“It’s a good thing he’s so fit, I can tell you,” Miles says slyly to Emerson, nodding towards DI Chandler as he approaches their table, three new pints cradled carefully within his large, capable hands. For a moment Emerson allows himself to imagine again what those well-manicured fingers would feel like sliding along his skin. But the DI’s innocently enquiring expression as he slides the glasses onto the table and takes his seat beside Emerson makes him feel dirty for even thinking such thoughts, not when they’re not, they’re not….
Miles grins behind his pint glass and takes a long pull. “Not sure me stripping half naked and striking such a dramatic pose would have inspired the same sense of awe and divine revelation as our illustrious commander’s godlike physique.”
“Miles!” Chandler is blushing bright red as he glares at Miles, who grins back, unrepentant and secure in his right to tease the Boss, even about this, even now. It’s been five months and the DI seems like he’s finally back to his old self, to the relief of the whole team, who’d been treating him with kid gloves till he snapped at them for it.
“Don’t act all shocked. You know very well how you looked to those nutters—you deliberately posed that way so they’d think you was their saviour.”
“Well, yes. I took advantage of the positioning of the light beams for maximum effect, I admit.”
He pauses and his eyes dart to Emerson before he looks back at Miles, and Emerson’s pulse skips at that deliberate moment of attention. “But it’s not like I deliberately took off my clothes to… to show off.”
Emerson starts to grin at the image, but stops himself, because the DI looks uncomfortable, even though it’s just the three of them. The others cleared off home ages ago, although Emerson suspects Mansell’s gone out clubbing. He hasn’t changed that much, no matter what everyone else seems to believe.
Chandler’s report had been succinct. His jacket and shirt had been saturated with sewage from a broken pipe, so he’d removed them. Nothing funny in that, but there’d still been sniggering around the station, jokes and speculation from the idiots who don’t know their DI, don’t know what an amazing man he is, what courage and determination it must have taken him to keep on going, to save that girl and convince that cult to give themselves up. Joseph Chandler’s a fucking hero twice over, if only they knew.
“So how come you’re so fit, anyway,” Miles asks. “You still boxing or what, going to one of them fancy exercise emporiums they have up your way?”
“No, don’t tell me. I bet you run, like ten miles every morning before drinking a kale and vitamin shake on your way into the office. Ooh, do you wear those skinny leggings things the metrosexuals wear nowadays to be trendy?”
“They’re called skins,” Emerson says and then retreats behind the glass as Miles winks at him. He sips the foamy liquid—Kilkenny, the DI’s usual choice when it’s his turn to buy—and then surreptitiously wipes his mouth to make sure he hasn’t got any foam left. Emerson never really acquired a taste for beer, only drank it to fit in because dicks like Mansell would take the piss if he didn’t, but Kilkenny’s all right, and the DI drinks it, so.
“I’m sure they look very fetching on you,” Miles teases.
“What is this sudden fascination with my exercise routine? With my… physique.” Chandler’s cheeks are glowing again. Emerson fancies he can feel their warmth. The DI’s sitting close enough that Emerson would just need to turn to face him a bit and their legs would brush. He wants to, oh, he wants to, but he’s not brave enough, not yet. He takes a long swig of his beer.
Miles grins conspiratorially at Emerson and then back at the DI. “That’s not a denial.”
“If you must know, I swim.”
“You’re kidding!” Miles’s brows draw together; he looks oddly shocked.
The DI folds his arm across his chest. “No.”
“You. You swim.”
“Yes, I do,” says Chandler, and it’s clear from his tone that there’s a story there and also that he does not mean to discuss it. There’s definitely something going on with the two of them.
The moment stretches between them.
“I swim,” Emerson volunteers, and then clamps his mouth shut as they both stare at him.
“Do you now,” Miles says, and his grin reaches ear to ear. “Go on then, tell us more.”
“Oh, leave him alone, Miles,” the DI says unexpectedly, and Emerson thrills at Chandler’s defence of him. Chandler looks at him warmly and Emerson ducks his head, returns the smile from under his lashes, even though he knows that Miles is watching them both, immensely amused.
“Where do you swim?” Chandler asks, and he’s interested, he’s really interested, this is something (not work-related) that they have in common. Emerson wasn’t lying, he does go to the gym sometimes, or he did. There’s one on the way to work that has a decent pool, and for a while there, after the Krays, he’d even signed up for the boxercise classes as well.
He hasn’t been for a bit, what with work and everything else (he refuses to think of the shadows that still lurk in the corners of his vision when he’s not paying attention). His membership’s still current, though, he’s pretty sure.
“The Tower Bridge one, do you know it?” Emerson waits for a sly comment from Miles, but either he doesn’t know the gym or he’s decided he’s teased them enough.
DI Chandler’s brows crease. “Near Fenchurch Street? The Virgin Active?”
“That one, yeah.”
“That’s quite convenient for work.”
“It’s why I picked it.” Emerson doesn’t mention that the gym nearest his flat, which he used to belong to, is rundown and not overly clean and doesn’t meet his standards anymore.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Miles announces, pushing aside his half-finished pint. “The last time I set foot in a gym, other than trying to keep you from getting yourself killed, that is,” he says pointedly to the DI, “was before the kids were born. I get enough exercise between running after them and running after you.” He gets to his feet, resting one hand briefly on DI Chandler’s shoulder as he rises. Emerson is, as always, ashamed of the jealously that immediately twists in his gut. If anyone’s earned the right to be touchy feely with the Boss, it’s Miles, and Chandler doesn’t appear to mind, just shrugs and rolls his eyes at Miles’s pointed comment.
Miles glances down at Emerson with the usual mixture of pity and exasperation, like he knows exactly what Emerson is thinking. He gives a nod of his head towards the DI and waggles his eyebrows suggestively. Emerson can feel his own blush rising and glances over at the DI, but Chandler has leant forward to take a sip of his pint and hopefully hasn’t noticed Miles’s blatant matchmaking.
He watches Miles’s back disappear out of the pub door. He’s resigned to Chandler making his excuses too, because he’s convinced that Chandler’s been avoiding being alone with him since that day he asked the DI out for a drink (sort of) and then everything went to hell.
So when Chandler sits back, looking like he’s getting comfortable, Emerson’s stomach twists in a combination of hope and worry that he’ll mess this up somehow.
“Another pint, sir?” he asks anxiously, half rising from his seat, pausing as the DI reaches out a hand in a staying gesture.
“I’m all right for now,” he says. Of course he is. Chandler’s barely touched his own pint.
God, he’s such an idiot. Emerson wants to sink through the floor.
