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The Other Side of Midnight

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Then Dinarzad said, "Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night, before I bid you goodbye at daybreak, for I do not know what will happen to you tomorrow." Shahrazad turned to King Shahrayar and said, "May I have your permission to tell a story?" He replied, "Yes," and Shahrazad was very happy and said, "Listen…"

~1~
[Till]

The lights are on all across the city. From here I can look down at the darkness and discern shapes of buildings and streets from the pattern of lights. Opposite this hotel is a row of tenements, 1920s renovated, with large sash windows that open to the street. With the lights on, even with the barrier of net curtains, I can see inside, peek into each life as it happens. For every kitchen with bottles and plant-pots on the sill there is a bedroom or a living room; for every single person watching the television there is a couple arguing, doing housework, or having sex.

I admit to a certain thrill at watching people fuck. I'd rather be doing it myself, but when that's an impossibility – I'm currently trying to be faithful, which is difficult for me – then I enjoy the stir to the senses, the kick of the libido, when I can play at being a voyeur. It's much more satisfying than gazing at some dumbass porno, jerking off into hotel sheets, even if the initial jolt of lust that a porno sends straight to the groin is kind of missing with real-life voyeurism. There's always the danger that the curtains will be drawn just as things are getting interesting.

Since we've been here, though, I've had luck on my side. I guess that the couple on the fifth floor, third apartment from the left, are pretty new to their relationship, judging by the amount of times they go at it. They seem to be in the throes of trying to impress one another by their daring and athleticism. It's impressed me, anyway. I wish I could see a little more of them, to be able to distinguish their faces; but I draw the line at buying a pair of binoculars just to indulge this little past-time.

Besides, what would my next-door neighbour say? Plenty, knowing him. I think he's already cottoned on to why I spend so much time sitting on the balcony with the room lights on low behind me, because he rarely ventures out onto his own balcony. Shame – I'm sure he'd enjoy watching as much as I, but he's too busy being a good boy.

I'd like to corrupt him.

The thought comes out of the recesses of my mind with such alacrity that I grin and press the back of my hand against my mouth to stop from chuckling aloud. It's not like it's an original thought – it must wander through my head at least several times a day, and as far as I can remember it's been doing so for a good few years now. Not that that's any great indication of desire, considering just how many such idle thoughts I have every day, but recently – these past couple of days – the itch is growing stronger.

I turn my attention back to my sportive friends opposite and tilt my chair forwards so I can lean my forearms on the railing of the balcony, and prop my chin on my wrists. This gives me a comfortable view, and also allows me the satisfaction of being able to swing on the chair – not that this is required to get me off, but it irritates the hell out of my neighbour, and needling him has become my top priority once we're safely out of the studio.

Things are hotting up over the road. I curse the stupidly-placed vase of orange flowers and hold my head at an angle the better to watch my couple embracing on the sofa. Clothes are scattered and a cushion drops to the floor. They're writhing so frantically that they'll surely follow it. I automatically soundtrack the event with soft moans and harsh gasps, the slap and slide of flesh on flesh, the slick sounds of wetness… and I get hard.

Man is a visual animal, but poets like to orgasm with sounds.

I concentrate, snickering when I'm proved right and the couple roll onto the floor. It doesn't slow them down, and I admire the curves and tumble of limbs as they begin to fuck in earnest. I drop deeper into my imagination, pretending I'm in the room with them: I can hear them; smell the heady scent of sex; feel the thrust and push of their bodies. My fingers tighten on the railing and I feel a growl rub at my throat. In fantasy, I transpose faces onto their images and adjust the soundtrack, riding along to it, letting my mind take me where it will –

- and hear him whisper in my ear, the same heated whispers I've heard him use countless times on the tour bus when he thought nobody was listening… Whispers that seduced and promised and delivered pleasure; whispers that had me in a state of liquefaction even though I was not the intended recipient. Now I can make him whisper to me, and now I want to feel him beneath him, breathless and finally grasping at silence as I fuck him into submission, to quieten those silken words that enthral me so badly -

"Till?"

So deep in fantasy am I that I barely register his voice, instead adding it to the soundtrack and imagining him saying my name brokenly, pleading for me –

"Till, for fuck's sake!"

I blink myself out of it and rock back in the chair, turning my head to stare wide-eyed at him standing on the neighbouring balcony and glowering at me.

"What?" I demand.

Paul folds his arms across his chest. I like the way he does it: the fabric of his t-shirt pulls tight over his biceps and the curve of his shoulders. I know he's not doing it for my enjoyment, damn my luck, but I appreciate the view all the same.

"Stop swinging on the chair," he says sharply.

"Don't be such a nag," I respond, tilting the chair backwards and swinging on it again, just to watch the way his expression lights with irritation.

"I'm trying to sleep, and all I can hear is you scraping that bloody chair back and forth -"

"Then stop trying to sleep and stay and talk to me." I give him a lazy smile and point at the chair on his own balcony. "Better still, come over here and join me."

He snorts. "Bringing my chair, I suppose."

"No. You can share mine." My smile becomes wolfish. "Come sit on my lap, Pauly, and maybe we can play -"

He flaps a hand at me in dismissal and sits down instead. "What do you want to talk about?"

I pretend to think. "Sex."

"Oh please. You've been spying on those people over the road again. If you want to talk about sex then ring Richard, I'm sure he'd be only too delighted to whisper sweet nothings."

Ah. He said 'whisper', and that has me sitting up and wanting him even more. "Richard will be asleep now."

"Then wake him up." Paul looks aggrieved. "You woke me up, after all."

"You're here. He's in New York. You talk to me instead," I order softly.

He sighs loudly. "What do you want me to talk about?" he asks again.

I lift my eyebrows mockingly. "Paul Landers with nothing to say? How very unusual. Are you feeling well?"

"Ha ha. You're so funny." He draws his chair closer to the edge of the balcony and then swings his feet up to rest on the railings. I watch him covetously. The t-shirt – grey, short, tight – looks soft and warm with his body heat. I want to touch it and feel the burr of the cotton beneath my fingertips. His pyjama trousers are over-laundered blue with dark piping along the seams, and the hem rides up to expose most of his calves, ankles and feet to my gaze.

"Talk about Christoph," I say suddenly.

His toes wiggle minutely. "Thought you wanted to talk about sex."

"Isn't that the same thing for you?"

"Yeah, but we don't talk about what we do together!"

I grin. "Maybe you should."

Paul looks doubtful. "He'd kill me."

"No, he wouldn't. He's too besotted to kill you. And anyway, it's only me… what harm can I do to you?" I wheedle, swinging on the chair again.

He laughs, shrugging a little as if uncomfortable. "You just want me to tell you dirty stories. Well, I can do that without mentioning Schneider – the result will be the same."

"No, it won't," I interrupt hastily. "Paul: I want to know." I hold his gaze until he looks away and stares emptily at the tenements opposite.

"You're trying to hit on me. It won't work. I won't do it."

For a moment I'm worried that he's about to get up and go inside. I sit properly on my chair and put both hands out across the divide between our balconies. "Come on, it's just for fun. Chris will never know, unless you tell him."

Paul still looks uneasy. "He's possessive; I don't want to hurt him -"

"I'm not asking you to come to bed with me..."

"Aren't you?" He puts his head back and looks right at me in challenge.

I relent. "Okay. I am. But right now, I know you won't. And I know that Schneider is possessive – I've been there too, remember?"

He drops my gaze immediately. "I know."

"Haven't you ever wondered what went on between us?" I prod, sensing a weakness. "He never told you what happened that night?"

Paul squirms. "I never asked."

I lean across the balcony. "You want to, though, don't you."

He drops his legs down and half turns away from me. "It doesn't matter."

"I didn't say it did." I sigh at his reaction. "Look: it's just the two of us here for now. Until the others arrive, it's you and me – alone. I know you miss him. And I'm trying to be faithful for once in my life -"

Paul rolls his eyes. "You're so good to Richard."

"Shut it. I am trying to be faithful… but you're making it difficult for me."

"Oh, so it's my fault that you're feeling horny? Till, come off it. This is hardly an outfit worn to inspire passion," he says, indicating his clothes.

"Then maybe it's not the clothes," I murmur.

"You are just bored," he tells me with finality. "And you like winding me up."

"So I'm bored. What do I usually do when I'm bored?"

He gives me another glowering glance. "You fuck."

