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The Tendency Of All Things To Bloom

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It was one of the nastier cases that I’d ever worked, and that was for sure. Young bloke freshly gone to university in Dublin, looking forward to being in a place that actually had some night life and other gay folk. And what did he get for it? The side of his head caved in, an ignominious dumping on a grey street in one of the worse parts of town, his mother sobbing over him on a slab as his grim faced father stood behind her and refused to show any emotion at all.

I’d been the first one put on the case, and had soon managed to wrangle Cassie - who had, being the brightest button in the box, managed to find her way back onto Murder after all - as my partner. It was never going to be a simple case, if there was anything my years on the force had taught me it was that there was rarely a simple case of murder when it came down to it, but it was made so much worse by the fact that Frank Mackey had somehow managed to wriggle his way into it. He’d been the one to pinpoint the club where the lad had most likely been killed, and joy of joys it turned out he was familiar with it from an undercover point of view. Which meant that he suddenly considered our case his fiefdom, to put his grubby little fingers all over and manipulate as he pleased.

He was sitting in the incident room now, his feet up on the table and a big grin upon his face. I’ve never liked Frank, for one thing he thinks that I’m stupid and for another he has a horrible habit of treating the sum total of human misery as some great big game, and the fact that he was getting dirt on some of my case files hardly endeared me to him more. “I have a bright new idea.”

The last bright idea of Frank I’d been involved in had led to two dead people, three more ruined lives and the near implosion of my relationship with Cassie. Given all of those facts, you can understand why I was not best pleased to hear those words coming out of his mouth. I crossed my arms over my chest, and drew in a deep and bracing breath. “Let me guess, something to do with undercover?”

“Bingo!” Frank winked at Cassie, where she was standing leant against the wall with a mercifully unimpressed expression. “Guess the boy isn’t as dumb as he looks.”

“He’s not dumb at all, Frankie,” Cassie said, with a great deal of weariness. The last time she’d been a lot more tolerant of his shit, but thank God she seemed to have learned some kind of lesson from what’d happened at Whitethorn House. There was a new kind of caution in her expression, a certain reluctance to be dragged back down the rabbit hole. “It better be an extremely bright idea, because in case you haven’t noticed the two of us aren’t going to do very well going undercover at a gay club.”

“Come on, Maddox, I’d be convinced by the two of you and I actually know you.” Frank winked again, at God knows who this time, and finally swung his feet down off the table. In one moment he went from a jokey lad to a coiled up predator, and if that didn’t sum up why I didn’t trust him I didn’t know what would. “I could joke around, and say that I mean for me and Sammy boy here to go in as a matched pair…”

No,” I said automatically, my gorge downright rising at the thought of being in an intimate relationship with a man like Frank. Even if it was just for a night, even if it was just for a handful of seconds before he inevitably got us both stabbed.

“But this is a time sensitive situation, and for once I’m not inclined to play,” Frank finished coolly, sparing me an only half second glance. I was never sure whether he was capable of taking offence or not, whether everything really did slide off him like water from a duck’s back or whether he was storing up every single perceived insult in preparation for some kind of reckoning later. When I’d asked Cassie, casual like, the only answer she’d given me was a shrug. “I’m not going in, ‘cos I’m not young and beautiful anymore, and Cassie’s not going in, because she only has metaphorical balls. Which leaves us one option.”

“A floater,” Cassie said precisely, nodding her head like it made perfect sense. Which I supposed it did in a way, even if it did leave me unfortunately dancing with the wolves with a partner who I couldn’t be entirely sure of trusting.

“A floater,” Frank echoed, and although he’d claimed to be no longer joking around the grin that spread across his face was so cruelly amused that I mistrusted him afresh. Ever involved in the game, ever capable of looking at somebody with their brains spilling out and thinking about how fun it’d be for him. “And as it happens, I have the perfect one in mind.”

It was at that exact moment, because God apparently hates me with a passion, that there was a knock on the door and Rob Ryan walked back into our lives.

--

For all that we were married and thus technically supposed to be of one mind now, Cassie and I still differed on a lot. I wanted to move out to the country, while she was absurdly attached to her poky flat in the centre of the city. I liked my food plain and solid, while she would quite happily burn her mouth on any spicy concoction going. I got slow and grumpy at night, while she seemed to light up the later it got.

On the subject of Rob Ryan, though, the both of us were agreed.

We argued that it would be inappropriate, dangerous, capable of putting both our lives and our case at risk. I pointed out that surely finding out who actually killed the poor lad was more important than whatever games Frank wanted to play, Cassie told Frank that if she’d wanted somebody she didn’t trust out in the field with me she’d already had him lined up as the best option. We both made our reluctance about the idea perfectly plain, even if Rob was standing right there as we did it. I tried to be polite about it, at least, but it only seemed to add venom to Cassie’s argument.

It didn’t matter, in the end. Frank let us both wear ourselves out, with a smug smile on his face that I kind of wanted to throw things at, and then dropped his bombshell. This was Rob’s last chance. He either helped out with us, or he got kicked off the force altogether. Apparently there was a new chief in town, a right bulldog of a man, and he’d heard about what Rob had done. He was just looking for an excuse to kick the guy out, and was willing to let the fact that few teams wanted him - Adam Robert Ryan, the cursed boy and the even more cursed adult - be that excuse unless he finally got his arse in gear.

