James stumbles up the single flight of stairs, holding onto the railing for support, until he is greeted at the landing by Robbie’s front door. Made of plywood and left unvarnished, it is as unimpressive a door as they come. The polish of the brass number 3 that hangs on its centre is long faded and the door is quite narrow too, as if it wanted to make the jobs of sofa delivery men as hard as possible out of sheer spite. James can hear the telly from the other side of the door, this disgrace to front doors everywhere, the indistinct murmur of voices and the swelling music. He considers descending the same poorly lit stairs and vanishing into the night, the door that mocks him and the fate that awaits him out there be damned.
Then he sighs, raises his good hand, and knocks.
Robbie is wearing matching plaid pyjamas under an evening robe, like a pensioner who will shake his cane at the morning news come the next day. Of course, James’ current outfit comprises a once handsome coat now torn and mottled with chalky dust, one sleeve in tatters, and a suit similarly ruined. He also may or may not be swaying on his feet where he stands, so- let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Robbie’s shock and concern is writ large in the canyons that have formed on his forehead, in his saucer eyes. Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.
“The door downstairs was open?” James volunteers because someone has to do some explaining, clearly.
“Oh it was, was it?”
But Robbie moves out of the way and beckons James inside, abruptly as if he was hitherto under a spell that held him frozen in place. James tries to walk inside—if not with confidence, then at least with an ordinary gait but he staggers instead like a drunkard.
“Christ. What happened to you?”
He barely hears Robbie. The flat is familiar like a beating heart, its warmth almost strong enough to knock him off his feet. Robbie—no doubt because he has received no answer to his sensible question—puts a hand on his back and the last of James’ doubt—or is it fear, or hope?—dies a pitiful death at the touch. It takes all he has not to whimper or throw himself into his governor’s arms like the disgrace to all sergeants everywhere that he is.
A second later, he realises that Robbie’s hand serves a purpose in this instance; it is leading him to the sofa. Robbie once again proving why he is the one who makes the big bucks.
“Remember how I was supposed to go on a date tonight?”
What happened to you, echoes his brain. What a hilarious question. James would laugh and laugh if he had the wherewithal.
He almost sits, only to realise Robbie’s sofa, like every other surface in the world, deserves better than to come into contact with his coat.
Robbie asked if he wanted to get a pint after work. James said he had a date—how arrogant and cocky of him in retrospect, but he felt good about it then, about himself. They have been investigating a string of murders in back alleys; he had suspected demonic involvement from the start but now he knew for certain which demon it was, and sure, his abilities may not be what they once were, but it was such a minor demon, one he could have expelled back to hell in his sleep when he was an exorcist. And he still believes in God, most days, he is almost certain of it.
“Well, my date made Zoë Kenneth seem like an-” It’s hard not to snort. “-angel in comparison.”
So he thought it would be enough. He thought he was enough.
He takes off one arm, his good arm, but when he gets to the other one, the pain is overwhelming enough to make him think that he is going to black out for a second. And then there Robbie is, again, helping him.
A part of his mind wonders if there is a reprimand for that, for referring to your governor by the incorrect title in your head. This leads to an image of CS Innocent sitting behind her desk and looking very cross indeed as she says ‘I can excuse rogue exorcism but I draw the line at referring to Lewis as Robbie in your head, sergeant’.
Right. Right. Robbie is looming over him and somehow looking even more concerned than before and James needs to stay with it. Such a unique feeling to feel your soul oozing out of a wound in your arm. Must be how tyres feel when they are punctured, whether by a sharp stone or the cruel knife of an ex.
“Okay. Alright, just take deep breaths. You will be fine.”
James looks and Robbie has made a decision. He has his mobile in his hand on which he is dialling-
“You can’t.” He sits up—when exactly did he sit down again?—and stops Robbie just in the nick of time. “It won’t help.”
Robbie doesn’t look particularly pleased with this intervention. “James-” he says and James hates the way Robbie says his name, patient yet firm, always with such care.
He remembers the last time he made a mess of things, the last time he thought he was good enough. Another spat of murders and the church had sent an exorcist to consult, except Father Burrows himself was possessed. He was the one who committed the murders all along. And James was going to tell Robbie; he just wanted more information first, more evidence. He didn’t know that he would run out of time.
Afterwards, CS Innocent said ‘no one will be there to save you from yourself next time. He put his career on the line for you.’
The church apparently wanted James demoted and Robbie threatened to go public with everything they did. And then he made James promise. Not again. Never again.
He raises his injured arm ever so slightly and smiles.
“Ambulance won’t help with a demon bite.” He can tell the exact moment realisation hits Robbie—the disappointment and the anger that flashes in his eyes.
“I wasn’t bit last time.”
Robbie drags a hand over his face.
“Okay. What will? Tell me what you need me to do.”
And that’s the thing about Robbie. He will be furious with you and still carry you out of a burning building.
That doesn’t make the next bit any easier, though. “Could you-” Come to think of it, if his doubts are correct and people don’t have souls, then perhaps an eternity of cold and numb oblivion isn’t so bad really. James closes his eyes, against the swelling tide of nausea and the floor that has started to tilt from left to right to left again as if Robbie’s home is a ship. He closes his eyes against the swelling tide of shame. “Could you hold me?”
He still hears it—that horrified exhale.
“It can’t be that bad,” Robbie says and anger cuts through James like a knife. His feelings for Robbie are what they are, but does Robbie really think he would suggest a cuddle session with his governor if there was anything else at all he could do that might save his life? Hell, he would rather walk over hot coals barefoot before he humiliated them both like this.
“That’s not-” Robbie sounds horrified. “Here-” The sofa dips next to James; an arm wraps around his shoulders and pulls him in. James struggles to keep his head above board in the rushing flood—of relief and warmth and intoxicating relief. Robbie’s chest is solid against his cheek; he can feel his warmth even through the layers of clothing.
