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Break Me Down Gently

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It’s one of those rare, peaceful Kembleford days when no murders have been committed, and a light autumn drizzle is falling as Inspector Mallory climbs out of the car in front of the police station. He scowls up at the cloud-covered sky, huddling deeper into his trench coat.

“Looks like this rain has settled in for the rest of the day”, Goodfellow remarks, following his gaze. Mallory shoots him a glare.

“You have a talent for stating the bleeding obvious”, he grumbles, pushing past the sergeant into the building. Unreasonably harsh, he knows, but he’s tired and irritable, and Goodfellow is the nearest target to take it out on.

It's a relief to get back indoors after traipsing around a farm on what seems to have been an essentially pointless call-out. There had been a break-in, but the farmer must have disturbed the thief and scared them off, because nothing had been taken.

As he reaches his office, there's a rushing in his ears, and a wave of dizziness sweeps over him. He pauses for a moment, taking off his hat and leaning his head against the cool, sturdy wood of the door frame.

"I'll go and make some tea, sir”, he hears Goodfellow say from somewhere behind him, but the sergeant’s voice seems oddly muffled somehow, and he barely registers it.

As soon as the wave of light-headedness has passed, he retreats into his office, throwing his hat and coat onto the stand and collapsing into his chair. He leans back with a groan. There’s a case report to write, he knows, part of the tedious busywork that comes with the job, but even keeping his head upright feels too much of an effort right now.

Resting his arms on the wooden surface of the desk, he gives up and lets his head fall onto them. He feels fuzzy and detached, as though he’s in a dream, and the low-level headache he’s been battling all day is rapidly growing into a vicious pounding in his skull.

“Inspector?”

Reluctantly, he cracks open his eyes and raises his head enough to see Goodfellow standing in the doorway, a mug in each hand and a worried expression on his face.

“Leave it on the desk”, Mallory mumbles, putting his head back down.

“Are you all right there, sir? Only, you don’t look all that well. Haven’t all day, if you don’t mind my saying.”

Mallory groans, forcing himself to sit up. Typical Goodfellow, fussing about things that shouldn’t concern him. Anyone else would see the inspector in a bad mood and give him a wide berth.

“I’m just tired, that’s all”, he grumbles, squinting at the sergeant through a haze of pain. “The wife and kids are off visiting the in-laws, so I’ve been left to fend for myself. Peace and quiet for once, without all the nagging and shrieking, but it means seeing to all my own meals. Spent an hour last night scraping burned gravy out of the pan, but there’d be hell to pay when the wife gets back if I’d left it.”

“Sorry to hear that, Inspector”, Goodfellow says sympathetically, but his brow is still furrowed with concern. “I get the feeling that’s not all it is, though. Are you sure you haven’t gone down with something? You look a bit feverish, if you ask me.”

He puts the mugs down on a clear patch of desk and leans in closer, resting his weight against the sturdy wood. Then, before Mallory has time to register what’s happening, he mumbles, "Excuse me for doing this, sir", and places a hand against the inspector's forehead.

The ringing in Mallory's ears magnifies tenfold, and his skin tingles at the contact. Goodfellow shakes his head.

“You’re burning up, sir. You should be at home in bed, not here trying to work. I doubt you’ll be up to much for the next couple of days, either. There’s been a nasty bug going around the village, and it looks to me like you’ve picked that up.”

“I can’t just lay around in bed when there are cases to solve”, Mallory protests, but his heart isn’t in it. It’s not as though he’d be much use for detective work in this state.

“No need to be stubborn now, Inspector”, Goodfellow says soothingly. “I’ll get one of the lads to call for some cover, and then I’ll take you home. A couple of days rest, and I’m sure you’ll be back to solving crimes again.”

He hurries out of the office, tea mugs forgotten. Mallory sinks his head back into his hands, weighing the humiliation of being taken home sick against the unbearable thought of staying at work when he feels so rough. In the end, it’s hopeless. He’s so tired, he can’t even convince himself he wants to stay.

It seems only moments later when he feels a large, comforting hand on his shoulder and hears the sergeant’s gentle voice say, "Come on, Inspector, let's get you to the car."

