Walk With Me - Part 3
Somehow, by some supreme effort, Anton was able to keep his composure until he reached the kitchen. Once there he stood, listening, until the door snicked shut behind him and the smothering silence folded in around him, confirming that he was alone, that Alex had not followed. Only then could he let go the breath he had been holding. Only then did he allow himself to consider what had just taken place.
Alex had feelings for him. He may not have been specific about their nature, but Anton prided himself on his intuition and right now it was telling him that these unspecified feelings ran far deeper than the simple respect of one professional for another, as he had misguidedly assumed. Alex cared. How much, and in what way, had yet to be determined, but the important thing was - he cared. The connection that Anton had longed for, yet had always believed unattainable, had become a reality and, if nothing else, it might yet prove to be a foundation upon which they could build. Only time would tell.
His hands were shaking: he pressed them down on the faux marble worktop and leaned his weight on them to still them. A feeling of exultation was bubbling deep inside him, making him want to laugh out loud, to shout it from the rooftops that Alex Adams cared about him. Common sense intervened, however, warning him that it was too soon for celebration. Caution was needed, the future poised between two extremes. To move too slowly might cause Alex to think him reluctant to develop their relationship, but to take things too quickly, to push too hard, might just as easily tip the fulcrum in the other direction and scare him off. To make this work, to allow them even the smallest chance of success, Anton knew that it fell to him to find that perfect balance.
The door opened, the bottom hinge giving its customary squeal of protest. Keeping his back to the room, Anton waited, allowing Alex space to make the first move.
The formality of the greeting was a verbal slap across the rawness of Anton's emotions, but he forced aside his disappointment, conscious of the incertitude in Alex's voice. Apparently, he was not the only one who needed time to absorb the situation.
"I'm sorry," Alex continued. "I can't... I don't understand what you want from me."
"What I want?" It was not the opening Anton had expected. He looked up, tipping back his head to stare blindly at the clock hanging on the wall above the counter, as if all the answers were to be found in its polished cherry wood face. What should he say? How could he respond to the despondency he could hear flowing through the words? He wanted to keep things moving forward, yet Alex's simple statement belied his earlier admission and suggested that Anton himself might have got it wrong, that they were in fact travelling in opposite directions.
He could prevaricate, of course, devise some neutral response that would diffuse an awkward moment. If he tried, he could explain the whole thing away by claiming that he had only been inviting Alex to join him in relaxing certain protocols, now that they were no longer working together. Putting things on a first-name basis was what friends did - wasn't it? - and surely Alex could believe that, at the very least, he wanted them to part as friends.
More deception, more lies, hiding his truths behind a facade yet again and all in the cause of acceptability. Would it never change? Would the men in his life never be anything other than 'just good friends'? He had let so many slip through his fingers over the years, one more hardly seemed significant. Except - this one was special. From the moment Alex Adams had first set foot on Darwin Ward, Anton had felt a certain affinity with him that he had searched for, but never experienced with a colleague before. There had been conflict, of course, differences of opinion over surgical techniques, and the persistent problem of Alex's infuriating over-enthusiasm, his fervent desire to run before he could walk, to question and, sometimes, to take chances where experience would counsel caution. Yet, through it all, Anton had felt that there was a particular bond between them. Their professional opinions might clash on occasion, but when the outside world turned against them they closed ranks, time and again.
Had Alex's loyalty been inherent, no more than an intrinsic part of his character, then perhaps Anton would not have been drawn to it in the same way. But it was not. Alex had demonstrated, time and again, that his allegiance was not placed thoughtlessly, as a mindless following of authority or something born out of a sense of duty. Had that been the case, working with Alistair Taylor and Tom Campbell-Gore would not have presented him with the kinds of problems he had cited. No, as far as Alex Adams was concerned, loyalty, like trust and respect, had to be earned. Anton knew he should have felt pride that he had been able to instil such feelings in a man like Alex, but instead he felt only humility - an alien concept to a man like Anton Meyer, yet one that, in this instance, he had been unable to avoid.
It was Alex's loyalty, and his own response to it, that had set their relationship apart from all others and made Anton want to take things to a more personal level, one that he now realised transcended mere physical desire. He had desired those who had gone before, had cared for some in a small way, but it had never been like this, all-consuming, blinding him to reason and common sense. He had never been in love before. If he could make Alex understand that much, then there might still be hope. For that reason alone it had to be worth the risk.
