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After the Fire

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James is drunk. He’s been standing on Inspector Lewis’ doorstep for the past ten minutes. He should have gone back to bed. Or gone to bed at all. He’d woken on the sofa, gasping, choking on phantom smoke and remorse, the living room all sinister shadows in the glow of the streetlight filtering through the half-open curtains. The bottle of whisky had been right there on the coffee table next to him.

A drink led to a cigarette, a cigarette led to a walk, and once he was walking… He’d intended to go back to Communion, try to drown out his thoughts with throbbing music he can’t stand and the press of too many people in too close a space. But his feet led him here.

Sooner or later he’s going to have to either knock or leave. Sooner. Not later. In this neighbourhood, it’s only a matter of time before someone notices him standing on the doorstep in the wee hours looking disreputable. He doesn’t want to have to explain to uniform what he’s doing on Inspector Lewis’ front step in the middle of the night, and he certainly doesn’t want to have to explain the bottle of whisky.

He doesn’t want to explain to Lewis either, but it’s been a week and he still hasn’t managed to get his head clear. Yes, maybe moving on from wine to whisky could be a factor, and maybe he should stop with the drinking since it’s neither numbed him to everything or made him cry. But he’d be getting even less sleep without it. If he was anything but a coward he’d have been here days ago, without the cover of alcohol and darkness. He’d have told Lewis the whole truth in the street. Lewis has been far more generous than James deserves, still allowing him to work by his side. As if James hadn’t lied, and lied, and lied. He is lying still, no matter that those lies are now by omission.

Telling Lewis the whole truth about Will will be the death knell for their partnership; their friendship as well, if he can be so presumptuous as to call it a friendship. And he will. Because he’s drunk. But he owes Lewis that much. If he had any sense of self-preservation he would leave well enough alone, leave now. But the things James hasn’t said are a sliver in his palm, working its way ever deeper. He’s not going to be able to extract that sliver without tearing off the whole top layer of skin. And he needs it out, it’s starting to fester.

James closes his eyes and tries to marshal his thoughts into something resembling order. To nudge himself forward. To knock. But all he sees behind his eyelids is Will’s video ghost publicly eviscerating him for his worst transgressions. Will’s face on the screen as he says, I asked a good friend. The look of dawning betrayal on Lewis’ face as he looked from the screen to James. Nobody’s perfect. James knows that. Of course, he knows that. But there’s a long way between not perfect and telling a friend they will be punished for the perversion of being who they are. Of being what James himself is.

James takes another swig from the bottle, rocks on his heels, shivers. He probably should have grabbed a jacket. His mind wanders to the hazy moments after waking up in hospital with Lewis standing over him; his first thought upon opening his eyes how much he wanted to kiss Lewis, his last memories before that of Lewis’ arms around him. Lewis dismissed having saved James’ life as if that monumental act was nothing of note. Something he’d do for anyone. Doubtless, he would. But James hasn’t got a single other person in his life who would run into a burning building for him. Does Lewis know how ready James is to do the same for him? He can’t, of course. And yet, how can James bear the kindness Lewis continues to show him when he is so undeserving?

At least this way he won’t have to hear Lewis’ voice sending him away again. He can send himself away once he’s revealed the truth. It will be better when it’s all over and he’s crawled back out of the bottle in a couple months’ time.

James takes a deep breath and knocks.

Nothing happens for a long while. Long enough to contemplate knocking again. Then everything is suddenly too bright, the light by the door blinding as it’s switched on, the sound of the lock clicking. The door opens.

“Hathaway?” Lewis is wearing blue striped pyjamas. He was asleep. Of course, he was asleep. James has no idea what time it is—he left his watch like he left his jacket—but it’s late. Definitely late. Lewis looks rumpled, charmingly so, his hair sticking up on the right side of his head. Lewis sleeps on his right side. This is information that James both did and did not need to know. Now he will never forget it. “What is it, man? Callout?”

James shakes his head. Here he is, finally ready to own up to all he has done, and he can’t make his voice work. Typical. He holds up the bottle in inadequate explanation, takes a swig to fortify himself. A look of concern solidifies on Lewis’ face.

“I— There’s something I need to say,” James manages.

Lewis looks James up and down as if checking for signs of injury. “Better come in, then,” he says, and reaches out a hand to steady him as James stumbles over the threshold.

In the kitchen, with only the light over the sink switched on, Lewis pulls out a chair and sits down, offering James a seat as well. But James can’t be sitting for this. He needs to be able to flee when the moment arises. He stands by the window. Watches the dark street. He can feel himself swaying. He can feel Lewis’ eyes on him. He takes another swig from the bottle.

