The drab walls of the interrogation room have always felt like home. Here John can transform himself into anything – a sympathetic listener, a vengeful God, an all-seeing genius, a vacuum of emptiness. He uses the whole space and owns it – pacing behind the suspect, turning his back on her, manipulating the walls and the very air molecules in his search for justice.
“From this side of the table it looks like there were two people who could incriminate you.”
John registers George’s words rubbing salt in the wound, but all he can feel is the rock crushing his throat, the tears hot behind his eyes. This time, there’s nothing left to transform, no persona to inhabit, no space left to own. There’s nothing left but four drab walls, a cheap chair and John’s head in his hands.
“Yesterday a few hours before he shot and killed Justin Ripley,” Erin’s voice spikes on Justin’s name, and that’s not right is it? “… you spoke for some time to Mr Marwood.” What gives her the right to say his name like that? Because you pressed your lips to his in an effort to convince me he was yours? “Your report notes that during this conversation Tom Marwood asked for more time. Give me two days. And then you let him go. Which makes me wonder what was the quid pro quo.”
“Shut your mouth.” The words burst out of him. He has never been yours. And John certainly won’t let Erin use him now, in the end, as nothing more than a tool for her vendetta.
Their senseless prattle meant to intimidate and infuriate isn’t stopping. “In exchange he does you a favour and cleans up your mess.”
John pounds the table, meets George’s eye for the first time. Justin is not their tool, Justin is …
How can John form into coherent sounds Justin’s brilliance, his bravery, his vulnerability, his eagerness, his loyalty to John and to the cause, to something bigger than anyone in this room? How can John force into words – which are nothing more than flimsy, worn-thin bits of noise – everything that happened between himself and DS Justin Ripley?
“Wait. Hit me,” Justin said in a huffed exhale that still managed to sound sure, firm.
In the air between him and Justin, John tasted snow and his own desperation.
He’s had a lot of partners in his day. And a lot of partners he’s wanted – no, viscerally needed – to punch. Sometimes he had restrained himself.
This made Justin the first to ever actually ask John to punch him and the first who John really had no desire to hit.
“You’ve got to make it look right.”
John tightened his fist and snapped his arm forward, not pulling the punch. He connected with Justin’s tense body and Justin doubled forward.
John didn’t have space for any more regrets. He moved away from him and snatched the gun from the glove box, ignoring Schenk’s babble.
The snow fell thick as he and Alice drove into the night.
“Quite the loyal one, isn’t he?” Alice could be reading the phone book and she would still sound smug. “Do you think he liked taking that beating from you?”
“One hit hardly defines a beating.” The gun – his gun – lay in his lap, and they had foiled Ian’s plot to frame him, for now. That was all that mattered. Not Justin’s taut body crumpling under John’s fist.
“What inspires his loyalty? Do you think there’s something else he’d like to take from you?”
“Alice …” She flashed him a triumphant smile, as if pulling that warning tone from him gave her the upper hand. Maybe it did.
“Something like a good, hard …”
“Alice,” he cut her off with a tone of voice that could stop serial murders in their tracks. But Alice wasn’t like other serial murders.
“Does he stay up at night wanking to the thought of you bending him over?”
“Shut your mouth. Just …” He sighed, deflated. “Please.”
For once, she actually listened to him. But that was the thing with words, wasn’t it? Once they were spoken, they couldn’t be unheard, could they? They couldn’t be dug out from your memory and tossed into the rubbish.
John turned from the witness he was interviewing to see a muscled, full-bearded white bloke shouldering his way through the crowd towards them.
Justin looked at him, eyes widening. “Boss, I’ve got to. Um excuse me. I’ve got to go talk to …”
“You know him?”
John pitched his voice low so the man wouldn’t hear them. “Think he’s a suspect?”
“Um. No, Guv, no. I …”
Justin’s eyes scanned the ground, not meeting his. “Boss, he’s my ex,” he muttered.
“Justin!” The man was well over six feet and broad shouldered, with a dark ginger beard framing his young face and a short-sleeved checkered shirt – top three buttons open to display wiry ginger fur. He looked like the designer gay man’s idea of a burly lumberjack. All he needed was the proper lighting, an axe, greenery, and he’d be ready for a photo shoot.
“Shit. Sorry about this, Sir.” In the dreary, wintery light of late-afternoon London, Justin’s face was taking on a decidedly rosy tone.
Oh. Several stray pieces with Justin’s name on it – jagged puzzle pieces that had been knocking up against each other in John’s brain with no way to make them lock together – morphed softly and interlocked into a high-definition image. And no, he absolutely wouldn’t think of Alice and her insinuations right now.
“Well, what are the chances? Justin, you’re working this case?” The man sidled up to them, speaking to Justin, but staring coolly at John.
John spun to face him, drew himself up, watched the man’s gaze narrow as he stared at John.
“You must be DCI John Luther, the man Justin sacrificed his job for.” The man surely thought his tone was easy, laid back. But John read the tension across his shoulders, the tightness under his eyes.
“I got it back for him, didn’t I?” John drawled, leaning back to rest against a wall behind him. “And who are you, again?”
Crossing his arms in front of his chest, the man’s biceps flexed. Two hours a day in the gym. Maybe four. “I’m Tom Sutton.” He raised an eyebrow, tauntingly. “Justin Ripley’s ex-fiancé.”
Justin’s jaw tensed, but he remained silent.
John returned the man’s intent stare. “You witnessed the shooting, Mr Sutton?”
The man nodded.
“See anything unusual? Notice the license plate on the van?”
“We’ll need your statement, anyway.”
“Look.” He jerked his thumb towards the street. “I really didn’t see anything. And I’ve got to go. I’m late for work. I’d appreciate if you could,” his eyes shifted to Justin, softening, “wrap this up for me quick.”
John shook his head. “I apologize about the wait, but if you could just join the line over there. Someone will take your statement. You’ll be free to go soon enough. Procedure, I’m sure you understand.”
John turned his back on him and refocused his attention on the woman he’d been speaking to. In John’s peripheral vision, Justin leaned into the burly lumberjack, indistinguishable muttered words floated between them, and then the man stalked off as Justin returned to the witness he’d been interviewing.
Ten minutes later, John nudged Justin’s shoulder. “Walk with me.”
Justin’s whole body tensed, and he stiffly fell in step beside him. “Boss?”
John dug his hands into his trouser pockets, exhaled and stared at the rush-hour traffic stuttering by them. “These witnesses are giving us a whole lot of nothing. No one saw a bloody thing.” He pinched at the ache between his eyebrows. “He’s too good. He’s too good.”
Justin nodded jerkily. There was too much tension in his stance, too much furrowing in his brow, too much tightness in his jaw that had nothing to do with the case. John shoulder-bumped him, colliding with him because maybe that would knock the tension out of him. “Hey …”
Justin’s eyes cut to his, vulnerable and blank.
There were things he should say. Like how could Justin be that big of an idiot to think this would be a problem for John? Like Justin could do a lot better than that muscle-bound gym-addicted blockhead. Taillights blurred by in his peripheral vision.
“You want me to make sure your burly ex-fiancé has to wait as long as possible?” John quirked an eyebrow.
Justin huffed a laughing exhale, and the tension seeped out of his face and shoulders. “Yeah, tell them to interview that arsehole last.”
“Let’s get out of here. Let the uniforms finish these useless interviews.” He called for Erin and the three of them marched to the car.
It was only later that night when Alice’s smug words came back to him. He absolutely did not go to bed wondering if she was right about Justin’s fantasies.
John was dreaming about a fast motorway speeding out of London, about Justin in the passenger seat, about the windows open and the city miles away.
His phone was ringing, vibrating against his thigh. He jerked up, only half awake, fumbled it from his pocket.
“Hey, John. I was wondering if you wanted to grab a drink,” Justin’s voice was ragged on the other end. John tried to make sense of the blurred white static in his brain.
“I … I didn’t wake you up, did I?” Justin asked.
John scrubbed a hand over his beard. He had been sleeping on the sofa, shoes still on.
“Yeah, but what of it, mate? Did you just get out of hospital?”
“I, uh, I didn’t go. The paramedics looked me over and it seemed enough. I … I didn’t really feel like going back to my flat, so I went for a drink.” He was speaking too fast, trip-starting over his words like a car lurching along on the last legs of its clutch. “And I’ve been here ever since. Just at the bar. And I just … I’m …” He laughed, the sound forced. “I was about to call my ex.”
“The lumberjack?” John stood and glanced around his flat through bleary eyes – a cooled cup of tea on the floor by the sofa, the bathroom light still on. If he squinted hard enough, he could see the clock: 2 a.m.
Justin laughed again, this time a real one. “Yeah, Tom, that one. And I thought I’d be better off calling you for someone to talk than Tom.”
“Right.” John rubbed at the ache in his temple and smiled. “So you called me because I’m one step above that overly posh burly ex-boyfriend of yours, who looks, by the way, like he uses all his brain cells to calculate the grams of protein in his morning shakes. Ta, mate.”
John tiptoed to the end of the hall and peered into his bedroom. Curled up tightly into herself, Jenny had commandeered his bed.
“Any time.” Justin was chuckling over the phone. “Yeah, well when you put it like that.” He stopped speaking, only blankness emanating from the phone. John pulled his mobile away from his ear, checking to see if the call was still connected. “Look …” Justin’s speech was lurching again. “I know I cuffed him myself, but I just need to hear it again before I … Oh fuck it. Never mind..”
Right. John plunked down on the couch again. “Yeah, mate. We really did put Cameron away. It’s over. It’s over for good, and I’m bloody proud of you.”
The city slept outside John’s window. Justin was silent. “Look, mate,” John said, scrubbing his hand over his chin’s days-old stubble. “I’ll meet you. Tell me where you’re at, and I’ll be right over.”
“No, you don’t have to. I’m fine. I’ll just head home now, and …. Really, I’m all right.”
John patted his couch, thought of Jenny hogging his bed. It’s not like he had anywhere to sleep at his own flat except the sofa that had already seemingly permanently repositioned the vertebrae in his neck.
“Trust me. I’ll come over. Tell me where you are.”
“I told them you were a big boy. Could take care of yourself.” John swiped at the condensation on his pint glass of lemonade.
John stared at his glass, not thinking of the broken sounds of Justin’s screams, not thinking of the words got your puppy that had pulled him from his bed at night in a cold sweat.
Justin’s glass was empty.
“You want another?”
Justin laughed, rubbed gingerly at his temples where smudges of dried blood still lingered along his hairline. He hadn’t even cleaned up since the accident. “Is this the DCI John Luther Post-Traumatic Event Triage Procedure?”
John forced a smile and signalled the bartender. “Maybe.”
“Because I believe standard police protocol post-kidnapping states that I go to hospital. Or at least go home and sleep.” Justin’s shoulders slumped.
“Yeah. But protocol seemed liked it wasn’t working for you.” John paused, swallowed, drummed on the damp coaster. “It never worked much for me when I was in this situation either.”
Justin looked up sharply, eyes wide and silent. Before either could say more, the bartender approached to loom over them. Justin nodded for a fresh pint and John ordered a coffee. Silence settled between them, underscored by the clink of glasses and the soft whine of the bar’s neon sign.
After the bartender had brought their drinks and retreated, Justin spoke, under his breath as if he did not want the words to travel beyond the few feet separating them. “You’ve been … you were …?”
“Sixteen years on the force,” John interrupted him, gulping at his coffee – lukewarm, burnt – without looking over at Justin. “A surprising number of us have been in hostage situations over the years. Sometimes as the hostage.” He pushed the coffee away.
“Oh God.” Justin’s whispered exhale rocked into John and he glanced up. “I … I …” With care, Justin settled his pint glass on its coaster and stood, breathing in and out slowly, audibly. “Sorry, I …” He dragged his hand through his hair, scattering loosened flakes of dried blood on the bar. He turned and sprinted for the loo.
John watched Justin’s hunched figure disappear into the loo and then gulped the last of the swill they were serving as coffee. No need to follow a man to the loo like a worried girl chasing after her sobbing friend on a hen night.
Justin’s cask ale sat untouched.
