What set you free and brought you to me, babe?
What sets you free? I need you here by me,
In the midnight hour, she cried, ‘More, more, more!’
With a rebel yell, she cried, ‘More, more, more!’
~Rebel Yell, Billy Idol>
Robbie makes a disgusted sound, leans forward, and punches a button on the radio to change the station. Surprising because the piece that has just been introduced is Magic Fire Music. As the new station segues into a song, Billy Idol's Hot In the City blasts from the speakers. The contrast, from Wagner to aggressive punk/rock, is so strange that James laughs aloud.
“Oh, for fu—” Robbie growls again and surges forward and punches the button to turn the radio off.
In the silence that abruptly fills the car, James smothers his grin and with pretend wide-eyed innocence, asks, “Problem?”
He knows exactly what has prompted the abuse of the car radio and the scowl that’s creasing Robbie’s face. He’d been searching for a traffic report, and found yet another series of ‘summer heat songs’. Over the last few days, they’ve heard excerpts from The Firebird Suite, probably every piece of classical music inspired by fireworks, and on the contemporary stations, The Heat is On, Summer in the City, Hotter Than Hell, In the Heat of the Night, Disco Inferno, Disco Heat, and yet another version of Heatwave, this one by some punk band whose name James has never heard before. He’s lost count of how many different versions of that song they’ve heard since the May weather turned un-seasonally …he grins as he thinks it… hotter than hell.
Yesterday, Robbie had growled that the only version they haven’t heard is the original by Martha and the Vandellas. James is pretty sure they have, but at the time, he’d been too distracted to argue the point. Robbie had started the morning by rolling up the sleeves of his shirt, and as he complained about the choice of music, he’d been driving with one hand and stripping off his tie with the other, throwing it over his shoulder into the back seat, then unbuttoning the top two buttons of his heat-rumpled shirt. Bare, flexing forearm, bared throat, and the deep timbre of his voice… Any possibility of logical thought had melted like ice on hot pavement.
“And you call yourself a Wagner fan.” James chides.
Robbie chooses to ignore James’s baiting. “Not listening to any more radio,” he says. “I don’t care if we do get caught in traffic.”
James grins. Because, of course, Robbie will care, just as he has the two times they’ve been caught in the last week. He’ll grumble and point imperiously for James to take side streets and detours to get around it. And grouse about students on bicycles, and dons in their classic cars, and tourists who don’t know how to walk.
The case they’re working is, for a change, not a murder. James has been surprised by how few violent crimes have taken place in the last couple of weeks. When the weather had warmed so dramatically, he’d expected heat rage to increase their workload, but apparently, it’s too hot to murder or maim. But not too hot to burgle. Moody has loaned them out to help with the investigation into an odd series of burglaries in which the only the only common denominators are a very efficient dismantling of any alarm system and an expert cutting of glass in windows or doors to achieve entrance into the houses. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to the choice of locations, no connection between the victims. And no way to predict the next burglary. It’s meant a lot of time spent in the car, driving all over Oxfordshire and even a couple of day trips north, conducting interviews with victims, experts, possible suspects, former perpetrators.
It’s been exquisite torture, shut for hours in a car filled with the scent of a sun-wilted, grumpy Robbie. Soap and sweet sweat. Overheated skin and damp cotton. Even after cigarettes and red wine thick as blood, the scent lingers as a taste on the back of James's tongue. Even after a long, hot shower (the last thing he needs in this heat) with designer, only-for-special-occasions, double-strength body wash, the scent lingers all evening as if his skin is glazed with Robbie perfume. As if he no longer smells like himself.
Last night, he’d jolted awake, aroused and aching, sheet clinging to his sweaty back. And for a moment, just one yearning moment, the dream that had followed him from sleep and the memory of Robbie’s scent had half-convinced him that Robbie had just left his bed.
James sighs, then covers it with a quick grin. It won’t do for Robbie to start questioning him about what’s going through his head. “I thought you liked Billy Idol.” He frowns with concentration and signals a left turn. “Didn’t I see a couple of Idol albums in your vinyl collection?”
“It’s not the singer, it’s all the songs.” Robbie fans open his collar and turns the air vent so that it’s blowing at his face. “They just make me hotter.”
