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Absence Makes

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The front door is open so he lets himself in, and once he's reached the stairs he takes two steps at once to escape the prying eyes of the elderly landlady living on the ground floor. When he knocks on Morse's door, once, twice, there's no reply. He should have known. The windows are dark, there's no music playing from beyond the thin walls. Out drinking, Morse is, probably on his own.

Jakes doesn't even know why he's come tonight.

“Moved out about a week ago, that one,” an unpleasant voice calls up to him. Curiosity has made Morse's landlady follow Jakes halfway up the stairs, curlers in her greying hair and faded dressing gown and all. It's late. With Morse he almost never bothers with keeping respectable hours. In fact, he hasn't paid him a visit for months now. Not since the other man has been relegated to Witney, pushing paper out in the countryside.

Jakes watches as the old woman lingers on the wooden steps. Maybe she's hoping for a juicy bit of gossip but Jakes's lips are sealed, his mouth set in a hard line as the fist he's made to knock reluctantly uncurls by his side.

“Just as well,” she goes on, unbidden. “All that dreadful noise, worse than what's on the wireless today. Classical.” She scoffs. “Nothing much classy about it, if you ask me.”

He doesn't, and instead makes up some sour-faced excuse about having mixed the dates. He doesn't bother asking about where it is that Morse has moved to but there's an indeterminable feeling of dread somewhere deep in his chest, and it won't leave him alone even after he's joined his mates at the White Horse.

 

“Morse still out in Witney then?” he asks Strange when, a few days later, they're both queuing for egg and ham sandwiches in the canteen. They've been growing closer during these past few weeks, the two of them. They'll never be friends or buy each other rounds at the pub but they work well enough together. They know what it's about. Funny that the both of them should be drawn to a man who doesn't.

“Far as I know.”

Strange shrugs his shoulders and frowns. He's not seen Morse in a while, either, Jakes is sure of it. He shakes his head, and they share a moment of like-minded frustration between them. It's of little comfort to know that he's not the only one Morse has been cutting out of his life, and soon the relief that washes over him is replaced by the familiar safety of scorn. How pathetic to be wasting his time thinking about someone who so obviously doesn't do him the same courtesy.

 

“Morse still out in Witney?”

For a moment there, and Jakes isn't entirely sure why, Thursday stops chewing to contemplate his half-eaten sandwich. They're over at the pub for lunch, the same one they've been frequenting for weeks now. Jakes cradles his neglected pint of lager between cold hands and wonders why he keeps sabotaging himself.

“Not for much longer, he isn't,” Thursday says but Jakes is too busy fighting the rush of misdirected adrenaline that threatens to flood his senses. It's like someone's pulled the very ground from underneath his feet, and now he's suddenly lurching downward, towards the painful realisation that, no, maybe Morse won't be coming back at all.

He inhales sharply and spills some of his beer on the dark, polished wood of the table.

“Christ!” he mutters. He needs to pull himself together.

“Something the matter with you, Sergeant?”

Jakes shakes his head, then pretends to be fussy over where some of the lager has seeped into one of his sleeves. His affected behaviour earns him a bewildered look but at least it spares him further questions.

He won't ask again, he tells himself. There's no reason to now, and he's almost relieved that this is how it ends. All his life he's excelled at drawing up the walls around himself so what's one more white lie in the grand scheme of things? Walls that have already been torn down can just as easily be rebuilt.

 

“... and with Detective Constable Morse returning to his regular duties by the end of the week ...”

There it is again, that strange, overwhelming buzzing sensation that sends shivers down his spine. Jakes sits up, back as straight as a ruler, and looks around himself. Everyone else, he's relieved to see, is busy listening to one of Bright's little speeches. Ever since they've moved into the new offices there's bound to be one of them every few couple of days. They aren't exactly motivational but everyone's grown used to Bright's newly-discovered mother hen complex.