Robbie is holding him and he is safe; his arm has stopped; it’s stopped hurting and it hurts more than he could put to words. He tries to take in a deep breath, to centre himself, but in vain, he is whole he is safe a disgrace forsaken beloved and he wants to cry-
He has been crying, he realises when he surfaces, in quiet, broken sobs, Robbie shushing him the way you would a child.
Horrified, he tries to stop, but these ugly things keep rising up in his chest of their own accord.
He opens his eyes. In front of him is Robbie’s telly. He focuses on the black screen, the faint blurred image of the two of them reflecting off it like an impressionist painting, James’ head pressed against Robbie’s chest, Robbie’s arm wrapped around his shoulders. This explains too, the thumb stroking his upper arm, back and forth. James prays a Hail Mary, forcing his breaths to match the words. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou amongst women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus. “Sh-sh-h,” Robbie is saying, “you are safe now, lad,” in a voice gentler than he has ever used with James. It threatens to unravel him all over again. But he forces his mind to focus on the words—Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death—until he manages to first drive a wedge between his sobs and then extinguish them altogether.
Lewis has noticed it too because he stops his shushing.
“Well.” James says when he can trust his voice again. “That’s that then for my dignity.”
Their reflection on the television screen is unforgiving. He wants to stand up and walk to the farthest corner of the flat, or better yet outside, or better even still somewhere quite far away, like Australia or California. He would like it in California, he thinks. He could wear his shades and judge Americans who appear physically unable to go a single sentence without uttering one, or more, of the words ‘dude’ ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’. He could move to Texas and herd cattle for a living.
“Dignity is overrated. I lost mine sometime in the ’90s.”
James chuckles—Christ—into Lewis’ chest.
“Is it working?”
The silence is thick between them, the way honey must feel to a fly trapped in it. The thumb goes back to stroking his upper arm, back and forth, back and forth, and James cannot think of a single thing to say.
“A demon bite—it makes your soul bleed out of you, doesn’t it?”
So unexpected is the question, James looks up on instinct; Lewis looks down, but Lewis is all chin and lips from this angle and the distance between their faces far too small for comfort.
“Yes.” He averts his eyes and focuses on Lewis’ plaid-clad knee instead. “That’s the Christian interpretation at any rate.”
James feels the sound rumbling in Lewis’ chest. A very nice chest objectively speaking, solid against his cheek and warm and just a little soft.
“Isn’t the only thing that can then counteract it the church—a church—ideally of the exorcist’s denomination?”
James sinks a little deeper into the swamps of shame but his voice is his own when he speaks.
“How do you know about that, sir?”
The church—churches, really and the mosques and temples—are very secretive about their dealings with the supernatural, the one principle that rises above millennia of theological discord the agreement that they don’t need rogue exorcists getting themselves killed.
“I got my hands on a couple of volumes at the Bodleian last year.”
“Restricted, yes. Well, sergeant, I still have the old charm going for me.”
Lewis squeezes his shoulder as if to emphasise his point and James smiles at the image of his governor flirting with researchers to get into the highly restricted sections of the Bodleian.
And this is news to James: As far as he knows, most Lewis has shown towards demons and their ilk is profound distaste.
“May I ask what possessed you to seek out such information?”
Lewis sighs in religious suffering, the way his mum used to, and ignores his feeble pun altogether.
“Thought it may come in handy. We were doing that refresher first aid course last year as you know-”
James closes his eyes. So, it was after, then. After the incident with Father Burrows. After he made James promise.
“First Aid for Exorcists?”
A 1999 volume by Church of England, extremely limited press. Nothing an inspector would have any use for in his ordinary course of business.
“Just the one.”
And Lewis flirting his way into the bowels of the Bodleian, when he told James under no uncertain terms-
‘I don’t disappoint sir, do I?’ James almost says, wants to say. Perhaps he has gone back on his word one time too many that it counts for so little now. Perhaps Lewis knows him better than he knows himself.
But if they keep talking about the book, Lewis might comment on how it would have helped more had he remembered its contents in time. Taken James to a church immediately, like the book advises. Ideally one of the exorcist’s own denomination, the book says, however, if time is of the essence, following such a criterion to the letter might do more harm than good. It contains no discussion of how to treat civilians; they are extremely unlikely, after all, to survive such an encounter. There is a short paragraph on the fallen in the beginning of the book; James remembers it almost word for word even now. The same treatment principles should be followed for fallen exorcists, although any benefits may be limited and they may be, in large part, sadly beyond saving.
Lewis might add that he should pick up sudoku or crossword puzzles to help his memory. And James might reply-
That should be me—beyond saving.
He opens his eyes.
He replies, in a voice that does not waver, “We should clean and bandage the wound. I have recovered enough for it now, I think.”
The less they talk—or even think—about this book, the better.
He watches from the sofa as Lewis gathers the items they need to clean the wound.
Holy water, a flask of which Lewis obtains from the inside pocket of James’ ruined coat. The flat is warm but the air that rushes to fill Lewis’ place cuts to the bone. A jug Lewis fills with water from the tap to dilute the holy water with, because what remains of James’ shirt and suit sleeves is stuck to the wound with half-dried blood and demon gunk. It is maddening—how Lewis stood up and immediately the feeling returned, as if his very core is disintegrating and he is drowning in slow motion. Lewis searches in the lower kitchen cabinets before he stands up, triumphant, with...a large salad bowl in hand. James smiles. Why not? He moves on next to an upper cabinet; James can see from where he is presently craning his neck that it houses Lewis’ condiments. Thank God they only need salt. He shudders against his will, although he does manage to clamp down on the accompanying whimper this time. He looks and Lewis now has in his hands-
His governor turns to him with a quizzical expression on his face.
“Not comb honey.” James points out.
Lewis glances down, and as if only now realising what he has picked up, shakes his head. James is not a scone, thank you very much.