Which led to the two of us, standing on the street outside the club with almost invisible wires and microphones twined through our hair and wrapped around our ears. I had a complex relationship with the guy, Cassie even more so, but neither of us wanted to see him lose the only thing that he had left.

Are you ready?” Cassie asked, her voice echoing quiet and tinny down the microphone. I don’t know what deal she’d made to get Frank to agree to let her be the handler, quite possibly it had involved souls and crossroads knowing that man, but I was glad of it. I trusted Cassie more than I trusted anybody else on this green earth, even when it came to her complicated relationship with Rob.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I answered grimly, my ear already itching from the weight of the microphone in it, and glanced over at Rob standing beside me. He had once been such a livewire of a man, active and dancing and with a whip quick tongue; in those weeks we’d spent together on our last case, the one that’d ended up in despair for all involved, I’d often not been sure if I was falling in love with him or Cassie. Now, though, he seemed so much smaller; quiet and wilted and half-dead looking, almost like he was about to fade away in his ratty jumper and combat boots. “What about you?”

“Me?” Rob looked up at me for a long moment, and I felt a pang in my chest at the sight of how dull his eyes were. Operation Vestal had broken something in everybody involved in it, but while me and Cassie had been just about able to paper over the cracks Rob was still in shattered china pieces upon the floor. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll follow your lead, and Cassie’s too.”

There was still such a heat in his voice as he said her name, a lingering love that made me feel jealous and sad all at once. I could’ve said a thousand things to that, would’ve murmured several polite reassurances to anybody else, but with him I felt somewhat incapable of it. I gave him a brusque nod instead, an uncertain one, and turned for the door as professionally as I could.

“Sam,” he said to my back, and there was an intensity to his voice that I didn’t know what to do with. It reminded me of the last days of Operation Vestal, it reminded me of Cassie’s voice when she’d been in the thick of it at Whitethorn House, it reminded me of waking up at midnight with my mind screaming. “I just wanted to say-”

“We can talk later,” I interrupted him, just as brusquely as I’d nodded, and marched towards the door at full speed. I couldn’t allow him his intensity, not now; I couldn’t allow him to drag me back to the midnight hour, when everything seemed so much wilder and more possible. It had always been the case with Rob, as much as I wished it was otherwise. I looked at him, at his messy hair and sardonic smile and eyes full of pain and starlight, and I wanted things that a man like me had no business wanting. I couldn’t go down that road again, couldn’t even allow myself to think on it, not with Cassie right there and listening and holding her own complicated history with the man close.

Rob hesitated for a long second, but soon proved that he really had changed from the man who would argue any point and run into the woods without thought. He didn’t say another word, and a moment later I heard his footsteps behind me in time with Cassie’s helpless sigh into my ear.

--

I hadn’t been to a gay club since my days at university, when I’d kissed blokes as often as I’d kissed women, but my hazy memories of them were a lot more impressive than the one we walked into that night. I was used to things being shiny and bright, full of laughing faces and people looking to have a little fun. The past had no doubt been gilded by a haze of alcohol mixed in with youthful dreams; but it still had to be better than the dingy and crowded room we walked into, full of drawn looking faces and underlined by a constantly pounding bass that set my teeth on edge from the very beginning.

If I’d been by myself, just an ordinary clubgoer out on the pull, I would’ve probably turned on my heel and walked right out again. But, as hard as it was to remind myself of the fact, I wasn’t here just for the hell of it. I couldn’t walk out on that poor murdered lad, or on all the ranked expectations of me, or even on Rob trailing behind me like some deer caught in the headlights. I couldn’t walk out on any of them, even though at least half of them had failed me first.

So I didn’t. I took a deep breath in, at the point where the air was at least somewhat clear, and then groped back for Rob’s hand. When he took it, his palms sweaty and his fingers shaking just slightly like this entire situation unnerved him, I gave a big grin like his touch was electric to me and dragged us into the crowd. I could pretend. Not half as well as Cassie, or as Rob before his house of cards had come tumbling disastrously down, but hopefully good enough not to court outright disaster.

We danced a little, more awkward than I would’ve liked, and then went to order drinks from the bar. We attempted to chat to the other patrons, just casual stuff about why they’d come here and what was the scene like and did they have any other recommendations for me and my partner, and received blank looks in reply. We danced again, a little more awkward this time despite the fact that Rob was unexpectedly quick on his feet, and then repeated the process. And again, and again, and again.

Eventually an hour had passed, perhaps slightly longer judging by the impatient sighs Cassie had started to give in my ear, and we’d still got absolutely nothing despite repeating the process several times. I wasn’t the type to get frustrated, even on Operation Vestal I’d generally been as cool as a cucumber until we’d got to the endgame and Rob had fucked everything up, but I would admit to being slightly on edge. And if I was bad Rob was even worse, no longer quite looking like a deer in the headlights but more like a rabbit who had just come nose to nose with a fox.

After collecting our fifth set of drinks, it was a mercy that I’d perfected the art of the subtle spill years ago I’ll tell you that much for free, we found the quietest corner in the club and bent our heads close together like we were two lovers having a perfectly friendly chat with each other. In reality we were checking in with Cassie, and carefully not touching each other in the slightest, but to an outsider it’d hopefully look perfectly pleasant.

