It seems stupid to castigate the body for doing its job.
Justin knows the swoop of his stomach upon John’s invitation into his home is just a physiological response to emotional stimuli. Poke the emotional centres of the brain, and you can expect a series of predictable bodily reactions: adrenaline output causes increase in blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate. Emotions are hormones, emotions are physical, and while Justin has a certain amount of control over them like any northerner worth his salt, he can’t actually stop them from getting his blood up. All anyone can do is not act on them. That’s the essential lesson, really: not that a good stiff upper lip will keep one from feeling, but that it can keep one from humiliating oneself and others on account of feeling.
So it’s not his fault, really, the way his heart flutters and his insides go wobbly as he steps over the threshold into John’s flat. But when John, smiling in that way of his that tells Justin his smiles are hard-won and even painful, like the searing shine of the sun after long rains, introduces him to a beautiful woman, Justin blames himself. Justin blames his damnable skipping heartbeat and all the seeping hormones that create it every morning when he picks up his DCI and is subjected to a pleased crinkle of the skin around his eyes, just for being there, just for doing his job right without having to be asked, just for believing in him.
The body does what it is meant to do, but Justin doesn’t have to like it. He has resigned himself to a life of pining — it’s a specialty of his, really — but that doesn’t make it pleasant. It’s not what he would choose, for all that he chooses hopeless devotion to John over other options every single day. A diet of crumbs, he decided long ago, is better than starvation. Doesn’t mean he has to like watching someone else feast. Doesn’t mean he isn’t going to curse the way his limbic system dredges up hope, steady as clockwork, and sends it coursing futile through his veins. Logic, unfortunately, has no dominion over biology.
“He’s my mate, and I love him,” John says. He’s in his habitual hunch, as if permanently apologising for how tall he is, and he’s casting a fond look in Justin’s direction. Justin reins in the way his jaw wants to hang open to complete the impression he’s doing of a boggling idiot. John’s pretty girl is about as confused as Justin is, and Justin is graced with her clean white smile, meant for John. The two of them do a blush and stammer routine for a moment before John finally can’t put off leaving any longer. And Justin — Justin curses his soft heart. He can’t hate her. He likes her, even. Likes that she makes John Luther a grinning schoolboy, pumped all full of his own oxytocin and dopamine and serotonin. John can’t help it any more than Justin can, and Justin’s not about to go around blaming innocent women for how chemicals work.
“Nice to meet you, Mary,” he says. “Briefly.” Mary laughs again, lovely as a fairy, even first thing in the morning, and with that Justin leaves John’s flat and he doesn’t, he doesn’t feel the settling of his heart into the bowl of his belly.
That’s just a trick, played by the body.
“Hush now.” The voice is soft and lilts with amusement into his ear, from just behind the headrest. “There’s a good boy.”
Justin’s heart is hammering — adrenaline again, with a dash of norepinephrine and the threat of cortisol — but before he can whip round to apprehend the source of the voice, his eyes flick to the rearview mirror and in it he finds Alice Morgan, skin like buttermilk, hair and lips a matching red. Said lips tilt sideways into an easy smirk, and in the mirror she meets his eyes.
“I think you and I might strike a mutually beneficial bargain,” she says.
“I don’t make bargains with fugitives,” Justin says. His voice never wavers, his breath never betrays him. Alice’s mouth slides into a pout, for all that she still looks like something’s terribly funny.
“Upright to the last, even with a knife to your throat,” she says. “That’s the appeal, I suppose. What does he see when he looks at you, I wonder? Himself, or a better version?”
“There’s no knife,” Justin says, and she laughs like a tinkling wind chime — the kind of sound he imagines she believes a woman laughing is meant to sound like. She is an expert in how humans behave, but that doesn’t mean she can replicate it. Not quite.
“Guilty,” she chirps. She trails fingertips over the lines of his shoulders as if wiping away dust. Unarmed or not, she has him at a disadvantage in this position. The skin along his neck and down his back feels electrified, gooseflesh raised. He can neutralise her by wrenching a wrist, dragging her forward through the space between the seats, pinning her arm to her back — “There is no better version of John Luther, of course,” she goes on, conversational. “So it must just be sentiment. Curious.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Alice hums as if humouring him in the delusion that she might be considering something he’s said.
“Don’t you want to hear my proposition?” she says.
“Not really,” Justin says. “I’m going to have to arrest you now.”
“That’s sweet of you,” Alice says, “but if you want to catch your killer of killers and keep our mutual acquaintance intact, I’m afraid you’ll have to set aside that dream for another day.”
“If you know something about Marwood—”
“Oh I do, darling,” she says, leaning in until the tack of her lipstick catches against the shell of Justin’s ear. “And I’ll tell you, right after you listen to my proposal.”
“An institution again, no prison, in exchange for your information. That’s my final offer.”
Alice laughs, and when her hand, gloved in lambskin, reaches out to pat him on the cheek, he does not flinch.
