me. Then, if Murph and Susan set up home together, they could share some of the good times. I like both of them -- purely platonically, I must add; one love is enough in my life -- and I was eager to see them settled and happy, like Ray and me.

And we were happy. Deliriously, absurdly. March was wet, but warmer by far, and as Ray worked out at the gym every day I could literally see him getting stronger before my very eyes. So I wasn't surprised at all when he told me over dinner one night, "Mack's scheduled me for the physical in three weeks."

I studied him over my plate of dover sole and lemon sauce. "You ready for it?" He was a better colour, though still pale, and he was still maybe two or three pounds underweight, though he was eating regularly. His hair was long, dark after the winter, his face still angular, pixyish, not at all the round faced Raymond I knew from years ago. "You reckon you can pass it?"

"No," he said promptly. "Not if I was taking it this week. Not a chance. But I've got three more weeks... Time I started to compete, Bodie. Compete with you." He played with his food. "I want you to work with me, if you will; push me, see how far I can go, make me push myself. I want to be sure -- and I want you to be sure -- that if they let me back on the job, I can back you up, all the way. I..." He looked up at me, eyes huge and unblinking, and I felt as if he was looking clear through to my soul. "I don't want to let you down in a tight spot. If I can't do it, tell me the truth. If you want me at home, in bed, but you want a partner you can trust at work, say so. I'd sooner know you were safe on the job, safe to come home to me every night, than be with you all day, until the day I get you killed."

For a long time I said nothing, mulling it all over. He was right, of course, absolutely dead accurate, and I guessed he'd been thinking in these terms for a long time, maybe since he was in hospital, starting to fight back to fitness. At length I gave him a nod of agreement. "Okay, you're on. I won't pull the punches and tell you stories. If you're no good, I'll tell you so. But I won't let you hurt yourself trying to prove you're better than you are, understand, Ray? If you have to take a desk job, and get home an hour ahead of me, fit as a fiddle and itching to ravish me at every verse end, let that be enough... Can you do that? Be a paper tiger?"

Another long silence ensued, and he shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe I'll have to try it to know. Desk job, paperwork, getting secretary spread, my glasses wearin' a groove in my nose, going stir crazy... I don't know, love. Maybe I can, and maybe I can't, and if I can't -- well, I'll get a pension from the service and I can take a job too. I'm not exactly an invalid, am I?"

I guffawed at that, remembering what he'd done to me just that morning. "Invalid? Don't make me laugh while I'm eating."

"Right," he grinned. "Lots of jobs I can do; and there's always art."

I've seen his work, and he underestimates how good he is. A lot of professional artists have problems with things he finds second nature -- perspective and colour composition, for example. It's less of an exercise for the hands, more of an intellectual commitment to the work: you have to be able to visualise a three dimensional object in two dimensions, and that's far harder than you might think. He can; he sketches everything he sees to pass the time away; he's got three sketchbooks from his time in hospital, and you can recognise the doctors, nurses, other patients, the potted plants, the equipment, the view from his window, the cars in the carpark down below. When he got home he kept on going; his sketchbook of studies of me makes me blush to my ears. He's drawn me asleep, watching telly, taking a bath, and making love, dozens of studies. He calls it revenge, for the album full of photos I've amassed since he gave me the camera for Christmas. Well, maybe I owe him a bit of vengeance, but I haven't had the chance to snap him in the raw yet, but that's the way he likes to draw me most of the time! If he wasn't so bloody accurate it'd be less flatteringly embarrassing.

The way he sees me always makes me blink; I've always thought of myself as a bloody great, galumphing carthorse of a bloke. Too big, too heavy, which is why I dress the way I do, and stay dressed; dancing around in your underwear, or in shorts, or beach wear, is for people built like Ray, not me. I'm still not sure if the way he sees me is flattery or truth, but the sketches he does are done with love and talent, so whatever it is he sees, he likes it. He suggests a sort of 'power,' I think, when he draws me. Physical strength, leashed-in energy, and such. And he has an insight into my sexuality that leaves me stunned. He drew me, once, as a Regency buck in tight white breeches -- which was fine; he also made said buck aroused, and used the silver handled cane as a means of suggestion, and emphasised his character's direction of attention, leading the viewer's eyes to some person just out of the frame. It's a hell of a turn on trying to visualise just what is getting the character turned on -- the picture's absolutely wicked. For me, just out of the frame, it's him, surprised in a moment of abandon, an act of lust, but so innocent of the supposed sin of it that he just looks up with those enormous, soft eyes, inviting his observer to his doom, like a siren.

So there was no doubt in my mind that if he wanted to take up a career in commercial art, he could do it. Put together a portfolio and hawk it around, get some work illustrating for children's books, greeting cards, that kind of thing. He'd like the life, too, being his own boss and doing the work when he felt like it, nobody breathing down his neck.

Still, that was all in the future, and there was a lot of water to go under the bridge before we got to the point of decision making. I finished the dover sole, working out a plan of action. I was going to be working all day, so if I was going to train with him it would have to be before work, as I'm too tired afterward to stand a spell in the gym or on the track and give good account of myself in bed. I considered letting our love life wither away and scratched the idea; physical exertion is not the whole thing in the CI5 fitness tests. They test your mental alertness, too, and being sexually frustrated after a few weeks' abstinence ruins your mental sharpness. You find your attention wandering in all sorts of wonderful directions at the most inopportune of moments.

"You're going to be up with the roosters, my lad," I told him as he did the washing up. "We'll run; then we'll call it a race. You could always beat me in a flat out footrace, and when you can again you'll know you're back to normal, right?"

"Okay," Ray nodded. "What about hand-to-hand?"

"Gym at the weekend," I said. "What about firing range?"

"No, that's okay, I'll be spending time with Jack Crane three days a week until the test, and I don't think I've lost my eye. I was at the range a few days ago and was shooting just about as well as ever."