"And since the only man I want to fuck isn't amenable…"

Paul puts a hand to his forehead and makes a strangled sound of disbelief. "Then go fuck a woman! God, if you were to knock on the door of your shagging couple over the street then I'm sure they'd welcome you in for a threesome!"

"An interesting idea… but I'm trying to save myself for Richard -"

"He's the one that needs saving."

"You impugn my honour, Landers. At least admit that you're interested."

He nearly falls off his chair. "In you?" he splutters. "In your dreams."

I smile slyly. "My dreams are fabulous."

"I don't want to know."

I let a silence drift between us. He's thinking about it. Could I really seduce Paul, even for one night? Would he let me? Would he let himself? Or is he too careful of Christoph's feelings? I wonder quite what my intentions are, beyond getting laid. I've always been fascinated by their relationship. Fascinated… envious?

Ugh. Time to stop the self-analysis. It's not remotely exciting; and judging by the expression on Paul's face, he finds it as tiresome and troubling as I do.

"Even if I was interested," he begins slowly, in a tone that suggests that the idea of him being attracted to me is as likely as finding gold in a tin-mine, "then I wouldn't do it."

"Because of Christoph."

He nods silently.

I rock forwards on my chair and watch him wince at the sound. "Then we're back where we started. If neither of us are going to put out, then we'll have to think of other ways to amuse ourselves of a night-time."

"Talking, you mean."

I adopt my most persuasive voice. "Talking. It's free, it's blameless, and we don't hurt anybody by it… You tell me, and I'll tell you."

Paul curls up in the chair and eyes me warily across the divide. "Tell me what, exactly?"

"Whatever you want. I'll even tell you about me and Chris, as you so obviously want to know."

He's still for a minute, trying to make up his mind. I know him: he's so curious that he can't resist a lure as good as that one, and he loves words as much as I do. Oh, it will be a pleasure to listen to him, and a pleasure to watch him react to what I will tell him in return… and when we're done, we shall see if he has the strength of will to resist me further.

"All right," he says at last. "What do you want me to tell you?"

"About you and Christoph," I say. "The first time you slept with him."

He giggles. "God, you assume I can remember!"

I make myself comfortable in my chair. "Of course you can. You remember everything about him. There's no way you'd forget the first time you kissed him -"

Paul worries at the hem of his t-shirt, unravelling a piece of loose thread. "No, I haven't forgotten," he says softly, "it's just that the first time I kissed him was a long time after we first slept together."

I'm mildly surprised by this confession, and intrigued to know more. "He wouldn't let you kiss him?"

He smiles, head down, still fiddling with his shirt. "I suppose I'll have to tell it from the start, then. So, listen…"

***

~2~
[Paul]

It began with a game. Innocent and innocuous at first, just as these things always are, until the sting in the tail is revealed far too late for one to step away and run like fuck. Actually, looking back on it, I probably wouldn't have run too far. He'd have caught me in his own sweet time, but that night – the first time – it was all due to Aljoscha and Flake.

In the years we'd all known one another, we'd worked out little stratagems to avoid killing each other. For me this usually meant sitting quietly in the van and strumming whatever melody came into my head as counterpoint to Aljoscha's rambling discourses on life, the universe, and the arse of the cute boy crossing the street ahead of us. Flake would make intelligible sounds now and then that suggested that (a) he was awake; (b) he was listening; (c) he agreed with whatever Aljoscha said. Whenever I turned around in the seat, Flake was always staring into space or chewing the end of a pencil, his long fingers tippy-tapping on the seat beside him as if it were his beloved keyboard. Sometimes I wondered if he recorded the noises into the keyboard and just played them back at suitable intervals to please Aljoscha's need for an audience, but of course I'd never ask him if he was doing something as stupid as that.

Anyway. Part of the avoidance technique was alcohol. Medicinal purposes, you see. I'd never touched serious booze before I met Aljoscha, and Flake – well… he could get high on a cup of coffee, and you know what he's like now. Then, he was even worse. Vast consumption of alcohol usually equals idiotic behaviour, vomiting and blackouts, swiftly followed by severe memory loss – real or invented - the following morning. But it also gives rise to incredibly infantile drinking games, and we'd done the lot a dozen times over and had started on variations of our own. So, one night we're sitting on the floor of some lame church hall, surrounded by crap and empties and with the stink of weed doping us all out, and Aljoscha starts the latest game, a version of spin-the-bottle. Flake was sitting on my right, and Christoph on my left. The other groups we'd played sets with were lounged around to complete a drunken circle. I'd tried shuffling around a bit, so I could sit opposite Christoph – but he just gave me a look that suggested that he knew what I was up to, and so I stayed where I was.

He hadn't been with Feeling B that long, a year or so at the most. I think he'd just started to get used to me – really get used to me, I mean, since we'd known each other before then, but only in small doses. Now we were together more often, and I still thought he was too much the 80s pop reject to be a proper punk-rock drummer. At least by that time his clothes were gravitating towards halfway decent, rather than things you'd deny having at the back of your wardrobe when you were 12 – and he was twice that age. His hair was way too long, and it twisted and curled and rioted in a mass of soft silky dark brown that went slightly streaky in the sun. I remember being as jealous as hell of his hair, mainly because at the time, mine was bleached so blond it was almost white; and it was so dry that it shrieked whenever I put a comb through it. So I tied it up in the highest, tightest topknot that I could, and Flake used to call me Pebbles, like the baby in The Flintstones. Wit for the handicapped, see.

I wasn't just jealous of Christoph's hair, though. When I first met him, he looked younger than his age – sort of naïve and sweet – but by then he'd started to grow into his face, and almost overnight I was looking at him in a whole new way. What used to be curves now became angles, and he just sharpened up, looked older and wiser and hellishly sexy. Me… well, I look the same as I did when I was six years old, only with longer legs and a bad dye-job, so I was fascinated by this chrysalis-butterfly thing that Christoph had going on.

I assumed he hadn't noticed the way I'd started staring at him. I thought I was being very cunning and keeping it to myself. But of course Flake noticed – well, he would, wouldn't he – and he thought it was hilarious. And so it all came to a head in this drinking-game.

As rules went, it was pretty simple. The number of times the bottle span was the number of letters allotted for a name, an action, and a body-part. For most of the night I'd been lucky, being the one to call the forfeits; but when it came to Flake's turn, he fumbled the bottle and it spun slowly four times.

There was only one person in the hall whose name had four letters in it. Everyone looked at me gleefully, and I buried my head in my hands. After an evening of dishing it out, I knew I had to expect something back. Flake started to giggle like a maniac, and I looked up, fearing the worst, and was surprised when he pointed at Christoph and said, "Kiss Paul's knee."

It sounded so stupid that we all burst out laughing. I'd been worried that slightly more graphic forfeits would be required, but knee-kissing I could deal with.

Christoph was the only one not laughing. He put down his drink and twisted over onto all fours, crawled over to me and crouched beside me. His hair was falling over his eyes and I had no idea how he felt about this.

"Get up," he said, his voice low and husky.

That I managed to stand was a major achievement. I remember wobbling about and looking down as he rolled up my left trouser leg to just above my knee. This provoked more hilarity, and I nearly fell over laughing. It must have been a totally ridiculous sight; but despite it all, Christoph was still serious in his task.

I admit I was curious as to what kind of kiss I'd get. The knee is hardly the most attractive part of the human body, after all, so I was expecting a peck on the kneecap and that would be it.

I was wrong.

It took all of my concentration to stay upright as Christoph finally folded back the hem of my trousers, and then he put out a hand and rested his fingers on the back of my knee, where the flesh is soft and ticklish. All of a sudden, it wasn't funny any more. I remember taking a breath as he knelt up and bent his head to kiss me; and all I could feel was the slight pressure on the back of my knee, the stroke of his hair tumbling forwards, and then the warmth of his lips and the press of his nose.

He kissed my kneecap, mouthing across my skin until it felt like a sweet pain drilling through the bone. His fingers were caressing the back of my leg, holding me still. As his lips moved, I could hear the tiny wet kissing sounds.

Vaguely I was aware of everyone else laughing. I had some sort of stupid expression pasted on my face, but all I wanted to do was to drop down onto the floor and feel what it was like to really kiss him: to have his mouth covering mine, to have his lips coax breathless moans of pleasure from me rather than the undignified squeaks I was making instead.