“The thing is,” she says, voice low and intimate, “I don’t think we’re so different, you and I. It comforts you to believe there is something essential missing in me that separates us, but if some terrible thing happened along to cut us down, we’d find we were composed of the same elements.”
“Carbon and oxygen?”
He can’t see it, her head obscured by his in the mirror, but he hears the spread of her smile and the slick of her tongue.
“Water and space debris,” she whispers, “with his name all over it.”
“What’s your point, Ms. Morgan?”
“My point, lamb, is that we ought to see this case come through in a desirable fashion, and without unravelling our favourite DCI along the way, and surprise, surprise: I’ve got just the ticket.”
“Oh but he will.”
“Just say what you’re saying. I have places to be, you know.”
“Killers to catch.”
She rests her head on his shoulder over the seat and sighs, arms around his chest like the two of them are two lovers meeting after a long separation.
“John Luther despises murderers and rapists, criminals of the lowest class,” she says. “He must have fancied, a long time ago when he was a shiny new DS like you, that this meant he was destined to be a copper. But he grew up, and saw too much, and stopped believing his fancies. He began to live permanently in the grey area where coppers rarely admit they venture, would you agree?”
“DCI Luther does his job to the highest standard.”
“This suspect, Tom Marwood. You have sympathy for him?”
“I regret that the justice system failed him, but that doesn’t give him the right to take anyone else’s life. Life is sacrosanct, no matter what one does with it.”
Alice hums again, and in the mirror she looks happy with him. Whatever her version of happy is.
“And you’re you. Imagine being John, and coming head to head with that suspect. Whatever would you do?”
“He’s already come up against him. He’s tried to bring him in. He did his best.”
“But he didn’t succeed. Him. John Luther.”
“A murderer was holding a gun to his head!”
“Shh, shh, be a good puppy.” Alice strokes Justin’s hair with one hand.
“I have to go, Ms. Morgan. Put your seatbelt on and we’ll get you processed without a fuss. It’ll be points in your favour.”
“If he lets more degenerates die because he’s slow to pick up a man doing his dirty work for him—”
“He would never—”
“He will be done forever, do you understand? No more DCI Luther. No more ‘yes, boss, of course, boss.’ No more policing ever again, and he’ll drag you down with him. Poof goes DS Ripley, Cheshire boy who made good, made Mam and Da so proud. Your career and his, down the drain, just because you followed. Understand?”
Justin’s words fail him. He swallows down the assertions that Luther would never let him take a fall; he can’t give her any ammunition. But he’s seen it. He knows. Luther and Marwood — they’re carbon and oxygen, water and space debris, and all that separates them is the flimsy abstraction of human law. That most fragile of contracts, shredded every day by poorer men than John.
“DCI Luther does his job to the highest standard,” Justin says again, hoarse.
“So what if we did something to make sure he still deserved that unwavering belief of yours, DS Ripley?”
“Explain, in thirty seconds or less.”
Alice’s smile illuminates the mirror, and Justin wonders how often she looks like that. Only when she’s committing a particularly clever murder, he supposes.
“We make Marwood a cop killer.” Her arms tighten around him, and she hushes his protests. “It serves the twofold purpose of making him someone John can no longer ‘fail to bring in,’ and it dashes his own chances at public sympathy, which is all this eager little beaver wants. Becoming the thing he hates utterly destroys him, do you see?”
“I cannot imagine what alternate universe you’re living in if you think I would ever allow the death of another police officer if I could help it.”
“No no no, you’re misunderstanding me,” Alice says, and she sounds so disappointed in him, Justin almost wants to laugh. “We make him believe he’s a cop killer. We even make poor John Luther believe it. Belief is as good as truth don’t you think? What’s the difference, after all?”
“I don’t understand what you’re—”
“We make it look really, really good.” With that, she takes her arms away and in the mirror, Justin sees her raise a bullet-proof vest padded with—
Justin’s brow furrows.
“Are those packets of fake blood?”
Alice sets the vest down on the seat beside her.
“It would hurt,” she tells him, “the impact of the bullet would still be real, and breath would elude you, and you’d want to heave it in but you couldn’t. You’d have to be so, so still, do you understand, DS Ripley? For John?”
“It would never work,” Justin says. “There are too many variables.”
“Make sure there aren’t.”
“It’s not that bloody simple, for God’s sake.”
“He’s planning a lynching.”
“You have to tell me all the information you have right now, Ms. Morgan, or I swear I will make it so much worse for you than a first class mental institution.”
“He’s planning a lynching, and you and John will stop it. Marwood will run, John will assist the victim, you will give chase. You’ll be alone, and the chest is a wider target than the head, so you’ll open your arms — people interpret this as surrender, and it will encourage Marwood to think subconsciously of shooting you there rather than anywhere else more efficient. He’ll run again, after, but John will find you. And once he finds you, he will find Marwood. He will make him pay. All proper channels of course — no fun at all.”
“And if I die?”