“Get off me”, Mallory grumbles, shrugging away from him, but he’s barely stood up before a wave of light-headedness sends him crumpling back into his seat once more.

He tries again, pushing himself up more slowly, and this time it goes much better. Goodfellow retrieves his hat and trench coat and hovers close behind as he makes his way to the door, ready to catch him if he falters. He'll be damned if he'll let that happen, though. Bad enough that he's having to be driven home, without collapsing into the sergeant's arms on the way.

Glaring fiercely around in case any constables are watching, he gets himself past the front desk by sheer willpower, attempting a semblance of his usual stride. But as soon as they're around the corner, he slumps. Goodfellow slides a supportive arm around his waist, and he reluctantly submits to being half carried out to the car.

The drone of the engine lulls his tired mind, and he almost nods off despite the shortness of the journey. He rouses up when it’s switched off, but having got this far, it’s a struggle to bring himself to move. He blinks groggily through the window as the sergeant walks around the car to open his door, and although he grumbles a bit when Goodfellow tries to help him up, he barely has the strength left to argue.

When they reach the front door of the house, he leans against the door frame, fumbling through his pockets to find the key. There’s static ringing in his ears again and making his vision fuzzy, and although he rests his head against the wood, he still can’t seem to think straight. Goodfellow waits with his usual patience and doesn’t say a word, even when the inspector scrapes the key around the lock before he finally manages to get it in.

Despite Mallory’s misgivings, it’s a relief to get inside and finally be home. As soon as the door is shut behind them, he slumps against it, feeling as if a weight has fallen away. He’s safe now, out of sight of whatever colleagues or neighbours might see and judge him. It’s just him and Goodfellow, and if he trusts anyone in his life, it’s the sergeant.

“Something wrong, Inspector?”

He must have zoned out, because he’s suddenly aware of Goodfellow looking down at him with concern.

"I think we should get you to bed", the sergeant suggests. "Then I'll give the doctor a call and get him to come and take a look at you.”

"I don't need a doctor", Mallory grumbles, but at this point, he's fully resigned to the fact he's going to see one anyway. Pushing himself off the door, he heads towards the stairs, then stands at the base, gazing up apprehensively at the steep flight.

“Don’t worry, sir, I’ll give you a hand”, Goodfellow tells him, putting a hand against his back and making like going to pick him up, of all things. Mallory flinches away, scowling.

“You are not carrying me upstairs”, he fumes. “I’m not a ruddy invalid!”

“Sorry, sir, I just don’t want you falling if you get dizzy again. You could do yourself an injury if you lose your balance. It’s like I always tell my kids-”

“Don’t sir me in my own home!” Mallory snaps with unwarranted venom, and the sergeant draws back as though physically stung.

“Sorry, Gerry, I’m just worried about you, that’s all”, he mumbles. “But if you’re sure you can manage it, I’ll lay off.” His voice is soft, and guilt twists in the inspector’s chest, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to apologise.

“You do that”, he says gruffly. Taking a deep breath, he forces himself to start the climb, with Goodfellow following close behind.

It all goes fine, if you don’t count the awkward moment when his legs give way beneath him, and suddenly Goodfellow’s arms are around his waist and holding him upright against him. And Mallory is definitely not counting that, because to do so would mean acknowledging it happened, and then he'd be stuck replaying it over and over in his mind forever.

He has a nasty feeling he might end up doing that anyway.

The bedroom is small and not particularly tidy, and if he didn’t feel so utterly wretched, Mallory might worry about Goodfellow’s opinion of the golf bag in the corner or the shelf of tattered novels. As it is, his only concern is getting out of his suit and into bed as quickly as he’s able to.

“Do you need me to help get your clothes off?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Heat flares over Mallory’s skin at the very suggestion. He tugs irritably at the knot of his tie, but the world is beginning to go fuzzy again. His coordination seems to have deserted him, leaving his fingers clumsy and making everything far harder than it should be. Goodfellow hangs back, clearly itching to help but not wanting another scolding.

After a few seconds of fumbling, the inspector gives up and let his arms drop, resigning himself to the latest of the day’s relentless humiliations.

