By the end of the day the heat has fully infiltrated the station, the tired old air conditioning doing its damnedest to cool the building and not keeping up. If it wasn’t making his workday so miserable Robbie would feel some affinity for it, he’s feeling tired and old and unable to keep up in the heat himself. He’d be looking forward to going home if the heat wasn’t likely to be worse in his flat. Ground floor flat in Oxford, he’s not supposed to have to be bothered about heat, only damp.
The last time Robbie suffered temperatures like this was in the BVI. He wouldn’t have said he’d acclimated to it then, but he had learned to live with it; move more slowly, wear clothes made with lighter fabrics. But now, here in Oxford, he thinks perhaps he’d become more accustomed to it back then than he’d thought. Thirty-two degrees feels far more alien and uncomfortable now—sun-baked stone still radiating heat long after the sun has set— than it ever had on the other side of the pond with palm trees overhead.
Robbie is contemplating one of the iced coffees Hathaway has been drinking, and whether it would be worth the effort to go out into the sun to get one, when Hathaway walks through the office door. Slightly warmer and staler air wafts in with him, and he’s rolling up his sleeves and undoing his top button as soon as the door shuts behind him. The heat has done a number on his usual sartorial standards.
Everyone’s edges are beginning to fray in the heat. They’ve had more calls with complaints about neighbours and passersby in the past three days than in the two weeks previous.
Hathaway looks grim, more so even than the heat could account for. Whatever it is Innocent called him to her office to discuss he’s not happy about it.
“More training?” Robbie asks. Three weekends out of the past month one or the other of them has been sent off by the higher-ups on mandated training that has no relevance to their day to day.
“That might be preferable.”
“Cricket,” he says, slouching into his desk chair. “There’s a charity match Saturday. Thames Valley Police against Oxford Fire and Rescue.”
Hathaway’s frown deepens. “Not for years, but I did a bit at Cambridge.”
“Like you rowed a bit?” He’s the king of understatement, is Hathaway, when he’s talking about his own achievements.
He shrugs. “Less. I left the team after my first year, it conflicted with rowing. Never much cared for the team sports experience, anyway.”
“But you were good?”
“If you like,” he says, with another shrug. There’s something to that shrug. Reluctance to admit that he was good at something he didn’t enjoy? Knowing Hathaway it’s more complicated than that.
“Let’s hope this heat breaks by then,” Robbie says.
“Yes, let’s,” Hathaway says, sounding nothing like amused.
* * *
The day of the match dawns overcast and hotter even than the days previous, with high, thin clouds that offer only the illusion of a break from the heat. The breeze is no help either, blowing furnace air across the field. Even the magpies poking through the grass seem lacklustre in their turning over of leaves. A dip in the Cherwell is starting to sound like a good idea.
By ten o’clock, when Robbie settles in to watch the match, the heat is all-consuming. The players, when they troop out to the pitch, have already discarded their jumpers. A couple of the younger DIs come out first, followed by two sergeants from vice, an assortment of PCs and DCs, and then Hathaway, in cricket whites that fit his lanky frame so well they can be nothing but his own. Didn’t play after his first year at Cambridge, yet still has his whites, and they fit him like that. Robbie wonders sometimes if Hathaway is deliberately trying to cultivate an air of mystery or if it’s nothing but an artefact of his very private nature. It could equally be either.
Thames Valley bowls first. Hathaway is a stunningly good bowler, better than Robbie was in his youth, and he wasn’t half bad. Played a bit, indeed.
Well into the first innings, the sun rising steadily in the sky, Robbie is surprised the players are still standing, let alone playing. He’s not sure he would be, the way he’s sweating through his shirt despite doing nothing but sitting and watching. Most of them, Hathaway included, have loosened their collars and rolled up their sleeves, but it’s only Hathaway who keeps drawing his eye. There’s nothing strange in that, though. Hathaway is not only Thames Valley’s best bowler, he’s the tallest and blondest of the players, and noting where Hathaway is at any given moment is part of Robbie’s job. They may not be at work now, but five plus years of ingrained habit isn’t going to disappear because it’s not necessary at this moment.