John ordered another coffee. There were times when it was good to think things through, and times when it wasn’t. He threw back the burnt-dishwater coffee, doing his best to throw it down his throat without tasting in the hopes that it would at least keep him upright and awake.
He ordered a third coffee and listened to the high drone of the bar’s sign.
When he finished the third coffee, John picked up the ale, set his jaw and made his way to the loo.
John shouldered open the door.
Someone’s – Justin’s – shaky, strangled inhales bounced off the walls. Except for one closed stall door, the toilets seemed empty.
“Justin?” John placed the warmed-over ale on a sink and knocked on the stall door. “Justin, let me in.” He rolled back his shoulders and imbued his voice with steadiness. It was the talking-the-jumper-off-the-ledge voice, the talking-down-the-gun-in-his-face voice. “It sounds like you’re having a panic attack. Come on, mate, let me in. I know what these things are like.”
After a beat of choked breathing, the stall door swung open. Sitting on the floor with his knees squeezed against his chest, Justin’s eyes were closed, leaking salt water at the edges. He thumped his head against the stall. Shit.
John stepped in and slid down to the tile, slotting himself into the cramped space across from Justin and banging the stall door shut so the latch swung and caught.
The tightness of the space, the dirtiness of the floor didn’t matter. “Justin, listen to me. Listen to my voice. Control your breathing right now. Just breathe in for a count of five. C’mon, mate, inhale with me.” Justin shook his head, lips biting into a tight line and shallow breaths skittering out of his nose.
“Boss …” His voice came out strangled and high. “I’m okay. Just … leave me alone … honestly.”
“Justin, mate, you are not okay. Now stop being embarrassed, shut the hell up and look at me.”
Justin shook his head. Eyes firmly remaining closed.
“DS Ripley, look at me. That’s a direct order.”
Justin nodded, biting his lip so hard it turned white, and opened his eyes.
“Listen to me, what you’re going through is completely normal, mate. You’re having a panic attack. You’re not even twelve hours out of a hostage situation. This is completely normal. Now, I need you to breathe with me. Nice and slow, from the stomach, okay?”
Justin had latched onto John’s gaze. Red-rimmed, slate-green eyes unblinking. Justin nodded.
John counted aloud to five, and Justin gulped in air unevenly. “Good, now exhale.”
Justin’s red-eyed gaze hung onto his, and John returned it, never looking away as he counted slowly over and over until Justin’s chest rose and fell in time with his words.
Still staring straight through Justin, John pushed himself up into a crouch and leaned forward to clap him on the shoulder. “Good man.”
Justin closed his eyes, breaking the contact between them. “Sorry, Boss,” he whispered.
“Nothing to be sorry for. You wouldn’t be a cop if you hadn’t been through several panic attacks. C’mon. Rule number two states that when drinking doesn’t work, the cure is to go home, shower away the remnants of the scene, and sleep.”
“How would you know? I’ve never seen you drink.”
“Right. Never seen me. Doesn’t mean I didn’t. Now, up you go.”
“Right.” Justin opened his eyes, but didn’t look at John. “I’ll just be getting along then.” He pushed himself to standing, nearly sending John sprawling on his arse in his rush to break their closeness.
John scrambled to stand, suddenly all too aware of the tightness of the space they were sharing. “I forgot to mention that part of the rule is that you don’t go home alone.” He winced at the unintended sexual innuendo. Digging his hands into his pockets, he stepped out of the stall, Justin behind him.
“Do you have anyone you can call?” he asked softly. “Besides your lumberjack, that is.”
Leaning heavily against the sink, Justin met his eyes in the mirror and shook his head.
“Then it’s my duty as your superior officer to make sure you’re all right. I’ll take you home.”
“John, you don’t have to …”
“Shut up.” John jabbed his finger in the air towards Justin. “That’s not even an option. I’m taking you home.”
It didn’t surprise John that Justin owned a condo in some monstrous posh glass building. He’d bet money on Justin’s having saved his pittance of a copper salary and invested it in property or something. With that accent and that hunch in his shoulders, Justin didn’t come from money. But he was smart, assiduously so.
John unbuckled himself and threw open the driver’s side door before Justin could voice another useless protest.
Justin met his eyes over the car’s bonnet and swallowed whatever protest perched on his tongue. He nodded curtly as he gestured toward his building. “Shall we begin with phase two of the John Luther Post-Kidnapping Triage Program?”
John smiled and spread his hands. “It’s a tried and true method.”
They rode the elevator up to twenty-fifth floor without saying a word. In the elevator’s bright light that was doing its best to defy the post-midnight hour, in its smooth mirrored walls, the chafed raw circle adorning Justin’s neck just below his Adam’s apple stood out like a brand. John closed his eyes, unable to shut down his mind from judging how many times the thick noose had been wrapped around Justin’s neck (once), from calculating the thickness of the rope (1 1/4 inch).
“Right, so.” Justin rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and didn’t meet John’s eyes. They were standing in Justin’s flat, the living room dominated by the sparkling city beyond two tall, wide windows that substituted for walls.
The flat reflected its owner. Tasteful, smooth, practical – everything exactly where an interior decorator would have placed it for a magazine photo shoot from the chrome kettle (that Jenny would have classified as “righteous”) to the sleek black leather couch. Like everything about Justin, it was both a perfect cover-up and yet, when one stared long enough, a vulnerable honesty.
“Right. Why don’t I make us some tea and you take that shower?”
“Yeah.” Justin gestured toward the kitchen bar in the corner of the living room. “Tea’s in the cupboard above the sink.”
“Ta. That’ll do.”
John set the kettle on. He blinked back the weariness that had been hounding him all night, all week.
A long time passed before Justin emerged from the shower, a towel knotted over his hips. Fresh bruises covered his chest. John strode over to him, mug out, doing his best not to stare. “Drink up, and let me take a look at those wounds.”
Justin took the proffered drink and backed up. “No, Boss, they’re okay. The worst of it was …” He gestured towards his face.
“The worst of it was the thick noose around your neck,” John supplied. “The worst of it was scrambling for purchase on the floor. The worst of it was feeling the life being squeezed out of you through your throat and worrying your windpipe would collapse.”
Justin inhaled sharply and nodded.
Fuck. John was utter shite at this.
Justin sipped the tea half-heartedly and deposited the mug on the coffee table. “I’ll just … what was the last phase of the plan? Sleep?”
John closed the space between them, clapped him on the arm, slick from the shower, muscle firm under his fingers. What was he doing here? “Yup, mate. Sleep it off.”
“Okay, then.” Justin’s eyes darted to the main entrance to his flat, the muscles in his shoulders tensed, ready for a fight. He was still too pale. Too skittish to sleep.
“Look, mind if I crash here?” John asked with the most casual tone he could muster. “I’m too beat to be driving home at arse o’clock in the morning.”
John was still hanging onto his bare arm. He squeezed and let go, retreated to what he hoped was a safe distance. “I’ll just kip on the sofa. Okay?”
Justin narrowed his eyes, but he nodded. “Yeah. Make yourself at home. I’ll just …” He left the living room, returned with a blanket and pillow, gave John a militarily precise nod and retreated into the bedroom.
He didn’t close the door.
After listening to him rustling around in the bedroom for a few minutes, John stripped off his shirt, tie and vest and went to the bathroom to wash up.
Dawn was seeping dishwater grey light into the living room when John woke to what he’d been listening for all night – belaboured panting and a low animalistic whine.
Tossing aside the blanket, he stood from his second cramped sofa of the night and paced into Justin’s room. Sheets tangled at his hips, Justin’s naked torso was covered in a light sheen of sweat. Arm thrown over his eyes, he was struggling for breath, whimpering and stuttering in his sleep. “Don’t don’t don’t don’t.”
John perched on the side of the bed and hesitated only a moment before cupping both shoulders and applying pressure. “Justin, wake up. It’s only a dream.”
Under his hands, Justin thrashed, and John wished he hadn’t blocked out the PTSD group therapy they’d made him go to after Zoe had died and Alice had shot Ian. Maybe if he’d listened to what they’d told him, he’d have some fucking clue what to do.
Justin threw all his muscle against John’s grip, surged over, and nearly knocked him off the bed.
“Justin, mate, wake up!” Throwing a knee over the far side of his body, John braced over him, not sure if he was trying to hold him still or shake him harder.
“Don’t, don’t,” Justin screamed as he shot up, eyes opening, hands locking around John’s upper arms, legs crunching into John’s back, effectively pinning John in his lap.
“Justin, mate, it’s me. You’re okay. You were dreaming,” John spat out when Justin dragged in a ragged inhale.
In the growing greyness, Justin’s eyes met his, focused and awake.
“Good.” John nodded and loosened his grip on Justin’s shoulders, preparing to extricate himself. But Justin’s fingers bit deeper into his flesh and he tipped forward, planting his forehead against John’s, narrowing John’s world to the spaces where their bodies touched – foreheads, arms, John’s hips brushing against Justin’s lower abdominals.
His ragged breaths skittered across John’s lips, across the beard on his cheek.
“Shh. You’re safe. It was just a dream.”
Justin’s whole body shuddered, and John ran a palm over the clammy skin of Justin’s arm. Justin shuddered again, chest heaving harder now and John’s hand moved to his back, gently rubbing back and forth, building heat over the line of Justin’s spine. Justin bucked under his ministrations and collapsed against John’s chest, burying his face in the juncture of John’s throat and collarbone.
What the hell what John doing here, half-naked, cradling his traumatised friend? What had been his plan exactly, once he woke Justin up from the nightmares he knew would come? When Alice had been in his apartment earlier that evening, she’d dragged a tempting finger over his lips and brushed a kiss against his cheek. He’d felt like ice under her touch. Now he was acutely aware of the heat of his own skin, the sensation of Justin’s under his palm.
“I read old Latin grammar textbooks from school when I get nightmares,” John said evenly.
“Yeah?” Justin spoke into John’s skin. “That help?”
His stubble scratched, not unpleasantly. Crushed against John, his chest was damp with sweat, heavy and real.
“Yeah. It bores me to sleep.”
Justin shuddered, a half-laugh, half-sob, keeping his face against John’s chest.
Words, soft comforting sounds – all the noises John knew he should be making right now – stuck in his throat as Justin’s weight pressed against him, unfamiliar and comfortable. John rubbed his hand steadily over the bumps of Justin’s spine.
Muffled against John’s throat, a hoarse cry escaped Justin, and he began to shake harder, a dam breaking.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so fucking sorry,” he mumbled into John’s flesh, the hot breath of his words sinking under John’s skin.
“Mate, you have nothing to be sorry for.” John spoke softly into his ear, kneading at the muscles at the base of his neck, caressing the corded strength there.
He should pull back, put a breath of space between them. This was not the sort of thing coppers did for their partners. And yet. John had never seen Justin like this. Always so stoic – strong, observant, still. Now, he clung to John as though John’s body was the only thing keeping Justin from flying apart, broken into a million tear-stained parts. Mesmerised, John could not move away. And he couldn’t think about what any of that meant right now.
Justin leant back, tipped his face up to John’s. The intense hunger that suddenly lurked in his weary, reddened gaze sunk its teeth into John’s lungs and sucked the air out of him. Everything tightened inside him, and he held his breath, watching this lightning quick transformation in Justin’s eyes.
Alice was sharp and cold – like a jagged diamond he could easily cut himself on. Justin was shivering, pliable warm flesh under John’s fingertips.
“Okay, then I’m not sorry for this.” Justin leant forward and rubbed his stubbled cheek over John’s collarbone, marking a gentle scrape into John’s skin, sending John’s heart into double time. Suddenly, he didn’t dare breathe, didn’t dare move.
A readjustment in the angle had his chapped lips mouthing at John’s throat, sparking frissons of energy down the side of his torso.
This was … John’s mind struggled to catch up.
John needed to stop this. There was some term for this – when trauma made you want to fuck – post-traumatic something something. He needed to halt this before Justin did something he regretted. John’s hands lifted off Justin’s back and the words to stop him were forming in his mouth when Justin shifted down, scraped his stubble against John’s nipple and then bit it, carefully rolling it between teeth and tongue, sending all the blood in John’s body flooding south.