“Go on then”, he grunts, and Goodfellow steps forward immediately, far too close and far too eager for the inspector’s sanity. Deft hands slip his tie free and put it to one side, then set to work unbuttoning his waistcoat.

As soon as he’s stripped to his underwear, Mallory climbs into bed and pulls the covers over himself, as much to hide from the sergeant as anything. Still, despite his annoyance at himself for being so helpless, and at Goodfellow for fussing over him, it's a blessed relief to finally lie down.

At last, Goodfellow leaves him to it for a while, disappearing downstairs to call the doctor. Mallory lies on his back with his eyes closed, half-listening to the faint sound of the telephone conversation. His head is still pounding, but as long as he keeps it down, the dizziness has faded. The sheet and pillow are pleasantly cool against his feverish skin, too, although he knows they won’t stay that way for long with him lying on them.

The sergeant is only gone a few minutes. “Dr Elery will be here soon”, he says when he reappears in the doorway. “Apparently, he had a few house calls this morning, but the afternoon's been quiet, so he can come over right away."

“Once he gets here, you may as well go back to the station. There’s no need for you to stay”, the inspector tells him without opening his eyes.

“I’m not leaving you on your own, Gerry, not when you’re in this state.”

How the sergeant can be so mild and yet so stubbornly determined is beyond Mallory. He might not have the energy to argue, but he still manages an exasperated sigh – although the effect is ruined somewhat by the fact he’s still lying down.

Goodfellow is unfazed. “Don’t worry, I’ll stay here and take care of you until you’re well enough to do it yourself. Or until your family get back, but I expect you’ll be up and about before then.”

“What about your job?” Mallory protests. “You know what that lot at the station are like; I wouldn’t trust them to solve anything more challenging than a missing sock case without us.”

“Don't you worry about that", Goodfellow reassures him. “I’ve asked them to let HQ know what’s happened, and get them to send another inspector to cover for you until you’re fit to go back to work.”

Mallory tries not to shudder at the thought of yet another inspector taking over his office and sitting at his desk. It doesn’t matter that some of them had it before him; it’s his now. His desk. His office. His sergeant.

Even if that last one is little more than wishful thinking.

He cracks open one eye, only to catch Goodfellow watching him. The sergeant’s face creases into a smile, and Mallory shuts his eye immediately, his heart doing unreasonable gymnastics in his chest. Whatever the doctor might say, he’s going to have to get back to full health as soon as humanly possible. Otherwise, having Goodfellow looking after him is going to drive him insane.

As if on cue, there’s a knock at the front door, the sound carrying loudly even up to the bedroom. “That’ll be the doctor”, Goodfellow announces, somewhat redundantly, and disappears downstairs to let him in.

Mallory listens to the sound of the door opening, followed by a brief conversation too muffled for him to hear, then two sets of footsteps ascending the stairs. He’s never been a fan of doctors – they’re too medical for his liking – but he braces himself to get this visit over with. At least this time, the man won’t be on at him about his gout.

He submits morosely to the examination, his expression fixed in a sullen glare as he allows his temperature to be taken and his pulse checked. A look in his ears, a listen to his chest, and a few mutterings later, it’s all over.

“Nothing serious”, the doctor announces, more cheerfully than Mallory’s headache appreciates. “The most important thing is to get that temperature down. A few days of complete rest, and you should be back to full crime-solving health, Inspector!”

“Don’t worry, Doctor, I’ll be sticking around here to keep an eye on him and make sure he gets plenty of rest.” Goodfellow’s voice is light, and Mallory has the abrupt realisation the sergeant is looking forward to this.

“A couple of days and you'll be sick of the sight of me", he warns Goodfellow, as the doctor heads for the door. "My wife would tell you I'm a terrible patient."

Goodfellow smiles down at him. "I don't know about that, Gerry; I think it'll be nice to spend a bit of time together outside work. We haven't even had the chance for a pint and a chat at the Red Lion lately."

Mallory doesn’t even have time to react before the doctor sticks his head back around the bedroom door, an irritatingly smug grin on his face.

“I forgot to mention, Inspector Mallory”, he says, “I hope you’re sticking to that dietary advice I gave you to reduce the gout flare-ups. Remember, no alcohol if you want to avoid pain!"