That decision made, he turned, seeking out the blue-grey gaze with his own. If they were to get past the initial awkwardness one of them would have to make the first move and Alex, apparently, had temporarily lost the ability to think.
"What I want from you," he began, with quiet courage, "is the same now as it has always been."
Alex's face was at once an open book of confusion, hope and disbelief, and Anton found it next to impossible to bite back even the smallest of satisfied smiles.
"Which is?" Alex dared to close the space between them, his hands pushed deep into the pockets of his black chinos.
Anton steadied himself with a breath and threw aside the remnants of caution. "For you to care for me... as much as I care for you."
For a moment it truly looked as if Alex was about to pass out from shock, then astonishment stepped in, opening and closing his mouth like a beached fish, as if trying to form some kind of coherent response. Ultimately, all that emerged from his lips was a stammered "Y-you mean...?"
"What's wrong, Mr Adams?" Anton prompted. Alex, however, could get no further than shaking his head and muttering "I-I don't...", and so, at last, Anton took pity on him.
"Don't tell me that your arrogance is so great that you believe you are the only one to have feelings upon which you have been unable to act," he teased.
"F-feelings?" He saw Alex's throat working around the incredulity that was reflected in his eyes.
His own palms damp with apprehension - was it possible he had made a mistake? - Anton crossed his arms defensively and, for the briefest moment, closed his eyes as he fought for calm. When he spoke at last it was with the same steady, authoritarian tone that he used in theatre.
"Yes, Alex," Using the younger man's given name openly for the first time leant weight to the words. "Feelings. For you, in case you remain in any doubt."
"Oh God..." There was a suspicion of emotion in Alex's eyes. "I never... imagined..." A shaking hand scraped across trembling lips. "Feelings?"
The smallest chuckle, soft and warm and full of affection. "Yes."
Anton had anticipated his surprise, had hoped the news would bring him joy, but nothing could have prepared him for the look of utter desolation that greeted his revelation. Alex stood halfway into the room, his hands now two dead weights hanging at his sides and head tipped back, as if he were about to let loose a howl of anguish. Anton stood very still, in perfect silence, and waited.
"Ohhh God!" More a groan than a howl, but no less vehement for that. "How could I have been such an idiot? Stupid, stupid... Why didn't I see it?"
Listening to Alex berating himself was almost comical, and Anton found himself at last able to risk a real smile. "If it's any consolation, I was no more aware of your feelings than you were of mine. It would appear that we have both been - less than astute."
Something in the lightness of his tone must have communicated itself to Alex because, as quickly as it had appeared, all trace of his anguish had vanished, leaving in its wake only a benign and contrite smile. He lifted his long-fingered hands in a gesture of submission; let them fall heavily again as he moved closer, leaving the dust trails of his shattered defences settling in his wake.
"It was never arrogance," he murmured. "It just seemed so - impossible that someone like you could be interested in someone like me, beyond a professional relationship."
"And yet," countered Anton, dropping his own hands in surrender, "whenever I am with you, I feel decidedly - unprofessional."
"You still doubt me?"
"No. Never." Alex coughed nervously and ducked his head, looking up at Anton from beneath his lashes. "Unprofessional?"
"That surprises you?"
"Yes. You never gave any sign..."
"And, if I had?" Anton needed to know. Perhaps if he had spoken sooner... Perhaps, if Alex had known...
He became aware of a graceful hand lifting towards him, reaching out to touch his face, caress his cheek, a look of wonder glowing in every feature. Anton stood his ground, accepting and welcoming his touch.
"Oh Anton... I would have become whatever you wanted me to be: colleague... friend..." His fingertips came to rest on Anton's lips, making the older man shiver. "Lover," he concluded, voice dropping to a whisper.
The words seared an image into Anton's imagination, so intense it might easily have been an actually memory. It sent a jolt of raw desire through him, the like of which he had never felt before. It tore at his senses, burned his face and chilled his palms, left him hanging suspended above the void of their shared future, with Alex his only lifeline, his one anchor to reality.
But Alex was still speaking, his own uncertainty reasserting itself through his words. "Tell me honestly... Do you think it's too late to salvage something from this - mess?"
"On the contrary, I think we have already begun to do so. All things considered, I would say that - the prognosis is good."
"I'm glad." A small smile curled at the corner of Alex's mouth and, to his surprise, Anton found he had no alternative but to reach out and touch it. So many times in the past he had wanted to do that, to perform some tiny gesture that would, perhaps, let Alex know how he felt, but always he had been afraid. Now, however, safe in the knowledge that Alex returned those feelings, he could allow himself the luxury.