What about that guy with the mullet?

“We’ve tried the guy with the mullet.” I sighed, stubbornly remaining patient with her. It wasn’t all that hard. Cassie could be a livewire sometimes, but I loved her. She wasn’t like Frank, who thought that I was an idiot, or Rob, who’d treated everybody in his life like one. “We’ve tried pretty much everybody in this club, and nobody wants to talk to us.”

“There’s something odd here,” Rob put in quietly. Before he would’ve been all bravado about it, Sherlock Holmes strutting his stuff in skinny jeans, but now there was a new shadow in his eyes that didn’t quite suit him. “A weird atmosphere.”

Wow,” Cassie said, and her tone was spiky in a way that it hadn’t been since she’d finally cast off Lexie Madison and returned to me. “With an intuition like that, you should’ve become a detective.”

“He’s right, though,” I said reluctantly, not entirely wanting to support him - after all he’d done, to both of us - but also not wanting him to get torn apart entirely by Cassie in a temper. Especially when he was right, when the atmosphere was oppressive enough that it felt like it was about to wrench open my jaw and pour itself down my throat until I choked. “As much as I hate to say it, I think Frank had a point about this place.”

I couldn’t see her, although God knows if I wasn’t trying to build up a picture from every single rustle in my ear, but I somehow felt Cassie turn her attention to me. We’d never have the bond her and Rob had once had, but maybe I knew her a bit by now after all. “You think the people there saw something?”

“Not all the people, or even most of the people,” Rob spoke up again. And maybe there was a touch of that old fire in him still, because the set of his jaw was downright determined. "And I think it may be the case that they know something is up, more than they’re potential witnesses to any actual crime.”

Cassie’s voice sharpened, I could hear it even through the overlying crackle of electricity. “Do you think you’ve been made?”

“No, not yet,” Rob said, more precise than I would’ve expected from him considering the way that he’d been looking all night. The way that he’d probably been looking since the last time I’d seen him, judging by the circles under his eyes. “I meant more something being up with the general venue, than anything specifically to do with us. This place has a very ‘local shop for local people’ vibe, if you get my drift.”

Maybe it was the fact that I was a little on edge, maybe it was the fact that it’d been a legitimately funny crack from a man who’d previously looked about five steps from the funeral parlour. Either way, I snorted so loudly that Cassie must’ve heard it over the mic and barely managed to maintain any sense of dignity afterwards.

Rob- Ryan, that’s not professional,” Cassie said sharply, but there was a small waver underneath it that I was sure all three of us picked up on. Cassie didn’t exactly have a restrained sense of humour, it burst out of her in waves no matter how hard she tried to force it down. “If they’re uncomfortable, then it might just be a matter of time until they break. Do you feel comfortable trying to press them a bit more, or do you think we need to extend this surveillance beyond a night?

“I think-” Rob said stridently for a moment, and then bit his lip and looked at me. Every so often you could tell, by the look on his face, that he was remembering how badly he’d fucked up. And maybe I should’ve been triumphant, but all I felt was a sick sense of depression. “It’s Sam’s decision.”

“No,” I said, surprising even myself with my stubbornness. Rob had been a good cop once upon a time, and even though his personal instincts were shit I still trusted his professional opinion. “I want to hear your take on the situation.”

Rob frowned at me, as if he was genuinely confused why I was being so stubborn over a situation that should’ve been an easy win for me. “It doesn’t matter.”

“I think it does.”

“Well, it objectively doesn’t.”

Boys-”

And then, mid squabble so petty that it almost seemed like we’d regressed to the point where all of us had been sitting in Cassie’s flat and teasing each other like nothing mattered at all, a shadow fell over us and everything changed in an instant.

When I remembered Harry Kirkham afterwards it was mainly in impressions, like flashes from an old polaroid camera. There a drift of smoke, here a slimy smile, an overall impression of intimidating sleaze capable of stripping anybody to their bones. In truth he was so much less impressive than he seemed, a tiny bulldog of a man clutching an illegal cigarette and giving a condescending grin that seemed a little too big for his face. “You two gentlemen are new.”

Frank had mentioned him to me in passing as the owner of the club, a man they suspected of numerous deprativities but had never been able to pin anything on. I tensed up, wondering how on earth to convey that information to Rob without breaking our cover, but as it turned out I shouldn’t have worried. Rob was already laughing like a born liar, sliding his arm through mine in a display of ownership that I had no clue what to do with. “Guilty as charged! We’ve been on a roadtrip through Ireland, for our anniversary, and we thought we’d stop in and check out the local scene.”

“Well, you won’t find a better place,” Kirkham said, with a certain lazy arrogance, and chewed on his cigarette for a long few moments more. “Say, what anniversary are you celebrating?”

Second,” Cassie hissed in my ear, a touch frantically as I hesitated.

“Second,” I said automatically, the second before Rob could give another casual laugh and do it for me. I knew next to nothing about undercover, was going blind in pretty much every possible way, but the least I knew was that it’d look suspicious if only one of us gave any answers. “Don’t know how I’ve managed to put up with this idiot for two years, but here we are.”