I don't think I've ever been remotely fetishistic, but that night I could understand how people got hung up on feet or armpits or whatever. While Christoph was kissing my knee, it was the most erogenous zone in my body, a repository of nerve-endings tormented by his gentle fingers and by that mouth that was turning my kneecap into mush.

It was the single most erotic thing I'd ever experienced, and just as the rest of me was melting into jelly, one part of me got as solid and as hard as a rock.

Thank God for combat trousers. Nice and baggy, with lots of pockets, it's easy to adjust killer erections in them without attracting the notice of drunken friends. It was high time somebody else was made to suffer, so I jumped back from Christoph and collapsed onto the floor, prompting howls of laughter when I sat up and very pompously rolled down my trouser leg.

I reached over and sent the bottle spinning, and the game began again. Only when my hard-on had calmed down did I risk taking a glance at Christoph. He sat quietly beside me, his fringe still covering his eyes but his mouth curved in the slightest mocking smile that made me nervous and sick with desire at the same time. Did he know – had he felt my reaction? And did he think I was a freak?

I was still worrying about it when the game descended into incoherency and incomprehension. Aljoscha passed out on the floor and Flake thoughtfully put his jacket over him before wandering off into the night. The others rolled away in search of more booze or an empty bed, and I decided to get out while I was still capable of walking.

Christoph followed me home. He didn't walk with me, but literally followed me, as if he were hunting me down. Every block or so I'd turn and see him there, slipping in and out of the shadows, still with that mocking smile on his face. The buzz of the alcohol was beginning to wear off, and was replaced by a jittery feeling in my belly that I kept trying to pass off as a premature hangover. It got worse when I finally reached my apartment block and fumbled for the key to the front door. Then, when I turned around as I opened the door, the jitters were kicked into cold disappointment when I realised that Christoph had gone.

I made it up the stairs and into my apartment, then I leaned against the door and breathed out slowly. It was just a game, a bit of fun. There was nothing more to it than that. My head was spinning with a mix of drunken hysteria and frustrated lust, and so when there was a knock on the door behind me I nearly fell over. That started me giggling, and I was still smirking when I opened the door.

Christoph stood in the hallway. He looked very serious: no more mocking smile. He'd brushed his hair back out of his eyes with his hand and now the curls were sticking up over the crown of his head. I think it was the first time I'd been able to see his eyes clearly that night, and their expression was absolutely calm and controlled, their colour a darkening blue.

He pushed past me and I closed the door dumbly, wondering what he wanted. The jittery feeling came back to me so strongly I felt sick, and the sickness increased with every second he stood there in silence. I shifted nervously on my feet, and that seemed to prick him into speech.

"You were hard for me," he said, still in that same low throaty voice.

The shock must have registered on my face, because he smiled and reached out with one hand to brush his fingers across the front of my trousers.

"Will you get hard for me again?"

There was little point in me answering his question as he could feel for himself what my response was. His fingers slid up and down the bulge that pressed against the heavy cotton of my trousers, smoothing the fabric against my hard-on until even that became a caress.

"Schneider, what are you doing?" I asked idiotically.

Back came the mocking smile. "You've been watching me. Looking at me like you wanted to eat me all up. I just want to know how serious you are about it."

A whole series of images passed through my head, each one sexier than before. Yes, I wanted to eat him up. I wanted to spend all day feasting on him, but that was just a fantasy. Reality was something totally different, completely unexpected, and fatally attractive.

"I've never been more serious about anything," I managed to tell him.

His fingers gripped harder. I gasped, trying not to thrust against his hand in case he went away laughing, saying it was all some joke dreamed up by Flake and Aljoscha – but he stayed there, holding my cock through my trousers.

"Christoph?" I prompted.

He was staring at me as if he didn't know me, the light in his eyes getting more and more ferocious until he began to push me backwards, still holding me tight.

"Where's your bedroom?" he demanded, and I gave directions awkwardly, still expecting this to be some huge joke and praying that the punchline would come after I had.

He steered me into the room and slapped at the wall until he found the light-switch, then we were on the bed and he was on top of me, his hands busy with the zipper of my trousers before I suddenly blurted out, "Oh shit, are we really doing this?"

He paused and looked down at me, the fingers of his right hand lightly caressing the top of my belly where my t-shirt had slid up. His touch was making me shiver as if I was cold, and I could feel my nipples tightening under the brush of my shirt. I wondered if he'd noticed. I wanted him to notice.

"Don't you want to do it?" Christoph asked, almost aggressively. Those possessive fingers dipped into the open fly of my trousers and squeezed my cock. I moaned, helpless in his hands. I wanted him, oh yes I did, I wanted him badly – but I didn't want to turn into Aljoscha, lusting after every chicken that crossed my path.

I don't think I was able to form a sensible reply, and he certainly didn't care as he straddled my thighs and began to wank me off. It was absolutely surreal: him with all his clothes on and me with my cock out and my t-shirt shoved up over my belly. I probably had to squirm a few times to let him know how I liked it, but he caught on fast. I bucked up against him then, liking the weight of his body pinning my legs. I arched my back, my shoulders hard against the mattress as I pumped my hips crazily, wanting more of his hand.

He was leaning forwards, supporting himself with his free hand set hard against my waist. His hair was in his eyes again, but I could see how he bit his lip in concentration. I started imagining him biting me, and the thought made me whimper. I wanted to feel all of him on top of me, and so I pulled him down, wriggling until he could pick up the rhythm again. I could feel the hard press of his knuckles as he jerked my cock, and in the absence of anything else I blindly reached out to kiss him.

He turned his head so my lips brushed his cheek, and I kissed his neck, nuzzling through the soft curls of hair and nipping at his earlobe. That was the first time Christoph made a sound other than straight speech, and it was a sort of explosive half-gasp, half-moan that spurred me on to experiment more. The noises he made when I licked at his ear were so fucking horny I thought I'd come just listening to him. I started whispering then, telling him how hard he'd got me and how I wanted to fuck his mouth, and his hand moved faster on me, smearing sweat and pre-cum across my belly. His fingers were sticky and slippery, his grip as tight as before, but now that my cock thrust against a damp palm it was so much smoother; and before I knew it I was spurting into his hand, feeling the hot spatter escape the cage of his fingers to rain onto my skin.

"Oh God," I gasped, dizzy with satisfaction, "oh, fuck."

Christoph sat back across my thighs again and examined the shining pale gleams that coated his hand. I giggled feebly and pulled down my t-shirt, cleaning myself off; then I glanced up to see him licking curiously at his fingers. His expression was so rapt, the movement so unexpected, that my body reacted way before my mind did.

"I'll be off again in a minute," I warned, stunned by just how exciting it was, watching him lick my semen off his skin. "I'm getting too old for this."

He wiped his hand on my t-shirt and I grabbed his wrist, bringing him closer to me. Again he avoided my kiss, burying his face in the quilt before surfacing to blink shyly at me between the streaky waves of his fringe.

"You've done this before," I accused, hoping that it hadn't been with anybody that I knew.

He smiled then, and it changed his face so utterly that I drew in my breath on a note of wistful longing. "No, I haven't," he said gently. "I know you have, though, and so I wanted to try it with someone experienced -"

I wriggled on the mattress until I faced him, propping myself up on one elbow to stare down on him in astonishment. "Whoa, whoa… experienced, me? Not in this area, I'm not – I mean, yes, I've had sex, but only with girls – you're not telling me that you're – you're a…" I couldn't actually say the word 'virgin'. It seemed too unbelievable.

Even more unbelievable: he blushed. It was cute. I was relieved when he said, "No, I'm not that inexperienced… I just haven't done it with another man, that's all."

"And you think I have?" I said, aghast.

He looked worried, then. "Aljoscha said that you and he -"

"Oh my God!" I collapsed back onto the mattress and put my hands over my eyes, shaking my head in denial. "No, no, no. And no. No matter what he says, we didn't do anything."

Christoph was still uncertain. "He said you did."

"He was so drunk he'd have thought that Helmut Kohl was fucking him. And I was unconscious - Flake will tell you. Aljoscha is a great bloke, but when he's pissed it's any port in a storm, and I was just a piece of ass rather than that guitar guy who plays in his band. He tried it on, I was passed out, he didn't get very far."

"I'm sorry. I got this all wrong, didn't I." He sounded sad and embarrassed, in roughly that order. "Although, um, I think you have a great ass."

