It was supposed to be his evening off. He’d planned to take advantage of the balmy weather they’d been having the last few days and fire up the barbeque. Instead, Miles was chasing a murder suspect into the bloody sewers. Par for the course since Joe had come along, really. Sometimes Miles got nostalgic for the old days, when the murders were mainly gangs or drug-related.
Miles hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps down the ladder when the stench hit him, and exactly what they were getting themselves into sank in.
“Boss, stay up there, I got this!” he called as he climbed down, but he knew his DI and wasn’t the least bit surprised when Joe ignored him.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Joe said, his voice coming from just above Miles.
There was no point trying to talk him out of it. Joe would rush in where angels feared to tread as always, and while they were arguing the suspect would escape. Miles could hear him splashing away now, so they’d just get the job done and he’d deal with the fallout later.
He nearly gagged as he stepped off the ladder and his foot immediately landed in the mucky water, but he forced it down and tried to breathe shallowly. He heard Joe splash down behind him. “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” he muttered and took off in the direction of the footsteps, into the dark.
A powerful beam suddenly lit the way ahead and he glanced behind him. Joe was holding up a torch. “You always carry that?”
“I had a suspicion it might be needed,” Joe said, and splashed past him. “C’mon,” he said, urgently. “He can’t have got very far. It’s too slippery to move very fast down here, and it’s easy to get disorientated.”
Miles had to hand it to his governor; the man’s capacity to focus when he was on the job was impressive. If anything was going to trigger his neuroses, wading through all sorts of disgusting waste matter would be the thing to do it, but Joe was forging forward, torch held high, a handkerchief held over his mouth and nose.
Even over the stench of the sewer, Miles caught a whiff of something else, something medicinal. “What’s with the makeshift mask, then?”
“It’s just camphor oil. It masks odours.”
“And you just happened to be carrying it on you?”
“I thought the suspect might be using the sewers to avoid detection.”
“And you didn’t think to mention it.”
“It was only a theory.”
“What have I told you about sharing your theories?”
“You can yell at me later,” Joe said, stopping at an intersection and putting his hand on Miles’ arm to still him. They both strained to listen. There was a distant splashing sound for a moment and then it stopped.
“This way,” Joe said, and took off again down one of the tunnels.
Miles resigned himself to them getting lost and dying an ignominious death. The remains of their bodies would be found years later, gnawed on by rats.
In fact, they caught up to the suspect a few minutes later, trying to open a hatch that had jammed. He turned and snarled at them, the beam from his helmet torch blinding Miles for a moment. He put up his arm up to block it.
Joe tried to reason with the suspect of course, but he launched himself at them, and knocked the torch out of Joe’s hand. It became a nightmarish struggle in near darkness to subdue him, getting in each other’s way, slipping in the stinking water, the swinging light from the helmet torch doing nothing except adding to the confusion. Eventually they got him pinned down in the shallow water. The stench was all around them and Miles didn’t even want to consider what his hands might have on them. With an heroic level of restraint he hadn’t known he was capable of, Miles refrained from his usual grumbling. Joe was focused on the job; Miles was absolutely not going to risk distracting him. Between them they got the hatch open and dragged the suspect out into the street. Miles gulped in the fresh air gratefully. Beside him, Joe was doing the same.
Miles was watching for it, so he saw the moment Joe really registered that he was splashed with sewage. Joe’s whole body tensed up and he held his arms away from his body. “Miles!” he said, his voice rising in panic.
“Ok, we got this,” he said, soothingly. “Get your kit off.”
“I’ve got a plan.”
It was a measure of Joe’s trust in Miles, and his desperation, that he obeyed Miles and started stripping, right there in the street.
Miles marched the suspect over to the nearby lamp post and handcuffed him to it. He ducked into the nearest garden and followed the hose around the side of the house to the tap, hoping whoever lived there were safely asleep as he turned the tap on full. He hurried back to pick up the end of the hose, now gushing water, and dragged it out into the street. Joe was down to his boxers. He still looked freaked. Miles couldn’t see in the dim streetlight how much he’d actually got on his skin, but between wrestling with the suspect and getting out of his soiled clothes, it couldn’t be good. Miles was impressed that Joe’s head hadn’t exploded.
