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5 Bottles of Wine and 1 Bottled Courage

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Prophet's Rock Home Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014

It’s been a long day. That’s a cliché, but it’s no less true. Mike’s had more than his fair share of long days and most of the time he’d like to say it was worth it – that justice was served, that the guilty met their just desserts, that the law triumphed in the end. But Mike’s painfully aware that the law isn’t always just and guilt is in the eye of the beholder. The last few cases Mike’s worked on, the perpetrators have had good reasons to take matters into their own hands and Mike can’t say he begrudges them. There are moments when rules and regulations actively obstruct the natural order of things. If this is how things lie, what purpose does he hold in the world?

Mike should know not to settle by himself with a fruity red after 11 pm.

This is too good a wine to be wasted on drinking merely to get drunk, he realises, two and a half glasses in. It’s got a richness to it that tickles his palate, deep base notes that stop it from being a fruit explosion in his mouth. But the bottle’s open now, and if he cranes around carefully, he can see Jared’s lights on across the way. It’d be a shame to make the worst of an opportunity.

He texts rather than calling, because he’s finally learning. Jared replies in ten seconds with ‘cya soon’. Before too long, Jared’s ambling round the back of his house with another bottle of wine, flannel shirt tied around his waist, patchwork shorts slung low on his hips, and a hoodie over what looks like a paint-splashed tank top. Mike doesn’t care much about fashion, but Jared’s either perfected a look or gone so wildly off course he’s avant garde.

“Your day off tomorrow?” Jared asks immediately, settling next to Mike on his porch bench. He grabs a glass from where Mike keeps them, pours himself a drink, inspects it with narrowed eyes.

“Not exactly,” Mike returns. “Paperwork day,” he adds, at Jared’s quirked eyebrow.

Jared nods, knowingly. Mike is willing to bet Jared has never had a job in his life that requires any form of official documentation.

“Can’t sleep or don’t want to?” Jared asks next.

“Both, I think.”

Mike is no longer surprised by how perceptive Jared can be, but is constantly surprised by how he answers him truthfully. In the past, that’s put a wedge in his relationships – with his wives, his partners, his friends, his superiors. He’s never wanted to burden them with the weight he has to carry. Somehow, someway, he feels like Jared can handle the load. On more than one occasion, Jared’s proven him right.

Jared gets another glass out, puts his phone inside. A song Mike doesn’t know begins to play, louder than Mike would’ve thought possible, before he remembers one of Jared’s lectures on resonance and amplification. “I’ve been listening to some country music,” Jared says. “Not gonna lie, Mike, I hate most of what I’ve heard, but this band’s okay, I think.”

Mike listens for a bar, two. He’d call it more soul than country to be honest, but hey, if Jared wants one more hobby to add to his ever-expanding collection, Mike’s not going to stop him. It’d be nice to have someone who doesn’t look at him like he’s mad.

‘You and I both know you can’t be happy for long,’ Jared’s phone plays.

“I feel like this is you making a pointed statement,” Mike observes.

“Me? I’d never do that, eh. I’m hurt you’d consider such a thing.”

Jared smiles at him, brazen and cheeky. His takes another sip of wine, gives a contemplative hum. Mike lets his gaze wander over him, rather than staring into the middle distance. Brokenwood is beautiful, but Jared’s got his own fascinating features.

“You can’t sleep, or you don’t want to?” Mike asks.

“I’ve turned a bit nocturnal. When I’m coming out of creative hibernation, I find my ideas usually come to fruition in the middle of the night. Something about the warmth of silence, that sense you’re the only person in the world.”

“What’re you painting?”

“A triptych. I’ll let you know when it’s ready to be viewed.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

They drink in companionable silence for a while, listening to the chorus cicadas intermingling with the music. Mike lets an alcoholic haze drift over him. The good thing about never drinking that much is that when he does, he’s a lightweight. The world goes fuzzy around the edges.

“You can tell me, you know, what’s on your mind.”

“I know.”

“But I won’t force you.”

“I know that too. It’s just… do you ever look at the world and question your place in it?”

“I did, once. Then I kinda figured I had to make my own place, you know? If I don’t fit, I’ve got to carve out a spot where I do. Life’s not static and rigid, it’s ever-changing and malleable. If something’s not working, you can fix it.” Jared leans forward, eyes going gentle. “F’rinstance, if you turned around one day and decided you didn’t wanna be a cop, there are plenty of jobs you could take on here in Brokenwood. I hear there’s gonna be an empty DJ slot at the radio station.”

“I don’t think it’s that severe. It’s the midnight doldrums, that’s all.”

“Alright, but if the doldrums don’t leave, lemme know.”

“I’ll be sure to.”

They finish the bottle. Mike examines the label, hopes he can buy another. The wine was almost as good as the company he was keeping. It’s definitely one he wants to try again, relying on it for taste rather than its ability to dull the harsh edges of a day.

“I better push off, let you get some kip,” Jared says, standing.

Mike takes his hand, notices the warm brush of their fingers. “Thanks, Jared.”

“No worries, cuz.”

“I’m a cuz, now, am I?” Mike says with a laugh.

Jared goes wide-eyed, takes a step back. He shrugs a shoulder, like he’s trying to shrug off his awkward energy. “Only if you want.”

“That sounds fine… bro.”

“Yeah, nah, that’s terrible, Mike. You’re only allowed to use my name from now on. I’m revoking your diminutive license,” Jared returns with a grin.