Besides, everyone’s eyes are on Hathaway while he’s bowling. It’s a pleasure to watch as he undoes a third shirt button, pulls the sweaty fabric away from his chest a couple of times, wipes his brow, and shakes out his arm before bowling right past the batsman and knocking a bail from the wicket.
Hathaway seeks Robbie out during the interval, once players and spectators alike have retreated to the shade of the pavilion.
“Enjoying the match, sir?”
There is sweat beaded on his upper lip, a sheen across his forehead turning his hair dark at the edges. Robbie has seen Hathaway like this countless times during their squash games; flushed, sweaty, hair sticking up every which way where he’s run his hands through it. Appealingly dishevelled. The addition of well-fitting cricket whites shouldn’t make any difference, but Robbie can’t stop the completely unwarranted and unwanted thought that this is probably what Hathaway looks like after sex.
“Uh— You look good out there.” That’s not what he meant to say. “All of you.” There is a twinkle in Hathaway’s eye that Robbie chalks up to the thrill of the game and Thames Valley being well ahead going into the second innings. “Should have brought an umbrella for shade, though,” Robbie manages, feeling immediately like a cad. None of the players get any shade, the least he can do is sit in the sweltering sun in solidarity.
“There’s shade on the balcony,” Hathaway replies. A young PC walks up and hands Hathaway a chilled bottle of water which he chugs immediately. Robbie doesn’t watch the way his throat works as he drinks.
“Sit so far from the action?” Robbie says. “Nah.”
“Suit yourself,” Hathaway says, and there’s that twinkle again. He flashes Robbie a cheeky grin as he heads back out to the field.
As the final innings draws on the air grows heavy with the threat of a thunderstorm, the hot breeze blowing stronger and clouds roiling above. The sky darkens and darkens some more until it finally opens up with rain. There are a few mutterings from the spectators but the players, and even the umpires, are taking such obvious pleasure in the break in the heat that the game continues on through the first big drops of rain. Thames Valley quickly scores two more runs, reaching their target and winning the match, before the umpire can call it off as a wash out. Just as the win is announced, the wind picks up and the rain starts coming down in earnest, sending the spectators scattering.
Then both teams are hurrying off the field to the shelter of the pavilion, shouting congratulations and clapping each other on the back. Hathaway hangs back, stopping in the middle of the field and turning his face toward the sky. He spreads his arms wide, letting the rain wash over him. Robbie stands transfixed—watching the line of Hathaway’s shoulders, the way the now sodden and nearly transparent fabric of his whites clings to his body—getting soaked through himself as the rain comes down in sheets around them.
Hathaway makes a striking picture; blond hair and golden skin, all in white against the dark sky, the deep green grass, the trees. Robbie turns away into the safety of the pavilion and the already raucous sounds of celebration before Hathaway catches him staring.
Despite his earlier grumbling, Hathaway looks rather chuffed when he comes through the door and is handed a glass of champagne by the same PC who brought him the water earlier. Robbie can’t help smiling, the celebratory atmosphere is contagious. Someone has set up speakers, filling the space with the sounds of 80s pop—hey, all right now, and don’t it feel good—in surprisingly harmonious counterpoint to the background rumble of thunder and the occasional flash of lightning. The dancers in the corner let out a cheer with every flash.
Hathaway is surrounded by people, chatting, congratulating, offering him more drinks. He keeps catching Robbie’s eye over their heads. Little nods of can you believe this and who would have thought? But he looks pleased, not in need of rescue.
When Hathaway looks up from the lass with the springy dark curls he’s chatting to Robbie raises his own glass of champagne. Hathaway’s smile broadens as he raises his glass in response before taking a long drink. Robbie can only be imagining the look of disappointment that flashes across Hathaway’s face as Robbie turns to leave him to it.
* * *
The storm is only a temporary reprieve. It blows through all too quickly and as the sky clears the heat returns, sending steam rising off the streets and stone buildings in billowing clouds to accompany Robbie on his walk home.