Chandler shifts, cricks his neck in that way he does when he’s embarrassed or been made to feel uncomfortable. Emerson’s made him feel like this. God. Then the DI clears his throat. “You know, when it’s just us, and Miles, of course, just outside of the office, you can call me Joe.”
Emerson must be staring, because the DI—Joe—looks down at his beer and then takes a too large sip, as though he’s just doing it for something to do.
“Not if you’d rather not—”
“No, sir. Joe. I mean, yes! It’s fine, I’d like that, thank you.” Oh god, now he’s babbling. Shut up. “Um, I’m Emerson. Or Em, if you like.”
Joe smiles at him. “Good,” he says, and Emerson knows he’s smiling back like an idiot.
There’s a pause, less awkward than before but still…
And then Joe asks, “So, what’s the pool like at your club?”
He’s aware of nothing but the stroke of his limbs through cool water, the faint odour of chlorine when he takes a breath, the steady beat of his heart. Gradually he notices that it seems even quieter than usual at this time of night and he stops at the end of a lap to look around. He has the pool to himself; the few other swimmers there when he arrived, late away from work as usual, have gone (he has the impression) some time ago.
A chill shivers through him, but he shakes it off and dives back under and into another lap, overarm. At first he finds himself listening for anything the sounds of his own splashing could be masking, but after a few more laps he settles back into his own space. All thoughts of work, the arguments with his flatmates (over the weird noises they make in the early hours when he’s trying to sleep and the strange intermittent damp-looking patches that have appeared on the walls), all gone. So at first he’s not sure what he’s hearing—if he’s hearing anything at all or if he’s imagining the echoing moaning wail. Or is it a scream? It’s so quiet he finds himself straining to hear it, if he’s hearing it; it feels like it’s within him, a drawn-out sensation of such anguish that goose pimples prickle along on his arms, even under the water. His heart beats faster, adrenalin, not panic, and he picks up the pace, thrashing through the water until he reaches the shallow end. He stops several metres before the end, getting his feet under him and surging upwards, spinning, his eyes darting to each corner of the room, his hands raised to ward off attack.
He’s alone. Of course he is. He’s imagining things, letting the stress of the job, of the nightmarish things he’s seen, get the better of him. His hands are trembling and he tucks them into his armpits. He may as well get out. He’s not going to feel safe here now, but even as he takes a step towards the side there’s a skittering, chittering sound, echoing around and around. He freezes. The cheerful fluoro overhead lighting flickers and several panels go dark, apparently randomly, and the shadows flare in the suddenly cavernous-seeming room.
The panicky sensation claws at his throat again and he opens his mouth, but then the doors crash open and he meets the surprised gaze of the staff member who’d chatted amiably with him earlier when he’d signed in. The lights flicker on and the fraught atmosphere disappears as if it had never been, leaving him lightheaded with relief.
“You all right, mate? The pool closed hours ago. How long you been in here?”
He doesn’t know.
“It’s good. Clean, well lit, not too busy, usually. When I go, that is.”
“When do you go?”
Emerson hesitates. But Chandler’s words, Chandler’s disappointment, are engraved in his mind. All that matters to me is the truth.
He ducks his head, looks fixedly at the condensation streaking his glass. “Actually, I haven’t been for a while. Not since the thing with the mould.”
“You believe it affected you?”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“How could I? When it turned out that the things everyone thought they were imagining turned out to be true.”
“We still don’t have all the facts.”
“The things Skip saw and heard turned out to be a real person. The water from the taps really was black.”
“Was it? Why was I the only one who saw it?”
Emerson looks up at Joe’s tone, unexpectedly urgent. Joe’s leaning forward, staring at him as though willing him to understand.
“Louise Iver was cunning, yes, and her actions carefully planned, but surely not even she could control the colour of the water in the pipes at any given moment.”
“I suspect that the nails in the pipes, as well as the other physical evidence, was put there to reassure us that there was a rational explanation after all.”
“But why? I thought the point was that she was trying to drive us crazy.”
“That’s the official explanation. No one wants to believe there’s a malevolent force working against us.”
“I’m not saying that. The mould was real. Maybe it did affect our brains, just like the ergot poisoning from the mouldy rye that drove Washington crazy.”
“We were all checked out. The doctors didn’t find anything.”
“Maybe they weren’t looking for the right thing. Or maybe the effect was temporary, or cumulative, so that once the station was cleansed and fumigated, it went away.”
“You’re certain it’s gone?”
“Well, no one’s reported anything, and I haven’t seen anything since then—or heard, for that matter. What about yourself?”
Emerson hesitated. It wasn’t lying. He wasn’t sure. “No.”
“There you go, then.” Joe sits back in his seat. “That’s enough doom and gloom, as Miles would say.” He picks up his beer. “So tell me,” he says, after he’s taken a sip. “What made you join the police?”
Emerson steals an arm from under the covers to silence the chirping of his alarm. He stretches, yawning, reluctant to leave the warmth of the covers. In the early morning light shadows dance wildly across the wall as the wind tosses the branches of the maple tree outside his bedroom window. In his half-awake state, the shadows seem to reach toward the rising damp stain that now stretches most of the way along the top of the wall.
It’s quiet for once, no background hum of traffic, no neighbours yelling at their (apparently) good-for-nothing kids. Even his flatmates are conspicuous by their silence—normally Adam has the TV on as he potters about getting breakfast and doing his last-minute ironing of his shirt, yelling up the stairs asking Tranh where she’s hidden the damn keys this time or some such.
It’s tempting to burrow back under the covers and go back to sleep but he’s never had such motivation to get up either, so he gets up and puts his swimming trunks on under his exercise gear, shivering in the chill. Great. The heating’s on the blink again. Sometimes, when he’s feeling fanciful, he imagines the house itself hates them, wants them gone.
He throws a towel, deodorant, and boxer briefs into his sports bag and takes the stairs two and three at a time. His steps thud against the old floorboards, seeming to echo in a way they really shouldn’t in such a confined space.
All is quiet downstairs too, no sign of the flatmates at all. The only sound is the scraping of the tree branches against the kitchen window as the shadows dance across the wall. Maybe Tranh’s finally beaten Adam to death with his own absurdly pretentious guitar.
Emerson pops a couple of slices of bread in the toaster and fills a water bottle from the filter tap to go in his bag. His skin prickles with unease. He puts his earbuds in and flicks through his punk rock playlist, settling on The Damned to start with. He slides his phone into his pocket just as the toast pops up.
It’s not until he’s on his way to the train, striding briskly along in the chill spring morning air, absentmindedly humming along to ‘Danger to Yourself’, that he figures out what seems off.
There’s no wind.
