Chapter 1: Coda
“I love you,” he says, and the younger man’s eyes widen, then soften. Richard looks like he’s going to say something but changes his mind, kissing him instead. His body feels different, but not because he’s on James’ lap, though that does make the strong thighs under skinny jeans more noticeable. James thinks of the wiry arms that had pulled him off-balance and the taut back under his hands and chuckles into their kiss.
“What?” Richard cocks an eyebrow at him.
“Been down the gym, have you?” He watches as pride, glee and embarrassment fight for dominance over Richard’s features before settling into an odd mixture of the three. Richard shrugs in a ‘what of it?’ manner, but there’s a hint of his fighty side when he replies, “Needed to be doing something, you know?”
James nods - he’s not as naturally active, but he does know and understand what Rich means - and is about to go in for another kiss when he feels cool, slim fingers slip under his shirts and touch his sides. He’s never been ticklish, but when the fingers move along his ribcage and waist, he can’t help squirming. Richard kisses him, deep but brief, pressing his face into James’ neck again afterwards. He’s quiet for a minute and James sighs, nuzzling the fine dark hair his breath ruffles.
“Could we go upstairs now?”
“Eh?” James is puzzled by Richard’s plaintive tone. “Sure. I don’t see why not.”
“Okay.” Richard nods against his neck. “Good.” He sits up, not quite meeting James’ eyes, and shuffles off the older man’s lap. There’s an intense yet distracted look on his face, like he’s working through a debate in his mind.
Logically, James knows that he stood up then, and followed Hammond up the stairs to the bedroom. He knows that he paused, intending to bring his bags up with him, but left them at Richard’s ‘those can wait’. There must have been a hug or embrace - a kiss, certainly - but he’s not aware of it, or indeed anything between sitting on one of his dining room chairs and where he finds himself now. Now he is sitting up against the headboard of his bed, Richard straddling his thighs. The button-up he’d been wearing is gone, and warm, steady hands are tugging at the hem of his t-shirt, working it up over his belly. A tiny part of him protests the loss of both layers, but he reminds that tiny part of the thousands of hours he’s spent with the other man, even just in this relationship. Richard knows what he looks like in and out of a shirt, and besides, he’d lost a bit of weight and gained a bit of a tan during his trip.
It’s not about the shirt, though, or the size of his belly or the paleness of his skin, and they’ve kissed and/or cuddled fully clothed and in just their pants. What James notices is that Richard is actively undressing him, his own hands keep threatening to stray past the waist of Richard’s jeans, and they can’t seem to stop kissing. It’s rushed and wholly impulsive, unlike every other time they’ve been together, and he’s not sure he’s comfortable with that, no matter how much he likes it or how good it all feels. Their kiss breaks a moment later as his t-shirt is pulled over his head, and he immediately puts his hands on Richard’s shoulders to keep him from moving.
Richard lifts that damned eyebrow at him, and between that and the shirt in his hands, he looks a bit like a retriever who’s been told it’s fetched the wrong toy. “What?”
“We’re getting a bit carried away, I think.”
Brown eyes give him a quizzical look. “How do you mean?”
“I was starting to wonder if we were the reunited lovers in some crap Hollywood film.”
“Well, aside from the film part, aren’t we?” Richard asks. While James mulls this over, he leans in and places a very light kiss on his mouth. “You’ve just come home from eight weeks away.” A second kiss, and then familiar hands are in James’ hair and his eyes slip closed. “And while I haven’t used the word myself, we are lovers, in a sense.”
Richard doesn’t push any further than that, just strokes James’ hair while he sits and waits for his heart to settle down. Eventually he opens his eyes to find the younger man watching him. “I suppose so, yeah,” he concedes. Richard gives him a tiny smile but doesn’t reply, moving off his lap to sit beside him instead.
“I - what I said the other day. That you’re the only person...” James pauses to check that Richard knows what he’s talking about, and is given a short nod. “I meant it. I missed you, badly. And when I say I love you, I mean that, too.”
“I know. You don’t say it lightly.” Dry lips touch his cheek. “You know I don’t either, right?”
James lets his chin rest atop Richard’s head for a moment, his left hand curving over his mate’s - lover’s - right knee. “Yes. I could tell you meant it, and I know you missed me. It’s...this-” he gestures at his bare torso, and the discarded t-shirt beside them. “I don’t think that’s happened before, with us.”
Richard looks up at him. “You mean me yanking your clothes off? No, it hasn’t, really. Aside from a few times when you’ve had a few too many and got sick all over-”
“Right, well, that doesn’t count,” James interrupts, sighing when Richard laughs.
“Does it bother you? I love being with you like this,” the younger man leans into him, and he feels an arm curve around his back, “even when we’re not going to sleep or waking up. It’s comforting.”
