Worth Dying For
“Oh, go on,” Robbie urges James, bumping him with his elbow. “Have your fortune told, then.” His words show in a cone of frosty air, coloured blue and flickering from the nearby fairy lights, as he blows on his bare fingers and rubs them together for warmth.
James gives Robbie one of those looks, straight-lipped and mocking, as if Robbie’s daft to even suggest it, then shakes his head and returns to his careful watch on the crowd wandering through the tents and stalls of the Winter Fest. “It’s ridiculous. And I’m on duty.”
“It’s all just good fun. And I’ll stand in for you,” Robbie assures him. He’s not on duty, but to prove he means it, Robbie promptly turns his back on the fortune teller’s tent and surveys their surroundings with mock seriousness.
Robbie knows what James thinks about psychics and card reading and the like. James has made that plainly clear in the past. But despite his disdain for all things psychic, James’s gaze keeps sliding back to the colourful cards the young woman is laying out in front of Laura.
“Come on. You’re obviously interested...” Robbie prompts.
“Just in the art on the cards. It’s different from what I’ve seen before. I’m not interested in the fortune telling.” James says, derision evident in his emphasis, but he glances back again. He lowers his voice so only Robbie can hear him, polite even though he’s mocking. “The telling-the-future part is poppycock.”
Robbie grins. He’s not sure he’s every heard James use the word before. “’Poppycock’, Inspector?”
Robbie knows he’s been set up from the triumphant, playful way James grins back at him.
James rocks back on his heels. “Do you know that one of the possible origins of the word ‘poppycock’ is from American colonial Dutch, and translated, it literally means ‘doll’s excrement’?”
“What?” Robbie can’t help himself. He snorts with laughter, bumping James again, a bit harder this time. “You’re having me on.”
“Look it up.” Looking very satisfied with himself, James scans the tree line across from them. “Poppekak.”
Robbie scans it, too, and bites back a laugh at the image they must present, the two of them, side by side, grinning madly as they studiously stare off into the distance. And he only realizes how efficiently James diverted his attention when James glances back into the tent again.
Robbie cranes to see, too. There are several cards laid out in front of Laura now, and both she and the young woman have their heads bent over them. With the distance and angle and Laura’s blond hair partly obscuring the top of the table, he can only make out that the colours of the cards are bright and rich. They have the look of something that would have nice art on them, though. “Go on,” he urges James. “Ignore the telling-your-future part and enjoy the cards.”
Lizzie rubs her hands together even though she’s wearing gloves, says, “Yes, go on, Sir. I’ll stay here and watch with DI Lewis. And then you can give me a turn.”
With their backs to James where he can’t see them, Robbie and Lizzie smile at each other, acknowledging without words that they’re colluding in their attempt to get James to loosen up. Fun and James just don’t seem to be something that fit together all that often, though he seems to be having quite a bit just now, still rocked back on his heels and wearing a mischievous smile at having surprised Robbie with ‘poppycock’. But he’s so obviously fascinated with the cards—well, the art on the cards—that it would be a shame for him to miss out.
Around them, one of many annual winter festivals to be found this time of year is in full swing. It’s a small event, as Oxford festivals go, but it’s the one of the ones in which the nick chose to participate with their winter community outreach and educational displays. There’s a much better turnout than Robbie expected, considering that the site, a pub/cafe and surrounding grounds near the Iffley Lock, has only walk-in access and no nearby public car park.
In addition to the fortune teller’s tent, proceeds to benefit disabled coppers, there’s the usual assortment of food and games, though most of that is actually on the other side of the pub from where they’re standing, in the front part of the grounds.
They’re on the back side of the park, near the large barn currently hosting some local garage band. To Robbie, the discordant, slightly tinny music emanating from the open doors sounds as if it should have stayed in the garage, though Lizzie’s Tony has been nodding his head to the rhythm of the last couple of songs and craning to see inside. Across from them are a couple of vendor’s booths doing a desultory business.
On the other side of the main building, a pub/cafe that’s filled to overflowing, there’s a booth where kids can have a picture taken with Santa, one where parents can have their children fingerprinted, and a colourful tent where kids and adults can listen to talks on street safety, cycle safety and marking, and Christmas safety.
Robbie remembers taking Lyn and Mark to similar safety lectures when they were young. He smiles as he remembers coming out into bright, cold sunshine one year when both of them were still young enough that they would allow him to hold their hands, and Lyn saying with an eye-roll, ‘Dad, we know all that stuff already. You taught us when we were babies.’ And then they’d both pulled loose from his grip and run across the field to something more entertaining, while Val, eyes filled with a mixture of regret that they were growing up and laughter at his surprise, had slipped her hand into one of his empty ones.
His hand flexes at the memory of her warm palm against his. His hands had been cold that day, too, as he remembers. He sighs. The bite of loss creeps up on him frequently this time of year, and it never gets any easier. It’s as sharp as it was in the beginning.
James glances at him and gives him a little quirk of an eyebrow, silently asking if he’s okay. There’s no way James could know what he’s thinking, though he might be guessing the direction of Robbie’s thoughts.
It’s James who drove Robbie to the cemetery just days ago, on the anniversary of Val’s death. He’d turned up, unannounced but not unexpected, with a bouquet of winter roses in the back seat of the car. He’d stood, head bowed, at Val’s grave while Robbie changed the flowers, and then retreated to the edge of cemetery to leave Robbie to visit alone.
James has done it every year since Simon Monkford’s confession. It’s as if by solving the case and finding the hit-and-run driver, James feels connected to Val in his own right, in some way other than just through Robbie. James simply shows up with flowers and his sombre, almost-priest expression, and Robbie climbs into the car and goes with him. They’ve never spoken of it—beyond that first year when James said ‘I thought you might want to make a stop’—and Robbie doubts they ever will, but there’s a comfort to it, a feel of solemn tradition, that’s both touching and soothing to him.
He gives James a nod, saying wordlessly that he’s okay, and turns back to the festival.
Earlier, before the sun went down, there were dozens of screaming kids running around the park, hyped up on candy floss and chocolate. There aren’t so many young ones now. It’s more adults taking advantage of the excellent beer and seasonal mulled wine that the pub offers, students come to enjoy the music (and the beer), and tourists who’ve happened upon the festivities by accident.
And possibly somewhere in the milling throng populated liberally by police officers, there’s a bag snatcher with either an odd sense of fun or a need to be caught in the act. Two nights in a row, he’s managed to make off with a hand bag and then a purse, leaving proverbial egg on the faces of the department, since this is one of ‘their’ festivals. Every copper present, on duty and off, is determined it isn’t going to happen again. Especially not on the busiest night of the festival.
Robbie glances back. Laura’s just stood, her reading finished. He gives James a slight nudge towards the tent and steps back to drop a donation in the jar. “Go on. It’s for a good cause.”
The pretty young woman glances up at James, smiles, and with a dramatic flourish, indicates that he should take the seat opposite her. She’s one of the civilian staff at the nick, but according to Laura, her card-reading skills are genuine. If you believe in that sort of thing.
After a quick glance back towards the festivities, James gives Robbie a nod, stoops to enter the tent, and folds his long self into the chair.
Robbie grins at Lizzie in triumph, then returns his attention to the festival, as promised. “So what’s in your future, then?” he asks Laura as she steps up beside him.
She snuggles in against him, shivering as she comes out of the warm tent into the cold. Being inside has pinked her cheeks. “Apparently, there’s going to be a big change in my love life.”
She smiles up at him and raises her eyebrows. She gets the irony.
Six months before, they’d gone their separate ways, agreeing that cohabitation just wasn’t working for them, that they were better as friends. But in the last month, they’ve fallen back into their old dating pattern of sharing dinner a couple of nights a week, staying at each other’s flats occasionally, laughingly agreeing that maybe they’re better as friends with benefits. Neither of them is interested in combining households again; it’s much more casual and easy-going than that, and it’s working better than living together did.
“And someone close to me, a friend, is going to receive an important message,” Laura finishes.
“Really?” Lizzie says, stepping to the side to check the area back towards the main entrance, which is around the corner of the pub, just out of their line of vision.
“A change in my love life and a message for a friend.” Laura laughs, then sighs. “I’d have rather she’d seen me inheriting a lot of money.”
Lizzie smiles and nods in agreement before returning to scanning the crowd. She walks a few steps in the other direction so that she can see through the huge doors of the old barn. Tony’s nodding to the music again, and she gives him a push in that direction. He smiles at her and walks towards the barn.
Robbie glances back at James.
He’s bent over a card the young woman has laid out, his eyes bright and interested, his hands jammed down in the pockets of his coat.
If nothing else, Robbie reflects, James is at least getting warm. Though he probably doesn’t need it, bundled as he is in a knitted hat and bulky quilted coat instead of the long, sleek, black coat Robbie’s accustomed to seeing him wear.
Robbie needs to get warm, too, though he’s not planning to do it in the fortune teller’s tent. He’s got his sights set on the crowded pub. Just as soon as James is back on duty. “Something warm to drink next, yeah?” he says to Laura.
“And something to eat,” she agrees and slips her hand into the crook of his elbow. “The cakes here are...”
Robbie doesn’t hear what the cakes are. A sound bleeds through Laura’s voice, and the chatter of the crowd, and the roar from the barn. Different, to his copper’s ear, from the din of music and voices and whir of games. A woman’s voice, carried on the wind. Angry and distressed.
James’s head whips around, and Lizzie wheels towards the sound in unison with Robbie. Laura doesn’t appear to have noticed it. Neither does anyone else around them.
“Sir, there!” Lizzie points towards the edge of the park, over near the tree line, just outside the bright glow cast by the festival lights.
Robbie follows the line of her arm and sees the figures of a tall man, face hidden in the folds of a hoodie jacket, and a short woman in a bulky jumper. In the flickering shadows, he can just make out that they’re wrestling over a large soft shape. A rucksack or a handbag. The man has the oval bag clutched to his chest, but the woman is hanging onto its straps and yelling for him to let go.
James appears at his elbow. “Robbie, Lizzie.” He points at the suspect, then to the side. “I’ll flank them.”
Robbie gives Laura’s elbow a squeeze as he takes off. “Tell Innocent,” he says.
He senses more than sees her go in the opposite direction, towards the other side of the pub, where, courtesy of the bag snatcher, Innocent’s turned one of the picnic tables in the front garden into a departmental outpost. He saw her there, only minutes ago, she and her assistant, with a map, roster, and several sheets of paper spread out in front of them.
‘Stupid,’ Robbie thinks as he jogs towards the man and woman still struggling over the large shape. Why doesn’t the woman just let go? Why do people always think the few things they carry are worth more than their safety? Or their lives?
Lizzie falls in beside him and shouts “Hey!” in such a strong voice that it pierces through the noise around them.
The man looks to see who’s shouted and sees them coming towards him. He gives the woman a shove, trying to tear the bag from her hands, but she holds on grimly. He gives up and lets go of the bag, wheels away, and disappears into the trees, heading towards the river.
Robbie curses and picks up speed. If the man gets too far ahead, they won’t be able to tell whether he’s still in the trees or, if he gets that far, which way he’s turned on the towpath that runs along the Thames. He’ll be gone, and if that happens, Robbie doesn’t know which will be worse tomorrow morning, seeing the newspaper headlines or being anywhere in the vicinity of Innocent.
He’s just glad the man decided to act before he hit the wine and cake. As he and Lizzie reach the trees, he glances back. James has changed direction and is heading straight for the trees instead of towards them. The two constables who were patrolling the tree line are heading their way at a run. Robbie’s sure they can run circles around him, but they’re well back. He and Lizzie have the best chance of catching the suspect.
The trees aren’t thick or close together, but negotiating the underbrush and the rough, leaf-covered ground in near darkness is tricky. Lizzie has a torch, but it’s bobbing so much from her movement that it’s not much help. Robbie has to slow to keep from slipping, but, hopefully, so will the man they’re chasing.
He can see a shadowy, man-sized shape, bobbing and zigzagging ahead and assumes it’s the suspect. The shadow turns abruptly and seems to leap into the air, then disappears from sight completely, and a moment later, Robbie discovers why as he skids to a stop at the wood fence that runs along the edge of the property.