He shoved the hose at Joe. “Here you go,” he said, and hurriedly stripped out of his own stinking clothes, toeing off the shoes and using a clean part of the shirt to get rid of his socks. He’d wash the suit; he wasn’t made of money, but the shoes and socks were going in the bin. Yuck.
He looked over at his DI. Joe had obviously gone for broke. He was soaked, his hair plastered to his skull, his boxer shorts wet through and clinging to him––just as well the streets were empty at this time of the evening. Now he had the hose turned on his hands and wrists, his concentration absolute.
“Give us a go,” Miles said, holding out his hand for the hose. Joe looked up at him, and even in the streetlight, Miles could see the lines of stress in his face. Miles kept his hand extended, and finally Joe put the hose into it.
Miles rinsed himself off, gasping as the cold water hit him, following Joe’s example and including his face and hair. He didn’t think he’d got any crap in it but he wasn’t taking any chances. He gave the hose back to Joe and went to gingerly fish his phone out of his jacket, and called it in.
They were lucky it was a warm night. Apart from his cold, soggy boxers, he was comfortable enough, though Joe was shivering, but whether that was cold or reaction was anyone’s guess. Standing about practically naked though, they’d be lucky if no one called the police on them. That’d go down well at the station.
Joe was still rinsing his hands. Miles was tempted to leave him to it, but the uniforms would be here shortly and they didn’t need to see that, so he went and turned the tap off. He was just about to close the gate when the front door opened.
“Ah,” Miles said, turning, getting ready to try and explain himself to an angry home owner. Instead, a white-haired old lady in a floral dressing gown emerged, holding an armful of blankets.
“I thought you might need these,” she said, peering short-sightedly at him.
Miles smiled at her gratefully. “You’re a lifesaver, love. Any chance of loanin’ us some trousers too?”
“It’s just me, I’m afraid. My husband passed last year, you see. My daughter came and took his things off to the charity shop.”
“Sorry to hear it. Never mind, then. Could you spare us a plastic bag or two?”
Miles indicated the pile of soiled clothes with a grimace. The old lady nodded and turned to go back inside.
“I was quite attached to that suit,” Joe said, unexpectedly mournful, as Miles handed him one of the blankets.
“I’m not chucking them,” Miles said, as they both wrapped the blankets around them, more for decency than warmth. “You may be able to replace your thousand quid suits at the drop of the hat, but some of us aren’t that lucky.”
Joe wrinkled his nose in disgust. “I’m not sure I want it back.”
“Oh, go on, you precious petal,” Miles said, affectionately. “It’ll dryclean.”
They waited. Miles thought about seeing if the old lady might be willing to make them cuppas, but a panda car pulled up before he could decide. Reynolds was driving. Miles sighed. The man was a good copper, but he gossiped like an old woman. This’d be all over the nick by lunchtime tomorrow.
Reynolds took in the scene with raised eyebrows. “Evening, Sarge,” he said.
“What’s the matter, you never seen two blokes in their skivvies before?”
Reynolds smirked. “Not without arresting them.”
Joe was letting him do the talking, which was good––they’d come to an understanding over the years, but Miles wasn’t assuming anything. It could mean Joe was quietly melting down over by the fence, so he wasted no time transferring the filthy and reeking suspect to the back of the police car.
Reynolds eyed him with horror. “Oh, joy,” he said. “You’ve obviously had an exciting evening.”
“Never a dull moment in this job.”
“What about you two?” Reynolds asked. “Want a pick up?”
“It’s covered, don’t worry about it.”
Reynolds took him at his word and pulled away from the kerb. Miles watched his taillights disappear and then went and rinsed his hands again. He’d be glad when this night was over. He took a deep breath and joined Joe. “How you going?”
“I’m alright. We should call for a cab.”
“No one’s going to pick us up like this.”
“We’ll have to get dressed again.”