“You’re so bloody sure.”
“I know how people work. And you’re such a good little soldier, following orders.”
“How about the ambulance that will come, then, how will you rig that?”
She smiles like molasses. “I’ll be the one in it of course, with a few… trustworthy associates.”
“You don’t have associates. They’re beneath you.”
“Occasionally, necessity calls for one to walk among the chaff.”
“Think about it,” Alice says, patting the vest delicately. She opens the door, and before she slips out to disappear again, she says, “Dennis Cochrane.”
Justin tells himself he needs to get out of this car, needs to follow Alice Morgan and drag her back to the precinct where she’ll be made to answer for her crimes. But all he can do is eye the vest in his backseat, turn the key in the ignition, and get to DSU Schenk with the name of the latest victim.
When it comes, it’s muffled somehow, and.
It feels like it should have —
Made a sound?
And the hardest thing is not to cry, not to scream, not to whimper, not to breathe.
He wants to breathe. He wants to suck in the air through the burning of his lungs so he can keep ticking, keep going, keep on
The hardest thing is John, telling him to get up, mate, voice gone raw with grief.
The hardest thing is to keep still. To keep from reaching out and stemming this unspeakable cruelty right here, right this second.
But this blood and bone body, with its lungs like deflated bags, with its dappling vision and all its hormones surging through his veins with nowhere to go, nothing to animate.
It has a job to do.
Just stay still.
The next day, he’s able to get to the loo on his own. He forces himself to turn on every light in there to get a good look at himself. He’s mottled red and purple from pubis to collarbone. His ribs are bruised, and some might even be cracked. When Alice gets back — with John, that was the deal — he’ll have to ask her to wrap him up.
If they get back. He hasn’t been able to bear the news. Hasn’t been able to bear thinking of what this is doing to his parents, his brothers and sister. Hates himself for thinking of them as an afterthought at all — after John, only after John.
Justin stares hard into the wide, bright mirrors of the hotel bathroom, inspecting his haggard face with its bags and stubble, memorising every tender bit where his capillaries have popped beneath a bruise.
Endothelin, for the bruises.
Prolactin, for his state of mind.
“You deserve this,” Justin tells himself, and the words echo between four marble walls. He forces his spine straighter, unclenches his fists, and keeps on looking.
“I can hold on a bit longer,” John’s saying. “We need to get you out of London.”
“Very chivalrous, my dear,” Alice says, “and entirely unnecessary.”
Alice is propping him up and smiling her lizard smile when John finally looks up and sees Justin standing there. Justin wonders for one ridiculous moment what he should do with his hands. John’s own smile slips off his face as he takes Justin in, and his dark eyes lose their perpetual squint to go round and empty.
“What is this?” he says, voice flat.
“A bargain,” Alice says. She bounces up on her toes and lands a kiss on John’s cheekbone before slithering out the door. John leans dangerously, but he stares as if the sight of Justin’s all that’s keeping him upright.
“Hey, boss,” Justin says, because it’s better than the blank silence he’s got going.
“Typical Alice,” John says. “Always giving me what I really want.”
“How’d it go, then?” Justin says. “With Marwood?”
“Got shot,” John says, and his mouth finally quirks up in one corner. “But Marwood’s in custody. Alice didn’t even kill him.”
“She must be growing as a person.”
John staggers towards him, and by instinct Justin moves forward to catch. He gets under John’s arm to stop his swaying, unheeding of the way his own injuries send flames racing along his nerves.
“You’re hurt,” John says, quiet.
“The vest was bulletproof, not bruise-proof. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m hurting you.”
“It’s all right, boss.”
“It’s not. It’s not.”
Together they lurch to the sofa, and Justin deposits John there carefully before lowering himself gingerly onto the seat beside him.
“Half a ’mo and I’ll get some stuff to dress your leg. This place is really stocked.” Justin forces evenness into the wild workings of his breath, but John casts a piercing look at him and Justin knows he’s rumbled.
“You’re in no state to do any such thing,” John says. “I’d wager you aren’t even wrapped up properly under there.” John nods at the thin cotton of Justin’s t-shirt, under which Justin knows damn well he can see no dressings at all.
Justin lets himself breathe as deeply as his bruises allow, and as erratically. John inches over and lays a big hand between Justin’s shoulder blades, where any other day he might shudder into the touch — this man, this place on his body — but today he is too beset by pain and exhaustion for his skin to heat, for his bollocks to spark. John’s palm sweeps upward to clasp firm but gentle around the back of Justin’s neck, and Justin doesn’t have it in him to suppress the shiver the contact elicits.
“We’ll take a bit of a breather, and then we’ll both get cleaned up,” John says. “Slow and easy, yeah?”