He’s not about to try to leap over, especially not in the dark. He crawls over clumsily. Beside him, Lizzie does an odd roll over the wooden rails on her belly, a kind of lying down pole vault, lands gracefully, and takes off up the towpath after the suspect.
Just as Robbie catches up with Lizzie, James comes out of the trees just ahead and leaps the fence without slowing, one hand on the rail, long legs flying over. He hits the towpath running and easily outpaces them, his heavy coat flapping behind him. Somewhere in the woods, he’s lost his hat, and his blond hair shines in the moonlight.
Robbie, blood and breath competing to see which can thunder loudest in his ears, eases his speed a bit, running just fast enough to keep the bobbing blond head in sight. No need in giving himself a heart attack. The berk’s not going to outrun James’s long legs.
They’re almost to Iffley Lock when James almost catches up to the suspect. With a burst of speed, the man passes the first footbridge over the lock, then makes an abrupt, skidding turn just as he comes abreast of the second footbridge.
Lizzie makes a sharp turn and goes across the first one, obviously hoping to intercept him.
James catches up to the man just as he gets to the end of the footbridge. The man whips around, fists flailing.
In the bright, dancing light from the fairy lights that are strung all around the lock house, Robbie sees James arch back from a fist aimed at his jaw and grab the man’s arm. The man struggles with him, and they stumble off the footbridge into the paved picnic area of the lock house.
As he turns onto the footbridge, Robbie’s shoes slide on the metal grating and he grabs at the railing to right himself. Only a few more metres, and he and Lizzie, who’s coming in on his left, will be able to help James.
But the man breaks free and runs again. James goes after him, Lizzie not far behind, and Robbie not far behind her. He can hear Lizzie gasping curses as she runs, and he knows she’s cursing for the same reason he was earlier. If the suspect gets across the footbridges that cross the Thames and then the weir, into the warren of streets and houses in the neighbourhood beyond, they’ll never find him. The houses and garages and thickets and rambling streets offer thousands of places to hide.
They pound across another footbridge and onto a path lined with the skeletons of winter-bare trees. And Robbie can see that James has caught the suspect again, just at the edge of the weir footbridge.
James grabs the man by the back of his sweatshirt and hauls back on him. Uses the momentum to swing the man around. He almost has the man’s arm twisted up behind his back when the man breaks James’s hold and wheels on him. They fall, rolling along the rail of the footbridge, wood creaking ominously, and come up, still tangled together and struggling. The lights strung across the bridge sway wildly, throwing shadows out across the water. A hand comes up into the air, clutching something shiny and heavy.
Robbie sees it in slow motion, like a film slowed to half time, as he runs towards them. The two men struggling in a pool of twinkling white light. The man turning, his hand coming up, the shining object connecting with the side of James’s skull. James tilts, listing ridiculously, a tall, blond Leaning Tower of Pisa.
There’s a horrendous cracking sound. Rotten wood splintering. Giving way under the weight of two bodies.
At the last moment, the suspect throws himself backwards. He stumbles and bounces off the rail on the other side of the bridge. The railing groans and cracks, but holds, and the man scrabbles for purchase on the rough wood flooring, crawling until he can right himself and run on.
But James falls. Still in slow motion. He crashes through the cracked railing. Pieces of wood and his body cart-wheeling in the air. Falling fast as time speeds up again.
There’s a loud splash as James hits the water. Smaller splashes as pieces of the rail pepper the river.
With a burst of speed, Lizzie runs onto the bridge, skids to a stop where James fell over. She cranes out over the broken, gaping railing.
Two uniformed coppers run past Robbie onto the bridge with her.
“Go! Go!” Robbie shouts to them and Lizzie, pointing after the fleeing suspect. “Go on! I’ve got him!”
Robbie doesn’t even try for the bridge. He cuts and heads straight for the river bank.
He knows this section of the river and the lock. The water coming out of the weir is fast flowing, especially after a rain, and they’ve just had a week’s worth of pouring rain. Further out, in the river proper, the water is deep. And the manmade, stone-covered sides of the river bank rise straight up from the water. There’s no place for James to crawl out, even if he’s conscious.
Robbie slows, kicking off shoes, dropping his scarf, yanking off his heavy overcoat as he runs. The moment his hand rips free of the coat, he launches himself through the overhanging trees into the river.
The bare, dead branches grab at his shirt, but the speed of his leap takes him past them. There’s a brief, stomach-clenching sensation of falling, and then his body knifes into the water. It feels like a picture-perfect dive, but he has no time to appreciate it. The shock of the cold is like being slammed between two sheets of frozen metal.
He gasps, and water so cold that it burns rushes into his eyes and ears and mouth. Down his throat. He surfaces, choking and gagging. Pushes aside the need to cough so that he can shout. “James!”
He wheels. The lights from the bridge reflect off the water, dancing on the ripples from James’s fall and his dive. As far as he can see, which isn’t far, there’s no blond head bobbing on the surface. “James!”
He strikes out for the weir, fighting against the current, and the moment he’s near where he thinks James would have gone in, he dives again.
The cold water stings like pepper in his eyes. His eyelids don’t want to stay open. They want to squeeze shut against the burning cold. He forces them wide open and wheels and twists in the water, trying to see.
The lights on the bridge barely penetrate into the water, creating a silvery murk that shades to grey to dark grey to black the further down he goes. Panic flutters, like a bug trapped against glass, at the back of his mind. How will he ever find James in this murky darkness?
His lungs force him to surface. Gasping for breath, he turns in a circle, scanning the surface of the river.
He dives again. His eyes are tearing so badly that everything’s a blur. He goes deeper, blindly reaching out as far as he can. Twisting left, then right in a freezing underwater dance. Searching. A litany of ‘please, please, please’ chattering through his mind. ‘Please. James. Please.’
His chest feels like it will burst, and he surfaces, coughing. Gulps in air in preparation for diving again.
Panic roars in his ears, in his chest, making it difficult to think. He has to stop himself from blindly diving again and again. He treads water, trying to be sensible, to think. The current has washed him away from the weir. But if it’s moving him, then it will have moved James, too.
He swims, lining himself up with where James went into the water, but further out. To where the current would have swept anything in its path. And, there!, something. Something silvery. It may only be a piece of the broken railing, or moonlight reflecting on the water. But there’s something on the inky, moving water. He shoves at the river with his hands, stroking hard to get to the ripples of light.
There’s nothing there when he gets to the spot, but he dives anyway. Goes down. Shadows and stripes dance and shimmer just under the surface of the water. Moonlight. But there’s no lanky body floating in the twisting light and dark. He dives down past where the moonlight is penetrating. Straining to see as rippling silver fades into black.
For a heart-stopping moment, he thinks he sees James, but then he realises it’s other people who’ve jumped into the river to help. Finally. Constables coming to help. He sees their shirts, white-clad arms moving, combing the water the way his are, searching for James. Coming towards him.
And there! There! Near the bottom. Floating weightless. A flash of colour that doesn’t belong. Pale skin and blond hair and the dirty-mustard coloured coat.
Robbie jack-knifes and forces his body deeper. Grabs James and wraps his arms around him.
James hangs in his arms, limp and unmoving, his bulky, waterlogged coat an anchor that drags at both of them.
The white clad arms swirl around them, coming to help.
Only... Robbie turns in the water, clumsy with the cold and with James’s rag doll-like body clutched to him. He kicks, but his body doesn’t begin to rise towards the surface. And no one reaches out to help him.
The white arms dance around him, slowly surrounding them. And he realizes...the white shapes aren’t arms. It’s not coppers come to help. He doesn’t know what it is. It’s ribbons. Smoke. Vapour. The white shapes curl around them. Rippling solid, then transparent, then dissipating at the edges like something melting. Long shapeless appendages without bodies, tentacles of white, closing in, reaching for him.
Alarm screeches through him. It’s all he can do to keep from shouting. To remember not to open his mouth to suck in air.
He back-pedals, twisting in the water, kicking as hard as he can. Not caring whether he’s going towards the weir or out into the river. The only direction that matters is up. To the surface. He’s flails against the water with one hand and clutches James to his chest with the other.
Up. Up. He needs to go up! To surface.
The long, white, writhing, ribbon-like things are going to drag him down.
His lungs demand air, shoving up at his throat, trying to force it to open.
He tries to force back the panic that’s threatening to swamp him. Control it before it overpowers his logic and fear forces him to breathe. Breathe whether he wants to or not. Breathe in cold, grey water. And if he goes down, James goes down with him.
The ribbons twine about them, wrapping and coiling and tightening until he can’t see darkness or water or even James. Until only white bleeds into his vision. White. Wrapping him. Smothering him.
And somewhere, in the centre of it. Or behind it. Or mixed in it, he hears Val’s voice. Sweet, beloved voice. Calling to him in the cold water. A sob catches in his chest.
He has to get to the surface. Oxygen deprivation. Hallucinating.
He clutches James tighter and kicks, looking up. Above him, there’s nothing but swirling, amorphous white.
His legs slow, his muscles giving out. His hand opens, water sliding through his fingers. He can feel his jaw muscles giving up. His determination to hold his breath slipping away from him. Everything is slowing. His movements and his thoughts, even time. Slowing.
And James turns in his arms. Shifts smoothly into movement. James twines his long arms around Robbie’s neck and, in the cold, black water, kisses him.
Robbie jerks back, but James holds on to him. Pursues him. One hand sliding up to cradle the back of his head. Recapturing his lips.
James’s mouth moves against his. Easing his desperate need to breathe.
James. He moans it in his mind. James’s mouth is cold. Lips moving on his. Kissing him...
Only it isn’t James. It is James. But it isn’t James. It’s Val. His Val. He tastes James and river water. But it’s Val kissing him.
And he stops fighting completely, goes limp. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, in some bright, logical place, he knows he should be terrified. He knows he should keep kicking. Keep fighting. He has to save James.
But it’s Val...
Her sweet, flowery scent fills him. The taste of her slides over his tongue, blocking out the cold, metallic taste of river water, mixing with the coffee and cigarettes taste of James. It calms the stuttering, throbbing beat of his heart. Eases his need to breathe.
He must be dying. He knows he must be dying. And he should fight. For himself and for James. But it’s Val...
He slides his arms around her, up underneath the thick coat, palms flattening on her back. Almost afraid to. Afraid that if he touches her, she’ll disappear. That he’ll wrap his arms around her and she’ll be only a white ribbon of nebulous light.
But she’s real in his arms. Cold but solid. He clutches her tight to his chest, still afraid she’ll slip away. That he’ll wake from this astonishing hallucination.
Val. It can’t be. But it is. His Val. In his arms. Her mouth moving on his, her soft arms twined about his neck. The taste of her and the scent of her fills him until he thinks his heart will burst with joy, with the wonderful familiarity of it.
And he can’t answer. Can’t even think for the singing in his heart. Val. He can only cling to her. Wrap his arms even tighter and hold on now as he should have held on in life. Val...
She feels different, Too tall, too hard, too angular, but at the same time, familiar. He knows the feel of her. It’s Val. In his head, he knows the feel of her. The scent of her. The sound of her sweet voice.
“Oh, Val. Bonny lass...” he whispers, and he hears her soft laughter answering.
He sobs against her kiss. He’s missed her touch. Missed her kisses, her laughter. Missed her annoyance when he’s worked too late or forgotten some errand. Missed her tasteless casseroles, and the way she’d lose her keys and tear through the house looking for them. Missed coming home to her, falling asleep against her warmth. Waking to her smile. Missed everything his life was supposed to be, everything that was stolen from him that terrible day in December.
“Oh, Robbie...my love. It feels so good to hold you.” It feels like she’s put her hand over his heart, even though her arms are still twined around his neck. Her sweet voice fills his head. Fills his heart. Her sweet voice, lilting and sad and joyful at the same time.
And she’s only just touched him, but it feels like goodbye. Like she’s going already. Like this is the goodbye they didn’t get to say. He’s thought of that so many times, that he didn’t get to say goodbye to her. He’s wanted it so desperately.