“James,” Lewis says.

“I owe you an explanation,” James says, watching a fox sniffing around next door’s bins. “An apology. The whole truth.” Lewis is silent behind him as if he knows James needs him not to interrupt. “Everything you said to me in the street… It was— I deserved all of it. There’s no excuse for anything I did. I should have told you the truth from the beginning but I just— I’m sorry. You can’t have a sergeant you don’t trust.”

“James,” Lewis says again. The scrape of chair legs against the tile, followed by soft footsteps. James doesn’t turn around.

“I will never not be grateful to you for giving me a second chance,” James says. “But I don’t deserve it. You or… anything. I’m sorry to have drawn it out this long. I’ll resign on Monday. I can work my notice under another inspector.”

More soft footsteps and Lewis is right behind him. James tries not to stiffen at the closeness, but then Lewis lays his hand on James’ shoulder and he is back at the fire; Lewis’ arms around him and James struggling against him, straining toward certain doom.

“There’s no need for that,” Lewis’ hand on James’ shoulder is a brand, a tether, a lifeline, a kindness he will never come close to deserving.

“You don’t understand.” James shakes his head. He wants to turn around. He can’t turn around. He can’t bear to see the same look of incredulity and betrayal Lewis wore in the pub. It’s fitting, really, that James’ betrayal of Will—his ill-fated efforts to keep that firmly in the past—is also a betrayal of Lewis. The only person since Will he’s allowed himself to get anything like as close to. If there is no one near, then no one can be hurt by the neverending string of bad decisions spiralling ever out from the disaster that is his life.

“I should be apologising to you,” Lewis says. “Should have taken you off the case as soon as I found out how close you and Will had been as children. Should have seen what it was doing to you.”

“No. Sir.” James shakes his head again and turns toward Lewis, almost managing to meet his eyes. “I didn’t want you to see. I lied. I betrayed your trust. It was unforgivable. I am unforgivable.” He’s gone so far over the line he doesn’t deserve even this amount of indulgence, let alone being carried out of a burning building.

“You can’t blame yourself for everything that happened.”

“Of course I can,” James says, not even trying to disguise his bitterness.

“Talk sense, man. You’re my sergeant, it’s my job to look out for you. I did it poorly. I should never have let things get that far. I was angry, but I shouldn’t have shouted at you.”

“You really don’t understand. It was no less than I deserved. It wasn’t just— I still haven’t— When we were teenagers, Will and I— When he came out to me—” James scrubs his hand over his face, takes a deep breath. “I did kiss him. I did more than kiss him. Then I condemned him for what we’d done. And I— I thought becoming a priest was the answer, I’d take a vow of celibacy and never make that mistake again. There was that sorted.” James sighs and runs his hand over the back of his neck. “Will was in so much pain and I couldn’t see past my own shame.”

“James,” Lewis says.

James bows his head, clenches his hand into a fist. “I’m sorry, sir. Truly. You don’t deserve to be saddled with me.” He goes for another swig from the bottle but Lewis’ hand is there, easing it out of his grip, placing it on the kitchen table behind him.

“You’re all right, lad,” Lewis says. “Come sit down.”

James shakes his head. He can’t. He can’t. This is not how it’s is supposed to go. Lewis is supposed to agree that James is unforgivable. That he can never trust James again. James is supposed to resign and walk away. Lewis is not supposed to be guiding him to a chair with a soothing hand across his shoulders as he sits. James is not supposed to lean into that touch. He’s not supposed to let himself have something he so patently doesn’t deserve. Being shouted at in the street made sense. Kind understanding and running into a burning building to save him doesn’t. Nothing makes sense.

He should leave. He needs to leave. He will leave. But instead, he leans into the solid warmth of Lewis standing next to him, knows it instantly for the mistake it is. He can feel the sob building in his chest, a wave crashing over him, powerless to stop it. He tries for a calming breath. It catches in his throat and he’s clutching at the lifeline of Lewis’ pyjama shirt. He lets the wave take him, pummel him, nearly drown him, toss him up on the shore. Wrung out, exhausted, gasping.

And Lewis is still there. Lewis is still there. Lewis is still there with his hand on James’ back, calm, reassuring, murmuring something James can’t hear over the sound of his own harsh breath. This is not something he should have. It’s not. It’s not.

James sits up. Leans away from Lewis’ warmth and tries not to miss it. Fails at that too. Tries not to topple off the chair without Lewis grounding him. Manages that okay. He wipes at his eyes. He doesn’t look up at Lewis. He can’t bear to see the look of pity that must be on his face.