Which meant he was still bloody good. Ray's always had me beaten in handgun work; being ambidextrous may have something to do with it. I've watched him rosin his holster a dozen times: rosin in his right hand, left hand doing the Quick Draw McGraw stunt. The ambidexterity is in his file, too, along with his Police record. He killed three men while he was with the Met, and one of his hits was a long-range shot, reflex stuff, nearly impossible. I've seen it done once; Krivas had a sharp shooter on his payroll for a few months, lived with a magnum in his hand till we told him he should marry the damned thing. I wish I'd seen Ray make that shot; he'd have been all of about twenty-four at the time.

I set the alarm for six thirty and wound the clock, and when he slipped into my arms I walked my fingers all over his back until he stifled a giggle. "Whatcha doing, mate?"

"Just feeling your muscles. You feel hard as nails."

"Hard?" He squirmed around and nudged me with his cock, which at that precise moment put his muscles to shame. "Shouldn't tickle me like that," he admonished. "You know it turns me on."

I tickled him again.

Six-thirty is not the best time of day to discover that you're out of milk, out of clean socks, and that it's chucking it down and you're due to go running. I groped for the clock to shut off the tremendous din, rolled over, knocking the breath out of Ray and collecting a sharp elbow in the ribs in retribution. "Time to rise and shine," I growled.

"Rise and shine?" He croaked. "It's the middle of the goddamned night, still, and it's bloody pissing down!"

"Okay, go back to sleep, my pet," I said indulgently, and collapsed again. "Come and cuddle us instead."

But he was wide awake now and wriggled away. "Rain. Just what we need. I'm running out of time, Bodie, and speaking of running --" He slid out of bed and went to rummage for a clean jogging suit. "Three weeks isn't long to to turn a physical wreck like me into a CI5 superman." I peered at him in the semi-darkness. "Physical wreck?"

"By Brian's standards." He was half way into the green and white suit, finger combing his hair. "Come on, Bodie... 'Less you want to stay in bed, since it's such an awful morning, I got to go, but I can get back in time to shower and have breakfast with you, if you want to stay put."

He was serious, and that showed me more than anything else how far he had come since the shooting. When they let him out of hospital he ached when the wind blew on him, suffered in the cold and couldn't walk a hundred yards without turning blue. Now, he was quite confident to go running in the rain, push himself to the limit, then stand under a shower with me and make breakfast.

He was getting better. He was practically back to normal, and it had taken him over four months to do it. I smiled at him, forcing myself out of the warm depths of our bed, and ten or fifteen minutes later we hit the street. There was a determined look on his face that I was not about to argue with; Ray Doyle in a Mood can be a tenacious little bugger. At first I let him set the pace, letting him get warmed up, and warming up myself, which took some time, because the rain, though not heavy, was freezing. We were down by the river when I felt warm enough in every muscle to step up the pace, and I gave him a sidelong glance, making sure he was okay to start.

Then I ran. I took it up to a sprint, down to a steady lope, back up to a sprint, down to a flat-out run, and stayed there until I could feel my own muscles starting to tell me that enough was enough. He was still beside me, and he was suffering. I've no idea how far we ran at that pace, and I had the idea he was pushing himself harder than he should. It'd be nothing compared to the test itself, of course, but Christ, if he hurt himself -- Make or break, I thought grimly, and as my muscles started to tell me to quit I took the pace back up to a sprint.

Ray's almost three years older than I am, so his heart is supposed to run slower than mine at optimum; the fact of the matter is that it runs a bloody sight faster, as fit as he is; the principle's the same -- I'm younger and should therefore be able to run faster. Well, maybe. He kept up with me but I was sure it was an effort of sheer willpower rather than muscle, and it was distance rather than the pace that beat him. He came to a halt, clutching at his right side, leaning against the wall, and shook his head. He was streaming with perspiration and his chest was heaving. "Can't do it, Bodie. No way."

"Not today, " I agreed. But tomorrow. Or next week." I took a quick glance around to ensure that no one was within miles, and grabbed him in a brief hug. "You've got three weeks. You nearly did it today, so if you do it every day, you'll get there."

He heaved himself away from the wall, blotting at his face with a shirt sleeve that was even wetter. "Come on then, let's jog back. Jog back, Bodie. Run back tomorrow."

I thought back to Macklin's idea of fitness; when he's through with us we make Olympic athletes look tame. Jog the first five miles, run the second, jog the third, walk the last five miles home. Towser a yard or two behind you on a bike, waiting to see you drop -- it's not malicious, just practical. When you drop, he'll listen to your heart, your pulse, respiration, and tell you when it's safe to go on. They're not there to beat you up, just to make you push yourself to the limit, make you better than you ever thought you could be. In the Army, I was a big, unfit lump of lard by comparison!

Having to treat Ray this way was damned hard; being in love with him makes me want to coddle him, makes me ache for him when he's in pain, makes me want to tell him to chuck the whole thing over and go home in peace. But he wouldn't thank me for that. We jogged home and stood under the shower together, let the hot water ease away the pain and fatigue, then ate breakfast. Before I left for work we stood at the door, kissing, pressed together, as if I was trying to tell him that I wasn't trying to hurt him with the stupid training programme. He knew that, of course, but it made me feel no better about what I had to do.

"Bodie, don't be a jerk," he told me fondly. "I want to do this, really. Want to see if I can make it back, all the way."

"I know," I sighed, wanting his mouth again and aware of the time. Wanted to go back to bed, to be honest; I didn't think I had the stamina to make love to him, not after that marathon in the rain, but it would have been nice to cuddle up in the warm and let the world go by. "You look after yourself," I told him sternly. "Going to the gym again?"

"And the firing range, and up to Central to do some tests for Ross. I think they want to find out if my brain's turned to rice pudding sitting in front of the telly all this time." He bit my ear. "Shove off, pet. I'm cooking pizza for dinner, so bring a bottle of wine in with you."

