Nikolas is the sanest, straightest, person he knows, so can anyone tell him, why he's on a gay therapy course?
Nikolas Mikkelsen could make a very long list of unpleasant things he's endured in his life. Then order it from 'nearly killed me' to 'extremely horrific and don't want to do again'. And what did it say about his forty-five years that being hit by a tsunami would be a considerable way down this list? But nothing, not torture, imprisonment, nor starvation has prepared him for what he now has to endure for Ben Rider's sake-attendance on a residential, gay therapy course. At least he has a new contender for the top spot on his 'my awful life' list.
"Come in, gentlemen, please. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
The doctor held the door for the two men who walked into his office from the plush waiting room. They both towered over him, although at five foot eleven he'd never thought of himself as short. They wouldn't have struck him at first glance as either gay or a couple, and as his speciality was relationship counselling for gay men, he considered himself something of an expert. One of the men was incredibly striking: scarred with an aggressive, impatient air about him. Dressed in what the doctor immediately recognised as bespoke tailoring, he appeared the more dominant, coming through the door without apparently considering allowing his partner in first. He chose and took a seat without being asked, which in the doctor's view was unusual in these circumstances.
The second man was extraordinarily beautiful. It was the only way anyone could describe him. He had wide-set green eyes in a smooth face with cheekbones that drew the gaze, until he smiled, and then that was the only place you could look. The doctor had counselled thousands of gay men, but he'd never had one so attractive in his office before. He shook himself slightly and noted more professionally that this man was some years younger than his partner and was dressed in ripped jeans and an old T-shirt that had clearly seen many washes. He was vaguely familiar, as were a lot of the doctor's clients. Again, this went with the territory, given he ran, amongst other things, a counselling service for men in sexual crisis from one of the smartest addresses in London-he had a lot of celebrity clients. These men didn't glance at each other as they sat opposite him, and he noted they leant slightly away from the other's chair, as if mere physical presence were oppressive.
Given all these considerations, he decided he'd never met a more mismatched couple in his many years in the business, and that he had his work cut out for him. There was nothing like a challenge to start the day.
The scarred man was now studying the certificates and framed photographs on the wall, his hands relaxed in his lap. Trying to decide an appropriate opener, the doctor couldn't get a reading off him at all. It was as if the blond giant were there in body alone: he exuded no discernable emotion whatsoever. The younger man was far easier to read. He was staring at his nails, picking at the side of one of them, his foot tapping on the carpet. The doctor decided to go with something very simple. "Gentlemen, to start with, I'll outline how I like to work. This isn't an easy process by any means, and it's very important you're both comfortable where we go on this journey and with the vehicle we choose to-"
"Please be concise, Doctor."
His mouth still open a little from the interruption, attempting to untangle the heavily accented vowels, the doctor coughed to cover his annoyance with the blond-haired man who hadn't even had the courtesy to turn from his examination of the certificates. "Yes, thank you. I'd like us to all talk together for a while, but then I think it's always beneficial for me to speak with you one to one. It gives each partner the freedom to express-"
"I'm not comfortable with that." The scarred face turned to him at last. The amber eyes were cold with remote calculation. The doctor raised his eyebrows. He wasn't used to being challenged like this so early in his sessions. Most men coming for couples' therapy were far more nervous and unsure of themselves. He coughed lightly again and glanced at his notes. "Mr Mikkelsen. I assure you, it-"
"We speak together, or we don't speak at all."
"Don't answer for me. You're always doing that!" The younger man shot the older one a furious glance then added a little contritely, "I think it's a good idea to have a chance to speak separately. That way we can-"
The older man interjected a harsh, barked laugh. "That way you can tell him all the terrible things I do and say? I don't think so."
"Gentlemen, please. Can we focus for a moment on why we're here? Put aside your anger. You've made an important first step by booking this appointment. It shows you're trying to move forward. Let's not waste this opportunity. I want you each to think about why you agreed to come here today and let the other know what you want out of this session. Ben, may I call you Ben? Perhaps you'd like to go first."
"I just want him to-"
"Use his name, please."
"I want Nikolas to decide what he fucking wants. I want a boyfriend-not an employer with an overactive cock."
"Don't swear at me. And don't be crude."
"You're not my boss anymore! Stop telling me what to do!"
"Right. Mr Mikkelsen, Nikolas, perhaps you'd like to tell us why you agreed to come here?"
"I agreed to come here because if I didn't I would probably not get laid tonight."
Ben stood up. Folding his arms, he walked to the window. The doctor frowned deeply. "Ben, honesty is always good, even when something is just said in jest..."
"Who said I'm joking?" The older man crossed his legs and checked his watch. "I have another appointment in half an hour. Can we please speed this up a little?"
The young man turned. "Why don't you just fuck off then? You're not taking this seriously. You've never taken one thing seriously in the whole time I've known you."
"As usual you exaggerate. I take your moods very seriously. I have to live with them, after all."
Ben sat back down, seemingly a little recovered in nerve. "No, actually, you don't. Why don't you go back to your wife? You give her more respect than you've ever given me."
The doctor leant forward, scanning his notes very quickly as he did so. "You're married?"
Nikolas pursed his lips as if he didn't like the conversation going this way or being put under the spotlight. The younger one laughed. "Yeah. Exactly." He turned toward the doctor and explained bitterly, "He's supposed to be divorced, but all of a sudden he's decided he doesn't want a boyfriend-a relationship. Says he's not gay. Says he's thinking of going back to his wife. Spends the weekends with her." He actually used air quotes to underline his frustration.
