Robbie parked behind a white, four door older model Ford Mondeo, idly noted the cracked bumper and dusty back windscreen. He glanced in the rear view mirror; aye, his own windscreen was just as bad. That's what happened when you drove down dirt roads in the lazy days of summer when, through either a miracle or global warming, it hadn't rained for two weeks. He preferred to think of it as a miracle. Sort of. The heat was driving everyone a little mad. Add in a full moon and well, just look at him, in the middle of nowhere because Hathaway had left a message that Robbie was to meet him at this exact location at this exact time.
And where was here, exactly? 'Here' was a small field next to a forest on the Madrigal Estate. He'd heard of the Estate over the years, yet had never had cause to visit. Having said that, he did have a seriously strong case of deja vu. As to why Hathaway was here, he gave a mental shrug. Hathaway was being his usual mysterious self on the subject. Still, the line of cars parked along the verge in front of him was proof that whatever was happening, he wasn't going to be alone.
In the field across the road were tents. At least two dozen, maybe more. Big ones, little ones, stripey ones, plain ones. Beyond the intensely sweet green summer air, Robbie could smell wood smoke and roasting meats, caramel and popcorn and coffee and beer. He frowned a little; how was it that a party of this magnitude was happening outside of his purview? He should have heard rumours at the very least... Was it possible that Hathaway on some sort of undercover duty, and had chosen not to tell him until now? Nah, that didn't make much sense. Hathaway had been his usual phlegmatic self, without the least sign of existential flu. If anything, he had been less morose than usual, though Robbie was sure he and maybe Laura were the only ones who could tell.
A burst of raucous laughter caught his attention. Glancing to his left, he saw a group of young men tumbling into the road, swinging thick bamboo staffs with silver tassels at the top at one another. One of them took off towards Robbie, giggling madly and turning back just as he passed Robbie to taunt the others by flipping them a dual bird.
"Get him!" someone yelled, and then the rest were off like hounds after a fox.
Group of young idiots like that, drinking and carrying implements of potential trouble, Robbie sincerely hoped they stayed out of his way. It had been a a very long week and dammit, he wanted to enjoy his day off without thinking about work. Of course, he'd have to see what Hathaway wanted, first, before he could move on with his plans of checking the allotment and having a bottle or five of wine. Nah...he was too old for that, now. Most he could manage was half a bottle before he was half asleep.
Robbie locked the car and slung his jacket over his shoulder, then crossed the road. Though the temperature was still warm, twilight was falling and the sky was clear, both of which were hallmarks for a cool evening. There avenues between the tents were wide enough for braziers burning wood, yet still allowed for two abreast on either side. And there were plenty of people about, couples and small groups and even a fair few young children as well as the ubiquitous swarming groups of teens. High spirits abounded, though everyone also seemed to be on their best behavior. Well, it was early days yet. Give it another hour before the fights started to break out.
As Robbie walked along, looking for Hathaway, who had been far less specific about where he would be, he noticed the tents were open to the avenue. Lots of shiny jewelry here, ceramics there, herbal remedies and funny hats, woolens in exciting colors and leather goods from boots to bags. He peeked into Doctor Proctor's Emporium for a look-see, found lots of vials of mysterious liquids and a proprietor who was only too happy to show him all the pamphlets that explained everything. Robbie nodded and backed out, not exactly satisfied that everything was on the up and up, but more convinced than he had any right to be that the man was really selling herbal tinctures and the like.
More tents. There had to be at least two dozen in this row alone, and through the gaps between there appeared to be more tents, more people. Hmm, maybe James was...Robbie didn't even know where that thought was headed. A moment later he shook his head. Stupid, just check the phone! Unfortunately there were no new text messages from Hathaway, so he would just have to search until he found the man.
When he completed his walk down the first avenue of tents, Robbie rounded the last few tent pegs to start down the next avenue. From where he stood it looked virtually the same; braziers, people. This row appeared to be solely concerned with food, however. Which pleased Robbie greatly as he was starving. The usual assortment of food was there, burgers and hot dogs and even the bloke selling fish and chips tried to get Robbie to come in and 'taste a bit of auld England'. He ended up caving and getting a pock of chips and, in the tent across the way, a pint of beer in a plastic cup.
Robbie sat at one of the long picnic tables in the tent to eat his meal. A trio of men sat at the other end and he couldn't help but listen in as they spoke.