It wasn't the greatest compliment I'd ever received, but he meant it, and yes, I was touched. And when I feel that way, I want to kiss the one handing out the compliments. That time I nearly got him, feeling the faintest whisper of his breath on my lips before he pulled away.

"Don't kiss me," he said, quietly but with steel.

"Why not?"

He dipped his head. "It's – it's too intimate."

I laughed out loud. "We've been friends for years and unless I dreamt it, you just jerked me off. How much more intimate do you want me to get?"

He blushed again, and wouldn't meet my gaze. "I just don't want to kiss you."

"Fine." I lay there with him next to me and wondered if the night could get any stranger; then I felt like a total bastard. Bloody Aljoscha had been playing us both for fools, but it was Schneider who'd taken the full brunt of his misplaced humour. Christ, what if I hadn't fancied him, and had punched him for coming on to me? Or worse, what if I'd been so hungry for sex that I'd have taken Schneider for all he had, with or without his consent?

It didn't bear thinking about. Fortunately my cock was thinking for me, and it seemed to like the idea of me taking Christoph, rolling him onto his back and ripping off those horrible clothes and then fucking him hard. I wasn't sure that that was a safe topic for me to pursue, considering that the whole man-man love thing was something I only had fifteen minutes' experience of, and so I cleared my throat and returned to a less provocative issue.

"I kissed your neck. And your ear."

"That's different."

I decided that if we were having this kind of discussion then I might as well be comfortable, and so I shucked off my ruined t-shirt and started to kick off my shoes. Christoph watched me without making a single move. I didn't want to freak him out entirely so I left my shorts on, although it felt a bit pointless considering that he'd already had a close encounter with my groin.

"Why is it different?" I persisted, settling back down on my side so I could look at him. "If I wanted to kiss your nose, would you let me?"

He seemed doubtful. "I guess."

I decided to test him, and so leaned forwards and placed the tiniest, gentlest kiss on the tip of his nose. He didn't jump off the bed and run away yelling, but he did close his eyes and tremble a little, as if he didn't quite trust me.

"And your eyes?" I asked, pushing my luck.

"That would be okay, too."

His voice sank to a husky whisper that had a strange effect on my insides, and a wholly predictable effect on my cock. Before he could change his mind, I put my lips to his eyelids, murmuring across the delicate skin there rather than kissing him. His eyelashes tickled my chin, and I smiled; I hoped he could feel the smile and would know how much pleasure this little task was giving me. Because it was – giving me pleasure, I mean. I'd never thought of Christoph as anything beyond our enthusiastic but ungroovy drummer, a tall lanky thing with dreadful taste in clothes and hair that I coveted, and now here I was, wanting to be… tender with him.

It was weird as hell, but like I said, it felt good.

"And what about here," I whispered, feathering my lips down from his eyelids to kiss the slope of those autocratic cheekbones, "and here," I added, kissing the curve of his jaw.

"It's – it's all right," he said, but his body was rigid with tension. I touched him, sliding a hand over around his waist and stroking along his spine. It seemed as if every muscle there was a knot, unyielding beneath my fingers no matter how I tried to coax relaxation from him.

"But not your mouth," I said softly. "I can't kiss your mouth."

"No. I don't want that." Even the words were stiff. I wondered if he was lying, protecting himself from danger – from me? I wasn't dangerous. I was a pussycat. I'd show him just how affectionate I could be.

"I can kiss you everywhere else?"

"Yes…"

As soon as he gave me permission, his fate was sealed. Oh, I like getting; but I love giving: and he was so ripe and tender that it roused the most urgent and untamed desires in me that I wanted to lavish on him. He'd wanted somebody 'experienced'. Well, I hadn't got the first clue what two men did together in bed, so I decided I'd let my senses take control and learn along with him. I can pretend to know more than I do. All it takes is enthusiasm and self-confidence.

I pulled him towards me and began to unbutton his shirt. Even then he favoured colours that suited him, burgundy and steel-blue and grey and black and cream, but back then he had a tendency to contrast them with shades that were nothing short of hideous. I remember his shirt had mint-green stripes. It was horrible. I was relieved when I'd wrestled him out of it, then I lost myself in discovering his body, feeling him lift his arms around me to hold me close as I kissed my way down his neck and over his chest.

He tasted good: a nervous muskiness with the sharper, more bitter edge of sweat, and then there was his cologne, all merged into one single note of harmony on his skin. I'd noticed how a woman's scent is different almost everywhere on her body, but with Christoph, the effect was more uniform, the scent only deepening where his sweat ran and sheened. I was so entranced by this difference that at first I didn't notice how turned-on he was getting. Unlike me, with my greedy thrusting for attention, he seemed shy; and it was only when I closed my mouth around one hard nipple that he squirmed, an incoherent sound escaping his lips, and I felt the full force of his erection against my thigh.

I wanted to investigate further. He'd had his hands all over mine, so now I wanted to feel his. It was weirdly thrilling, feeling it wedged tight between us and knowing that every time I slid down his body, kissing every inch as I went, he would flinch and gasp as if I was hurting him. I loved those noises he made. I wanted him to make more of them; wanted to hear him say my name in that deep, husky voice.

Without any finesse I stripped him naked, hurling his clothes onto the floor and watching him half-hide in the quilt. Not that he had anything to be ashamed of. I liked curvy women, and Christoph was slender and muscled – there couldn't have been a greater contrast, yet it excited me all the more. And his cock… I was glad I still had my shorts on, both for my own pride and also in case he decided to ram that monster up places that had only been tickled by a finger before.

But I was captivated by it: by his nakedness, his vulnerability and his trust in me. He was letting me do whatever I wanted, helpless in the face of his own desire and offering no resistance. A more potent aphrodisiac I'll never know. He let me touch him, whimpering slightly as I stroked the length of his erection; and then, when I'd finally worked up the courage to do it, I kissed it, and then parted my lips around it.

He thrust up then, so hard I nearly gagged; and I felt his hands on the back of my head. I mumbled a complaint through a mouthful of hard cock and he let me up slightly, enough that I could appreciate the strangeness of it all. The musky smell had thickened, as if it was trapped in the dark curls of hair between his thighs, and I wanted to taste it. Not his spunk – I was pretty sure that it all tasted the same, and I knew what my own tasted like – no, I wanted to taste from the deepest, darkest part of him.

I let his cock slide from my mouth, hearing him whine in complaint. I told him rather breathlessly to wank himself off, and when his hand closed around his shaft I lay with my head on his thighs, looking at him for a while in wonder. I loved the way his hand moved: slow, fast, fast, faster, slow – setting himself rhythms that teased his self-control. He was absolutely gorgeous to watch.

I rubbed myself against his leg, dry-humping it with as much class as a horny dog. I must have looked fucking stupid, with my topknot sticking up like an exclamation mark and long bleached-blond straggles working free to stick to my face, but right then I didn't care. I kissed his thigh and nuzzled up to bury my face between his legs, feeling his fingers blur against my fringe. It tugged sharp enough to bring tears to my eyes, but instead I concentrated on the incredible taste and texture of his balls beneath my nose and tongue. They were warmer than the skin on his belly and thighs, warmer even than his cock, and so I snuffled around them with interest, rolling them on my tongue and gently nipping at the skin. Christoph seemed to like it, jerking his hips towards me and panting and gasping with increasing fervency.

And then I went lower, nosing beneath his balls until the tip of my tongue found what it was looking for: that soft patch of skin where all those nerve-endings lie. I knew I'd got it when he yelled, almost bucking off the bed; and then he spread his thighs wider and pulled me towards him desperately, hooking his feet over my shoulders so I could get at him. I nearly went lower still, wondering what it would be like to lick out his arsehole; but I was getting such a good reaction from what I was doing that I didn't want to spoil things. Instead I found my own rhythm, dabbing and licking and teasing with my tongue across his perineum until he was crying out loud, frantic to come.

I nearly missed his plea for me to suck his cock, so intent was I on tormenting him that little bit more; but then he'd grabbed my topknot and dragged up my head, forcing me down even as he writhed snake-like beneath me to get us both into a better position. For the second time that night I found my mouth full, and I recognised the change in taste and hardness, knowing that I was about to be flooded with his spunk.

I was right. It does basically taste the same. Bitter, acrid, salty, you name it… and then it struck me: what was I supposed to do now? Run to the bathroom and spit it out, or…?