Kirkham gave me a narrow eyed look, like he could see right through to the core of me. I’d never liked people who looked at you like that, like they were just expecting to find secrets that they could put their grotty little paws all over. “Odd thing to do for a second anniversary, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“We’ve both always wanted to travel,” Rob said lightly, sending me a look that could’ve been fondly exasperated and could’ve just as possibly been a heartfelt glare. “And since we both had a bit of time off work, falling at around the same time for once, we thought we might as well indulge. Ireland isn’t the most impressive place in the world, but… Well, we’ve both got fond memories of it. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”

“Definitely,” I said obediently, as easily as I could. I could feel myself fucking up even asit happened, could just see the smug look of condescension on Frank’s face as he chewed me out for this. “We were both born here, after all.”

“Yes, I can hear that in your accent at least.” Kirkham looked at us with his lizard eyes for a long moment more, and then gave a very slow nod. I could see a decision in his eyes, and I felt an instinctive horror at it. “Been away for long?”

“Sometimes it feels like years, sometimes it feels like no time at all,” Rob said almost casually. And flattened his hand on my chest, as if he was trying to soothe the rabbit quick beat of my heart. “Either way, we’ve been gone for far too long.”

“You sure about that, lads?” Kirkham stared at us for a long moment, deliberately shifting his gaze between us in a way that made me feel like a bug on some kind of cosmic microscope. And then he gave another one of his horrible smiles, plucked his mangled cigarette from his mouth and jerked his head behind him in a gesture of casual arrogance that sealed our doom. “Come on, I think this is a conversation best continued in private.”

“Should we go with him?” Rob asked. And while he was technically asking me, his eyes flickering to me like the anxious and considerate lover he was acting, I knew full well that he was probably asking Cassie for confirmation instead. Perhaps I should’ve felt jealous, but instead I felt like it was entirely sensible. I trusted Cassie’s judgement more than anybody else’s too.

In this case she hesitated for a long moment, before responding. With the benefit of several years knowledge of the inside of her head I knew exactly the conflict that she was weighing up: whether to put us in danger and potentially get some vital information, or pull us back to safety and potentially lose any chance of finding anything. “Sam?”

So it was to be me who’d make the decision, then. I expected Rob to protest this fact, to look at me resentfully for earning Cassie’s trust in the years he’d been away, but he didn’t; instead he only peered at me with concerned eyes, like he’d somehow come to trust my judgement as well. Months I’d longed after that level of regard from him, and apparently all that it took was two years of estrangement and the intervention of a guy who screamed ‘dodgy’ in ten foot high letters.

In the end, my actual decision was fairly simple. A lad who hadn’t deserved to die, who had only been looking to be himself after a lifetime of being forced to keep quiet, needed his murder solved and we were the only ones capable of giving him justice. I was generally less of a risk-taker than Cassie, and certainly less of a risk-taker than Rob, but I wasn’t going to turn away from that fact. “Might be fun.”

Keep safe, then,” Cassie said. She sounded reluctant, but resigned. A cruel part of me felt glad, that perhaps she finally realized all the nights of agony I’d gone through when she’d been playing Lexie Madison over at Whitethorn House. “I’ll be right here, just call for me the moment you need back up.”

So we trailed after Kirkham, like two dumb tourists ready to be taken in by any bozo who had a mind to do so. We walked right across the club, through the crowds of miserable people who were watching us grimly like we were marching towards our own funerals, and through a downright shady looking side door. My smile probably looked like a rictus grin, but Rob somehow managed to look calm and casual every single step of the way. I was absurdly glad to have him there, and Cassie’s breathing still echoing in my ear.

“Over there,” Kirkham ordered once we got through the door. I’d been expecting to walk into some kind of depraved sex dungeon, or maybe an outright torture shop if I was being imaginative about the whole thing, but instead the space resembled nothing more than a slightly grotty sitting room. Maybe it’d be alright, I remember thinking at the time, maybe we’ll be able to get some kind of confession out of him without putting ourselves in danger. I walked over to the settee set, all faded red velvet and rickety looking wooden legs, and heard Rob trailing obediently after me.

And then the door clicked shut behind us, sounding so very fucking final, and everything went to hell in a handbasket. Kirkham cleared his throat, sounding bizarrely polite about the whole thing, and when both Rob and I turned ]in enquiry we found a most definitely illegal gun pointed right at us.

“Whoa!” Rob said, still somehow managing to sound absolutely nothing like himself. He was in front of me, shielding me, but judging by the make of the gun if he was shot the bullet would go straight through him and into me anyway.

“Easy,” I said, trying to defuse the situation in the way I was apparently good at according to literally everybody but that bastard Frank, and held up my hands. I couldn’t stop looking at the barrel of the gun, thinking about how I really hadn’t expected to go out in a grotty sitting room while pretending to be lovers with my wife’s ex. “This doesn’t have to lead anywhere, we’re all alright.”

“I am, as for you two…” Kirkham looked at us through his piggy eyes for a long moment, and then snorted. He gestured with the gun in a horribly vivid way, sending the both of us flinching back with our hands still upheld like that was going to accomplish anything. “I’m not quite sure I believe you’re here on a second anniversary jaunt.”