Jakes himself has become rather good at filtering out what's important and what's not but now Bright's words have burnt themselves into his every thought. The prodigal son returns at last. Jakes smiles to himself, strangely giddy with excitement. He imagines Morse raising his eyebrows at his unexpected choice of words. Undoubtedly he'd come up with a clever retort, seeking to outdo him even when there's nothing left for him to prove. But there'd also be surprise written all too plainly on his expressive face, and those are the moments that Jakes remembers most vividly. It makes him realise with a start that all of this past week he's been holding his breath.

Fair enough. Maybe now he can finally go back to not caring at all.

 

There's an empty desk, right opposite his own. Ever since they've changed offices it's been used as a convenient way to stack files, overflowing ashtrays and empty cups. Now it's been cleared, its clunky old typewriter and run-down Bakelite phone ready for action. His own typing work neglected, Jakes has been sneaking glances at it all evening. He wonders how it'll be, with Morse back from light duties, his worn-out Mac draped once more over the back of his chair. Jakes has grown so used to the sight of it that its very absence now serves as a constant reminder. How cruel of Morse to taunt him so, he thinks darkly, and the letter that would usually take him no more than half an hour to finish keeps him glued to his desk until DI Chard arrives for the graveyard shift.

 

He's caught Jakes's eyes even before Bright welcomes him back into their midst so generously. Thursday and he enter the room quietly but Jakes has been on the lookout all morning. From where he's half-sitting, half-leaning on his desk he doesn't even need to shift his weight to watch Morse greet the sudden onslaught of attention towards him with an awkward turn of his head. Jakes does a double-take, he can't help myself. He hasn't seen Morse in months, none of them have, and now he's soaking up as much of him as he can dare under the circumstances. Has he always looked this worn-out? Jakes honestly can't tell; something seems off but he's afraid of picking apart the thought any further. It's a thankless endeavour. He'd much rather they'd return to what they were before.

“Quite some welcoming committee you got there,” he teases, after Bright and Thursday have gone, leaving Morse to get settled at his desk. “Parade and everything. That why you've been late? They been making speeches for you, too?”

Morse barely reacts, and instead busies himself by pulling the protective cover off his typewriter. And why would he be hurt by Morse's lack of attention, Jakes asks himself as he stares glumly at the dirty grey folds of his coat, hung neatly over the hatstand by the wall. Morse has always been a miserable sort; what else did he expect?

 

The absurdity of it makes him smile. Here they are, standing around all that's left of a dead man's life: glasses, hat, and keys; all carefully catalogued, handwritten tags detailing what little they have gathered so far. And Bright isn't getting tired of showering his young detective constable with unaccustomed praise. Maybe he's noticed, too; how Morse seems to have drawn within himself, and how much they all need him to come back, to be better. That's what he's good at, after all, whenever a case like this has stumped them all. Distracted and unsure he now seems, until Bright's concern makes him grimace, then smile reluctantly. He's never learned how to cope well with the attention.

“Absence makes,” Jakes says, after some of the tension has broken away, but it doesn't occur to him until much later that it's not Bright he was talking about. He's not even sure what he meant by it, and giving it a name would only make it worse so he keeps his distance (it's not his fault lunch down at the pub has become a regular affair) and he keeps his cool (even when Morse doesn't), and when he finally decides to talk one of the plods into finding out Morse's new address he tells himself it's because he's his sergeant and he ought to know about these things.

Which is why it's now late in the evening and he's making his way past overflowing dustbins, unsightly heaps of rubbish that have been left by the side of the road, and a little red moped he decides better not belong to Morse because if it does he'll never let him live it down.

“Are you one of Morse's colleagues?” a woman asks when he passes her in the hallway. Her voice is instantly captivating. It's lovely and sweet, just like the rest of her in her pretty nurse's uniform and made-up hair. Most definitely not the landlady, then. Jakes's reply is a winsome smile, the kind he knows makes most birds weak at the knees.

“Peter Jakes. I'm his sergeant.”

She ahhs, as if for her things have fallen into place, and he wonders about her, and about Morse.