He watches Lewis’ bare feet move out of his field of vision, listens to the sound of the tap running, the kettle being placed on its base, the cupboard opening and shutting, mugs on the countertop. He doesn’t move. If he moves he may shatter into a million pieces on the floor and never finish what he came here to do. Lewis still doesn’t know the breadth of James’ lies. The kettle boils and clicks off, the fridge opens and shuts, a pint of milk set on the worktop, water being poured into mugs, spoon against ceramic. Lewis’ feet return with the clunk of mugs on the table. Lewis sits in the chair next to him.

“Hey,” Lewis says, placing a gentle hand on James’ knee.

James looks up at Lewis this time. Lewis’ eyes shine in the dim light, his expression so full of compassion James has to look away again almost immediately. He takes a slow calming breath, reaches for the mug and takes a sip of tea, scalding his tongue. He focuses on the pain, on the steam rising from the mug, not the fact that Lewis knows how James takes his tea, though James can’t remember ever having told him. Another thing he will lose when all of this is over.

“It’s not right,” James says, his voice sounds rough, unsteadier than he’d like. “That I’m still here when Will isn’t… And Zoe— Feardorcha, I don’t even—”

“James.” Lewis sounds alarmed.

“I’m not going to off myself,” James says, annoyance creeping in. He holds onto that sliver of irritation, anything but crushing guilt, fortifies himself with it. “It’s just— it’s the truth of it. I can’t escape it. Pretending it’s not true won’t change anything, believe me. I destroyed any hope Will had of happiness. How can I— He was so much braver than I ever have been and look what it got him.”

“You’re not thinking straight.”

James barks out a mirthless laugh. “Never have as it turns out.”

Lewis sighs. James keeps his eyes focused on the mug.

“Do you think that’s what Will would want? For you never to be happy?” Lewis asks.

“Zoe would.”

“Zoe was a murderer.”

“She said one word from me and Will would have been all right. I should have gone back to him after I left the seminary. I should have told him— I should have apologised for everything that happened when we were fourteen. I was so caught up in myself and it killed him.”

“You didn’t know,” Lewis says. Out of the corner of his eye, James sees Lewis’ hand reach out then stop halfway across the distance between them and withdraw. James looks down at the floor and focuses on the pattern of the tile.

“I didn’t know because I didn’t want to. I cut myself off from everyone I’d known when I was at seminary. I couldn’t face them. I couldn’t make myself do the right thing.” James can feel Lewis watching him intently. He both wants to squirm away from that gaze and meet it head-on. Instead, he shakes his head and takes a large sip of tea.

“Ah, lad. You’re not responsible for other people’s decisions. What you said may have contributed to Will’s actions but you’re not the only one. His father, the Garden, whatever was going on in his own head, who knows who else. You can’t take all that on yourself.”

“No, but that’s just— How can you not see? How can you keep ignoring the truth? I did this! Me!” James is shouting now. He didn’t mean to be shouting. Nothing is going to plan. He stands, letting his mug hit the table with a clunk, and stalks over the window, takes a cigarette out of his pack, brings it to his lips and then immediately puts it back. “I kissed Will, I— We— I may have loved him, but I was so terrified of what we’d done. What that meant we were. I condemned him for his actions when I wanted more than anything to have what he had.”

“James,” Lewis says. “Do you trust me?”

“Of course.” Without question or hesitation. In everything. Despite the fact that Lewis can’t possibly trust him in turn. He turns and glances at Lewis, at the bottle on the table. Lewis is calm, still sitting in the kitchen chair, watching James like he’s a particularly unruly suspect.

“Can you trust that my perspective on this might be clearer than yours?”

He wants to. He wants nothing more than to believe what Lewis says over what he knows to be true. Wants Lewis’ words to cleanse him like the fire should have. Wants to be able to move forward toward something instead of always away from something he cannot face. James sighs and paces the edge of the kitchen worrying at his thumbnail for lack of a cigarette.

One circuit, the milk is still on the worktop, he considers putting it away. Two circuits, there is a greasy spot on the tile floor next to the oven. Three circuits, he does not look at Lewis’ bare feet as he still sits calmly in his chair. Four circuits, he stops and looks out the window keeping his back firmly to Lewis. The fox has moved on, leaving crisp packets and other detritus spread around the base of the bins. James bites at his thumbnail, it stings, he tastes blood.

“Do you believe what Will said,” James asks eventually. “That love is never wrong?”

“Sounds about right,” Lewis says. He hesitates for a moment. “Do you?”

James sighs. “I do now. I wish I’d believed it when it mattered.”

“Better late than never.”

James sighs again. “That’s not everything…” He falters, caught up against so many years of reticence. Silence stretches across the kitchen between them.