Alex sighed and turned his head towards the touch, allowing it to drift across his lips, which parted to bestow the briefest of kisses.
"May I ask what treatment you'd prescribe for our - condition?" he asked, almost casually.
Had a patient been admitted to his care displaying the kind of cardiac symptoms that he himself was experiencing at that moment, Anton would have taken immediate steps to determine the cause of the condition and seek to rectify it. But on this occasion he was satisfied that he already knew both the problem and the cause and he sensed that, in this case, the treatment would be neither unpleasant nor unwelcome.
"Since this is primarily a cardiac condition..." Growing in confidence, he tapped the tips of his fingers against the soft fabric of Alex's shirt, just above his heart. "... I would suggest regular administration of... tender loving care, and perhaps... a period of... bed rest?"
He heard the catch in Alex's breath, felt the quiver of reaction that rippled through the whipcord body, and he laughed lightly. Alex clearly had not expected him to take such an active part in his own seduction - if he had ever thought at all about seducing his mentor, which, given their previous circumstances, seemed hardly likely. But he was thinking now...
"Are you - inviting me into your bed?" he asked, slightly breathless, as if he did not quite dare believe what he had heard.
"If I did - would you accept?"
"Without a moment's hesitation."
"Just like that?
"Just like that."
"I promised you dinner..."
"I'll take a rain check"
Words flew back and forth between them, stripping away all remaining pretence. In the silence that crashed in around them, Alex reached for Anton's hand, the latter offering only a token resistance, and now it was Anton who had cause to catch his breath as he felt the warm, damp air from Alex's mouth wrap around his fingers. Wide eyed, he witnessed each kiss pressed against his knuckles, the smoky eyes slanting a look from beneath silky lashes as Alex tried to gauge his reaction, and all Anton could think of was how soft Alex's lips were and how gentle his touch.
"Stop me if you don't want this," Alex cautioned, trepidation blossoming into relief as Anton held his silence.
Content to allow Alex to take the lead for now, Anton welcomed the hands that slid into his hair, the fingers that combed through the dark strands, following the curve of his skull until his head was cradled in Alex's palm. The contact was electric, rebounding through his senses, and he leaned into it, his own eyes bright with a challenge he dared Alex to accept.
"I want to kiss you. May I?" Consideration, even as his mouth hovered over Anton's.
"I should be most disappointed if you did not." Anton's hand found its way to Alex's throat, fingers splayed behind an ear, a confident thumb caressing the high cheekbone.
Who actually initiated the kiss was a matter for conjecture. Did Alex make the final move, or was it Anton who closed the distance between them as they joined in the embrace? Neither would ever be certain, nor did either really care. All Anton knew was that one minute he was gazing intently into the heated depths of Alex's eyes, and the next their lips were touching, shyly at first, softly, each allowing the other to come to terms with this momentous change in their relationship.
Kissing Alex Adams was nothing like kissing a woman - or at least, nothing like any of the few women Anton had ever kissed - and the men who had occasionally shared his bed in recent years were mostly of the opinion that men did not kiss other men. In fact, kissing Alex was an entirely new experience for him. There was an unexpected tenderness there, a sensuality made ragged by hunger and desperation, the whole bound up with a man's strength and the promise of challenge thrown down and challenge answered. Yet, there was something else, a thread of confidence running through the kiss, an awareness that suggested to Anton he was far from being the first man with whom Alex had shared such intimacy. He was altogether too knowing, his hands playing Anton's body in ways they had learned long ago. Anton wondered if he should be jealous, decided instead that it would make things easier all round if they both knew what they were doing. The past was dead and gone; the present lay firmly in the hands of Alex Adams.
He turned his attention back to the man. Alex's mouth tasted of tea and peppermints and Anton abandoned himself to the feel of the pliant lips and the taste of the silken tongue that stroked against his own, doing all that he could to prolong the moment, until the need for air drove them forcibly apart. Only then, gasping and panting, did they withdraw to arm's length, to stare knowingly at each other, hot and hungry eyes dancing above feral grins.
"Tell me I don't need to apologise for that." Alex's voice sounded strained.
Anton considered the request for a moment before responding: "I will allow you to apologise - but only if you permit me to do likewise."
The words had barely left his lips before he found himself pulled into Alex's arms once more, and this time the kiss was anything but innocent. Fiercely demanding, it held all the urgency of need long denied, a frantic clashing of lips and teeth and tongues, of clutching hands and hard-pressed bodies, of voices groaning a heated incoherency of desire.