Unable to move, John swallowed his unformed words, his throat thick with bright hot want, something large, something that had become unfamiliar in the past years since Zoe’s death, something that Alice, with her cool fingers on his skin and her smooth lips on his cheek, couldn’t even stir up.
Justin tongued at the lines of John’s pectorals, planted a firm kiss at the centre of his sternum and then bit his other nipple. Pulling its hardness into the clench of his teeth, pressing his fingertips into the bones of John’s hips, Justin was becoming an unknown quantity sending shivers down John’s chest, causing John’s balls to tighten, his cock to throb with a slow ache.
His body’s reaction was muddling his brain; the late-early hour was muddling his senses. The delicate feel of Justin’s skin under his hands – after hours of Justin’s screams reverberating in his mind – was muddling his wants.
John closed his eyes, exhaled Justin’s name.
Justin didn’t move from where his mouth was laying claim to John’s nipple. “I said I’m not sorry,” he said, moving lower, speaking into the tight skin of John’s stomach. “Let’s switch positions. Your back against the headboard, and I’ll …” He swallowed and burrowed deeper, forming words against the side of John’s ribs. “I’ll suck you off.” Justin’s thick accent forming around the vowels of those filthy words corkscrewed everything tight inside John.
“Justin, I don’t think this is the best idea,” John said lamely. Justin bit at his ribs. John knew a bad decision when it was staring him in the face, even when it felt quicksilver hot in his veins like this, even when it felt like the relief he’d been waiting for.
And yet John lifted off Justin and rearranged himself so the cool metal rods of the headboard were pressing into his back, his erection tenting his trousers. Lifting out of the sheets, Justin was naked and hard and right there. His compact, freshly bruised body settled onto John’s lap – one knee on each side of him. But he was frowning, wasn’t looking at John. As all the blood rushed out of John’s brain, something tugged at his awareness. Something wasn’t right.
“Shit, Justin, you’re …” John wanted to place his palm over the angry marks on Justin’s chest and belly and will them away.
Moving quickly now, Justin pushed himself lower, his mouth, his hard body sliding against John’s, his erection pressing against his thigh, smearing pre-come down John’s trousers. That was a new sensation. John could only see his curly mess of brown hair, still damp from the shower. He fisted his hands at his side to keep himself from digging his fingers into that hair and tugging it towards his groin, aching now in its hardness. But he had to stop this now. Not just because letting your traumatised junior officer blow you was violating enough rules to have him sacked. Not only because of that. Not because of that at all, really. No, because something wasn’t right with Justin. He forced his awareness away from his own body.
“Justin.” He imbued his voice with all the self-control and soft command he could muster. “Justin, look at me. Why are you doing this? Why are you …”
Justin turned so his cheek was resting on John’s thigh and he was squinting up at him, the furrow of his brow shading his eyes. There was that look – that look John had seen on the first day he met him – hungry in its eagerness, vulnerable in its openness, so hard, so easy to hurt.
John took a deep breath. “Cameron didn’t do … Did he force you?”
Justin reared up on his forearms, his scowling face wide and pale in the growing grey light. “Is that what you think?” He spat out. “Is that what you think, Guv? Is that your professional opinion? That I’m coming onto you because I was raped?”
Somehow John’s hands had wrapped into Justin’s shoulders again. Whether to hold him back or to pull him closer, John wasn’t sure. John met Justin’s tense gaze, the dark slash of his eyebrows, the taut line of his frown. At least he was looking at him. John forced himself to relax, keep his voice soft. “Well, why don’t you tell me what he did? Why don’t you tell me what this is?”
Justin shook his head, trailing one hand down to lightly brush the back of his knuckles over John’s cock through the fabric of his trousers, sending shockwaves through him.
John shuddered and tried to back away from him. There was nowhere to go.
“No, tell me. Tell me or we don’t do this.”
Justin turned to stare at the heavy, unwelcoming morning dawning, the tendon in his jaw popping with tension. For a long moment, he said nothing. He sat back on his heels. “Okay.”
“We were in the sewer. He tied my hands. Put a rope around my neck and strung me up so I could only stand on tiptoes. He used brass knuckles to bruise my ribs, a Zippo to burn the skin above my wrists. Those were the screams you heard when he called. I’m sorry, Boss, I didn’t want to, but …”
“Physical reactions can’t be controlled.” John said, putting a lid on the urge to graze his knuckles over Justin’s cheekbone.
“Then there was the endless chatter, the whispers, the screaming, Cameron’s stupid fucking ego. All I could do was … keep my own head on straight. Try to get him to talk. But he finally shoved my head in a plastic bag and left me to suffocate.”
“That’s when you escaped?”
“I knew you would.” Not that it didn’t kill him not to go after Justin.
Justin looked down. “You said.”
“So what’s this then?” John gestured at the space closing between them. “The post-traumatic survival drive?”
“Maybe.” Justin paused. “Or maybe it’s just having something else. God, I just need to touch somebody else right now. Feel somebody, something else. Other thoughts, other sensations, images to fill my mind with.” Justin dropped his hands from John’s body and pressed his lips shut. “Fuck. I should have just called a fucking rent boy. You shouldn’t have come home with me. What the hell are you doing here, anyway, in my bed?” He sounded almost accusatory. “Anywhere else I can control …”
“But you don’t normally call rent boys, do you, Justin? Nah. You’re not the type. And right now, you wouldn’t feel up to trusting just any rent boy, isn’t that right? You couldn’t let just anybody into your flat.”
Justin swung around to point his finger in John’s face. “Don’t you pull your DCI John Luther shite on me.”
John shrugged. “You’re the one who rang me instead of your ex-boyfriend, so don’t tell me you weren’t thinking this.”
“Thinking yes, fantasizing yes. But welcome to another episode of Justin Ripley’s life. Fantasize about your very heterosexual boss, get pissed, go home alone, wank myself to sleep. I asked you to meet me in a pub, not come over and babysit me in bed … Fuck. I’m sorry.” His muscles bunched and he was moving to stand up, to leave the bed.
“Stay.” The word was out of his mouth before John could think about it.
Red was brushing up Justin’s cheeks and down his chest, and he was on his way to a full-body blush. Suddenly he had never looked so small, sitting naked on the bed. Not when John had picked him up on the corner, bloody and bruised, not when he’d been demoted.
A brittle silence encased them.
John reached out to chuck Justin under the chin. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here, either, mate.”
Justin’s face softened under the touch, and those clear dark eyes stared intently at John.
Everything inside John was throbbing, and his skin felt too tight for his body. Justin was – good – Justin was somebody who deserved to never look lost and unsure and small.
“Go on, then, mate.” He stretched his arms to their full length and folded his hands behind his head, trying to keep his voice steady, not letting the pins and needles under his skin tickle up his throat and out his mouth. “Take it. Take what you need, sensations, images, words. All of it. I’m not complaining.” It wasn’t the best idea John had ever had. Not the worst, either, though.
“Well, c’mon. Have you got it in you or what?” It was just the post-traumatic survival drive, right?
For a minute Justin just kept staring at him in the thin cold light, lips slightly parted, eyes unsure.
John dragged in a breath and tried to ignore the way his heart rate was ratcheting up, the way his whole body was vibrating like a taut bowstring.
Justin nodded, then. With a shaky exhale, he sagged forward, planting his lips on John’s sternum and holding there, only his chest moving in deep inhales.
“You smell like …”
“Like stale copper,” John huffed in a laugh.
“No,” Justin whispered, shifting down to brand kisses into John’s stomach. “Like sweat and curry and paperwork and risk and swagger … like living.”
John wanted to laugh at Justin’s words, but Justin glanced up, eyes sea-dark and wide open, and John found he couldn’t speak.
Justin made quick work of John’s belt and flies without even looking down.
Reaching out, John latched onto a curl, threaded his fingers into Justin’s hair, found it fine and soft.
“Yeah?” Justin whispered, maintaining eye contact.
“Yeah.” John scooted up his hips, let Justin strip down his trousers and pants, and then stood from the bed as Justin pulled them off and peeled off his socks. He rubbed a fingertip over John’s big toe.
“What, you got like a foot fetish or something?” John laughed. “Because that’s …”
“No.” Justin shook his head. “Just want to see all of you.”
God, how many times had John used that line himself, to girls in uni, back when he was just a gangly kid who thought himself a big player, back before Zoe had set him straight. And yet the words fell eager and clear out of Justin’s mouth, as if they were just the simple truth, as if there was no space left in the room for artifice between them.
His fingers skimmed up John’s legs, scratching lightly over the dark hair of his calves and thighs. “God, I love how big you are. All of you – it’s tall, powerful.” He gaze caressed John’s rigid cock and he smiled.
Then he climbed back onto the bed, sliding between John’s thighs, inhaling sharply as his erect cock pressed into the sheets. He nuzzled up the middle of John’s inner thigh, stubble sparking sensation over his skin. “If I could cover every inch of you with my tongue, with my lips, I would. I will. If you’ll let me.” He fit perfectly between John’s legs.
John would never have pegged Justin – whose words at work were efficient and steady – as talkative in bed, but it fit. It fit the honesty in his green-eyed stare. Justin never lied about who he was and what he wanted.
“But I think you need me to start here.” Justin licked the flat of his tongue up the underside of John’s cock, the wet pressure a relief, a godsend that had John biting back a shout, a moan, a plea. It was not nearly enough. John stared down between his legs at the strength in Justin’s shoulders.
Justin dipped his head and nipped at the skin of his balls, rolled one into his mouth and this time John couldn’t keep the noise in, a low moan spilled out of him at the tight, wet pressure of Justin’s tongue and lips. Slowly, too slowly, he released his mouthful and worked his way over John’s throbbing flesh, using his tongue and lips. John groaned. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had looked so closely, someone had tasted so thoroughly. Perhaps because there hadn’t been any someones in a long forever. There had only ever been Zoe. This careful, devoted attention – was that what sex was like with men? With other women? Or perhaps just with Justin?
His mind was spinning away, his focus narrowed to all the points of skin where Justin was touching, stroking, kissing him, stroking his tongue over his perineum and teasingly close to John’s arsehole in a sweet, torturous threat.
And then Justin’s mouth descended on his cock, engulfing him, and he was all John could feel. He coaxed and he sucked and he pulled the thoughts from John’s head, until there was nothing but hot, wet pressure around him, Justin before him, and sweet, scorching release hovering on the horizon. The moment stretched out like taffy.
And then much too soon, the moment spiralled thin and threatened to snap. “Justin, I’m gonna …”
Justin fisted the base of John’s cock, intensifying the pressure, moving it in time with his mouth, and John was flying, boneless, as his orgasm burst out of him, ricocheting in every pore of his skin.
Justin swallowed and looked up.
“Mate …” He ran his thumb over Justin’s swollen lips, wondered what he would taste like if John were to kiss him now.
Justin grinned at him, a lazy, self-satisfied one. He lifted his other hand to his face, licked between his fingers.
“Did you just?”
“Rub myself off on the sheets while sucking your brains out of your cock? Yeah. Get off on getting you off? Yeah. Eat my own come? Fuck yeah.”
John laughed, then, a giant, fulfilling thing starting in his belly.
Justin grinned back at him, his smile a touch crooked, and then rolled over and flopped onto his back next to John.
“So that happened.” Justin’s voice was rough around the edges.
“Yeah. It did.” John reached out and ruffled Justin’s hair, not wanting to look closer. If he didn’t leave right away, he’d fall right into the comfort of Justin’s bed; he’d give himself over to the temptation of sleep that had been teasing him all week. He stood and drew on his pants, picked up his trousers in the other hand.
Milky morning light filled the room. Dawn had come and gone. He squinted at the clock. 9:35 a.m. Jenny would be waking up, maybe wondering where he was, maybe nosing through his stuff, figuring out what she wanted to nick.
“I’m just going to …” John gestured towards the loo, towards the door, towards the street outside.
“Yeah, okay.” Justin blinked at him.
“Hey, mate, get some sleep. You need it.”
Justin smiled, eager eyes sleepy, but still giving too much away.