I swallowed it. Like I said, it was a learning experience for me, too.

I lay on top of him with my head against his chest, feeling the sweat running between us, keeping our bodies damp and slippery. No friction, just the way I like it. I could easily have gone to sleep with him there, but as I listened to his breathing and felt the slowing of his heartbeat, I knew he was going to say something to shatter my little idyll.

"Is this serious?" he asked at last.

I moved further up the bed and nuzzled at his hair, loving its softness against my face. "Fatal," I replied. "No cure. Zero chance at recovery."

He stirred, unsticking himself from me so that the cool air chilled my body where he'd lain. "I mean this. Us. This."

I considered carefully. "You were the one who started it. What did you want?"

He looked bewildered. "I… was curious."

"Curiosity killed the cat," I reminded him. "But they have nine lives. You just used one. You can't go back and change that."

"I don't want to." He curled up beside me, one hand on my chest possessively. "Can we – maybe – can we do this again?"

I put my hand over his, moving my fingers gently. I liked touching him. I liked the smell of him, too; and his warmth, and the way his body fitted against mine. I decided that I liked him a hell of a lot better when he was naked in my bed than when he was wearing his stupid clothes and arguing with me over the best place to bridge a song. I buried my face in his hair and breathed him in, knowing my answer long before I said it aloud.

"Yes," I murmured, "but one day, Christoph Schneider, I want to kiss you. Really kiss you. On the mouth. And I'll do it."

He stilled for a moment at that, and then said softly, "The day you do that, I'll lose another life. But by then, I don't suppose I'll care."

And that was it. So simple, really – like falling off a bike. Only falling in love is much more dangerous, and life doesn't equip you with stabilisers, either. If I'd known then what it would have meant to both of us in the future, would I have done the same thing? Yes. Absolutely. I said from the start it was all down to a game… and that game was loaded against us, and already won before we ever began our moves.

I wouldn't change a thing.

***

~3~
[Till]

He runs into silence, and then sighs, shaking himself out of memory with the softest hint of a smile in my direction. I've forgotten to swing on my chair even once during the course of his narrative, and so I do it now, back and forth, clunk-scrape.

Paul's smile fades into a twist of annoyance. "For fuck's sake."

"Just making myself comfortable," I tell him.

He stands up, and immediately I stop. "Hey. Where're you going?"

He gestures towards his room. "I'm thirsty. I need a drink."

"Oh. Okay. Bring me one, too."

"Get your own." He vanishes through the french windows and I wait for him to come back, thinking on what he's just said. I was half-hoping that his first time with Schneider had been boring and pointless, the way most first times usually are; maybe then I'd have lost interest in this whole exercise. Trust them to have been all starry-eyed from the word go. Well, Paul, at any rate. I decide that hindsight is a beautiful thing and that we always prefer our history golden, untouchable beneath the patina of age.

Except mine lurks raw beneath a covering of mould.

Before I can depress myself too much, Paul returns with a glass of water for himself and a can of beer for me. I look at it suspiciously, then pop the tab and wait for the froth to die down before I drink.

"You not drinking, drinking?" I ask mildly, taking a swig.

He grins. "That stuff tastes like piss. I wouldn't sully my tongue with it."

"Especially not after talking about the delectable Christoph." I take another draught. He's right – it does taste like piss. American beer is shocking. "I hope you're not planning on getting me drunk."

"On that? You'd need a dumper-truck full of it." He sits down on the edge of his chair and takes tiny, bird-like sips from his glass. I watch his mouth and remember the way he described going down on Schneider, and wonder if he'd be as curious and gentle with me. Uh. I shift in my chair and he scowls at me again, thinking I'm doing it to annoy him.

"Come on then," he sighs, resigned; and for one giddy moment I think that he's read my mind and is agreeing to fuck. Stupid me, of course he isn't. He's just looking at me patiently, waiting for me to tell him a story in return.

"What do you want to know?" I ask, suddenly reluctant to recall my night with Schneider. It seems so base and distasteful after the sweetness and light of Paul's memory.

He leans his arms on the railings of his balcony and gives me a speculative look. "You promised you'd tell me."

"Yeah. Maybe I changed my mind," I say, finishing the beer and pushing back my chair. "I need to take a piss. Back in a minute."

He just waits, eyebrows slightly raised as if he knows the reason for my reticence. I blunder into my room and turn the lights up as I head for the bathroom. Once in there, I do my business and then stare at my reflection in the mirror above the sink. I look tired. Worse: I look old. Old enough to know better. I shouldn't be baiting Paul. I've got nothing to gain from it… except, maybe, the truth.

I wash my hands and flick water at my image. I'll tell him. I go back outside, snagging a bottle of whiskey from the sideboard and dumping it down on the table on the balcony, and then I sit, take a pull straight from the bottle, and start my tale.

***

You'll remember when it happened, of course. I don't suppose any of us will forget, even now, even though the memories are fading. Mine won't change: I can remember that night with the most incredible clarity – and with a certain amount of regret. Oh, don't frown at me. Not that kind of regret: sometimes I like to think of myself as a successor to Piaf, a vulture to her sparrow; but no, not that kind of regret. I just have the feeling that, had you and Richard not been involved in all this, then maybe Christoph and I could have been… something more than just one night. But I don't know: I'll never know.

Thinking back on it, it's amazing we didn't kill one another. Maybe, in my hypothetical little world, if we'd stayed together, then by now one of us would be dead. Probably me; and that's probably how it should be.

But I digress, and so soon, too…

America, then. The after-show party, with you all dressed in black with the silly red hat on your head, and Christoph looking sleek and dangerous in grey and black. I was just standing in a corner of the room, bored and numb and half-listening to the girl on my right who was fluttering her eyelashes and touching my arm as she tried very hard not to mangle the German language. I can't say I wasn't wholly appreciative of her efforts, but it was more interesting to watch the rest of you. Richard was doing more or less the same thing, occasionally glancing over at me and smiling across the heads of our pretty sycophants. Olli was bending low to let a girl whisper in his ear, and Flake was being Flake – drunk and overlooked.

Christoph was absolutely wired. God knows what he'd had, but it was more than alcohol. I remember how he was on Malta, a playful wasted wreck; and if there was one thing he hated more than being cooped up in a recording studio, then it was being cooped up in a tour-bus. I think we could all recognise the symptoms, but it didn't mean that all of us had to like it. Me, I thought it was amusing… I like it when he gets silly, and I hadn't seen him act silly for a long time.

So there he was, bouncing around and talking too fast and generally acting up for the sake of the film crew that were with us. He was unstoppable, so charming and flirty and – well, naïve, I guess. And when you went past him to get a drink, he chirruped something at the camera and grabbed hold of you by the waist, pulling you back against him and dry-humping your arse, all the while giggling madly. You held onto your drink, looking like you wished you weren't there, kind of sad and pissed off at the same time.

Richard was spluttering into his drink. I admit I was looking at him rather than at the conclusion to Christoph's mauling of you, but then I overheard you talking:

"Calm down, you're strange," you said snappishly, and he whooped.

"What's wrong with strange? You usually like it -"

"Piss off, Chrissy. I'm not in the mood."

"Ooh, come on… I can get you in the mood…"

By this point, I was sufficiently interested to turn my gaze back at the two of you, and I was fascinated by what I saw. Hell, we all knew the pair of you fooled around sometimes – I'd heard you talking dirty to him in the bunks more often than I can remember – but I'd not seen either of you look like this. Chris had got you backed into a corner and had his hands all over you, oblivious to the fans and the film crew. He looked like he was trying to wind his way around you like a clinging vine, and you were so irritated you just kept slapping him down. Of course it made the whole thing look less serious than it was, but I could see the expression in his eyes, and I knew what he was trying to do.

"Get the fuck off me!" you told him, pushing away his groping hands. "I fucking mean it, you twat – not now!"

He stumbled backwards with a pout, still giggling. "Aw, Pauly – I thought you cared -"

"Not when you're like this," you said then. "I hate it when you're like this."

The look on his face made my heart stop. You had no idea; you just shoved past him and went to join Flake on the other side of the room and started chatting up some girls. But I saw, and before he could do anything stupid, I had abandoned the one-sided conversation next to me and was across the room, gripping his elbow and steering him out into the night air.