When they have everything they need, he returns to the sofa.
The process is relatively simple although even to this day it feels a bit daft—ease the fabric off the wound with the diluted holy water, pour (non-diluted) holy water, rub salt into the wound and finish with honey to seal it before bandaging it with gauze.
“Feels like we are making a meal,” Lewis observes with a frown as he positions James’ arm over the salad bowl.
“Thank God we only need salt and not-” He hisses in pain—Lewis has only poured a little bit of water over the wound. Lewis pauses and James inhales sharply to regain his composure. “Do you have black pepper, even?”
Lewis raises the jug, asking for permission which James gives in a nod. “Why would I-”
But the rest of Lewis’ question is lost in a wave of searing pain.
“James, James. Hey.”
There it is on Lewis’ face again, that expression of concern and pity. James realises he has screamed this time. He can taste copper on his tongue; a touch of his fingers to his lower lip informs him that he has drawn blood.
Lewis puts his hand on his shoulder. His arm is sizzling ever so faintly. He has never been bitten by a demon before. He was never pathetic enough, not when he was a proper exorcist. He desperately wants to lean into the touch, lean into Robbie until he feels that he is anchored again.
No, no. He closes his eyes and forces himself to take a deep breath.
“I’ve read demon bites can be quite painful.”
James wants to laugh.
You don’t say?
“Yeah.” He cobbles together a smile. “My first time.”
Lewis returns his smile in kind. He is just trying to spare James the embarrassment really, which makes it worse. Far worse.
“We could always wait a bit more?”
No. It won’t do anything except to delay the inevitable.
He just needs to get through this.
As Robbie was leaving the station, he thought ahead to his evening with its microwave meal and insipid television, and with weary dread, he wished for something—anything—else. He supposes that holding an unconscious James in his arms, Pietà-like, falls under that category and he should simply get better at wish-making because God is (and has always been) a right bastard.
James is not dead of course, thankfully; his pulse is steady and strong. He said that he might pass out from the pain and that if he does Robbie should continue cleaning the wound and let him come to on his own—he was apparently no longer in any mortal danger. So now he is lying in Robbie’s arms, head cradled in the crook of his elbow and lips stained with dried blood. Mary must have had strong arms, Robbie thinks, because his are beginning to ache.
Still it is far more preferable to the last time he held James like this. James had gone behind his back with this demon malarkey then too and Robbie remembers it so vividly still, frantically searching for a pulse, a horror so deep he couldn’t put it to words if he tried, right until James gasped in his arms.
James stirs—about time—he turns towards Robbie and buries his face in his pyjamas like a child seeking comfort, but it only lasts a second; soon he inhales sharply and sits up with a grunt.
“Come back here,” Robbie grumbles, lifting his arm before he knows what he is doing. But look at him—the lad looks as if he will topple over in a strong breeze.
“Couldn’t ask that of you, sir.” James’ voice creaks like a rusty door even as he manages to pull together a tired smile. “Could I have a glass of water?”
Robbie wants to shout at him. Instead, he goes to the kitchen, and when he comes back, he says in what he thinks is a very reasonable voice given the circumstances-
“You can barely hold your head up, lad.”
James looks up at him from where he is slouched on the sofa, all innocent blue eyes.
“It is not a particularly small head to be fair.”
Robbie considers throwing the salad bowl at him, murky water in it and all. He sits down on the other end of the sofa instead and stares at the dead screen of his television, which stares back at him quite judgmentally, like the vast pupil of an all-seeing eye. I only have the lad’s best interest in mind, don’t I, Robbie thinks bitterly. It’s not as if he wanted any of this. He isn’t someone who enjoys curling up on the sofa with his bagman of all people on a Thursday night, thank you very much; nor does he enjoy cooking, let alone with his bagman’s arm. The way the wound sizzled when he poured holy water and salt onto it, you would think he was frying bacon. And there James was, perfectly unconscious. Three days he spent in a cosy coma last time around while Robbie dealt with the God-botherers who wanted to pin their fuck-up on James, and when he finally bothered to re-join the living, he made a promise. He gave Robbie his word that he would not mess with the supernatural again.
So, if he doesn’t want to put himself in such a humiliating spot, maybe he should have kept his word then, shouldn’t he?
He is going to tell James this, or some sensible version of this, when he hears the faint sound of fabric rustling. He turns his head and finds James—slowly but surely—scooting towards him on the sofa. Their eyes meet for the briefest of moments and James stops dead like a cat caught stealing fish before he looks away in shame.
Unbelievable, Robbie thinks before he fixes his eyes on his judgemental television again, and with a sigh he mostly manages to suppress, lifts his arm.
James fits under it like a key in a lock.
His breath hitches at the touch, no doubt in relief—the state of the lad, honestly; Robbie has never seen him dishevelled to such extent. Robbie has never seen him cry. My feelings for you are what they are, he said, but that has nothing to do with this, does it? He was hardly conscious at the time. His breath hitches and it is in relief he cannot hold back, and something still twists cruelly inside Robbie.
He read an article in the paper the other day about the effects of touch starvation on cardiovascular health, and thought of Morse waiting for him at the pearly gates with a drink in hand and a smirk. Morse would have let Robbie sleep it off of course; he knew more than anyone the importance of boundaries, the separation of the private and the professional.
James rests his head on his chest like he did when he first came in but he is calmer now; for how pale and exhausted he looked, he feels a bit more steady than before. It has to be the touch starvation—that, and the fading adrenaline rush. The only reason he is doing this is because he seems to have transformed into an exorcist rehabilitation centre of some sort, never mind what the books said about churches and the like. The only reason James is doing this, because he has no other choice.
“Is your arm- better?”
“Much, sir.” James moves his arm as if to demonstrate. “I no longer feel like a punctured tyre.”
“Well if our car is no longer in danger of going off the road.”