Even at this hour he’s expecting the pool to be busier. Instead, there are a couple of OAPs slowly making their way up and down the walking lane, and two athletic types over the far side, complete with swim caps. In the centre lane, a nicely built guy in speedos is cutting neatly through the water. Emerson half watches him as he slips out of his hoodie and track pants, admiring the clean, muscled lines of the man’s figure as he launches out of a perfect end change and glides into his stroke.
He folds his clothes up and puts them away in his backpack, tucking his phone away underneath them. He picks up his goggles and turns, taking a couple of steps towards the pool as he lifts the goggles, only to stop, feeling his jaw actually drop open at the sight of Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler casually levering himself out of the pool, hands planted firmly on the concrete, shoulder muscles flexing. He uncurls to his full six foot plus height, pool water still sheeting from his long, perfectly muscled form for a few moments as Emerson stares longingly, his goggles clutched ridiculously against his chest.
Chandler takes a couple of steps in his direction. He hasn’t spotted Emerson yet; his attention is distracted. He’s got some wayward water stuck in his ear canal to judge by the way he’s tilted his head and is banging the area above his ear with his palm. Emerson manages to close his mouth and is adjusting his goggles preparatory to sliding them on when Chandler notices him.
“Emerson,” he greets him, not looking particularly surprised to see him there.
“Hello, Joe,” he says, managing not to stumble over the name. It still feels awkward, forbidden, and it gives him a thrill, that he’s permitted this now. “You come here, now?”
“On your recommendation, I thought I’d give it a go. My own club is less conveniently located and, to be honest, not really my milieu these days.”
He’s not one of them anymore, he means. The posh fast-trackers, meant for the upper echelons. The rich lawyers and bankers and stockbrokers, cocktail parties and tennis courts and polo with the royals. Joe gave up that world for Whitechapel. For his team. For real police work. And has gone through hell since, because of it.
Emerson finds his eyes straying to the rivulets of water making their way down Joe’s pecs, his abs, and forces his gaze upwards, only to find Joe watching him. Joe’s expression gives nothing away.
“You, uh, you always come in the morning?” he stutters. As soon as the words leave his mouth he realises what he said—what it sounds like—and feels his cheeks flush hotly; he’s bright red, he knows he is.
Joe’s too well-mannered to notice Emerson’s embarrassment. “Yes, I’m usually first in, as a matter of fact. I like the peace and quiet.”
He means: before the rest of the punters descend; unwashed, probably pissing in the pool or whatever other bodily secretions the chlorine is supposed to offset.
Emerson nods. He understands.
Joe’s lips press together briefly. Emerson suspects he’s discomforted at revealing something he perceives as a weakness. “Right, well,” he says, taking a step back, “I’ll see you at work.”
“See you,” Emerson says, and turns to walk over to the edge of the pool. He’s determined not to look back, but he’s at the edge, about to slide in and he can’t help a look over his shoulder, fully expecting Joe to have disappeared into the showers.
Joe’s paused in the doorway. He’s looking at Emerson. Their eyes meet and Joe’s mouth quirks. Emerson looks down, embarrassed at being caught, then stops as he realises it’s not just him looking. He raises his head, trying to project more confidence than he feels, feeling uncomfortably exposed in just his swimming trunks. He’s not exactly buff, not like Joe is.
Joe gives an awkward little wave goodbye and disappears through the glass doors and Emerson lets his breath out heavily, wonderingly. It’s not till one of the OAPs drips past him, giving him a narrow-eyed sidelong look, that Emerson realises he’s been standing lost in space for probably a bit too long, and turns to slide into the pool.
His flatmates are fighting again. He can hear them even when he has his bedroom door closed. This has been going on for months, not every night, but often enough, often into the early hours, and he’s fed up with it, fed up with the way they act all confused when he asks them what’s going on. He’s not sure what’s worse, the low, threatening tones—he can’t make out the words—or the whispering that sounds like it’s coming from just outside his bedroom door.
It keeps him awake, and he doesn’t deal with sleep deprivation well, he never has. He knows that the shadows on the ceiling aren’t real. They can’t be, there’s no light source. He must be imagining things. Staring at the ceiling, desperate, his heart racing, he knows there is something wrong with him. He wonders, sickly, if he’s going mad. He closes his eyes and pictures Joe, his eyes kind, and hugs the image to him until the voices stop.
In the morning, when he wakes, his sheets tangled and knotted about his feet, his room is full of light; the sky is clear and blue. His terror seems distant, the product of feverish imagination. By the time he’s on the train, scrolling through Facebook memes and pics of Erica and Mansell mugging for the camera, he’s all but forgotten about it.
The bar staff are taking their own sweet time getting around to serving him. It’s like he’s invisible tonight or something. That skinhead definitely wasn’t here before him, but as he clocks the prison tattoos decorating most visible areas of skin and the impatient sneer, he figures he doesn’t blame the girl behind the bar for not keeping the man waiting.
He doesn’t mind much. He’s watching his workmates laugh it up at their table in the mirror behind the bar, watching Joe’s mild bemused expression at their antics. Joe looks up and catches his eye. He smiles and Emerson’s heart leaps because he’s catalogued every one of Joe’s smiles. This isn’t his deprecating one or his wry one or his shy, touched one that comes out when someone does something nice for him (because Joe never expects kindness).
Emerson wonders how fucked-up Joe’s childhood must have been to make him that way, and swallows a moment of rage against every person who’s ever hurt him. No, Joe’s smile is that rare, uncomplicated one that lights up his movie-star handsome face—and it’s because of him.
Then Miles nudges him and Joe’s attention shifts. His eyes slide away from Emerson’s as he leans closer to catch whatever Miles is saying over the sudden uproar of the pub crowd watching the football on the overhead screens.
Beside Miles, Mansell is hunched over his phone, turned away from the table, his expression twisted in a sneer. He gets up and Emerson follows him with his eyes as he pushes his way out the front door of the pub. He’s arguing with someone. Surprise, surprise. But Emerson doesn’t need detective skills to figure out what’s happened. His twin’s rage and despair is his rage and despair. Mansell’s gone and fucking done it. After he swore up and down he was a changed man, that Erica was The One, that he’d never cheat on Erica.
Shadows flicker at the edge of Emerson’s vision, absorbing his rage. Feeding it.
Emerson’s determined to get back into a routine of going to the gym at least three times a week. Maybe if he’s there at the same time Joe is, they could go in to work together. Maybe even get breakfast on the way. He wonders what Joe’s schedule is, but he can hardly ask him without looking like a crazy stalker. He thinks about asking Miles. Miles will tell him, of course, but it’s probably not worth the amount of piss-taking Emerson would have to put up with.