“I'm Monica,” she says as she slips into her cape coat and adjusts her hat. “His neighbour? I've been looking after him, you know, after ...” If her smile falters it's surely not because Jakes can feel his own mouth run dry. “Well, anyway, I'm off. My shift starts in, oh, less than half an hour. Must run.” Another smile, while her eyes soften as she passes what must be Morse's flat. “It was nice meeting you, Sergeant Jakes.”

Jakes doesn't know about that but after the echo of her footsteps has died away and he's done contemplating the solid, wooden door that currently separates him from the man who doesn't deserve to occupy most of his thoughts these days he knocks anyway. Morse opens just as down by the street the pitiful rattle of a moped trails off into the early summer night. He's visibly distracted by the sound, if only for a moment, then his bloodshot eyes flicker towards Jakes.

“What are you doing here?”

It's not the kind of welcome he's had in mind. For a moment he's sure Morse is going to refuse him, and he feels the soft glow of anger and something that's entirely too much like shame rise to his cheeks; then Morse steps back and the open door beckons him inside.

His bedsit isn't at all what Jakes has imagined it would be. It's cluttered and not yet much lived in but it's surprisingly cosy; a real home for a change. Two cups, one empty, one half-finished, have been left on a tray by the desk. They look decidedly not like Morse. The bottle of scotch on the coffee table, however, does.

But Jakes is quick at drawing conclusions. It's his job, after all. It's saved his hide, and his dignity, more than once.

“Already met the missus,” he half-jokes, then casts a disapproving eye over the stack of records occupying the chair closest to Morse's portable turntable. Classical, every last one of them. And here's something he most definitely hasn't and won't ever miss about Morse.

Morse, who currently looks about as amused as Jakes himself feels.

“She is a nurse.” His words come slow, and are accompanied by a roll of his eyes.

“So I've seen,” Jakes drawls as he takes in more of the little flat. Kitchen sink, little calendar on the wall nearby (a name, Joycie, has been scribbled down next to 18 May; does Monica know that she's in for a bit of competition?), even a small refrigerator. Clearly, Morse is moving up in the world, and that includes the goodwill of pretty nurses.

“You've met her?”

He seems surprised, guilty even, and Jakes decides to cut just a bit deeper. Morse owes him, after all.

“She's a looker, that one. Better make your move soon, mate, before I decide to have a go myself.”

The words, and his leery smile, and the way he stakes his claim by letting his coat (a new one that cost him a sizeable chunk of last month's wages) fall over the chair holding the stack of Mozarts and Wagners have found an easy target.

“Is that why you've come here?”

There's more than just a trace of hurt in his voice. Jakes sobers up instantly, and the last remnants of the much-practised smile on his lips vanish in a blink. His face is hard when he turns around.

“Is that why you left?”

But despite all physical evidence to the contrary – the bruises underneath his eyes have only just begun to fade – Morse refuses to back down.

“As if I had a choice!” There's desperation in the turn of his head, annoyance in the slope of his shoulders, an unspoken challenge on the curve of his lips.

“Pulled a little disappearing act, though, didn't you?” Jakes's voice is softer than either of them expected. When Morse's eyes begin to shine with the hollow triumph of realisation Jakes has already averted his own gaze. He studies his shoes instead: brown, real leather, half a size too big on him but all the rage with the birds down at the Moonlight.

“What?”

Jakes shrugs but it's an empty gesture. There's not much left of the confidence that's both his best weapon and his best defence.

“I've been around to your place, only it's ...”

He's still talking to his shoes, and he knows it's idiotic, doesn't change a thing about the fact that his thoughts are an open book and he's nowhere near as unreadable as he's comfortable with.

But Morse, as usual, lets things go, and perhaps that's why he's told him (well, as close to telling him as he can possibly come) in the first place.

“Oh, right, I moved.” Then silence, and after however long it takes Morse to walk across the room until his feet, clad only in socks, appear opposite his own shoes: “I thought you knew.”