“Well, we are,” Rob said, a remarkably petulant waver to his voice as he kept staring down the barrel of the gun. Two years ago I thought he’d lost his nerve, and taken everybody else down with him on the way, but judging from this all he’d needed was a bit of recovery time. “I don’t know what more you want from us.”

Kirkham considered this for a moment. I’d made him as suspicious from the first moment I’d seen him, but in that hesitation I saw a lot more of what laid underneath. He wasn’t just grotty and unpleasant, but actually dangerous. I’d already been pretty convinced that he knew something about the murder, but now I was downright certain. “I want proof.”

“Fair enough,” I said, even though it was an absolutely fucking insane request. There was no point in making him aware of that, either he already knew and didn’t care or would suddenly realize that he’d gone beyond the boundaries of polite society and react violently. “We can show you our passports, we’ve got them on us. And if you want anything else, like drivers licences or our hotel reservations or the like…”

“I’m not hiring you for a job, I’m looking to out you as a pair of liars,” Kirkham interrupted me, and the fear that’d already been fluttering in my chest went up a notch. His piggy eyes kept glaring at us, and in them was not the look of a sane and stable man. “I don’t believe that you’re together at all. I believe that you’re trying to get to me, just like everybody else.”

“Hey,” I said, trying the conciliatory approach yet again. “Just give us a second-”

No!” He drew in a deep breath, spittle coating his chin, and gestured at us with the gun again. The gesture was a lot slower this time, a lot more deliberate, and I felt ice sliding down my spine at the sight of it. Somehow I knew what he was going to say, before he even opened his mouth and spit out the foul words. “Prove to me that you’re together. Fuck him, your little boyfriend, right here and now.”

I think I must’ve whited out for a moment, my mouth going cottony numb and my heart pounding in my chest. I’d never expected this case to go sideways in this direction. Strike that, I’d never expected my life to go sideways in this direction. I had no idea what I was doing, trapped here in a grotty side room in a club being told that I was expected to fuck a man who I’d genuinely thought I disliked - if not hated - just a few hours ago.

Sam,” Cassie was saying in my ear, her tone alive with panic. For me, for the both of us, for this entire mission sinking like the Titanic with a hole in its hull. “Make the call. Say the word, and I can have back up in there in five minutes or less.

She obviously expected me to back down, and to be fair I really fucking should’ve, but for some reason I hesitated instead. I found my eyes tracking to Rob, and felt a shock of surprise through my chest when I found that he was already looking back at me. Our eyes connected for a long moment, and a flash of communication - like those between him and Cassie that I’d envied so very long ago - passed between us. What do you want to do? I asked silently. Get more information, get justice, he answered in an instant, his jaw firming as if he saw a chance to make up for all of his wrongs.

“No,” I said almost dreamily, turning my gaze back to Kirkham but talking to Cassie all the while. “Don’t worry, eh? We’ll do what you say.”

We stripped awkwardly under Kirkham’s eye, neither of us exactly enjoying the situation. It wasn’t as if I was particularly ashamed of my body, but there was body positivity and then there was being forced to get naked under the gaze of a fucking maniac. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I couldn’t stop looking at Rob no matter how hard I tried, couldn’t stop staring as he removed first shirt and then skinny jeans and then underwear until he was standing naked in the room and shaking just slightly. Two years ago, I would’ve been hungry for such a sight. Even now, I was uncomfortably aware of all my memories of inappropriate midnight dreams rushing back over me like a wave.

“Go on, then,” Kirkham said when we were both bare, not giving us even a moment to get used to it or attempt to formulate any kind of plan, and gestured with the gun yet again. The way he was holding it, I wouldn’t be surprised if he started shooting at any moment. It certainly added a sense of urgency to things.

I stepped in, and awkwardly laid a hand on Rob’s naked hip. Rob took in a deep breath, and awkwardly looped his arms around my naked shoulders. We stared at each other for a long moment, still awkwardly, and then both moved in for a kiss at once. And here’s the truth: I had daydreamed about kissing Rob before, but not for years and never in a situation like this. The entire thing was a lot more awkward than I would’ve hoped, me slobbering all over him like some kind of perverted dog while he stood there understandably frozen.

That wasn’t what Kirkham wanted to see, though, and I think we were both intimately aware of that. Eventually we allowed the kiss to deepen, but I don’t think either of us were particularly happy about it. Rob was the first one to open his mouth to me, but there was still something frozen and undeniably fragile about him even as our tongues tangled. I was the first one to grope Rob in turn, awkwardly grabbing at his arse, but I had no hope in hell that it looked anywhere near convincing.

Eventually I pushed him suggestively backwards, and he somehow took my silent plea and dragged us both down to the grotty carpet as smoothly as possible. I had the decided feeling that somebody had died on that carpet, maybe even the lad we were currently investigating, but I tried not to think too hard about that. Instead I simply slid my way in between Rob’s legs, and tried to grind down against him as politely as possible.

I heard a soft clink, knew a moment of regret for a distraction wasted, and in the next moment a small pot of lube rolled into my side. No condoms, but I supposed not that many people who’d been together two years and didn’t have to worry about the risk of babies used condoms. Much was the pity, it would’ve been a lot easier had there been any kind of barrier between us.