A blast of cool, Robbie-scented air fills the car. James bites his tongue to keep from returning to his memory of the dream…sweat-slick skin and low moans and dark, sweetly obscene whispers.
Oblivious that James feels as if he’s about to go up in smoke, Robbie continues, “What is it? In this heat, do they actually think that songs about fire and things burning are clever? Do they think it helps?”
James shrugs. “I’d say it’s less about being clever and more about lack of imagination. On Fridays, we get songs about the weekend. When it’s raining, we get Here Comes the Rain Again. So record-breaking heatwave equals ‘play every song we can think of that has to do with heat and fire and burning’. Even the disco crap.”
Robbie, who oddly has a handful of disco albums mixed in with his Wagner and his sixties music, refuses to rise to the bait. “In the last week, I think I’ve heard the entire Beach Boys discography.”
“Careful!” James shakes his head and clucks. “I like the Beach Boys. And I actually think the Beach Boys’ songs help. At least their music makes me think of a day on the beach and ocean breezes and cool water.”
“Water’s not gonna be cool when it’s this hot,” Robbie grouses.
James laughs. “I don’t really think the weather’s been hot long enough to boil the ocean.”
Robbie shoots him a look that could almost be good-humoured.
“Besides,” James says, “think of the flamingos.”
“The flamingos that laid eggs for the first time in 15 or 20 years because of the heat. It was on the telly a couple of nights ago.”
“Oh,” Robbie says. “That.” He takes a deep breath and adjusts the vent back upwards and then melts back into the seat and closes his eyes, apparently too hot and disgruntled to continue the discussion.
James persists. “Did you know there’s a James's flamingo? In the Andes. It’s named for a British naturalist… Phoenicoparrus jamesi. They normally feed in fresh water, but if they take in salt water, they can excrete the salt through glands in their nostrils.”
That, at least, rates a smile. “Does it have blond feathers and a big brain filled with useless facts?”
“No. But is has yellow on its bill, which is shorter than the bills of other species of flamingos.”
Robbie looks at him without lifting his head from the headrest. “Shorter than normal, huh?” And he smiles.
James’s breath catches in his lungs and holds there as his throat threatens to close and his heart tries to leap out of his chest. Because that smile is so arch and impish that it’s nearly lascivious. Nearly flirting. But that’s just…daft…to think that Robbie would flirt with him. Robbie teases. And jokes. And makes wry comments. But Robbie doesn’t flirt. And he doesn’t do double entendre. James has to clear his throat and turn his attention back to the road before he can manage an equally playful, slightly haughty tone. “Yes, but they have more than twice the number of lamellae than other flamingos.”
Robbie opens his mouth to retort, then shakes his head and his expression slips from playful to rueful. “I’m not even going to ask.”
James nods, not sure whether he’s disappointed that Robbie’s momentary mischievousness is gone. Or glad of a mile or so of silence in which to settle his pulse and order the blood away from his ears and groin.
“And I did like Billy Idol, though he was more Lyn’s thing than mine,” Robbie says abruptly. “The albums I have were hers. I just don’t like that particular song. I always thought it sounded kind of cheesy and monotonous, especially the chorus.”
“Hot Child in the City? It’s a bit pop for my taste, but I wouldn’t call it monotonous.”
Robbie reaches over and thumps his shoulder gently. “That’s Nick Gilder. Idol’s song is Hot In the City.”
James nods as he checks his phone for directions to make sure he hasn’t missed the turn. They’re really going off the beaten path, but he’d volunteered them for this interview because he wants to see the house and the ruins of an old church which supposedly still stands on the grounds. “Sorry. Eighties music isn’t really my area of expertise.”
“Gilder is more seventies. Idol was eighties. And beyond.”
James nods again as he slows. “So what is your favourite Idol song?” It’s more rote than true interest, because his phone says their next turn should be close, but he sees nothing ahead but overgrown roadside and trees so thick they look black and impenetrable.
“Well…” Robbie leans forward, as if he’ll spot a sign better if he’s close to the windscreen. “I seem to remember a video where a young woman is rolling around on the bed in her underwear.”
“Cradle of Love,” James supplies without having to think.
Robbie smiles without looking at him. “Thought you weren’t an expert.”