He feels James frown against his chest, or at least imagines it—in that way James does when Robbie wilfully misattributes a quote or says something deliberately a bit strange. He could be deaf and still hear the mock judgement in James’ voice when he replies with “eloquently put.”
The clock on the wall is ticking, tick, tick, tick. James is painfully solid against him, in his sharp angles, and hot like a furnace. Silence circles the room like a vulture around carrion and his bloody television will not stop judging him.
“Shall we see what’s on the telly?” Robbie asks if only to kill it for once and all.
“Yes, please,” James replies into his chest, sharing in his relief.
There is little of interest on at this time of the night.
He flits through the re-run of a cooking show here, a fishing one there; a sitcom that wasn’t funny when it aired ten years ago, a glum-looking film-
“There. Go one back.”
Robbie does as he is told and finds himself looking at a dark forest on ITV2, while a camera swirls around a pale, stone-faced young lady and an equally pale and stone-faced young man, as if it is drunk. He has seen posters for this film around town when it came out in theatres and the name is on the tip of his tongue.
“Half-light?” he tries.
“That’s the one with the vampires, isn’t it?”
“That’s the one. The young woman is called Bella—she is human—and that’s her vampire love interest, Edward.”
The Edward fellow is presently enumerating the dangers he possesses to Bella.
“That would be you as a vampire,” Robbie says, “brooding and secretive.”
If he looks down he can see a mop of pale blonde hair, longer these days than its historical average and sticking in every which direction, an ear peeking through. Even James’ eyelashes are ridiculously pale, almost white in this lighting. He briefly glances up and his eyes meet Robbie’s, although the angle is far too awkward to hold it for long.
“I take offence to that.”
“Then again, he hasn’t quoted a single line of classics to her yet, has he?”
On the screen, Edward steps into a pool of sunlight and his skin…starts to shine bright like a diamond—quite literally. Bella finds this beautiful. Never one to disappoint, James offers-
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
He is actually alright. If he can find a classic to quote with regards to Twilight of all things- Robbie exhales, trying not to be too obvious about it.
“How do you even know about this film?”
It seems rather different than James’ usual fare with its stilted dialogue and shining vampires.
“It was a global sensation.”
“Yes—for teenage girls and bored housewives.”
They are separated by layers of clothing and his skin still burns under his pyjamas where James is resting against him. Maybe his daughter was right and he should have put himself out there; it’s been years since Val died.
“How feminist of you, sir.”
Robbie pinches his arm with no remorse.
James protests with a heartfelt “ow” but a quick glance informs Robbie that he is smiling—smiling at least, until he schools his face into a neutral expression. He looks at Robbie like that sometimes, the way Val used to when he triumphed against a particularly stubborn jar or when he made her laugh, and Robbie doesn’t know what to do with it. With himself.
“When I was in the hospital,” James says without looking up, “I was too exhausted to read anything of substance and yet bored beyond comprehension, so uh- one of the nurses lent me her copy of the book.”
The doctors didn’t know when or if he would wake up. The specialist they called from London said he didn’t know how James was alive, exactly. When Father Burrows had revealed what he was, in that Godforsaken restaurant, James had tried to chant something in Latin but a sharp motion of the father’s hand had shut him up. He mouthed for Robbie to get everyone out and he’d sent a blast of…energy for the lack of a better word—it had stunned the demon, bought them time, but he’d crumpled to the floor in a heap.
And three nights Robbie had spent holding his hand in that jungle of wires and monitors, thinking- not again. Not again.
“Do you remember that row we had?”
“I do,” James replies neutrally.
Robbie thinks he can feel him tense a little under his arm and part of him regrets bringing it up. He is not proud of how he conducted himself that day, or of the way he was marched out of James’ room by a stern nurse and not let back in.
“When I walked in, I saw you hastily put something away in the drawer and I- I thought it must have been about demons and the like.” Something had snapped in him at the sight and the next thing he knew the anger and concern that had been building inside him for days was pouring out, all at once. “Was that-?”
“Twilight, yes.” James chuckles. “I was trying to hold onto the last shreds of my dignity.”
On the screen Bella is ruminating on her feelings for Edward as she smiles—presumably—at Edward from her window. And what was that even like—to be 17 and in love? When it felt as if the world was there, just at your fingertips, for the taking?
“I owe you an explanation for what happened tonight,” James says.
He does and Robbie wants to hold onto his righteous anger. But James surrounds him in all directions, like a sky-blue sea on a summer’s day. He sighs and doesn’t let himself linger on it, not on James’ warmth or the ridiculousness of their predicament, the tousled blonde hair or that part of him that aches and aches.
“In the morning.”
James is loved and at home.
It feels as if he has been sleeping on a bed of fluffiest white clouds under a feather-light duvet as waves lap gently at the shore. He must have drunk quite a bit last night or overdone it maybe at the gym because things hurt but the pain is only a distant, theoretical notion; it cannot take root in this place of warmth and safety. He stretches, extending out his arm and-
It hits something fleshy and uneven, like a-
-face. His governor’s face.
James opens his eyes and sure enough, Lewis is looking down at him, his face washed in eerie blue light. Lewis is looking down at him because James is—oh God—lying with his head on his lap.
Horrified, he sits up with superhuman speed. The blanket—because apparently there was a blanket thrown over him, too—slides off his shoulders and pools on the sofa. When did he fall asleep? Last he remembers they were watching Twilight. Thank heavens one of them appears to have remembered to put a small pillow on Lewis’ lap, but it is only a small consolation.
“What time is it?” Lewis croaks.
He looks as if he has just woken up too, between the heavy eyelids and the way he is massaging his neck. James checks the clock on the far wall.
“Quarter past four.”
James’ neck is stiff too as are the knees he pulled to his chest and his shoulders; falling asleep where you sit like Lewis must have done is far worse. The telly is still on, with volume turned down and closed captions turned on, playing the repeat of some cooking show. He needs a cigarette.