He'd have expected the words to sting, instead they reflect some of the bitterness that has haunted Jakes's own thoughts for weeks now.

“Yeah, right,” he replies, for old times' sake, but the fight has gone out of him and what should have been dismissive and cold feels brittle on his tongue and shatters into pieces as soon it crosses his lips.

And damn Morse for trying to make sense of it all.

“When you didn't … I mean, you never … I thought you'd maybe ...”

Jakes shakes his head, furiously enough to have a strand of his slicked back hair fall across his forehead. He's about to speak, and yes, maybe he should; that's what people do, after all, or so he's been told. However, the one truth he's ever been made to utter has poisoned past and future alike, and so the words die in his throat. In his relief, he combs back his hair, palms of his hands pressed flat against the sides of his head to keep it all together. What else is there to do?

“Didn't teach you how to type out in Witney, though,” he says after he trusts himself enough to speak. “Didn't teach you how to stay out of trouble, either.”

Perhaps Morse expects another callous remark but Jakes has already had his fun, and anyway, he's done a lot of walking into doors of his own. Enough to know that bones and minds are fragile things, and they often heal crookedly and wrong if left alone for too long. So when he touches Morse's face it is with a trembling hand, but if the other man notices he's gracious enough not to comment. He keeps very still, parts his lips slightly as the tips of Jakes's fingers ghost over the bridge of his broken nose and the bruises underneath his eyes, before he catches his wrist in his own hand and leans forward until lips brush lips and they melt against each other in a deceptively chaste kiss.

There's nothing chaste, nothing sacred about the way Jakes feels. He doesn't love this man, perhaps he doesn't even need him. He hasn't missed his kisses because there are plenty of kisses to be had elsewhere. He's surely never craved his touch, even if he greets the warmth of Morse's hands with the kind of mindless enthusiasm that leaves him restless and short of breath.

Jakes's own fingers remember all too well how to undo the buttons of Morse's shirt. What he doesn't expect is the sight that greets him after he's shoved aside the cotton of the vest underneath. Morse's stomach is a landscape of bruises, some of them of an angry shade of purple where skin stretches over muscle and ribs, others of a more forgiving yellow and blue where the sharp angles of his slim frame give way and feel soft to his touch. Jakes is strangely fascinated by the terrible sight. Someone's clearly been having a go at Morse, and his hands curl into involuntary fists as he realises, not to cause him injury but to make him suffer a good deal of pain. As if he's read his mind, Morse shrugs his freckled shoulders.

“Could have been much worse, apparently.”

Jakes follows his gaze to where a small, uneven shape has been left on top of a filled-in Sunday crossword. The sight seems so out of place in Morse's flat that at first his mind refuses to make sense of it. Of course he's seen countless knuckledusters in his day – there's an ever-growing collection of them taking up a whole box in the evidence vault – yet this one makes his stomach turn.

“Don't say that,” he mutters. Suddenly Morse's bruises have lost their fascination, and he seeks solace in his lips, drinks from the depth of his eyes, and runs his hands through Morse's ridiculous excuse for a haircut.

“Every time I think I've got you figured out ...” Morse breathes softly against the crook of his neck. It's supposed to sound light-hearted, Jakes knows: Morse's equivalent of sweet nothings. There's no innuendo, no hidden meaning, not with him; yet Jakes's heart freezes, if only for a moment.

“You wouldn't even know where to start,” he says, from somewhere deep within his chest, where secrets untold have slumbered for so long that not even Jakes can fathom the true extent of their depth.

“No, I suppose not.” Morse's lips engrave the words into his skin, and his voice changes, the promise lying therein now an entirely different one. “Would you want me to?”

Jakes smiles, just a little, and shakes his head.

And as they tumble into Morse's unmade bed, the memory of bruises old and new loses all meaning in the ever-shrinking shadows between them. Perhaps this is why he's come tonight. It's a reason as good as any other.