He winks, pulling away from Mike’s orbit and loping back to his own place. Mike lets out a long, slow breath and thinks about bed.

*

Vino Lascito Sangiovese Rubicone 2016

There are at least five different words in Te Reo that mean ‘loneliness’, and yet Jared always thinks of the Britney Spears lyric ‘my loneliness is killing me’ when he sees Mike sitting alone outside his house, watching the vines, like some kind of exiled sentinel. Jared feels sad for Mike, that he's chosen to live without whānau, that he’s deliberately cut himself off from the world. It’s very definitely a choice. It isn’t like Mike couldn’t gather a close circle around him if he worked for it, even a little. His co-workers clearly hold great affection for him, people in town are always willing to give him time.

His Auntie Ana once called Mike ‘kēhua’; a ghost, but that might just be because of the colour of his skin. Or a play on words, referencing the joker playing card, the one that’s in the deck but rarely used. They’re all apt, when Jared thinks about it.

Yeah, there’s the line-dancing classes, but Jared went along last Sunday, when he was dropping off a delivery, and when they had some cool-down time, Mike stood by himself with a paper cup of water, watching everyone else chat. Jared had been tempted to go over and rouse him from his contemplation, but he’d had a couple of other odd jobs to do. He needs more ready cash these days. When Jared pointed that out the other night, that Mike had stood and watched rather than participated, he seemed taken-aback. Mike’s ever the observer and always seems surprised when he’s been observed.

Jared’s musing about all this as he paints, humming along to the radio, when there’s a break in the transmission. He susses immediately that something’s wrong. Say one thing about Brokenwood – it’s never boring. When Jared was off on his great walk, he missed it. Not the murder so much – maybe there’s something invisible in the clear blue water – but the puzzle-solving, that’s something he longed for. Jared won’t admit out loud that he’s got a touch of the Holmes in his bones.

“Oh no, no, no,” a voice is saying, away from the mic, but loud enough to still be heard. “Barry, wake up. Come on, Bazza, don’t do this to us now.”

Jared likes Barry. He can be exacting and severe, but he’s generous with his time and knowledge too. He likes helping people become the best they can be, no matter their area of interest. Jared’s borrowed heaps of books from him over the past five years, on a wide range of topics, and whenever he’s had questions, Barry’s always been happy to tell him more, or point him the right direction. Jared enjoys seeing him every fortnight to trade stories and tidbits so he hopes Barry’s only injured rather than dead.

Still, this is Brokenwood. Jared knows the score.

The radio cuts out completely. He considers going to find out about what’s happened, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to become an obstruction or a distraction. He busies himself at home, instead, working on the final details of one of his paintings. He fell into a stupor last night in the middle of a burst of creative inspiration and he’s worried he’ll lose the thread of it in the harsh light of day.

He’s not super surprised when Mike calls by later that night, saying he has information Jared knows Barry and would like to know more about Barry’s other acquaintances and life in general. Jared is surprised that Barry’s in hospital rather than the morgue. Surprised and grateful. Maybe the Brokenwood curse can be broken, this time.

“Are you off-duty yet or burning the midnight flame?” Jared asks when Mike’s settled on his couch.

“I’m off-duty,” Mike confirms. “I came for a more casual, off the record chat than genuine inquiry.”

“Chur! I’ve got a lovely little sangiovese I’ve been meaning to get you to try. Full bodied, spicy, just a hint of the exotic, and believe me I’d know.”

“Sounds good.”

“It’s not too dear, either. Packs a good wallop considering,” Jared adds, carefully removing the red seal and opening and pouring out the bottle.

Mike takes a few sips, nods his head appreciatively. There’s nothing Jared likes more than sharing something good with a friend who deserves it. His heart gives a little hop-skip, something he’d forgotten it did frequently when Mike was involved.

“One of Barry’s co-workers said you and a few others go to the radio station every fortnight to… roleplay?” Mike asks after a minute or so. He’s frowning, seems very out of his element.

“We have an on-air show. I’m a bard -- Toby Ornottoby,” Jared explains. Mike’s frown deepens, so Jared elaborates. “We play Dungeons and Dragons, live.”

“So it’s not a sex thing,” Mike checks.

“Well, if it is, no one’s told me,” Jared replies with a grin. “It’s a game, mixed with story-telling. Very interactive and immersive. Think Lord of the Rings meets Monopoly.”

“Okay. And you do this with people listening?”

“Sure do. Barry’s the boss of the game, the Dungeon Master. Then there’s Charlie, she’s playing as a fighter, very high-powered but dumb as a post. Her character, that is. Charlie’s sharp as a tack. Mrs. Marlowe’s been playing as a rogue this year, though she was a cleric last year. Meredith, he’s a warlock and very resistant to trying anything new. Last year Sam joined us as a Paladin, but he stood aside for his cousin Nick this year. We complete a short campaign every summer. Doesn’t get huge ratings, but we have a small and dedicated following.”

“Sam as in Detective Constable Sam Breen?” Mike asks, blinking.

“Yeah! He didn’t say?”

Mike’s expression flattens. “No, but he did seem cagier than usual. Can you tell me more about all this? I don’t know if it’ll be relevant, but it’s good to have the background knowledge.”

Jared tells him all about it as they drink the sangiovese, answering any questions Mike has and anticipating ones he doesn’t think to ask. Within his anecdotes he weaves in as much information about Barry as possible, knowing from past experience that every little counts. If he does get overly passionate talking about the finer points of D&D, though, he doesn’t think he can really be blamed.