Mallory glares daggers the moment the man’s back is turned, and mutters "Ruddy wazzock" under his breath. Goodfellow gives his shoulder a sympathetic pat, then follows the doctor downstairs.

When he returns a few minutes later, he brings painkillers and a glass of water with him. Mallory swallows them in silence, then hands back the glass and wriggles down into bed.

“That’s right, Gerry, you lie down and get some rest”, Goodfellow tells him, setting the glass on the bedside table. “I’ll see what I can do about bringing down that fever.”

Tired and fuzzy-headed as he is after the doctor's visit, it doesn't occur to Mallory to wonder what he means. In fact, the words don't fully register at all until Goodfellow reappears at his bedside a few minutes later with a bowl of cool water and a cloth.

Mallory stares up at him. “What’s that for?” he croaks, although he has a horrible feeling he already knows.

“I thought I’d give you a sponge bath to help cool you down, if that’s all right with you.” Goodfellow seems entirely unperturbed by the concept, and the inspector wonders how on earth he can be so calm.

He supposes he could refuse, but he can hardly explain to the sergeant why the thought of that level of intimacy has his heart trying to escape through his throat. It sounds utterly mortifying, and yet even so, there’s a morbid sort of allure he can’t resist. Besides which, he’s hardly likely to get an offer like that from Goodfellow again, especially if he turns it down now.

He swallows, then nods. "Go on then. I suppose it can't do any harm."

The flannel is an old one, rough from years of laundering, but the sergeant's touch is gentle and the cool water is soothing against his skin. Goodfellow takes his time to do a thorough job, starting with Mallory’s face and neck and gradually making his way down his body. He leaves his vest as it is, keeping to the skin visible around it, bathing his upper chest, then each arm in turn. Then he shifts to sit further down the bed and works his way slowly down the inspector’s legs, from the lower edge of his underwear right down to his feet.

Mallory lies on his back, staring up at the ceiling, trying to simultaneously ignore what's happening and commit every detail of it to memory. He has a horrible feeling that if he weren't in such a low physical state, he'd be getting hard from the attention, and he hates having to feel grateful for being too ill.

The wash is more refreshing than he expected, although he’s absolutely not going to admit that aloud. By the time it’s over, he’s less sweaty and more comfortable, and even the pounding in his head has eased. At last, Goodfellow covers him up with the top sheet and thin blanket, then tucks him in as though the inspector were one of his children rather than his boss. It’s been a long, long time since anyone has done something like that for Mallory, and it makes a warm, fuzzy feeling bloom in his chest. Everything feels so unreal, he half expects the sergeant to lean down and kiss his forehead, but of course, he does no such thing.

Instead, he chooses a book from Mallory’s shelf and settles down in the armchair to read it. It’s one of his Raymond Chandlers, and the inspector has no idea whether that’s something he would typically go for or not. The only books he can recall seeing the sergeant read are non-fiction: psychology, botany, ornithology, and the one on policing techniques that Mallory’s predecessor gave him before heading off to London. Still, he looks engrossed enough in this one now.

He seems perfectly at ease in Mallory’s home, in his room, taking care of him, but the inspector refuses to think about that. Instead, he closes his eyes and directs his hazy thoughts back to the case they were working on. That does the trick, and in no time at all, he falls fast asleep.

For the rest of the afternoon, Mallory drifts in and out of sleep. He's vaguely aware of Goodfellow getting up occasionally to check on him, testing his fever with a hand to his forehead and refreshing the cloth to wipe his face. When he rouses up, the sergeant offers him more water, and helps him to sip it without having to sit up fully. Otherwise, Goodfellow stays in his seat, a constant presence, quiet but for the occasional sound of a turning page or a murmur under his breath in reaction to something he’s read.

The inspector doesn't know how much time has passed when he finally wakes more fully, but when he pulls himself upright, he can see the blue sky darkening to twilight through the window beyond Goodfellow. The sergeant notices him moving and looks over with a smile.

“Feeling any better, Gerry?” he asks.

