Robbie doesn’t know how the hell he seems to end up on so many high roofs. He remembers that church where the vicar fell from the tower. Morse had vertigo. A case of literal highs and lows. Not likely to forget that, even if it was so long ago. Weird that it should come into his head right now, when the only thing that’s stopping him from falling into the quad below is James’ capable hand gripping his arm.
Guitarists have callouses on their fingers. The ones on the hand that hold the strings down over the frets, anyway. The tops of James’ left fingers rasp on the tender skin on the inside of Robbie’s wrist. He wonders if that is the last sensation he will ever consciously register. He notices that the feeling of hanging in mid air, his legs flailing, doesn’t seem to rank as a conscious sensation. Which seems peculiar, given that it is so momentous that he would presume it would overwhelm anything else. It doesn’t. It is the scrape of James’ callouses, and the frantic expression in his blue-grey eyes that carries the day.
Robbie looks up at him, meets his eyes, sees the pain and fear. He thinks:
His heart swells.
My James. My own James.
James, with super-human effort born of an overload of adrenaline, drags Robbie in over the parapet. Backwards. It’s all a bit of a mess of legs and leverage, which ends up with the two men falling, bracketed together, onto the leads, bum down.
The jolt of the impact knocks the breath out of Robbie for some moments, and he sits there in a daze, trying to breathe, trying to work out how he has ended up on his backside with James’ comically long, skinny legs either side of his own, long arms around his ribs, chest to his spine. How did that happen? How is he not lying in a messy puddle of minced flesh on the flagstones fifty feet below?
Two things dawn on him simultaneously.
The first is that there are screams coming from the foot of the tower. Yelling. Shouts to call the police, an ambulance, help of any kind.
Washingford will be past help, of course. Robbie knows this. He has seen enough people die by falling from heights. Like the vicar who nearly squashed Morse and his prospective girlfriend (who turned out to be the murderer’s accomplice, of course – the man was hopeless when it came to choosing women). In this case, Alec Washingford, Bazalgette Professor of Environmental Planning, had intended to take Lewis with him.
They hated each other at first sight. Robbie had known from instinct that he was guilty of something. He had presumed it was simply that, like most stuffed shirt academics, he had no idea what he was actually doing in his supposed area of expertise. It turned out that Washingford was the crazed serial murderer responsible for the deaths of five engineers in his department, whom he believed were stealing his work. He would have been glad to make a splash in the papers by taking Robbie with him. Thanks to James, he has failed, spectacularly – and quite messily.
The second thing Robbie becomes aware of is the intense pain in his bum. He has fallen at some speed, and therefore with considerable velocity given his bodyweight, on the points of his pelvis. And it bloody hurts. He will probably be bruised to the waist and the backs of his knees for weeks.
‘Ow,’ he concludes, aloud, when he can finally find sufficient breath. Which seems pretty restrained, given the circumstances.
Briefly, he wonders if something is broken, but he is pretty sure he would be in agony if it were. No, this is just an ouch. A considerable ouch, let it be said, but just an ouch nevertheless.
Time to find out if he can get up, then.
He puts his hand on James’, where it rests on his sternum.
‘It’s okay, lad, you can let go now,’ he says.
The hand remains firmly planted. More so, in fact, since the arms that circle his ribs seem to tighten fractionally.
This is the moment when Robbie works out something is wrong.
Because James isn’t moving. His gripping onto Robbie with both arms, and his face is pressed against the nape of Robbie’s neck. Robbie can feel the indentation of his nose against his skin. He can feel the labour of his breathing too.
‘James, are you hurt?’
There is an odd noise, sort of muffled, and the strong sensation of James shaking his head. Not hurt, then. But what other explanation?
‘James? What’s wrong?’
Another funny noise, and this time Robbie can identify it.
He chafes the back of James hand gently with his palm. ‘It’s alright, lad, we’re okay.’
‘I thought I’d lost you,’ James whimpers finally.
It’s like having an icicle slice into his heart. Because he knows that feeling all too well.
All the nights he lay awake, with Val sleeping softly next to him, her breathing steady and relentless, and worried about what might happen if he lost her. The agony of worrying what might happen was nothing to the torment when it finally did. Robbie Lewis knows what it is like to lose the person you love most in all the world. He understands the fear of it. He remembers the fragile sense of walking a tightrope, all those what-ifs that dogged his thoughts through the darkest nights. He knows the misery of the unknown all too well.