Miles looked at the pile of dirty clothes on the ground. Joe followed his gaze. “Perhaps not.”
The old lady appeared at Miles’ elbow holding out a black bin bag. “Thanks, love,” he said and gathered up their clothes.
Joe rearranged his blanket more securely. “What do you suggest?”
Headlights rounded the corner. Joe flinched.
“With any luck, that’s our ride,” Miles said nonchalantly, as his car pulled into the kerb in front of them.
“You called Judy?”
“Well, I’m not going back to the station like this. We’d be laughing stocks.”
“What does it matter?”
“They already don’t like us much. I’m not giving them an excuse to have a go.”
The window slid down. “Hello, love,” he said, smiling down at his wife.
Judy shook her head, looking amused. “What have you two been up to, Ray?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Wrestling around in shit, arresting the bad guy.”
Judy clicked the boot release. Miles chucked the bin bag in and slammed it shut. He looked over at his boss, who was looking doubtful. “Come back to ours for now. Sort yourself out, have a shower or a soak in the tub if you like.” He watched Joe hesitate. Unwilling to impose himself, even after all this time. “C’mon, Joe.”
Joe shrugged and smiled wryly. “All right, thanks, Miles,” he said. He got in the back seat and Miles slid in the other side. Joe looked at him in surprise.
Miles indicated the blanket Judy had thrown over the back seat. “Don’t want to risk getting the seat dirty,” he said, as Judy pulled out into the road. In the interests of Joe’s peace of mind, he refrained from pointing out it was an old dog blanket. It was clean; it had been stored away for ages anyway, since the dog died, but no sense risking stressing Joe out even more.
Miles gave Judy a quick rundown of their night’s adventure while Joe stared out of the window. His fingers alternated between tapping against his bare thigh––he was a big bloke, the blanket didn’t seem to reach far enough in any direction––and worrying at the latest elastic band to grace his wrist.
When they got home Miles ushered Joe straight into the main bathroom, while Judy thanked the rather bemused-looking next door neighbour for sitting with the kids.
Miles used the shower in the ensuite. He soaped himself thoroughly; he hadn’t been splashed much, apart from his hands, and the hose had got it off, but the smell had seemed to linger. When he was satisfied that he smelled only of spring sunshine or whatever that brand of soap was, he put on a t-shirt and pyjama pants. Judy came in while he was getting dressed and handed him a cup of tea.
“Thanks, love. I’m just going to stay up, watch the telly for a bit, see to Joe.”
Judy nodded. She understood. Joe had been over enough, spent enough time with the family that she considered him a friend too. She’d agreed readily when Miles had suggested him as godfather to their youngest. “I’ve changed the sheets in the spare room for him,” she said.
“You are a pearl without price,” Miles said gratefully, giving her an affectionate hug.
“I know,” she agreed. “I’ll be awake for a while if you need anything,” she said and left him to it.
Miles knocked on the bathroom door and opened it just a crack. “I’ve fresh towels,” he said. “Do you want me to leave them here or bring them in?” he asked, because this was Joe––best to check.
“Miles,” Joe said, and he sounded relieved. “Come in. Please.”
Joe was still standing under the shower, neck bent under the spray, rivulets of water dripping from the ends of his hair. He looked like a drowned rat, but even more pathetic. He looked up as Miles entered, his expression hopeful.
“What’d you need?”
“Do you have a loofah, or something I can wash my back with?”
“Should be one in here somewhere.” Miles had definitely seen one recently. “Have you looked in the cabinet?”
“Yes,” Joe said, looking vaguely embarrassed. He probably thought it was rude to go through other people’s cabinets.
“Might’ve got thrown away,” Miles suggested, but he had a quick gander anyway, but couldn’t see it.
Joe was looking twitchy.
“This is a thing, isn’t it?” Miles asked.
“There’s a spot I can’t reach in the middle of my back.”
“Want me to do it?”
“I don’t mind. It’s not a big deal unless you make it one.”