“You don’t have to be an eighties music expert to remember that video.”
Robbie’s grin widens. “True.” And he points as an overgrown signpost comes into view. It’s surrounded by waist-high grass and weedy dandelions. Most have already grown past their sunny yellow petal stage to seedy puffballs.
A narrow road—pavement pocked with holes and cracks and uneven places that look as if the earth underneath is trying to push it way up through—curves off the through a thick wood. The trees loom, promising deep, cool shade. They’re so near to encroaching on the rough lane that it’s barely visible.
Robbie rocks forward again as James edges the car forward slowly.
“How the hell did thieves ever find their way here?” James wonders. “You’d have to know there was a house worth robbing back in here, wouldn’t you?”
“An interesting observation, Inspector.” Robbie smiles with approval as he taps his finger on the dash. “You’ll have to ask.”
James nods as he swings as far right as possible to avoid a gap in the pavement that looks like it would swallow a tyre. The car slips from bright sunshine into deep shadow, and the sudden change in temperature is like a cold, snowy gust of air just swept in.
Robbie sighs and settles back in his seat again and stretches his arms out in front of him as if he's feeling snowflakes settles onto his skin. From the corners of his eyes, James watches the flex of Robbie's fingers and the play of muscles under Robbie's tanned skin. The car bumps across a pothole, forcing him to refocus on the road. Robbie grunts at the sudden thump, then continues their previous conversation as if they'd never stopped. "The Idol song I always liked best was Rebel Yell.” And he turns his head towards James just the slightest bit, looking at him out of the corners of his eyes. Just enough that James can see that the impish, roguish expression is back on his face and that his eyes look— Bloody hell! Robbie’s eyes look flirtatious. Heavy-lidded and…sexy. And Robbie’s gaze stays on James’s as the tip of his tongue sneaks out and touches his lip.
Billy Idol’s gritty, sneering baritone leaps into James’s head…
What set you free and brought you to me, babe?
What sets you free? I need you here by me,
In the midnight hour, she cried, ‘More, more, more!’
With a rebel yell, she cried, ‘More, more, more!’
James is so shocked he jams on the brakes. His teeth clack as his mouth snaps shut.
All hint of flirtation gone, Robbie rocks forward and grabs onto the dashboard. His seatbelt catches, stopping his forward momentum just before his head cracks against the windscreen. “James?”
James sits, straight and stiff, staring out at the sunburned greens and browns of the wood, at the grey lane curving ahead into deep shadow. He doesn’t believe in omens and signs, but maybe there’s a little bit of superstition, even in him, because it’s just too much of a coincidence, isn’t it?
Because it was in his dream last night. And it’s been in his dreams before. Robbie moaning, ‘More,’ to whatever dream thing James is doing to him. ‘James, please, more.’
He can’t remember a time when he didn’t want more. More than friendship and partnership from Robbie. With Robbie. And he can’t remember a time when anything more seemed possible. First it was that Robbie was his guv’nor. And then Robbie was his friend. A friend he couldn’t afford to lose. And then there was Laura. And New Zealand. And that had seemed the end of it.
But now… Robbie had returned from New Zealand. And Laura hadn’t. Robbie had said only that she ‘fell in love with place’ and he hadn’t. In phone conversations, Laura said pretty much the same, though James has never been convinced there was something…he pauses, because it’s laughable…more.
Maybe now… Maybe now, it’s his turn for more. The idea makes the pulse in his neck and wrists throb. His heart thuds in his ears as if the driving beat of Rebel Yell is plugged into his bones.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he’s aware that Robbie has said his name two or three more times. That Robbie’s shifting in his seat, reaching towards him, eyes narrowed with concern. Robbie touches his shoulder, then slides his hand down to James’s bare forearm. “James?”
Robbie’s fingers are hot, too hot for contact, and James’s skin feels raw. Even with the vent blowing on the edge of his arm, and sweat breaks out in narrow finger-shaped strips where Robbie’s touching him.
James swallows the fear and shock and trembling hope that’s made him mute and turns towards Robbie.
Robbie drops back against his seat as James looms over him. And a soft, startled sound rumbles in his throat as James leans in and kisses him. Lightly, gently, on the corner of his mouth.