Lewis yawns and stretches his arms, and James has never seen him like this, half-asleep and in his pyjamas at 4am. The salad bowl is still sitting on the coffee table, a testament to what he has done, what he is not; the water in it is still that dreadful blackish colour.
“Yes, sir, all better now.”
He is subjected for a moment to Lewis’ prying gaze and who can blame him now for doubting James’ word? This once, however, he is telling the truth; he will need some twelve hours of sleep before he feels fully rested but the way he is feeling right now- he’s had hangovers worse than this. He stands up, if only to take the cooking supplies back to the kitchen.
“We should go to bed, sir.”
He picks up the salad bowl as well as the tub of table salt and the jar of honey, ascribing Lewis’ silence for a moment to the fact that he has not yet fully woken up. But then comes the response—a stunned “right” that is trying to be very brave indeed—and James wishes the ground to open up and swallow him whole.
He keeps his back turned to Lewis and his voice carefully neutral.
“That is, you should go to your own bed and I-” Is it too late to call a cab? Or he could perhaps head to London so that he can take the first flight out of Heathrow to start his new life as a farmhand in Texas. “-I can sleep on the sofa, if you don’t mind me.”
He thinks he can hear Lewis exhale in relief.
And he has imagined it of course, many times, falling onto that bed tangled in Robbie, hands, lips, greedy and searching, and he has felt ashamed of himself every time. He strides to the kitchen and lingers there while he puts the salt and the honey back into the cupboards they came from. The poor salad bowl is beyond salvation; it will need to be thrown out. There are dishes in Lewis’ sink that look like they have been sitting there for a couple of days.
The lights switch on. When he turns around, he finds Lewis watching him. He tries not to squirm under the gaze.
“I will set up the sofa for you then,” Lewis says and starts walking down the hallway before James can object that the small pillow and the blanket are more than enough. He follows his governor and stops just outside his bedroom. The room is as he imagined it; functional, impersonal. The IKEA furniture and the bare walls, the dull grey bed sheets—they speak to a festering mutual resentment between room and man. The bed is unmade but there is no other clutter in sight; a book—crime thriller by the looks of it—sits next to a blister pack on the bedside table. Lewis is taking out a—is that a duvet?—from inside his wardrobe.
He hauls it onto the bed, and glancing at James, pauses. James wonders if Lewis can tell from his face what he is thinking, what he has no right to be thinking.
“Would you like to shower while I set up your bed?” Evidently not. James exhales. “Your suit has...seen better days.”
He follows Lewis’ gaze and Lewis is right: His suit is torn and caked with God knows what—some of the grime has even rubbed off onto Lewis’ evening robe, which means it must have on the sofa too and there it will stay tomorrow, long after James has left with his tail between his legs. He feels it on his skin as well, all of a sudden—the filth—and the thought of hot water on his body, the thought of being clean again, almost makes him weep with how much he needs it.
They need to wrap a rubbish bag over his injured arm lest it get wet and in order to do so James must be naked from the waist up.
They have been semi-naked around one another before in gym locker rooms after squash sessions and did not make much of it, except locker rooms are nothing like your own hallway at 4am and Lewis pointedly averts his eyes. James tries not to shiver as Lewis puts the rubbish bag over his arm. His governor’s hands are careful and warm where they brush against his bicep and the touch sends sparks across his skin which have nothing to do with its healing properties. He wants those hands roaming over his body, pushing against his chest, clawing at his back. He wants to be better than that. He wants to be anyone other than the pathetic man who stands there, already neck deep in gratitude he does not deserve, unable to even shower without help.
“There you go.”
James thanks him and ducks inside the bathroom, already regretting taking him up on his offer.
The bathroom is as he remembers it and the hot water almost makes the humiliation worth it. It feels wonderful—quite possibly the best hot water he has encountered in his life, James decides—and washes away what feels like layers of grime from his skin. He lathers his hair, massaging his scalp in the process as much as he can with one hand, takes his time washing it off. Lewis uses Head & Shoulders’ 2-in-1 shampoo—a sensible choice used by millions of men worldwide; there is no danger there of his hair smelling just like his governor’s; so do the hairs of millions of other people. Taking some small comfort in this, and not lingering on the fact that Lewis stands just where he does—similarly naked—in order to shower, he reaches for the body wash…
…and stops with hot water running over his shoulders and back.
There is only a single bottle of body wash in Lewis’ shower and it reads in rather bright, whimsical letters: Call Of Fruity Refreshing Body Wash.
Whatever body wash he thought Lewis might use—and admittedly this is the one area he did not give much thought to in his years of shameful daydreaming—it was not this. And the bottle is ¾ empty too—has Lewis always smelt of “juicy Mango and Mandarin extracts”? James squeezes some of the gel onto his palm. Has it been bought by a girlfriend (but there is a single toothbrush by the sink, same as last time) or by his visiting daughter? It smells wonderful but in a saccharine way he associates with women in sundresses (and that one twink from Brighton he could have fallen in love with) and not at all with Lewis. Now the bathroom smells the same way and soon James will too.
Edmund, his name was; ‘now, gods, stand up for the bastards!’ he’d cried as he took on a claw machine and James shook his head. Theatre kid. Auburn hair, easy smile. James had just quit the seminary. But the guilt follows you like your own shadow everywhere you go, poisoning. He rests his head against the still-cool tiles, and letting the hot water run over him, groans. Big Tobacco needs to come up with a technology already that lets you smoke while you are showering.
When he steps out of the shower, his dirty suit greets him with the malicious cheer of a stepmother.
He picks up his shirt; it’s hard to believe the poor thing was once white. Just to look at it makes his stomach churn. Then, as he is contemplating the many unhappy facts of his life, there comes a voice from the other side of the door.
“Hathaway—I have some clean clothes for you if you are all done.”
James smiles where no one can see—Lewis smells of mango and mandarin extracts; Lewis has once again saved his life; Lewis can read minds.