Justin only nods. He allows himself to close his eyes and savour John’s hands on him, just for a moment. His brain can appreciate it, even if his battered flesh cannot.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” John says. He’s using the same voice he uses for questioning victims whose hands shake around the mug of office coffee they’re given. Soft and gentle, tone apologising for intrusion but insistent nonetheless. Justin resents it. He is not a victim. John doesn’t get to use him to exercise his sympathy muscles. Justin made a choice and damn him, he’d make the same one over again if it meant keeping John’s eyes unclouded with loss. John doesn’t get to be gentle at him.
“You got your man didn’t you?” Justin says. “That’s what happened.”
“We made it work, Alice and me, all right?”
“White flag, mate,” John says, raising his hands in surrender. Justin squeezes his eyes shut for the fraction of a second it takes for regret to settle in, for losing the warm weight of John’s hand on him. “I don’t mean to — needle you.”
“Well don’t then, yeah?”
“I’ll get the first aid kit now,” Justin says, and he gets up and strides to the bathroom before John — or his ribs — can protest. He takes a dihydrocodeine, which must be an Alice addition because he’s certainly never seen any in a first aid kit before, and he leaves without a glance at the mirror.
On the sofa, John has his injured leg stuck out awkwardly and one long arm stretched out over the back. He looks up at Justin as if he can’t quite believe he’s there.
“I’m glad you’re not dead, mate,” he says, and Justin’s reply is a quiet huff of a laugh.
“Yeah, me too,” he says. “Now get those trousers off.”
“I promise I’ll still respect you in the morning, boss.”
John’s mouth tilts in half a smile as he rises, graceless and lopsided, to his feet, hands on his flies.
“Gonna have to stop calling me that,” he says as the buttons and zips open to reveal soft cotton boxer briefs and firm dark skin. Justin stares resolutely at his face.
“Reckon I’ll always call you that,” he says, and it’s true, and he doesn’t regret it a bit.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re about to get new identities and relocate with a handy ginger watch dog. Seems to me, that puts us on equal footing.” He tips to and fro as he gets his good leg out of the trousers, and then he sits back down again to brace himself for the peeling of the wounded one.
“Consider it an endearment, then,” Justin says. He seats himself on the coffee table facing John, and it puts him right between his legs. It’s about as unsexy a situation as Justin’s ever found himself in, though, so he can’t even appreciate it. He can smell John’s blood, and he knows by the way it’s caked in the fabric that it’s dried right into the wound. It’s going to have John screaming bloody murder, no matter what they do. He’s surveying the damage and considering all possible avenues when John speaks.
“Clean shot, exit wound,” he says. “And I’ve already stopped bleeding, really. It’s not bad enough to go to A & E.” It’s not bad enough to lose Alice is all Justin hears, and he’s all right with that. Something elemental within himself has shifted to reconcile the fact of Alice in his life. If there’s room for John Luther, there is room for Alice Morgan. That has become an imperative Justin is now less uncomfortable with.
Justin hands him a pair of fabric scissors from the box, and while John is occupied in cutting as close to the flesh as he can, Justin prepares a neat line of needle and thread, saline wash, haemostat, sterile razors, antibiotic ointment and two dihydrocodeine pills. When one trouser leg lies stiff with blood on the floor beside them, Justin sets the painkillers in John’s palm.
“Bottom’s up,” he says, and gives him the same glass of water he took his with.
“Cheers,” John says, and treats Justin to the strong line of his neck as he tips the water down his throat. Justin snaps on a pair of nitrile gloves and opens a sterile razor.
“You ready?” he asks.
“Hit me,” John says, and takes a deep breath. All his muscles seem to tense at once. Justin resists the urge to pat a corded thigh and instead irrigates the wound with saline and ignores the way John hisses against the pain. The wound might once have been a clean hole but is now ragged and torn, the effects of exertion and rubbing fabric. The saline washed away the dried blood, and now new blood wells up vivid and clean. Bits of fabric are stuck around the edges of the wound, and Justin’s hands are steady when he uses the haemostat to pick away at it with precision. John grunts and clenches his hands into fists, but he keeps his leg still and Justin is able to do his work as quickly as possible. Each pluck of fibre out of flesh spills new blood, but it’s bright and healthy against livid pink flesh, and when he thinks he’s got it all, Justin gives the wound another splash of saline before taking up the needle and thread and sewing his DCI up again.
“I’d say you should have been a doctor, but I’m selfish enough to be glad you were a copper,” John says. They both pretend his breath is not laboured.
“It’s all I ever wanted,” Justin says. He hit thirty this year, and when he took stock of himself he realised he had everything he’d ever striven for, and there was still an emptiness inside him hollowing him out. The only time he ever feels as though he might not be missing something important is when he is with John. He’s resigned to it now — glad of it, even. Crumbs and dopamine and all. He thinks becoming a proper adult has meant coming to the understanding that a single-minded pursuit of any one thing won’t inspire an abiding happiness. A person is not one thing but multitudes, and every bit of him needs to be nourished. How foolish Justin was, to think that a place in the service would be everything he ever needed. The body, at least, is wiser than the mind. All its chemical reactions, ensuring the brain doesn’t get in the way of the reason the heart is regular in its timekeeping.