He’ll just have to vary the days. Make sure he gets there first thing when the gym opens. Joe’s not there the next time Emerson goes and there’s no one else waiting to get in. The pool room is empty and smells strongly of chlorine. Coldness creeps through him as he recalls his episode the last time he was alone here. The first few laps he’s on edge, waiting for... he doesn’t know what. But nothing happens, and when he stops to adjust his goggles he realises he’s not alone anymore, there are half a dozen others taking up other lanes, and a woman over by the benches sorting two small children out with their goggles. The tension leaves his shoulders and he turns into a lap of backstroke, staring up at the fluoro lights as he carefully thinks of nothing at all.
Joe’s not there the next time either, or the time after. Emerson dutifully does his laps but it’s hard to get into the zone when he’s wondering if Joe’s changed his mind about coming here, and if it’s because the pool doesn’t measure up, or if it’s because he doesn’t want to run into Emerson. God, maybe he had noticed Emerson perving on him and it made him uncomfortable after all.
And then the next time he is there.
Emerson stops, his hand on the door, and turns as Chandler approaches. He’s smiling, looking pleased to see Emerson. At least, Emerson hopes so. Maybe Chandler’s always this awake and chipper this early in the morning.
“Getting an early start?”
“It’s Joe, remember.”
Of course he remembers. In the conversations he imagines having with Chandler, it slips easily off his tongue. He pushes open the door and holds it as Joe follows him in.
He carefully does not watch as Joe strips down to his speedos and walks over to the pool, even though Joe is putting on his goggles and not looking at him. He’s not risking being caught ogling him a second time. He waits till Joe’s pushed off into a lap before he follows him in.
He swims steadily, not allowing himself to think about the fact that Joe is in the next lane. He resists the temptation to take a break to watch him, to check that he’s still there. After about the 30-minute mark it starts to gnaw at him, the possibility that Joe’s finished up and left. He should have asked about getting coffee (or tea in Joe’s case), or breakfast afterwards before they started. He hadn’t wanted to seem over eager.
At the 45-minute mark, he cracks. He gets to the end of his lap and stands up, setting his goggles on his forehead so he can look casually around. It’s actually surprisingly busy now, with several people in each lane. He thinks the guy just approaching in the next lane is Joe, but he’s not sure enough to be relieved until the man hits the wall with his hand and stands up, pulling off his goggles as he does so. He turns and smiles at Emerson as though he knew Emerson was waiting for him. “Finished?”
How to answer? If he says yes and Joe isn’t, then he’s committed to leaving and that’s that.
“Only I was thinking...” Joe looks down at the goggles he’s wrapping around his wrist so he doesn’t have to carry them.
Emerson’s breath catches. “Yes?” His voice sounds squeaky to his own ears. He hopes he’s not blushing. He keeps his eyes on Joe’s downturned head so as not to be distracted by all that near-nakedness. He feels like a perv. But this is Joe, who’s always so buttoned up and reserved; Joe, who he’s fancied like mad for years.
Joe looks up. Emerson tries to look encouraging instead of pathetic. “Well, I usually pick up something to eat on the way in,” Joe says, with an air of determination. “Not a vitamin shake,” he adds, smiling.
“There’s a really nice café around the corner, not too busy,” Emerson says. “They do takeaway,” he adds, in case he’s reading this wrong. Giving Joe an out.
Joe’s expression turns wry. “I was thinking, maybe we could sit and eat? We’ve plenty of time before we’re due in.”
Emerson’s heart feels like it’s doing somersaults inside his chest. “Sounds good.”
“You look like that cat that ate the canary,” Miles says, clapping a hand on his shoulder. Emerson nearly jumps out of his skin.
“You shouldn’t creep up on people like that,” he mutters, turning his head to glare at Miles. Miles is grinning from ear to ear, clearly pleased with his reaction.
“Go on, then,” Miles prompts. “Tell us what’s got you smiling, ‘cause it’s not that autopsy you’re supposed to be reviewing. At least, I hope it’s not, because otherwise I’ll be really worried about you, son.”
Emerson darts a glance around to make sure none of the rest of the team are within hearing range. Especially Mansell. He can do without having the piss taken out of him for the rest of time. He knows Joe wouldn’t want him going about telling people about whatever it is they’re doing, but it’s not like Joe and Miles have any secrets from each other anyway, and he’s bursting to tell someone, to say the words out loud, to make it real.
He leans towards Miles and Miles bends forwards obligingly, face turned so that his ear is close.
“We had breakfast.”
“I should think so. Most important meal of the day,” Miles says.
“No, I mean—” Emerson’s face flames, he can feel it. Thank god no one’s paying them attention.
He sees Miles take note and the comical double-take. “Wait, you mean, you and the Boss?” Then his face changes, his mouth turns up at the corners, and his whole face lights up. “You had breakfast.”
Oh god, he thinks. “Just breakfast,” he hurries to add, and he’s not proud of the part of him that wants to leave it, to let Miles think what he wants. After all, it’s what Emerson wants, and surely what Joe wants too, because he knows what a huge deal it is for Joe to go out with anyone, never mind one of his team, never mind another man.
Miles’s eyebrows shoot up. “Just breakfast?” he repeats, and he sounds disappointed of all things.
Miles rocks back on heels. The gleeful expression returns to his face. “You go swimming together now?”
Oh god, if Miles starts making insinuations about being wet and nearly naked and how revealing swimming trunks are, Emerson won’t be responsible for the consequences. He presses his lips together so he doesn’t say something that he’ll regret when he’s stuck in filing in the depths of the basement with Buchan for a month.
He looks up and meets Joe’s eyes through the glass door of his office. Joe’s eyes dart to Miles, perched on the edge of Emerson’s desk, and back to Emerson. Emerson holds his breath because he has no doubt at all that whatever it is that is happening between them now is fragile. He wouldn’t put it past Joe to spook even now. But Joe just smiles slightly and looks back down at the folder in front of him, shaking his head in a resigned sort of way.
Emerson looks back up at Miles and surprises a soft, even affectionate, expression on Miles’s face. Caught, Miles scowls, and Emerson braces himself, but then that expression fades too. Miles straightens, “Well, can’t just stand here gassing. Murders to solve and all that,” he announces briskly. But his hand comes to rest for a moment on Emerson’s shoulder as he passes, the gentle squeeze speaks louder than words.
“Thanks, Skip,” Emerson says, and he carefully doesn’t look towards Joe’s office as he goes back to the autopsy reports he’s supposed to be comparing. They’re gruesome, of course, but when aren’t they? Whitechapel’s always attracted the crazies, the vicious, the psychopaths, and these cases always end up across DI Chandler’s desk. The ones with brutal, fatal, splashy consequences. No one blames the Boss for thinking he’s cursed, and after what he’s seen, Emerson’s not ruling it out, but he mostly agrees with Miles’s theory that the higher-ups give Joe these cases deliberately, because he solves the cases and gets the freaks off the streets permanently. Saves the taxpayers money, Miles says cynically.