Mallory takes a breath and wrinkles his nose, giving himself a quick mental once over. “A lot better”, he announces, an exaggeration but not entirely untrue.

Goodfellow’s smile widens. “Glad to hear it. Do you think you can manage food if I sort some out? I’m getting a bit peckish.”

“You don’t have to do all this”, the inspector mumbles.

Goodfellow tilts his head. “There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for you, Gerry”, he says, gazing down at him affectionately. “How about soup? I’m sure you’ve got some tins in the cupboard I could heat up.

Mallory looks away to avoid the fondness in his eyes. “Go on then”, he grunts.

It’s not too much later when the sergeant returns, balancing two bowls of oxtail soup on a tray along with a plate of roughly-sliced bread for them to share. It's a simple enough arrangement, but it's tasty, and there's something cosy about sitting there on the bed together. Mallory himself doesn’t manage to eat much, but he picks at morsels of soup-soaked bread and watches Goodfellow from the corner of his eye.

By the time they’ve finished, it’s fully dark out, and the inspector nods pointedly towards the night sky visible through the window. “You should be getting home. You’ve already done more than enough, and I can manage on my own for tonight.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?” Goodfellow frowns. “I don’t think Mrs Mallory would mind me using her bedroom, as it’s in a good cause.”

“I'm a grown man, Sergeant; I don't need you hanging around playing nursemaid all night. Besides, don't you have a family to be getting back to?"

“You do have a point there.” Goodfellow grimaces and rubs his forehead. “I suppose I should get back and let them know what’s going on. And it wouldn’t hurt to call in at the station on my way, check how the lads have been getting on without us. You be sure to telephone me, though, if you need anything. Anything at all, no matter what time."

“I’ll do that”, Mallory assures him, knowing he absolutely won’t. The last thing he needs is Goodfellow’s family resenting him for keeping their husband and father away even more than he already does.

“Glad to hear it." the sergeant smiles down at him. "Now, how about you get some more rest? Seems to me sleep is the best thing for you right now. Your body will heal itself at its own pace, as long as you let it."

The inspector wants to protest at that, but he’s too tired – which probably means Goodfellow is right anyway. Curse him and his common sense wisdom, and his kindness, and the fact he’s built like a ruddy fortress whose arms could keep Mallory safe forever.

Too bad sleep won’t cure the inspector’s mind of thoughts like that one.

“Go home, Goodfellow", he mutters gruffly. The use of the man's surname is a dismissal in itself, a sign the evening's cosy domesticity has come to an end.

Shuffling down in the bed, he buries his head in his pillow and closes his eyes. He listens, though, to the soft sounds of the sergeant moving about. Hears him heading downstairs, and the distant clattering as he washes up their soup bowls and clears them away. And then, finally, the sound of the front door opening and closing.

Only then does Mallory relax and drift back into sleep.

**********

The inspector wakes slowly the following morning. For a while, he drifts in and out of sleep, as the awareness of being hot and uncomfortable gradually filters through to his consciousness. He feels terrible, sweaty and miserable, drained of energy and aching all over. Even so, he’s far too lethargic to actually consider moving.

Memories of yesterday filter slowly into his mind, hazy at first, like droplets of paint gradually accumulating to form a picture. He remembers trudging around a farm in the rain, feeling miserable. Then they must have got back to the station somehow, because he has a fuzzy recollection of sitting at his desk while Goodfellow leans down, frowning, and holds a hand against his forehead. Then everything is a blur until the relief of getting home stands out like a beacon in his memory.

After that, things are clearer. Rolling onto his back with his eyes closed, he mentally goes over the sequence of events, trying to recall how much of a fool he might have made of himself. With a jolt, he recalls the light-headed rush as his legs gave way on the stairs, along with the heady feeling of the sergeant's arms closing around him, holding him safely upright.

So much for forgetting about that. Even now, alone in his room, he feels his skin flush at the memory.

It gets worse, though, because he vividly remembers Goodfellow helping him with his clothes, undoing button after tiny button and stripping him down to his underwear. How he survived that he doesn’t know, because right now, the memory alone has his face flaming. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to look the man in the eye again.