Then, wrapping a towel around his waist, he opens the door a crack, and finds Lewis extending towards him a set of…
“How many of these do you own, sir?”
The clothes Lewis is offering him comprise the exact same plaid pyjamas he is wearing, down to the colour scheme.
“They were buy-four-get-30%-off at Marks & Spencer,” Lewis grumbles.
“And are all four of them the same colour?”
Lewis moves the pyjamas just out of arm’s reach and looks James in the eye.
“Well, if you prefer your own suit, sergeant-”
James very much so does not prefer that.
“What I meant to say was what a happy occasion that Marks & Spencer sale was to bequeath you with such a terrific set of sleepwear.”
“You are feeling better, aren’t you?”
James gives Lewis his most radiant smile.
“All thanks to you, sir.”
Lewis more or less shoves the pyjamas at him and disappears into the living room.
James puts them on. The top is a size too large on him and the bottoms need to sit low on his hips in order to cover his ankles. He wipes off the fog from the mirror and stares at himself for a moment, standing there with his uncombed hair and the dark circles under his eyes, wearing his governor’s old-man pyjamas and the scent of his body wash. The times he has dreamt of standing in this bathroom after a shower-
He drags a hand over his face and with a deep breath and a carefully blank expression, opens the door. He needs that cigarette, or perhaps, five.
“Ah! You look great!” Lewis grins at him in revenge.
If you have a spare cane, we could shake them at the news, or perhaps, unruly neighbourhood children together come the morning, James doesn’t say, because there is a bed set up for him on the sofa, complete with a bedsheet, duvet and a proper pillow, and the back cushions of the sofa removed have been and stacked on the armchair.
“You needn’t have gone to such trouble.” His throat feels tight all of a sudden. The small pillow and the blanket would have more than sufficed.
Lewis waves him away.
“Just get some rest. You will need it for the morning.”
For the explanation he owes. The explanation Lewis could have demanded the moment he walked in, or failing that, the moment he knew James was no longer in any danger.
He sits down on the sofa-bed. He had half a mind to ask whether he could smoke out of the window but he can’t bring himself to now, after all this. Lewis tuts just as he is about to lie down.
“What is it, sir?”
“The pillowcase—I forgot to switch it out with a fresh one.”
James lies down and secures the pillow with his head, so that Lewis couldn’t take it even if he wanted to. There is no state of the world in which Lewis should worry about a detail as trivial as that after everything he has done.
He turns to his side only after Lewis goes back to his own room and turns off his light.
The pillow smells of him—a hint of Call Of Fruity Refreshing Body Wash, a hint of his cologne and underneath both, something deeper and earthy- his scent. Despite everything, his skin crawls with want—for nicotine, for Robbie, for nights like this. For nights that are nothing like this, when he would fall asleep on such a pillow and wake up in arms that love him. But mostly for nicotine. With a sigh, he carefully turns to his back again and wills sleep to put an end to this God-awful day.
Robbie wakes up to the smell of bacon and sounds of cooking—a kitchen cabinet closing, the clatter of a plate against the counter. He stretches and smiles; if he strains he can hear rashers of bacon sizzling in the pan, and if he lingers in bed long enough the breakfast table will be set by the time he walks in. A bad habit perhaps but he can always make up for it later by washing the dishes.
Then he remembers: It is James cooking in his kitchen.
The concept is so strange and sleep so heavy on his eyelids, he doesn’t fully believe it until he sees it for himself.
James, barefoot and swimming in Robbie’s pyjamas. He stands in front of the stove in a pool of light far too strong for September, the sun catching in hair that looks as if it hasn’t seen a comb in this decade.
“I would have made an omelette, sir,” he says in the way of a greeting. “But you don’t have any cheese.” Only then does he glance up at Robbie from the eggs he is frying; bacon has already been transferred onto plates. “Or, for that matter, black pepper.”
“I prefer my eggs fried, actually,” Robbie says and the casualness of his voice surprises him. He walks over to the coffee machine to get it going, only to find that James has already brewed a pot. He has even taken out two mugs and they are the correct mugs—the one Robbie always uses and the one that has become James’ somewhere along the way.
A redundant question—there are miles between this James energetically puttering about his kitchen and the one from last night who could barely support his own weight. But what else is he supposed to do? There are four slices of bread in the toaster, ready to be put in, and a pot of baked beans on the stove. James excels at breakfast like he does at everything else, and as light echoes off the tiles in bright, sinister whispers, Robbie feels out of place in this kitchen that has turned on him.
“I’ve had hangovers worse than this.” James flashes him a quick smile as he transfers the eggs from the pan to their plates. “Why don’t you sit down, sir, and I will join you in a second.”
“This is good.”
The bacon strikes just the right balance between crispy and not overcooked in a way Robbie’s attempts never do.
“Your faith in me brings tears to one’s eyes, sir.”
James doesn’t smile; if anything his brow furrows in that way it’s wont to do, but Robbie doesn’t need him to notice the pride and relief tucked in there. He has been watching Robbie, or rather his plate with its handsomely fried egg and steaming beans, since they sat down. And it’s almost easy to make a home of this breakfast table, to lose yourself in this plate.
James huffs out a half-chuckle.
“Then again, perhaps deserved in the current circumstances.”
The toast is done just the way Robbie likes it too, a remarkable feat when they have never had breakfast together, not like this.
“What happened last night?”
It’s grounds for a disciplinary, even perhaps a demotion if not outright dismissal given his track record. And this is the thing about James—he doesn’t do anything in half-measures.
James opens his mouth but Robbie edges in first- “and I want the full truth. No omissions, no half-lies.”
That is the least he owes Robbie, after everything.
James nods and he doesn’t look away.
“Our current investigation- something felt off from the start. Then, at the last murder scene, I knew for sure it was the work of a demon.” He lays his fork down against the plate; the last murder was two days ago.