"Your wish," I told him with a lisp, "is my command, oh sweetheart of my life, sunshine of my declining years --"

"Out!" He said loudly, laughing, and pushed me through the door, "before Cowley gives you the sack for being late every day, and gives me the blame! You show up bleary eyed and twenty minutes late, and I'm sure he thinks I've been screwing you all night." He paused, on the point of closing the door. "Hm. Now, there's an idea..."

Like the coward I am at times like these, I beat a hasty retreat. I didn't know which was worse, having the Cow actually thinking that, or Ray making jokes about it. He's got a really perverse sense of humour, sometimes. Oddly, I wasn't getting as much stick at work as I thought I'd get. I'd imagined all sorts of joking and teasing about being a queen, a faggot, limp wristed and posturing. I'd stored up a lifetime's one liners to shoot back at them, so as to turn the whole thing into a huge, impromptu cabaret act. But outside of some ribbing I took from Anson, Lucas and McCabe, everyone else just seemed to politely disregard it...

I'm just guessing, but I think they'd been making speculations about me and Ray for ages, behind our backs. By the time he was shot, we were working together all day, spending evenings together and even going off on holiday together. Now, what the hell does that look like? And the girls, they'd probably reasoned, were just a smoke screen to keep the powers that be off our backs. It was a bit disconcerting to come to this conclusion, but at least the storm in a teacup I'd feared didn't amount to much more than a fair sailing breeze, and I gave as good as I got. Much to my surprise, I even got some envious looks --

There's a new boy, Robinson, just twenty-five; he'd been on the firing range with Ray for a week, and then riding around in the car with him while I was undercover, getting field experience with an old pro. Damn me, but Robinson was looking daggers at me! He fancied Ray himself. Bisexuals come in all kinds -- which was something George Cowley was going to have to get used to. He's got any number of them -- us -- on the squad, whether he knows it or not, and since he's written in a new paragraph or two in the fine print, bis are going to start pairing off, following our lead, sooner or later, now it's allowed.

I found time, during a lull in the afternoon's business, to go over to the range and share a few words with Ray and Jack; they're matey, but they look like David and Goliath -- Jack's a bloody great beanpole in cammo fatigues. Ray was laughing his head off when I appeared and I heard the second half of a very ribald gay joke that had Jack in stitches too. Ray's got hundreds of such witticisms stored up in his attick, dating from the days he spent on the beat. He can top you any time of the day or night just by rattling off something he heard outside of a pub in Soho at chucking-out time, or saw written on a wall in a Gents' convenience in Limehouse at three in the morning. There is no way you're going to get on top of him when it comes to wisecracking, and you're better advised not to try.

Jack had been needling him about living and loving with me, I guessed, and Ray had risen to the challenge in kind, spinning outrageous stories and telling gags that had finally doubled Jack up in hysterics. I judged that it was safe to show my face when he was thoroughly beetroot red and Ray pulled the ear pads on again, ready to burn off another clip. Jack took one look at me and dissolved into more laughter, and I just cracked a grin and let him laugh.

At that moment Ray looked like something out of a fantasy, and you'd have to be terminally straight with your eyes glued shut not to see what he had, what we shared. He was standing in front of the big blower air conditioners that kept the shooting range just above freezing, and the draught was blowing his hair around. The lights were bright, casting halos in the air above the targets, and he was wearing his tightest black jeans and the white angora turtle neck I'd bought him. He had the sleeves pushed up to his elbows and you could see the ridges of muscle along his forearms as he lifted the Browning 9mm he was using. Legs spread to brace himself, eyes enormous and unblinking... If Jack couldn't see what it was I'd fallen in love with, pity about him. He needed his glasses fixed.

"So how's Annie Oakley doing?" I asked while Ray paused to change clips.

"Oh, about as well as ever. His reflex-shooting is about a quarter of a second off his old average, but that'll be cured by doing." Jack paused to watch Ray snap off a half dozen shots and reload again. "See? He's dead on target, and his eyes are as good over the distance as ever. But he's out of practise -- we all get a tiny little bit rusty if we don't do it regularly."

It sounded like an outrageous double entendre, and I shot a glance at him, seeing the twinkle in his eye. "Oh droll, very droll, Jack. No rust on us, is there?"

"Not," he said, biting off a chuckle, "that I can see. Know what amazes me, Bodie? That the Cow let you get away with it."

"I offered to resign," I shrugged. "I expect he places a bit of value on me. On us. Hey, is Ray up to scratch for the test?"

"He will be in a week or so. How's he doing at the gym?"

"Ask Macklin," I growled. "But I'm running with him in the mornings. He can keep up with me, it's distance that gets him, not pace, and that'll sort itself out as we go."

As I spoke Ray smoked off another clip, took off the concussion pads and turned towards us. Seeing me, he smiled and waved. "Didn't hear you come in."

"Was listening to the routine you were doing for Jack's benefit, before," I admitted. "Everybody a comedian." "Gotta be," Ray chuckled, "or there's people in this world--" a nod at Jack "--who'd have you by the throat."

"Been giving my lad a hard time?" I demanded, eyeing Jack as if he was a black window spider.

He adopted an air of injured innocence. "I only made a few jokes, Bodie. Got better than I gave, too. Your lad, as you call him, ought to try out for the music hall. Except they wouldn't let him tell stories like that down at the Old Bull And Bush."

"Serves you right," I said drily, trying not to laugh. Trust Ray. "Anyway, I only came over to say hello and see what's going on. Got to get out to Records in a minutes, so I'll see you later."

"Yeah, see you, Bodie." Ray winked at me, and I was half way back to the door when he yelled, "and don't forget the wine!"

"Yes, dear," I carolled, and ran for it before Jack could start in on me, Raymond, as it turned out, was a good deal tougher than I'd thought he'd be... It was like so much water off a duck's back to him!

Macklin and Towser had him for hand-to-hand in the late afternoon, and Ray came back with a bruise the size of the palm of my hand on his ribs from a kick. "Teach me to be more careful," he muttered as I swore, seeing it for the first time as we undressed to shower. I held my tongue with difficulty; I know Mack's job is to push Ray into pushing himself; I know that everything he does is done deliberately; and I know Ray can look after himself, that he's a grown man, for all the fact that he looks like a kid.