The cheek pressed into his shoulder is warm, and James doesn’t have to look to know he’s blushing. They both are, to be honest. “My pasty-white skin and beer gut are comforting? Bit of a back-handed compliment, but ta muchly, Hammond.”
Richard jolts upright, wide-eyed and sputtering indignantly. “What - you - that’s not what I meant at all, you daft bugger!”
In his mind, his quip had been funny, but Richard sounds more put-out than amused. “Okay, then tell me what you meant, or show me.”
“You know, I think I was showing you, but you made me stop.”
James winces slightly. “My mistake, then, and sincerest apologies.”
Richard glowers at him for a moment, then sighs. “Right.” When James dips his head for a kiss, there’s a response, but the usual spark is missing and it doesn’t last.
“Ah...Why don’t we give it a rest for a bit?”
The words sting, but Richard’s tone and expression are concerned and apologetic. James takes a deep breath, relaxing a tiny bit when lips brush the corner of his jaw. “Okay.” He drops his own kiss on the crown of Richard’s head, then scoots off the bed, stretching awkwardly. “I’ve got about five or six loads of washing to do, and I need to decide what to take to India...”
It turns out to be only three loads of laundry, the last of which is in the dryer by the time they’ve finished dinner. At that point, James’ body clock is well and truly confused between Aus./NZ time, Los Angeles time and GMT, and he’s exhausted. Richard sends him upstairs with instructions to take a shower and go to bed; he’ll finish cleaning up and join him when the laundry’s done. It doesn’t even cross his mind to protest - not right then, and certainly not once he’s in the shower. No, Richard’s directions were spot on; when he slides under the covers, James is still bone-tired and ready to go to sleep, but he’s clean and in fresh pants. He’s drowsing when Richard comes upstairs, and hums into his pillow at the feel of the mattress dipping behind him.
A warm, familiar body fits itself snug against his back, an arm curves over his stomach, and a foot runs down the length of one calf. The sensations make him feel almost light-headed, and when Richard kisses his shoulder, he actually whimpers in relief. “God, Rich, that’s-”
“This is what I meant, yeah.”
Slender fingers tangle with his, but not before he kisses the back of Richard’s hand. His head is spinning from jetlag and fatigue and emotion, so he doesn’t dare try to voice any of his thoughts.
“Us, like this?” Richard murmurs, just below his ear. “It’s what I love, and want - and need. This is what comforts me, James.”
Chapter 2: Epilogue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
James’ December is stressful and busy. Not because of Christmas; the few handmade presents he’s giving are finished, and the rest of his shopping has been done online. No, what gets to him is the traveling he and Jeremy are obligated to do. Perth, Western Australia is very far away from England, and very different from the other parts of the country that he’s seen. He enjoys it and tries to get some exploring in, but they only have so many days there before jetting off again for China. There’s no sense in whinging about it; the crew is on the same schedule, and with his myriad health problems, Jezza is bound to be even more uncomfortable. All the same, James can’t help worrying that the funk in which he’d begun the year is returning.
While he’s in Beijing, he gets a text from Richard reading ‘how would you feel about having a(nother, or new) cat?’. It‘s a few hours before he has a chance to respond, which is good, because it prevents him from being an arse and saying something stupid like ‘why are you getting me a cat?’ Instead, he simply asks ‘why?’
There’s a picture message in his inbox that night. All it says is ‘I think (she?) wants to come in.’ James sighs and scrolls down to see a picture of a handsome tabby, brown with black bull’s-eye markings, a dab of white on its forehead and white front paws, though he knows he’d say yes to a tatty, half-starved little animal, too. What seals it is the fact that he can see Richard’s shoes; the cat had been sitting only inches away when he took the picture. He texts back ‘then let her’, and tells him where he might have flea/tick treatment supplies, where Fusker’s old travel crate is stored, and to put the new cat under his name at the vet clinic. By the time he’s back in England, she’s been spayed and named Dixie for the southern belles Richard had heard about on his Nascar trip.
He arrives home in the wee hours of the 22nd, exhausted from a three-hour delay in Beijing, the flight, and the queue at C&I. The house isn’t decked out for the holidays, but that really doesn’t matter. Stockings and a tree and baubles pale in comparison to finding Richard asleep under an afghan on the sofa, their cat curled up beside him.
One Friday in February, he and his elder sister Jane stop at his house after several hours shopping. They’re only having dinner nearby, but it makes sense to drop off their purchases and wash up, plus James wants to leave food for the cat, who his sister is meeting for the first time.
“So this is Dixie?” Jane crouches, offering a hand for the little tabby to sniff. “She’s even lovelier than in the picture you emailed.”
In the kitchen, James pours a generous scoop of food into the cat’s dish, and refills her bowl with fresh water. “Well, that was the one Richard sent me. I don’t think I’ve taken any new ones.” He walks back into the lounge to find Jane kneeling on the floor while a madly purring Dixie climbs back and forth over her lap. His sister is laughing even as she tries to keep fur from the cat’s plumed tail out of her mouth. “She certainly likes you.”