It’s a good thing the sergeant left him and went home last night, he decides. Then he immediately changes his mind. The lingering fever on top of the usual night-time dehydration has left him uncomfortably thirsty, and if he's going to have some water, it will make sense to take painkillers with it. He also has an increasingly urgent need to go to the bathroom, but the notion of dragging himself out of bed feels every bit as impossible as continuing to lie wallowing in pain and misery.

If Goodfellow were here, he'd sort it all out with a smile and a "How are you feeling?" As it is, the inspector is alone in the house, and he knows things aren’t going to improve until he can force himself out of bed.

Slowly, with effort, he hauls himself into what can loosely be called a sitting position. At once, a wave of dizziness swamps him as all the blood seems to rush from his head. The pounding ache in his skull is magnified tenfold, and he slumps back against the headboard, feeling more miserable than ever. The clock on the wall tells him it’s almost midday, but there’s no way he’s going to make it any further any time soon. Twisting enough to put his feet on the floor would be a mammoth undertaking, and if he stands up, he’s afraid he’ll pass out.

Closing his eyes, he curses extravagantly, then freezes when he hears the rattle of the bedroom door handle.

“Morning, Gerry. How are you feeling there?”

Mallory cracks open one eye and squints up at his sergeant. “Please tell me I’m not hallucinating.”

“I certainly hope you’re not. What is it you think you’re seeing?”

"You."

Goodfellow chuckles, sitting down on the edge of the bed beside him. He’s a solid weight on the mattress, real and undeniable, and something in Mallory relaxes. The sergeant’s presence is enough to make things feel a little brighter, knowing he won’t have to cope with the day alone. Not that he’s going to admit that aloud, of course.

He accepts the glass of water Goodfellow hands him and swallows down the painkillers with relief. They'll take a while to kick in properly, but the drink is enough to soothe the tight discomfort in his throat, and his headache begins to ease too.

“What are you doing here?” He doesn’t mean to sound accusatory, but force of habit adds an annoyed tone to the words.

Thankfully, Goodfellow seems as unbothered by it as ever. “Well, the thing is, after I left last night, I couldn’t help worrying about how you’d manage on your own. I know you said you could cope, but I kept thinking that didn’t mean you should have to. Long story short, I decided to come back after all. I brought some night things with me, too, so I’ll be able to stay as long as you need me.”

He gives Mallory a hopeful look, and the inspector sighs. He wants to scold the man for fussing, but he can’t pretend he’s not grateful to have him there.

“I suppose there’s no point in arguing about it now. May as well make the most of it while you’re here.”

The sergeant’s face breaks into a smile, and Mallory looks away, clearing his throat.

“Oh, while I think of it, Gerry”, Goodfellow adds, “We ought to check that temperature of yours, see if the fever has gone down.”

Thermometer in his mouth, Mallory sits with his arms crossed over his chest, waiting with resignation for the sixty seconds to tick by. When the time is up, Goodfellow checks it and gives a satisfied nod.

“Still a bit higher than it should be, but not nearly as much as yesterday”, he tells the inspector. “Looks like you’re on the mend.”

Mallory grimaces, stretching his back to work the cricks from his muscles. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance of some grub?” he asks. Now his head is clearing, he’s suddenly very aware he slept through breakfast.

“I brought a pan of Mrs Goodfellow’s beef stew back with me, so we can have some of that if you want it. Unless you’d rather save it for this evening?”

Mallory’s stomach loudly advocates for the former option, and Goodfellow grins.

“Sounds like you’re feeling better already!”

When he returns a short while later, it’s with steaming bowls that give off a glorious aroma. However complex Mallory’s sentiments about the woman married to his sergeant, there’s no denying that she can cook. They eat on the bed again, Mallory sitting against the headboard and Goodfellow perched on the edge beside him, chatting away with enthusiasm about all the news from the station. Mallory tries to focus on the food and the company, but frustration bubbles beneath the surface. For all he wants to know what’s happening at work, hearing about it second hand only reminds him how isolated he is, stuck at home.

“HQ are sending a locum inspector down from Gloucester for a couple of days, to cover for you so you can focus on getting well”, Goodfellow tells him cheerfully, as if it's good news.