They’re closing in on the suspect. Joe’s made sure all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted, and he’s determined to take this murderer alive. Joe’s convinced he keeps his victims in a basement somewhere near the river and the uniforms are out knocking on doors at the moment, asking questions Chandler’s prepared based on his theory regarding the age of the buildings and any renovations done, and the likely age, schooling, and socioeconomic circumstances of the occupants. Every household. The killer fits the usual serial killer profile of white male, 20–40, but they’re not ruling out absolutely any other possibilities. Not to mention the possibility of a nice, unsuspecting Bangladeshi family unwittingly renting out a basement flat to their murderer.
The corner of someone’s handbag is digging into his side and the scent of lavender fills his nostrils unpleasantly, but Emerson barely notices the packed train. He’s staring out of the window, thinking about Joe’s face when he said goodbye as they left the office, the way Joe looked at him with all his attention for that moment, thinking about the way his heart beat faster as he returned Joe’s smile. His mind drifts back over the day, the way Joe had stopped by his desk to ask about the autopsy he had open of the second victim, the schoolteacher. Joe had stood at his shoulder, leaning over to ask a question about something in the report and Emerson had been preoccupied by the smell of his cologne, by the warmth of his body.
Oh fuck. It was there in the report all along. If he hadn’t of been so distracted, so stupid, he would have seen it before. He’s got his phone out and is about to call Skip when the doubt paralyses him. What if he’s wrong? What if he calls everyone out after hours and it’s nothing? He’ll look like a fool (again), and Joe might go off him. He should probably just check it out himself to start with.
His heart is in his throat as he descends the narrow, rickety staircase, his torch glued to the warped and splintered steps. The piteous cries that have led him down here sound like they’re becoming weaker, but he can’t risk going any faster and putting his foot through one of the boards. Getting himself trapped and injured wouldn’t help the victim, but could be the end of him if the killer found him before backup arrives. He called it in before he entered the building and his team can’t be far behind him. Miles is going to tear him a new one for this, for following a lead without authorisation, for not waiting for them. Worse, Joe will be disappointed in him, but they’re not here and he can hear the desperation in the victim’s cries, the hopelessness. He can’t wait.
A figure looms suddenly out of the darkness, snarling. Jeez, it’s Mansell. It’s been Mansell all along, Mansell torturing all those poor people to death. No doubt Erica would have been next. Fuck, what if he’s already hurt her? She hasn’t texted him in days and that’s not like her. His terror for his sister galvanises him. The tyre iron he found on the shelf by the cellar door is sweaty in his hand but he just grasps it tighter as he swings at the figure lunging at him out of the gloom.
His mind must be playing tricks on him, because it’s not Mansell after all. His assailant is huge and the stink of him fills Emerson’s nostrils, a sweet decaying dead animal smell, fetid and rotting. The giant arm reaches towards him and time slows, so that Emerson clearly sees the forearm raised to grab the tyre iron from him. But the giant has underestimated Emerson’s determination and the sound of bone crunching is sickening in the confines of the soundproofed torture room.
It doesn’t seem to slow his attacker at all. But Emerson has all the time in the world; everything’s still moving so very slowly. The other arm is grabbing for him. Emerson steps out of the way and strikes the man’s elbow. That bone crunches satisfyingly too and it’s all so easy, Emerson thinks as he ducks to take out his assailant’s knee. The giant howls with pain, but he doesn’t go down, and somehow he’s still reaching for Emerson, his hands red and bloody in the gloom.
In the corner of the room, on a sagging, stained cot, there’s a shock of dark, tangled hair. Christ, what if it’s Erica? It can’t be because what would Emerson do without the other half of his soul? But it’s another lost soul and maybe it’s not too late for her, if Emerson can just get this done. He barely notices the large hand wrapped around his raised wrist, squeezing, the bones of his wrist grinding together. He brings up his knee, hard as he can. The giant grunts and his body jerks forward so that Emerson face mashes into his shoulder, his nose connecting painfully with bone, his eyes watering.
The giant has him, even with injuries severe enough that he shouldn’t be able to function. The stale stink of cigarettes and sulphur and rot are engulfing him. He’s lost. Erica’s lost. The poor woman in the corner’s lost. He’ll never see Joe again. Joe will blame himself, of course, and that’s another person Joe cares about murdered by the killer he’s hunting. God, what will that do to him?
This attacker is squeezing the life out of him now. Emerson’s short of breath and he can’t move his arms at all. There are spots in front of his eyes. He finds he can still move his head, though, and the darkness in the edge of vision is pure rage. He can feel it seeping through his limbs, his body, suffusing him, and he turns and puts his teeth to the man’s throat and he bites down. Tears. Rips. Destroys.
Warm copper fills his mouth as his teeth sink through flesh, and it shouldn’t be so easy, should it? How is mortal flesh so easy to tear, so fragile? Blood clogs his throat; even in the midst of the encompassing, pressing horror his throat tries to close in protest at the flood. But the man’s gasping and choking. His massive arms tighten, and Emerson hears his ribs cracking before the pain registers. He can’t breathe at all. But finally the arms loosen. Emerson is gasping and choking and trying to spit out the blood as he staggers and falls to his hand and knees, only just registering the sound and the displacement of air and dust as the enormous figure collapses near him.
Emerson’s chest is stabbing, lancing pain every time he gulps for breath and his gorge rises as he chokes and spits. He can’t get rid of the taste, the smell, of blood. It’s all over him, he’s drowning in it. He needs to get up, to check on the girl.
He tries to get to his feet, but his legs won’t hold him. He’s fucked up. Who did he think he was, thinking he could take on the killer himself? Joe must be worried sick. Joe can’t see him like this.
There’s the sound of hurried footsteps clattering down the stairs and a torch beam sweeping the room, lighting corners. Then it’s on him, blinding him as he squints upwards and a voice says, “Jesus Christ, Kent, what the fuck?” The torch beam flicks over the wall and then light floods the room. Emerson blinks rapidly as his eyes adjust. Mansell must have found the light switch that had eluded Emerson’s groping hands when he’d made his way down in the dark, ignoring Skip’s order to wait for backup, because she’d sounded so weak, so desperate. Emerson chokes on a laugh. What a fucking idiot.
Mansell’s kneeling beside him. He’s saying something, asking something. His tone is urgent. The supporting hand on his back is just another point of agony. Mansell’s kneeling in blood. Mansell’s trousers are soaked, dark, ruined.
“The girl,” Emerson manages to choke out, manages to raise an arm to wave to the corner. It unbalances him and he tips, crumbles to his side, gasping as the tide of pain makes him light-headed.