Justin surveys his handiwork. The stitching is neat and even, and if it’s a bit lopsided on account of the irregularity of the wound, neither of them are going to say anything about it. He dabs a bit of ointment along the livid line.
“All you ever wanted, past tense?” John’s tone contains a forced nonchalance.
Justin flicks his gaze up to meet John’s. He’s looking at him as if Justin is a terribly clever puzzle. Justin clears his throat.
“You’re going to have to get on your stomach so I can do the exit wound.”
John blinks and the penetrating gaze is gone. He shifts and turns and settles into position with a groan.
“I wonder how much it’s going to cost to get this carpet and couch cleaned,” he says, muffled. Justin does a cursory check, and sure enough there are little pink stains all around them, blood and saline. They should have done this in the bathroom, but the tiles and tub are so hard, and John’s mobility was limited, and Justin can’t bring himself to regret fixing him up in comfort at the expense of some posh upholstery.
“Alice ex machina,” he says, and that earns him a laugh smothered in the cushions. “It’ll work itself out.”
Justin would have to be dead not to notice the fine swell of John’s arse in his underwear, how the fabric pulls snug over the full curves and the divot in between before ending at a hem to give way to thick, strong thighs. No, Justin is alive, but he’s also an adult, so he wastes no time in giving the exit wound — smaller, neater, less beset by clinging fabric — the same treatment as he had the entrance.
“There,” he says when he’s done, “right as rain. Whatever that means.”
John grunts but doesn’t move. He’s a huge man, really, and it’s never been so obvious as it is now, while he’s taking up the entire couch, and Justin can see just how slim his hips are with his shirt riding up and emphasising the impossible broadness of his shoulders.
“All right, boss?” Justin asks. “Didn’t give you too much in the way of narcotics, did I?”
“I’m fine,” John mumbles into the sofa. “Just don’t much fancy moving again. But I will. Just — give me a minute, and we’ll do you.”
“It can wait,” Justin says. He stands and peels off the gloves, puts away all the first aid accoutrements into the box.
“It is waiting, it’s been waiting,” John says, peevish. “Should have — should have done you first.”
“Boss, I wasn’t the one bleeding from a jaunty walk around with a gunshot wound.”
“I’ll be just a minute.”
“We can get you to the bed, boss. John. A bed’s better than a sofa and all.”
“Just one minute, Ripley.”
He’s asleep, of course, and Justin puts the first aid kit away. He can’t lift fifteen stone of John Luther’s dead weight — maybe if his entire torso hadn’t been rendered into a pulp by a vigilante a day earlier, but Justin probably couldn’t even if he’d been in top form. He settles for placing a pillow by John’s head and draping a blanket over his body. He watches the rise and fall of John’s breath for exactly three inhales and exhales, and then heads to bed himself. That John Luther has the best ideas.
“You believe this stuff?” John says, not looking at him.
“Er. Not really. My family’s Catholic, though, so…”
“So not really, even then.”
Justin shifts to sit up, but pain lances through him hot and dull, and he exhales hard through his teeth before he forces himself to follow through. When he’s swung his legs over the edge of the mattress, he stills himself to let the pain settle and diffuse.
“Something occurs to me, Justin.”
“Can’t get anything by you, sir.”
John snorts, but his eyes sharpen and Justin’s heart begins to beat faster.
“And that is the fact that you spent your life proving your mettle as a copper, and now you’re throwing it all away,” John says. “Even now, with this nice bit of diversion, you could go back to the force, to your family, to your little flat. Maybe you’d even get to see Schenk shed a tear or two in joy — I’d pay money for that, Justin. But you’re not. Instead, you’re sitting here without medical treatment in this hotel my favourite psychopath’s put us up in, and you seem to have every intention of following us in whichever direction our fancy blows. What I can’t fathom is why.”
That’s him rumbled, then. Humiliation rushes through him — endorphins blooming in his veins like tumours — but at the very least he’s controlling the outward expression of his physical pain. It’s not so different, ultimately, from keeping the shame of his pathetic, unrequited devotions from showing on his face.
“If you don’t want me along, I won’t come.” What a life he would have in Serious and Serial Crimes. DCI Ripley. All the respect and closed cases he could choke on. Nodding in the hallways at friends. Going home to his empty flat. Nursing his heavy heart until it turned, inevitably, to stone.
“That’s not what I said,” John says. “I’d just like to know why. And don’t lie to me, Justin.”
And easy as that, he’s angry. What right has John Luther to prod his sorest spots, to force a confession from him when all it will do is destroy him? It’s easy for John — let the poofter down gently, get on with his new life in New Zealand or Canada or the bloody beaches of Bali if that’s what he wants. He has nothing to lose, while Justin’s whole carefully ordered life will be reduced to cinders.
“What exactly do you want to hear?” Justin snaps. “You already know, so what could you possibly get out of my saying the words? Is it an ego thing? Funny, I never thought of you as egotistical, but maybe I really am as blind as Stark and Gray wanted me to think I was.”