I made do with what I had, because what else could I do in this profoundly shitty situation? I opened the pot of lube, managing to do so one handed which I guess was something, and slicked up my fingers. I hadn’t done this in years, and so experienced a brief and disorientating moment of worry that I had no fucking clue what I was doing, but it was an easy enough process made even easier by the way Rob obligingly spread his legs to encourage me in. I slicked up first one finger and then another, and slid them both into his arse until he started to relax around me.

I was about to put my cock right in the moment I was done, and it was only a frantic hiss from Rob’s direction that reminded me generally a little more lube was needed for the first time. I slicked up my cock, in perhaps the most apologetic way a man has ever touched himself, and only then slid back between his thighs. All the time as I pushed into him I was aware of Kirkham’s eyes on us, and the tension of that made it so I was barely hard enough to actually get in.

I’d never had sex as awkward before, to the point where it almost redefined the term. I was barely hard, although at least Rob’s body clenching around me helped me somewhat there, and from what I could glimpse in between our bodies Rob was having some problems in that area himself. It was all far too tight, far too slow and far too miserable for words. Kirkham touched neither of us, but his eyes felt like an invasive kind of caress anyway.

I kept going, because it wasn’t exactly like I had any other option given the literal gun pointed at us. I moved my hips as slowly as I could, not wanting to make this any more painful for Rob than it had to be, and in response Rob gritted his teeth and thunked his head back against the floor. I was trying my best, but I couldn’t deny that the main feeling I was experiencing was despair. I had a certain knack for judging terrible situations, and I was already absolutely convinced that there was no way we were going to be able to pull this off.

And then I heard a sharply indrawn breath in my ear, and Cassie’s voice came online again. “Wait.”

It was perhaps the least helpful advice that she’d ever given me, I will be honest. I was trying to figure out a way to tell her that when Rob spoke, his teeth still gritted and active discomfort on his face. “Can’t.”

I didn’t ask for your opinion, Rob, I told you to wait,” Cassie said sharply, and even in the midst of the worst fucking situation I’d ever been in I loved her for that. Cassie was the most competent person that I’d ever met, and with her having our backs I knew the matter couldn’t be entirely beyond hope. “Sam, bite his jaw.”

It made sense that the least helpful advice she’d ever given me would be quickly followed up by the most confusing advice that she’d ever given me. I gasped harshly, ducked my head and met Rob’s equal confused eyes.

Do it!”” Cassie ordered, obviously sensing my hesitation. I had no idea what she thought she was doing, but she sounded determined enough about it that I found myself moving to obey her even before she was done speaking. “Right up near the top, he’s sensitive there.

So I did it, even though I had roughly a thousand reasons to think that what she was suggesting was an absolutely fucking terrible idea. I leant in, my cock driving deeper into Rob’s body as a side effect, and dug my teeth in at the top of Rob’s jaw. I was expecting absolutely nothing, besides this entire thing to get so much worse than it already was, but as it turned out she was right. Rob convulsed beneath me, his first genuine cry of the night bursting from his lips.

There we go,” Cassie said, almost sounding exultant. Maybe I should’ve called her on that, and on the confirmation that she and Rob had slept together besides, but I was too busy feeling a strange mixture of relief and inappropriate arousal. I’d always thought Rob was hot, despite myself, and it turned out he was even hotter when carried away by arousal instead of discomfort. “Right, don’t linger there because he’s a fickle bastard who likes to change it up. Kiss down his neck instead.”

I obeyed again, my heart pounding in my chest - I wasn’t sure if it was with bewildered fear or equally bewildered excitement - as I did so. It turned out that Rob was absurdly sensitive there too, so sensitive that his old habit of loosening his ties and popping his collar made a lot more sense. He trembled underneath me as I kissed my way down, arching into every single brush of my lips like he actively wanted it.

Can you reach his nipples with your mouth?” Cassie asked. She couldn’t see what was going on, there was mercifully no camera to go along with the audio, but her tone was low and dark anyway. Like she was imagining the sight of the two of us, like she was pleased by it in some dark way.

God!” Rob cried, as I reached his shoulder and briefly took in a breath. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a cover for me to answer her, or if it was a genuine expression of pleasure. It didn’t matter much either way, I supposed; it sounded good either way, and that was the strangest thing of all.

“Not quite,” I murmured under the cover of it, keeping my face buried in Rob’s naked skin.

Use your fingers instead, then,” Cassie said. She was so casual about it that it was like she was ordering something in a restaurant, apart from the dark undertone that called to something low and inappropriate within me. “And roll them. Maybe pinch them a bit, he tends to like it a little rough.

It was awkward to get my hand in between us, but somehow a great deal less awkward than it would’ve been even a few minutes ago. I changed my position slightly, somehow driving myself deeper into Rob’s body yet again, and found his nipple after some groping. I ran my finger over it, tentatively at first, and found myself giving an automatic smile when he shuddered again and arched up into it. I’d always thought that Rob was far too sensitive for his own good, it was an unexpected pleasure to find that his body followed that pattern too.

Good,” Cassie said, low and pleased and for all the world like she could see his shuddering. It was almost like she was here with us, kneeling right besides us and directing instead of being stuck in a pokey van several minutes away. “Now start thrusting again, come on.”