But being in love with someone makes you irrational to a degree, and I shot Brian and Towser some murderous looks in the days that followed. Ray was knackered when he got home every day, and if I wanted to make love, I had to start it myself and do most of the work, because, much as he enjoyed it, he would have dropped off to sleep if left to himself.

This kind of training schedule takes a lot out of you, as I had discovered when I transfered from 2 Para to the SAS. Now, the lads of 2 Para will tell you that the SAS is the most useless bunch of twits under the sun, and there are times, admittedly, when the SAS can really fluff a job. Thank God we didn't do it in the real world, at least while I was in the outfit, but I do remember getting pulped by 2 and 3 Para on an exercise in Eire... Be that as it may, the standards of physical fitness required of you to even salute in the SAS are pretty close to the demands George Cowley makes of you, and while they're shoving you through the mincer you wish you were far, far away.

I went easy on Ray, guessing what he was feeling like. His temper shortened and he'd snap at me now and then, but, knowing the problem I would overlook the outbursts and, sure enough, ten minutes later, he would be there with a kiss of apology and an invitation to exact revenge if I wanted to. As a rule, the look of contrition on his face was more than enough to smooth my feathers over, because I never can stay annoyed with him when he gets the Little Orphan Raymond look.

But once, I took him up on the offer. I was complaining about some household matter that was a joint project, I think -- he cooks, I do the vacuum cleaning, take out the rubbish, clean the windows, he makes up the bed, we share the laundry and the shopping. Works out fine, usually. I can't even remember what the argument was about, but in about five seconds we were really bitching at each other, and I knew it was his fault, and so did he.

It took twenty minutes for him to get around to apologising, and I'd been simmering. I was just starting to cool down, but the injustice of a couple of things he'd said was rankling, as much as I knew he had a reason for being a little irrational -- stress and tension can do funny things to you. He padded out of the kitchen, where he'd been stocking up the pantry, and kissed the back of my neck; the first thing I felt was an irritated desire to fend him off, but when he whispered in my ear, "I've been a right berk, haven't I? I'm sorry, Bodie, honestly..." I couldn't help but respond. He pressed against me, eyes cast down in that way he has of offering himself up for chastisement -- I expect he used to do this with his mum, when he'd really earned a spanking, and nine times out of ten she'd take one look at him and give him a chocolate bar instead.

Well, not this time. I was still stinging, and the offer to even it up just a little bit was too much. Later, it was my turn to feel guilty, but at the time... I tossed him onto the sofa and I was rather rough with him, yanking his clothes loose and manhandling him around, dumping him down on his knees. I wasn't even especially gentle as I made him slick with a bit of my own pre-ejac, but I made sure he was thoroughly turned on before I took him; and I took him almost as hard as I could.

Guilty conscience turned my face crimson when we'd come back down to earth, and he was looking at me with enormous eyes from the other end of the sofa. "I, um, didn't hurt you?" I mumbled.

"Dunno," he said honestly. "Don't think so, but... Christ, are you going to do that every time I annoy you?"

I gave him a look of disbelief. "Monster!"

He buckled up, leaving his tee shirt loose. "I'm not hurt, I don't think, but... Jesus, Bodie, that was fantastic."

I blinked at him, disbelief turning to absolute incredulity. "You mean you --"

"Enjoyed it, rather," he said sheepishly. "I'm not into the domination game, not really, I don't think, but... You've never done it that hard before. It never felt that way."

Damn. So much for my budding guilt complex. If I'd meant it as a punitive exercise it'd backfired on me. "Want it hard again?"

He nodded. "Sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes. I felt -- helpless. But it was with you, like I could just give myself over into your tender care, just forget who I was." He shivered. "It's strange, I never felt like that before. Must be feeling good because I love you so much, otherwise I think I'd be angry about it. But I'm not." He wriggled around on the other end of the sofa and made a silent 'ouch.'

"I have hurt you," I said, aghast, and grabbed him in a hug.

"Just sore, for the first time in ages," he told me, "forget it and come and set the table."

So ended our one real argument, and for several days his temper cooled off a bit, as if the prickles of rising anger reminded him of that episode on the couch, and gave him the grasp on his temper he needed to calm down before an could brew up.

They were the longest three weeks we'd ever spent together, though, and as fit as Ray was, he spent most of his evenings in a heap of utter exhaustion. He was lively in the mornings when we went running by the river, though, and a fortnight after the first time we put him to that particular test, he outran me.

It was bitterly cold and the sky was so overcast that only the fluoros were responsible for a faint glimmer of light at seven-thirty; I let us warm up, then set the pace, faster, faster, cut back to a jog, up to a sprint, waiting for him to drop back or tell me that he'd had enough. Over the two weeks he had been getting better gradually, and that morning he finally did it. I ran myself into the ground and the little bugger was there beside me at every step, not beaten by the pace, not beaten by the distance until I slowed up and came to rest by a skeletal tree, holding my left side, which was pierced by a agonizing stitch.

He was wheezing like a loco trying to get up steam, but he had done it, and there was a look of utter triumph on his face. I put my hand inside his jacket, feeling for his heart and making him jump because his skin was so hot and my fingers so cold, and if his heart was running at 120, that was all. Now, an athlete who has sprinted that distance would be registering a lower heart rate, especially an athlete who's well turned thirty, and my own heart was only running at about 90 or 100, but for Ray, the beat I felt under my hand was terrific. It would slow to about 60, maybe a little less, whereas my rest pulse is much lower, but -- for Christ's sake, I never had two bullets shot into my heart!