But he doesn’t want it now that he has it. He doesn’t want goodbye. He wants her warmth. Val, twined about him, through him. With him, the way she was supposed to be, until they died together in old age, children and grandchildren around them.
“I’m with you, love. I’m always with you,” she whispers, reading his thoughts. “We didn’t need goodbye, because I’m always with you, always watching over you.” Her sweet voice fills his head. “I love you. Tell Lyn and Mark I love them, and I watch over them, always.”
He hangs there, weightless, feeling the cold water swirl around him. He clutches her close, and knows that he would be content to stay there forever, in the cold and the wet and the dark, so long as Val is in his arms. So long as he can taste her and smell her and feel her against him.
“No, sweetheart,” Val says. “You have to go. It’s not your time.”
“Val...” He holds her tighter, gripping a body that’s too slim and too hard, and at the same time soft and curving and so familiar. “No, pet. Stay with me. Don’t leave me again. Don’t leave me alone. I need you.”
“You’re never alone, my love.” Val squeezes him tighter, and her love for him fills him. Warms him like she’s put blazing sunlight inside his chest. “But you have to go back. You have to save James. If you stay, James will stay, too, and it’s not his time.”
She kisses him again, lips pressing soft and sweet against his. “Take care of him,” she whispers. “He loves you.”
“No,” he moans. He can’t bear to lose her again. Can’t bear to feel her slipping away. Not again. He’ll just stay there in the cold and wet. He can’t go back to the coldness of solitude, of being without Val...
“You’re never alone. He loves you,” she whispers. “James loves you like I do.”
The white ribbons swirling around them dissolve. The warmth and the flowery scent dissolve. Everything fading. Val fading...
With one last lingering kiss, one touch of warmth and love, she’s gone, leaving only a warm whisper, thin as mist, silver as moonlight, echoing in his mind, “Be happy, love. Be happy.”
Leaving him hanging limp and motionless. Stunned. Bereft. Alone. All over again.
James is against him, limp. James’s mouth is against his, unmoving. James hanging in his arms, so deathly pale that, as Robbie twitches back from the cold kiss, he can see the oval of James’s face in the black water.
Robbie groans, mixed joy and pain, coming out of the hallucination. Cold water burns into his throat and his nostrils. Sears his lungs.
Reality slams into him. Fear slams into him. He gasps at his stupidity. He’s forgotten he’s underwater. He’s forgotten he can’t breathe here.
The white shapes are gone. Only dark, cold water surrounds them.
He clutches James to him and surges into motion, kicking, desperately blowing out what little air he has left in his lungs to keep from sucking in more water.
He breaks the surface coughing and choking, water sizzling and bubbling at the back of his throat. Water streams into his eyes and out of his ears.
He turns James in his arms to keep his head above the water. James hangs, as wilted and lifeless as he was under the water. And the panic that’s been suspended surges back into Robbie.
James isn’t breathing. In the dark, his skin is deathly white. As cold as moonlight. The pale pink and tan of his lovely skin washed away. James’s lips are blue, his eyelids sickly pale.
He grabs James’s cold face and forces his mouth open. Pinches his nose and seals his lips around James’s mouth. Blows breath into him, praying for it to take.
James’s lips are cold as ice. Robbie’s touched bodies in the morgue that weren’t this cold.
He whirls, treading water. Finds the line of lights that mark the weir footbridge. It looks miles away.
If he goes towards the weir, there’s nowhere to get James out of the water. The stone sides of the river bank are covered with thin vines and go almost straight up, just the way he remembers. There’s little chance he could climb out on his own, no chance of doing it with the sagging weight of James in his arms. Little chance he can swim across the river or around to the lock. It’s too far.
They start to sink, and he kicks to keep James’s head above water.
No choice. He twists, getting a grip on the thick collar of James’s coat so that he can keep James’s head above water. He kicks, pulling at the water with his free hand, and tries to tow James towards the lights. Towards the place Lizzie will know to look for them.
It’s too far. The cold and fear have sapped his energy. The unmoving weight of James and the sodden weight of his coat drags at Robbie. It’s going to take more energy than he has to move them at all.
He has to get the coat off, or it’s going to drag them down. They sink under the water as he wrestles with James’s body, tearing at the heavy coat. It clings to James’s clothing, and Robbie’s fingers are so numb he can barely feel what he’s doing, but he manages to get it one sleeve loose. To strip it down James’s lifeless arm. The weight of it drags it down the other arm, making the rest of it easier to strip away. It sinks away beneath them.
Robbie kicks them to the surface. He breathes into James’s cold, cold mouth again, then tucks James’s chin over his arm to keep his face above water. Robbie twists and turns, kicking though his legs feel leaden and stiff, half swimming, half paddling like a child, towards the river bank.
He pauses to breathe into James, then kicks again. Pauses. Breathes. Kicks. And a litany of ‘Please, James. Please breathe, James,’ never stops. It’s the cadence that carries him through the black water until he’s got them up against the stone bank.
He looks up, hoping to see faces above him, but there are only stars, winking high overhead, and bare branches moving in the wind. The only sounds he can hear are the rush of water over the weir and his own harsh gasping. There had to be more than just the two coppers following him and Lizzie. Where the hell is everybody?
He finds a meagre finger-hold in the rough stone and presses James’s body against the bank, leans into him with his chest and his elbows and holds James’s head and shoulders out of the water with the meagre strength he has left.
He presses his fingers to James’s neck. Robbie’s shivering so badly he can’t tell whether James has a pulse. But he can tell James still isn’t breathing. The refrain of 'Please, please, please' starts up in his head again.
He manoeuvres until he can grasp James’s deathly cold face. He breathes into James’s mouth again.
Robbie’s shaking as much from fear as cold. James is so still. So pale. How long? How long were they underwater? How long since James took a breath?
He manhandles James’s limp body up against the stone, presses on James’s ribs and chest. It’s like a floating Heimlich from the wrong side, and he knows from rescue training that the Heimlich’s no good on a drowning victim, but it’s all he can do.
But maybe it’s enough. Water runs down James’s chin, and it might have come from his mouth, but Robbie’s not sure.
He clings to the wall with one hand, the rough stone tearing at his fingertips, and manoeuvres James’s body until he can breathe into his cold mouth again.
Robbie’s fingers slip, and he loses his footing and slides down into the water. By sheer will, he keeps his hands above his head to keep James’s body from following him down.
Robbie doesn’t know how much longer he’s going to be able to keep from just sliding back down into the cold black. His muscles are weak and sluggish. He can barely feel his hands or his feet. The breaths he keeps trying to blow into James are so shallow they wouldn’t tear through wet tissue paper.
With one last push, he breathes hard into James’s mouth, then presses with the little strength he has left on James’s ribs and chest. Breathes into him again.
Waits, shivering, nearly sobbing with exhaustion.
Nothing. No breath.
No breath. But there’s a sound. Above him.
Feet slapping on the footbridge. Voices shouting.
Lizzie’s voice, strident. “They went into the water over here.”
He shouts, “Help! Here! Help!” but the sound that comes out is weak and pale. His voice is waterlogged, frozen. He forces a cough, but before he can shout again, there are shouts from above.
“Sir!” and “Here, they’re here!” and “Over here!” Lizzie’s voice. Voices he doesn’t recognize. And then, “Robbie!” That’s either Innocent or Laura. Or maybe both, in unison.
He can’t tell. Doesn’t care. His relief is so strong it’s like a gale wind roaring in his ears.
He looks up, and he can make out Laura’s blond hair, high above him. Beside her, on her knees, Innocent’s leaning out, shining a torch down. Hands reach down towards him, but they’re too high. Too far away. Even when the constables throw themselves down on the ground, hands shooting closer, he can’t reach them. There’s no way he can wrestle James’s limp body up high enough for them to grasp him.
Innocent’s torch is blinding him, but he can still see Laura’s face, scared and pale. “He’s not breathing,” he tells her, his voice grating. Rough with fear and cold. “He’s not breathing.” And the river water streaming down his face is suddenly as warm as tears.
Innocent disappears. She yells, demanding rope, a blanket, a lifebelt. Anything they can drop down to them.
Laura’s face remains, switching from alarm to a calm he knows she’s not feeling. “Mouth-to-mouth, Robbie. Give him mouth-to-mouth. Press on his chest if you can,” she says. Her voice is tight, but composed and quiet. “We’ll get you out.”
He nods and tries to lift James higher, press him harder into the stone wall, pushing with his hands on James’s chest, but there’s no way to get leverage. “Breathe, James,” he demands. It’s desperate, a mixture of prayer and order. “Breathe, dammit!”
He hears Lizzie say, “I’m going in to help them, Ma’am.”
And Innocent’s voice, sharp with fear, snaps, “No! Not until I know we have a way to get you out.”
Another voice, young and male, argues, “I’ll be able to swim out, Ma’am. Around to the lock.”
And Innocent says, “Go, then, go! No, just one of you! I can’t have all of you in the water. You two, check the lock house. See if there’s a boat. You two, see if there’s a shed. Everybody else, check the grounds and the lock. We need a rope or a chain. Anything! Tear the damn Christmas lights down if you have to! And where the hell’s that lifebelt?”
Someone dives into the water behind Robbie. Water splashes against the back of his head.
And this time, the white clad arms that reach to help him have a body attached to them. A young constable whose face Robbie knows swims close and reaches to help hold James’s head and shoulders out of the water.
Robbie presses on James’s chest again. Reaches to shift him so he can breathe into him again, whispering, “Please, James, breathe,” against the cold, still face.
And James takes a breath.
It’s the tiniest of sounds, barely there. Air sighing into lungs, quiet as the whisper of a spring breeze over skin, yet it drowns out all the commotion from above. Everything—the cold, and the tiredness, and the fear and desperation, Innocent’s voice and Laura’s—they all slip away. Even the stars seem to go black.
Robbie groans, a nearly orgasmic sound of relief and gratitude. All he can see is James’s pale face. Robbie kicks with renewed strength to manoeuvre himself closer to James. He holds his breath, as if somehow it will help James find his. “Come on, lad,” he cajoles. “Take another breath for me.”
James gasps, a stronger, louder breath this time, and his long body jerks into movement as his eyes fly open and his mouth flies open and he gags, then coughs.
Water droplets spray out, hitting Robbie in the face.
James sucks in air, a hard, painful, rasping sound. Coughs again, with a sound so harsh it hurts Robbie’s ears. James flails, reaching out blindly as if he can pull more air into his starved lungs with his hands.
James’s hand hits him in the face, and Robbie loses his grip on James. Slides back into the water. Goes under, back down into the cold darkness.
He kicks feebly, scrabbling at the stone to pull himself back up.
Hands reach out and grasp his wrists, one strong and one with a grip as weak as his own.
He kicks and shoves his face above the water, gasping and coughing, and James draws him in.
The constable guides them along the stone bank, tugging at both men. “Can you swim? If you can swim, we can make it around to the lock and they can pull us out.”
“Can’t.” Robbie shakes his head. There’s no strength left in him. And he’s not sure James is even conscious enough to know what’s being said.
“Lifebelt coming down,” warns a voice from above. The large white ring splashes into the water right beside them.
The constable draws it in, pushing it toward James.
Robbie tests the line attached to it. If they can get the ring over James’s head and shoulders, can the people above use it to pull him out of the water? It doesn’t feel strong enough to lift that much weight.
James scrabbles feebly at it, and the constable helps him get his arms over the ring. Guides Robbie’s arm over the other side.
But it was better when they were clinging to the stone wall, because that was stable. Hanging onto the outside rim of the ring, they bobble and dip, and it’s difficult for him to keep his grip on James.
The constable guides Robbie’s hand to the river bank above James, saying, “Grab on, Sir. Hold onto these vines.”
Robbie wraps his numb fingers around something rough. Leaves peel off the vines and the roots pull loose from the stone like hair being torn from a scalp, but Robbie cramps his fingers into a claw and reaches higher, to where the vines are thicker. Stronger.
“And here.” The constable guides his other hand to a place on the wall on James’s other side.