John sits back in the chair, bare legs splayed wide, bible dangling between them. His brows are furrowed as he considers Justin with all the prowess of his twenty years on the force. Justin doesn’t care anymore that he’s barely dressed and in bed and feeling as flayed as a moth pinned to a board. He doesn’t even care that it’s John doing the flaying. He is exhausted, and he needs another painkiller, and none of it matters because his world is being dashed to pieces and he has no one to blame but himself.
He pushes the covers away and eases himself off the bed with as much dignity as he can muster. He stands to go to the loo, and John just looks up at him as if he’s some kind of cold case he can’t crack.
“I’ll call DSU Schenk,” Justin says. “I’ll get my damned job back.”
John catches his wrist before he can get two steps away.
“Let me wrap your ribs,” he says.
Justin is aware that his face has screwed itself up into a snarl; he can feel the heaviness of his brow, the pinch of his mouth. He has, without meaning to, met the black of John’s eyes, and he’s shaking his head.
“Don’t,” he says.
“Why are you doing this?”
“You’re my mate,” John says, “and I love you.”
Justin yanks his wrist out of John’s grip.
“Egotistical and cruel. I’m finally getting the gist of it, thanks.”
John is suddenly standing, close enough to loom, and the height he loses from his injured leg isn’t hampering the effect that has on Justin at all. The bible drops to the floor with a dull thud, and then there are big warm hands cradling Justin’s jaw and Justin can find neither his wits nor his senses.
“Do you have any idea,” John says, voice gruff, “what it was like for me to see your body on the pavement? Do you have any clue how it felt to hold you and know you were gone? It felt like the world had ended and left me behind. It felt like I’d never smile again.”
There is a thickness clogging the base of Justin’s throat.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
“You let me believe—”
“I had to. Marwood was going to get away with it and drag you down with him. I couldn’t, I couldn’t—”
“You had no right,” John says, and his lips are plump but dry, catching against Justin’s own. “You had no right.”
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Justin tells him, and the groan in John’s throat vibrates through Justin’s whole body half a moment before their lips collide. John licks his way into Justin’s mouth, hot and insistent and more thorough than Justin had ever dared conjure in his fantasies. Justin’s spine goes liquid and his body sinks into the pillar of John’s, uncaring of its tapestry of bruises. They kiss in long, hot draws, unhurried and unhampered. Neither of them has even the hint of an erection — opiates have that effect — but that gives them the time to learn each other by taste, to explore the topography of their kisses alone, and to do it with heads clear of the substances of arousal. This, Justin thinks with the small portion of his brain not dedicated to kissing John Luther like all his Christmases come at once, is real. There is no silly ‘being swept away by the moment,’ or blaming the southerly rush of blood and the production of testosterone, vasopressin, estradiol for a lapse in judgement. This is a choice made with full rationality — Justin’s and John’s both.
Eternities later, Justin is no longer being kissed breathless, and John envelopes him in a hug just shy of too hard on his ribs, face tucked into Justin’s neck, the two of them swaying minutely to inaudible music.
“You’ll come with us,” John says, words a dark rumble against his pulse point. “We’ll go somewhere it doesn’t rain so much and set up a private detective agency — partners, on equal ground. So you can’t call me boss.”
“All right, boss.”
“God.” John clasps a hand round Justin’s chin and pulls him in for another kiss. It feels like John is sipping the very soul from him, and Justin is only too happy to give it to him. “How long have you been wanting this?”
“Since the first case,” Justin says, and John groans again before clasping Justin to himself more firmly. He knows it’s pathetic, to moon after an unattainable man for five years, but Justin doesn’t feel pathetic right now. How could he, with the aforementioned unattainable man clutching at him as if the loss of his touch would be the death of him? Justin settles his head against John’s shoulder and closes his eyes. John’s shirt is dirty from a day of being shot at, but John himself smells fresh off a shower and clean. Underneath, there is the unique scent of him that cannot be washed away, and inhaling it makes Justin feel like he might be getting drunk. Pheromones — some people are more suited to each other than others. The better someone smells to you, the more compatible, and John Luther is intoxicating, even with all of Justin’s sex hormones muted by dihydrocodeine. He tightens his arms around John’s waist and barely notices the tenderness of his ribs.
“We need to wrap you up properly,” John says anyway, and Justin disentangles himself reluctantly. John smiles down at him, small and blinding, eyes so warm and sweet. It feels like a physical blow, to be looked at like that. Justin drags in a steadying breath.
“Loo, then,” he says. John ushers Justin ahead of him. The lights are bright in the bathroom, all of Justin’s bruises stark in vivid Technicolor. In the mirror, he catches sight of John’s boyish hips, clad only in underwear and looking curiously vulnerable for the intimacy.
“I hope Alice comes by with new trousers,” Justin says. John’s lips quirk, and his eyes are full of awe, and his hands are gentle on Justin’s body.