"Let go," he said, trying to shake me off. "Fuck off, Till – let go -"

I let go. We came to a stop in the shadow of a truck, and for want of anything better to do, I offered him a cigarette. He took one and I lit it, then did the same to mine, and we stood there in silence for a while, breathing in smoke and the dry heat of midnight.

"Paul's a wanker," Christoph said at last.

"You only just noticed?"

He snorted and started giggling again.

I blew out a puff of smoke, squinting slightly at the shape it formed. I'd been trying to teach myself how to blow smoke-rings. Richard could do it and I was jealous of him. He made it look so cool, whereas all I managed to produce was a smoke-jellyfish.

"What's going on with you two, anyway?" I asked, abandoning the attempt.

"Nothing." Christoph scuffed at the ground and threw down his cigarette half-smoked. It glowed for a second and we both stared at it; then he stamped on it, hard, and crushed it into the dust. "He's a wanker," he stated again. "Telling me what to do. Being so fucking judgmental."

"I don't think that's what it was," I said carefully.

"He said he hated me." His voice was climbing higher in anger and despair.

"He didn't, Chris -"

And then he faced me, his eyes glittering insanely. "You don't hate me, do you, Till?"

I remember thinking that I had to keep a lid on this, so I stubbed out my cigarette on the side of the truck and said soothingly, "Of course I don't hate you. Look, whatever it is between the two of you, it can be sorted out…"

But he wasn't listening. Instead he buried both hands in his hair and moaned as if in pain, saying brokenly: "I feel so trapped. I hate it."

This worried me sufficiently to go over to him and pat his shoulder awkwardly. "It'll be okay," I mumbled, not knowing why he felt trapped: because of Paul, being on tour, or something else entirely.

He stilled at my touch, taking his hands from his head and looking at me weirdly. "I want to lose control."

My mouth went dry. "Control?" I repeated stupidly.

Christoph smiled, lifting his chin so he could glitter at me; and as the harsh orange lights caught his face, revealing the aristocratic – autocratic – lines and the wicked, tempting hauteur he could do so well, I knew what he was offering.

"You like control, don't you," he purred.

I wish I could say that I had some witty rejoinder, but all I can remember is standing there with my jaw dropped open and a fizzing, heady sense of transgression wriggling gleefully around my body. Yes, I liked it. No: I craved it – but I'd only done it with women, and on my terms, stipulated and paid for beforehand. The idea of having a male dom had never crossed my mind until that moment, and the fact that it was Schneider only made it more hellishly appealing.

I think I said something like "Uh", which he took as consent. We started walking, him ahead of me with his spine ramrod straight, his arse neatly tucked in and a way of moving that reminded me of soldiers in a parade-ground. I kept forgetting he'd done time as a squaddie. That night all he needed was a pair of jack-boots to trample my heart and I swear I'd have been his willing slave forever.

In the hotel room he let me turn on the lights, but stood close to the door. He made me nervous, and when I get nervous I get clumsy.

"Drink?" I suggested, more to break the silence than from any real need.

He nodded, still silent, still standing there.

My hand was shaking as I poured two straight double measures of vodka. I knocked mine back right away, then picked up the second glass and walked over to Christoph, holding it out.

He took it without a word of thanks, raised it to his lips, pinning me with his gaze, and then he dashed the vodka full in my face.

I heard the glass hit the floor. I couldn't see. The vodka burned at my eyes and I was blinking rapidly to clear them, swearing under my breath and trying to dry myself off on my shirt sleeve, but that all stopped when he snapped: "Shut up."

I lowered my arm and looked at him. My eyes were blurry with tears from the vodka, so his expression seemed vague to me, but his tone of voice brooked no disobedience. I wondered if he'd done this before, or if he was just playing, taking out his anger.

He stepped forwards and trod on the shot glass, cracking it under his heel; then he moved back again and nodded at the shards that glittered on the carpet. "Clean that up. We don't want to hurt you now, do we?"

Predictably, I whimpered at the word 'hurt'. I dropped down onto my knees and started to pick up the slivers of glass, half-watching him as he did so. I'd just collected a small mound of glass in one hand when he walked over and put his foot on top of my other hand, which was engaged in seeking out the remaining shards. He put just enough pressure on my hand to make me uncurl it and lay it flat on the carpet, and then he rocked forwards, sending all his weight through to crush it.

I gasped as I felt the pricking of the glass slivers beneath my palm, and forced myself to stay on my knees when he slowly crouched down and lifted my head, twisting his hand into my hair and pulling so hard it tore at my scalp.

Christoph looked at me. I had the oddest impression that he wasn't actually looking at me at all: but it was swiftly gone when he carelessly let go and instead reached down for the belt of my trousers. I experienced a moment of disappointment, thinking that that was all he'd give me – and then he tugged at the buckle and the leather slid, whispering softly, from the loops of fabric.

He stood again, stepping back; and the belt uncoiled and tickled over my thigh. A more teasing caress I don't know, and its subtle, dangerous promise made me hard in an instant.

Tilting his head, he considered me with detachment. I knew he could see my cock straining at my trousers, because he smiled – a cold smile, so unlike the usual silly perky Christoph smile I was used to – and then he ordered softly, "Strip."

He hadn't given me permission to get off my knees, so I hurriedly took off my shirt and then, with difficulty, rid myself of trousers and boxers and socks and shoes. As I struggled with my clothes, I was aware of the aching in the palm of my left hand, where pieces of glass had dug into my skin. There was blood – tiny sharp points of it dotting the pinkened blooms of injured flesh – and I wanted to lift my hand to my lips to taste it.

I crouched naked at his feet, shivering slightly as he looked at me with interest. I didn't know how much of his regard was genuine and which was part of the act – if indeed this was an act. Usually when I played these games I knew exactly what I was getting; with Schneider it was unrehearsed and ambiguous… and that's what excited me the most.

He looked at my erection and moved the belt so that it trailed up my thigh and swung back and forth over the tip of my cock. It didn't hurt, it was done so lightly; but I took a breath and tilted my hips forward so that more of the end of the belt was rubbing against me. I gazed up at him, admiring his stance and the way he kept the belt moving just enough to tantalise, and then I whispered his name desperately.

He hit me, then. I remember the snap of the belt as it curled back; the pause as I waited for it to strike; and the way I turned my head so that when it fell, the strap cracked across my cheek and whipped over my lips. I can still feel the edge of pain as it split my lip: sharp, teasing, intoxicating…

Blood like a glory broke from my mouth, rich and dark and red and oh, so sweet. It flooded me, the coppery taste tingling at my senses and making me swallow it slowly. Dear God, it felt so good, and so I shouted at him to do it again.

But he didn't. Denial is the ultimate torment. He bent over to examine his handiwork, fright dying at the back of his eyes when he realised that yes, I was enjoying this – and so he pressed his fingers against my lips, mashing them back against my teeth until I made a tiny crying sound in the back of my throat. Then he took his hand away, holding my gaze as he licked delicately at the blood that stained his fingers.

It nearly killed me, seeing that. I shuffled towards him on my knees, half-afraid that he'd finish the game there and half-wanting to finish it myself and kiss him. But a sub never kisses his dom, and I was under just enough of a spell of lust to adhere to the rules. I did push it though, risking a touch and sliding my hands up over his thighs, feeling the muscles clench and flinch, and then I buried my head against his belly, gasping in his scent: cologne and sweat and excited fear.

"Get off me! Get off me!" he shouted, and suddenly it was no longer a game: it was a punishment, just as I'd always dreamed of it. With a woman - well, she has to know what she's doing to inflict pain. But with a man – with Christoph… he knew. Almost instinctively. And he could wield that belt like nobody else. Drummer's arms, I suppose, plus all that rage that just… spilled out of him.

I don't know how many times he hit me, but I remember that each lash was glorious. I remember the sting across my back and shoulders, and saw the welts he raised on my thighs. When he started to draw blood, I was his completely… I remember begging him until I was choked and hoarse, my speech a jumble of confusion and filth, the most obscene word of all being love. I remember his face, the terrible, terrible anger that made his eyes shine so bright; and then I had to bow down before him, curled up to protect my erection from the belt. And I remember coming, my hands clamped tight over my cock and the semen spurting hotly between my fingers onto the carpet while I squeezed my eyes shut and cried the word that always, always springs to my lips whenever I indulge myself that way.

The silence afterwards was so profound that I was afraid.

