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The End of Winter

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        The first real day of spring is like the first time a boy
        holds your hand. A flood of skin-tingling warmth consumes you,
        and everything shines with a fresh, colorful glow, making you forget
        that anything as cold and harsh as winter ever existed.
                                                                                    ~Richelle E. Goodrich

“Do you remember the first person you kissed?” James is lying on the bed. The only part of his body not sprawled flat is his head, which is propped up at almost a right angle on all three pillows.

It makes Robbie’s neck hurt to look at him. but he can’t resist looking because…well…because James is lying sprawled on the bed. He has a tall, slim book propped on his breastbone and, as Robbie watches, he raises his right ankle and rests it on his left knee. His bare ankles are visible where his jeans have hiked up and his socks have rolled down. And there’s just the barest, tantalizing, maddening sliver of skin exposed where his t-shirt has twisted across his belly.

Robbie swallows as the sudden longing to push the shirt further up and lay his hand flat on James’s skin. To feel the muscles quiver against his palm. To circle James’s navel with the pad of his thumb.

He turns back to the view outside his balcony door. A gentle, pattering rain—just enough to cancel the outdoor exercise scheduled for the afternoon—is, thankfully, still falling. Hopefully, it will still be raining tomorrow and ruin the remainder of the training exercises scheduled in the open field beside the hotel.

Besides giving them a break from the conference, it’s lovely, really, the soothing sound of rain on the roof and the brisk scent of air washed clean, the way it’s making the grass and the new spring leaves glisten and glow even greener.

He remembers his parents putting a blanket on the floor in front of an open door and all of them sitting or lying, sprawled much the same as James is now, watching the rain fall. He wishes he had the courage to tell James about it, to suggest they open the balcony doors wide, pull the fluffy comforter off the bed, and lie there on the floor in the cool, damp breeze, and watch the rain.

But he doesn’t dare. He doesn’t dare trust himself. Lying beside James with the rain falling softly outside might make him forget himself. Might be more than his self-control can manage.

“Robbie?”

He starts, remembering suddenly that James asked him a question. Something about kisses. He struggles to recall and not allow his mind to twist and turn itself down a path it shouldn’t go. James and kisses are not two things he should be contemplating at the same time. “I would guess the first person I kissed would be me mum. And, of course, I remember her.”

“Romantically,” James says, with such lazy sarcasm in his tone that it’s obvious he knows Robbie’s being obtuse on purpose.

The same way heat lightning shoots webs of glowing energy in the clouds, a spark of danger sizzles and arcs through Robbie's gut. Of course, he remembers his first romantic kiss. But does he dare admit it? Does he dare tell James?

He glances back again. “Why are you asking something like that?” But he already knows it’s to do with the book. “What’s that you’re reading?”

He wants to add, ‘And why are you reading, when there’s spring rain falling outside and the whole world smells like flowers washed clean?’ But that’s a bit florid and out of character, and he knows it. Must be spring fever. The first few days of spring weather always make him feel light-headed and daft. He hates cold weather, and he’s drunk with pleasure at seeing the back end of it. Warm with pleasure at the lovely rainstorm and the electric feel of coming lightning. At having James sprawled on the bed behind him.

James waves the front cover of the book in his direction, and Robbie snorts. “As if I could read that from here.”

James grins. “It’s an book of poetry about spring that I found it in a second-hand shop. Someone’s written comments and other poems in it.” He flips past a few pages with writing in the margins and then holds the back of the book open so that Robbie can see that the aged, marbled paper of the inside cover is lined with thin, black, hand-written sentences. “I love finding books like this. It’s like you can see what the person was thinking as they were reading it. Sometimes, it makes me wish I could meet him or her.” He grins mischievously, “Though sometimes, it makes me glad I can’t.”

“Ah.” Robbie turns back to the rain. Only James would see someone scribbling in a book as an exercise in psychology. “And that’s got what to do with me childhood romances?”

“One of the poems that written in... The first line is ‘The first real day of spring is like the first time a boy holds your hand.’”

“That says nothing about kissing.”

“No, it just made me think. Today’s the first day of spring. And I tried to remember the first time someone held my hand. Romantically,” James emphasizes. “But I can’t. And I wondered why the author didn’t use a kiss instead. I’d say a first kiss is more memorable than the first time you hold someone’s hand.”

Robbie shrugs. “Maybe. But I remember the first time I held Val’s hand.”

A sort of quiet washes over James’s face, not a sadness exactly, but a soberness. A restraint. Robbie supposes it’s a reflection of his own emotions where Val is concerned. He’s slowly learned, through the years, that it’s okay to talk to James about Val. It’s safe to share memories and, even sometimes, pain and sorrow. But he wasn't always like that, and he thinks that, sometimes, James is still a bit cautious of talking about Val.

“Did it feel like the first day of spring?” James asks quietly.

Robbie closes his eyes, remembering the warmth of Val’s fingers, the softness of her palm, trying to recall how he’d felt at that moment. “It felt like…I’d found me place.” He opens his eyes and smiles. “Don’t remember spring, though. Sorry.”

James nods and goes back to his book.

Robbie goes back to leaning against the doorframe and contemplating the rain. He’d had to close the door earlier, when the wind was blowing hard, but the wind has eased now, and he slides the glass door open a bit. A balmy, soft breeze, scented of rain and the first spring flowers, sweeps over him. A few tiny drops of water spatter his nose and cheeks, but it’s not enough to mind. He closes his eyes to feel the moisture on his eyelids and then snaps them open again when James speaks.

“So…do you remember your first romantic kiss?”

He sighs. Obviously, he’s not going to be let off the hook of whatever is roiling around in James’s big brain. “Yes,” he admits reluctantly.