“And you enjoy this?” Mike asks, finally, obviously not appreciating its merits.

“I know this might seem fantastical now, but I was a bit of a misfit, growing up. D&D gave me a space to branch out and try new things, work out what I believe and trust in. And it helped me make friends. Hard to picture, I’m sure, but I wasn’t always reeling in the chicks like I can now. It made me feel like it didn’t matter if there was no one else like me. I still belonged. Playing now gives me the double whammy of nostalgia and joy.”

Mike’s expression softens, scepticism washing away. He smiles, gently. “I’m glad you found that,” he says, before draining the last of his wine. He stares down at the bottom of the glass when he finishes, seems to be muddling through something.

“Can I visit Barry tomorrow, d’you think?” Jared asks, more for something to say. He was planning on visiting anyway and can’t see why Mike would tell him to stay away.

“Not a problem,” Mike replies, instantly. “Though he’ll probably still be in an induced coma. He had a nasty knock to the head plus a bad reaction to anaesthesia and the doctors want to let his body rest.”

“Any suspects yet?”

“It’d be better to ask who’s not a suspect, to be honest. You’re the first person I’ve spoken to today who didn’t want Barry Godliman’s guts for garters.

“People sometimes pay a lot of attention to what someone says and not enough to their actions,” Jared points out.

“That’s very true.”

“Plus, he’s a real grumpy bugger.”

“That sounds true too.”

*

Villa Maria Private Bin Hawkes Bay Merlot 2016

Mike has a headache, and it’s not because he didn’t get enough sleep, because he was very responsible and went to bed before 1 am. He thinks it’s probably stress. While part of him always enjoys a difficult case, a bigger part gets weary. Still, this view almost makes up for the pounding behind his eyes and the sting in his sinuses. Mike gazes at the sunlight filtering through the long, spiky leaves of the cabbage trees, already feeling his breathing evening out and the knot at the back of his neck loosening. He made the right choice, moving here from the city. The open spaces giving way to native flora always have a way of soothing his soul.

The day goes by passably quickly, with successive interviews and very little downtime. Mike drives around, listening to his oldest Dolly cassette, because her songs always manage to lift his spirits, even when she’s singing about cheating lovers and always loving someone despite choosing not to hold them back. He thinks he traverses Brokenwood five times over during the day and is still none the wiser as to who made an attempt on Barry Godliman’s life.

His intuition says it’s strange that Barry was struck the very moment his producer left the studio. And that Jeff Mitchell, the DJ that was unceremoniously fired last week, is ‘out of town’. Perhaps it was a crime of opportunity; after all, the weapon was found in the recording studio – an award Barry won when he lived and worked in Wellington. Perhaps there was more cash kept on the premises than anyone’s wanting to admit to, or a regular listener got sick of the way Barry was somewhat of a mean mistreater and cantankerous old sod.

Given Mike’s past few cases, he’s worried it’s something more extreme – like Barry’s a secret Nazi, despite being 30 years too young and apparently progressive in his views. Or this is revenge for him having undertaken a form of human trafficking. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s a Satanist who performs ritual sacrifices with people’s unsuspecting small pets.

Back at the station, Mike practically collides with Breen, who, it’s pretty clear, was actively avoiding him.

“Whoa, steady there, DC Breen,” Mike says, and he can feel his puckish nature coming to the fore. “Wouldn’t want you to injure your Longsword arm.”

“Jared told you, didn’t he?” Breen says, eyes gone flat and glassy. He sucks in a deep breath, lets it out as a sigh. “Of course he did.”

“Honestly, I’m shocked and confused you didn’t let me know first.”

Breen narrows his eyes, goes on the back-foot. “I didn’t think I had anything useful to contribute when I only saw Godliman eight times over the span of the summer last year. There’s no conflict of interest. I’m not working the case.”

Sims sidles next to Mike, looks from Breen to him and back again. “What’s going on?”

“DC Breen is our resident D&D expert.”

“Don’t tell me, he plays as a beautiful Elf lady named Elisandria and has illicit relationships with all the other characters?”

“No, I don’t! I mean, I could. But I don’t. I haven’t played with Godliman and the others for a year.”

“What made you stop, if you don’t mind me asking?” Mike asks. He’d ask even if Breen did mind, amusing himself temporarily with the red shade the tips of his ears have reached.

“Barry Godliman wouldn’t let me DM, not even when he had laryngitis. He insisted on using an LED scrolling sign instead. He’s demanding, humourless, and a bit of a prick.”

“Tell us how you really feel,” Sims murmurs, punching him lightly on the arm.

“I play via discord with a bunch of friends nowadays,” Breen continues, blithely ignoring Sims and her affectionate teasing. “It’s much more fun. Though, you know, I have to hand it to Godliman, his campaigns were always meticulously detailed and my latest is all over the place. We couldn’t open a gate last week so our resident rogue blew it up. That’s not… it’s not supposed to work that way.”

“Right. Thanks for the extra info,” Mike says, understanding precisely half of what Breen shared.

When he gets back home, there’s a bottle of merlot sitting near his front door, with a tag around it in Jared’s handwriting. The headache he had in the morning is still lingering behind the furrow of his brow, but he can never turn down a good merlot.

He texts Jared. ‘I’m only planning on having 1 glass, but please don’t make me drink it alone.’