John dressed and let himself out.
“You’re in no state to drive, mate. I’ll take you home, come on.” Hand on the small of Justin’s back, John steered him toward the Volvo as the door behind them closed off the warm murmurs of the pub. The light from the streetlamp danced in the puddles on the pavement, and John pressed his gloved hand deeper into the thick fabric of Justin’s coat.
They hadn’t talked about it yet. That night. With Jenny at his flat, and a case keeping them up at all hours, John had barely had time to think about it.
Justin stalled out in front of the passenger door, turned so his back was against the car. “Look, aren’t I the one who’s supposed to take care of you?” He frowned, tilting his chin up – his familiar signal of defiance. “We can’t let this become a pattern, your taking care of me.”
“Turnaround’s fair play, mate.” John reached around him, gloved fingers brushing against his hip, refusing the impulse to curl there, as he had done the other night. “Get in the car, Justin. You’re three sheets to the wind and I’m not letting you drive. What’s the point in celebrating a closed case with your mates if you’re just going to kill yourself in an accident on the way home? That’d be a nice way to pay us all back.”
Justin sighed and got in the car.
They drove in silence, the wind of the dark, wakeful city murmuring against the car windows, John’s heart beating double time in his chest. Maybe now would be a good time to think about what he was doing, decide how he felt about the other night.
John’s car pulled up to Justin’s monochrome condo high-rise.
“Well.” Justin unbuckled his safety belt after two tries. “Ta.”
“Sure, mate.” He stared at the empty street. He thought of his tidily made bed. He thought of Jenny, with her brazen makeup that screamed how hard she was trying to be an adult. He thought of his framed picture of Zoe and how he could no longer quite recall the sighing way she had said his name or the feel of her hair between his fingers. He thought of Alice, the devil on his shoulder, whose first postcard had arrived yesterday. He thought of the scab in the centre of his hand that was finally healing.
He turned, watched Justin as he fumbled at the door handle. His brow furrowed in concentration, the late-night beard that darkened Justin’s chin (the scrape of it against John’s throat, over his chest), the fullness of his upper lip (surprisingly soft against John’s thigh). John cleared his throat. “I’m coming in with you, make sure you’re okay.”
“John.” Justin was looking at him, deep green eyes nearly black in the darkness of the car. “You don’t have to do this, you know.” He swallowed, looked away, no longer meeting John’s gaze. “We don’t have to … do this.” He gestured between them and all John could see was the strength in his large, square fingers. “Not because you feel guilty.”
John caught his fingers, trapped them against his chest to pull him in. His heart raced at the sensation of Justin’s trapped hand against his sternum. “Justin, when have you ever known me to do something – anything – out of guilt?”
Justin tilted towards him, the scent of that cask ale he drank bitter on his breath. “John Luther. You can tell yourself that lie, but you can’t tell me that.” The words came out on a rushed exhale. “Your guilt’s part of your uniform, just like that heavy wool coat you wear every day.”
John tugged him closer, close enough that he could see each sprout of stubble. With his free hand, he grazed his knuckles over the dark stubble on the underside of his bottom lip, wondered what it would feel like to kiss him, wondered why they hadn’t done that the other night, wondered why this man had stirred awake something in him that had lain dormant since Zoe had died, wondered why he couldn’t lay it back to sleep. “This isn’t guilt talking now, DS Justin Ripley.”
Justin’s eyes closed, and the ridge of his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.
John’s heart was beating hard and fast in his throat, and when he spoke, the words tasted like bullets. “You liked what we did the other night, yeah?”
Justin nodded – quickly, imperceptibly.
John stroked his knuckles upwards over his lips, tracing the divot over his top lip. “And I liked it, too. So, c’mon. I’m coming up with you.”
“John,” Justin untangled their hands, pulled back on a shuddering inhale and stared at his own lap. “You’re not gay. But I am.”
John wanted to kiss those frowning lips. He didn’t want to start worrying about what all this could mean, didn’t want to start worrying about why, after so many years of marriage and devotion to Zoe, the only thing that got him even remotely hard these days was thinking about his DS and his steady, eager gaze. “So? You want this, yeah? Everything you started the other night, you wanted, right? No coercion, no inappropriate abuses of power on my part, yeah?”
Justin’s frown tightened. “No, if anybody did the coercing, it was me.”
“Bollocks, and you know it.” John leaned forward to where Justin had retreated against the passenger door. A heartbeat away from a kiss, John hesitated, the heat of his own inexplicable want radiating through him. “Now stop thinking so much and invite me up, Justin.”
Justin nodded. “Okay. Okay.” He still didn’t look up. “Um, John, do you want to come up for a cuppa?”
“How original,” he said drily as he opened the door.
It was his day off. Through the peephole, John spotted Justin’s curly hair. Was Justin here to play? To keep blurring those lines between personal and professional? If Jenny’s presence wasn’t filling the whole flat, John would open the door wide. If Jenny’s presence wasn’t filling the whole flat, John would want to invite him in, put his hands all over Justin’s hard, naked body for the fourth or fifth time. If Jenny’s presence wasn’t filling the whole flat, John would want to smile. But it was.
And keeping Jenny from Justin would protect them both. In Justin’s eyes, John was a hero. Not a dirty cop. He cracked the door. If he had to turn him down now, he’d make it up to him later.
“Your phone was off.”
“Right, well, keep the phone on, all it does is ring.”
“The boss sent me, we’ve got a really weird one.” Not personal, then. Work.
“Alright, um. Just wait in the car and I’ll get changed.”
Justin’s eyes narrowed, and John could almost see him crumple. He inched closer to John. “Alright there? Why am I waiting in the car?”
John wanted to swing the door open invitingly. He shook his head and stepped back. “Two minutes. Two minutes.” He slammed the door in Justin’s face and refused to think about it. He’d make it up to him later.
Justin Ripley wore his stillness like a uniform, his movements efficient and minimal. But sometimes, late at night, when they’d been working long hours on a case, planted at a useless stake-out, or behind mountains of seemingly unconnected evidence, when the fluorescent office lights seemed to be staining the backs of their eyelids and sleep was a distant memory, Justin started to fiddle with his hair. He reached up to the softly jagged line of curls across his forehead and corkscrewed one around his pointer finger and then released it to pop back into place. Once, twice. John couldn’t stop watching the soft play of his hair.
Twice – only twice – they fucked at the office.
The first time, Justin had strode over to John, slid his fingers under John’s where they were clenched around the chair back. Forcibly, Justin unclenched them as he leaned forward and said in a low, solid voice. “Go to the loo. Go there and wait for me. Last stall on the end.”
The simplicity of his command arrested John’s muscles, stopped him from hurling the chair the length of the office.
Justin locked the door to the gents behind him – where had the man gotten the key – and opened his palms, meeting John’s eyes in the mirror. “C’mon. Stop scaring your reflection with your glare.” He tugged John into a stall and knelt in front of him.
Dispassionately he undid John’s belt and trousers, then he rocked back on his heels, shoved down his pants and begin to stroke John’s soft cock in long gentle movements.
John exhaled, looked up at the ceiling. This was twenty kind of risky.
Justin twisted his wrist at the top, grazed his thumb over the slit, and John went from zero to sixty in an embarrassingly quick span of less than three seconds, all the frenetic kinetic energy that had been dancing in his muscles and his fingertips splashed down to his groin, needy and hot. Justin leaned forward and licked a slow line up the underside of John’s cock, tonguing at the foreskin.
Justin brought his flushed red lips to hover just over the tip of John’s cock. “Go on, then.” His breath pooled around his cock, making John shudder. “Face fuck me.”
John ground his teeth together. Did this boy know what he was asking? Justin ripped John’s hands from his sides and placed them on either side of his head. “I said, face fuck me. Don’t think, don’t deny it. Don’t tell me you’d rather throw bloody chairs around the office and scare off DS Harter on her first day.”
John was a polite lover. A careful one. And yet. Justin was kneeling there, looking up at him like John’s cock down his throat was all he ever wanted. John’s hips bucked forward, his cock scraping against John’s teeth. He yelped and pulled back, pressing into the bathroom stall behind him. But Justin chased him with his mouth, lips covering his teeth, sinking down on John’s cock before pulling back, waiting for John to take over.
Groaning, John pushed forward, his cock sliding over Justin’s tongue and soft palate, into the smooth hot suction. No teeth, just a perfect fit. Justin stared up at him, clearly willing to do anything for him. John tipped his head back against the stall, closed his eyes, and fucked Justin’s mouth with everything twisted and forceful that lurked under his skin.
The second time, Justin only had to say one word to John after he hurled a telephone across the office: Don’t. Justin nodded toward the loo and the red fog creeping in at the edge of John’s vision cleared.
“You’re an idiot.”
John didn’t reply as the streetlight in the deserted council housing car park flickered above them.
Justin pressed the bandage into John’s upper arm with one hand, ripped tape off the roll with his teeth and slapped it onto John’s skin. “An utter and complete idiot.”
“Good thing I’ve got you here to sort me out, then.”
Justin did not respond. John focused on the blunt pressure of Justin’s palm pushing into the throbbing sting of his arm where the bullet had grazed him.
“That’s good. Ta, mate.” John shut his eyes just for a minute.
Justin ripped another piece of tape with his teeth. He closed the other side of the bandage and dropped the roll of tape into the first-aid kit resting on the bonnet.
“I told you not to go there. It’s a dead end.”
“Well, it didn’t turn out to be a dead end, after all, did it?”
John opened his eyes, quirked his head to watch Justin’s concentration lit from above by the tired streetlight, the divot between his brows as he smoothed the tape onto John’s skin. Dark stubble was crowding his mole; he’d missed a spot shaving around it. John reached up to cup his cheek, rubbed his thumb back and forth over the brown mole. He wanted to memorize the texture of his skin, missed stubble and all. Those chapped, full lips were squeezed together into a frown and Justin wasn’t meeting his eyes. He floated his fingers down, pressed his thumb over the fullness of Justin’s bottom lip.
“We need back-up,” Justin said, still not looking at John.
“We’ll be okay without.”
Justin didn’t respond, and John just kept staring at his face, at his lips. The throbbing in John’s arm faded under the onslaught of pure want coiling up his chest. Justin still wouldn’t look at him, but he stood perfectly still with his fingers on John’s bicep and his eyes downcast. They needed to get the extra chambers from the glovebox and drive across town, but all he could think about was that he hadn’t ever done it yet. Hadn’t kissed Justin. For lots of stupid reasons, for all the times he told himself that getting sucked off by a man was different from kissing one, for all the times he told himself that Zoe had been the last person he’d kissed and if he kissed someone else, he might forget the imprint of her lips. But suddenly those thoughts all felt watery thin, transparent, in the light of the flickering streetlight and the bullet graze in his arm and Justin’s face right there in front of his. All that mattered, all that held weight, deep in the pit of his stomach, was the thought that he could go back out there and could die without ever having felt the fullness of that bottom lip against his own.
His fingers dug into Justin’s jaw, holding him in place. John wanted to get this right. He tipped forward, angled in and pressed his lips against Justin’s. From one breath to the next, Justin reacted. First he was standing there, letting John tip their lips together, and then, silent and determined, his hands were clutching John’s shoulders, his mouth opening under John’s, hungry and demanding. He kissed him like he wanted to eat him alive. Justin pushed him against the car, crowded his hard body against John’s, sucked at his tongue, then pulled off to bite his lip, nip at his chin, tongue over his jawline. “You’re such a bloody idiot,” he whispered before biting down hard on John’s earlobe, breathing hot want down John’s spine.
John inched his head back and then yanked Justin’s mouth back to his own, unwilling to let his lips escape that soon. He’d waited so long to kiss them, he needed the feel of them seared into his memory. As Justin responded, opening his mouth and tongue and teeth to John’s exploration, he gentled, loosening his grip on John’s shoulders, sagging against him, breathing irregularly into John’s body. Pliant yet hard where his groin pushed insistently against John’s, Justin would let John open the car door and let John manhandle him into the back seat, would let him do anything to him he wanted. John groaned at that thought and pulled his head back, guiding Justin’s head to lean against his chest. “Alright,” his voice hoarser than it should be, “let’s reload these guns and get back there before I push you down on your knees right here.”