James shifts and cradles Robbie’s face between his hands, holding him in place as he angles his head to that he can kiss the other side of Robbie’s mouth. And then full on the lips. The taste of him is breath-taking. Hot and salty and dry, like an ocean breeze.
Robbie’s hair, sliding through his fingers, is softer than James thought it would be. The skin over his cheekbones is softer, and James’s can feel the creases of laugh lines under the pads of his thumbs. Robbie’s lips are rougher than James expected. Dry and unresponsive. Pulled taut and thin with shock.
James draws back slightly, mouth suddenly cool without the heat and pressure of Robbie’s mouth against it.
Robbie’s eyes are bright with—what?—anger or shock. Sparkling like sunlight on sea blue water. His hand had shifted when James moved, and it rests, fingers curved lightly, around James’s bicep. His fingertips are hot through James’s shirt sleeve.
James knows it’s only a matter of seconds before Robbie’s fingers tighten. Before Robbie pushes him away. He can already feel Robbie’s fingers tightening. He can hear Robbie’s voice, Geordie accent overtaking his tongue, grating out, ‘What the bloody hell, James!’
Now’s the time to pull away. To make a joke. Something about trying to make Robbie give a rebel yell. Now’s the time to try to make things easy and right between them again. But James has waited so long. Too long. And drowning out the litany of ‘more, more, more’ is the dull thud of regret that he’ll feel tomorrow, or next week, or next year, if he doesn’t take this chance.
And he murmurs, “Better to apologize than ask permission”.
Robbie’s eyes widen and his fingers tighten as James leans in and kisses him again. Putting all his longing and his waiting and his need into that one kiss. Into the only chance he’s ever going to have for more.
Robbie presses back against his seat, just enough that their lips are no longer touching,
But he doesn’t push James away, and so James holds there. Breath caught in his throat. Waiting. Waiting…
Robbie’s slides his hand up James’s arm to his shoulder. And his other hand comes down lightly on James’s ribs. His fingers tighten as they shift from James’s shoulder to curve around his neck. And Robbie draws James in, tighter against him.
Robbie’s mouth moves against his. Just the barest brush. Careful. Experimental, before he moves away again. But again, still so close that his breath is kissing James’s lips, soft as a spring breeze, but hot. Hot as bright sunlight.
James has time to run the chorus of Rebel Yell through his head before Robbie says softly, “No apology needed.” His fingertips press into the back of James’s neck, urging him closer. Robbie kisses him, rough and eager and demanding. Tilting his head so he can kiss James harder. And the sound he makes this time is plaintive and needy.
James melts into him, soft and pliant. His heart feels like one of the roadside dandelions has bloomed in his chest, the sunny petals shrivelling until nothing is left of his heart but a fragile, translucent puffball shivering in the summer sun. As Robbie’s lips part against his, and Robbie whispers his name against his mouth, all the seeds let go, tumbling and tickling and spiralling through his veins. Leaving nothing but a bald dandelion heart in the centre of his chest and Billy Idol crooning in his head.
He can feel sweat breaking out on his spine, welling up where Robbie’s fingers are resting against his temples. Yet he’s cold, shivering with delight and desire. Hands ands lips and skin all chorusing ‘More! More!’.
He bites back a protest when Robbie pushes at him and shifts to escape James’s kiss.
James resists, lips pursuing, grazing cheek and nose and the soft curve of ear as Robbie turns his head.
Robbie shivers, but insists.
James isn’t any more ready to face Robbie’s intense blue/black gaze than he was for the kiss to end. But he allows himself to be moved back a few inches. He forces himself to face Robbie’s questioning expression.
Robbie strokes his thumb across James’s cheekbone. “What brought this on, then?”
James shrugs self-consciously. Finds he can’t say the words with Robbie staring at him. He leans in and rests his cheek against Robbie’s, says in his ear, “More, more, more,” cadenced to the chorus of Rebel Yell.
Robbie’s head tilts against his. James is sure that if his face was higher, pressed against Robbie’s forehead instead of his cheek, he’d feel the crease of Robbie’s brow as he works through the words.
Then, Robbie laughs softly, chest rumbling against James’s, and his fingers tighten on James’s back, and he says the last line of the song in a sing-songy voice that’s never going to give Billy Idol anything to worry about. “More more more.”