I gave him a celebratory hug as we turned for home and promised to bring in a bottle of bubbly to celebrate with. As it turned out, it was a bloody good thing that he had managed it on that day, because in the afternoon, it snowed. The forecast was for better weather when the wind swung southerly again, but for most of the week before he was scheduled for the test the snow lay deep and thick and even over most of the city, giving it a faerie look, making it beautiful. That was a shame; we could have used the snow at Christmas, but the Gulf Stream had been a few degrees warmer this year and it wasn't till we got a big blow off the Arctic that the temperature got down low enough for snow... In March! Not the first time it's happened, I suppose, but not getting a White Christmas is always disappointing.

Not being able to run because of the snow worried Ray, and he spent extra time at the gym, to Macklin's amazement. Usually, we can't get out of there fast enough. I was working on some files in the office beside Cowley's the next afternoon, and managed to overhear a conversation between the Cow and Brian; Macklin had come up to Central to give the boss Ray's file, an assessment on which the test would be judged. Jack was making a similar report, and so was Ross, and these progress reports would be used to help determine Ray's real capabilities during the test, because the very stress of taking the test would put him at a disadvantage and so affect his results.

"Oh, 4.5's progress," Cowley said with an edge of interest in his voice. There was a shuffling of papers and I pricked up my ears. "Not bad," Cowley continued. "Not bad at all. Heart still too fast, of course --"

"It always will be, George," Brian said. "And if I were you, I should ignore than. It's my opinion that Doyle's heart is about as strong as it ever was. He's still taking digitalis, and he's as fit as I've ever seen him. With snow outside he's even putting in extra time at the gym."

"Taking the whole thing seriously," Cowley observed.

"Dead serious," Brian affirmed. "Working like a black stoker right now. Hate to tell you this, but he's got me run off my feet; I think I must be getting old -- or maybe I'm missing Towser's help!" Towser was home with a Vic inhaler stuffed up his nose and a glass of cough mixture at the ready. Which was no less than he richly deserved for giving Ray that godawful bruise. Your sins have a way of catching up with you.

"What's he like with his hands and feet?" Cowley asked.

"Deadly," Macklin told him. "And quick, too. He's too thin, of course, but he's all muscle, and being so light means he's faster than he ever was. Faster than Bodie by far -- Bodie's got twice as much muscle but he's pushing a lot more weight with it. A fight between Doyle and Bodie, or someone Bodie's size? My money would be on Doyle, I'm afraid. Much as I admire muscles, you have to be able to hit your target to hurt it, and I'll be frank with you George -- and if you ever pass this on to another living soul, I'll shove you through the physical! -- I gave it my level best two days ago, didn't lay a mit on him, and look at this souvenir."

A pause, then Cowley actually laughed. "Oh, nasty. Looks like a footprint, Brian."

"That's because it's a footprint. It was like trying to catch a ferret with a shopping basket. Slippery as an eel and twice as mean. He's on his toes, no bloody doubt about it."

I felt a great surge of pride. There had been a time when I'd thought my Raymond had had it, I'll admit. I'd thought he'd be fit enough to live a happy, active life, love me senseless and enjoy every day, but this had seemed out of the question when he was getting Christmas cards from physiotherapists and aching fit to break your heart when the days got colder. I couldn't wait to get home and pass on what I'd heard, then swore him to secrecy because there is no sense annoying the Powers That Be before your exam.

Two days before the test was scheduled, with great reluctance, I took my hands off him and vowed to keep them to myself until it was all over and done with. He gave me a shrewd look, guessing what I was doing, because I was still gazing at him with a sort of glazed-eyed desire, wanting him and suffering in silence. He chuckled merrily but accepted the decision as common sense; like footballers before the big match, or like the England bowlers the day before they take on the West Indies. As frustrating as a bit of abstinence can be in the short term, it can pay dividends. We just cuddled up platonically and avoided the whole subject of the test, never even mentioning it.

Cowley was watching us with beady blue eyes, but I wasn't a bit disconcerted, not after what I'd heard from Macklin. I knew he would be getting darling Kate Ross' report, though, and I had a pretty good idea that she'd be suggesting something nasty, so it came as no surprise when Cowley asked for me to come into his office and gave it to me point blank...

"Doctor Ross recommends reteaming you and 4.5."

"Oh, does she?" I asked cynically, "Typical."

"I could team Doyle with Jax, they're old friends, since they served in the police together; and you and Murphy would work well together, two old Army men."

"I daresay," I said indifferently. "But since you're not going to be doing that, there's hardly any sense wasting time talking about it, is there?"

He scowled at me. "You're very sure of yourself, 3.7."

I nodded. "Yes, sir. I am. You know as well as I do that Doyle and I work best when we're together."

"But you're emotionally involved."

I nodded again. "And that's why we have to stick together. If I'm worried sick about Ray, I'm going to foul up on the job, and vice versa."

"Jax and Murphy are both highly competent men."

"So they are; and as back-up I couldn't think of anyone better. In fact, why don't you try teaming them? They might just hit it off and turn into something special."

"Like you and Doyle?" He asked acidly. "Doyle and I have two separate lives," I said, just as acidly. "At home, it's none of your business -- sir. At work, we're 3.7 and 4.5. All I meant was that Murph and Jax could turn into a team that'll stack up in practical terms with Doyle and me."

He was trying not to laugh; his mouth was pulled into a tight line but his eyes were twinkling. "I'll consider it, Bodie. Now, as to the problem of your teaming... I'll go this far. When Doyle is passed by the examining officers I'll put you two on probation, as a team. If you work well, you'll stay teamed, if you botch up your job, you'll be separated. Fair?"

"As Tattersals," I grinned. "Look, sir, I'm not going to work well if I have to trust Ray's back to anyone else, that much I can tell you for sure. Even if we do screw the job up royally, if you split us up we'll be worse. You'd be better off sacking us and calling it a day."

Now he frowned at me, weighing and measuring what I'd said. "Well, we'll see. No sense trying to cross bridges before we get to them... That's all, Bodie. I believe you're due in court in an hour, aren't you? The Sangster hearing."