Slowly I looked up from the position of debasement, and found that he was staring at me – not with horror, as I'd expected; nor pity, which I would have abhorred – but with the saddest, most gentle understanding I'd ever seen.

And that was much, much worse.

He watched me as I got to my feet and went to the bathroom to clean myself up. I winced when I saw just how heavy-handed he'd been, but I'd wanted it, and I'd loved every second of it. I was running cold water into the basin, wondering how best I could ask him if he'd mind doing that again sometime, when I heard him push at the door.

He leaned against the wall, his gaze flicking over the damage he'd caused, and I realised he was shivering. I assumed it was with reaction to what we'd just done – an adrenaline rush – but then he tugged at my arm and I turned around properly, and realised I was wrong.

"Fuck me," he said, and his eyes were ferocious with need. "I gave you what you wanted. Now do the same for me."

I couldn't quite equate the shift in his character. A moment ago, I thought I'd found my perfect dom. Now I understood there was something much more complicated going on. But I did as he asked, automatically trying to kiss him and receiving another slap around the face for my presumption; and that's when things got blurred and crazy. Somehow between the bathroom and the bed, he looped the belt around my throat and used it as a leash to drag me towards him. I don't think he let go of it once during the whole time we were fucking.

I say fucking because that's precisely what it was. If he'd been tender and careful with me before – it seems so strange to say that, but he was, he took care of what I needed – well, now he was vicious and wild, and the fact that I was already raw made it twice as enjoyable for me, too. I guess it's the first time in my life that I was both sub and dom at the same time… a dominant sub, I suppose. It was weird: alien and kind of distasteful but unbelievably horny, and he was like a creature possessed – shouting at me, yelling at me, exhorting me to be every bit as violent as he was himself.

Towards the end of it, when I'd run out of words and was just satisfied with shafting him, I watched him claw at the headboard with the hand that wasn't gripping the belt, and I watched the slow tears crawl down his face.

"Oh God," he howled, and it was so anguished that my heart broke right there and then, "Paul - oh God -"

A long time afterwards we sat half-dressed next to each other on the ravaged bedsheets and shared a cigarette in complete silence. As soon as it had been smoked down to the butt, he put out his hand and stroked my face, gave me a small smile, and then left.

I was still trying to understand what the fuck had just happened when there was a knock at the door. I sat on the end of the bed and hoped whoever it was would go away. No such luck. The door opened, and Flake ventured in. He looked as disturbed as I felt, so I just waited for him to start.

He looked at the bruise across my face and my split lip and the blood on the sheets behind me, and then he said, "I couldn't help but overhear…"

I ran a hand through my hair and then over my face to scrub hard at my jaw. "Yeah? And did you hear anything interesting?"

He came closer. "It's not like I haven't heard you fucking before," he started, breaking off to touch a timid finger to my damaged face. "Jesus, you're a mess."

"Girls don't usually hit back," I said wryly. "Not unless I pay them."

Flake smiled slightly at that. "So who was he?"

I sighed heavily. "Christoph."

"Ho, fuck! You idiot!" To my surprise, he started giggling. It's always nice to know that I cause such pleasure for others. "Oh, man – how'd you do it?"

I frowned at him, not in the mood for stupidity. "What d'you mean? He came on to me, I let him; he did me some service and I extended the same courtesy to him. I'm sure you understand how two human beings fuck without me spelling it out."

"No, no," Flake said, suddenly sobering up. "Not the technicalities. I could hear what you were doing to each other… I just don't understand how you always manage to pick the one person that means causing the most upset to the most people. It's very Utilitarian of you, you know."

And then I looked at him properly and saw the mischief in his expression, and like a fool I bit: "What the fuck are you talking about? Chris is a free agent."

"He was shouting Paul's name."

I really didn't want to think about that. "Yeah, and sometimes I call on God when I come; it doesn't mean that the Lord has any claim on me. They had a fling, I don't know, it obviously meant nothing or else -"

"Or else Paul would keep Schneider locked away in a box?"

"Look," I said, getting angry because it was better than feeling guilty, "I am not a fucking marriage guidance counsellor. If they have problems, it's not my fault."

"No. You'll just take what's offered and to hell with the consequences."

"Whose side are you on, anyway?"

"My own. I just can't stand to see the four of you act like a bunch of miserable twats just because you couldn't keep your dick under control."

"My -? It was bloody Christoph who started it!" I shouted, off the bed and backing Flake into the wall before I knew what I was doing. "And what do you mean by 'the four of you'? Who else is involved in this, huh? Obviously not you, since you're so fucking perfect – oh, is it Olli? Is he in love with Schneider, too?"

Flake pursed his lips in distaste as I crowded him, and then, with utmost finesse and calm, he pushed me away with a contemptuous finger.

"Olli has more taste than that," he informed me in his most infuriatingly bored tone. "I meant Richard. For some reason none of us can fathom, he's rather keen on you, you ignorant Neanderthal. But I'd say you've screwed up your chances there good and proper. Next time, choose your fuck better – or at least one that isn't a screamer. I should think the whole floor heard Chris. Goodnight, Till – sleep tight."

And he pushed past me and left, closing the door firmly behind him, and I was left leaning against the wall feeling like an utter bastard; and worse than that – I felt completely and utterly alone.

***

I finish my story and sit there with my arms hanging over the railing, my gaze fixed on the floor of his balcony somewhere in the region of his feet. It takes a whole lot of silence and then the sudden whoop and blare of a fire engine's siren on the street below for me to realise that Paul is holding my hands tightly.

I sniff and look up, to see the same expression in his eyes that Christoph wore that night five years ago. I really should've known better. There's no point in me trying to make Paul, or any of them, disgusted with me, because it just doesn't work like that.

Damn them all to hell.

His fingers squeeze mine. "Why did you tell me?"

"I don't know."

He's patient. "Why, Till?"

I should really disentangle my hands and get another drink. I feel sort of shellshocked in the aftermath of confession. But I sit there unmoving and feel the warmth of his affection, and so I say eventually: "Because I wanted you to know."

There's another silence. I break it clumsily, asking, "Does he ever – I mean, with you – does he…?"

Paul smiles. "He doesn't need to."

"I suppose I just wanted to prove to you that… that a man can act differently – very differently – depending upon the company he keeps," I say lamely.

"I know." He tilts his head to one side questioningly. "I suppose I can guess what the word is, the one you always say -"

I shiver, conscious of having said too much. "You can guess. You'll probably guess right anyway," and my voice breaks at the end of the sentence.

"Till." He sounds so concerned; and then he's on his feet and leaning across the little gap between our balconies, wrapping his arms around me. I put my head on his shoulder and shiver some more, feeling his hands stroke my back. He smells of sleep and safety, and for a moment I miss Richard – my sanctuary - so much so that it hurts far deeper than this current crop of shit that I've stirred up.

He turns his head against mine and kisses my hair. I snuffle something into his shoulder and manage to say, "This isn't some lame-ass way to try and get a sympathy fuck."

I feel him smile again. "I know. I don't do sympathy fucks, anyway."

My turn to laugh, albeit very shakily; and then I begin to draw back, suddenly uncomfortable with the fact that he's holding me. Funny, really: this started off as a harmless flirtation (is there really such a thing, I wonder?), and all I wanted from it was to see if I could seduce Paul. A fairly low occupation of my time, when all's said and done.

He lets me go, but halts me before I can pull away completely; and then he kisses me. Just the once, without passion; but with curiosity and love.

I sit down heavily. "Damn."

"And I'm telling Chris about that," he says with a grin, uncurling himself from the railings and settling back into his own seat.

"Probably for the best," I agree. "Paul… when was the first time you kissed him? Properly kissed him?"

He quirks an eyebrow. "Haven't you had enough of stories for one night?"

"Yes. But I'd like to hear a happy ending."

"Very well. Listen…"

***

~4~
[Paul]

 

It was the middle of August and I had a cold. Not just any old cold, but the kind of bastard that sits on your chest and drains the life out of you. I blamed it on the tour. Usually I don't get colds, but – I'd been at a pretty low ebb ever since the day when I stopped the bus in the middle of Nevada and had stormed out onto that great empty stretch of road with every intention of walking to Las Vegas rather than sit for another second with Christoph trying to justify what he'd done. Maybe that was what had given me the cold, standing on the road surrounded by joshua trees and with Richard chasing after me, trying to calm me down. I don't know. I remember he was angry too, not at me for a change, but at you… I think he was angry that you'd hurt yourself, not that you'd fucked Chris. And I was mad at myself, for all kinds of reasons. Anyway. That's not important.