“And?”

“And what? I remember it.”

“Robbie…” James growls.

Robbie takes a deep breath. Maybe it’s the rain. Maybe it’s spring fever. Maybe it’s that spark of danger in his gut that the soft rain hasn’t quite guttered. “His name was David. But everybody called him ‘Davie’.”

He! Your first kiss was a boy?”

A flush, warm in contrast to the cool air on his face, rises up the back Robbie’s neck. His mouth is suddenly dry as he glances back to see what expression is on James's face.

James has dropped the book on the bed and rolled onto his side. He’s propped on his elbow, head cradled in his hand, and his eyes are bright with curiosity. It’s a bit intimidating, that eager, focused interest, and a bit disappointing because the sliver of pale belly is no longer visible. But it’s a relief to not see...what? Did he think James would react badly?

“He were a London lad, visiting a neighbor. A year older than me.”

“How old were you?”

Robbie pretends to think about that for a minute. “Nearly 14. I think it was the week before me birthday.” His lack of certainty is an outright lie. He knows exactly when it was, because that next week, on his 14th birthday, he had sex for the first time. With that same boy. He’s never told anyone but Val that.

He’s not quite sure why he’s telling James even the most innocent part of it. Except that it’s the first day of spring, and he’s stuck in a hotel at a bleeding boring conference. And James is sprawled across his bed reading poetry and taunting him with peeks of bare skin. And the rain is making the most beautiful pattering sound on the balcony roof and he can see drops of rain like silver tears clinging to the red and pink flowers of the vine that wraps the balcony rail. And maybe he’s gone soft and daft in his old age, to be longing to stroke the fair skin of a man half his age who is also his sergeant. Maybe spring fever has burned out his brain.

“Why aren’t you downstairs at one of the seminars?” Robbie says abruptly. “Or off having a pint with some of your mates?”

“Because,” James says in an even tone, “the seminars are all bloody boring. You teach me more in a day than I’d ever learn sitting through one of those. And I don’t have any ‘mates’.”

The last he says very matter-of-factly, but it makes Robbie feel sad just the same. James is even more of a loner than he is. He, at least, has family he sees occasionally. James doesn’t even have that. He’s tried to talk to the lad about it, but…James just goes stone-faced whenever he broaches the subject.

Then James spoils his sympathy by saying, “And don’t try to change the subject.”

Robbie sighs and pushes the balcony door open a bit wider. Breathes in the scents of wet grass and soggy earth and warm concrete cooled by rain. “It’s not exactly an appropriate subject for a DI and his sergeant.”

James flops back on the mattress. “You only pull rank on me when you’re angry or when I’m making you uncomfortable.”

Robbie watches James’s reflection in the glass as he stretches, reaching so far back with his long arms that he bumps the wall above the headboard, arching his back so that shirt and jeans part and a wide strip of skin is exposed.

Robbie can’t stop himself. He turns around.

James’s biceps strain at the sleeves of his t-shirt as he flexes his arms. His back is bowed and the lean muscles of his abdomen bunch and contract. His ribs stand out in relief.

A tingle as cool and sharp as raindrops on his eyelids dances over Robbie’s skin and warmth fills him. In that moment, if feels as if he truly has never seen a man more beautiful than the one stretched out before him. He shakes his head ruefully. He truly is turning into a daft old bugger. And a lecherous one at that.

James rolls back onto his side and stretches his neck before settling his head back into his hand. He looks at Robbie with a devilish, daring glint in his gaze.

But Robbie’s no novice where James Hathaway is concerned. He’s seen this before, James trying to winnow information out of him with pretend innocence and his flirty, sexy eyes. “What about your first kiss?” he counters. “Do you remember her?”

“It was in my first year at uni,” James says promptly. “In a kitchen at a party. And I thought it was the most brilliant thing I’d ever done, even if it was a bit slick and sloppy.” James pauses, his eyes glittering like coals, and then adds, “His name was Ashton.”

Robbie feels like the floor has just dropped out from underneath his feet. That glowing pinprick of danger in his gut explodes, sends sparks crackling through his veins, sizzling like a campfire hit with a spray of water. He wants to stutter out, ‘But— But— But you gave me a girly magazine and a candy bar. You said— You said— You said…’ But he can’t think through the smoke and heat clouding his mind.

James laughs at him softly, kindly. “You look like goldfish in a bowl. All eyes and round, gulpy mouth.”

Robbie snaps his mouth shut. Starts to turn away and then doesn’t because James will think— He doesn’t know what James will think. He’s not sure what he himself thinks. Except that it appears that the both of them have gotten the wrong end of the stick about the other.

And he’s being stupid about it, because in the long run, he’s James’s DI and James is his bagman, and his friend, and it doesn’t matter whether both of them like to kiss men or women. Or sheep, for that matter. He can’t do anything about how he feels. He can’t let anything happen between them. He can’t.

And he knows he’s trying too fiercely to convince himself. He lets out a ragged breath and turns away. Should have stopped the conversation before it ever got going. ‘Hindsight’, he thinks. And then, ‘spring fever’. And raindrops falling on his face. And James sprawled on his bed.

The bed creaks as James stands, and then there’s a thump as James’s book falls to the floor followed by a rustle of cloth.

Robbie wheels to find that James has yanked the comforter off the bed and is gathering up the thick, fluffy folds.

“Open the door all the way so I can put this down.” James grins at Robbie over the cloud of barely subdued white cotton in his arms. “I’ve always wanted to lay on the floor and watch the rain.”

Warmth curls through Robbie, too soft to be caused by that glowing coal. Too sweet to be danger. And he thinks that maybe he’ll never feel winter again.

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