“I suppose that’s better than Scotland Yard”, Mallory grumbles. “Have any new cases come up?”

"Nothing to speak of. There's been a break-in at another farm, though, with a few things taken this time. Some pretty heavy stuff, too, which fits with the van tracks we found the first time. Looks like it’s a group doing it.”

"An organised gang, by the sound of it." Mallory puts his bowl aside and leans back with a heavy sigh. It's been ages since he had a proper gang to track. Just his luck that some other inspector will be getting to lead the chase.

Goodfellow gives his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Don't you worry, Gerry; I'm sure the chap they're sending will be up to the job. And if he isn't, I'll have a word with Father Brown and see if he can help."

Mallory opens one eye and gives him a sharp look. He suspects the man has had covert case chats with the priest rather often before, and he isn’t keen on the implication there.

“Besides”, Goodfellow adds, unperturbed, “Since you’re doing a bit better, I’ve said I’ll go back in tomorrow. We can’t have just one sergeant doing every shift; the poor chap would never get any sleep.”

“You won’t be here?” Try as he might, Mallory can’t keep the note of disappointment from his voice.

The sergeant tilts his head with a smile. “Don’t worry, Gerry. I’ll come back here after work and spend the night, and I’ll still help with sorting out meals and so on for you. I know you’re not well yet.”

Mallory shouldn't be relieved. After the fuss he kicked up about Goodfellow waiting on him, going back on it now would just be embarrassing. To hell with that, though.

“Good”, he says gruffly. Closing his eyes so he won’t have to see Goodfellow’s reaction, he lets himself breathe again.

**********

The inspector spends the afternoon on the bed, but he’s sitting up and well enough that Goodfellow feels able to nip out for ten minutes to buy some newspapers for him to read. He takes them with a huffed sigh and a roll of his eyes.

“The Kembleford Chronicle and the Gloucester News? My cup ruddy well runneth over.”

"Sorry, Gerry, they'd run out of all the national papers", Goodfellow tells him apologetically. "I probably should've gone this morning, but I wasn't sure what time you'd wake up, and I wanted to be here when you did."

Mallory gives a wordless grumble at that, but settles down to read them anyway. Internally, he’s grateful for both Goodfellow's presence earlier and this new chance to catch up on events beyond the four walls he’s trapped within, but he’s not about to let that show.

Afternoon fades into evening in a haze of domesticity. Once Mallory has digested all the latest news from the county, Goodfellow prepares them a simple tea, and they eat it together like the rest. Afterwards, the sergeant asks if Mallory feels well enough to manage alone if he goes home to spend an hour or so with his family. To make up for it, as if he needed to, he offers to prepare the inspector a bath for while he’s gone.

Mallory is hardly going to say no to that.

Lying back in the tub, he lets the water wash away the fever sweat as his mind wanders back over the past couple of days. It occurs to him fully, for the first time, that he doesn't know how he would have managed without Goodfellow. He would almost certainly have forced himself through the rest of his working day instead of coming home, and then just… collapsed. He can't imagine any other outcome. He would have been lost without the sergeant bringing him home, calling the doctor, undressing him, for crying out loud. Wiping down his feverish skin, keeping him fed, spending the night here just in case he was needed. Running him a ruddy bath, just because he cares so damn much.

It’s always been the same, really, ever since he landed up in this poxy backwater of a place he’s come to lo- to not hate anymore. In work and out of it, he relies on Goodfellow. He needs him, more than he’ll ever be able to say. The thought brings a tightness to his chest and a warmth prickling behind his eyes, as feelings and desires he’s been suppressing for months float to the surface.

He's tried so hard for so long. Married a woman in the hope something would be sparked once they made things more physical. When it didn't, he gave up on her and started visiting burlesque clubs, staring at models and glamour shots, trying to find a spark in the kind of women society said should be irresistible to any red-blooded man.

He got so good at it, he almost fools himself sometimes, until the right kind of man appears and reality hits him again like a gut punch. Women are fine, in their way – he can certainly enjoy the view – but they never give him the deep thrill that men do. Never ignite that heat in his gut that makes him want to touch, and taste, and be surrounded by them.