" - so I says to the cop, I says, so I'm going to go to your house and list your things for sale on Ebay and that's all right, yeah? Tell me another one!"
"Legal my arse," muttered one of the other fellows.
From another table a gaggle of girls simpered at passing boys and sucked their teeth while they checked their phones.
Speaking of which, as if on cue Robbie's pocket vibrated. The text read Come and find me. He blinked at the tone of the message. He wasn't used to thinking of Hathaway that way, and it was...interesting to discover this rather commanding side to him. Quite hot, actually. And then Robbie blushed furiously. They had only slept together the one time, but it had been good. Very good. He was not a man prone to melodrama, but he could admit he teared up a little, after.
Robbie drank the rest of his half-pint and finished his chips, tossed the container in the bin and wandered out of the tent. Full night had nearly fallen, only a few lingering clouds scudding across lighter sky to the west. He looked left, looked right - ah. Someone was twirling fire on chains; he was used to the sight from summer nights in Oxford. Undoubtedly that was where Hathaway was as well. Many folks were drifting that way, too, eating ice cream and candy floss and ketchup-dipped chips on toothpicks. Robbie strolled along, enjoying the sounds of people unconcerned with crime, people who lacked fear. Some might think it sad that his life had come to this, so outside the regular state of society, yet he could not help but disagree. After all, he saw the dark so others didn't have to. That was his job, and mostly, he loved doing it. Solving the puzzles, giving peace of mind to those not directly involved. Just like the springy grass being crushed underneath the feet of the family before him, coppers sprang back up after their most horrible cases, they had to. Had to get on with it and yes, his life was good and fulfilling and having Hathaway in it simply made the job go better. Mostly.
The end of the avenue spilled down a gentle slope and out into the field, where people lingered to watch the entertainers. The fire twirler girl was rather impressive, the muscles in her arms flexing quite visibly in the light of whatever cage she had on the ends of her chains. Over there was a fire breather, and here two people who were doing complicated things with three sticks. There were jugglers, bendy people doing bendy things in groups, someone rolling inside an oversized hoop; how they were able to perform on grass? Seemed like a recipe for disaster at least, broken fingers at best. To the left, tall torches cast warm, flickering light on several bellydancers, their accompanying band playing something between...he didn't even know how to describe it. It was turn-of-the-19th Century old, the kind of music he to which he could see travellers or old-school gypsies dancing to, like something out of a novel from an earlier century…except there was also a bizarre modern twist to it as well. It was the kind of music Hathaway would appreciate. The dancers themselves looked the part as well, wearing floral turbans, coins dripping from breast bands and waist belts, bracelets with long pointy studs, multiple long skirts tucked this way and that to show plain pantaloons underneath and tattooed bare feet.
He didn't know how they were able to do the things they did, but after a few minutes he moved on. They were lovely, and talented, and if Hathaway had been dancing too he might stay to watch more.
Leaving the more crowded spots, Robbie headed for the quieter parts of the field. He passed a demonstration on ancient dress, which conveniently enough was next to the one about spinning and dyeing wool. There was a tiny blacksmith's forge, how that was even legal - but then the same thing could be said for the entire event.
He passed a few more entertainers; a singer with a beautiful voice singing in…Spanish, a painter making caricatures with black ink on paper that didn't look quite right, a magician, no, two magicians, another band where the members looked like escapees from some low-budget proto-European flick with their dreadlocks and partially shaved heads, half-naked bodies in metal-studded leather, feathers dangling from their ears, playing more ancient sounding music on proto-clarinets and bagpipes and good god where the hell was Hathaway?
Robbie wandered another good ten minutes before catching sight of a familiar blond head. By the time Robbie reached Hathaway the crowd was beginning to thin, but it was still thick enough for him to scope out the scene before Hathaway could see he was there. There torches had begun snapping in the rising breeze, throwing everything into high and low relief, turning Hathaway's skin to gold, for Hathaway was half naked. A man in front of Robbie shifted and Robbie saw that Hathaway was wearing jeans and white trainers, a black pullover and olive shirt tossed onto the ground behind him. He stood still, allowing a woman also dressed in all black to do something to his back.
Robbie frowned a little. Hathaway wasn't the type to let a random stranger do something to his person - especially not in a field in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by yet more strangers.