Mansell curses again and Emerson’s aware of him leaving his side, of his calling for an ambulance but it’s getting vague, grey, distant. Then he’s being hauled up into a sitting position, cradled against Mansell’s arm. He wants to laugh again, because they only did their first aid refresher a few weeks ago and he’s pretty sure Mansell shouldn’t be moving him. He forces open heavy eyes, tries to speak, to tell Mansell as much. Mansell’s peering down at him. He looks worried, his brows creased together so that his frown lines are so pronounced. It makes him look older, too old for Erica, but it’s not like Emerson has the moral high ground here, as Erica’s already pointed out. He’s vaguely wondering if their age difference bothers Joe, if it’s one of the reasons he seems reluctant to take their relationship any further, when he loses consciousness.
Joe’s by his bedside. He’s reading something in a file and doesn’t immediately notice that Emerson’s awake, which gives him time to take stock—he’s in hospital (again), and hooked up to a drip (again). He’s floating in a way that he distantly recognises as meaning that when he stops feeling no pain he’s going to be feeling a lot of pain, and he’s in no hurry for that to happen. He doesn’t immediately remember what’s happened, and he’s fine with that.
His mouth is parched. He must make some sort of sound or something because Joe looks up. The look of worry on his face transforms into relief. His face creases in a smile, erasing the worry lines that had looked permanently etched into his forehead and the corners of his mouth. He’s beautiful. Emerson wants to kiss him.
Joe’s hand twitches as though to take the one of Emerson’s resting on the bed closest to him. He reaches instead for the glass of water on the nearby stand and leans over to hold the straw to Emerson’s lips. He only lets Emerson take a couple of sips and Emerson wants to protest, but then Joe sits down again and takes Emerson’s hand in both of his own. He lifts it to his mouth and presses a brief, fervent, kiss to Emerson’s knuckles before resting their joined hands back on the pristine white sheet.
They stay like that until the door starts to open and then Joe releases his hand. He sits back out of the way as the nurse bustles around, checking Emerson’s monitors and his eyes and his pulse and his bandages, asking questions he croaks answers to. All the time he’s aware of Joe’s watchful presence, his silent support.
He still can’t remember what happened to him. Whatever it was, it was worth it.
He goes back to his old routine. Evenings really are more convenient, and it means Erica’s free to accompany him (at least at first, until his strength starts coming back), and he’s guaranteed not to run into Joe. Joe’s been wonderfully attentive, insisting he take it easy, fussing over him and making sure he goes to all of his physiotherapy sessions. But the worry in his eyes never seems to go away and Emerson can’t bear that Joe blames himself for Emerson’s fuck-up.
There’s a little old lady who regularly swims around the same time as Emerson. For a frustratingly long time he can barely match her sedate breaststroke, up and down the lane, up and down, up and down. She seems oddly relentless for someone wearing one of those old-fashioned bathing caps with red rubber flowers on them. No matter how late he goes, or how long he lingers, there she is. Even though he’d mostly convinced himself the screaming shadows had been a figment of his imagination—some kind of panic attack maybe (although that wasn’t actually reassuring)—he still finds himself starting at movement in the corners of his eyes. But after a few weeks, when they fail to make a reappearance, the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach disappears. He’d planned to make sure he wasn’t the last person left in the pool again, but he doesn’t need to, because flower lady is always there. Emerson clings to her presence like a talisman.
When he’s finally fit enough, well enough to attempt a lap or two of overarm, she pauses at the end of a lane to smile at him in an approving manner.
“Best to let him go now, don’t you think?” she says, conversationally.
“The poison in your soul. Such a good man. Too good for you, isn’t he?” she points out, gently.
Is that what it is? The envy he feels when he sees other people being happy when he’s not, succeeding where he isn’t. The jealousy that ate him up inside when Joe was bewitched by Morgan. The things he finds himself doing, the things he finds himself saying—things that he hates himself for later. Joe’s forgiven him for being such a dick to Morgan. He doesn’t blame Emerson for what happened to her. Emerson is sorry, he is, and he’s always sympathetic if the subject comes up. But the reality is—the secret he will take to the grave—is that he’s glad that she’s dead. Because if she wasn’t, Joe would still be hung up on her.
The old lady is peering up at him as she adjusts her bathing cap with her small, blue-spotted hands.
Realisation sends ice water through his veins. “You’re her.”
“I know you. It’s because of you. It’s all your fault, you evil old bitch.” Darkness flickers in the corner of his vision. Rage clutches his throat and he feels his fingers constrict to claws.
Iver is regarding him like a specimen under a microscope. That’s what they all are to her. As if on cue the lights flicker and several bulbs actually explode with a pop and a sizzle. The effect is nightmarish, shadows leaping and flickering. The old lady’s face flickers in and out of darkness, skeletal, with pitted empty eye sockets and her mouth opening wider and wider. From all around him, an eerie wail grows louder and louder, becoming a shriek that presses on his eardrums so that he’s worried they might actually burst.
Emerson raises his hands to cover his ears, but it doesn’t make any difference. The noise is inside his head. The thing that isn’t an old lady, isn’t human, is laughing, laughing and screeching. The eyeless sockets are drilling into his brain. Emerson lunges blindly forward, flailing, his hands finding her deceptively fragile-seeming shoulders, the bones birdlike, brittle, cracking audibly, deafeningly, under his clenching fingers. He pushes, with all his weight behind him, down, down, so that the creature collapses under him, its face contorted, rictus-like as it goes under the black water. The light from its eye sockets flicker, once, twice, and then everything goes dark. His fingers still clutch a motionless, sagging bunch of bone and skin and can’t even see what he’s holding onto, if it’s really dead, or just waiting for him to let go. The rage that propelled his actions disappears, leaving behind a terror so blinding he can’t think; he can’t move.
Endless darkness, endless quiet. Eventually he’s too exhausted to be afraid. He lets the thing go and nothing else happens, so he feels around till he catches hold of the nearest lane rope and follows it the metre or so back to the edge of the pool. He pulls himself out and then sits, panting, holding his suddenly aching ribs until it occurs to him to wonder why no one appears to have noticed the pool room’s gone dark and come to investigate.
He drags himself to his feet and feels his way back to where he left his sports bag, barely registering the pain when he barks his knees against the seating. He fumbles for his phone torch. Heart in his mouth, he directs the beam over the pool, but it’s dark and flat and endless and he can’t quite bring himself to go back to the edge for a closer look.
The club is nearly empty at this time of night. He passes the weights room; through the glass he can see a couple of dedicated muscled types hard at it, but they don’t look up, and the reception desk is unstaffed when he goes by.