Jared appears five minutes later, wearing new clothes that are even more paint-spattered than the ones Mike saw before. He gives Mike his easy, warm grin. Mike prides himself on how self-aware and knowing he is, so he doesn’t ignore or discount the low spark of pressure in his gut, or how his pulse rattles higher, or how swallowing becomes tough because his tongue’s welded itself to the roof of his mouth.

“Howdy, neighbour,” Jared says, taking the glass Mike proffers. “Thanks for having me over. Three nights in a row? Must be some kinda record.”

“I wish I could say it was entirely altruistic and in the name of being sharing and caring, but I’d like to pick your brains again about Barry.”

“In another universe I might find that offense. But I’ve seen how you struggle sometimes with interpersonal issues.”

“Oh, you have, have you?”

Jared kicks his feet up, slides his gaze over Mike. “So what was it you wanted to know?”

“Jared, you’re a good judge of character. Is there something else about Barry Godliman you think I should know?”

“Uh, apparently he used to be more obvious with his kindness? That’s before I met him, long before. But y’see, he’s been contending with a broken heart for two or so decades.”

“Did his wife die in unusual circumstances, by any chance?”

“His boyfriend died of cancer in hospital. Wasted away. All above board. Painful, though, eh.” Jared winces.

“So he’s been living in grief this whole time? Must be hard.”

“Ah, yeah. Living with grief and living through grief are two different things, but. I think Barry’s found a way to thrive, even if he can be a miserable git. He’s the sort of bloke who’ll spend a weekend helping someone move house while criticizing their decor, who’ll give money to the local school while loudly lamenting education’s not the same as it was back in his day, and who’ll take a queer Māori kid under his wing while telling them he doesn’t give a rat about ‘em.”

“Who’s the queer Māori kid?”

Jared leans over, takes Mike’s hand, gives it a firm shake. “Gidday, Jared Morehu, nice to meetchuh.” On Mike doing nothing but staring, Jared continues with a shrug, placing Mike’s hand carefully on the bench between them. “I’ll haka for any team.”

Mike’s world doesn’t flip upside-down, but it does tilt on its axis a smidge. He puts his hand on Jared’s forearm, worried his surprise comes off as something it’s not, something parochial and bigoted and small.

“I appreciate you telling me that, Jared.”

Jared taps the back of his hand, warm and soft. “Sweet as.”

“So, just to check; you don’t think this act was revenge for some terrible misdeed in Barry’s past?”

“I mean, if it is, Barry did it unintentionally, or someone’s taken it the wrong way, or someone’s packing a sad.”

“Alright,” Mike says, not sure what his face does as he contemplates this, only that Jared gazes at him with an expression akin to fond exasperation. “I can work with this. I guess I have no choice.”

Jared leaves him after they finish one glass each. Mike promises to take good care of the rest of the merlot. He wishes he’d been a bit more open with Jared, as Jared has with him, but that feels like a dangerous proposition – something Mike’s averse to dealing with in the immediate future. He may not be content here, in his small space he’s carved for himself, but he is safe and secure. He doesn’t want to disrupt that, push himself out of his comfort zone even if he would be happier in the long-run.

The next day they get their first big lead in the case – Jeff Mitchell gets arrested for speeding out of Brokenwood town limits. It’s a good indication that Jeff had been in Brokenwood the entire time and Mike doesn’t do an extended dance in victory, but he does take a few well-rehearsed steps, grapevining and heel-toeing to the side.

*

Ngatarawa Wines Silks Syrah 2004

Barry looks very frail and small in the hospital bed. Jared sets up his card and balloon arrangement. It’s solitary, one slim piece of cream card and a bright blue weight upon a vast wooden bedside tabletop. Jared sits in the chair and twiddles his thumbs. It’s hard to look at Barry with all the wires coming out of him. He’s so pale, like a limp little serviette. Barry’s usually full of life and verve, storming down the street on a mission, even if it’s only to pick up something from the dairy. Or waxing fiercely on the dangers of complacency and not letting your life pass you by, when the caller into the station just wanted to know if it’s too early to put up Christmas decorations. Or narrating the surroundings their band of heroes has encountered, adding fine detail and quirky touches. It’s not fair, that no one else has even dropped off a get well card, not even Charlie, who’s in a prime position to. So Barry’s not someone you’d go to for cuddles. So his tongue’s sharp. He’s a good man.

They’ve taken Barry off the sedation, so he should be waking up later today, though the nurse reckons it’ll be after visiting hours. Jared wonders if he knows who attacked him, or if he’ll even remember he’s been attacked. For his part, Jared’s planning on bringing his group together with a few bottles of wine, to pool a larger resource of knowledge and to emotionally blackmail them into treating Barry with a bit more respect. Meanwhile, he glances kitty-cornered at Barry and tries to ignore the fizzing under his skin. He’d like to be able to talk to Barry, ‘round about now. Get his take on things.

Jared thought he’d gotten used to the concept that coming out’s an ongoing process as opposed to a one-time thing, but it doesn’t feel like it today. He keeps trying to run away from the fact he told Mike, shy away from what he remembers of Mike’s reaction. It keeps bubbling up inside, making his stomach flip.

After he visits Barry, Jared drives to Mrs. Marlowe’s home, mindful to have gotten her a few custard squares from the good café; the inventive ones she likes that use tonka bean and matcha. Mrs. Marlowe smiles up at him, always having had a soft-spot that Jared has little guilt about leaning into.