“Can you tell me the rest?” Lewis asks.

The timber of Lewis’ voice, the compassion. It is not dissimilar to the voice of every priest James has confessed his sins to over the years, but there is no screen of privacy between them. When James finally says it out loud Lewis will have no choice but to acknowledge it, there will be no more hiding. Against his every instinct James turns and meets Lewis’ eyes across the kitchen. If he’s going to do this he’s got to do it properly.

“After everything I’ve done,” James says, “I still can’t stop wanting you.”

Lewis’ face doesn’t register the shock James is expecting. He looks… relieved? That can’t possibly be right.

“James,” Lewis says, his voice sounds odd, almost choked.

“I’m sorry,” James says. “For everything. I should go.” He turns and starts toward the door. He has said his piece. Even if Lewis doesn’t see the truth of it now, he will in time. He’ll sleep on it. In the morning it will all be clear. He won’t try to stop James resigning. He’ll let James go.

James sways into the kitchen island as he passes by and then Lewis is next to him once again, with a steadying hand on his upper arm, leading him to the sofa this time. Lewis sits down next to him, no more than the usual distance between them, despite all James has confessed.

“Sir, I— You don’t have to do this. I’ll be fine on my own.”

“Will you?” Lewis says. “You look like hell, have done all this week. Have you been sleeping at all?”

James stares. He must be drunker than he thought. Must have fallen asleep and this is some sort of bizarre dream in which he confesses his feelings for Lewis and Lewis isn’t bothered. Maybe he wasn’t clear enough. Maybe he still hasn’t said any of it out loud. His every instinct is screaming to get back up and walk out the door, to stop before he makes things even worse than the abject disaster they already are. But his instincts haven’t exactly led to favourable outcomes so far.

“I know it’s not the same,” Lewis says. “But when Val died… I blamed myself for everything. If I’d gone with her that day, if I’d been there to tell her I loved her before she left, if I’d convinced her to shop in Oxford instead of London, if I’d paid more attention. The second-guessing only— it eats you up inside. I don’t want to watch it eat you.”

“That was an accident,” James says, his voice sounds small. “You weren’t the cause of it.”

“Neither were you. Nothing you did was with the intention to cause harm.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters,” Lewis says.

“It doesn’t matter to Will. He’s still dead.”

“And you’re alive.”

James shakes his head, looks down at his hands in his lap. “What if I don’t deserve to be?”

“Oh, lad,” Lewis says, a hitch in his voice. Lewis lays his hand on James’ arm and James is leaning toward Lewis again before he can stop himself, toward blue striped pyjamas, toward Lewis’ warmth. James takes a deep breath and breathes it out slowly into Lewis’ chest, tangles his fingers in the soft cotton of his shirt. The last time someone held him like this she tried to kill him. The time before that he was so terrified of going to hell he couldn’t even enjoy it. “You’re all right, lad,” Lewis says, despite all evidence to the contrary. “You’re all right.”

James presses his face against Lewis’ chest. “I’m really not,” he says, muffled. “I’m sorry I’m not.”

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for.” Lewis’ hand rubs up and down James’ back, soothing. He is twisted awkwardly on the sofa, half in Lewis’ lap, he should be embarrassed, ashamed, but he feels nothing but comforted, possibly even more than that.

“I haven’t told you everything either,” Lewis says after minutes of comfortable silence. “I had uniform keep an eye on you after our row. They lost you before you got to Zoe’s place— Once I realised— If I hadn’t found you…” Lewis takes a deep breath. “I never would have forgiven myself.”

“Sir,” James starts, but he can’t fathom how to finish. Lewis’ hand squeezes his shoulder and James leans in further, lets his head rest on Lewis’ chest. He shouldn’t be allowing himself this, but he’s too drunk and too exhausted to stop. And Lewis seems, inexplicably, not to mind. A light touch brushes over the crown of James’ head. A kiss; gentle, chaste, but a kiss.

James turns his face into Lewis’ neck, breathing in the scent of him. He presses a tentative kiss to Lewis’ skin above the collar of his pyjama shirt. Lewis doesn’t pull away. James kisses him again, just behind his ear, then up along his jaw, and another kiss, and again. He lifts his head and finds Lewis’ lips—soft, warm, a bit dry—then he is pressing forward, running his tongue across Lewis’ lips and they are kissing, properly kissing.