He feels like a ghost in his own skin.
He’s huddled in his armchair, watching the shadows hiss and snarl and wondering distantly how long before they come for him. Will they knock or just break the door down and pour into the flat with their TAC vests and their automatic weapons, shouting barely intelligible instructions to disorientate and intimidate?
Will the shadows allow him to be taken quietly? He suspects not, and he can’t bring himself to care very much. There’s nothing left of him. Joe will grieve, of course, but he’s better off. Emerson should never have pursued him, never allowed his madness, if that what this is, to taint Joe. Joe’s done enough, seen enough. Endured enough.
The sound of his ringtone takes a while to register. He ignores it until it goes to voicemail, and there’s blessed silence for a few seconds but then the phone rings again. And again. From upstairs, he hears Adam shout at him to answer your bloody phone already, some people are trying to sleep, you inconsiderate sod.
Maybe it’s Joe. He drags himself out of the armchair and falls to his knees beside the sports bag he’d abandoned by the door. He fumbles amongst the debris of his life, dragging out the towel and the water bottle, finding the phone by the glow of the screen.
Emerson stares at the caller ID. He should let it go. Let them all go. His mind is grey, full of shadows, but something deep inside him is screaming now. He’s not going down without a fight. With a strength he hadn’t known he still possessed, he presses accept.
“He can’t ever know.” Miles is crouched in front of him. Emerson had dragged himself up to unlock his door when Miles had insisted on coming over, refusing to accept his excuse that he’d just overslept, that he wasn’t feeling well, that he was calling in sick. Miles had been clearly alarmed by the shake in his voice, and the way he could barely get the words out. Only Emerson agreeing to Miles coming over to check on him himself had stopped Skip calling 999 on the spot.
“You have no idea what this would do to him. Jesus, Kent. Why did it have to be drowning?”
Emerson coughs out a disbelieving, grotesquely amused sound. “That’s what’s you’re focussing on?”
“His dad drowned himself, you pillock. Joe found him. He was only a kid.”
Of course. Emerson can’t help laughing because the shadows haven’t left him anything at all. Joe might be able to forgive him for murdering Iver. Joe might even understand why he did it, because Joe might not really be a believer yet, but Emerson remembers their conversation in the pub. He remembers Joe’s questions. His doubt.
Miles is looking at him like he’s crazy. Oh, that would be the tears running down his face. He tries to stop, he really does, but it’s too funny. It’s too, too funny. His life is over. It’s hysterical.
Miles’s loyalty is legendary. But any minute now Miles is going to realise the truth. Emerson can’t be saved. Probably just as well.
Miles is staring at him, searching his eyes for something. Emerson lets him. Emerson holds his gaze. He can’t imagine what he’s looking for. If it’s even Emerson he sees looking out at him anymore.
“Oh, you poor, daft sod,” he says, so sympathetically that Emerson feels tears start in his eyes in response. Miles reaches out and pulls Emerson roughly into his arms. For a moment, Emerson resists. He’s been holding himself in so tightly for so long, terrified of the fallout from of all his horrible, terrible feelings. He slumps against Miles, clutching him so tightly he must be hurting him, but Miles is holding on nearly as tightly. Emerson cries until there’s nothing left inside of him; he’s empty, relieved, cleansed.
“Sorry, what?” Emerson picks up a piece of scampi and then puts it down again, wiping his fingers on a paper napkin.
Miles has brought over tea: fish and chips from the shop just around the corner. It smells delicious, but Emerson’s only able to pick at it. The grease from the few bites he’s managed to force down seems to sit heavily in his stomach.
“Look, there are two possibilities,” Miles says, pouring more vinegar on his chips. The paper underneath is soaked. “First—that you’re having a bit of a breakdown. So what. That’s fixable. We’ve all had our moments this last year, with all the shit we’ve been through.”
Miles gestures at Emerson with the forkful of fish he’s holding. “Second—it was real. Everything you saw. Everything you did. Not my preferred option—give me a human monster any day,” he says, feelingly.
Emerson manages a smile at that.
Miles puts the fish in his mouth and spears a couple of chips on his fork. “But I’ve made some discreet enquiries,” he says, after he’s swallowed his mouthful. “No one’s had any old ladies turn up drowned in their morgue. So, maybe you did somehow kill an evil spirit, or demon, or whatever the old crone was.” Miles shrugs. “Anyway, the way I see it, you’ve done everyone a favour.”
Emerson stares at his hands, folded in front of him on the table. It’s been three days and if he lets himself think about it at all he can still feel the crumble of bone in his grasp, still hear the inhuman scream, still see the creature’s contorted face disappear under the water.
When he’d finally gone to empty his sports bag for the wash, just the whiff of chlorine he’d gotten had triggered such a strong sense memory that he’d thrown up, barely able to turn in time to avoid emptying the contents of his stomach all over his bag. He’d knelt on the tiled floor, retching till his throat was bitter with bile and his knees ached, too exhausted to move.
“I want to come back to work,” he mutters.
“Are you sure you’re up to it?”
Emerson looks at him. He can’t bear the compassion on Miles’s face. “I’ll go mad if I have to stay cooped up in this flat,” he admits.
“Nothing says you have to stay inside. Get some fresh air. Go for a bike ride, visit a museum, get some culture into you.”
“I’m supposed to be contagious, remember?” That’s what Miles had told Joe. He’d only had to mention the sneezing fits and the used tissues scattered about, and Joe’s desire to personally check up on Emerson’s health had become limited to daily phone calls during which Emerson had coughed a bit and held his nose so he’d sounded blocked up.
Miles’s brow creases. “Good point.” He devotes himself to consuming the rest of his fish, and when Emerson pushes his own uneaten portion over, finishes off Emerson’s too, looking thoughtful all the while.
“New plan,” he says. “First thing, we’re going to find you a less grotty flat. This place reeks of mould.”
“DECK THE HALLS WITH BOUGHS OF HOOLLLLLYYYYYY.” On the low stage in the corner, where there’s usually a local jazz or country music talent playing sets of an evening, there’s a karaoke machine set up. Meg and Buchan are holding forth. They seem to be trying to outdo each other both in enthusiasm and volume, which wouldn’t be so bad if either of them could hold a note. Nearby, at the end of the bar, Emerson catches sight of Erica and Mansell, looking utterly besotted with each other. When he thinks of the suspicions he’d held, the rage he’d felt, he feels sick. He’d like to believe it was all the shadows’ influence but really, they’d just taken what was already there and magnified it, hadn’t they? He’s not sure he’ll ever believe Mansell will ever be good enough for Erica. He looks away.