One night six months after they left England, they are kissing on the sofa when John’s hand strays, for the first time, from the swell of Justin’s arse to the valley of his perineum, and Justin grunts into John’s mouth.
“All right?” John asks in a low rumble, the pad of his middle finger rubbing firm over Justin’s hole.
“God, yeah,” Justin says, pushing back into the contact. He wants this, has wanted it for as long as he’s known John. He slings a leg over John’s lap and butts their erections together. John pushes all of his fingers into Justin’s crack and gives his cheek a squeeze. Justin moans and kisses him deeper.
“I didn’t know if you did this or not,” John says.
“Didn’t want to pressure you.”
John laughs a little, free arm squeezing tight around the small of Justin’s back.
“Why, because I’m going to have some big heterosexual panic or summat?”
“Most straight men do.”
“Do this with a lot of straight men, do you?”
Justin pulls away and looks John in the face. He’s amused, and his pupils are wide, and he seems inordinately preoccupied with Justin’s mouth.
“Plenty of blokes don’t mind what kind of body a mouth is attached to in the moment,” Justin says. “And after all the oxytocin’s faded away, they don’t like what they see.”
Both of John’s hands run up Justin’s sides and down the line of his spine. His smile’s slipped away, and he’s wearing a pensive furrow in his brow.
“Good thing there aren’t any straight men here, then,” he says. “Being as I’m sitting here with a hard on, terribly in love with a man in my lap.”
Justin swallows to keep himself from telling John he knows that isn’t true. He leans down to seal his mouth over John’s again, but John pulls back just enough for Justin to miss.
“You’ve been ill-treated, haven’t you?” John says. “Sometimes by me.”
Justin shrugs. It’s not something he spends his time contemplating.
“You’re the best man I’ve ever been with,” he says. His sex life in Cheshire was all cottaging and glory holes and shame, his partners’ if not his own, and when he came to London, no one seemed up for more than a furtive, dirty fuck, plus their not being John Luther had always put a bit of a damper on things. Justin had stopped trying to pull more than once or twice a year, by the end.
John cups his face and kisses him soft and slow, like the first time, as if Justin isn’t a shameless wanton, rubbing himself on John’s body.
“I ought to tell you, then,” John says. “Every day.”
“How I cherish you.”
Justin’s heart stutters and his breath leaves him. He feels like he’s falling, but John is there, John will catch him. John’s fingers weave through his hair and he holds him close to plunder his mouth, and then Justin is being borne down on his knees, draped over the edge of the sofa, and he can hear the scrape of the coffee table being pushed away so John can kneel behind him. John smooths his hands over Justin’s bum before pulling his pants down and helping him get rid of them. And then, without ceremony, John spreads the cheeks of Justin’s arse and licks a long stripe from bollocks to tailbone.
Justin cries out, stars bursting behind his eyelids, and he can’t help it: he rocks his arse back into John’s hands. John chuckles dark and low against the skin of his perineum.
“Like that?” he says.
“Fuck, yes,” Justin says, and John pushes his face deeper. He worries his tongue around the rim of Justin’s hole before he seals his mouth around it and sucks. Justin scrabbles at the upholstery before he reaches back with one hand and grasps the back of John’s head to steady him while he rocks back into that tongue. John alternates great laves of the full flat of his tongue with firm strokes of the tip, and Justin is incoherent, squirming, muffling his bellows in the cushions. John has found his very favourite thing without even having to ask, and damn him, he is fantastic at it. Justin knows he should not be surprised by now. John is an enthusiastic and intuitive lover, and with the clarity of hindsight, Justin wonders why they’ve wasted so much time not lavishing attention on each other’s arses.
Justin can feel his muscle giving under the onslaught of John’s wicked tongue and sucking mouth, and the steady rocking he’s engaged in is becoming more erratic. He lifts his head to speak and has to wipe away the saliva that’s leaked out of his mouth while he’s been rendered mindless.
“Fingers now, boss, come on,” he says. John pulls away, and there’s the shuffle of clothing being discarded before his hands are back on Justin’s arse, appreciative. When John slides a finger over Justin’s hole again, it’s slick with lubricant Justin didn’t know John had.
“I’ve been thinking about this too,” John says, and leans over him to scrape his teeth between Justin’s shoulder blades, in the spot where just a touch can always make him come undone. Justin shudders and moans, and when he presses back, John’s finger slips inside him easily. He fucks it in and out with maddening gentleness, rubbing along the walls of his arse carefully, searchingly. He may have played with women’s arses — he’s too practiced at this not to have — but he’s never had to search for a prostate before. Justin’s not worried. Justin loves the stretch and rub of being filled, of having someone inside him, and with John it can only be better than it’s ever been before.