The mortar has washed away, leaving a slot barely finger-deep. Robbie fits his fingers into it. It’s enough to allow him to press himself into James. Hold him up against the stone wall.
James clings to the bobbing lifebelt with one arm, and with the other, he holds Robbie against his chest, and they hang there, shivering against each other.
The constable clings to the lifebelt and treads water, leaning on both of them to hold them in place.
Robbie eases back and tries to look into James’s eyes. To see if James is all right. To see if he can tell whether James has seen what he’s seen. Whether it was real. "James? You all right, man?"
James’s breathing is shallow and harsh. In the wavering light from Innocent’s torch, his skin is still unnaturally blue. His grip on Robbie is fierce but weak. Without the constable’s help, James’s other arm would slide off the lifebelt. His gaze is blank and distant, as if he hasn’t quite come back to himself, but he struggles to focus on Robbie, to mumble, "Cold."
All Robbie can do is nod his agreement. The relief that slides through him, because James can speak, respond, understand, should be enough to warm him. But it feels like they're going to freeze, all three of them, clinging to each other, if they stay in the icy water another minute.
Just when Robbie thinks he can’t hold on a moment longer, that he’ll have to find the strength to swim, tow James to safety, a rope drops down from overhead.
They drag James away from the wall to get it around him. The constable ties it in a large, clumsy knot across James’s chest. And then Robbie has to let him go.
Making his fingers let go of James is more difficult than anything he’s done since he dove into the river. Even facing phantom arms that he thought were going to drown him wasn’t as difficult.
He summons the last of his strength to cling to the sliver of stone and the lifebelt while James is lifted away from him, up the embankment, over the edge, out of sight. To safety.
The young constable floats beside him, holding onto him with a grip that’s beginning to tremble with the cold.
Then the rope drops back down. Robbie’s hands are so numb he can’t get it under his arms. Without the constable, treading water in front of him, tugging the rope into place, tying another clumsy knot, Robbie’s not sure he could have managed.
He can barely cling to the rope as it tightens around him and he’s dragged upward. Out of the water. Scraping and bumping up along the stone bank. Leaves and vines and sharp edges of stone tear at his hands and his sleeves and his belt. The rope cuts into him. Every touch is agony on his cold skin. It punches through the numbness.
The cold hits him even harder as he goes up through the air. By the time he’s over the edge of the bank, onto solid ground, he’s shaking so hard the hands that reach to pull him to safety have to roll him onto his back on the ground to untie the rope.
The stars come back, vying with the fairy lights for brightness. They swirl and flare overhead as he gasps for air and coughs up water. Laura appears over him, blocking out the starlight.
He tries to push her away. “No. James. Help James.”
“Stop, Robbie. I’ve seen to James.” She rolls him onto his side and pats his back gently. Rubs soothing circles. It helps him get his breath back. She probes at his belly and abdomen, fingers gentle and firm. “Do you have any chest pain?”
He’s too weak to move, but he pushes himself up anyway, rolling onto hands and knees, ignoring Laura’s order to stay still. Ignoring her hands as she tries to keep him from raising up.
“James. Where’s James?”
With a sound of annoyance, Laura gives up and helps him onto his knees.
“Here.” James’s voice is a croak. He stumbles to Robbie and drops down onto his knees beside him, hands reaching for him as they did in the water. James still looks blue around the edges.
Someone throws Robbie’s coat around his shoulders. Robbie pushes it off and puts it around James, realizing as he does that Laura’s coat is already wrapped around James’s shoulders.
And then Innocent and Lizzie and Tony take off their coats and scarves and pile them on the two of them, adding layers of wool and quilted cotton and knitted softness. Other officers add to the layers. Robbie’s so cold, the residual body warmth in the clothing feels like midday sunlight.
A few metres away, other officers have pulled the constable out of the water and are wrapping their coats around him. He gives Robbie a thumbs-up, and Robbie thinks he manages a nod, though his face feels too frozen to smile.
Then someone comes running up with a blanket. James tries to put it around Robbie, and Robbie takes it and tries to put it around him. His hands are shaking so badly, he drops it.
Laura takes it and drapes it around both of them as Robbie pulls James in close. It doesn’t help much as far as shared warmth goes. James is even colder than he is. Jerking, teeth chattering. But Robbie clings to him.
They sink down onto the ground together and sit huddled, wrapped in coats and scarves and the blanket. Robbie has never been so glad to be miserable and cold and wet, because he’s alive. And James is alive and shivering and breathing in the curve of his arm.
Laura crouches on the ground in front of them. “Are either of you experiencing any chest pain? Any nausea?” When they both shakes their heads, she worms a hand under the layers of blanket and coats. “It would be better if we could get you out of your wet clothes,” she fusses as she grips Robbie’s wrist, checking his pulse.
“Not coming out of me trousers in front of all these people,” he tells her, and his voice sounds as croaky as James’s did.
She rolls her eyes at him and lets go of his wrist. “Far better you succumb to hypothermia than show anyone your knobby knees.”
She paws at the pile of clothing. Stops and looks at Robbie, surprised, when she finds that he’s holding James’s hand.
He’s as surprised as she is. He wasn’t even aware that he was holding on, fingers interlocked with James’s cold ones.
She gives a little tilt of her head, an odd, unreadable expression sliding across her face, as she gently shifts his hand aside so she can wrap her fingers around James’s wrist.
Innocent kneels down beside Laura, facing them, arms wrapped around herself. She still has on her knitted hat and gloves, but her jumper is too thin for the cold night. “For a couple of minutes there, I thought we’d lost both of you,” she says.
“How long?” Robbie asks, glad of an excuse to escape Laura’s peculiar scrutiny. His voice is a bit stronger this time. “How long were we under?”
“I don’t know,” she says, tilting her head to the side as if she’s as surprised by his question as Laura was by his grip on James. “We weren’t sure which way you’d run, so I sent people in both directions along the towpath. When one of the constables with Lizzie called in to report, we came right down here. So you couldn’t have been in the water any more than five minutes. Maybe not even that long.”
Laura shifts to feel James’s forehead, catches him by his chin and lifts his head so she can peer into his eyes. Then turns him so she can run her fingers over the side of his head.
James winces and twists away, and Laura gently brings his head back around. “Follow my finger.” She holds up a finger and slowly moves it in front of James’s eyes.
Robbie watches James track the movement.
Five minutes or less. It can’t be. It felt like it took hours to find James. It felt like forever that James hung there in the water, in his arms, not breathing.
And the other...it felt timeless. Like Val was there with him for only seconds, and at the same time, as if she was there for hours in his arms, her mouth against his. Seconds or hours, it wasn’t enough. And now, with the reality of James shivering against him, Robbie’s sure there’s no way it can be real. It had to be a hallucination, except...for what he felt. How real she was, in his arms, in his head.
James stares first at Laura, then at Robbie. James’s expression is...strange. As unreadable as Laura’s. He looks numb, blue and disoriented, and he leans, his head tilting towards Robbie’s shoulder.
Robbie glances at Laura to find that she’s watching the two of them, that odd expression still on her face. She smiles at him and tests his forehead the way she did James’s, fingers slipping down to check the pulse in his neck.
“I’m fine,” he tells her.
She nods, but that odd, almost-smile doesn’t go away. “The paramedics are bringing a trolley along the towpath,” she tells James.
“I don’t need that,” he protests, straightening up again, but his voice is weak.
“Can you walk?” Robbie asks him quietly. He’s torn between thinking James should stay still and quiet and thinking he’ll warm up faster if they move about a bit. Plus he knows how he’d feel about being wheeled out of here on a trolley with everybody gawping at him. “Is it okay if we walk?” he asks Laura.
Laura leans even closer, peers into James’s face. “If you’re sure you’re strong enough, then we can meet them halfway,” she says.
“Okay, then,” she says, putting her hands on her knees, business-like and ready to stand. “Let’s get you both to hospital.”
“No,” they both say in unison.
“I didn’t ask,” she says firmly. “You—” She looks at James. “—took a blow to the head. You were unconscious.”
James coughs, still sounding gurgle-y.
Robbie wants nothing more than to be left alone with James. He wants to be warm and dry and somewhere quiet where they can talk. But he has to agree with Laura.
“You weren’t breathing, lad,” he says quietly.
Laura turns her sharp gaze on him. “And you were in the water almost as long as he was.”
Robbie’s shivering, which had eased a bit, starts up again at her reminder.
“You’re both going,” Innocent says firmly.
Laura stands, holding out her hand. Beside her, Innocent does the same.
With a sigh of resignation, Robbie lets go of James, takes each hand, and allows them to pull him to his feet.
Lizzie and Tony and a constable catch James under his arms and help him stand.
The layers of coats fall away as they rise, but James keeps a grip on the blanket with one hand and a grip on Robbie with the other. He wraps the blanket back around both of them, but not fast enough to prevent the cold air from chilling Robbie’s wet clothes. It feels like he’s been slapped, all over, with a sheet of ice.
Against him, James’s trembling increases.
Laura sorts through the pile of coats, finding hers and then Robbie’s.
James looks around, still a bit disoriented, as if he expects to see his coat on the ground.
“Sorry, lad,” Robbie says as Lizzie helps him get his coat on over his wet clothes. “Yours is at the bottom of the river.”
James blinks, owlish, and Laura bundles him up in the blanket, and she and Innocent lead him away.
Robbie tries to follow, but Tony materializes with Robbie’s scarf and shoes in his hands. Tony braces him so he can put his shoes on. Robbie’s socks are soaking wet and icy cold, and he stops to peel them off and shoves them into his coat pockets before shoving his feet into his shoes.
Robbie hurries to catch up with James and Innocent, falling into step with Laura as she trails a few steps behind them.
As they cross back over the lock, Lizzie slips around him to give Innocent her coat.
James pauses as Innocent stops to put it on, looking back to make sure Robbie’s there. His gaze finds Robbie’s, and it’s still distant and disoriented. Then Innocent catches James’s arm and leads him away again.
“Is he okay?” Robbie asks Laura, motioning towards James.
She nods. Her head is turned, as if she’s watching James, but at the same time, she’s watching Robbie. “Probably. He’s got a decent-sized lump on the side of his head, but his pupils were reactive. And he doesn’t have a headache. Yet. But that might be because of the cold. He seems a little out of it, but he understood everything I said to him. Lizzie said that he was hit with something that looked like a piece of pipe?”
Robbie nods. “It was shiny. Like chrome.” He doesn’t want to think about it, but he forces himself to concentrate, to remember the flash of silver falling towards James’s skull. “It was a bit longer than the suspect’s hand. It might have been round, like a pipe or a rod, but I’m not sure.”
“He’ll have to be checked for concussion. But I think he’s okay.” She pats his arm reassuringly.
As they walk back along the towpath, back towards the farmhouse, Robbie can hear the noise of the festival, still in full swing. A different band is playing now, louder, but better than the first one. The voices of the crowd, from here, are a gentle, genial roar. The strands of lights twinkle and gleam through the trees. The smoky, woodsy scent of a bonfire hangs in the air.
It’s all so normal, so familiar, it makes the last few minutes seem like a dream. A hazy nightmare. It would seem like he never left the festival at all if it wasn’t for the wet clothing plastered to his skin and his cold feet, bare and wet and uncomfortable in his shoes. If it wasn’t for James, walking ahead of him, wrapped in a blanket.
They meet the paramedics, trolley rattling along between them, near the place where he and Lizzie climbed over the fence. James exchanges his damp blanket for two layers of ugly orange shock blankets, but waves away the trolley and the oxygen mask.
When one of the men keeps shoving it at his face, James simply walks away from them and Innocent. Tony and Lizzie fall in on either side of him, and they walk up the towpath towards the delivery and parking area on the other side of the farmhouse.
Laura catches Robbie’s arm again, motioning for him to follow.
The ambulance is parked at the edge of the tiny car park, and as James reaches it, the paramedics surround him again, refusing to be waved away this time. They bundle James into the ambulance, wrapping him in more blankets as Laura talks to them.