Justin choked back what sounded suspiciously like a whine and nodded, adjusting himself.
“Hey, Boss. That blonde has been eyeing you the whole second half.” Justin jerked with his thumb toward some women behind them.
John didn’t bother to look. “How is that my fault that she’s missing Arsenal’s brilliant victory?”
“Brilliant, right. Pure chance is what that is.” Justin downed the rest of his ale. “You could pull if you wanted.”
John dragged his eyes away from the telly to consider Justin’s profile, the rough-and-tumble flare in his nose, the stubble darkening his jaw.
“Pull? What are we, twenty?”
Eyes firmly fixed on the football match, Justin spoke in a low, steady voice. “She’s a looker, too. I mean, if you like that sort of thing. You should go chat her up.”
John sipped his lemonade. “That’s too much work. I’m happy right here with my mate, with a closed case, and an upcoming Arsenal win to crow over.”
“John,” Justin swung his gaze around to meet John’s. His lips firmed into a determined smile. “Look, I know, I know that this thing … between us. I know it’s not what you want. Or what you need.”
“How do you know what I want and need?”
“Say what you will. You’re meant for someone like Zoe, someone … a woman who will give you the normalcy you need.”
John raised an eyebrow and tilted closer. “What are you, my mum?”
“Look, John. I’m not fooling myself. I’m a grown man who can see this for what it is. I know there’s a reason we never go to yours.”
“And that reason is my avoidance of our superior officers, who would be more likely to pop round my place than yours. Also maybe the fact that my place is a bit of a fire hazard.”
“You can’t tell me that this …” Justin’s voice dropped, “thing we have, this thing that’s only furtive blow jobs in your car or at my flat – after which you never spend the night, I might add – is what you want.” He spoke without manipulation, just calm acceptance.
John angled his temple to rest on his fist and gave Justin his best deducing once-over. “You forgot to mention the necking sessions, the hand jobs, and the way you let me fuck you through the mattress last week. Of which I’m looking forward to a repeat performance.”
“Did you just use the word necking?”
“If it’s pity you want from me, you’re not going to get it, Justin. If you want this thing between us to stop, then just say so outright. Don’t try to foist me off on some leggy blonde you think I should pick up at a bar because of some convoluted ideas you have about normalcy.”
“No, I don’t want it to stop …” Justin sounded resigned. John didn’t like it.
“Good. Because I’ve tried normalcy. And all that got me was a wife who left me after twenty-one years because I was married to the job, not her.”
Justin laughed humourlessly and tapped his finger against his empty pint glass. “At least she stayed for twenty-one years. Tom left me two weeks before our wedding for the same reason.”
“She always complained I was never home at night.”
“He said I didn’t answer his calls fast enough.”
“Unable to make plans because there would always be a murderer to catch.”
“I forgot his birthday.”
“I was working on our twentieth anniversary and never made it home. Christ, I sometimes I went weeks without seeing her, except for when she was asleep.”
“I was late to meet his parents for the first time.”
John clapped him on the back. “Married to the work.”
“He left me right after … nah.”
“Go on, mate.”
“Right after I was demoted.”
“So he could handle a husband who was a detective, but not one who was just a copper.”
John paused a beat. “And not one who was as loyal to me as you are?”
Justin shrugged. “That’s what he said. The wedding had been his idea anyway. Look, Boss. She’s staring rather persistently. You’re sure you don’t want to go talk to her?”
“Justin, don’t. Just, don’t. She’s not what I want.”
Justin watched him intently, silent, lips parted.
“Because every single minute I’ve spent with you outside of work has been exactly what I wanted it to be, nothing more or less.” The confession escaped John’s mouth before he could catch it, not quite sure of what dark corner it had darted out from. “Can we just let it be that?”
John turned back to the game.
In the soft blue light leaking in from the city street, John watched Justin’s chest rise and fall. Lifting his hands, he grazed the backs of his knuckles over the sparse wiry hair on his torso. He had the compact build of a fighter, the ridges of purposeful muscle. In sleep, with his slackened mouth and smooth forehead, Justin looked … open. John stood and turned away, not thinking of the way the corners of Justin’s eyes crinkled in a smile when he knelt in front of him, holding John’s gaze, and swallowed him down with no finesse, no calculation, just enthusiasm enough to last them both.
John had no right to this. He told himself that every time he came here. Every time he drank in Justin’s worship like a plant after drought. He stood, yanked his clothes on, barely bothering to button his shirt, stuffing his tie into his pocket. He left.
Despite two showers – one at the station and one at Justin’s (Don’t even think of going home, John, you’re coming back to mine) – the gasoline smell haunted John’s nostrils. He wiped the fog off the mirror and stared at his reflection, the creases in his forehead, the deep bags under his eyes. Every month, his beard greyed more. Adrenaline gone, the rush of the bomb scene faded, he felt like a dead man walking.
“John?” Justin’s voice at the door.
Justin barrelled in, lips pressed into a hard line, eyes narrowed. He had barely said a word to John the whole ride back from the station.
“Okay, I’m going to say this once. You fucking idiot. What the fuck were you thinking?”
John smirked. “Worked, didn’t it?”
“I’m so mad I could punch you.” Justin paced closer; the fighter lurked under his skin.
“But you won’t.” John sagged back against the sink, deflated, dead man walking. He scrubbed a hand across his face. “I should …” He gestured towards the living room, wondering if he could even sleep.
“Did you even hear a word I said?” Justin was so close that John felt their height difference solidly, felt Justin’s body heat leaking against his chest, his neck craned up to glare at John. “I want an answer, I want to know …” With every word, his finger stabbed the air. “Give me a fucking answer. Tell me what the fuck you were thinking.”
John shrugged. “I wasn’t. That’s the secret of gambling. Don’t overthink it.”
“And you actually used real gasoline. Didn’t fake him out. You could have used water, you …” Justin’s chest puffed out. So much strength in such a compact form. John resisted the urge to yank him close, to end this without words. Somehow, he felt too tired even for that, for the hot surge of skin and the riptide of sensation that dragged him under every time he and Justin came together.
John shook his head. “No, it had to be real. I couldn’t risk him figuring out a cheat. I had to commit. His rules. His game. And my win.” He smirked, the dregs of adrenaline heating his veins at the reminder of his victory.
“There was a time when I would have thought what you’d done was brilliant.” Justin’s voice dropped, flat and low. “It wasn’t. It was stupid.”
“There was no other way without taking out innocents. You were there, you heard how the bomb squad works.”
“Don’t pretend this was just about protecting civilians. This was about the thrill of gambling with your life, wasn’t it?” Justin stepped closer, the linen of his shirt pressing into John’s damp chest. Round buttons rubbing into the sensitive flesh of his torso. “You can’t cover it anymore. Not with me. And all that bullshit about Russian roulette. Was that true?”
John thought of the drab mornings where the next best thing to a shot of coffee to get him out the door was the spin of the gun cylinder.
He needed to get away from Justin’s gaze that saw too much, that knew him too well.
John shoved Justin gently out of the way, shouldering past him.
“John.” His name on Justin’s lips felt like a slap to the back of the neck.
Flooded with a last surge of energy to move, to get out of Justin’s apartment, John flipped open the bag of clothes he’d grabbed from his work locker and dumped on the couch. Ignoring Justin’s silence from the bathroom doorway, he dressed. The charcoal palette, the coverage of trousers and shirt felt familiar, grounding. He didn’t bother with his tie or suit jacket.
As he dressed, Justin’s voice seeped through his motions, slowed him down. “You’re my work partner and I respect you. You’re brilliant and tough and you’ve taught me more than ten more masters degrees in forensic psychology could. Hell, I need you, John. But I also need to know you’re solid. That you’re not going to do anything reckless with your own life.” He paused. “Well, more reckless than usual.”
Not bothering with his top buttons, John slung his gym bag over his shoulder. He’d come back later for the gasoline-soaked clothing he’d left in Justin’s bathroom, or Justin could burn it for all he cared. “Well, then maybe you should find yourself a new partner, mate.” John didn’t look at him.
Dressed, he stared at the apartment door. “You’re the one who requested to work with me. This is how I work.” If he didn’t move now, his sludgy momentum would fade, and he’d be left defenceless to Justin’s questions. He nearly sprinted towards the door.
“John,” in two strides Justin had caught up with him. Still behind him, he wrapped his fingers around John’s bicep and rooted him in place. “I’m just asking you to tell me what’s going on. To tell me why you gambled with your life out there in a way I’ve never seen you do before. To tell me why you’re running off on unknown errands for hours at a time and coming back looking like you just buried your own grandmother. Tell me what’s going on with you. I think I have a right to know. I care.”
John wanted to punch him for that. Justin had no right not to stick to their script. The one where they didn’t talk about their feelings. He tensed, reached with his free hand not trapped by Justin for the door, felt the cool knob under his fingers but didn’t shake off Justin’s hold.
“Boss.” Justin spoke softly, the words hovering secretly between the two of them in his spacious apartment. “I’d take a bullet for you in a heartbeat. But I can’t help you if the bullet’s coming from your own gun.”
“Fuck off. I never asked for your help, did I?” John shrugged, but Justin’s fingers stayed firmly lodged in his bicep.
John swallowed and turned to face him, nearly had to look away again at the softness in Justin’s gaze, the worry in his brow. “You’re dumber than I thought if you’d take a bullet for me.”
Justin grimaced and leaned in. “I’m stubborn as a fucking bulldog, and I’d do it a thousand times over. Now tell me what’s going on with you.”
John looked at the city beyond Justin’s expansive windows, the hazy fog, the dreary outlines of buildings that never changed, just aged into drabness. He could leave, cut Justin off by yanking open the doorway.
And the next time they saw each other, he would act like nothing had happened, like Justin hadn’t gone off-script and John hadn’t fled with his tail between his legs.
But the city beyond the window looked cold and uninviting. And Justin was such a solid presence at his side, his fingers digging into John’s skin through his shirt, holding him in place. The sludge in his veins turned solid, rooted him there. Eyes fixed on the window, he spoke tonelessly. “I don’t know which way is up anymore.”
“That’s not the John Luther I know.” Justin’s fingertips ran over the stubble on John’s jaw, raising flickers of heat and sensation where his fingers traced patterns. “The John Luther I know lives in the fuzzy grey atmosphere of ambiguity because he’s got a hidden moral compass to navigate his way through it.”
John swallowed, not meeting his clear gaze. “I’m thinking I lost it in the fray, mate.”
“Nah. That moral compass shines bright as the fucking sun when you let people see it. It’s bigger and truer than anything I’ve seen.” Justin shook his head with a certainty so solid that John wanted to fall into it. Zoe had looked at him like that, too, back when he was starting out as a copper, and he came home to recount his day. Justin ventured another step closer, so his front was almost glued to John’s left shoulder, warm and compact against him. His fingers kept up the slip-slide of sensation over John’s jaw and he spoke into John’s shoulder. “Sometimes it may feel that way, but in the end, you’ll find yourself right-side-up again.”
“I think that hasn’t been true for a long time now.”
“I believe it is.”
“You don’t really know.”
John glanced away, felt the doorknob under his fingers. He swallowed, the past few days a hard lump in his throat, something he could barely breathe around, let alone speak around.
“You think I don’t know you’ve been up to something the past few days? You’ve trained me to be a better observer than that.”
“I’ve also trained you to not ask.”
“You’ve repeatedly refused to answer. Not the same as training me not to ask.” John still wasn’t looking back at Justin. The pressure against his left side was enough, not enough, too much.
“But John, I’m asking now. I’m asking not as your subordinate office. I’m asking as your …”
And that right there was the problem, wasn’t it? As his what? What were they to each other? Everything and nothing. Fuck buddies, work partners, secret lovers, friends, and some days antagonists. Lifeblood. An empty vacuum in space.
“I’m asking as your friend. If you’re messed up in something that’s making Russian roulette seem like a good idea, then you need to tell me.”