‘He believes me to be possessed, if you can believe it,’ Father Burrows had said at that restaurant that has become the setting of so many of Robbie’s nightmares, bits of the steak he had ordered stuck between his sharp, uneven teeth. ‘He drew a devil’s trap at the station to catch me, presumably, which I found especially rude. Look under your carpet by the door. He has even been talking to his little exorcist friends behind your back.’
Robbie ripped out the carpeting at the entrance of the bullpen and there it was just like the father said; a Reverend Kendall from Southwark, London, in James’ phone records had been consulted about instances of exorcists themselves getting possessed.
James had known for days. And when Robbie thundered into his room to ask how dare he- how could he- there he lay, perfectly unconscious, his skin the colour of the bedsheets, threatening Robbie with yet another funeral he’d have to attend as if he had any more of those left in him.
But he chooses to focus on a different detail; it won’t do to start shouting at James now no matter how much he wants to, before he gets the facts out of him.
“Aren’t your folks monitoring demonic activity in the city? Why didn’t they send one of their nutjobs to our door?”
“A low-class demon only murdering prostitutes and drug addicts in back alleys?” James smiles bitterly. “I’m sure they would have gotten around to it eventually. Or-”
“We could have asked for help and they would have had to send us someone who knows what he is doing?”
“Yes.” He looks away for the first time. “I-” He picks up the fork again but makes no attempt to load food onto it, simply opting to turn it in his hand. “It was nothing like the demon that possessed Father Burrows. I thought I could handle it.”
The corner of James’ mouth twitches which tells Robbie his blow landed home but he doesn’t care. He thought he could handle it—as if he didn’t look Robbie in the eye and promise him he would not get involved in this supernatural crap again.
Robbie sighs, trying to get a handle on his temper.
“How come they let you be an exorcist when you almost get yourself killed every time you go against a demon?”
The clergymen he negotiated with while James got his beauty sleep had called him a disgrace. And it’s so unlike James, James who excels at everything, to have a shortcoming to this extent.
“It wasn’t always like this,” James replies quickly before he stops himself and meets Robbie’s gaze for a half-second. His eyes look almost feral in the glow of this terrible morning light, in a way they never are; James, always so calm and collected (except when he isn’t.) But his voice is steady when he speaks again, revealing nothing of the turmoil going on inside him.
“I was 17 the first time I encountered a demon—completely by accident. I should have died by all rights; I had no training, and civilians—they don’t survive such encounters.” He frowns and his upper lip pulls up in a near snarl. “But I looked into its beady black eyes, its festering, horrible flesh and I knew it was an abomination and I knew it had no right to God’s green earth. And I-” He pulls out a silver cross from under his pyjama top—the same, Robbie thinks, that he had that day in the restaurant. “I was still holding onto my cross by the time they found me and the demon- I didn’t even realise I had expelled it back into hell.” He shakes his head and twirls the cross once in his long, nimble fingers, before putting it back under his clothes. “There is a reason ‘nutjobs’ make the best exorcists, sir. There is some skill and training to it, sure, but- what protects you when you go against a demon…it’s your faith.”
His gaze sweeps across the floor, the brightly lit windows and the curtains, before it meets Robbie’s again.
“For a demon to possess an exorcist- but this one wasn’t like that. I still believe in God; it was such a low-class demon that I thought-”
It’s all there, burning in his eyes, for the world to see—his shame, his guilt, anger.
A part of Robbie wants to reach out but James frowns violently and shakes his head again; he doesn’t want Robbie’s pity, as if it’s pity Robbie is offering him. His hand goes to his side as if searching a pocket that doesn’t exist for his pack.
Robbie suppresses a sigh and stands up. James’ coat—what’s left of it—is lying in a heap in the corner; in the right pocket Robbie finds what he is looking for. He fetches a small bowl from the kitchen, and opening every window on his way back, he lays the treasure on the table in front of James.
James looks up, incredulous, but he does not need to be asked twice this time.
“Thank you, sir,” he says, lighting up. He takes a long drag and the cigarette hisses faintly as it burns away. Although Robbie doesn’t know it yet, his flat will smell of cigarettes for days to come.
He eats a forkful of the now cool eggs and sips his coffee, while James takes a long drag and then another. His hunched shoulders carry a sorrow far beyond his years.
“I’m sorry,” he says on an exhale. He looks it too. Robbie is still angry with him. Robbie has forgiven him a long time ago. But maybe that’s part of the problem too—if he had been stricter with James-
“The first aid books,” His voice feels too loud in the quiet that descended over them, the way even a whisper will echo in a cathedral. “Neither mentioned…physical touch as a cure for a demon bite. ‘Take the injured exorcist to the nearest church’ is what they both said.”
He doubts that he would be able to cure James of lung cancer via a hug, regardless, even if he was still somehow around by then.
“You are a church in this instance sir, effectively speaking.”
“What does that supposed to mean?”
James exhales a puff of smoke; he tries his hand at a smile but it does not go very far.
“You are old. An institution unto yourself.”
“No.” Robbie has no patience for his riddles, not now. “The truth, James.” If he has become a supernatural rehabilitation centre of sorts and other exorcists will show up at his door at all hours to demand cuddles he would like to know that, thank you very much. This is the issue with God: everything is some grand plan with Him, a matter of fate; never mind that you didn’t ask for it, for any of it, that all you wanted to do was to live your life.
James puts out his cigarette and looks at him, really looks at him, begging. Begging that Robbie let this go. But Robbie doesn’t relent; he can’t.
“Alright,” James says eventually. “You have the right to know.”
He takes out another cigarette from the pack.
“The reason churches protect against the supernatural, or heal an injured exorcist- they tell you it’s because it’s the house of God, sacred ground, but-” It takes a couple tries with the lighter before he can light the cigarette; Robbie notices that his hand is shaking. “-there is another school of thought. A temple protects a pagan just the same after all and the Judeochristian God would have something to say about that, don’t you think?”