Hathaway was the most frustrating person Robbie had ever met, and Robbie had been married for thirty years. Hathaway was everything that should by all rights annoy an old copper like Robbie. He was far too smart for his own self, effete, even, and oh-so-posh with that plummy diction. And then there was the way he looked; stupidly tall, blond, rakish when dressed in a three piece suit with that damned three quarter length coat. How he managed to both slouch yet look amazing staggered Robbie. It was a wonder the man wasn't a male model instead of a cop. Not only that, there was also his oddly attractive face and a brilliant smile that Robbie was pretty sure Hathaway saved just for him.
Now there he was, shirtless, standing in front of Lewis, designs being painted onto his skin by an older woman with a good deal too much black eyeliner. She was wearing a tight black vest that left her muscular arms bare, black leggings under a black miniskirt, and strappy leather sandals. Completing the ensemble were the ubiquitous dark red lipstick, short-bitten black fingernails, and gold Ankh necklace glinting in the vee of her breasts as she moved. Given her dark brown skin, she looked utterly and fantastically exotic, like something from the cover of a 1970s glam rock album.
She spoke and Hathaway turned around. A symphony of oh's and ah's rose from the crowd, Robbie's voice amongst them, equally shocked. For Hathaway's back was patterned in metallic gold paint, something tribal, maybe. It was circular, but sharp - a maze? A labyrinth? Some ancient symbol probably only Hathaway could decipher? The more Robbie looked at it, the more it seemed to shift under his gaze.
Now, Robbie knew for a fact that Hathaway was ticklish, yet he stood under the woman's steady hand as she painted. Robbie hadn't noticed the small jar in her hands before, too distracted by so much skin available for everyone to see, but when she put the jar and brush on the ground, reached into a hidden pocket to blow something in Hathaway's face, he couldn't take it any more.
"Oi!" he called, shouldering past the people in front of him to get to Hathaway, would was coughing and blinking. "That's enough."
The woman glanced at him - she looked familiar - then gathered her things and stepped back from Hathaway. Robbie gave her a cursory glance to make sure she wasn't going to do anything else, in one look taking in the tiny golden sparks on her black skin in the shift of torchlight, the gold varnish on her toes, the butter amber beads knotted in her hair. He dismissed her a moment later, preferring to concentrate on Hathaway and make sure he was all right.
Turning back to the object of his concern, Robbie was caught by the heavy-lidded look in his eye. "You okay?"
"Yes," answered Hathaway, looking at Robbie under his eyelashes as if he were the only person in the world worth his time. "You found me."
"Hard not to."
Hathaway nodded. He held out his hands, turned them over so Robbie could see the designs. "What do you think?"
"Labyrinth? Or is it something from South America, y'know, those giant figures in the desert?"
"The Nazca lines?" asked Hathaway with a slight frown. He looked down. "No...not really. Spirals. An ancient design, you'll find them everywhere in ancient history. They're used by modern day Shamans during meditation, a way of grounding one's self before venturing into inner space. You'll find them in mandalas all around the world, from Mongolia to Australia. Some people will argue that it's all just common symbolism that every human culture comes up with, while others will say they're part of the human psyche."
"Is that so," said Robbie, amused by the lecture, fascinated by the golden glints on Hathaway's torso. He leaned closer, squinted. "Is that glitter?"
"Ah, yes," answered Hathaway, peering at his forearm. "She said it suited me."
And just like that, Robbie felt a surge of irritation. "Who gave her the right?"
Hathaway shrugged. "I like it."
Robbie stroked one finger down Hathaway's upper arm, looked at it a second later.
Fine sparks were on his finger, but not coating it as on might expect. It was far more understated than the paint. He sniffed. "It's acceptable."
"You do like it, then."
"Like I said, it's acceptable."
Hathaway nodded, looking at Robbie as if he expected him to say something else entirely. "Can you imagine me showing up to work like this? Gold paint under my clothes," Hathaway paused, leaned a little closer to Robbie. "Only you would know they were there."
Hathaway looked pleased. He picked up his shirt and began to put it on, but Robbie stopped him.
"Leave it off," he said, holding his hand out for the shirt.
"You want me to walk around here like this?" asked Hathaway in disbelief.
Robbie nodded. "Yeah. I like it. You look good. I'll take your jacket, too."
Hathaway slowly retrieved the jacket, gave it to Robbie with the slightest crease between his brows. The corner of his mouth was beginning to curl up, though.
"What?" said Robbie, folding the jacket over his arm. "It's warm enough."
"You just like seeing me like this."