“I was going to visit Barry this morning, but then I remembered my online krav maga class,” she says. “Now, I won’t go with you immediately, Jared, as I do value my life and limb, but I’ll pop ‘round yours for six.”

“Ta,” Jared says, already stepping away from the front door.

Mrs. Marlowe calls out to him. “It’s good to have you back, you know. Your Mike has been missing you terribly.”

“He’s not my Mike,” Jared says, feeling a blush creeping up his neck. “He’s his own.”

Jared shakes his head at himself when he guns the engine, driving to Meredith’s. He had no idea he could become so flustered. He manages to lure Meredith with the idea of a hot home-cooked meal, and Nick, who lives two doors down, says he’d be happy for the company. Charlie’s a bit trickier, given she’s had a crush on him for three years and he wants to be clear this is a friends-only deal.

“Thought it’d be a nice gesture,” Jared says, being more up-front with Charlie about his purpose for the gathering. “If we made Barry some cards, maybe a gift or two.”

Charlie levels him with a flat look and a roll of her eyes. “Why put any effort into something he’s going to tear to shreds?”

“Not literally, though. He’s all bark and no bite, is Barry. It’d mean a lot to him, I know it would.”

Charlie lets out a deep sigh. “Alright, fine. See you later.”

Jared rubs his hands together and hares back to his place, keen to set everything up. He’s using his front room, so he drags a table in there, dresses it nicely. His auntie gave him a tablecloth for his birthday once, to his confusion and dismay. He’d asked for an iTunes giftcard. But it’s helpful here. He makes a couple of different salads and a lasagne from scratch, because he knows good food in the stomach can change a stubborn mind. Then, even though he’s spent all day vacillating on whether to do it or not, he texts Mike and invites him along too.

His guests begin arriving at ten to six, and Jared ensures they’re all settled with a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers. Mike arrives at quarter past, still in the grey suit Jared thinks of as his uniform. Honestly, sometimes Jared thinks Mike doesn’t know the meaning of subtle. He was hoping this wouldn’t look like an interrogation.

“Oh, I feel like I’m in a Poirot!” Mrs. Marlowe exclaims, when Mike’s sitting opposite her with his own wine and cheese.

Jared rubs his forehead.

Knowing that Meredith likes country music, Jared starts up a conversation about an article he read, hoping to get Mike and Meredith connecting. He listens for a few minutes, until they lose him in a discussion about the finer merits of banjos or washboards. He talks about the current D&D campaign their group’s been running with Charlie, instead.

“I liked the bit in the caves,” Jared says, after Charlie’s been complaining for a good seven minutes. She’s picked apart the others’ characters, the setting, the problems they’ve encountered and Barry’s penchant for doing funny voices for side-characters. “I thought the lock puzzle was pretty clever.”

“You would,” Charlie gripes. “You love all of that escape-room style rubbish.”

“True that, eh.”

“Will the radio show continue, do you think?” Charlie asks, eyes zeroing in on Jared with uncomfortable intensity.

“Uh, I don’t know? Maybe?”

“I’d be a good DM.”

“Yeah, definitely.” Regretting his decision to talk with Charlie, Jared stands, smiles apologetically. “I’m gonna finish getting dinner ready.”

He goes into his kitchen, has a few more sips of wine as he checks on the lasagne that he knows needs another six minutes. He potters about with choosing plates – he doesn’t have a matched set, but he likes how these ones go together, a mishmash of patterns and designs. Maybe he should’ve suggested they write up cards before dinner; what if everyone takes his kai and then pisses off? But nah, better to get everyone pliable with good wine and great food.

Jared’s getting his cutlery out when there’s a slight knock on the door and Mike’s stepping through.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Mike says, glancing around. “Very cosy.”

“Cosy’s my middle name. Nothing I like more than a bit of comfort, me.”

“You left abruptly,” Mike hedges. “Everything okay?”

“You ever get into a conversation and then realise you don’t know how to finish it?”

“With startling regularity.”

“Then you know why I’m hiding back here.” Jared gestures broadly. “How’s the investigation going?”

“This morning, I thought I’d cracked the case, but my main suspect has an airtight alibi and, as it turns out, no motive. I thought Jeff Mitchell was the likely culprit, but he wasn’t fired like I was initially told.”

“Nah, I coulda told you that. Jeff was probably working on his podcast.”

Mike sighs. “Yes.”

“Who’da thought a wool review podcast would have millions of subscribers?”

“Not me. So we’re back to square one, I’m afraid.”

Jared sets a comforting hand on Mike’s shoulder, purposely ignoring the rush of blood under his own skin. “S’okay, Mike. I have faith in you.” He turns as his timer dings. “Help me set the food in the other room?”

The meal is highly enjoyable, even if Jared does think so himself. This recipe is always a winner. Jared sits between Mike and Mrs. Marlowe at the head of the table, is amazed to hear Charlie still talking about their campaign, this time with Meredith, who seems to be taking it all in stride.

“You should have a go, Mike,” Jared says. “Next time we’re setting up a campaign. I think you’d like it.”

“What about it do you think I’d like?” Mike asks, sounding genuinely curious.

“It’s very creative,” Mrs. Marlowe says.

“It involves puzzles and problem-solving,” Jared adds.

“It gives you the power you lack in your everyday life,” Charlie says, then seems to realise who she’s talking to, “Or gives you even more.”

“I like the fantasy aspects the most,” Nick pipes up. “Magic and chimeras and potions and crystals.”