She was right, apart from minute little shifts of my body as I’d followed her instructions my hips had remained still for the past few minutes. That needed to change, especially with how hard my cock was from Rob’s reactions. I started to thrust again, slowly at first but soon gaining steam. Rob had responded to this with gritted teeth before, but as I moved within him that time he started to ease around me.

Keep your focus up, Sam,” Cassie said in my ear, still so very present in proceedings. It was like she had an inside view of my head, could see how at risk I was of getting carried away already. “Keep looking after his nipples, he likes it if you touch them even while you’re fucking.”

My hand was still on Rob’s chest, so I followed her instructions to the letter and started running my fingers over him again. I went even further this time, as he gasped under the twin sensations of my thrusts and my touch, and started pinching them instead of just playing with them. I’d had some slight doubts there, I didn’t like my nipples to be touched anywhere near so harshly, but they were wiped away immediately by the low whine Rob gave in response. Cassie, as ever, obviously knew what she was doing.

I could barely believe that it’d been so awkward just a handful of minutes ago. Now, with the two of us properly moving together and Cassie’s voice wrapping around us, it was quickly becoming impossibly good. Technically I still knew that I was in the grotty side room of a club with a pervert in possession of a gun watching us, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter quite so much anymore. The entire world narrowed down to the sweetness of Rob’s body beneath me, the impossible joy of getting to take him apart in time with Cassie.

Eventually Rob spasmed around me once more, and threw his head back on the floor again. Except this time, thank god, his expression was transformed with pleasure instead of pain. “I need-!”

Are you wanking him off?” Cassie asked, extremely matter of fact, and snorted a little at my answering wheeze. She was the most perceptive person that I’d ever met, and in that moment I could only regard it as a gift from the lord. “Go on, Sam, wank him off. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Rob?

Rob whimpered a little, and that was as good an answer as any. I removed my hand from his nipples, with some reluctance I will admit, and plunged it even further down between our bodies. Rob whimpered again when I wrapped it around his cock, and then downright cried out when I started to move it. It took some effort, I was pretty out of my mind with lust myself at that point, but I managed to time the movements of my wrist to my thrusts until he was trembling on every single thrust.

Things had already been absurdly good, but they only grew better from there on out. I moved deep within Rob, and on every single thrust he clenched around me and moaned. There was literally nothing but the two of us, and Cassie’s voice in our ears ever so temptingly calling us on.

Good boys,” She was drawling now, her voice getting lower and lower and we fell apart further and further. I experienced a moment of utter gratefulness for the fact that she was there with us, helping us along. We would’ve been completely lost without her, just as both of us had been completely lost every single time she’d left us behind. “You're both such good boys. Keep going now, harder and faster, you can do it…

And in the end, it turned out that we most certainly could. I had thought that I was giving every single piece of myself, but at Cassie’s encouragement I somehow managed to pick up the pace even further. Rob somehow managed to pick up his pace too, thrusting up against me and moaning like he’d never wanted anything so absolutely. We both started to hurtle towards orgasm together, like it was something inevitable and wonderful.

You’re such good boys, all for me, Cassie repeated. And there was something different in her voice now, something soft and yielding that made my mind flash back to before everything had gone wrong. To me and her and Rob sitting in her flat together, feeling ever so free. “I’ve missed this, you know that? I’ve missed… Us.

And that, in the end, was all that we needed. Rob was the first one to tumble over the edge, clenching around me with a completely unrestrained cry, but I followed right after him. For a long few moments the only thing in my mind was pleasure and a feeling of inexpressible tenderness, and it was only made so much more intense by the sound of Cassie crying out exactly in time with us.

For a long few moments we laid there together, the both of us - quite probably all three of us judging by what I’d just heard - feeling weak and undone and borderline disbelieving. Now that arousal wasn’t clouding my every single movement, my every single thought, a slow sense of horror was starting to sink back in. What had we done? What had I done, taking advantage of the worst possible situation?

In the aftermath, as we both panted and stared at each other in horror, we became aware that we really weren’t all alone in the universe besides Cassie. Kirkham was still in the room, and a quick glance sideways confirmed that he was far more distracted than before. Which was a rather polite way of saying that he’d got his own cock out of his trousers like some kind of dirty flasher, was wanking himself off with an enthusiasm that was frankly disgusting.

And along with it, he was muttering. “Oh, such sweet boys. So much sweeter than any of the other chaff here. Just as sweet as that other lad, that one who was so eager to be out here. Who was gagging for it. Oh, Toby…”

Toby, being the name of the lad whose murder we were here to investigate.

I held my breath for a long moment and, despite everything, found myself automatically glancing down at where Rob was still sprawled out underneath me. Our eyes met for a long moment, and that strange understanding unfurled between us again. Ready to move? I asked with my eyes. As soon as you need me to, he responded, steadier than I’d ever thought to see him.

We were both naked and unarmed, and had just had two truly fantastic orgasms, but we were both trained policemen no matter how complicated the past few years had been for us. I drew out of Rob, and we caught our breaths for a long moment. And then we turned together, me going for the gun still loosely clutched in Kirkham’s hand while Rob went for his ankles. Kirkham was too distracted to even see us coming, within a moment he was whimpering on his knees and the gun was in my grip instead.