“I’ve been playing Russian roulette since Zoe died. That’s nothing new.” John shrugged. “Like I said, you don’t know.”
With a swift and unexpected shove, Justin rounded on him, backing him up against the door with his solid muscle. John’s gym bag clattered off his shoulder, landing with a thump. Tension slashed lines in Justin’s jaw and between his brows, but his words came out soft, startled. “What the hell, John?”
“And now I’ve got a teenage ex-porn star who’s been squatting at my flat, and she shot someone there. It’s a mess I’m not sure I was able to clean up.”
Justin nodded curtly, as if it John had just told him that the power was out at his place.
“Every time I turn the bloody corner there’s another pile of shit being thrown my way. I can’t dodge it anymore.”
Justin didn’t move a muscle, just stared up at him. “Tell me.”
And John did.
He puked it all up in cold, short words – Jenny, being at the beck and call of a lowlife madam, causing the fire alarm so he could hack the computer files, Jenny’s murdering Malcolm, the heady thrill of getting away with it all.
When finished, he swallowed around the newfound emptiness in his throat and met Justin’s eyes, waiting for his face to cloud over, to frown. Justin just stared back at him with the same clear-eyed, eager gaze he always wore. John closed his eyes so he didn’t have to see it fall from Justin’s face, crash to the ground.
He sagged against the door at his back, tipping his head away, letting it hold him up because his legs certainly couldn’t anymore. “I’m a dirty cop, yeah? So now you can stop thinking I’m some kind of hero.”
No response came and John’s drained, empty body threatened to crumple.
He groped for the doorknob behind him and began to count silently. If Justin didn’t say anything by the count of ten, then he would walk out. Let Justin report him, let him crash down John’s career like an opponent in the boxing ring.
Justin’s hands firmly grasped both of John’s shoulders, slid down his arms and around to his back.
Then his body leaned in, torso warmly pressing into John’s. He fit his head right under John’s jaw, stubble sandpapering against John’s exposed, unbuttoned chest.
He pressed closer, brought one hand around to rest over John’s heart and inhaled and exhaled, nuzzling closer to John’s bare skin.
The full-body embrace, the warm pressure of Justin’s body grounded him, rooted him to the spot. Keeping his eyes closed, he lifted his hands and locked onto Justin’s hip points, digging into the certainty of bone and flesh. Letting Justin’s stillness seep into him.
“John Luther.” Justin said John’s name on a soft exhale, a secret prayer, a belief tested and true, a northern star. “You amaze me.” He pressed his hand more firmly against John’s heart. “That moral compass is stronger than ever. Not lost. Never. It shines bright out of you.”
“But if I’m such a good man, why do I keep doing this with you?”
Justin’s lips reached up, brushed over John’s Adam’s apple. “Doing what with me?”
John swallowed and said it. “Using you.” He paused. “For sex.”
“Using me? That’s what you think this is?” The movement of his lips against John’s neck as he spoke lit up sparks under his skin. “That you’re just using me for sex? Taking advantage of my hero worship? Taking advantage of my homosexuality?”
“Mate, no one else will have me. But you … you deserve better than a washed-up, straight, dirty copper who …” Justin’s fingers on his lips stilled his mouth.
“There’s no one better for me than you,” Justin’s voice a low, husky whisper that John had to strain to hear. “I will take anything I can get from you, John. I will take any fucking touch from you and consider myself the luckiest fucking bastard on earth. Because I love you so fucking much and I know that even though you can’t love me back, I still get to have this.”
And John cracked wide open.
In one quick motion, he hoisted Justin up so his legs wrapped around John’s waist; he spun them, slamming Justin’s back into the door, fingers digging into the muscle and bone of Justin’s hips. In the same breath, he kissed him, erupting into Justin’s mouth like a homecoming. His cock flushed with heat inside his pants and trousers and he rubbed it against the answering hardness under Justin’s layers of clothing. It was hot and messy and just this side of not quite right.
Justin broke away from the kiss, tipped his head back, mouth just out of John’s reach as his heels jabbed into John’s tailbone, sending bruising hot energy into John’s tight balls. John undulated his hips harder; Justin’s breath stuttered over John’s face.
“No,” Justin panted. “Not just this. Not just rubbing off. Fuck me, John. Fuck me into tomorrow right here up against this door.”
The words sank into John’s body, making his vision hazy. Every muscle in his body tightened, longed to be over and around and inside Justin. He grunted and Justin gently shoved him off, bringing his legs to the ground.
Justin turned, leaned over the gym bag, yanked it open and upended it onto the floor. “Tell me you have condoms and lube in here, because I really don’t want to walk to the bathroom.”
John huffed out a laugh, looking at the spread of socks and underwear on the floor. “No, actually I don’t.” He reached for Justin’s flies, flicking them open and palming his hot cock through his pants.
Shaking, Justin slapped his hands away. “Don’t move. I’m going to the bathroom, I’ll be right back.”
He stepped away and John couldn’t. He couldn’t be alone with those thoughts for one more second. So, stripping his shirt and stepping out of his trousers, he followed Justin back to the damp bathroom. “I told you to stay there,” Justin said without looking back at him.
“This door will do fine, too,” John replied, slamming it behind them, closing them into this warm, tiny space. Justin pulled a bottle of lube and a condom from behind the mirror and slapped them into John’s hand with a smile.
“Alright, just hurry up.”
John dragged off his pants, rolled the condom on, rubbed his hot erection with the cool lube and closed his eyes against the spike of want that lanced through him as he watched the muscles in Justin’s back as he undressed.
And then they were standing there, naked, facing each other again here where it had started earlier that night.
“John.” His name in Justin’s mouth was a benediction. They reached for each other, John’s slippery fingers trailing over Justin’s arm as Justin twisted one leg around John’s hip, his full hardness sliding against John’s thigh. John reached for it, but Justin intertwined their fingers and reached around behind him, guiding John’s lubed hand against the crack of his arse. His face relaxed, the hard slash lines of his eyebrows sinking, and he inched their fingers together into his rough hole. John sagged forward, his cock hard with need, as his fingers slid into Justin’s tight heat and wiggled forward. Justin moaned and hitched his leg higher on John’s hip. This was what he needed. This was what he needed from Justin – everything.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Justin was chanting and John bent from the knees, picked him up with both arms, and slammed him against the door as he spread Justin’s cheeks and thrust inside him. Justin banged his head against the door behind him and wrapped the other leg around John’s waist. “Fuck,” he whispered, closing his eyes and suddenly quiet, so sudden that John worried that he’d hurt him.
“Justin?” John stilled, but Justin’s heels dug into his back. So he rocked into him in small increments, every thrust bringing their bodies closer and closer to flush, closer and closer to melting together.
Justin was everywhere around him and still it wasn’t enough.
“Say it again,” John panted into Justin’s mouth as John rocked into his body. “Say it.”
Justin didn’t blink, didn’t ask, he just opened those moss green eyes of his to pin John in place. “I love you. So fucking much,” he ground out, legs clenching more tightly around him. John sped up, pulling out and pistoning into him so hard he bet Justin could feel it in his throat. “I love you, John Luther, you fucking crazy genius.” And then his arse clenched John’s dick, he banged his head against the door behind him and howled out his orgasm. John followed, exploding into him, emptying everything he couldn’t say into him.
Slow and slippery, they disentangled from each other. “Hey,” Justin reached up to stroke over John’s stubble. He pushed a kiss into his lips, and John never wanted anything more in his life than to stay the night.
“I should,” John stepped back, looked for his pants on the floor. “I’ll just go, yeah?”
“Yeah, sure, John Luther,” Justin said softly. Like he didn’t believe a word John was saying.
The gym stank of ammonia, sweat and the fierce edge of competition. Grittier, steamier, warmer than John expected. He’d thought Justin would frequent one of those posh places with fancy weight machines, undersized female personal trainers, and cheesy slogans plastered across their walls in bright colours. At least that would match the personality his flat tried to exude.
But this, this was a fighter’s gym. The grunting heaving sounds of fists smacking flesh – peppered with cheers – pushed out into the entranceway. His own flesh warmed and he began to sweat under his jacket and tie. What a place to work out during a heatwave, barely a step above an illegal bare-knuckle boxing club. Interesting that Justin had shared this with him only recently. John had finally found the side of Justin that liked to get thoroughly dirty.
At the end of a narrow hallway, an attendant with a greased swath of hair stuck to his forehead pulled his stare away from the telly long enough to greet him.
“I’m looking for Justin Ripley?”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “He’s nearly done. You his new boyfriend?”
“Nah.” The word floats from John’s mouth without thought. “I’m picking him up to take him to work.”
The man grunted and jerked his head behind him. “Go on through. He’s just finishing up from the sounds of it.”
The gym was like any other boxing joint – over-bright fluorescent lighting, punching bags, mats, a stack of weights and a small ring to the side, circled by enthusiastic, sweaty spectators. Justin was nowhere to be spotted.
John folded his arms across his chest and prepared to wait.
“Use your legs, Ripley, for fuck’s sake!” The barked command came from the small circle of men in the back around the ring. John wandered over. At first, all he saw was a writhing mass of flesh – two bare-chested bodies grappling for dominance. Then the writing mass shifted, and Justin’s naked sweaty back reared up in front of him. John stepped closer. Knees locking the man below him in place, head tucked into the man’s belly, the muscles in Justin’s back flexed under his smooth sweaty skin as he grappled with the man between his thighs. John’s cock flooded with heat, and he had to look away momentarily. He knew the nakedness of that back, the fine play of muscles straining under skin, the backward arch of that neck in a shouted orgasm.
Come on, John. I’m not going to bloody break.
With the grace of a dancer but the brute force of a bull, Justin rolled to the side and his arms locked around his opponent’s throat. Hips close to the floor, legs scissored to hold himself in place, his face obscured his opponent’s, as he cradled him in a brutal embrace. John stepped closer, the damp stinking heat sinking into his skin, and he held his breath, watching Justin’s arms clinch the man below him. Feebly, the man’s hand tapped against Justin’s arm, and Justin rolled off onto his back, chest heaving.
The crowd of men gathered around the ring grunted and clapped as the two men stood and shook hands.
Justin descended from the platform, and John felt it the minute he spotted him. The swollen right side of his face quirked into a bruised-lip smile. He sauntered over to John. “I didn’t think you’d actually come pick me up here like you promised.”
“Hell, I’m never going to need to lift a finger again. From now on, you do all the tackling. Of unarmed criminals, that is. You’re bloody good.”
Justin grinned, the praise brightening the wattage of his glow. John wanted to lean in and soak up the energy of that grin with his own lips. He caught himself, checked the impulse to tip forward and taste Justin’s smile. In that moment, this man, this short fighter, quiet and lethal, was the most gorgeous thing John had ever seen. He was the gravity that grounded John, the force that propped him up.
Everything inside John clenched with the fierce need to yank Justin to him and not let him go. What did it matter that John had never had a relationship with a man before? What did it matter that Justin was his subordinate officer? What did it matter that John had been heterosexual up until the moment he had found himself half-naked in Justin’s bed? What did any of it matter when Justin – the one who’d seen the filthy underbelly of John’s cop work – looked at him like that, like he was whole? Like he was the centre of Justin’s world?
“What if I moved in with you?” The words blurted out of John before he could stop them.
The acidic odour of sweat curled between them as Justin’s eyes widened and he rocked back on his heels, creating space between their bodies.
“Is something wrong with your place? Got a biohazard in there you don’t want to clean up again?”
Now that the words – stupid and impetuous – were out there, John liked the sound of them. He resisted the urge to take them back.
“So you’re joking?”
Justin cocked an eyebrow, and his sea-green eyes scanned John’s face, as if he was looking for the key. “Well, if you’re not joking, then why don’t you start by spending the night for once?”
John shivered like a toxin was running through his blood, huffing a laugh to hide it, and his stupid idea shattered. “I guess I would have to do that, wouldn’t I?”
“That’s what I thought.” Justin said without judgment, mopping at the sweat on his brow and neck with a towel. “You’re a skittish half-tamed animal, you are, Boss. But you’re welcome to stay the night anytime you like.” He smiled, but its wattage had dimmed. “Gimme five minutes to shower, and I’ll be ready to go with you, yeah?”