Tearing his mouth from Anton's to lay a trail of hot, wet kisses across his cheek, to his ear, Alex buried his face in his lover's neck and confessed raggedly "I want to be with you... I need to be with you..."
"Do you?" He drew back, allowing Anton to see the truth in his eyes. And the truth burned. "Do you really know what I'm talking about?" His hands suddenly gripped Anton's upper arms, hard enough to ensure bruises by morning. "I want to make love to you, Anton. I want to bury myself in you so deeply, you'll never be able to forget me."
Anton shivered at the intensity of the declaration and the image it formed in his mind. In all his many imaginings he had never considered being taken, yet as soon as it was said, he knew wanted it. More than anything else. Wanted to give himself over to Alex, to lie back and allow someone else to take control, make the decisions for a change. The thought of Alex mounting him, of being filled by him and surrounded, enfolded by him, was overwhelming him and doing strange things to his equilibrium. He wanted it, God help him, but at the same time we wanted them both to savour the moment, to remember it afterwards with perfect clarity and not lose it in the heated oblivion that he could see building behind Alex's gaze and feel rising within himself.
He cleared his throat and, in an attempt to ease the sudden tension, said lightly "My dear Alex... How could I ever forget you?" But he had forgotten that teasing was not his speciality.
"You think I'm joking?"
Hearing the indignance in his voice, Anton was at once contrite. "No. No... I give you my word. I want this, Alex... In fact, I can think of nothing I want more."
"Do you mean that?"
"I have no reason to lie to you. However - I would appreciate a modicum of consideration for my age."
Anton shook his head and the laugh that slipped from his lips was full of affection. If only Alex could have seen his expression at that moment. It was the same one he usually wore when listening to the explanation of some radical new surgical procedure and reminded Anton of a small boy attempting to master a new language.
Very gently he explained "That as much as I want this... I am past the age when having sex on the kitchen floor is considered an adventure."
The absurdity of that image broke through the misplaced tension between them and Alex at last began to laugh. "Does this mean I finally get to see your bedroom?"
"You say that as if you're expecting something out of the ordinary." Anton scoffed, recalling half-empty cupboards and half-filled packing cases, and wondering if he had stowed the dirty laundry in the basket that morning.
"Well, the word 'ordinary' is certainly not one I'd associate with you, so in that respect..."
"Even so, I'm afraid you will be disappointed."
Taking a step back into his personal space, Alex slipped his arms around Anton's waist. "With the room, maybe," he murmured, with such a depth of sincerity that the surgeon felt burned by it, "But not with the company - and that's all that matters."
"Is it?" He needed to ask, needed to be certain. All could be lost if he failed to live up to Alex's expectations.
"Yes..." replied Alex. "Don't you know that I could never be disappointed by you. This is all I've ever wanted, to be here with you, like this."
With that simple statement, Alex had stripped his soul bare and set it at Anton's feet. There was nothing more that Anton could ask.
"Then... If you are sure that dinner can wait..."
"We'll have breakfast instead," Alex promised, sealing the vow with a soft kiss that turned Anton's emotions inside out.
When his mouth was finally given back to him, Anton had to fight to keep what he was feeling from showing in his face, for while the thought of having Alex in his bed fulfilled several of his private fantasies, the prospect of it actually happening unaccountably terrified him. Or, more accurately, the prospect of his own failure terrified him. In the bedroom Alex was everything he was not - attractive, experienced, confident - and in the face of such qualities, Anton's feelings of apprehension and inadequacy were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
Alex, however, was oblivious to his dilemma. "In fact," he said "now that I know where your kitchen is, I might even surprise you with breakfast in bed. Assuming I ever find out where the bedroom is, of course..."
Forced to accept that he could delay no further without risking everything, Anton gestured past the taller man. "Across the hall. The door on the left."
Alex turned to leave and Anton moved to follow him, feeling like a medical student on his first ward round. Once out in the hall, however, Alex paused and, looking back, reached to take hold of Anton's hand. His own was steady, his eye full of reassurance.
"Don't look so worried, Anton. Nothing's going to happen that we don't both want."
It was said with such tender concern that Anton found words impossible and could only nod his head and return the pressure of the strong hand, as Alex turned the handle and pushed open the door.
This was where it began, he acknowledged, allowing himself to be drawn into the familiar room.
Where it ended was anyone's guess.