That was the last I heard of the reteaming question, though I'll bet Ross' report was stern and dour. Jack was crowing in delight at Ray's scores, and Brian was still sporting his bruises, won at Ray's hands -- or feet -- so the actual physical itself had to be a breeze. It takes three days to wade through all the tests, and they're bloody hard, but Ray was bearing up with a cheerful, cheeky grin, tired and sore, but optimistic. He would arrive home ahead of me and I'd find him in the bath sipping gin and reading while dinner heated in the oven, and I'd make some half baked, standing joke about his skinny ribs to cover how concerned I was about the tortures they were subjecting him to. He was losing weight again, and I bought him a pound box of Milk Tray, feeding them to him one at a time every chance I got until he started to talk about tooth rot.

"Rubbish," I said, pushing a strawberry cream through his protesting lips and kissing him on top of it for good measure. "You can always have 'em out, can't you?" I kissed him again, and he somehow worked half of the chocolate back into my mouth, so that we both collapsed laughing, savouring the Cadbury's.

I was running about like a scalded cat most of the time he was being put through the mangle; the snow made for a little variation in the sameness of city living, and Murphy was in high spirits, since he'd taken up with a girl whose 'daddy' was in racehorses. I teased him about marrying for money and he just stuck his chin out and rather indelicately told me to mind my own business. I spluttered, "but what about you and Susan?"

That sobered him up. "I trod on her mother's toes and she's angry with me," he said quietly. "Everything in the garden was rosy until we got onto the subject of marriage and religion, and then... How was I supposed to know her mother's a practicing Catholic who doesn't believe in sex before marriage?"

I guffawed. "And you let it slip that you and Sue are --"

"Mm." He sighed heavily. "We were thinking of living together up till then, and she forgot to tell me not to mention anything about it to Margaret -- her mother. I put my foot in it when I mentioned buying a bedspread with a tiger design -- you know the one, it's been in the magazines for weeks. Anyway, that made old Margaret ask when we were tying the knot. And I clammed up like a fool. I don't know that I'm ready to marry yet, you see, so..."

"So Maggie hit the fan, and Susan's getting flak from home, and blaming you for having a big mouth, and you've decided to call it a day?" I guessed.

"Well, we've decided to cool off, try not seeing quite so much of each other, that way we can figure out just how attached we are to each other, you know. So I'm seeing Joyce and the horseracing bunch, and she's seeing a Coldstream Guards officer." He heaved another large sigh. "And I don't think either of us is very happy."

"Look, you can't let the older generation rule you," I said wisely. "When Ray's mother finds out about us, the fur and feathers are going to fly, but we've made up our minds that the family can bloody well get used to us or lump it. You do the same thing, and a pound gets you a penny they'll come around."

"Come around with a rope and lynch me from a lampstand," Murph said sadly. "Want to know something, Bodie? I envy you and Ray something rotten. You have no idea how sick and fed up I am of going home to a cold, empty flat. S'okay for kids sowing their wild oats, but -- I must've sown a whole paddock and what that life's got to offer I've had up to here. I'm not ready to settle down to the pipe and slippers routine, but God, it'd be nice to have someone to go home to, someone who'll be there. Don't know if you can follow me, but..."

Following him was easier by far than he thought. I'd wanted the same thing myself since I was about twenty-five. I'd run wild like a moron from the age of fourteen and had sampled everything the wild side had to offer, savoured it and grown sick of it. Girl after girl, forgetting their faces, their names, no one to love, no one who loved me. Then I met Ray and it all changed. In the early days he was a little scruff, fun to be with, beautiful in the way that puppies and kittens and mucky little kids are beautiful -- which is not to intimate that he was mucky, he wasn't! But he had this unsophisticated, absolutely virginal appeal, as if the world hadn't scratched the surface of what he had to offer yet. Absurd, really, because during the Ann Seaford affair I learned more from him about the seamy world of pimping and prostitution that I'd learned in all my days as a merc and Para. No, he wasn't the ingenue he looked, but that didn't alter the impression! Then, I don't know, he seemed to grow up under my nose. Started to dress differently, let his hair grow; he got thinner than ever, which gave him an elegance new even to him, and I started to fall in love. I knew I loved him with a passion long before Ann Holly appeared on the scene, and I went through torments, sure I'd lost him without ever having him.

But no, Ann was as blind as all his other women, and good riddance to her. I got drunk with him, and it was over, except for the times I'd catch him looking at a snapshot of her and looking wistful. Christ, how I wanted him, then! But it took almost another year before -- wham. He was lying on the carpet in a pool of blood and milk.

The rest is history. I must have sat there in the car with Murphy for a full minute, eyes blind, looking back at everything that had been, and he was frowning at me when I came to again. He patted my shoulder. "Hey, don't worry about Ray, he's going to rewrite the test records, mate. He's been working himself into the ground, hasn't he? I sneaked a look at Macklin's log book, and added up the number of hours he's been at the gym."

"Right," I affirmed, starting the car. "And about you and Susan -- let it take its own time and enjoy yourself with the horseracing people. When the time's right, it'll sort itself out."

He and she had obviously come to the same conclusions, as I watched him throw off the introverted mood and go back to his previous high spirits, good humour that lasted all week.

For me, it was not such a good week; Ray came home uptight and silent, unwilling to discuss what had been done with and to him during the course of the day, and I didn't press for info. If he wanted to say something he'd say it himself without badgering. He slept soundly, tired out, and left before me in the mornings, as the lab tests started at eight; I lay in the dark, watching him dress and listening to him shower and shave, and he would bring toast and tea back to bed, sharing that brief time with me and then kissing me goodbye, car keys already in his hand.

Two evenings were a total writeoff, this way, just long patches of silence punctuated by a noncommittal grunt and the arbitrary selection of something stupid on the box to pass the time away before we'd fall into bed and I would watch him go out like a light. By the last day of the test I was getting pretty frustrated, I don't mind admitting; five days of chastity after the life we'd been living for months was starting to make me ache!

