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The Company One Keeps

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Eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves. Gavin’s nan, who cherished little sayings like that, had applied that particular proverb on a rainy winter afternoon when Gavin was 12 years old or so, caught hanging around the kitchen, listening—eavesdropping—while his mum and dad talked over the fight he’d got into. “Got into” being unfair, he thought, as he’d as soon as have avoided it as not.

“I have the right of confrontation,” he had said, repeating something he’d heard in class, full of largely feigned self-assurance and anxiously caught between two truths: one, that fighting was not his preference, and two, that explaining this would have been an unacceptable admission of weakness.

“I think you managed that bit,” Nan had replied, drily. She tapped her cheek, and Gavin brought his hand to his own face, his own blackened eye. “Right now, your mum and dad are talking to each other. When they want to talk to you, they will. Come on, now. I’m going to the shop and I need someone to carry the bags.

He’d gone with her, and the incident had crested, then passed—it was far from his last fight—and Gavin didn’t think of it again until 15 years had gone by, and he sat in the crowded canteen at the Causton nick, nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee at the room’s most inconvenient table, wedged behind a column. The sound of his own name had risen above the clatter and chatter to catch his attention. Eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves, he thought, even as he strained to hear.

“You don’t really think—” That was Warren, one of the other junior detectives. “—That Troy is at it with Barnaby’s daughter?”

“That’s exactly what I think.” That was Anderson.

Gavin groaned and knocked his head against the column. That was the last thing he needed. How had he gotten himself into such a mess? Where had it all begun?

***

He couldn’t have foreseen it, all that business with Warren and Anderson, when he made plans to visit Sarah Lawton in prison in 1998. Back then, he’d been as far from introspective as it was possible to be, dancing around the truths at the heart of himself, focused on his work. On Lawton. He hadn’t told Barnaby what he was up to. In fact, he hadn’t told Barnaby that he was still working her case at all, monitoring news reports, trading favours with local constables for tips, and saving clippings in an unmarked folder on his desk. After one helpful DC had tipped him off to Simone Hollingsworth’s flight to Cumbria, he’d even paid out of pocket for a three-month subscription to the local paper. He ought to have known better: Simone was extravagant, not subtle, and it was in one of the London papers that his private investigation turned the corner. The wedding notice itself had to have cost a fortune, but of course, she and her new husband would have money to spare, having cleaned Alan Hollingsworth out and claimed his life insurance as well. Gleeful, Gavin clipped the notice with a pair of scissors borrowed from Luce at the front desk. He was certain, he knew in his bones, that London paper or no, Lawton didn’t know Simone had put her on the shelf. That’s what you get, he thought. Simone didn’t care about her; she never had. That notice was as good as a full-page declaration. He tucked the clipping into his folder, phoned Her Majesty’s Prison Gordon Hall to see about coming up the next day, and felt very satisfied indeed.

 

Satisfied was the word, see, because there was something in him that Lawton disturbed. She made him uncomfortable, more even than Gerald Hadleigh, that poor old sod, because, alright, a fair number of murders came down to sex—not having it, or having it on the side, or having it with the wrong person or in the wrong place or at the wrong time—but Lawton’s wasn’t a crime of passion. It was carefully planned and entangled with a kind of love that Gavin didn’t understand. He had no siblings, wasn’t close with his cousins, and had always been too busy to date, though his mother teased him for it. He’d never had sex, even, though he tried not to think too much about that. The point was, he couldn’t imagine killing—actually taking a life—to protect someone, not even in the line of duty. For heaven’s sake, he’d declined AFO training twice. And there was Lawton, murdering her lover’s husband.

If he believed a man was hurting his mother, maybe, or his nan… Then could he do it? But that was different. Men ought to look out for the women in their lives.

He simply didn’t like Lawton. That was all. At least the woman was behind bars.

***

She had agreed to meet with him on the condition that he bring her a book—new, she’d specified, not from some second-hand place. He’d expected her to ask for some dyke book—not that he knew any himself, but he was sure he’d recognize one if he saw it—but she had named Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, complaining that the prison library had refused to stock it, despite it’s  being a bestseller. Gavin hadn’t known what to make of it, though he had first gone to the library to make sure the book wouldn’t be embarrassing to request at the shop, but knowing that his clippings would spoil her day regardless, he girded his loins and stopped at Blackbird Bookshop on his way to Gordon Hall.

He was braced to endure Avery Phillips, though he hoped to get away with only his, well, partner—and not only in the business sense—Tim Young, who at least wouldn’t chat at him, but he instead found the shop manned by Nico Bentley, who had been in the play with Mrs. Barnaby near the start of the year, the one run by that batty director. Amadeus, that was it. He’d thought Bentley had been good, as far as plays went—rather funny.

“Heya.” Bentley pushed his hair out of his eyes and flashed Gavin a wide, bright smile. “I know you. Sergeant Troy, right?”

Gavin nodded. “Er, how’s it going? Drama school, yeah?”

Bentley beamed. “Starts next month, so Avery and Tim are letting me pick up a few shifts here. And stay upstairs again, which meant I could sublet my room in London, you see, and they could take a holiday for the first time in forever. Well overdue. They’ve gone to Greece.”

Talkative, was Bentley. Privately, Gavin suspected that Cully Barnaby, whom he knew to be passing the summer at home, had more to do with Bentley’s re-appearance in Causton than the opportunity to earn minimum wage in this claustrophobic shop. At least it wasn’t so bad with him there.

Bentley seemed suddenly to remember that he was in the bookselling line. “Looking for anything in particular?”

