“You can’t wear that,” says Bel, waving an expressive hand down Freddie’s body, and Freddie tangles his fingers into the hem of his t-shirt and squints at the print on the front, says, “Why not? It’s clean and there aren’t any four letter words on it. Honestly, Moneypenny, I rather think you expect too much of me.”
“Says the man who tried to wear a Sex Pistols t-shirt to the Queen’s Jubilee,” says Bel, and Freddie snorts indignantly, flops down into the chair in front of her desk, says, “Excuse me, says the man who did wear a Sex Pistols t-shirt to the Queen’s Jubilee, until Hector made me take it off and stuff it in a bush.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father-in-law quite so embarrassed,” says Hector, from where he’s leaning, quietly amused, against the doorframe, and Freddie slams a pair of booted feet onto Bel’s desk, says, “Is he technically still your father-in-law if you’re divorced?”
“He is a great supporter of ours and you behaved abominably,” says Bel, almost entirely managing to keep the laughter out of her voice, and Freddie sighs, says, “In retrospect, mate, I’m not really sure why you thought a biker jacket over a bare chest would go down better with the country set.”
“To be entirely honest, me neither,” says Hector, and Freddie grins at him, turning it into a smirk of deeply filthy proportions when Hector grins back.
“Go away and do some work, for God’s sake,” says Bel, and Hector pushes Freddie’s boots off the desk, says, “A Billy Bragg t-shirt? Really? And you call me a stereotype, old boy.”
Freddie Lyon is a journalist, when he’s not busy being a class warrior or a twitter activist or a flat-out stubborn bastard. He got into the BBC because they said he brought an edge, and Freddie’s young but he’s been in the game long enough to know that edge is just a euphemism for poor. Freddie at twenty would’ve cared about that, but Freddie at twenty-seven is a different sort of soldier, and he knows winning this war will take cunning and subterfuge and having his hand on the handle of the knife in quite a lot of people’s backs. They give him the Home Desk on a 9pm show that they hope will be about the faces the public see as much as the news they deliver; and its a tiny chink in their armour but he’ll take it. He knows how that goes: you’re to take what you’re given until you can start dishing it out. Freddie Lyon has tattoos on his wrists and ten thousand followers on Twitter and scars from an anti-greed protest writ across his ribs in a Met copper’s hand, and he’s taken what he’s been given for a long, long time. Hector smiles beside him, old school charm covering up a hunger that’s entirely new millennium, Bel behind the camera, on a satellite phone to Syria, and Freddie’s spent his whole life waiting for the moment that he knows, now, is just around the corner, in the next email, wearing the new bruises doled out to him during the next riot, glass in his hair and blood on his hands and the camera rolling, rolling, rolling, and this isn’t about the truth, not exactly, but it’s about something wearing his bruises and his scars and the truth’s overcoat, all the same.
“You did something to Hector’s phone,” says Bel, low and impatient, and it’s not a question.
“Did I?” says Freddie, not looking up from his laptop, “I mean, it’s possible. I’ve done a lot of things to Hector’s phone, actually. It’s a great pity that because he can barely turn it on that he’s probably never going to discover most of them. I don’t think anything’s ever going to be better than that signature I added to all his emails, though.”
“He says it plays Eton Rifles whenever you call him,” and Freddie shrugs, says, “That sounds like something I’d do. Are we still pretending that thing with the emails didn’t happen? I’m happy to play along, I just need confirmation.”
“What emails? hisses Bel, and Freddie nods distractedly, says, “Yep, there it is. Well, what does he want me to do? At least he knows that it’s me calling, now. I probably ring him even more than you do, he’s not very good at keeping up with me in crowds.”
“That’s because you weigh ninety pounds and you use your elbows,” says Bel, not unkindly, and Freddie nods again, says, “You would think public school would’ve taught him the value of a good scrap, but what can you do?”
“Not get so excited you fall down the staircase at Camden tube station and have to make Hector take you to A&E again?” says Bel, innocently, and Freddie finally looks up and meets her eyes, says, “Yes, okay, maybe his big strong dependable self has some occasional uses, do you want me to go and meet the American ambassador in an underground car park like something from le Carré or not?”
Aim higher than you can reach, Freddie’s mum used to say, when he was five, when he was seven, when he was ten and fifteen and twenty, and they weren’t her last words, when he turned twenty-four, but he knew that he was meant to hear them, anyway. He aimed higher and higher, comp to Oxford, Oxford to breadline and breadline to BBC. You could play spoons on his ribcage and he gets colds from his nasty, damp flat, but he’s made it, he’s made it-- or, at least, something like it. He sits beside the girl who smiled at him for the first time eight years ago, at a dismal fresher’s week party, and he knows that he should feel scared by this meteoric rise, that anyone else’s head would be spinning, but he holds on and on and on, smiles at her when she isn’t looking and flicks open a wrist with Ginsberg writ across his pulse point, drags on his cigarette, feels nothing but that sick rush of the body singing electric.
“You’re not interviewing the Pope,” says Bel, in a firm tone which is supposed to convey that will be that, and Freddie frowns, says, “Says who?”
“Me!” says Bel, and Hector snorts, says, “You probably should’ve said ‘the Pope’, darling.”