Still, at least it makes an effective disguise. This way, no one suspects the internal struggle he goes through whenever a man catches his attention, averting his eyes and protecting himself behind a shield of rage and bluster.

Too bad the one man to see the chinks in his armour is the one he has to work with every day. The one who, little by little, has eroded his defences, until he can slip through the cracks and stroll right into his heart.

He slides a hand down his chest, feeling the soft friction of the wet hair. His mind is poised on a knife-edge, as if he’s watching himself from the outside and waiting to see which path he'll choose. The answer is inevitable, really.

He lets the hand begin to wander, moving over the skin in a firm caress, wrenching a gasp from his throat as the fingers brush over a nipple. Beneath the water, his cock gives a throb as it begins to take an interest in proceedings.

Leaning back and closing his eyes, he lets the hand roam lower. Memories rise to the surface of his mind. Goodfellow resting a hand against his brow; Goodfellow’s arms holding him securely upright; Goodfellow running a cool cloth gently over his overheated skin… There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for you, Gerry...

His hand slips down below the waterline to loosely grasp his cock. At first, he does little more than cup his hand around the base and his balls, squeezing and rolling them gently, enjoying the pressure and the warmth of the water.

Without his particularly intending it, a fantasy begins to take form in his mind. Goodfellow in the bath behind him, his chest against Mallory’s back. Goodfellow’s hand reaching around to fondle him.

He begins to harden, the image in his mind forming a heady combination with the sensations his hand creates. His resolve, never the strongest, crumbles in the face of the desire surging through his veins. His fingers settle around his cock in their old familiar way, and his hand begins to slide along the length. His grip is still light at first, hesitant, but that doesn’t last for long. There’s little friction beneath the water, and he tightens his fingers to grasp himself more firmly, adding a twist to every pull. As he finds his rhythm, he focuses on the fantasy of Goodfellow being the one stroking his cock and bringing him this pleasure.

The quiet of the bathroom fills with the sound of water lapping, gently at first but increasing along with the vigour of his hand. He tries gritting his teeth to stop the noises welling up from his chest, but it’s hopeless. They begin to escape anyway, falling from his lips in a stream of moans and wordless cries.

He never has been good at keeping his mouth shut.

Arousal pulses through him in waves as he pushes it ever higher, desperately seeking a point that seems frustratingly out of reach. There’s not enough friction, not enough something, and he grits his teeth, his face contorting as his rhythm falters. Grasping for a solution, he shifts his focus back to Goodfellow, to the phantom image of the sergeant’s arms around him. He can almost hear the man’s voice whispering in his ear.

Come on, Gerry, you can do it. For me.

The climax rushes through him, sending shock waves through his body that continue on, gradually subsiding from a blaze of flame to the warmth of glowing embers. Then as the post-orgasmic haze begins to fade, shame settles in.

Self-hatred simmers in his gut, berating him for succumbing to that kind of fantasy. It’s illegal, after all, and he’s an officer of the law. So is Goodfellow, for that matter, and a happily married one at that. He'd be disgusted if he knew Mallory's tendencies, and even more so if he even suspected what the inspector had just done.

Hurriedly, he wipes off the sticky mess from his hand into the bathwater and stands up, reaching for the towel. He dries himself off and empties the bath, washing away what little evidence exists of his lapse, before pulling on a clean, fresh nightshirt. Retrieving the glass of water from his bedroom, he drains it and pours himself a fresh one, then chooses a book and climbs into bed.

Even so, he struggles to focus on reading. A part of his mind is stuck on high alert, listening for the door, and he’s barely finished the first chapter when a rattle from downstairs alerts him to Goodfellow’s return. Tossing the book onto the bedside table, he scrambles under the covers and closes his eyes, his heart pounding in his ears as he tries to steady his breathing. The sergeant is bound to look in on him, wanting to check how he is, and Mallory doesn’t want to be caught awake when he does. After what he just did in the bath, there’s no way he can face the man tonight.

He’s still disgusted with himself, but more than that, cold dread pools in his chest when he thinks about tomorrow. If this is how far he’s crumbled after only two days of the man’s care, how the hell is he going to handle even more?