Joe was clearly torn between his compulsion and his discomfiture. Finally he shrugged and dropped his head. “Yes, thank you,” he sighed.
“Turn off the water for a minute, then, I don’t want to get wet.”
Miles was too tired to lean over, he’d probably do himself an injury, so he put a folded towel on the side of the bath and sat down and gestured for Joe to come down to his level. To his surprise, Joe turned and sat down in the tub, and leaned forward, the long arch of his back nicely within Miles’ reach.
Anybody else and this’d be a bit queer––one bloke soaping up another bloke like this, but his and Joe’s relationship had never been what you’d call conventional, and Miles didn’t think anything of the gentle circles he was describing across Joe’s back, his mind half on the pleasurable sensation of smooth skin under his fingers, half on how much he was looking forward to getting some sleep. He was startled out of his reverie by the sudden shudder under his hand and he was surprised to realise his hand had drifted low on Joe’s back. He jerked it away. “There you go, fresh as a daisy,” he said, a bit too cheerfully, hoping Joe would follow his lead and pretend not to notice Miles’ slip.
“I’m sorry, Miles,” Joe said, sounding wretched and Miles stared at the back of his neck, at the way he was hunched into himself and abruptly, he understood.
“No need,” he said gently. “Only natural, innit.”
Joe huffed. “Is it?”
“I’m betting it’s been a long time since you been touched proper-like by anyone.”
“That’s no excuse. I’ve put you in an uncomfortable position.”
“Trust me, I’m not uncomfortable. Hell, if I were 10 years younger I’d be trying it on with you right now.”
Joe twisted around a bit so he could look up at Miles. “What about Judy?” he asked. That was Joe, always zeroing in on the most important point.
“Ah, well, that’s the thing,” Miles said, wondering why he was telling Joe this now, telling himself it was just distract Joe from his embarrassment.
“Judy and me, we’ve always had what you’d call an open relationship.”
“You've never mentioned that before.”
“Well it’s not something that tends to come up in casual conversation. Not much to tell, anyway. It’s been a long time since either of us has been bothered, to be honest.”
“Not a lot of people would agree with you.”
“You still love each other, after all these years. Clearly it hasn’t affected your relationship, so I’d say whatever works for you.”
“Very open-minded of you,” Miles said dryly.
“I suppose that’s why you were so open to thinking I was gay, right from the start, before you even really knew me.”
“Well, one reason, yes. But to be fair, I wasn’t the only one who thought so.”
“But now you know I’m not.” Joe paused, and looked awkward again, and Miles knew he was remembering how this whole conversation had begun. “I like women. Mostly. I suppose you could say I’m bisexual.”
“You?” Joe said, looking surprised, but less so than Miles would have expected. Perhaps because of everything else they’d been through together and the confidences they’d shared, this latest revelation just didn’t rate.
“Not that we bothered with giving ourselves fancy labels back then, not around here, anyway.”
Joe was looking at him wonderingly. Miles felt his cheeks warm. He got up abruptly. “I’ll leave you to finish up, yeah? Spare room’s two doors down on the left. I don’t have any clothes that’d fit you, but Judy’s run your boxers and t-shirt through the washer and dryer. They’re on the bed. I’ll go by the office first thing and pick up your spare suit.”
His hand was caught as he turned to leave. He looked down at Joe’s hand, clasping his. Joe looked a little embarrassed but didn’t let go. Okay, so that was new. It wasn’t like their relationship usually fit within normal male friendships, but it hadn’t used to involve hand-holding. “Miles,” Joe said, his fingers tightening on Miles’. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Miles said, though he wasn’t exactly sure what he was being thanked for. “You’ll need to rinse the soap off,” he reminded him. Joe let go, apparently satisfied, and stood up to turn the shower back on.
Miles took a deep breath. “You’ll find someone that’s right for you one day, Joe,” he said, and he believed it. “In the meantime, you don’t have to be alone if you don’t want to.”
If nothing else, Miles thought, as he closed the door behind him, leaving Joe wide-eyed and looking thoughtful, he’d taken Joe’s mind off of getting clean.