Lewis’ tongue is in his mouth, Lewis’ lip between his teeth, Lewis’ hand stroking up his back, palm cupping the nape of his neck. James moans as Lewis’ fingers trace along his jaw and down his neck, under the collar of his t-shirt. Then he is surging forward, pressing Lewis against the back of the sofa, straddling his legs and taking Lewis’ face in both hands, kissing him and gasping with it, then frantically trying to undo the buttons of Lewis’ pyjama shirt without breaking the kiss. James wants to feel Lewis’ skin against his own, he wants… he wants.

James puts just enough space between them to pull his t-shirt off, but Lewis’ hand is on his chest, half on his shirt and half on his bare skin.

“Hey. Hey, slow down.”

James stops, shirt rucked up around his shoulders where he hasn’t yet managed to get it over his head, Lewis’ shirt undone halfway down his chest. Lewis looks, well, like he’s been snogged but good. His hair is in even more disarray than before, there is a bit of stubble burn around his mouth, his lips glisten in the dim light filtering through from the kitchen. James wrenches his gaze away, forcing himself to meets Lewis’ eyes, not reach out and push his shirt further open.

“I want you,” James says. “I want this.” It comes out rather more pleading than he intends.

“I’d gathered that.” The look on Lewis’ face is full of tenderness, heat, regret.

“But you don’t…”

“I do,” Lewis says. “But not like this.” James tries not to let the sudden weight in the pit of his stomach drag him to the floor. He pulls his shirt back down, covering himself, and slides off Lewis’ lap into the corner of the sofa. Of course, this was too good to be true. It was never going to be anything else. At least he’ll have the memory to sustain him after Lewis has finally sent him away for good. “You’re drunk, and grieving. I’ll not take advantage of you.”

“You wouldn’t be,” James says, and then quickly before his brain catches up with his mouth. “I wouldn’t mind if you did.” And he wouldn’t. He would give Lewis anything, everything, to continue to be allowed this closeness, to kiss him again.

Lewis gives him a searching look.

“I’ll still want you when I’m sober,” James adds, in case there is any doubt. James reaches for Lewis, runs his thumb across his lips. Lewis presses a kiss to the tip of James’ thumb, gives him a small smile.

“Good,” Lewis says. “I will too. Want you.”

James nods, lets his hand fall to his lap, but he has to look away. He can’t look at Lewis, can’t quite believe his words even though all current physical evidence points to the truth of his statement. It doesn’t seem possible, Lewis wanting him. He’ll come to his senses at some point like James already should have done.

“James, look at me,” Lewis says, he looks sad when James looks up at him. “I don’t know how to make you understand.”

“It’s okay,” James says, moving to stand. “I don’t need to. I’ll just go.”

“No. James,” Lewis says, exasperation colouring his words, his hand on James’ thigh stopping his momentum. “I— In the street— I should never have shouted at you like that, or sent you away. But I— It wasn’t only about the case.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“No, listen to me.” Lewis’ fingers tighten on James’ thigh. “It wasn’t only about the case. It was— When you lied to me, it made me so angry because I— That you felt you had to hide your past from me, that you didn’t trust me— It hurt. I lashed out. I realised in that moment that you— You mean more to me than I can possibly say.”

James can’t have heard it right. “But you—”

“I never want to see you walking away from me like that again. I want you with me.”

It is a revelation. It’s too much to take in all at once. If he was standing his legs would be unable to hold him up. After everything James has done.

“You can’t—”

“I can,” Lewis says. He sounds so certain.

“But you’re not gay.”

“Neither are you,” Lewis says. He did pick up on that, then. James should know better than to underestimate Lewis’ ability to read between the lines.

“You were married.”

“And you were training to be a priest. Who was it who said there wasn’t just a nice, neat, straight line down the middle?”

James stares at Lewis. If he’s slipped into some sort of drunken delusion he doesn’t want to come out of it.

“It may take some getting used to, I know. Old codger like me changing his ways. But if I can do it so can you,” Lewis says, giving James the warmest smile he has ever seen on Lewis’ kind face.

James is sitting on Lewis’ sofa, the taste of Lewis’ kisses still on his tongue. Lewis is gazing at him with such affection. James has no words. He lets himself settle into the comfort of Lewis’ warmth next to him—so similar and yet so different to every other time they’ve sat side by side on this sofa—presses a kiss to Lewis’ cheek and then lays his head on his shoulder.

Lewis seems to believe so fiercely that James’ past actions are not reason for condemnation, and if Lewis believes it so strongly, James has to accept the fact that it could even be true. He does trust Lewis, he trusts Lewis with his life, and Lewis saved it. Maybe he can trust Lewis that everything may not be his fault as well. James lets out a sigh, of contentment this time, and Lewis puts his arm around him holding him close, presses another gentle kiss to the crown of James’ head.

“You’re all right, lad,” Lewis says. “You’re going to be all right.”