Robbie finds himself standing at the top of his garden with a cold beer wondering at how the sun can still be so hot and so high in the sky this late in the day. The west-facing double doors that lead into his garden had always seemed a blessing until now; letting the last of the sun into the kitchen of a winter afternoon. It’s part of why he’d decided to take the flat even though it was a bit more than he’d been planning to spend. But now the entire kitchen is an oven, the curtains doing almost nothing to keep out the heat when the sun is baking the other side of the glass.
He’d had ambitions to replace some of the crumbling paving stones this summer. They seem to be disintegrating in the heat, as if the moss and damp were all that had been holding them together, and after multiple days of temperatures above thirty, they can’t take it anymore. The idea has less and less appeal the longer the heat wave lasts, though. The paving stones only compound the problem, absorbing the heat all day only to radiate it back at him all night long.
What he needs is a trellis, some hanging plants, wisteria perhaps, something to provide shade in the summer and still let the winter sun in—though the idea that the world may feel cool again for longer than the length of this evening’s storm seems an impossibility. Maybe he’ll pick up one of those swinging benches like Laura’s got, somewhere comfortable to sit of an evening and take advantage of whatever breeze there may be.
* * *
“Didn’t expect to see you this early,” Robbie says when he opens the door to Hathaway the next morning. It’s already almost as hot as it was yesterday afternoon and it’s not even nine.
“I said I’d help you with the garden,” Hathaway says, giving Robbie a quizzical look before preceding him into the flat. Hathaway had volunteered to help when Robbie mentioned his garden improvement ambitions off-hand, saying that he was the one who was going to benefit most with all the time he spends out there smoking. But they’d made no definite plan. The way that lass had been leaning toward him last night, Robbie hadn’t expected Hathaway to be up bright and early to help his old boss with a DIY project on his only proper day off this week.
Hathaway strides down the hall into the kitchen and Robbie follows, finding himself unable to tear his eyes away from the way the fabric of Hathaway’s rather tight jeans cups his arse and thighs as he walks, the play of muscles in his shoulders through the fabric of his grey t-shirt. Rowing, Robbie thinks and stuffs his hands in his pockets.
What is wrong with him? Possibly it would be worth the drive to Milton Keynes to buy an air conditioner that will work with the windows in his flat, before they sell out over there like they have in Oxford, and the heat drives him completely round the twist.
“You going out later?” Robbie asks. Hathaway stops by the garden door and looks his reflection up and down in the glass as if he has no idea the effect of those jeans. But he must, with the care he puts into his suit and tie combinations, this outfit has to be for someone.
“I have already. Unless you’re implying I live here now.” There’s that same twinkle in Hathaway’s eyes that was in evidence after the match.
“Give over. Thought you’d be seeing that lass again.” Hathaway looks confused. Robbie raises an eyebrow and elaborates. “With the curls?”
Realisation dawns on his face like Robbie is bringing up an entirely unconsidered possibility. “Oh, Rebecca? She’s the new bass player in the band.”
“Fraternising with fellow musicians is forbidden?”
Hathaway scoffs. “It’s never come up. But no, she’s hardly my type.”
“Pity, she seemed keen.”
Hathaway shakes his head at Robbie and makes a face as if the idea of him going on a date with a pretty lass is the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard. “Are we going to get started on this paving then, before it gets any hotter?”
“The paving can wait,” Robbie says. “A trellis is going to do me better in this heat. I’ve marked out a rough layout of where it will go but I could use a hand measuring the height for the posts. Need to make sure you don’t hit your head when you go out for a smoke.”
Hathaway grins like Robbie’s given him a gift as opens the garden door. He turns with a twist of his heels against the tile, not unlike some sort of dance move, and walks out into the garden.
“What?” Hathaway says, eyebrow raised, when he looks back to find Robbie still stood in the kitchen staring after him. Robbie shakes his head at himself and grabs the tape measure off the counter on the way by.
“It’s going to be an extra tall trellis to fit you under it,” Robbie says, trying to hide his continued bout of madness. It’s the heat, clearly. That’s why he’s imagining the hopeful, expectant look Hathaway gives him. Another couple of days of this and he’ll be completely off his head.