“It’s all about the storytelling for me,” Meredith says, which Jared predicted would be his answer. He’s always derailing plot for more character interaction.

“Okay,” Mike says, putting an end to their persuasion. “You have me convinced. I’ll ask Barry to deal me in.”

“That’s not how…” Nick starts, but Jared sees the twinkle in Mike’s eye and susses that he’s been reading up on D&D and knows that’s not the right terminology.

“Don’t bother, Nick, he’s having a laugh,” Jared says, nudging into Mike’s side. Mike nudges him back and they share a smile. The candles Jared lit earlier create flickering reflective light in Mike’s blue-green eyes, and dancing golden flecks in his curls. Jared thinks, for a fleeting moment, how nice it would be to have Mike here beside him more often.

Surprising Jared to no end, everyone contributes to a few different cards for Barry and even cough up some cash for a present, though there’s a fair amount of grumbling about it.

“I’ll come with you tomorrow to see Barry,” Mrs. Marlowe says, as he hands her back her cardigan at the end of the evening. Everyone other than Mike has left, with old take-out containers housing the left-over lasagne and salad.

“Tu meke.”

“What time were you thinking of going?”

“Around eleven, all going well,” Jared says.

“I’ll meet you there,” Mrs. Marlowe says with a decisive nod, before going on her way. She hoons out of Jared’s driveway the same way Jared does, so he has no idea why she said she’d never drive with him. She’d have a right hoot.

Mike hovers in the hallway, awkwardly shrugging on his suit jacket. His tie’s coming undone and his cheeks have the pink flush he gets when he’s edging towards being pissed as a newt.

“I’m walking you home,” Jared says. “How much of that Silks Syrah did you drink?”

“It’s a good wine, Jared.”

Jared wanders with Mike, just to make sure he doesn’t fall into a ditch. It’s a pleasant night – not hot, but not chill either. The good, cosy side of warm. The rātā along the way are in bloom, bursting bright red in Jared’s peripheral vision. They may not exude much fragrance, but they add to the atmosphere, and the air is already clean and earthy. Jared glances up at the stars, grateful for their bountiful light.

Jared thinks about how successful he was in bringing two corners of his life together, tentatively creating folds that he hopes will stand the test of time.

“Thanks for inviting me, Jared, I had a good time,” Mike says when they’re at his door. He only stumbled the once, but Jared was careful to catch him by the elbow. He thought about taking his hand, but that would be too intimate.

Jared waves goodbye, then shoves his hands into his pockets. “No worries. Take care. Drink some water, ow.”

*

Jacob’s Creek Reserve Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2017

Barry Godliman’s awake, but not always making the most sense, his allergic reaction to the anaesthetic bringing on some hallucinations and confused rambling that mix the past with the present. Gone is Mike’s hope that he can blow the lid wide-open and help Mike close this case once and for all. It doesn’t sit right, in Mike’s gut, that someone’s gotten away with attempted murder. Especially when, for once, it doesn’t seem like the victim deserved it.

Mike spent a good twenty minutes standing in front of his murder board yesterday, lamenting his lack of progress.

It’s not Jeff Mitchell. It’s not the producer, Samara Klein, who’s guilty only of getting bored during broadcasts and deciding to pick up her dry-cleaning. It’s not another DJ as there are only another two and they both have alibis. If it’s a disgruntled listener, Mike doesn’t know how they’d ever solve this mystery. He’s stumped. They’re at that stage in a case where they need new evidence, because they don’t have CCTV, they don’t have witnesses, and they don’t appear to have any clear suspects with means, motive and opportunity.

Sims and Kahu are flirting out the front of the station when Mike arrives. The devilish side of Mike wants to move things along with them, so he joins their conversation.

“Kahu, are you into D&D like Jared?”

“Do I look like a giant nerd to you?”

“There’s no easy answer to that one, is there? I ask because Jared’s convinced me to play a campaign, and I figured, the more the merrier. Kristin’s having a go too, aren’t you, Kristin?”

“I am?” Sims asks. She sees the look in Mike’s eye and confirms it. “I am.”

“I guess I could give it a try,” Kahu says, tone laden in scepticism.

“Great! Sims, once you’ve finished having a smoko, help me review the files we picked up from the radio station?”

Mike spends a couple of hours reviewing the paperwork from the radio station with Sims’ help. Most of it’s run of the mill, run of the station stuff; rules and protocols, scheduling, music orders and purchasing information, but one particularly heavy item is a huge dossier that turns out to contain D&D campaign information. Over the past week, Mike’s learned more about tabletop role-playing games than he had his entire life before, so he chooses to tackle this, leafing through the information increment by tiny increment.

It’s when he’s three quarters of the way through the pile that he stumbles across something that piques his interest – a breakdown of the current campaign and Barry’s plans for what should come next. Mike squints, consults google, and begins to formulate a hypothesis.

“Sims, what would drive you to try to kill someone?”

“Oh, I don’t know. If they put me in an awkward situation with a friend, perhaps? Or dragged me into something I don’t want to do?”

“What about if they tried to push you out of something you’re passionate about?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“How about you, Breen?” Mike asks, turning around to Breen, who’s writing up the report for his own case, the one about Frodo’s stolen business signs.

“If someone hurt Roxy,” Breen says, no hesitation. “I’d give serious consideration to pummelling a face or two, then.”

“Yes,” Mike says with a hum. “Could you read this for me? I’d like another set of eyes.”