“She’s such a doll! Is she more attached to Richard? Since he found her and brought her in.”
James hesitates, considering. He and Richard are both Dixie’s people, as much as she is their cat, but he isn’t comfortable saying that when his sister doesn’t know about their relationship. “Not really. At first, maybe, but since she’s been fed up and settled in, she adores everyone. I’m quite fond of her myself.” He moves around them to the small foyer and staircase. “Before we go, I finished that book you lent me - I’ll go get it.”
“Okay.” Jane doesn’t look up from stroking the cat’s glossy back.
Not even halfway up the stairs, he slips on the bare wood, falling before he can think to catch himself. His chin hits something on the way - the banister, or another tread, he’s not sure - that makes him bite the inside of his cheek, and he tastes blood.
“Good lord!” The thumping he hears isn’t his head, or heart, but his sister running into the room. “Are you hurt?”
He shifts onto his side, which hurts, but he’s able to sit up, slowly. It’s not until he tries to take a deep breath that he’s really aware of the pain in his chest, which feels like it’s been cracked open. He nods shortly, eyes squeezed shut. Yes, he’s definitely injured something.
It takes some careful, slow maneuvering to get him into her car, then Jane takes him to the nearest urgent care. After 20 minutes of waiting to get x-rayed, he thinks passing out might be best; someone could just wake him when the pain has gone. In the meantime, a nurse cleans the cut on the underside of his chin, which is more of a scrape and doesn’t need stitches. By then exhaling isn’t so bad, but inhaling makes him dizzy and he feels too tired to walk. He must say this aloud because a moment later, it seems, he’s sinking gratefully into a wheelchair. The x-rays don’t take long, though afterwards whatever he’s been given for the pain kicks in and he either blacks out or falls asleep, he’s not sure. When he wakes he’s in a hospital bed, wearing one of those stupid gowns, and Jane is saying his name.
“W’happened?” He rubs at his eyes, jerking a little when he feels wires and tubing brush his skin.
“The doctor said you’ve fractured your sternum,” his sister answers. “There’s a chance of that damaging your heart or lungs, so they’re keeping you overnight for observation.” She holds up something dark and rectangular, and when he squints he recognizes his phone. “Do you want me to call anyone, or get anything from the house?”
Rich. I want Richard.
The monitors connected to the sticky things on his chest beep steadily, counting his breaths before he can voice his thought. “Rich. Rich’d.”
“Richard Hammond?” Jane taps on his iPhone, searching for the number and copying it to her phone.
He closes his eyes and nods. “Yeah. Ask if - no. Just tell him. An’ Andy. Wilman. He needs to know.” Wilman is the boss, after all, and either he or Hammond will talk to Jeremy.
“Okay. I’ll ring them.” Her hand rests on one of his, squeezing lightly. “Go to sleep.”
His dreams are, appropriately enough, memories of the last time he’d been hurt and taken to hospital - in Syria, nearly a year and a half ago. The odd, detached sight of blood on a thick wad of gauze, the weird ringing in his head and faint nausea and exhaustion. The two strange figures in black burqas who had met him outside, the warmth of his mates’ genuine concern.
The next morning is muddled, but mostly pain-free, thanks to whatever he’s been prescribed. He knows he asks about seeing Richard after he wakes, but doesn’t recall an answer. Jane has spoken to their parents, so he spends half an hour on the phone reassuring them that he’ll be fine, and that he was doing what his big sister told him. After that, time drags; a second set of x-rays is taken after he’s eaten and been checked over, then there’s a wait while the new scans are examined. Thankfully, the prognosis is good and he’s allowed to go home - with restrictions, of course. While she helps him dress, Jane tells him she’d contacted Richard, who will meet them at the house.
It takes a good fifteen minutes for him to walk from Jane’s car into his home, and then from the kitchen to the lounge. His sister helps him get comfortable on the couch with a blanket and heating pad, and he dozes peacefully, vaguely aware of her talking and moving about quietly in the background. There are other noises: doors opening and closing, footsteps up and down the stairs, the faint creak of floorboards from the upper storey. The shushing sound of stocking feet on carpet coming near and settling close by.
“Hey, pretty girl,” says a soft voice - Richard’s voice. “You keeping watch?”
A mew, then weight shifts the cushion to his left. Something silky brushes his cheek, and he cracks his eyes open. Dixie notices and chirrups a greeting which makes him want to laugh, if it wouldn’t hurt.
“James?” Gentle fingers touch his hands, loose on his stomach, and then Richard leans in and all he can see is bright eyes in an anxious face. “Hey there.”
It hurts a little to clear his throat, but he’s so happy and relieved to have this man with him, he can’t not voice it. “‘lo, love.”
James really did injure his sternum this past February, and apparently it was from falling on his staircase at home. The rest is, of course, fictionalized.