Next to him, Joe winces as their colleagues miss the high notes in the chorus by a mile and then leans forward to answer whatever it was Miles just said to him. It’s hard to follow their conversation over the general noise of the pub crowd. Apart from the regular punters, it looks like they’re not the only workplace holding their Christmas lunch here.
Emerson’s happy to nurse his Kilkenny and watch Joe’s expression of concentration as he argues his point with Miles across the table. He and Skip are having one of their usual amiable debates, and as Joe shifts, his leg brushes against Emerson’s own. Emerson’s breath catches when Joe doesn’t immediately move away. He sees Joe cast him a sidelong glance. Joe moves again, leaning back against the back of the long bench they’re crowded into, stretching one long arm against the back of the bench behind Emerson.
He watches Miles’s eyes follow the gesture. Miles looks from Emerson to Joe to Emerson again and a gleeful expression lights his face. Emerson glares at him, daring him to say something that will make Joe self-conscious and ruin this. Miles winks at him, and goes back to whatever he was saying.
Emerson leans forward to take a sip of his beer, and then leans back against Joe’s arm. It’s not a big gesture, as these things go. The pub’s crowded and Joe’s not a small man. It’s hard to maintain personal space. But this is Joe and they are here with their team. It might as well be a declaration.
Emerson’s chest feels full, almost an ache, and it takes him a long moment to recognise the sensation as joy.
He’s never been this happy.
Raucous laughter behind him makes him jump, and he sees Joe’s eyes close briefly, his expression pained. They both turn and look up at Mansell and Erica, arms wrapped around each other, swaying drunkenly as they beam down at Emerson and Joe. Emerson’s about to tell them to kindly fuck off (possibly without the swearing in deference to Joe’s sensibilities), when he notices what the two of them are looking so pleased with themselves about: Mansell's holding mistletoe over Joe's head. His heart drops to the bottom of his stomach. Joe will be mortified. They haven’t talked about what to tell the team yet, what they’re going to do about their working relationship. There hasn’t been much point so far. Between Joe’s reservations and Emerson’s ‘health issues’, they are giving ‘taking things slowly’ a whole new meaning.
Sure enough, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the way Joe’s face has gone stiff. He wants to reach up and grab the mistletoe away from Mansell, even though he suspects that’s what Mansell's after. Just a little fun, Kent, can’t you take a joke? He restrains himself, but only because he knows how much Joe would hate the ensuing scene. Emerson won’t do anything to embarrass him any further.
He turns his shoulder on his traitor of a sister and leans towards Joe. He has no idea what he’s going to say, but he’s afraid Joe’s going to bolt. It’s Christmas bloody Eve and he’s not going to let it be ruined. Joe turns to look at him. Emerson’s heart just about stops when Joe’s eyes dart to his mouth and an expression of resolution settles on his face. In a moment that Emerson will remember forever, Joe leans in as well, and kisses him, a brief, awkward, press of the lips.
It’s the best moment of his life. He senses rather than hears the stunned silence around them. Or maybe it’s just him. He doesn’t want to look up, doesn’t want to acknowledge that there’s anyone else there. He doesn’t want to take his eyes off Joe, who has drawn back, a flush on his cheekbones. He’s searching Emerson’s eyes, looking uncertain.
Emerson could leave it at that. Probably should. Plausible deniability. Christmas spirit, alcohol and mistletoe. Joe was just going along with the joke.
Emerson leans in slowly, deliberately signalling his intention, giving Joe time to lean away. Joe doesn’t move. Emerson cradles Joe’s cheek with his hand and kisses him properly, lingeringly, the rest of the world fading away.
He thinks it’s only moments later when he draws back, blinking open eyes he hadn’t realised had drifted closed. The noise of the pub comes flooding back. He draws back reluctantly, expecting to find his workmates staring at him, a wolf whistle at the very least from Mansell.
They’ve gone. They’ve all gone. No one else is paying them any attention. Emerson looks around in disbelief, and then back at Joe.
Joe’s smiling at him. Emerson smiles back, helplessly. He never wants this night to end.
He wonders if he’s brave enough to invite Joe back to the new flat Miles found for him. It’s bright, shiny and modern (and just barely affordable), and blessedly free of mould, shadows and odd noises in the night.
There’s a roar of laughter and whooping noises from the table of drunk banker types at the next table and the moment is broken. Joe smiles ruefully. He finishes the last of his beer and turns back to face Emerson. “Would you like to go somewhere quieter?”
“On Christmas Eve?” Emerson says doubtfully.
Joe hesitates. He looks like he’s bracing himself. “I was thinking—my place?”
If it was anyone else, Emerson would know what that invitation meant. But this is Joe. It’s entirely possible that Joe really does just want to go somewhere quieter to spend time together. If that’s all Joe wants, Emerson’s fine with that.
If that’s all Joe ever wants, Emerson will be content. He just wants Joe.
“I’d like that,” he says.
Outside, Joe surprises him again when he takes Emerson’s hand in his own as they walk. He clasps it firmly. Even through their woollen gloves, Emerson can feel the warmth of him. It started snowing at some point during the afternoon and now the world looks magical, dusted in white. Joe turns his head to smile at Emerson. Whatever doubts Joe might have had seem to have disappeared. Emerson beams back at him, helplessly, watching as snowflakes settle on Joe’s hair.
A waft of laughter and music carries to them. Emerson glances back at the pub to see the doors have swung open, a group of merry drunken Christmas revellers in Santa hats and reindeer ears spilling out onto the pavement
Joe’s asking about his plans for Christmas Day. Emerson starts to turn back to answer, already trying to decide if it would be worth inviting Joe along to their family lunch and them having to put up with Mansell’s joshing, when a flash of red in the pub window catches his eye. For a split second he could swear he sees Louise Iver’s pointy features framed by twinkling Christmas lights, staring right at him, but then the milling group of revellers obscure his view.
He’s barely aware that’s he stopped moving or that he’s let go of Joe’s hand until Joe steps into his line of vision. “Everything okay?”
“I thought I saw….”
Joe looks around, perceptibly scanning for danger. “What?”
“No, it’s nothing. Never mind.”
Joe moves closer, so that Emerson can detect the remnants of Joe’s aftershave, familiar and reassuring. His large hand rests protectively on Emerson’s shoulder. “Are you sure?”
It’s probably his mind playing tricks on him. It’s only been a couple of months (seven weeks, three days) since the incident (since he murdered an old woman with his bare hands).
He’ll let Miles know. They’ll keep watch, keep researching. If Iver is still out there, they’ll find her. He won’t let her destroy Joe. He’ll find a way to kill her for real, if it comes to it.
Emerson leans up and presses a kiss to Joe’s mouth, because he can, now. He’s not going to let anyone or anything wreck this for him.
He’s not afraid anymore.