* * *
Hathaway lights his smoke, takes a long drag, and lies back against the bonnet of the car, closing his eyes. He looks relaxed, focused on nothing but his cigarette, but the position can’t be all that comfortable what with the bend of the metal and his back against the dark paint in the blazing sun. Robbie tries not to watch the line of Hathaway’s throat, the way he holds the cigarette gently in his lips, the way his lips move and his cheeks hollow as he takes another drag before rolling his head sideways to squint up at Robbie. Robbie’s not sure he looks away in time for Hathaway not to have caught him staring yet again.
His shirt is pale purple today, lavender Hathaway would no doubt call it, his tie the same grey as the not-for-a-date t-shirt he was wearing yesterday. That shirt, those jeans. The image rises unbidden to Robbie’s mind: Hathaway stretching up to place the trellis on the newly installed posts, his t-shirt riding up to expose a strip of skin and the edge of the band of his underwear in matching grey. Robbie had been so distracted by the sight that Hathaway had to ask him twice to hand him the drill. The heat had better break soon before something else does.
Robbie turns to focus on the lone occupied warehouse in this disused corner of the industrial park and the door their suspect is meant to be emerging from in ten minutes time. Hathaway is quiet next to him, nothing but the sound of him breathing and smoking. If he turned to look at Hathaway, Robbie is sure he’d find a contemplative look on the lad’s face. It’s tempting, both to look and to ask what he’s thinking, but Robbie restrains himself. It’s not likely that Hathaway would bring up Robbie’s odd behaviour since the cricket match, but if he does… Robbie has no excuse or reasonable explanation.
The warehouse door opens to admit a short ginger man. Hathaway sits up next to Robbie in one fluid motion, flicking his cigarette to the ground. Robbie doesn’t even chide him about it.
“That’s him?” Hathaway says more confirmation than question.
“Aye,” Robbie answers, and they both retrieve their suit jackets from the car and head over the road.
* * *
A cold treat, Hathaway had said. Robbie had assumed he meant another iced coffee until he led them to an ice cream shop. Robbie got himself a nice simple ice lolly, but Hathaway went for a cone. Now, he is strolling along beside Robbie, his suit jacket slung over one shoulder and the sleeves of his pale pink shirt rolled up past his elbows, as he idly licks at the cone. The ice cream has gotten away from him, melting over his hand and down his arm, threatening his shirt with dark chocolate drips. Decadent Dark Delight or something, the flavour had been called.
“You’ve got—” Robbie says, gesturing toward Hathaway’s arm.
Hathaway looks between the long drip of ice cream down his arm, his suit jacket in his other hand, and Robbie. Then flashes Robbie a mischievous grin.
He turns his arm, angling it away from himself until he can see the whole of the trail of melted ice cream curving around his wrist toward his elbow. He’s still grinning when he brings his arm upward and licks, tongue tracing a line across his skin following the path of the drip. When he gets to his wrist and the cone, he swirls his tongue around the tip, catching a drip of chocolate. Robbie feels his face, and other areas, go hot. Hotter than the already furnace-like air. Robbie can’t tear his eyes away.
Hathaway follows the trail of melted ice cream up the side of the cone with his tongue, then licks across the ice cream on top, forming it into a point before closing his lips over it and sucking, his eyes fluttering closed for a moment as if it’s almost too much for him. It’s almost too much for Robbie. When Hathaway opens his eyes again he’s gazing directly at Robbie, the look on his face all innocence, but he can’t possibly not know the impression he’s making.
“Something the matter, sir,” Hathaway says, giving the cone another lick.
Robbie has been so preoccupied with Hathaway and his damn ice cream that he hadn’t registered that they’ve made their way past the Botanic Garden and down by the Cherwell. It is a mite cooler in the shade of the trees along the path, the subtle breeze more noticeable now that they’re walking beside the river instead of overheated stone.
“Um,” Robbie manages.
Hathaway stops, looking up and down the path. There is a couple on a bit of grass off to the right, lying on a blanket snogging, and groups of tourists strolling in twos and threes farther along the path, absorbed in each other and the view across the meadow.