The doctor leant back once more and steepled his fingers against his lips, tapping them. "This isn't so uncommon. I've had many patients in your position, Nikolas. It's nothing to be ashamed of." He consulted his notes once more. "Do you live together?"
The younger man huffed. "Sometimes. When he's not back shacking up with the corgi."
"Please, Ben, try to speak more in terms of how Nikolas's behaviour affects you rather than attacking him."
"Oh, I'll tell you exactly how it affects me. It pisses me off. I don't want a part-time boyfriend." He brushed his knee deceptively casually. "There are plenty of other guys more than happy to take on that role full-time..."
The older man glanced at him and sneered in a low voice, "Blackmail now, Benjamin? You're behaving like a sulky little boy, and I'm tired of it. You've been more than happy to share my bed-and whore around on my money-when it suits you. Well it suits me to have you still in my bed. That's why I agreed to come here today." At that, he crossed his arms and seemed to emotionally withdraw from any further involvement in the session, staring once more at the wall of photographs.
The young man shrugged, picking at a thread in the torn knee of his jeans. He began to say something, but suddenly the other man rose and interjected abruptly, "Come, we're going."
"Wh-? But I want-"
"If you want a free ride then I suggest you come now. If not, you'll have to make your own way back. Good day, Doctor. This session has been extremely illuminating."
The doctor stood uncertainly, shook the offered hand and watched as the impeccably dressed man left. He stared at the younger one for a while who mumbled in obvious embarrassment, "I'd better go. I-I didn't bring my wallet..."
The doctor watched him move towards the door then ventured, "Ben? My best advice? Consider finding yourself one of those other boyfriends you mentioned..."
The young man smiled weakly and headed out to the adjoining room. The older man hadn't waited for him.
It was the first time Doctor Julian Wood had ever counselled a couple to split. But as he'd thought earlier, they were the most unsuited couple he'd ever met.
Unsuited for each other.
Perfect, perhaps, for his requirements.
They'd planned to go and eat after their appointment with the doctor, but when Nikolas told Ben what he'd seen, they decided to head straight home. Despite this curtailment of their plans, they were both in a particularly good mood, pleased with themselves, amused at how much fun they'd found it being rude to each other. They sobered as they entered the kitchen, though, seeing Squeezy's expression-and Tim's pinched look on Squeezy's behalf. "Well?"
Nikolas waved at Ben to put the kettle on, an irrepressible smirk on his face, as this ordering around so neatly mirrored the roles they'd just been playing. He sat down at the table and idly rubbed Radulf's ears. "You may be right."
Squeezy waited for a moment then prompted impatiently, "And? What? What did he fucking say? What the fuck did you say?"
Ben chuckled. "He claimed I was a whiney bitch who didn't put out enough."
Nikolas pretended to be offended. "I think I said sulky baby, but there's an element of truth to either-Ow."
"You called me a whore..." He bent and kissed Nikolas's ear, whispering something Squeezy wouldn't be able to hear but which made Nikolas smile privately.
Then he saw Squeezy's clenched jaw and sighed. Michael had been wearing that face a lot recently. Nikolas supposed this is what it meant to have friends-you got dragged into their problems whether you liked it or not. Ben liked Squeezy; Nikolas liked Ben. This apparently went with the territory.
Sensing the anxiety pouring off the other three men now, Nikolas reflected bitterly that the visit to the therapist had probably only made things more complicated.
If only he could go back two weeks...
* * *
Squeezy had a sister. Until two weeks ago, she'd had a teenage son. Eleven days ago, Jonathan had walked into a lecture room at college and shot three of his fellow students then turned the gun on himself-fatally. He'd been nineteen. The only clue to his motivation had been an email he'd sent his parents that morning. All it contained was the message: I will leave darkness behind me.
After the initial confusion and shock had died down, the attack had been labelled a racist atrocity by the press. The three students he'd shot had been members of the university's Islamic student council.
Jonathan's links with far right organisations were being investigated, but Squeezy wasn't convinced. He asserted Jono was one of life's innocents-a gentle soul. Which had sounded odd coming from Squeezy, who wasn't known for being a reflective observer of human nature. He had tried to tell the police this. His own background then came under suspicion. Being ex-army-ex-Special Forces-was a sure bet, apparently, for far-right sympathies. After all, the police reasoned, where did an otherwise normal nineteen-year-old boy get a gun?
Watching from the sidelines, Ben had been more than concerned. He'd undergone a very similar experience with the police investigating Nikolas's disappearance in Denmark. While Squeezy wasn't actually being probed by doctors with rubber gloves (or at least Ben hoped he wasn't), he was being turned from victim into perpetrator, and that was a very unpleasant, soul-destroying experience.
A few days after the shooting, Ben had started following Squeezy. He had the thought that if Squeezy were accused of anything at least he'd have a witness now to back him up. He had been alarmed, therefore, to watch as Squeezy appeared to make a call on a therapist...a sex therapist...a gay couples' sex therapist. Which was odd. Stranger still the visit had been at two in the morning, and Squeezy had used a side window for his appointment rather than the front door. Ben had circumvented the attempted burglary and had persuaded Squeezy to return to the London house.