“Do not call me darling,” says Bel, although she’s gone the tiniest bit pink, and Freddie steals Hector’s tea, says, “If I call you darling can I do it?”
“No,” says Bel, reaching out to tug at his tie, “If you call me darling I’ll make Randall send you to one of those meetings where they make you ‘reconsider your privileges and prejudices in order to create a better working environment for all the staff, regardless of background’, or whatever it is they’re calling it this week.”
“Bel,” says Freddie, patiently, “I lobbied the Beeb for those meetings to be mandatory. I run the voluntary Sunday seminar on class politics. You are quoting copy I wrote.”
“I know you did,” says Bel, reaching up to rub at her temples, “I know you do. And you’re not coming back to my gender and sexuality workshop, the middle-class straight men of this institution can barely handle you as it is. I hate you, you know that?”
“So you keep telling him,” says Hector, and he doesn’t even bother to look abashed when he grins at both of them, entirely charming and entirely charmed.
Winter turns to spring, and spring means almost two years since the riots, two years since Freddie’s ribs left bruised and cracked from rioters and police alike, blood on Hector’s shirt cuffs and Bel hysterical on the phone. The word austerity is trotted out, the way it always is, and temperatures rise and Freddie splays fingers over ribs that are never truly going to heal, feels the itch beneath his skin and the metallic tang in the air that makes him run hot and mad and certain. He buys six hoodies just in case and walks London streets in his off hours, a cigarette between his lips and trouble in his nostrils. He rides the tube and he sends Hector texts that get him 3am phone calls, from Hector, from Bel, and he whispers over the line, we haven’t got long.
He’s right, of course, but sometimes it’s not nice to be right, as it turns out.
“London’s burning,” says Freddie, almost drunk on it, flames at his back reaching up to lick at the skyline and Hector’s hand heavy on his shoulder.
“Fall back?” says Hector, his body already coiling into instincts dormant but not forgotten, fingers digging in and the flames of another battle entirely flickering in his eyes.
“You mean run away,” says Freddie, low, dismissive, and Hector shrugs, says, “A strategic retreat is not necessarily a defeat.”
“It is this time,” says Freddie, zipping up the hoodie he’d known with something like sympathetic magic to wear, shoves the sleeves up his skinny arms, grins, “Which side of this war do you want to be on this time, Hector?”
“The right one,” says Hector, without even blinking, and Freddie crouches down behind the messy wreck of a car, dragging Hector and Isaac with him, says, “Isaac, you call Bel. Hector, you go out in front, I’ll hold the camera. In three, two, one--”
It doesn’t feel like floating, or falling, or anything other than exactly what it is: bleeding out in a gutter in Brixton, his hands slippery and the pavement wet and something dripping down his face, and he almost laughs with the hysterical realisation that it’s rain. There’s a bus shelter smashed to smithereens beside him, and he does begin to laugh then, astounded and almost horrified that the bus timetable flapping dejectedly in the corner of his eyeline is going to be the last thing he ever sees. He would try to call for help, but he’s been here four nights in a row, and he knows that help doesn’t come to this particular part of town. He curls in on himself and can’t make himself wish for much of anything, just that Isaac got the footage, that Hector doesn’t drink himself to death, that he could hear her laugh one last time. It’s cold and he’s wet and he always knew he was going to die in a London alley, shivering and scared and alone, he just-- he just didn’t think it’d be so soon.
Freddie wakes up in the hospital, his cheekbone held together with surgical tape and Bel’s furious face blurrily beside him.
“Moneypenny?” he says, drugged and unsure, and he feels a hand squeeze around his, too large to be Bel’s, and a voice says, “Careful, old boy. I think she might beat you to death with your own cast.”
“Hector,” says Freddie, letting his head fall back, “Not that I can see you, you understand, I think I’m higher than that source we used to have at CND, but I assume you look much better than I do?”
“Not even a bruise,” says Hector, and he’d sound smug if he didn’t just sound exhausted, “Oh, yes, good old Minerva. Yes, I remember her. What a nice van she had, didn’t she?”
“What,” says Bel, her voice slowly rising in hysteria, “the actual bloody fuck, Frederick Lyon? You died.”
“Er,” says Freddie, “Then I’m rather afraid heaven is a bit of a disappointment?”
“Oh, old boy, no, it isn’t,” says Hector, under his breath, and Freddie recognises that tone, knows he’s meant to-- to something-- but Bel sighs, says, “For a minute. You were dead for a whole minute.”
“I didn’t commune with Jesus or anything,” says Freddie, letting his eyes slide shut, “But I imagine that would make quite a story.”
“Oh my God,” says Bel, tightly, “Why don’t you just tell me what you were going to tell me on the phone, before I strangle you with your morphine drip?”
“Kinky,” says Hector, his hand closing around Freddie’s again, and Freddie can hear Bel huff in exasperation, say, “It could just as easily be you that I strangle, Hector.”
“I think I speak for both of us when I tell you that we would, as they say, be up for that,” says Hector, and Bel makes a sharp hissing noise, says, “Freddie. What were you going to tell me?”
“Oh, yeah, I found this, this thing, but I don’t know what it means, and you know how high I must be to admit to that,” says Freddie, his head and his tongue thick with morphine, as he starts to fall back into sleep, “Revert to brightstone, you ever heard of that?”