Alice sent the first postcard from Albuquerque, a sun-bright picture of red-brown mountains, a soaring sky and a plop of white buildings. “Wish you were here,” it said in neon-orange cursive lettering. The back was blank and unsigned.
The second was a close-up of some critter – the small print on the flip side said it was a prairie dog – standing on its hind legs, beady eyes squinting at the camera. Printed on the back in small block letters: “Bored of London yet?”
Three made a collection – a stretch of highway pointing towards red-brown mountains. “Have they sucked you completely dry by now? Ready to start living already?”
He was considering possible titles for his collection – Love Notes from a Psychopath, Postcards from the Edge, Devil on My Shoulder – and tapping one against his palm when his phone rang.
“Justin, give me good news.”
“The fingerprint on the gun’s not a match, Guv.”
“Shit.” John hurled the postcard across the room. “Of course it wouldn’t be that easy, would it?”
“We’ve got nothing to hold him on, so we have to let him go.”
“Not a bloody shred of evidence without that fingerprint match.” John pinched the spike of pain between his brows. “Right. I’m coming back in there. We’ll comb through the evidence again, see if we can find something new by morning. There’s something we’re not seeing.”
“So you can go all David Bowie and make a mess of the station floor?” Justin laughed. “Nah, mate. You haven’t slept in … what sixty hours?”
John squinted at his watch. “What are you, my mum?”
“You’re just a few hours away from being eligible for having a shrink declare you mentally insane should you commit manslaughter now.”
“Right. I’ll keep that under advisement.” John reached for his suit jacket.
“No, mate … John. We got this. Stay home. That giant brain of yours is no use to us functioning at 20 per cent.”
“John,” Justin’s voice choked on his name. “We’ll catch this guy, we will. You will. But what you need now is sleep. I’ll get the David Bowie mosaic started and you can come in first thing in the morning, see it with fresh eyes.”
John grunted agreement and hung up. Exhaustion weighed down his legs, stabbed at the muscles in his neck and lower back. Inexplicably he wanted Justin there with him now, tugging off his tie, flipping open his shirt buttons, smoothing his hands over his chest, following them with this mouth. John tossed his mobile at the couch to prevent himself from ringing Justin back, from doing something stupid, like inviting him over. To stay.
He picked up the postcard from Alice and placed it next to the seven others on the mantel. “Las Vegas is overstuffed with people pretending to be rich. What a bore. I’m trying to decide which one to marry so that I can be a merry widow. Join me?” Alice sought attention in flashy loud colours – in crimes that were, in her twisted mind, grand declarations of love. She wanted a playmate.
Justin didn’t seek his attention. He didn’t seek John’s love. He just handed him his own love. Again and again.
“This a picture of that lumberjack ex-fiancé of yours?” John bent down to pick the picture up from the cookbook it had slipped from. Justin was laughing so deep his dimples were catching light, and the ginger lumberjack was smiling, too, shoving his big red beard into Justin’s cheek, kissing him. Dressed in tuxes, behind them lights swirled and a crush of people were dancing in expensive clothing.
“Yeah.” Justin took the picture from John, didn’t even look at it. “I thought I’d thrown out all pictures of us. This was the day he proposed to me. At his sister’s wedding.”
John looked at the walls of Justin’s kitchen, the outline of the city visible beyond the window as Justin crossed the room, binned the picture and turned to face John again, gesturing at the cookbook open in John’s hand. “Should I find that carbonara recipe?”
“No, I …” John wished he saw those dimples more. He wished that he was the kind of guy who took Justin as his date to a wedding, that he was the kind of guy who got invited to other people’s weddings, whose life wasn’t just staring at four unadorned walls unable to sleep, trying to stay one step ahead of murderers, hiding Justin’s dimples under a secret he could never tell. But he knew better than anybody that wishing never got him anywhere. “‘I’m tired. I think I’ll just head home.”
Justin closed the distance between them, reached his arms around John’s waist, mouthed at his neck. “Fuck the food. Let me blow you.” He dropped to his knees and opened John’s flies.
The spin of police bulbs lit up Schenk’s restrained worry, the blur of choppers were scrambling what was left of his sleep-deprived thoughts, and the cruel London downpour was drilling the headache deeper into his brain.
Behind him, yet another explosion rippled through the warehouse and he glanced back, checked that Justin was still dragging Morton’s accomplice by the collar.
The last few steps to Schenk were more of a stumble than a walk, and he shoved Morton towards the waiting coppers. Despite his pounding head, John grinned at Schenk as they joked about police reports. He felt Justin’s presence at his shoulder and shoved his hands in his pockets so he didn’t pull him in for a kiss.
“Tomorrow, yeah?” He asked Schenk, pulling his mind back to the conversation.
“You alright?” His gestured towards Justin, refraining from pulling him into a hug, but just barely.
“I think he’s pushed some bone into me brain.”
“Excellent.” He clamped down on his shoulder as he walked away. Justin read his intent – don’t fall asleep, I’ll need you to buzz me in.
They didn’t talk much as they showered the rainwater off their bodies, as John braced one arm against the tiles over Justin’s head, trapping Justin against his body as he jacked him off slowly and watched the bulge and swallow of Justin’s Adam’s apple.
John re-dressed after the shower in his damp suit. If he didn’t make it home now, he’d crash into Justin’s bed, nuzzle against his neck, and fall asleep for a year. Which wouldn’t do.
“You’re not staying for longer?” Justin asked flatly.
John shook his head and buttoned up his damp shirt, not even sure why he had bothered showering.
“You want a cup of tea before you go?” Justin ran a hand through his wet curls, and John mentally catalogued his new bruises, over the ribs, in the soft juncture above his left knee, and down his right forearm.
Justin nodded, not responding. He gestured towards the flat’s front door and his words from a few weeks ago floated back to John as he slung his suit jacket over his shoulder. Well, if you’re not joking, then why don’t you start by spending the night for once?
“You know,” he paused at the door, turned to watch Justin watching him. Taking a deep breath, he let out the words that had been kicking around in his brain for weeks. “If you were a DCI, we could do this.”
“I don’t know what I like more, having you as a work partner or a … this,” he gestured between them. “But when you’re promoted, made a DCI, then you and I … it wouldn’t have to be secret. We’d be equals. We wouldn’t have to hide it from our superior officers. We’d stay colleagues of a sort, but not the way we are now. We’d both be assigned a new DS. The promotion would serve you well, too. When you’re ready for it.”
A smile dawned over Justin’s face, then, spreading all the way to the corners of his dimples.
“DCI John Luther, are you saying you want to one day ask me to go steady and get me a promotion?”
“Would you want it?” John asked, no bullshiting, his heart suddenly beating out of his chest.
“What? The promotion or you?”
“You could have both,” John said softly, not looking at him, suddenly not sure if he could handle that smile without dropping to his knees at Justin’s feet.
Justin sidled up to him. He pulled John’s head down for a kiss that skilfully mixed dirty with gentle.
“Think about it,” John said.
“I don’t have to, the answer is yes. That promotion’s what I’ve been dreaming of since I entered the force.”
“You idiot. I’ve always said I’ll take whatever I can get. If you’re saying I could have it all. I’ll grab for that with both hands,” Justin said softly, not meeting John’s eyes.
“You’re nearly ready for that promotion,” John said, “nearly.” He wondered what new DS they would saddle him with, what his day-in and day-out would feel like. Not sure he wanted to know.
Someone was fucking with John and it nagged at him like a bit of ragged food stuck in his teeth. To top it off, something was off with Justin. Flatly tacking questions onto John’s statements – questions that had nothing to do with processing this waste-of-time case and stopping the serial murderer they should actually be worrying about – he was acting like a worried rookie, like a copper clutching his textbooks. He also hadn’t touched John all morning – no accidental brushing of his hand against John’s thigh, no slapping on the back. He didn’t even move into John’s space as he usually did, standing shoulder to shoulder with him.
“You shouldn’t joke around like that, you know.”
“About fitting people up. One day the wrong people could be listening.” Justin’s voice was toneless.
John bit back a retort. “Who said I was joking?”
“Seriously, you shouldn’t joke.”
“What are you, my dad?”
“Alright I’ll get it to the lab.”
“How long’s that gonna take?”
“A half week.”
“Can’t you fast track it?” John squinted at Justin.
“Yeah, that is fast tracking it.”
Who had taken his partner and replaced him with this automaton? “Well, you do it, then.” He brushed his knuckles against Justin’s chest, felt him tense. “C’mon, do you want this cleared up quickly or not?”
They settled into the car right there in the drab estate housing car park. Justin’s brow wrinkled as he opened the computer and began clicking around on it. John drummed his fingers against his thigh. There was something he was missing about this case, some reason he’d been put on it that he wasn’t getting. And that wasn’t right, was it? Who was fucking with him? Who had he pissed off recently? No, that wasn’t the right place to start, was it? That list was miles long. So what was this case about? He drummed his fingers faster.
“Do you mind?” Justin didn’t look up from the laptop he was hacking into. “If you’ve got energy to burn or something, go do a lap around the building, walk it off. You’re ruining my concentration.”
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Everything was off about Justin today. John snaked a hand to his thigh and squeezed it, testing his reaction. “I can think of another way to burn off my energy. Give you a little incentive, too.”
Justin froze, the tendon in his jaw popped – the only movement in his suddenly still body. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His voice came out strained between clenched teeth, a dangerous monotone.
“Oh, really?” John inched his hand towards Justin’s flies, saw his hardening response. Justin’s eyes stayed fixed on the computer. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on with you, huh?”
John unbuttoned his flies and Justin yelped, but stayed immobile.
“Nothing’s going on with me, Boss.”
John tugged at his zipper, already distracted by the thought of what was under Justin’s trousers. Sometimes this worked for them, a quick hand job or blow job to clear both their heads, flush out the pipes, so to speak.
“You’re tense. Why?”
John ran his fingers over Justin’s length under the cotton, straining to be free from his pants.
Justin twitched and slammed the laptop shut. “Boss, don’t.”
John reached his fingers under the elastic of Justin’s underwear.
“I said, don’t!” Justin ground out, his voice laced with a high note of panic. “Fucking don’t.” His fingers encircled John’s wrist bruisingly tight. John’s elbow wrenched when Justin shoved John’s wrist away and against his own solar plexus. The force of it all rippled through John.
Straightening and holding himself away from John, Justin zipped up his flies and buttoned his trousers in a flurry of motion.
“Justin, what the hell?” John had never known Justin to refuse his touch.
He turned to look at John, but would not meet his eyes; his gaze locked firmly on John’s chest. “If you want me to do this quick, then stop distracting me.”
“A distraction might be just …”
“No really. Don’t. Get the fuck out of the car, John. Let me do my work.” Justin’s voice was cold enough to freeze water on a summer day.
John opened the door and huffed as he left the car. Now he really knew something was up, and that something was related to Justin. How did that connect with the case? He began to pace in the tired car park, the stale wind nipping at his back. Or did it not connect with the case? Was Justin trying to break things off with them? He hadn’t touched John all day. Was there someone else in his life? Was he afraid to tell John because he was his superior officer? What the hell? John paced and ignored Justin’s rapid typing, trying to organize in his mind the puzzle pieces that Justin had collapsed into today.
After some time, Justin called out to him. “I’m going as fast as I can.”
“Did I say anything?”
“You’re thinking it.” Justin had no idea what he was thinking right now. And it had nothing to do with the case. Or did it? Things weren’t adding up today.
“Well, I …”
His mobile rang. “Yeah?”
“I’ve been looking up your name.” Mary, the woman whose car he ran into today. She’d called to flirt.
Well, let Justin hear that, then. He strode away, but stayed within earshot.
Whatever DCI Erin Gray wanted John to think, there was no way she and Justin were involved. Because that deer-in-the-headlights stillness was not how Justin responded to kisses he wanted.
It had been one day. Just one, but a fucking long one. One day of over a foot of space between Justin and him. One day of everything misaligning like puzzle pieces warped by a rainstorm, pieces that used to slide together effortlessly.