They were finished with him by four o'clock and when I got home he was asleep, stretched out on the hearthrug with his sketch book abandoned a couple of feet away and a stick of charcoal doing hideous things to the deep pile. He came awake with a jerk as I shouted, "home, Ray! Brought a bottle of wine!" And when I cast off my jacket and the bottle and plunked down on the rug next to him, he threw himself at me.

"Finished!" He crowed. "For better or worse, it's over!"

The stress and strain of it must have been wonderful, I thought, only now, when my Ray was suddenly back in my arms, realising the personality shift he'd gone through. It was as if a stranger with Ray's face had lived here for the last week, and this was like a reunion party. He brought glasses and we drank the wine there on the rug, scrambling each other out of our clothes and giggling like a couple of randy teenagers. He wanted to be mounted, nearly gave me a heart attack to watch him take to his knees and present himself, but I wanted to do it face to face, so we did it twice. And after five days of not doing it at all, we were more than capable of managing it twice. I took him quite quickly, unable to achieve much iron self control after the spectacle of him on his knees with that rump pleadingly offered to me for consideration, and then I lay down, yanked him on top of me, wrapped my legs around him and he took me in return. We were in a nice mess, and so was the rug, and we transferred from there to the shower, still laughing, satiated and drowsy with the sex and the wine, both indulged in far too fast.

I wanted to go out to celebrate but Ray wouldn't hear of it. We'd spent little enough time wide awake in each other's company in solitude lately, and he wanted to go to bed and celebrate in peace and quiet. We cuddled up after dinner -- which we washed down with beer, since we'd polished off the wine earlier -- and watched TV in bed, having hysterics at Jack Lemon's antics in The Great Race, and by ten we were up to making love again. That time we took our time about it, torturing each other until we could barely stand it, then wriggled around and sucked each other into oblivion, falling asleep right where we were.

It was after midnight when we woke, my head on his thigh, the weight of his head on mine, his musk tantilising my nose. No one smells or tastes like Ray, and he says the same of me; I reckon we would know each other anywhere in a blackout. I was cold, as the room had cooled off a great deal and we were still snow up to the windows outside, so I switched on the electric blanket, went to make a cup of cocoa, and kissed him awake with the hot chocolate before bundling him into bed. He was chilly, his cold feet giving me a shock, and dog tired. Too much wine, too much excitement and too much sex all at the same time, I suppose. But then, what's a celebration for but to get worn out in a sated, debauched kind of way?

The test results were in the next afternoon, and Cowley was on the phone, signing Ray back to duty, bright and early Monday morning. We savoured the weekend as our last uncluttered by the job; we drove out to the park and threw snowballs with a bunch of kids, walked Rusty as far as is good for a dog who's still limping from his old wounds, listened to music on the Sunday night and went to bed early.

Getting back into the silver Capri with him for the first time in five months was weird. We were on probation, everyone on the top rung of the ladder knew that -- us, Mack, Towser, Ross, Murphy, Jax, Betty, the people who would have to pick up the bits and sort out the paperwork if we did foul up. But it wasn't going to happen, we both knew that. We were literally telepathic on the job before we became lovers, and now we were thinking so much like the same person it was frightening. Or overwhelming.

April was one of the busiest months we have ever sweated through, and May was not much better, as if the fates had decided to chuck Ray and me in at the deepend and see which way we came up. The first task Cowley set us was to find Quinn, an escapee from a loony bin, poor bloke... A three year stay as a guest of the KGB and anyone'd be a loon. It wasn't his fault, and he'd fought like a champion to get on top of the hypnosis. I was sorry to see him kill himself, and Cowley was still mourning his death a year later. Ray and I acquitted ourselves with grace and aplomb.

Then we were separated by the nature of our next job, when Cowley decided we would look into the case of an old friend's daughter, a lovely girl called Susan whose life was being made a misery by people harrassing her in carparks, and such places. I had to laugh, at one point; the Cow had sent me to look after her -- and, I suspect, to test out just exactly how faithful I could or would be to my lover. He set me up good and proper. Lovely woman, alone in her flat, she's frightened, I'm the soul of comfort and reassurance... Sorry, George, I thought, it aint gonna work this time. She likes me but -- she calls Ray 'the good looking one!' I was smiling about that for ages. The good looking one! Well, no one could accuse Susan of having bad taste; it was an opinion we both shared. I got to see Ray only rarely, and we made the most of what time we had together, playing silly little pranks, like the time he bought me a liver sausage sandwich, which he knows I hate. The job went off smoothly and I was pleased when it was finished; pleased to see Susan and her family at peace, and to be able to stroll in the rose gardens with my lover and give Cowley a told-you-so grin. Ray had been showing off his green thumb to Susan's mother, charming the old bird as he charms the young ones, but he lit up when I arrived and Cowley was there to see it.

The most outlandish job that came our way in April was the Colonel Lawson affair; there's a lunatic, if ever there was one. Wanted his brains examined. A danger to himself and everyone else as well. He's dead now, so it's all even, and the way Ray and I solved the whole situation shows how well we were acting and reacting as a team. Better than ever, I knew, and Cowley had started to relax. He wasn't even watching us closely anymore.

Working with Ray was somewhere between a pleasure and a trial, because we were still at the stage where good old fashioned lust could raise its not so ugly head at any moment, and it was often hard not to grab a quick kiss when we had a moment to ourselves. We did do that while we were packing up the stakeout gear, just before Cookie got killed by that madwoman's terrorist group. I just couldn't wait. He'd been teasing me about something and I threw a pillow at him; he picked it up and threw it back, and we wrestled for a second before we were kissing. Stupid and risky, and we won't be doing it again if we can help it, but -- oh, there's an old saying about stolen kisses being best.