One of them tries to gather Robbie in, too, and he lets her wrap a blanket around his shoulders. He clutches the rough cloth around him and waves the paramedic away. But he tells them firmly as they start to close the ambulance doors, “I’m coming with you.”
Laura stops him as he puts a foot up on the step. “I’ll see you at the hospital,” she says. “But you need to let them check you now, too.”
“I’m fine. I’d rather they take care of James,” he says through chattering teeth. The walk has warmed him up a bit, but now that he’s stopped, he’s almost too tired to stand, and he’s feeling the cold again. His clothes are clammy and icy, and his hair is still dripping cold water down his neck. He smells of river and cold air, but at the back of his throat, he can taste spring flowers.
“Robbie...” She says his name with annoyance.
A paramedic says, “We’re going.”
Inside the brightly lit interior of the ambulance, the top of James’s blond head and his pale forehead are all that’s visible under a pile of blankets. The paramedics have put an oxygen mask on him.
Laura shakes her head at him, mouth set in a straight, unyielding line, but she motions for him to go.
With a burst of effort that feels like it burns all the energy he has left, Robbie climbs into the ambulance with James.
Robbie pulls up a chair beside James’s bed and sits, glad that the hospital room is finally quiet except for the soft beeping of James’s monitor and empty except for the two of them.
Doctors and nurses have come and gone. Innocent and Laura and Lizzie have come and gone. The young constable who dove into the river with them has stuck his head in the door, given Robbie a combination of wave and salute, then gone.
Innocent had bustled about, annoyed at Robbie after she heard Laura telling him off because he’d refused more than a cursory examination in emergency, annoyed that James’s tests are taking so long, annoyed that the coffee from the machine in the hall is cold. She’s just annoyed in general, but it doesn’t bother Robbie because he sees it for what it is...adrenalin wearing off and relief that he and James are alive.
Lizzie had just been Lizzie, quiet and capable and pragmatic. She’d found a set of scrubs for him to change into and loaned him a hooded track jacket to wrap up in. She’d sent Tony for hot coffee and taken Robbie’s and James’s mobiles to try to salvage them, then slipped away to process the suspect she and the pursuing constables had caught and arrested.
Robbie tugs at the unfamiliar scrubs he’s wearing. They feel odd and loose against his skin, but anything is preferable to his own clinging, wet, freezing clothing. From the size of it, the hoodie jacket belongs to Tony, and it’s wonderfully soft and warm. When all this is over, Robbie thinks he might get one of his own.
Laura had been the last to leave. She'd checked James’s vitals and chart for herself, then explained that it’s standard procedure after a near drowning to observe the patient for six to eight hours. There’s no concussion, no sign of damage or trauma. They’ll watch for pulmonary complications—again, just routine procedure—and treat for anything nasty that might have been ingested in the water.
Robbie had expected her to insist on giving him a lift home, to argue with him about staying there in the hospital room with James. But all she’d done was give him another of those inscrutable looks, kiss the top of his head, and slip away.
James had been too tired and out of it to protest being kept in for observation, and now he’s tucked beneath a double layer of blankets, asleep. The monitor, with its tangle of lines disappearing underneath the blankets, beeps softly and regularly overhead, but Robbie doesn’t need Laura or a machine to tell him James is all right.
His skin has lost the cold blue pallor and is rosy pink with warmth. His muscles are still, not a shiver in sight. And his breath is even and regular and clear.
For a while, Robbie leans against the cold metal bed rails and watches James breathe.
James is still breathing oxygen, but it’s not a face mask like in the ambulance, just a cannula with the pieces in the nostrils, thin lines traversing his pink cheeks. But he’s breathing, slow and steady, and that’s enough to make Robbie breathe the same way. Just watching the regular rise and fall of the blankets over James’s chest is such a comfort that Robbie can feel it in his own chest.
He’s sure he’s never going to get those horrible moments in the river out of his mind. His heart is never going to stop giving a sharp, twisting thump when he thinks of how afraid he was that he wasn’t going to find James in the dark, cold water. That he wasn’t going to be able to get James to breathe again.
As for the rest of it... He tries to keep thoughts of the other from his mind. He can hear practically hear James’s voice, ‘O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.’ And he can’t help but smile. What would James say if he knew Robbie is quoting Shakespeare in his head, in James’s silken baritone?
And madness it may well be, but the memories hover, like something weightless in water, just at the edge of his mind. Demanding answers. Val’s lovely voice in his head. The kisses. The ribbons of white.
What was it all? Ghosts? Spirits? He doesn’t believe in such. It has to be all hallucinations brought on by...what? Cold? Fear? Oxygen deprivation? All of the above? It all seems so otherworldly and unbelievable. Yet...so real. As real as the smooth in and out of James’s breathing.
He’s not sure how long he’d been sitting there, listening to James’s breaths, watching the slow, steady up and down of his chest, when James stirs.
As if he knows Robbie’s there, James turns his face towards him before he even opens his eyes. The short stubble of his hair rasps on the pillow.
Robbie leans closer, drapes a hand over the rail. Says, “Hey,” in a soft voice, not sure how awake James really is.
James blinks sleepily. He looks from Robbie to the monitor with its blips and lights, down at his body swathed in blankets, then back to Robbie. He licks at his lips to wet them and smiles. “You saved me,” he rasps. “Again.”
A weird sense of déjà vu rolls through Robbie. He’s seen that same shy smile from a hospital bed once before. He shivers, but not from cold, and says gruffly, “You’d have done the same.”
James nods, his gaze fixed on him. And it’s not like back at the lock, when James seemed numb and out of it. Now he’s present. His bluegreen eyes are sleepy, but bright and there.
Robbie reaches over and pushes the call button for the nurse.
James follows the movement. Quirks a questioning eyebrow at Robbie.
“They wanted to know when you woke up,” he supplies. Then, because he knows he would want to know, “You’re fine, but they’re keeping you overnight for observation. It’s protocol, for near drowning.”
James eyebrows go up at that, his body tenses for just a moment, but then relaxes. An odd expression, something Robbie can’t decipher, washes over his face.
Robbie pats his shoulder, as much to reassure James as for himself. His fingers linger on the warmth he can feel through James’s hospital gown. “There’s nothing to it, lad. You’re fine.”
It’s selfish, but this is not what he wants to talk to James about. He feels as like he’s going to explode if he has to shove the memory of what happened in the water away for one more moment. Through the journey to the hospital and the waiting to know that James was all right, through the waiting for the others to leave them alone, it was easy to keep it at bay. But now the need is on him so strong and hot it’s nearly a third living thing in the room with them.
But what’s he going to say? 'Did you see ribbons of mist in the water?' 'Did you see the ghost of my dead wife while you were drowning and kissing me?' Thinking it out loud makes him aware of how really mad it sounds. But even if it sounded perfectly logical, he can’t ask.
James is all pink and breathing, but Robbie can see the tiredness around his eyes.
“Do you remember what happened?” he asks. “You were chasing that berk and took a knock on your big head?”
James smiles, one hand working its way out of the blankets and stealing up to test the side of his skull. He winces as his fingers trace over the swelling. “Yeah, I remember.” His voice is still raspy, but stronger than it was a moment ago.
“And you remember taking a midnight swim?”
James smiles, stronger still. “I sort of remember that.” He shivers. “The water was like black ice. But you were there. You saved me.”
Robbie smiles and shudders at the same time. “Yeah. Well, you weren’t breathing when I fished you out. And they don’t know if it was the knock on the brain, or the cold, or the water. But since you weren’t breathing, it’s considered a ‘near drowning’. And that brings up a whole list of doctor stuff, tests and antibiotics and the like, that they want to do. And that includes keeping you in here for observation.”
James traces the line of the oxygen cannula that’s wrapped around his head and down his cheek. Touches the prongs that are resting just inside his nostrils. “I hate these things,” he says, then pauses to swallow. To lick his lips again. And when he continues, his voice is stronger. “They itch. I suppose this is a requirement of the ‘doctor stuff’?” His tired, sleepy expression is teasing.
“It’s a medical term,” Robbie tells him loftily.
James smiles and licks his lips yet again. “My mouth’s dry,” he says.
Robbie glances around, but the usual hospital bedside cup of water and ice isn’t there. “We’ll ask the nurse as soon as she comes.” Then he teases, “Not sure how you can be dry, though, considering how much river water you must have taken in.”
James face goes still. Quiet. “We both know—” he starts to say. His voice is quiet and calm, the strongest that it’s been yet.
Robbie’s heart gives a thump so hard he’s sure James can feel it through the metal bedrail.
But before he can finish, the door swings open and a nurse bustles in. “Inspector Hathaway!” she says brightly. “I see you’ve decided to wake up. I’m Nurse Darcy, and I’ll be looking after you tonight.”
Robbie wants to shout at her to go away, but...she’s here to take care of James. He forces his gaze from James.
The nurse is at least Robbie’s age, maybe a little older. Dark haired and dark eyed and really very beautiful though severe, with her hair pulled back and glasses riding on the end of her nose. And she looks so much like Innocent that they could be sisters.
“My mouth is dry,” James tells her. “May I have some water?”
“Probably,” she says. “Let me check you, and then we’ll see.”
Even her voice sounds like Innocent’s. The resemblance is so strong, it takes Robbie’s mind off what James said. Jean Innocent has many fine qualities, but...he shudders at the thought of having her for a caregiver.
James is nodding, but he’s looking at Robbie, and he makes a sound, a sort of snorting chortle, that makes Robbie wonder if James hasn’t seen the resemblance, too. And had the same thought.
“Can I take this off?” James asks, holding out the line of the cannula.
“Probably not, but we’ll see. As soon as we’ve checked you over.” She takes James’s wrist, turning it so she can find his pulse, then swings the monitor around so that she can see it better, looking at all the information displayed in blinking green lights and blips and graphs. “Are you having any chest pain or trouble breathing?”
James shakes his head, murmurs, “No, Ma’am,” and sighs heavily, as if he realizes that no matter what he asks, the answer is going to be ‘we’ll see’.
Robbie grins at him, not without sympathy. “It’s not where I’d want to be either, lad,” he says. “So next time, remember to duck.”
“Inspector Lewis.” Pseudo-Nurse Innocent turns her stern gaze on him. “Nurse Ratchford is waiting outside for you.”
“Your Chief Superintendent’s orders. You’re to be checked out in the ED, or you’ll not be allowed back in to sit with Inspector Hathaway.”
It’s Robbie’s turn to sigh. He should have known Innocent would have the last word. As he pushes up heavily, groaning at how stiff his back and hips are from sitting in the uncomfortable chair, James whispers, “Did she say ‘Nurse Ratched’?”
Robbie gets the reference immediately. He can’t hold back his snort of laughter.
“I heard that, young man,” pseudo-Nurse Innocent says, but there’s a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. She has the same expression that Innocent wears when she’s dressing them down for doing something she really thinks is funny though she can't admit it.
Robbie snorts again. He glances back as he opens the door.
His gaze meets James’s, and James’s playful expression transforms into something serious. Something...speculative.
Robbie pauses. Their gazes hold. Hold for a second too long. Warmth starts in the pit of his stomach and reaches up into his chest, wrapping around his heart like questing ribbons.
James tilts his head. Questioning.
And Robbie knows. Knows that James knows something happened in the water. His heart starts to patter again, pulse thumping in his neck. His feet shift automatically, without him even thinking about it, turning to take him back to James.
And from just outside the door, a voice says, “Inspector Lewis? If you’ll come this way, please.”
He glances back. The nurse waiting for him is a tiny wisp of a thing with hair even whiter blond than James’s. Her expression is polite, but firm.
He looks back at James.
“Did we at least catch the suspect?” James asks.
“Lizzie got him. One of the constables told Tony she tackled him like a goalie leaping to block a penalty shot. I’m sure he’s already been charged by now.”
James nods, satisfied. Then nods again, putting a bit of body language on his chin. Telling Robbie to go. Telling him, ‘Later’.
And so Robbie says it aloud, “Later.” He’s hoarse and a little wobbly, and he allows the nurse lead him away.
In the end, it’s much later before he sees James again.