John scrubbed his hands over his face. And now Erin Gray was mixed up in all of this. Just what he needed – the one copper who had a hard-on for dragging John’s name through the mud was fake-making out with Justin in not-so secret. He couldn’t … he couldn’t think about this right now. He inhaled, willing the office’s empty fluorescent lights to show him something about this serial killer he was missing. Justin he’d figure out later.
“Think I got a lead on Paul Barnaby.” Justin was standing next to him, speaking, but it was all wrong, too clipped, too reserved, his face a locked door.
Is this it? John had never really given much thought to how things were going to end between him and Justin. Mostly, fixating on getting through the week, on surviving the latest case, the latest threat kept the questions in his mind from getting too loud. But maybe this was it, maybe Justin wanted it over.
Fine. John rolled his shoulders, exhaled. “You follow up on it.”
Justin frowned at him, like he’d failed some secret exam, like John wasn’t the hero at Justin’s side. Well, the shine had to come off sometime. It was fine for Justin to learn the truth now. John would figure this all out later, he’d fix it all later. Or maybe not. Maybe he’d take that Mary out for coffee and try for something simple and uncomplicated, something that didn’t tie his stomach in knots.
“Did you warn him?” Justin is barrelling towards John. The fighter.
“Warn who about what?”
“Did you warn him?”
“Sorry, who are we talking about?” The phone was ringing on the other end, and if Dani Lane was home, then John could finally fucking solve this, stop this, so that he could sort out this thing between Justin and him.
“Yeah, I told him to come in.”
“And did you know what he’d do? Because you know people, don’t you? You know how they think.” Justin’s accusation was a spiky, hot thing arrowing out of him and burrowing into John’s skin. The phone’s ring on the other end was tinny thin, not reassuring.
“Mate, I’m lost. Whatever’s happened, I promise you I had nothing to do with it.” Pick up, pick up.
“No matter what it is, it’s never you, is it? There was blood on the ceiling!” Justin’s face was alive with fury John had never felt before. Justin stepped back, bundling himself into the fighter, snapping back his fist for the room to throw a right hook. His fist connected with John’s face, reeling him back, the edge of the desk ramming into the small of John’s back.
John shoved Justin away, watched Justin’s body pant his with the burden of whatever hot, nonsensical secret was tearing him apart.
“What are you doing?”
The gaze of everyone in the room prickled hot on them, and if this is how Justin wanted to end it with John – for the whole department to see – then John would have none of it.
Schenk was yelling at them but not nearly as loudly as John wanted to yell at Justin. He wasn’t going to let him do this, wasn’t going to let him end it between them like this, public and raw.
He stalked out, counting his breaths … thirteen … fourteen until he was sure he could fake the calm. He didn’t have time for this now, time for Justin to break it off with him like an affronted teenager.
Pacing to his car, he pulled out his mobile, found Mary’s number, and pressed the call button. That should at least be enough of a distraction to hold him together. A better solution than having a drink for the first time in years.
John’s hands weren’t shaking on the wheel. They were not. John had looked at Justin and felt nothing.
The car coasted up to a red light; he looked at the tape recorder in his hand. All the warped puzzle pieces of Justin’s behaviour lately – the ones with mean, sharp edges – had fallen into place, making an uglier picture than John had seen in a long time, far worse than anything that Zoe had ever done to him.
It was a million times worse than Justin’s not knowing how to tell John gently that Justin had found somebody else, somebody who would snog him in public and stand up in a church with him, someone who would accompany him to family parties and show everyone how proud he was of him in public.
It was a million times worse than anything John could fix with a firm promise and a creative hand job.
John took a deep inhale.
The ugly picture was a million times worse than the betrayal itself, than the sneaking around his back with DCI Erin Grey and DSU George Stark on trumped-up charges.
The ugly, hard truth was that Justin Ripley did not believe in John Luther.
He had snitched to the bogus special investigation committee because he was a man who always followed his convictions. Justin had once said that John had some hidden moral compass, but that wasn’t right, was it?
Justin was the one who pointed true north, who always did what had to get done, who was always able to manoeuvre through a morally grey fog blindfolded and with one hand tied behind his back. This was Justin. It always had been. And Justin no longer believed in John Luther.
Best get this over with: prepare for damage control, start thinking on his strategy now. Because damage control and clean-up after this was going to be a fucking nightmare. John pressed play on the device.
“I just want to say, for the record …” Justin’s voice, firm and only ever so slightly unsure.
“Yeah,” John snarled to the empty car.
“That in my experience, DCI Luther is an outstanding police officer. I’m honoured to have worked by his side and I consider this expedition to be little more than a fishing expedition and a witch hunt.”
For one long moment, everything inside John went blank and still, like he’d forgotten to breathe. Tears surged up his throat and he pressed his hand against his lips, choking them off.
Then he rewound the device and replayed it, just to make sure, just to really know.
Justin was right when he had said that John still had a compass. Justin Ripley himself was John’s true north, unfailing, perfect. Without Justin and his untarnished faith in John, John was nothing.
John flexed and clenched his hands against the wheel.
And all John had ever done for this man who propped him up, who filled the empty hole in his chest, all John had ever done in return was use him, in the dark of Justin’s flat he had taken and taken and taken from Justin, he had kept Justin’s strength for himself. He had hidden the truth of who Justin was to him deep down where no one could see it.
He would drive over there and … apologise?
No, he would do better, he would not ever sneak around with him. Not ever.
He would keep his hands off Justin until they can do this again, the right way. He would back off and would get Justin that promotion, that life he wanted, the one where they would be equal colleagues. He would let Justin go so he could fly.
And then, once they’re working their own cases, not superior and subordinate officer, then he will come back into Justin’s life right and proper like. First with dates in public and then with Justin coming to John’s flat for a cuppa and finally with them consulting each other in the evenings over Justin’s carbonara sauce. Schenk will pat John on the back when he hears they’re a couple now and makes some crack like saying it’s good that someone’s finally making an honest man of John, and that there’s no one better than Justin for it. The life where their lives are intertwined, open. John will play the long game and John will make that happen.
He’ll have the life where it’s no longer true that no one will have John – the life where Justin would be the one who has John.
John pressed the thought into his brain, imprinting it there. He’d do it, he’d be the brave one of the two of them for once. He’d stop everything they’re doing so they can do it right for once. Proper, like Justin deserved. He took a deep inhale, ignored the thudding of his chest in his ribs. He pulled the parking brake, and scrolled through his phone to call Schenk and tell him to put in the paperwork for Justin’s promotion. This was going to happen, it had to happen. The call went to voicemail. He cursed; he just needed to do something now for this. Needed it like a crazy itch under his skin. Needed to keep his hands busy so he didn’t actually bee-line for Justin’s flat.
And then he stepped out of his car, and Mary was there, joking and laughing. Had John messed up his timing and somehow stood her up, but then she was there, she was right there? And the thought flitted through John’s mind that she might be the last woman he’ll ever have dated, ever, because he’s going to give Justin everything he never asked for.
But maybe she was just what he needed. What he needed to stop the immovable force inside him relentlessly driving towards Justin, stopping everything between them just long enough to straighten it all out so he can do it proper.
She could be his stopgap until he deserves Justin again. The thought tasted like dirty hope.
Mary was wearing one of his t-shirts, overlarge on her, and looking at his picture of Zoe.
Last night Mary had been soft when he pushed into her. She had sighed, breath fluttering against his lips as her hips curled up to meet his. Instead of hard pecs, her breasts were a small handful; instead of firm teeth biting over his jaw, she had kissed delicate lips over his cheekbone. It had felt familiar, easy, like stepping into a lukewarm bath on a smooth spring day is easy.
Justin, though, Justin was always the scalding hot sluice of showering in a winter-frozen flat with no heat: a shock to your lungs, the slamming of blood through your veins, the onslaught of heat into every pore of your body.
John would wrap himself up in Mary’s softness, in her ease. And that would be just enough to keep him from Justin. They would flirt over coffee at midnight. He would visit her at her shop and watch her beam at customers. She’d curl up against him at night, slotting her warm body against his chest, keeping him in his own bed, locking him into his own apartment.
Just for a while. Just until she realized they did not fit, just until she saw the ugliness under John’s skin, in his voice, in the steadiness of his trigger finger.
Just until John could do this thing between him and Justin right. Like Justin deserved.
“You’ve still got love in your voice,” Mary said when he spoke of Zoe.
“Well, you don’t stop loving someone, do you?” Not Zoe. Not Justin.
His doorbell rang. Justin. I just want to say for the record … His words buzzed around in John’s mind.
Standing on the doorstep, Justin’s body was coiled tight, turned away from him, prepared for a fight.
John’s muscles twitched with the need to haul him against his body, breathe him in.
He had to do this proper, not like before. “Justin, come in.”
“Sorry?” He turned to face John, dimples peeking out.
“Why?” Justin dragged the word out, but his smile was wide.
“What do you mean why?”
“Well, you never ask me in.”
I’m going to do this right. I’m going to change. You’re too good for me, but I’m going to take you with everything I’ve got. Do you know how much I love you? John swallowed the words before they could erupt out of him without context. He turned, knowing Justin would follow him. Would follow him anywhere.
Mary was struggling to cover herself with John’s T-Shirt as John introduced Justin. Justin’s momentum halted as he stared at her, smile lapsing.
And maybe everything with Mary was a mistake, but at least John hadn’t pushed Justin’s back against the door and fallen to his knees for him. At least he hadn’t buried his face in the soft trail of hair down his hard stomach and just breathed him in.
Mary was a stopgap, Justin had to understand that. He would understand that, and once John was no longer his superior officer, it all would be all right.
He gestured to Justin. “He’s my mate and I love him.”
Justin’s smile returned then, slow and earnest.
But love was such a lazy word, a four-letter one, with not enough sounds and space for everything Justin had been and done. Justin was his compass rose, his lifeblood.
In the car, John worked out a thousand ways to say it, a thousand ways to tell Justin that he should be doing John’s job, that they should be equals, and that when they were, John would stand at his side.
But Justin was smiling, that earnest, quiet one he did when he thought John wasn’t watching. So they drove to the crime scene in silence, and John snuck glances at him, watched the flash of dimples, watched the comfortable silence Justin wore like a uniform.
He’d tell him when the words were right. He’d tell him when he’d done the things he needed to do to be worthy of Justin.
And Justin would look at him and say his name in that soft, worshipful way and their history would be crystallized, made clear, made perfect.
“Justin, not you. Not you.”
John’s stomach was climbing out of his throat, his heart was beating out of his chest, and his vision was blurring. The steady rain weighed down his coat, glued his shirt to his chest. Justin’s familiar body – so compact, so powerful – lay heavy on the cobblestones.
Justin’s heart had been blown open. Always his most vulnerable spot.
“No, mate. Get up. GET UP!”
John crouched next to him, fell on his back beside him.
If he closed his eyes, he could imagine the steady breathing of Justin sleeping. He could imagine the bed around them, the pull to stay. For once, to stay the night.
DCI Luther when Justin was introducing him to other people. In those rare sarcastic moments when Justin was scolding John for taking himself too seriously.
Sir and Guv – with a long round ‘u’ – when he was being respectful, when he was feeling unsure about his position, when he was livid with John.
Boss when he was being affectionate, when he had bad news to break about a case, when he was impressed.
John – a one-syllable shout – when Justin needed to get his attention at the station, on a crime scene.
John – a grim setting of the jaw – when he disagreed, when he desperately wanted to persuade John about something.
John – a sigh, a prayer – when their bodies moved together, skin on skin, vibrating with the sensation of being alive, when they poured themselves into each other, when nothing else existed but them and the night. That was the man John wanted to be. The one Justin believed in. The one Justin loved.
John pounds the table, meets George’s eye for the first time. Justin is not their tool, Justin is … How can John tie up into words Justin’s brilliance, his bravery, his vulnerability, his eagerness, his loyalty to John and to the cause, to something bigger than anyone in this room? How can John force into words – which are nothing more than flimsy, worn-thin bits of noise – everything that happened between himself and DS Justin Ripley?
“I loved him.”