And now he realises that James knows. And that the reason he knows is that Robbie is the most important person in James’ world.
Which, of course, he knew, really. Suspected, perhaps, but underneath. Swimming around in the murky soup of his unconscious was the truth. James loves him. Always has. And now James has looked into the abyss that Robbie knows so well.
And then Robbie realises another thing. That he would do anything – anything – to undo what James has seen. He wants James to be happy. Safe. Blissfully unaware of the truth of what life, and death, will ultimately sling at him.
He wants James to be happy with as much desperate passion as he wanted it for Val.
And then the fourth realisation comes.
There is only one reason he could want that so dearly for his sergeant. And that is that his sergeant is as precious to him now as Val was then.
Which comes as a bit of a lung-emptier.
He spends several moments trying to find some air. Gulping like a beached goldfish with the shock. And then, once he manages to suck in some oxygen, the truth sinks in and it is obvious in the fibres of his heart that this is another thing he knew all along.
James loves Robbie.
And Robbie loves James.
And how comically simple the world has become.
He manages to twist a little in James’ tight embrace. James doesn’t want to let go, and Robbie’s backside is screaming, and the small of his back is threatening a storm of protest, but he manages to turn enough to get his arms around the lad. James seems embarrassed by his emotional outburst. He buries his face in Robbie’s shoulder. He is shaking, almost juddering, his teeth chattering. His sobs come out in wheezy gasps.
Shock, Robbie realises. Not the soft, fluffy emotional fudge that most people use the word to describe. No, this is a physical reaction of terror.
He holds onto James for all he is worth.
‘Come on, pet, it’s okay, it’s okay now,’ he whispers, pressing his lips to James’ temple, feeling the perspiration beginning to form there on the normally smooth, unruffled brow. The sergeant just whimpers, clinging on. Robbie finds himself cupping the back of James’ head with his hand, slipping his fingers through the fine golden hair, stroking tenderly. He coos and murmurs softly, now rocking them both gently.
‘My James,’ he whispers. ‘My James. My bonny lad.’
Robbie is lying on his side, mainly because he can’t lie on his back. He had to do that for the x-ray, and it was painful enough for those few minutes that he knows he doesn’t want to put any pressure on his tender backside for at least the next week. Oh, and what fun James is going to get out of this, teasing him for having to sit on an inflatable rubber ring like a proper old codger. Which makes him smile, despite the pain. Because the thought of James laughing and ribbing him feels so normal. And so right.
My James, he thinks fondly.
Although he’s damned if he knows quite how they’re going to face up to the subject again now the frantic first moments of realisation are over.
They were separated by the paramedics almost as soon as they arrived on the scene, which has left Robbie worried. What’s the matter with James that they were all clustered around him, fussing in that very organised, capable way that medical professionals do? They took him off in an ambulance almost immediately. Robbie followed after with female paramedics about the age of his daughter, clucking over him kindly.
Now, having ascertained that nothing is broken (Robbie could have told them that), he’s been left to rest in his little cubicle in A&E, fretting over his sergeant.
His sergeant. His best friend. The man he loves.
And isn’t that the weirdest turn up for the books, because it’s a thought Robbie never in a million years would have expected he’d have.
The man I love. My James.
But there again, he’s kidding himself and he knows it. Because James has been His James right from the first. Back when he was a gawky youth with an almost shaven head, hollow cheeks and those ever-watchful eyes. Robbie had seen those eyes on enough victims of domestic violence in his time. Eyes watching, waiting for where the next punch is coming from. Even now, Robbie doesn’t know if it was real punches James feared, or emotional ones. Or maybe both. He’s haunted by the wince of pain on the lad’s face that night after Will McEwan died, when James had lied to him, when he sent him away.
‘I don’t want to look at you,’ he’d said.
And the look on the lad’s face broke his heart every time he thought about it. It still does.
Dragging James out of the fire afterwards didn’t come close to making up for how he’d hurt him, at least in Robbie’s mind.
My James, he thinks. I’d do anything to save you from hurt. And most of the time the person who hurts you most is me. Why do we do this? Why do we dance round each other like this, when what we should be doing is loving each other?
He’s tired, worn out, and sore. He doesn’t much care about his own injuries, the pain in his shoulders from hanging onto James’ hand, fighting the laws of gravity, the smarting of his bum where he hit the leads so hard. And his wounded pride of course, for letting that creep Washingford get the better of him on the roof. None of that matters. The first thing he asks the nurse when she bustles back through the closed curtain of the cubicle is:
‘Can you tell me how my sergeant is? James Hathaway? He was brought in just before me.’