“What does that mean?”
“What if the reason wasn’t God, or at least not directly, but what the exorcist believed?”
Robbie ponders this for a second. He has known for a while that James…looks up to him, respects him, but-
“I’d like to think I’m a half-decent governor but…” Robbie glances at the ceiling. “-the Almighty?”
James huffs out a nervous laugh.
“No, no, nothing like that.”
Thank God…. Robbie supposes.
James takes another forceful drag. Then, like a condemned man who has decided to look death in the eye, he sits up straight and meets Robbie’s gaze, his voice gaining in force and speed as he goes along.
“To an exorcist who believes in a God of fire and brimstone, his church is a physical manifestation, a- a- magnifying glass so to speak, of his belief that he is the hand that delivers His wrath. Inside those four walls, he knows that he is good, that he is right, and that knowledge protects him, heals him.”
Robbie thinks he follows but theological mumbo-jumbo always feels like it will do his head in. He still has no idea what any of this has to do with their medicinal cuddle session.
“But to others, God is love. And the church—it’s where they know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are loved, wholly and unconditionally, no matter how undeserving they are of it.”
He exhales and smoke is starting to fill the room now despite the open windows, nagging at Robbie’s throat. James smiles.
“Christian first aid books won’t tell you that the God bit is optional.”
James taps his cigarette against the edge of the bowl; a few stray flakes of ash land on the table. Robbie tries to process what James has said—loved, wholly and unconditionally. Loved so much that it- He was dazed when he came in last night, barely coherent and swaying on his feet. The way his breath hitched when Robbie pulled him under his arm. And he is fine now, he is the James he has always known, and the only difference- the only reason-
His mouth forms the next question of its own will.
“Is that what you meant- when you said ‘my feelings for you are what they are?’”
Colour—whatever remains of it—drains from James’ face.
“I said that?”
He didn’t realise. He must not have realised he said it out loud.
“You don’t have to answer that,” Lewis adds curtly, to spare James the last bit of his pride; they both know perfectly well that he already has. He said it out loud.
Hundreds, thousands of times he has imagined this moment, the moment Lewis finds out about him—and isn’t that yet another lie in this tapestry of untruths, that Yorkie bar?—and every time, his face has looked like this. Not disgusted exactly—like James explained, he trusts Lewis far more than that—just…stunned. Stunned and yet, faced with something so unholy, so inappropriate, still doing his best to mind James.
Lewis stands up.
“I should get dressed and go in.”
James would rather be shouted at. Sneered at. It would be easier, kinder. He nods rather numbly.
“I’ll change back home first and meet you there, sir.”
He can’t report for duty in his governor’s old man pyjamas, can he? But Lewis stops three steps into the hallway.
“No.” Yes, like that. Except what follows isn’t a declaration that they can no longer work together. “You are taking today off. I won’t have you fainting on the job, lad.”
James keeps his eyes fixed on the wooden floor and only looks up when he hears Lewis’ door click. He wants to dig a hole so deep no one will ever find him again, see him again. For all of the meaningless words he said, he hasn’t even apologised—not properly. And yet there is a perfectly uneaten breakfast to clear and dishes to wash while his governor gets changed.
The very least—the only thing—James can do.
Lewis even offers—or insists, rather—to drive James home.
James’ coat is beyond saving, as is his suit, and so he puts an old coat of Lewis’ over his pyjamas and watches the Oxford suburbs glide past their car in the relentless morning light, his hands folded on his lap.
“The demon-” Lewis is the one to break the silence first. “Should I phone the church and ask for an exorcist when I get in?”
“No, sir, I did banish it to hell. It just-”
“Nicked you on the way down?”
James risks a glance but Lewis’ face remains impassive, unreadable. His arm aches in dull pangs but not by enough to provide focus. His mouth tastes like an ashtray. He desperately wants to light another cigarette but that he could not do to Lewis’ car after the crimes he committed against his flat.
He reaches for the handle of the door when Lewis pulls up in front of his flat-
James sits back down.
“If we are going to work together, I need your word-”
“Honestly-” Lewis tuts. “Will you let me finish?”
James nods although it’s all in vain. He won’t make another promise when he knows he can’t keep it. But he can fill in his papers when he comes in on Monday. Unconditional love does not mean freedom from consequence after all; it never has.
“Next time you get yourself tangled with another demon or poltergeist or what have you, you will tell me—the moment you have the faintest inkling.”
“And we will go through my first aid notes together to mark up anything that needs changing.”
“Yes, sir,” James manages to get out past a rapidly closing throat. His tear ducts, which produced scant a teardrop in years preceding, including instances when James desperately wanted them to, appear to be operating on a ‘when it rains, it pours’ policy. “You have my word.”
Lewis turns to him. He looks exhausted. He has barely gotten a few hours of sleep. He looks stern and a bit miffed but kind—always so kind.
“I don’t deser-”
“A-a! What did I tell you about not being dramatic?”
James laughs. He doesn’t mean to but he does and none of the bouts of laughter that come out of him even sound like sobs, which in itself is a major victory. Not if you don’t look too closely, at any rate.
A couple strolls past their car, basking in the sun. A bird breaks into song on the branches above to complete the joyous autumnal scene unfolding around them.
“Now go get some rest.”
With a smile of his own, James opens the door.
“And I want my pyjamas back—clean,” Lewis says before he has managed to get out of the car. “And the beers are on you for the next month. And I am not doing any paper work either.”
James leans into the open door.
“Now you are just being mean.”
“Should have thought about that before you went duelling demons in dark alleys.”
“Duelling-? Do you think we have sword fights with demons, sir—‘en guarde, foul beast?’”
“It was a turn of phrase!” Robbie objects. “Maybe you are well enough to get started with that paperwork today, after all.”
“Alright, alright, I am going.”