Robbie blinked up at Hathaway, his instantaneous protest dying in the face of the truth.
Changing tack, Robbie said, "So is this what you wanted me to see?"
Hathaway gestured towards the tents. "A bit, yes. I thought you might like to know of what you were missing."
Robbie snorted. "Outsider culture?"
"Oh my god, you've been reading Andrew's book!"
"I picked it up, read the introduction, and put it right back down again."
"Ha!" Hathaway crowed, dancing in front of Robbie to walk backward. "I knew it!"
"Knew what?" blustered Robbie, taking a firm hold of Hathaway and steering him out of the way of a juggler and his nine pins.
"I knew you wouldn't be able to resist looking at it!"
Hathaway grinned and Robbie, though he tried to remain determined about not getting side-tracked, got utterly sidetracked. "You hungry?"
"Not particularly," said Hathaway. "Maybe? I have a hankering for lasagna."
"Too bad they don't have any here. As for me, I've seen the sights and now I'm for me bed," Robbie said, watching the interplay of light reflecting off of the gold paint as Hathaway walked up the slope before him.
"Good, you don't mind if I tag along?"
What Hathaway said hit Robbie a moment later, his pause making him mis-step over a tent peg and nearly take a tumble. No, surely Hathaway hadn't meant it that way? Neither of them had made any promises the morning after the night before, all those weeks ago.
"Heather dropped me off, and I figured I could get a lift back with you."
"Oh, is that what I am now, your personal chauffeur?"
"Well...I suppose I could get a ride from someone else...I'm sure it would be easy without my shirt or jacket."
Robbie gave Hathaway a look, but Hathaway was earnestly staring in the other direction.
"Right. Get in," answered Robbie, unlocking the car from the edge of the field.
"Are we stopping at mine?" called Hathaway, loping across the road and leaving Robbie speechless.
"I don't know, are we?" Robbie followed, taking a moment to toss Hathaway's clothing into the back seat before settling in the driver's seat.
The journey home was punctuated only by Hathaway's fiddling with the radio. He seemed unable to find exactly what it was he was looking for, finally prompting Robbie to grab his wrist and prevent him from going through all of them one more time. Robbie concentrated on his driving, rather than Hathaway's glare. He didn't have to see it to know exactly what look he was getting. "What is up with you tonight?"
"How do you mean?"
Robbie frowned, belatedly released Hathaway's wrist. "I don't know, you're just...you're not your usual self."
"It's the damned seat belt strap - "
"What about it?"
Hathaway twitched again, pulled the strap away from his chest. "It's itchy. Never knew I had a problem with straps before."
Well...there wasn't a lot Robbie could say in response to that, was there? At least nothing that wasn't laden with innuendo...although this was the second time Hathaway had made allusions, and Hathaway's banter was usually a hell of a lot more obvious, more jokey, more...blokey. It got Robbie to thinking. "I'm surprised you didn't bring your own car to this shindig."
"It was a last minute thing."
"Hmm. Glad you were able to attend?"
"I got you here, didn't I?"
Right. That was it. Robbie spied a lay-by in the distance and swung the car into it. Turning the car off, he got out of the car and went to the passenger side, opened it and hauled Hathaway out, manhandled him against the bonnet, stepped right into his space.
Apart from the ticking of the engine and the thrum of his own heart, the night was quiet. "Don't like the straps that keep you safe? What if I like the straps? What if I want to show you off? How about that?"
From the rapid breathing of the warm body in front of him and the lack of pushing, Robbie gathered that Hathaway found nothing objectionable in what he was doing and saying. Which was good, Robbie wasn't sure Hathaway was amenable to this kind of thing.
Robbie slapped the roof. "D'y'get it? I can't have you parading yourself about unless I say so. It's not because you're not your own man, it's because you're mine for as long as you want to be, understand?"
"Ach, none of that now, this is between the two of us."
"Yes, Robbie," was the immediate and somewhat breathless answer.
Gratified, Robbie slid his hands down to James's wrists, holding them lightly, oh so lightly. "Is this all right?"
"You know it is," said James.
"Yeah," he answered, looking down at their now clasped hands. "Still want to come home with me?"
"Of course I do. But Robbie, keep in mind, turnabout is fair play."
Robbie nodded. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
"Also, I know you have lasagna in your freezer."
Why, the cheek of the man! Robbie resolutely tried not to grin. Of course, what James didn't know was how hard he was going to have to work for it…