Neither of us were dead or even injured, and we had not only a viable suspect but a probably usable confession out of him. We’d technically got everything that we’d wanted. But, as I stood there and stared at Rob standing across from me, all I could think of was the cost.

--

Afterwards went just as well as I’d expected it to, which was to say poorly. Backup came in about five minutes after we’d trussed up Kirkham, about four minutes after we’d managed to pull some clothes back on, and things were a horrid rush from there. Me and Rob were separated the moment we set foot outside the evacuated club, and from there I was hurried headlong into interviews and evaluations and suspicious people looking at me with suspicious eyes. It took several hours that felt like uncomfortable years, and through it all my most vivid memory was a stone faced policewoman asking me if I wanted to have any swabs done.

I declined her. I wasn’t particularly sure what to make of what’d happened in there, but I didn’t want to make it any more complicated than it already was.

Eventually I was released, accompanied by a stern lecture to take at least the next day off and possibly the next week after that until they’d found some way to sort through all the mess we’d left. I’d half been expecting to be separated from Cassie too, to be very sternly told that I couldn’t see my wife who I lived with, but mercifully when I left the police station she was waiting outside with that tense lipped expression that meant she was thinking through far too many things at once.

We drove home in silence. And then, when we got home, went through to the living room and sat there in silence for about an hour more. I don’t think either of us knew what to say, knew how on earth to begin conceptualizing the fact that I’d just fucked her ex while she told me how to do it best. Eventually I got up, went to take a shower. She didn’t stop me, only stared after me with dark eyes that saw far too much.

About half an hour later, once I’d got back from my shower and settled down for some more silent staring, there was a knock at the door.

Cassie got up to answer it, and for lack of anything better to do I followed her. It was somewhat of a surprise when it wasn’t a random delivery driver at the door, or some policeman come to tell us that actually we couldn’t be in the same room together after all, but Rob. We all stared at each other for a long moment, utterly stunned. Yet again I was forcibly reminded of one of the last times we’d been together like this; all crammed into Cassie’s flat in the last days of Operation Vestal, me sitting by Cassie on the sofa while watching Rob try to get the cork out of some wine. I’d wanted to kiss both of them in that moment, and had never dreamed that two years later I would’ve actually done it.

“Hi,” Rob said eventually, when he’d obviously exhausted his patience for silent staring. All night he’d been sounding like a man fit for the grave, his voice soft and completely drained of life, but on that one word he sounded like his old self again.

“Hello,” I said quietly, when it became clear that Cassie wouldn’t be the one to answer him. Instead she just kept staring at him like she’d never seen him before, like she wasn’t quite sure whether she wanted to slap him across the face or throw herself into his arms. I had to admit, I knew exactly how she felt.

“I know I’m not technically allowed to be here. From what they said in the station, multiple times while glaring at me like I’d just kicked their collective dog, it may well put the entire investigation at risk if we’re seen anywhere close to each other after what happened,” Rob continued tentatively, a flow of words coming out of his mouth like he simply couldn’t stop them. Somehow, I knew exactly how he felt too. Unable to stop the nervous tension, the agony of almost hope, flowing all the way through me. “But… Hey, I figured that I was used enough to doing that. So what the hell does it matter, right?”

There was a long silence.

“I didn’t mean that,” Rob said even more nervously, looking a bit like he wanted to kick himself for such clumsy wording. Like he’d learned, at some point in the two years we’d been apart, that thinking before he ran his mouth was a good thing.

“We know,” Cassie finally spoke. Her face had slowly softened as Rob had spewed his vomit of words, and now she was looking at him with barely restrained hope herself. I knew she’d never quite been honest about how much she’d missed Rob, and the look in her eyes confirmed it. I couldn’t exactly begrudge her it, it turned out that I’d missed the bastard too.

“If I’m going to tell the truth, I don’t know why I’m here. Perhaps it’s because of what happened tonight, or perhaps it’s just because I’m tired of missing the both of you. I’ve had a lot of time to think, over these past two years, and ample time to realize how much of a prick I was being. I ruined my own life, but that wasn’t the worst thing. Because I didn’t just settle for setting fire to myself, but tried to take two genuinely good people - two people who I care about more than anybody else - down with me.” Rob took in a deep breath, stared at the both of us slightly desperately. I’d seen him this raw only once before, but this time it suited him an awful lot better. “I just wanted to say-”

“We can talk inside,” I interrupted him, after a brief glance at Cassie to confirm that it was okay. I was vividly reminded of our conversation outside the club, and of how much had changed in the time since. “You know, if you want.”

Rob hesitated for a long second, looking between the both of us. But then I stepped back just slightly, leaving room for him, and Cassie held out her arms with a level of hope that seemed almost painful. He’d never been able to resist her, or possibly had never been able to resist the two of us together. He stepped forward, tentative at first, but by the time he walked into our arms he was almost on the point of running.

I kicked the door shut behind us, embracing him and Cassie at the same time. We still had problems ahead of us, almost insurmountable ones even if you squinted at them and tilted your head just slightly, but for the first time in a while I felt something resembling hope. And, as Rob and Cassie bent their heads together and held onto me ever so tightly, I think they’d rediscovered something of the kind too.