Sims raises her eyebrows. “What am I? Chopped liver?”

“I’d like a set of eyes that belong to someone with the background knowledge to see what I think I’m seeing.”

“Just you wait ‘til next year when I’m the resident expert,” Sims mumbles to herself.

Mike politely pretends he didn’t hear her.

Mike checks his watch once Breen confirms that he’s noticed the details that Mike has. It’s half past eleven. He vaguely remembers Jared and Jean discussing visiting Barry in hospital about this time, so he climbs into his Kingswood and makes his way there, tapping out a rhythm to Johnny Cash. He has a little thrill of anticipation dancing through his blood. He likes these moments, when he can practically taste victory, when the hard yakka seems worth it. For the first time in a long time, Mike feels secure in the knowledge that justice will be served. He pulls into a parking space, strokes his hand against his bonnet.

Mike casts his eyes about the hospital ward, noting the other patients, nurses and visitors.

Barry Godliman is sitting up and looking a lot more lively than the last time Mike spoke with him. To his side he has a collection of cards, a couple of droopy balloons, and a mountain of books – including an expensive-looking hard-cover edition of The Silmarillion on his lap. Jared’s sitting on the left side of him, one leg crossed over the other, while Jean’s on his right. Mike wouldn’t say he looks exactly happy, but he doesn’t look angry either.

“Gidday, Mike,” Jared says, the tender look he was giving Barry a second ago smoothing out to something warm and bright as he gazes up at Mike.

Mike forgets what he was going to say for a moment, more.

“Young Jared here was telling me you’re going to join us for a campaign at some point,” Barry says, definitely sounding like he has more of his wits about him, and sounding less croaky too. “Do you have any of the requisite knowledge?”

“I’ve been learning a lot this week,” Mike offers. “And I’m a quick study. I’m actually here to ask you about your current campaign, if that’s okay?”

“Is it relevant to the case?” Jean asks, her voracious appetite for crime drama showing through as she cranes forward.

“Yes, I’m afraid it is. I just wanted to check that my hunch is right. Care to tell me about Jax Breaker?”

Barry steeples his fingers, rocks back a bit in his bed. “Ah, yes, a royal pain in my backside. The worst kind of character – one who blunders into every situation and spoils all your plans.”

“So death by dragon was the way to go.”

Jared glances from Mike to Barry. “Bit cruel, though? DMs don’t usually purposely kill off PCs. It’s not done.”

“It’s not against the rules, though, dear Jared, and honestly she didn’t heed my warnings.”

“So Charlie decided to give you one of her own – didn’t you, Charlie?” Mike says, pulling the curtain back.

Charlie Wright stands there, scowling, her cheerful patterned scrubs incongruous with the storm of her expression. She grabs the clipboard from the end of Barry’s bed and makes to hit him with it, moving quicker than Mike anticipated. Jared leaps in her way, Jean takes hold of one of her wrists, and Mike grapples around her middle, to stop her from reaching her mark.

“It’s unfair,” she screams. “I put as much effort into Jax as you put into your pissy little campaigns. I’ve nurtured and grown him over years. But no, you decided to kill him off. You’re a miserly git, Barry Godliman.”

“Dungeon masters don’t kill player characters, player characters kill themselves. Is it really my fault that your halfwit of a creation was bound to rush into the dragon’s lair? No, I think not.”

“You were jealous because my character was the one everyone loves!”

“You daft bint, I was setting you up to become the next DM,” Barry says with all the spikiness and vitriol he can muster.

“It’s true,” Mike says, lessening his grip on Charlie’s waist and pulling the page of notes from his back pocket. “Barry finally decided he’d had enough running campaigns and was trying to get your character to go out in a blaze of glory so you could take over the reins.” He shows Charlie the meticulous planning, watches as she goes limp. “Of course, might be a bit hard for you to do that from jail. Not impossible, though.”

“Oh my!” Jean exclaims. “Wait until Nancy and the others in my krav maga class hear I foiled a murder attempt!”

“Just one thing,” Mike says, getting out his handcuffs and placing Charlie in them. “Why didn’t you finish the job?”

“I’m chaotic neutral, not evil. When Meredith told me about his plans, I thought, right, I’ll give him a good wallop, see how he likes it. Like you said, I only wanted to warn him.”

“But how would that work if he didn’t know it was you?” Jared asks, frown scrunching up his features. Mike spares a moment to notice he looks adorable.

“I was going to tell you,” Charlie hisses at Barry, who looks remarkably calm, all things considered. “Force you to see the error of your ways. But you just had to be a drama queen like always and react badly to simple pain medication.”

Barry once again looks small, and very, very sad. “I would have told you my intentions if I’d known, Charlie. It was never my wish to remove you from the campaign. I had a new character for the last two episodes, ready for you to adapt.”

Charlie hangs her head, takes a deep, shuddering breath. She points to the reception desk of the ward. “There are more cards back there, Jared,” she says softly, all the fight gone out of her. “I hid them away, but maybe I should’ve taken more time to read them, realise my mistake.”

Mike is happy at the end of the day, even if he feels a bit bad for Charlie. At least her reasons for undertaking drastic measures were trivial and banal, and therefore it’s just as well she’ll serve some time and hopefully get some much needed help. Mike absolutely feels like he’s contributed to a worthwhile cause, helping the community. If Charlie was willing to whack someone over D&D it was only a matter of time before she cracked it over something else, something equally as small, but potentially more devastating.