By the time Robbie’s been poked and prodded and tested and pronounced fine—just a course of antibiotics in case there was anything nasty in the water and some salve and plasters for the worst of his scrapes—it’s very late.
And Nurse Ratchford, who’s turned out to be very sweet and kind, tells him Inspector Hathaway is sleeping peacefully and they don’t want him disturbed. She lets him peek through James’s door to see for himself. And then tells Robbie he has to go home. They want him to rest, too.
By then, Robbie’s tired. So tired he’s stumbling. So tired he gives in. Not without frowns and protests and huffing, but he gives in and lets them call him a taxi. He doesn’t want to go, but he can see that James is fine. Breathing normally. Fast asleep, face pink against the white hospital linens. Little green heart on the monitor beeping and blinking regularly. There's a glass of water on his bedside cabinet, but he's still wearing the oxygen cannula.
A taxi-ride later, back in his flat, Robbie feels as if he’s entered an alien world. It looks the same as when he left just hours before, but it feels different. Too still and off-kilter. Or maybe it’s just that he’s different. Stumbling emotionally, as well as physically. His thoughts are a jumbled, jellied, gritty mass, like seaweed washed up on sand.
His skin’s not cold, and the flat’s not cold, but he feels chilled to the bone. He decides he needs coffee, but then changes his mind. He needs sleep. Even decaf, at this point, would probably keep him awake, and what he needs is sleep. Once he’s thought about it, all he can think is how wonderful it will feel to fall into bed and close his eyes. Let sleep warm his thoughts and un-jumble them. Maybe wrapped in a thick quilt, with his mattress familiar under him, he’ll feel warm again.
He forces himself to shower, overpowering the scent of river water and cold night air with soap and shampoo. Getting rid of the scents of all that’s happened helps as much as the hot water to make him feel warm again. Through it all—showering, brushing his teeth, stumbling into clean pyjamas, then into bed—he refuses to let himself think beyond what he’s doing.
If he starts thinking about it all, sleep will be a long time coming. And he needs sleep. He needs to be clear-headed before he starts trying to figure any of it out.
But he can’t stop himself from thinking of tomorrow. Of waking. Of talking to James. That’s what he wants most right now. To be rested and clear-headed and talk to James.
All the everyday things—the journey home in the cold, walking around his flat, showering, sinking down onto his bed, the feel of the soft quilt across his chest—makes him question whether any of the strange things he saw or felt were real.
Only James can help him with that. But can James help? Will James help? What will he say? Will Robbie have the courage to tell James what he thinks happened, that the ghost of Valerie used James’s body to kiss him? And how mad does that sound? James will probably tell him the wrong one’s in the hospital bed.
Is James wondering the same things, right now? Lying awake in his hospital bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing he could talk to Robbie? Fearful of talking to Robbie?
Robbie reaches for his mobile, to call the hospital and check on James, and only remembers when his fingers brush the cold, empty surface of his bedside table that his mobile went into the water, too, and that Lizzie has it.
‘Sleep,’ says a soft voice in his mind. Val’s voice. ‘Sleep, love. I’ll watch over James for you.’
And that definitely has to be a dream. A dream already reaching out for him before he’s even asleep. Because he’s so tired, the line between waking and sleeping has gone fuzzy and white. Amorphous, like white ribbons in a dark river. But sweet and dry and warm.
He draws his arm back under the warmth of the quilt and closes his eyes. Feels dream lips brush his forehead. And he sleeps.
Pounding wakes him. For a moment, he thinks it’s in his head. A thumping against the backs of his temples, but without pain. As he pushes himself to sitting, he reaches for his phone and remembers all over again, when his fingers touch the bedside table, that Lizzie has his phone and why.
And then he realises, through the fog of half-waking, that the pounding is real, and it’s someone at his door. He leaps to his feet and doesn’t even bother with slippers or a robe in his rush.
He yanks the door open, afraid he’ll find someone, Jean or Laura, surely not some stranger, there with the distraught expression of bad news on her face.
A rush of cold air sweeps over him, reaching up under the edge of his pyjama shirt. Rippling the hems of his pyjama pants. Bright morning light blinds him, and he blinks as his eyes adjust.
Laura blinks back at him, her fist still raised for another blow on the wood panel. “Robbie!” she says with relief. “I was beginning to think I’d have to come in a window.”
“Is James all right?” he blurts.
She tilts her head to the side and squints up at him. “Of course he is,” she says, her voice almost deliberately light. “I’ve just come from the hospital. He said to tell you they’ve removed the ‘itchy thing’ and are making him do ‘doctor stuff’.”
Robbie blows out a breath of relief. Then another, hoping it will make his heart settle down to a slower, more rhythmic beat. The message, James’s way of telling Robbie he’s all right, helps.
He tilts forward a little, intending to kiss Laura good morning, but she stops him by pushing something at his chest.
“So...” she says. “Do you want this coffee, or should I just hold onto it for later?”
Robbie starts, really only seeing her for the first time.
She’s dressed for work, in black slacks and a thick jumper and scarf, and she’s carrying a cup of coffee. One of those expensive cups that’s not a ‘large’ but some word in Italian that he can never remember.
James laughingly calls it ‘memory loss as protest’, because of the time Robbie, already annoyed at the complicated twists and turns of some case, had treated him to a rant about overpriced coffee with fancy milk and asked why they had to go to a cafe where the perfectly good, old-fashioned British measurements of small, medium, and large weren’t good enough anymore. He can still see the indulgent, fond way James had smiled as Robbie demanded to know ‘what the bleedin’ hell steamed milk was anyway’.
Laura presses the cup into his hand. “Sorry,” he says, stepping back to let her in. “I was sound asleep.”
She nods. She knows how he can be when he first wakes, groggy and slow to make sense of his surroundings. She steps inside the door and pushes it closed with her foot. “I can’t stay. I’m on my way in to work, but Jean got a little worried when you didn’t answer your phone. She asked me to look in.”
It seems a little odd, her feeling she needs to offer an excuse for coming over. Telling him that she’s only doing it for Innocent and not for herself, but he lets it pass. He yawns and rubs at his eyes. “I forgot. The battery in my handset died last week, and I haven’t had time to buy a new one. And Lizzie’s got my mobile, trying to dry it out.”
Laura frowns at the reminder of the night’s events. “I checked your test results while I was at the hospital. They said there’s no evidence of water in your lungs. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t finish your antibiotics, just the same. Okay?”
He nods as he wrestles the lid off the cup and takes a careful sip of coffee. It’s perfectly sweetened to his taste and not too hot, so he takes a bigger sip. Then another. It’s like the caffeine shoots straight into his bloodstream, waking him the rest of the way with a zing.
He remembers that he had nothing to eat last night. And all over again, he remembers why.
The weight of the night before comes crashing down on him, and he shudders. Val. James. He needs to get to the hospital. His feet twitch on the cold tiles, and he turns to head towards the bedroom, to get dressed.
He’s made it as far as the hallway when he realizes Laura’s not following him. “Come on back while I get changed.”
But she doesn’t move. She crosses her arms over her chest and leans against back against the door, and says softly, “Robbie, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Maybe he’s still not quite awake, and he missed something. What’s not a good idea? Him getting dressed? Her in his bedroom? He frowns at her, a bit annoyed and a lot confused. Now is not the time for being confusing or mysterious or wasting time. He wants to get to the hospital.
Her pale blue gaze feels like it’s stripping away layers of brain. “I won’t keep you,” she says, proving just how far she’s burned into his thoughts. “They’ll be discharging James in the next hour or so, and I know you want to get to the hospital to drive him home. But...I think that we should talk at some point.”
Her voice is still light, but her expression isn’t. It’s still and determined.
“Laura, what’s going on?”
“We can talk later,” she says. “You go.”
And that’s the moment he knows it’s not him. He’s not confused. Something really is going on here. “No. You’ve got something to say. Better to say it now.”
She closes her eyes and blows out a breath. Stares down at the floor for a moment. “I just...want us both to be happy, Robbie.”
The floor is cold under his bare feet, and the heating hasn’t compensated for the cold air that rushed in when he opened the door. But it’s not cold that makes the skin across his shoulders quiver. It’s how close what she’s just said is to what Val said. Or what he imagined Val said. Be happy.
He’s so shocked, he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what she means. Or how she would know to say that. It’s confusing, at best. More madness, at worst. There’s too much madness right now. He shakes his head as if the movement will clear it.
Laura pushes herself off the wall and comes over, stretches up on tiptoe and kisses his cheek. It feels like goodbye.
Without a word, she returns to the door. She pauses, hand on the doorknob. “I love you, Robbie. I always will. I want the best for you. For both of us. And I think what would be best for us right now is to go back to the way things were. Stop the...friends with benefits stuff. I think you have some things to work out, and I think you need the space to do that.”
As she opens the door, another rush of cold air slices through the foyer. Through his gut. “What things?”
She pauses on the threshold and looks back at him. Almost pitying. “The fact that you either have no clue at this point, or that you have a clue, but you’re not willing to talk to me about it, are the best two reasons I can think of for why we should be just friends right now.”
She waits there, cold air eddying past her, as he thinks about it.
He rolls the bottom edge of the coffee cup across the tips of his fingers, watching the liquid slosh back and forth. Like the river moved last night, rolling and washing back and forth. Swirling him about, the way his emotions are swirling him about now.
And it hits him, like the shock of diving into freezing water. What she’s trying to say without saying it. What Val said last night. His last thought as he fell asleep last night. The first thought that crossed his mind when he woke this morning. The first thought that’s on his mind every morning.
His breath catches in his throat. Surprise and disbelief rush through him like rain water over a weir.
Laura’s watching him through her lashes, and her expression is a bit sad, but she smiles as she says, “It looks like the cards were right about a change in my love life. I wonder what they would have predicted for you.”
When Robbie gets to the hospital, James is ready and waiting for him in his hospital room.
He’s dressed for the office, in his usual skinny black suit and white shirt, and, at odds with the work clothes, beat-up white trainers. His shirt is open at the throat and his tie is stuffed into a pocket of the jacket, ends dangling down his hip. He’s standing at the window, leaning against the frame, staring out. The early morning light casts a golden aura around his blond head and sparkles of light glance off his shoulders.
There’s something almost angelic about it, despite the discordant note of the trainers, and Robbie stops just inside the door and stares.
James turns just his long neck and looks at him and smiles. And his expression is so...calm. So soothing. It’s so...unlike James. There’s none of the closed-off shuttering of his bluegreen eyes, none of the wry sarcasm hovering around his mouth, none of the slouching yet jumpy posture. He’s standing so straight and tall, despite the lean, and his body language is so loose. He’s so...serene.
And then James grimaces and all that angelic aura disappears. “Please tell me you brought cigarettes. Lizzie brought my spare clothes from the office...” He waves a hand to indicate his clothing. “...but she didn’t think about cigarettes.”
Robbie grins, relieved. There’s the normal that was missing. The normal he needed.
Robbie feels like he’s itching inside, he wants so badly to talk to James about last night. And his revelation this morning. And at the same time, he doesn’t want to. Because he has no clue what to say. Where to start. It’s a relief to just be normal and to be able to put it all off for a while longer.
He holds the door open, indicating that James should precede him out. “I’m afraid all you’ve got here is me and the car keys, lad. But I’d be surprised if there’s not a couple of smokes stashed in me car.”
James’s face brightens, and he heads down the hospital corridor.
Robbie has to hurry to catch up with him.
Since the last time they were caught out in the countryside, no pub or shop for miles, and James ran out of cigarettes, he’s taken to stashing the last couple of cigarettes in a pack in his and Robbie’s cars. And probably Lizzie’s now, too. Just in case of emergency. The last time Robbie counted, there were seven cigarettes, in four carefully folded and creased packs, secreted in different areas of his car.
Sure enough, there are two cigarettes in a crumpled pack in the glove compartment. James takes one back to the door of the hospital and bums a light off a visitor. Then returns, wreathed in smoke, and leans against the back of a heavy concrete bench near the car.