Cookie's death hit Ray like a ton of bricks, and I could have throttled June for taking it out on Ray like that, asking him to shoot the dog and blaming all her woes on him, but the shock of it brought the baby on prematurely, and they had a fight to save her life, so, miserable as Ray was, she was in an infinitely worse condition. There was nothing I could do for her, but I petted Ray shamelessly until he felt better... Then again, I always do. After we'd packed up the stakeout gear, just before Cookie was killed, we were almost out to the car before it dawned on me that I was laden like a beast of burden while Ray was carrying -- the tripod. I gave him my best 'I'll get you for that later' look, but I didn't mean it. Carrying things for him is like second nature now and goes back to the time he was ill, when if he carried anything at all he'd pull his operation sites and spend days in agony. The truth is, he can still pull an adhesion here and there, and I still tend to carry heavy things without thinking about it. It's a habit I'll break myself of eventually. Maybe.

Life was back to normal. The tedium of the job, with the occasional cold-sweat scare, booking our holidays months and months in advance, going home to shove dinner in the microwave and then watch TV or go to a film, and fall into bed, making love if the fancy took us, or just doing the crossword if it didn't, although I'll admit, we didn't do many crosswords! We could still argue heatedly; politics and food were areas in which we have never agreed, and although I can see his points of view I just can't seem to adjust to them. But the good thing is that he has never asked me to change; he just insists that he be allowed his own opinion, which is absolutely fair.

I was preoccupied with just one last worry, and that was what I'd mentioned to Murph, that his family would do its collective nut when it cottoned on to us, and it did happen. His mother is a wonderful woman, a blazing redhead of about sixty with blue eyes and skin the colour of bone China. She has a temper which makes Ray's look mild by comparison, and a soft spot a mile deep. She wormed the truth out of his brother, Frank, one day, so I heard, and was on our doorstep the following weekend, giving me the rounds of the kitchen for contaminating her pure, lily white son.

For a moment I thought she and Ray were going to kill each other; he blew up in her face five minutes into the tirade and never repeated himself once for the next fifteen. He gave her a dressing down that would have flattened George Cowley himself, and I had the oddest impression, watching the good woman wilt, that Ray might well be the one person in the world who knew how to do this to her. He didn't raise his voice (much), and he didn't say one wrong word, not even a mild curse or a blasphemy, which made what he had to say so much more cutting.

We were, he said, consenting adults, long gone from the nest, fully entitled to make our own choices; Bodie, he told her, had been his lifeline for years, and when he was ill the one and only thing that had kept him alive, and no thanks to his darling family who had put in a sketchy appearance when they were least expected or desired. Bodie, he continued, had shown him more kindness, more understanding and more affection than all his siblings combined, and if it had come to love between the two of us, he was happy to participate in what amounted to a stable, satisfying marriage.

I choked up, listening to him, watching the older woman go from fury to mild outrage to a sheepish acceptance to an expression of compassion, and when she looked at me I'm sure she must have seen the glitter in my eyes. Although she didn't say one word in encouragement to us that day, she never fought with us again. We got an invitation to stay at her home, politely declined; she sent Ray a birthday card when he turned 34, and stunned me by sending me one when I turned 32, nine months later. Frank came calling with his wife in July and indicated that things had smoothed over at home, that the clan had accepted us. We breathed a mutual groan of relief at that, and when we went to Barbados for three weeks in the September brought back a mountain of presents for the Doyle clan, kids and grownups alike.

It was very important to Ray that his family not hate him, I realised, and had to laugh as I thought back to that morning when Frank had burst in upon us. So many skeletons in the closet, he'd said, the Doyles keep their clothes on the floor. So maybe we had less shocked and disgusted them than mildly disconcerted them -- as in, 'Oh Christ, not another one!' There was one depressive who'd had a go at her wrists twice already, and an Aunt who had had an affair with a stage manager in Marsailles in her distant youth, and an uncle who had never married or had any children, but who wrote reams and reams to an old Army chum and disappeared for protracted periods to a farm in the north. Not so very shocking, really, when you compare the Doyles to other, really wild people like drug addicts and pimps and terrorists, but as regards 'ordinary' families, wild enough.

I've never had a family. I ran the Liverpool docks as a kid and followed my nose to sea at fourteen. I left behind me a father drinking himself into a grave, a mother buried in a churchyard on the outskirts of the city, an elder sister who had married and gone to Glasgow and a two up and two down rat hole I had no intentions of living in as I grew up.

Now, I've got 'in-laws' by the score, a standing invitation to come and stay at the big house in Derby, a lovely home in which Ray and I take a pride -- it may only be a flat, but it's ours -- and the wherewithal to scoot over to the Caribbean or the Med whenever we can weasle some leave out of the boss. Not bad for a fourteen year old runaway who should have been raped within an inch of his young life and strangled to death within the first six months of his odyssey. And I've got someone who loves me so deeply it often scares and worries me, reminding me of the weight of obligation that much love carries. Cowley was sure, looking back on it, that I'd be sleeping with Susan and fighting with Ray over my infidelities when he split us up and sent me to guard her that time, but there was never any chance of that. Susan was -- and is -- a lovely woman, and of course I could see how desirable she was, but...

Sex is sex and love is love. And I'd sooner do it with love. Now and then I notice a particularly beautiful woman, and there are times when I dream about cuddling someone soft and round, but when I wake up it's to find soft, curly hair tickling my nose and a beautiful head on my shoulder, and the love wells up, banishing everything else. Casual sex just isn't the lure it once was, and I know Ray feels the same way. He's everything I want, and, thank God, I seem to be everything he wants. The lecture he gave his mother set down what he feels once and for all, leaving me in no doubt about what he was giving me and expected from me.

His scars mostly tanned over the summer after he got fit; we spent every spare moment out of doors, summer was long and mild, and by the time we escaped to Barbados he was already tanned to that apricot jam colour he goes. Three weeks in the Caribbean, and he was gypsy-dark, all he needed was a silk scarf and an ear ring. And I had three more albums full of photos -- two dimensional memories to look back on when we're old and grey, thirty years from now, whistling through our dentures, dying our hair and having hysterics over the Old Days. Its hard for me to picture him old, and I don't intend to try; I'd sooner overlook the whole concept and make time stand still as long as it will

With a bit of luck, that'll be a bloody long time.

-- THE END --

July 1986

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