The rest of his day after the hospital debacle involved writing up a shedload of paperwork, so Mike knows he’s owed a celebratory glass or two of pinot noir. He’s about to text Jared, when Jared appears, like he’s been pulled by psychic energy. Jared’s dressed up neater than usual, wearing a well-pressed button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and full-length black-wash jeans. Mike doesn’t let himself look away, but instead admires him in all his glory.

“Take a seat,” he offers, sliding over the glass he already poured.

“Been a bloody long day,” Jared says, slouching down and tipping his head back. “I don’t know how you do it, confront villains all day.”

“You think Charlie’s a villain?”

“Yeah, nah, no one’s ever a villain in their own story, are they? But she acted villainously, which has to count for something.”

“It can be tricky,” Mike concedes. “Has been a lot, lately. Contending with all the murderers who’ve had worthy motives and ultimately sympathetic reasons. Empathy in my job is vital, but it’s also sometimes painful.”

“It’s why you’ve been out of sorts.”

“Yes.”

“But you’re staying, aren’t you? You’re not planning on packing it all in and going back to the city?”

Mike hears the vulnerability in Jared’s tone, even if he’s trying to mask it with some brash teasing. “No. Even if I discover being a copper’s no longer right for me, I think I’ll stay. I hear there are two DJ spots at the radio station that’ve just opened up.”

They drink wine, and Jared lets Mike pick a spotify playlist on his phone, and all in all, it’s a good day and an even better evening.

*

1 Bottled Courage

“So I roll this six-sided die?” Mike checks, looking ever so slightly distrusting.

“Four times, yes,” Sam replies. “Then add the values together.”

“Four times? Who can be bothered?”

“You can use an online dice roller like me, dear,” Mrs. Marlowe says.

“That sounds infinitely worse,” Mike replies with a roll of his eyes and the die simultaneously. “3, 4, 4, 2. Thirteen.”

“Nat 20!” Sam returns. “Sorry, boss.” He’s the other side of gleeful as he lays out the consequences. Kristin chuckles at Mike’s groaning, and Kahu pats his arm consolingly.

Jared watches, pleased as punch that Mike’s here, interacting with his team in a non-work setting, finally accepting that he’s made friends and willing to get closer. Mike grumbles about the game, but he’s present, not lingering among the shadows like an origami version of himself, paper-thin and pale. Jared plays his turn, healing Mike’s character even though it’s the least advantageous action he could take.

When there’s a lull in the gameplay, Jared leans over to Mike. “I finished my triptych, if you wanted to stay behind and take a squizz?”

“I’d love to,” Mike answers.

It’s another four hours before everyone leaves, though while Jared’s biding his time, he doesn’t mind. Truthfully, he has the best kind of fun, filled with laughter, mayhem, and no small amount of problem-solving. After a while, Mike gets into it too, Jared can tell. He’s especially happy when he solves Sam’s colour puzzle. Still, when everyone does go, leaving him alone with Mike, Jared’s relieved.

Well, relieved and nervous.

Maybe anticipatory.

Definitely half-terrified.

Jared opens the door to his living room, spreads his hand out wide to direct Mike how to read his paintings.

“They’re murals,” Mike says with a hint of a gasp, moving forward. He stands, looking from far away, before stepping close and taking in all the details. The kōwhai with their tui, kākā and bellbirds, the red mistletoe on their host trees, the rātā and pōhutukawa in full bloom. It’s a riot of colour and Jared’s proud. They’re even better than he initially thought they’d be.

“They’re really good.”

“Thanks! They’ve been a labour of love, for sure.”

“Is this… us,” Mike asks, pointing at two shadows in the corner of the third wall, silhouettes facing one another, arched inwards like they’re in their own, private world.

“Ah, yeah,” Jared says, rubbing his hand at the back of his neck. His heart’s kicked up into a rollicking beat. “Thought it’d add something a bit special.”

Mike takes his free hand, pulls him closer. His touch is warm and gentle. Jared swallows thickly as Mike cradles his jaw, rubs his thumb against his jawline. He’s thought about this, but every time, he imagined he’d be the one to take that first step. Mostly, he reckoned he’d get politely rejected. Still, Mike has been gazing at him lately like perhaps this is a thing that could happen, and now, here he is, closing the distance between them.

Mike presses his lips against Jared’s, tentative and sweet, and Jared opens up a touch, licks against his lower lip. Jared wouldn’t say the world stops spinning, but for that one, precious moment, he doesn’t care if it does or not.

“You kissed me,” Jared says when they pull away from each other, pressing his fingers to his lips.

“Yes,” Mike says, looking a bit concerned. “I did.”

“But I was gonna kiss you first,” Jared laments, continuing to stroke his fingertips along his lower lip. “You stole my moment. I thought theft was a crime?”

Mike gives a whole-bodied sigh, then smiles at Jared, wry. “If that’s the case, I need you to come down to the station. Because you’ve taken my heart.”

“Aww, Mike, that’s so cheesy. But I forgive you. ‘Cause I kinda feel the same way?”

“Okay, good,” Mike says.

Jared grins, pressing close to Mike again, smoothing one hand into the curls at the back of his head, the other against his spine.

“Very good,” he intones, kissing Mike like he’s dreamt about after wine-soaked nights and warm conversations. He could kiss Mike for hours, he realises. Learn all those parts of him he’s slowly beginning to reveal. Jared can't tell a lie; he’s really looking forward to it.