“Another,” he pants, and John obliges him. The stretch around two of John’s fingers is tighter, and sweeter, and makes Justin throw his head back, the moan ripped from him without his volition. John hums behind him as if amused and scratches his beard between Justin’s shoulder blades. Justin begins to shake, and John keeps up the steady fuck of his fingers, spreading them gently on each downstroke and then plunging back in with more force. It’s so exquisite Justin might start sobbing with it. Instead, he chokes out a demand for more.
John pauses to spread more lube on his fingers, and then he eases a third finger inside him and hooks them against the slackening walls of Justin’s arse. Justin can’t do more than whimper and shove his face into the cushions to smother the sounds. He pushes a hand down to grasp at his cock, and he finds it leaking copiously and so hard the slightest touch is achey and wonderful. John twists his fingers inside him so each knuckle presses firmly into the grip of his arse, and with that he finally grazes Justin’s prostate. Justin’s shout is hoarse, and he might be begging, and when John removes his hand he feels bereft. He hears the rustle of condoms, but he pushes himself up onto his elbows and cranes his neck to see.
“Wait,” he says, panting, and John’s eyes flick up to meet his. John’s mouth is slick and swollen, breath coming quick between his parted lips. “One more finger,” Justin says. “Your prick’s huge, you know.”
John smirks then. “Thanks for noticing,” he says, and lays aside the strip of condoms. He puts four fingertips just inside Justin’s hole and Justin sighs, eyes sliding shut in contentment. Before they can get to work spreading him further, John’s lips are on his again, chaste and sweet, and the hammering of Justin’s heart grows more forceful. “I’ll take care of you,” John whispers, and all four his fingers, cramped in a bundle, work themselves into Justin’s arse. Justin bellows and buries his sweaty face back in the cushions while John murmurs encouragements at him, strokes his back with his free hand, showers the space between his shoulder blades with sucking kisses. Justin feels full but not sated, and he rocks back into John’s hand, demanding more. John twists his wrist and keeps up a steady thrusting before he kneels under him and takes Justin’s prick into his mouth, sucking hard even as he works his tongue beneath the foreskin. Justin shouts and bucks against him, arsehole clenching around the intrusion, and then he’s begging for John’s cock, shameless and eager and so hard he might actually be hurting himself.
“Off, off,” he says, “I want to ride you.”
John grunts out a broken little moan as he sits heavily on the couch. Justin grabs a condom and rolls one neatly into position before he throws a leg over John and steadies John’s cock at his hole. John grips Justin by the hips, and before he sinks down, Justin looks up into John’s face. Sweat has beaded up on his forehead, and his chest glistens with it, and he’s looking at Justin like he’s a miracle he can’t believe he gets to touch. Justin feels his heart swelling so much it hurts, and he doesn’t know the names of the chemicals that cause that — he only knows the name of John Luther.
He bears down to let John in and slowly works himself down the length of his cock, gazing into John’s eyes the whole while. John’s cock is both long and thick, a blunt, unforgiving intrusion inside him, and it burns despite the preparation. Still, Justin’s eyelids flutter shut, and through the stretch of it he can feel the tide of satisfaction and contentment at being connected to John this way rushing towards him. His mouth hangs open for his ragged breath, and when he opens his eyes, he finds John looking at him as if he’s broken and mended his heart just by letting him inside.
“You,” John says, and his words dry up but Justin understands. He bottoms out, arse flush with John’s lap, and he rather wants to cry but he won’t, he won’t — he’ll slide forward to gather John close instead, he’ll kiss him with all the fervour and care his heart can afford, he’ll wrap his arms around John’s neck and roll his hips slow and steady until John’s gripping his arse hard and thrusting upwards helplessly, until he has to undulate faster and faster, until he’s practically bouncing on the column of the perfect cock inside him, until they are crying out too often to swallow each utterance in a sloppy kiss. John’s smacking Justin’s prostate with every third thrust, and when he scratches down Justin’s nipple with one hand and palms the head of Justin’s cock with the other, Justin’s arse clenches around the girth of John’s prick and he’s blinded by supernovae as his bollocks seize up and his orgasm tightens around the base of his spine before bursting out of him with the force of all his pent up love.
Justin shakes through the aftershocks as John keeps on fucking him. John murmurs filth and encouragement to him, tells him he’s gorgeous and perfect, squeezes hard at both of his arse cheeks as his thrusts lose their rhythm and coherence. Justin is faintly aware of the fact that he’s slumped into John’s chest, mouthing lazily at a semen-spattered collarbone and clenching his arse convulsively around John’s cock. John’s voice takes on a pained sort of urgency just before he slams hard into Justin’s body and keens as he comes hard, arms locked around Justin’s back, face buried in Justin’s neck. Justin can feel the pulse of John’s prick as his orgasm pumps out of him — a new sensation he’s never had with another partner — and the wonder of it helps him gather his wits enough to sit up a bit and stroke John’s hair, his shoulders, his arms as he weathers his own come down. Justin lays his lips against the crown of John’s head, murmurs filth and encouragement, tells him he’s gorgeous, and perfect, and loved.