And Robbie, who’s wished and hinted for years for James to quit smoking, can’t seem to mind it this morning. Because it’s visible evidence that James’s lungs are working efficiently, taking in air and blowing smoke back out to feather away into the cold, bright sky.
Robbie leaves the nagging about the dangers of smoking for another day. Today, he simply settles his arse on the cold bonnet of the car and watches the strong rise and fall of James’s chest. “So, did they feed you in there? You want to get something to eat?”
James shakes his head. “I had something already. The morning shift nurse stood over me and made me eat a huge breakfast. You?”
Robbie shakes his head. “Innocent sent Laura to check on me, and she brought me a coffee. But I’m not hungry.”
James looks at him sideways. “Everything okay there?”
Robbie shrugs, surprised that James has picked up on something. A nuance in his tone or body language. Or maybe something he saw in Laura when she visited him earlier. Maybe she said something to him. “She thinks we should be just friends from now on.”
James tilts his head a bit, watches Robbie’s face carefully. “And what do you think?”
Robbie shrugs. It tugs at his heart, knowing that it’s ended for the second time. He regrets, as he did the first time, that he couldn’t be what Laura needed him to be. But at the same time, he knows it’s right. “I think it’s for the best.”
James nods. Scrutinizes Robbie’s expression once more and seems satisfied with what he sees. He blows the last puff of smoke up into the sky, slides down to scrub the butt of his cigarette out on the pavement, and then leans back precariously to drop it in the rubbish bin that's at the far end of the bench.
Robbie’s got the car started, heater blowing on high, by the time James folds himself into the passenger seat.
Before Robbie can even ask, James says, “I want to go back.”
“I want to see where everything happened last night. I can’t quite get it straight in my mind.”
Robbie shudders. It’s all as clear in his mind as anything could be. The cold. The fear. The black water. James limp and blue in his arms, not breathing. His relief at hearing that first grating cough. The other. The other stuff he’s still struggling to understand, to slot into some kind of order. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s all clear as glass. “James...that’s a long walk with you just out of the hospital. Maybe rest a day or two before...”
James turns partway in the seat and pins him with his gaze. In the bright light, his eyes are clear and blue, no hint of the green that’s normally present. “We both know I’m fine.”
Robbie heart gives a sharp, hard beat that’s almost painful and then settles to drumming like rain on a tin roof. He knows he should tell James to let it go for now, to rest. He should insist on taking him home. But he can’t. It’s selfish, but he can’t shove the memory of what happened away for another moment. “Tell me,” he says. “Tell me what you saw.”
“Let’s go back to the lock. I have to get it straight in my mind.” James voice is soft but firm, filled with that strange sense of calm that Robbie saw earlier.
Robbie knows that whether he takes him or not, James will go. He nods, shifts the car into gear, and pulls out.
It’s not exactly legal, but he drives them down the delivery road and parks at the gates of the pub. He waves his warrant card at the owner, who’s out in the garden cleaning up after the festival, and the man raises a hand in acknowledgment and turns back to his work.
The tents and stalls are still in place, but closed up. The strings of lights that cast such a glow over the festivities are turned off now. They’re no longer light, they’re sound. They move and sway, clicking against each other in the breeze. The white walls of the tents ruffle and ripple, ghostlike.
Robbie had put Tony’s hoodie in his car this morning, thinking he might see Lizzie at the hospital, and he insists that James put it on before they leave the car.
James pulls the hood of the jacket up over his head, and Robbie can’t see his face as they walk through the Farmhouse grounds, through the trees towards the Thames, taking nearly the same path that he and Lizzie did last night.
James climbs over the fence, long legs swinging easily over the rails, then steadies Robbie as he climbs over. James’s hands are warm.
Robbie smiles, remembering Lizzie’s rolling, belly-flop method of going over the fence. He thinks how James would laugh if Robbie did that instead of hiking himself up and swinging first one leg, then the other, over.
As they turn and walk along the towpath towards the lock, James moves easily beside him, hands jammed into the pockets of the too-large hoodie, shoulders back and straight. His shoulder or elbow, alternately, brush against Robbie’s every few steps, and it feels so normal it makes Robbie’s throat tighten.
It’s a beautiful day. Bright and clear. Cold but not biting. And there’s a glow to the sky. Gold and pinkish. Not the reddish look of a storm coming, just a warm glow that’s reminiscent of the sky at sunset even though it’s barely midday.
As the lock, then the lock house and the footbridges come into view, Robbie takes a deep breath. His shoulders clench tighter the closer they get. It feels like his nerves are twisting and knotting, his lungs working harder just to draw air in.
James pushes the hoodie off his head. Stops to look around.
“Lizzie and I were behind you, about here,” Robbie points. “The suspect turned and went over the far footbridge. Lizzie turned here and went across. I followed you. There were a couple of constables further back, and they caught up with us just as you...” He pauses to swallow. “...fell. We were so far ahead that the others didn’t catch up until...later.”
James walks on, retracing his steps of the night before, leaving Robbie to trail behind. He can hear the water rushing over the weir as he crosses the paved picnic area beside the lock house. He can smell the river, and it makes him shudder.
On the wooden footbridge where James caught the suspect, someone has chained what looks like a fence gate over the wide break in the rail. It’s wrapped round and round with yellow caution tape.
Robbie shudders as he remembers the harsh sound of splintering, cracking wood, the loud splash as James went in.
James doesn’t venture out onto the bridge. He just stands at the end of it, looking down into the water for several minutes.
Robbie joins him and stares further out, at the river. Sunlight ripples on it, dancing and happy and golden. There’s nothing here, now, of the black coldness of the night. Of the bleak moonlight casting silver streaks across the water. Nothing here to tell him whether he dreamed or hallucinated.
He opens his mouth to ask James what happened, but he can’t quite frame the question. He can’t quite decide whether he wants answers to his unformed questions. Because what will he tell James? How can he ask without confessing something so daft that it’s unbelievable? And if James looks at him like he’s crazy, if he says nothing happened, then what is Robbie to think? That he hallucinated? That he’s gone soft in the mind? Or that James is lying?
And if James did see something... Robbie doesn’t know what to think about that either.
He turns and heads back towards the lock house. He’s surprised to see there are quite a few people about. Some copper he is. He was so focused on James and the water, so mired in his own thoughts, that he hasn’t noticed until now. Students, tourists with cameras, a couple of women jogging. A young couple, arms linked, the woman pushing an empty pushchair while the man carries a baby in his arms. A small boat in the river, moving away south.
There’s a small shop in one of the buildings nearby, and Robbie joins the queue for coffee. By the time he’s doctored it to his and James’s preferences, James has come back to join him.
James accepts the coffee with a nod of thanks and stands with his fingers wrapped around the cup, looking out over the river, in the direction Robbie thinks they would have first surfaced.
“I think that’s about where we came up,” Robbie offers, pointing. “In the dark and all, from out there, it felt...further away.”
James nods, as if he somehow already knows. He doesn’t seem troubled though. Just as if he’s looking, placing things in his mind.
Robbie touches his elbow and points towards the benches on the other side of the lock.
Without a word, James leads the way back over the footbridge and back down the towpath to a bench. It’s half hidden on one side by the overhanging branches of a willow, but open on the other so that warm sunlight spills across the painted wood.
Robbie sits beside him, and after a moment, James shifts closer. Not as close as they normally do, but close. Robbie knows the way they’ve always sat closer than normal to each other has raised a few eyebrows at the nick, but...it’s always felt natural to him.
And it feels natural now, sitting there with James at his side. Yet it feels unnatural, too, because his gut is churning and his mind won’t be still. And James feels somehow different. Not disturbingly so, but different. James, but not James. Unnaturally quiet and calm.
Robbie sits quietly, trying to be as calm and loose as James. And finds that he’s calming down in spite of the thoughts spilling, like water over the weir, through his mind.
Even with everything all brown and winter dormant, the scene around them is beautiful. The lock house with its carefully tended gardens, windows reflecting the cloudless sky. The water, calm and peaceful and reflective, too, despite the dark, cold depths lurking just underneath. The air is cold and clear, mildly scented with wood smoke from a nearby fireplace. The sky is bluer than blue, but it still has that odd, almost sunset glow to it at the edges, like a picture that’s been tinted.
Robbie drinks his coffee and breathes, slow and deep, and realises this is the most peaceful he’s felt in a long time. It gives him the courage to repeat his earlier question. “Tell me,” he says softly. “Tell me what happened. In the water, last night.”
James blinks. His gaze flits towards Robbie and then back to the water, then back to Robbie again. “It was like...everything you’ve read or seen on the telly about dying.”
His voice is calm, matter of fact, but when he says the word—dying—Robbie’s breath catches in his throat. His heart gives a quick, painful thump, and his fingers tighten down. He hears paper tear and crackle, feels drops of warm liquid on his fingers, and looks down to see he’s crushed the empty coffee cup. He puts the wadded cup aside, wipes his fingers on the leg of his trousers. Puts his hand down on the bench, between them.
It’s not what he was expecting, and it shames him. He’s been so caught up in thoughts of himself that he’s never stopped to wonder what might have happened to James. What all of it might have been like for him.
James sets his cup aside and puts his hand on the seat of the bench, too, close to Robbie’s. Then he continues on in that low, intense voice. “I was going towards a light, and it was... I don’t have the words. Wonderful is inadequate. It was all golden and silver and white. Bright, soft, clean white with silver and gold at the edges. I felt so peaceful. I could see my whole life spread out before me. And the parts that I got wrong, they didn’t hurt. They just...were. And the parts that I got right, they were the same way. Just...there. Like...lessons. Part of who I was. Who I am.”
“I’ve never felt so at peace.” James pauses, glances at Robbie, then away again, like he’s going some where far away in his thoughts. “I thought I knew how it felt to be at peace. When I first decided to become a priest, and I was so sure it was the path for me, I felt like that. Peaceful and calm and...whole. Like I’d found my place in life. It didn’t last, but I was at peace for a while. But compared to what I felt last night...that was nothing.”
James sighs, a slow, calm sound that draws air from deep in his chest. He looks up towards the blue and gold sky as if he can still that white light. His face is beatific. Transcendent.
Robbie takes a breath, unaware until he does that he’d been holding his breath. He shivers. He doesn’t know how to feel.
The way James looks, the emotion in his voice... It’s making Robbie want that peace, too. Making his chest feel loose and warm and his muscles lengthen and relax. But that’s not how he thinks he should feel. His mind is still echoing that word—dying—and he thinks he should be horrified.
James edges his hand closer to Robbie’s. And he turns that serene gaze on him. “And Valerie was there with me. Your Val.”
Robbie draws in a sharp breath. His heart starts up a clattering, ragged rhythm. Beating so hard, so fast, that he’s sure James can feel his pulse thrumming through the wood behind their backs. In his ears, though, there’s no thump of wood. It sounds like a kid banging a spoon on a tin pan.
Emotions swirl through Robbie, rushing like water. Love and fear and disbelief. Hope. Joy. Confusion. Because...how can it be? “I’d convinced meself it wasn’t real,” he says, halting and slow. “I thought...I hallucinated it.”
“It was real,” James assures him. He smiles, a little bit of his normal wry humour coming through. “Either that or we shared the same hallucination.”
“It’s all a whirl,” Robbie confesses. “I can’t believe it, me. But I can’t not believe it either. I felt her. She kissed me.”
And he remembers more than that. He remembers that through the taste of Val, there was the touch of James’s lips against his. The taste of James. He looks away from James for a moment, a hot flush rising up the back of his neck. He can feel spots of heat blooming on his cheeks like a clown’s painted-on make-up. “You kissed me.”
James smiles. A sweet, embarrassed smile. His face is pink, too. “Val kissed you. She said...”
Robbie feels like he’s clinging to the edge of the bench by just the tips of his fingers. Like he’s digging in with clawed fingers, the way he tried to dig into the stone river bank last night. “What?”
He’s still not sure he believes it. Even with James confirming that they both saw the same thing. But real or not, he wants to know what Val said. He’s hungry for her words, regardless.