Once the paperwork is signed, and the medication Robbie must take away with him explained, he follows the nurse across the ward to another curtained cubicle. He’s limited to a painful, penguinesque waddle, with his bum stuck out, but he tries to move as normally as he can, as he doesn’t want James to be worried. James himself is lying on the bed in one of those hideous hospital gowns. He looks vulnerable and thin in it. His right arm is strapped up in some kind of neoprene support against his chest, and he’s got wires coming out all over the place, but he’s awake and apparently alert.
‘Hello James, I’ve got a visitor for you,’ the nurse pipes with a smile and turns to Robbie. ‘It’s a dislocated shoulder. They’re hoping to operate first thing tomorrow. And we’re running an ECG. Unusual heart rhythm which could be down to the shock, but it’s a necessary precaution. I’ll leave you two to chat.’
She shakes her finger at James. ‘And no getting over excited, you.’
Once she has whisked away, twitching the curtain closed behind her, Robbie can finally think straight enough to assess the state of his sergeant properly. He’s pale against the white pillow, his eyes red-rimmed, blue hollowed, his face gaunt and grey. He tries to move, to sit up but the sudden burst of obvious pain forces him back into the bed with a miserable groan. His eyes are eager, though. Eager and worried.
‘Sir, are you okay? They wouldn’t tell me-‘
Robbie holds up a hand to stop him. ‘Fine, fine, lad. Just some pretty impressive bruises on me backside, but I’ve got some cream for that.’ He puts the paper package of medicines on the end of the bed, and eases himself closer to James’s side.
‘More worried about you than anything,’ he explains.
James tries to shrug but the gesture becomes a flinch. ‘Apparently you are heavier than I thought,’ he sighs.
‘Weigh as much as a bloody elephant, me,’ Robbie jokes. ‘You should know that. Its on account of having a head like an anvil. All that iron, it’s heavy, you know.’
And then James looks up at him, miserable and shaken, with eyes that wouldn’t shame a spaniel.
‘Sir, about what happened. I-‘
So they are going to talk about it then? Well, Robbie decides, he’s not going to take any faffing about. May as well be up front about it. Its about time, after all.
He gently takes up James’ long, bony hand and presses it between his own.
‘My bonny lad,’ he says, softly.
James’ eyes grow round with amazement.
‘You know what I was thinking as I went over the edge?’
James shakes his head. Clearly he can’t imagine.
‘I wasn’t thinking about Val or the kids. Funny that. You always think when it comes to it, you’ll be thinking about the person you love most. And that’s true. Because the main thing I thought as I went over was words to the effect of – oh bugger, I never got to kiss James.’
James’ mouth drops open.
‘Have I got this wrong, lad? Because if it isn’t mutual, you’d better tell me now and let me off the hook gently.’
‘Sir, I-‘ James’ eyes brim. ‘I wouldn’t want to let you off the hook. Not for a minute.’
‘Going to keep me dangling then?’
‘For the rest of our lives if I can manage it.’ A soft, shy look comes over his lovely face then, and Robbie feels the old, familiar glow start up under his own ribs.
‘My James,’ he can’t help whispering.
‘Yours. If you’ll have me.’
‘Why would I want anyone else?’
‘I can think of plenty of reasons.’
‘Hush, pet,’ Robbie tells him. ‘None of that.’
James tugs Robbie’s hands towards him, bows his head reverently to kiss those old knuckles.
‘Oh, I think we can do better than that, don’t you?’ Robbie bends down, a little gingerly admittedly, because his lower back is tender and his bum is smarting, but he manages to get low enough to press his lips to James’. And its worth the effort and discomfort, because oh, those lips!
James sighs, his lashes fluttering against Robbie’s cheek, and its been a long time, a very long time, but flesh has memory, and Robbie’s flesh seems to remember what its doing, and the softest of kisses blooms into something deeper and sweeter, and moving enough to make the old codger’s eyes brim.
‘Ah, lad,’ he murmurs, and James reaches up with his good hand and slides those callous-tipped fingers around the back of Robbie’s neck, and the little rasp they make on the tender skin there is delicious with promise.
And then as he is looking down into James’ eyes, he sees the naughty, teasing twinkle back there.
‘You know that cream you’ve got for the bruises?’ James says. ‘Well, I’ve got one good hand. Let me know if you need any help rubbing it in, won’t you?’