“This way,” Hathaway says, stepping off the path into a thicket and around behind a tree that’s a good four feet in diameter, effectively blocking them from view. Robbie finds himself following without hesitation.
Hathaway leans against the tree and finishes his ice cream with quick, efficient, licks and bites. Robbie is staring again, but he can’t make himself look away. When he’s finished the final bite of cone, Hathaway licks the last remnants of ice cream from his fingers and pushes himself up off the tree, stepping toward Robbie.
Robbie’s ice lolly has started to drip down his hand.
“Want help taking care of that?” Hathaway asks, his fingers brushing across Robbie’s wrist where the melting raspberry lolly has left red stripes across his skin. Robbie nods and Hathaway wraps his fingers around Robbie’s arm, pulling Robbie toward him. He bends down, looking up at Robbie from under his lashes and licks the stripe of raspberry from around Robbie’s wrist, then up the base of his thumb, across Robbie’s fingers and along the length of the lolly, swirling his tongue around the top before taking the entire thing into his mouth. Christ.
Robbie loses his grip on the lolly and reality.
“You are— But you can’t— This isn’t—” Robbie’s words desert him as Hathaway pulls the ice lolly out of his mouth again, his tongue and lips now impossibly pink. It’s all been deliberate. Robbie had thought the heat had driven him mad but Hathaway has orchestrated this whole thing, and quite deftly too. Robbie takes a step back, catching his foot on a root in an inelegant stumble.
Hathaway’s grin fades as his eyes search Robbie’s face. “I’ve bollocksed everything up, haven’t I? I was so sure I was right.”
“Yes. I mean no. You were right, you haven’t bollocksed anything…” Hathaway looks like he’s about to bolt. He thinks Robbie doesn’t want this, Robbie wouldn’t have thought he did either, but he realises with the force of a thousand suns that he very, very much does, and not only since the cricket match.
Robbie steps forward, reaching a tentative hand to Hathaway’s face, cupping his cheek, and Hathaway leans into him. He trails his fingers along the line of Hathaway’s jaw, down his neck and into the open collar of his shirt until his fingers rest at the pulse point. Hathaway shivers despite the heat. His heart is beating as fast as Robbie’s.
Robbie closes the distance between them, pulling Hathaway down into a kiss. Hathaway tastes of raspberry and chocolate with a hint of cigarette smoke.
They make it back to Robbie’s flat somehow, Hathaway leading the way and Robbie following in a haze of heat and lust and the promise of what’s to come. Then Hathaway is peeling off his pink shirt and stalking toward him like a man on a mission.
Hathaway stops in front of him and holds his gaze. “You’re sure about this?” he asks, his voice pitched even lower than usual.
“Yes,” Robbie breaths. Hathaway steps forward, enveloping Robbie in a kiss. The intensity of his focus, the heat of Hathaway’s mouth on his, on his neck, Hathaway’s body pressed up against his own, Hathaway’s hands unbuttoning his shirt and moving hot across his skin, this is a heat Robbie doesn’t mind one bit.
* * *
Robbie wakes to darkness, sticky sheets, and an empty bed. The air in the bedroom is hot and close, heavy with the unmistakable scent of sex. He hears the creak of hinges as the garden door opens and then the click of it shutting. James has gone out for a cigarette. Robbie pulls pants and t-shirt from the floor and follows him out into the garden.
James is a silvery silhouette in the moonlight, sitting on the new swinging seat in nothing but his boxer briefs, blowing smoke up through the trellis. He turns when he hears Robbie come through the door and smiles at him.
Relief courses through Robbie. They’re all right, then. James hasn’t run off in a fit of regret after the evening’s events. James pats the bench next to him and Robbie sits down, James stretching his arm along the back of the bench and across Robbie’s shoulders. His skin is cool with the night air.
James takes another drag of his cigarette. “This was a good idea,” he says blowing a silver cloud of smoke toward the sky.
Robbie doesn’t know if he means the swing, the sex, or the fact that the two of them are sitting in his garden in the middle of the night in their underwear. Or all three.
James leans over and gives Robbie’s shoulder a kiss, then smiles up at the moon. All three, then.