James says softly, “She said that you wanted to kiss her goodbye, because you never got to do that. She wanted you to know you didn’t need to say goodbye. Because she’s always with you.”
Robbie shivers, and he shifts to where just the outside edge of his hand is pressed against the outside edge of James’s hand.
James returns the pressure with a brush of his little finger. “She said...” He pauses to lick his lips, obviously hesitating over what he’s about to say.
Robbie encourages him with a flick of his finger.
James nods and shifts. Bracing. “I didn’t want to come back.” He says it apologetically. “It was so peaceful there. But Val said it wasn’t your time. And if I stayed, then you would stay. She said I had to come back. For you.”
Robbie shivers as he remembers feeling the same thing. That he could stay there forever. He remembers the flood of warmth that Val had made blossom in him. “She told me the same thing. That I couldn’t stay with her because I had to come back for you.”
James smiles. “She’s crafty, your Val.”
Robbie smiles, too, and slips his hand up and over until he’s clasping James’s wrist. It’s awkward, but comforting. He searches with his middle finger until he can feel James’s pulse, thrumming steady and strong.
He stares at the lock house, carefully not looking at James. The light is changing, the lovely pinkish glow beginning to fade back to normal bright blue.
He knows he’s hiding his face for the next question because he’s afraid of the answer. A ‘no’ means he loses that sweet kiss from Val. ‘Yes’ will mean such a change in his perception of the world, and beyond, that he’s not sure how to process it. He hesitates so long, he begins to think he’s not going to ask. He’s just going to sit there, watching the changing light and feeling James’s life throbbing under his fingertip.
But, finally, he has to know. “Did we dream it? Or do you think...? Do you think it really happened?”
“It really happened.” James’s voice is firm, filled with certainty.
Robbie shivers again. “So...life-changing perception it is,” he murmurs, not quite aware he’s spoken aloud until James chuckles.
“But how do you know?” Robbie persists. “It’s not...sensible, is it? I don’t believe in ghosts, me. I mean, look around, man! How do I believe all that happened? In this bright daylight, how do I even believe any of it?” But even as he says it, he remembers the feel of Val in his arms. Her sweet voice in his head.
James shrugs. “I suppose you have to trust your own perceptions. Trust what you saw with your own eyes. So to speak,” he adds with a touch of humour in his voice.
Robbie clutches James’s wrist harder. “Was Val a ghost?”
“I think...she was a spirit. On the other side of the veil. And for just a moment, we breached the separation between life and death. We touched...a different plane of existence.
“There’s a quote by a Native American elder. It’s something like...” James wrinkles his forehead, trying to remember. “‘There is no death, only a change of worlds.’”
James is amazingly calm for someone who believes he breached the veil between life and death, visited a different plane. He’s serene, in fact. Has been, Robbie realises, since he opened his eyes last night in hospital. Maybe even before then. Maybe what Robbie saw as disorientation last night was James already accepting what he’d seen. James, already changed forever by that change in worlds.
James turns his hand, dislodging Robbie’s grip on his wrist. He brushes his fingers against Robbie’s. His touch stutters when he finds the plasters around two of Robbie’s fingertips. He lifts Robbie’s hand. Examines the plasters, the scrapes across Robbie’s knuckles. His reddened palm. He pushes Robbie’s cuff up and touches the bandage wrapped around his wrist.
James holds out his hand for Robbie’s other hand. Examines the scrapes and bruises on it.
Robbie sighs at the warmth of James’s fingers and flexes his fingers against the gentle touch.
James’s breath washes over Robbie’s hands as he says, “I think... Maybe...maybe Val’s closer to you this time of year. Maybe...the veil is thinner between the two of you.”
Robbie grips James’s hand. “But do you believe in that stuff? Life beyond and spirits and veils and a ‘change in worlds’?”
Again, James’s voice is certain. “I believe what I saw. I believe what I felt. And you felt her, too.” He repeats what he said earlier, “Is it any easier to believe we shared a hallucination?”
Robbie shakes his head. None of it’s easy to believe, except... Except he wants so badly to believe that Val came to him. Touched him. Told him she loved him. And maybe that’s part of the problem. He wants it so badly that part of him is holding back in reflex, urging caution. Because he knows, sometimes when a person wants something that much, they’ll believe anything blindly, just to make it true. But there’s the other side of the coin, too, like James said, in having to trust his own perceptions. In believing the evidence that’s right there, in his heart.
“Do you really think you died? Did I die?” He can’t stop his voice from going a little higher on the last word.
James lets Robbie’s hands go. Tilts his head as he considers it. Remembering. But that unnatural aura of calm doesn’t waver. It’s wreathed about James like the ribbons Robbie saw in the river.
“I’m not sure,” James says finally. “Before last night, I would have said that it seemed like there was a line between life and death. That there was dead or not dead. But last night...it felt more like a progression than stepping over a line. Like moving along a...” His voice falters.
Robbie says, “A ribbon?”
And James smiles and closes his eyes, remembering, forehead crinkling with concentration. “Yes, a ribbon. Like moving along a curving ribbon of mist and light. I know I was going. But you weren’t in the light ahead of me. You weren’t following. At least, not at first. But you were there. You were...outside it. Maybe...at the other end of the ribbon? That’s not right, exactly... But you were there. Just not in the light. Except, when Val said I had to go, I think you were moving closer.”
James open his eyes and turns his hand to catch Robbie’s fingers again. “But, Robbie, don’t you see? It doesn’t matter. Death and dying. None of it matters. Not now that we’ve seen what it’s like. What’s there to fear when it feels like that?”
Robbie huffs out another breath. He doesn’t know what to say to that. He didn’t see any of that silver and white and his life laid out before him. He didn’t slide along a misty ribbon. The only ribbons he saw felt like arms coming to smother him.
But he felt Val. And James. And he’d wanted to stay there with her, with them, no matter what it meant. He hadn’t been afraid of that, even if it meant dying. Even if it meant staying there, eternally cold and dark. Not so long as he felt that warmth within. The combination of Val and James in his arms. So maybe he does understand what James means.
“What’s there to fear, when you know Val is waiting for you?” James says softly.
The words settle around Robbie like a soft, warm blanket. The serenity that’s flowing off James eases through him. Light and bright and quiet. He hears Val saying, ‘You’re not alone.’ But he realises, he doesn’t really know whether she meant that it’s because she’s with him, or that it’s because James is with him. Maybe it’s both. All of Robbie’s tension slides out of him. He sighs.
James releases Robbie’s hand and laughs suddenly, bringing him out of his reverie. “The fortune teller at the festival, she only had time to draw one card for me. It was the Coffin card. It means a life change. Death and rebirth. A life-changing event.”
With a flash, Robbie remembers Laura telling him what her fortune had been. ‘Apparently, there’s going to be a big change in my love life. And someone close to me, a friend, is going to receive an important message.’ He remembers her saying—was it only this morning? It feels like a lifetime ago—‘I suppose the cards were right about my love life.’
“Laura’s said someone close to her was going to receive an important message. And that there was going to be a change in her love life.” That part gives him a little twinge of regret. But the other, the message from Val, he’ll never regret that. Maybe someday, he’ll tell Laura the cards were right about a friend receiving a message.
Robbie shakes his head. “And you said having your fortune told was doll's excrement.”
James grins and intones in a exaggerated, solemn voice, “‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.”
“Shakespeare?” Robbie says with pretend gruffness. “You’re quoting Shakespeare at me? Now?” But it makes him feel good to hear James quoting his quotes, even if there is a touch of the eerie in it, that last night Robbie was hearing James quote Shakespeare in his head, and this morning, here’s James doing it for real. But it feels wonderfully normal. Grounding, in a world that seems to have lost all sense of normality.
And, like most of James’s quotes, it’s wonderfully apt. Robbie’s breath catches in his throat. Hoping. Hoping so hard that he feel’s like his forehead is twisted with it. “You really saw her? You were there with her?”
“And she’s all right. She’s happy...” He hears Val’s parting whisper. ‘Be happy, love. Be happy.’
James shifts so that his shoulder is pressed against Robbie’s. James recaptures his hand and squeezes it. “It’s so much beyond happy that I can’t explain it to you. It’s beyond anything I have the words to describe.”
Robbie tilts his head down, holding back the tears that sting his eyes. It’s been a long time since he cried about Val, and the first time that his tears don’t feel like pain and desperation. And the first time since she died that missing her doesn’t feel like something sharp stabbing into his heart.
Because she’s there. Waiting for him. And she’s happy. And she’s here, in the bright beautiful morning, with him, too. If he just lets himself believe it, he can feel her. Watching over him, the way she was watching over him last night. And watching over James, too.
His James. And Val’s James now, too. Because Val saved him, as much as Robbie did.
James meets his gaze, and Robbie sees something in James’s expression. Hope and rightness. Except...it’s been there in James’s gaze all along, hasn’t it? For years. That expression of hope and belonging. Love. Val said that James loves him. Val said to be happy.
Robbie’s fingers tighten on James’s hand and before he can lose his courage, he asks, “Will you kiss me? For real this time?”
“It was real last time,” James says, his voice as smooth as still water, but he nods, his bluegreen eyes enormous and brilliant.
Robbie leans forward, tentative, and James puts his arm along the back of the bench.
Robbie presses his mouth to James’s for just a moment. Just a simple, careful touch, lips to lips.
James’s lips are warm, fiery compared to how icy cold they were in the river, and soft.
James makes a needy sound and leans into him, moving the kiss beyond just a quick brush of lips against lips. His hand comes up and cups Robbie’s head, just like Val did in the river, pulling him in tighter. James pulls back from the kiss and whispers, “I remember this from last night. When you were breathing into me. It was like I could taste you, all the way down into my lungs.”
James’s words are warm across his face. His fingers are warm, too. They send shivers across his scalp, down his neck into his back.
There’s the brief, cold, clean scent of James, hospital antiseptic and cigarette smoke, and then Robbie can smell Val. The flowery scent of her. It’s a soft breeze that whispers through him. A ribbon of pure white.
But this time, as James’s lips move against his again, he doesn’t taste her. He tastes only James. Sweet and minty and with a faint hint of cigarettes. He breathes in, trying to feel him the way James said, all the way down into his lungs.
And the way it makes him feel... So calm and peaceful, like coming home, yet alive and awake, his nerves sparking with that same shock as when he first went into the cold water. Like his heart is calm and happy, but his body is waking up. Waking up to the touch of James.
When Robbie pulls back, he feels as dazed as James looks. Warmed through.
He darts a glance around them, but there’s no one nearby. And the few people on the towpath aren’t paying them any attention.
He puts his hand on the side of James’s face. Slips his fingers down so that he could feel the thrumming pulse beneath James’s ear. Puts his other hand on James’s chest, so he can feel it rise and fall. So he can feel James’s heart, beating against his palm.
“Val said you love me.”
“Yes,” James says simply, quietly.
Just the one word, breathed in James’s incredible voice. And it turns Robbie’s whole world upside down. All over again.
James ducks his head shyly, peeks up at him through the fringe of blond lashes. “She said you love me, but you don’t know it yet.”
Robbie draws in a deep breath, lets it out. Under his hand, James’s chest mirrors the rise and fall. “Maybe I didn’t then.”
James’s face lights up like Robbie’s words have turned on a light inside him.
With a sense of wonder, Robbie says, “It can’t be this easy, can it?”
“You. Us. Turning me whole world upside down. It can’t be this easy.”
“Easy?” James huffs laughter across his face. “Val’s spirit visited us at the bottom of the Thames. I almost drowned. You almost died. You call that easy?”
Robbie shudders and leans in to kiss him again. And the same way he’d felt in the river—that he could hang there in the cold and wet and kiss Val forever—he feels now with James. That he could sit there on the bench, in the cold December air, and kiss James forever, tasting his sweetness and the serenity that flows off him.
When he pulls away, James’s face is luminous, still dazed. And so serenely happy. James’s hand comes up to press in the centre of Robbie’s chest, palm to his heart. James leans his forehead against Robbie’s and says softly, with a hint of irony, “But, then, some things are worth dying for.”
And Robbie’s sure he hears Val’s laughter in his head.