We ended back home, where the sniffle I'd been incubating suddenly turned into a monster. Just add Berlinerluft. The last thing I wanted to do was play at the Wuhlheide, but somehow I managed to stay on my feet for the first night. Before the show on the second night, I was tuning in my guitar accompanied by a stunning range of hacking coughs when I heard his voice.

"Paul."

I sneezed in response and fumbled on the table for the box of tissues that Flake had produced from somewhere. The box had been a third empty and I knew he hadn't had a cold, so I was wary of thinking too much about where the tissues had come from. I snuffled into the tissue and whined faintly when one of my ears popped. It hurt. I hate having a cold.

"Paul?"

I balled up the tissue and threw it at the bin in the corner. "What?"

I hadn't really spoken to him since Nevada. Oh, I'm so childish sometimes, but I'm crap at bearing a grudge – I don't have the effort to sustain it – so if I'm upset with someone, then you know me, I act like a spoiled brat and sulk. It tends to work.

Christoph edged into my line of vision. He looked good enough to eat. That stage outfit of his did funny things to my brain: all satin and patches of leather and heavy cotton, black and silver and the cage effect along his arms. I'd admired it in a passing way before, of course, but it had only been since he was off-limits that I'd really started to notice it. I guess you're right about denial being the ultimate torment. As soon as I'd declared in front of everyone in Nevada that I never wanted him near me again, I fell hopelessly in lust with him all over again.

But the hell was I going to admit that to him.

So there he was, all perfect and divine in front of me, and to hide my reaction I fiddled with the box of tissues and blew my nose again. "What?" I repeated when he didn't do anything but stand there staring at me with this weird expression on his face. He looked nervous. Despite being all made-up and beautiful, he reminded me of the lanky twenty-five year old with the horrible clothes and the long streaky curls who'd once seduced me with his innocence.

And I think he knew what was in my mind, because then he said softly, "I want – I want you to kiss me."

"I have a cold." I was probably too stunned to be rational.

"Then you can pass it on to me, too."

"Why now?"

"It doesn't have to be this instant." He was getting fidgety, stepping his weight from one foot to the other.

I blinked at him, my cold forgotten for the moment. "No, I mean: why now, after everything that's happened?"

"I just… I need it. Please."

Something told me to reject him. He'd hurt me, and I'd hurt him, and we'd both hurt each other – and now he was offering this. He's a proud man: I knew what it must be costing him. I fought with my conscience for approximately ten seconds. If he needed it, then God knows I was desperate for it. I believe in trying everything once, but some things deserve a second chance.

I tried to be cool, though.

"All right," I said. "After the show. Don't get changed."

He looked puzzled. "Why not?"

I got up, taking the box of tissues with me. "Because I want to kiss all that make-up off you."

And he blushed. I love it when he blushes. I grinned at him and picked up my guitar, and wandered off feeling ninety percent better.

After the concert I took him home and led him up onto the roof overlooking the city. There were still a few trains shunting and rattling through Eberswaldestrasse and the lights wended their way up Schönhaus Allee and Danzigerstrasse, the three points of the TV tower balanced by Nikolaikirche darker than the night. I went to the railings and leaned against them, turning my back on the city so I could look instead at him.

"You want to do it here?"

I shrugged. "Sure. It's romantic, isn't it?"

Christoph looked at my collection of potted plants and the ironwork table and chairs and seemed doubtful. He'd been here many times before, but with his stage costume on, he looked so very out of place, and even more nervous than before.

"You're making this into a really big deal."

"Yep."

"Pauly, please don't."

"I've waited six years to kiss you properly. Of course it's a big deal."

He shuffled his feet and admired a small hedge of box with more attention than it deserved. "Um. I'm here."

I smiled. "I know."

"Paul…"

Now he was pleading. I took pity and went towards him, feeling his arms go around me as I fitted myself tight to his body. The leather on his outfit creaked and I could feel the dampness of the satin where he'd sweat right through it. He smelled of exhaustion and need; and I had to stop myself from taking what I'd so wanted for so long.

"You have to kiss me," I explained. "So I know this is what you really want."

"I do want it," he protested.

"But if you decide later that you didn't, then you could blame me…"

Again he blushed, this time ashamed. "I won't. It means too much now."

We drifted into silence, just holding one another.

"You're trembling," I murmured at length.

"I'm cold!"

I snorted in disbelief and tightened my arms around him. "Bollocks."

"All right – okay… I'm scared. Is that better?"

I stroked his arms through the cage of his outfit and he shivered some more. "I'm not asking you to marry me…"

"No. It's worse than that. Ugh. Sorry. It's – it's just -"

"Hey. Maybe I should ask you to marry me then, if you'll feel easier."

He gave a strangled laugh. "Don't take the piss."

"I'm not."

And so he kissed me.

I wish I could describe it to you, but I can't. It's funny. I can spend hours talking about the most useless crap known to man, but when it comes to describing the way he kissed me that night – and the way I kissed him, too – I can't do it.

I remember that suddenly, passion came from nowhere and we couldn't get enough of each other. I remember him dragging me down from the garden and into the apartment until we collapsed across the floor, me on top of him and him squirming beneath me, neither of us breaking the kiss. Then he went very still and shuddered, holding onto me tightly, and he whimpered against my mouth long enough for me to register what had happened.

Reluctantly I stopped kissing him then to stare at him in astonishment. "Was that – did you…?"

He snuffled with laughter, blushing with pleasure this time. "Yes."

"Holy fuck. I'm irresistible!" I was flattered beyond all measure, and so I kissed him again, and kept kissing him all the way to the bedroom. We managed to get undressed and rolled beneath the duvet, pressing against each other and still kissing frantically.

He slid a hand down my belly and reached for my cock, but I stopped him. "No shagging," I said. "For tonight, just kisses."

He groaned. "You're cruel."

"Chrissy, we have six years of kisses to catch up on. I'm not stinting on this."

"Bully."

But he was pleased. And so we continued kissing, until sometime around 4.30am I raised my head, my jaw aching and my face scratched by the prickles of his stubble, and I looked down at him. I'd managed to achieve what I'd set out to do - namely, to kiss off all his make-up – and now there was kohl and silvery and grey stuff smeared randomly over me, him, and the sheets. But I looked at him and smiled, and said: "I love the way you taste."

He put a hand behind my neck possessively. "Say that again."

I did so, slowly, looking into his eyes as I said it. "I love the way you taste."

And as a statement of intent, I couldn't get much clearer.

***

~5~
[Till]

Paul breaks off his narration there as, somewhere inside his room, his mobile starts ringing. He flashes me a quick glance then patters away to answer it, coming back out onto the balcony as if to check that I'm still okay.

"Hey, you. We were just talking about you."

His voice softens and he tilts his head to cradle the 'phone more closely, as if by doing so he can embrace the voice that murmurs in his ear. I wonder if he realises just how soppy he looks. I could tell him, but I bet he wouldn't care. Then I wonder if I look as dumb as that when Richard calls me.

I hope to God that I don't. I'd have to shoot myself, otherwise.

Now I want him to ring me, so I can stand in front of a mirror and check. Damn it! I glance at my watch and try to calculate the time difference to New York. Maybe I can call him. I try to remember if he's ever looked soppily at me. Richard always looks soppy, though, even if he's staring at Flake or his fretboard or his dinner. Maybe he loves everything equally, I don't know.

Should I care?

Yes, I should. Paul cares. And so does Christoph.

I slide the french windows shut and lie on the bed for a while, staring at the ceiling. The dawn is only an hour or so off: the sky is lightening already. It makes the walls and ceiling buzz and fluff with greyness. I reflect on what I've learned on the other side of midnight, and for a moment I wish I could be a part of Paul and Christoph's relationship.

Then I give up and reach for the 'phone, wondering if I can deal with my own. The number I know by heart, and I listen to the transatlantic echo on the line before the ring-tone kicks in. He answers on the third ring.

"Till?"

I'm surprised. "How did you know it was me?"

"I'm psychic."

His voice is warm and rich and soft, even across the divide of distance; and as I sink back into the quilt, I catch a glimpse of myself in the wardrobe mirror.

I was right. I do look soppy.

Oh well. I can live with that.