“Actually, yes,” said Gavin, flustered, having been distracted by Bentley’s collar, which had folded in on itself on the left side and exposed his neck. Barnaby had been on him to sort those little tics in his own attire. “Enduring Love, by, er, Ian McEwan, I think.” He didn’t think—he knew—but he’d suddenly got nervous. Maybe it was thinking of Cully that had put him on edge. He fancied her a little bit, and though no one had said, he was confident she and Bentley were seeing each other. Too bad. He realized that Bentley was looking at him expectantly. “Sorry, what?”

“I don’t know that we’ve got any copies left. Hang on a minute and I’ll check?”

Gavin nodded.

Bentley came around the counter, wearing jeans and trainers and a checked button-up over a plain black shirt. He looked fine, really—dressed the way Gavin would if suit and tie weren’t required—but Gavin did wonder how he’d managed to win Cully. Was that what girls liked? He liked it, but he was a man. He would have thought Barnaby’s daughter to go for a bit more flash. Well, Bentley was fit. And an actor. Maybe that was it.

“Got it!” Bentley looked up from a pile at the back of the shop. “There’s only hardback left, though. Fifteen pounds. Is that alright?”

Gavin winced. “It’ll have to be.”

“Gift?”

He nodded, since that was more or less true.

"I’ll wrap it for you, shall I?”

“Ta,” said Gavin, by then in too deep to explain that the book was meant to bribe a murderer into meeting with him, that he might better work a closed case without his guvnor’s knowledge.

Bentley grinned. “I’ve got an idea.” He rummaged under the counter, then came up with a large round box. “We’ll tuck it in here. Otherwise books are kind of an obvious present, you know?”

Gavin watched him wrap the box in coloured paper and ribbon, following his hands, impressed that the man could do it so neatly—and without corners, too. He himself was all thumbs when it came to wrapping gifts. His family had more or less given up on him where Christmas and birthdays were concerned. He paid for the book, then tucked it under his arm, taking care not to squash the bow—not when Bentley had worked so hard on it—and departed. He had to give himself a firm shake when he got back to the car, and a firmer talking-to on the drive, to get focused. It was Cully he was stuck thinking about. Cully, with her new boyfriend.

***

“That’s for you.” Gavin set the box down on the table, then dismissed the guard.

“Wrapped and everything,” said Lawton, stiffly. She tore the paper without care and pulled the book from its wrappings without saying thank-you.

“How are you coping?” Gavin pulled out his chair, then sat down. He didn’t care one way or the other, but suspected that pleasantries would annoy her. He was right.

“Will you come straight to the point, Sergeant?”

“Fair enough.” Gavin smiled. “You’ve been sidelined. By Simone. Ever wondered why she doesn’t visit?”

“She’s moved away to Cumbria. She writes.” Lawton wouldn’t look at him.

“Did she tell you she and Vince were married?” He spread the clippings over the table: Simone and Vince at a charity do, a tabloid shot of the two on holiday in the Lake District (luridly captioned, the papers cashing in on Lawton’s sordid story), and last but not least, the wedding announcement. See? This is how it ends. This is what you should have known from the start. Still she wouldn’t look at him, but Gavin watched her: an uncontrolled blink, a heavy swallow. He stuck the knife in. “See the other woman in the photograph. She’s their constant companion.” A friend of a friend assigned to Cumbria CID had turned up that little titbit (and in return, Gavin had trimmed hedges for her mother, over in Midsomer Mallow).

 Lawton’s fingers tightened, crumpling the newsprint.

“Look,” said Gavin, as though they were discussing the weather. “Why don’t I just get straight to the point like you asked me to? They shacked up together. If I’d been betrayed like that, by someone I was doing time for, I wouldn’t keep quiet.” That was a null hypothetical, of course: Gavin wouldn’t ever be betrayed like that, because he’d never be as stupid as Sarah Lawton or as trusting as Gerald Hadleigh; he’d never risk everything on one person like Avery Phillips had.

“You could have faked this. Had it printed at a copy shop to try and trick me.”

“Could have.” Gavin shrugged. “Didn’t.”

“I’m responsible for Alan’s death. Me. Just me.”

Gavin put the folder in his satchel, but left the clippings on the table. They were only copies; the originals remained on his desk. “I know you won’t want to take my word for it. That’s understandable. But why not check it out?” He looked at her, held her gaze as smugly as he dared. You should have known better. “Then get back to us when you’re ready.”

He left, then. Pushed away from the table and walked out without looking back. That was the thing about interrogations. Or anything, really. You had to know when to walk away. You had to be ready to walk away.

***

Two years later, though, everything had changed. Gavin had been, well, seeing Nico Bentley for about five months and Sarah Lawton was out on licence.

Gavin hadn’t been called before the parole board, nor indeed had he merited advance notice of any kind, and his first realization that Lawton had won her parole came when he encountered her one cool, damp spring Saturday, where she was working a table for one of the local farms—greens and honey and fresh bread and the like—and where he had taken Nico to spend the morning in companionable leisure after his return from a travelling production of The Seagull. She stared at him and Gavin stared back, wondering if the woman simply hadn’t yet mastered her sales pitch for Midsomer honey—which Nico liked on his toast, he remembered, and maybe he ought to buy some—until she went in quick succession very pale, then very flushed, and said coldly, “Detective-Sergeant Troy.”

“Ma’am,” said Gavin, neutrally polite. There were loads of people up and down the country that he’d met in passing; he couldn’t be expected to remember them all. Then she frowned and caught Gavin’s gaze in cold assessment, and he knew. Lawton was no longer prison-pale and uncaringly dishevelled, and she’d grown out her hair to its natural iron grey, but it was her. Was that life was? One day you’re coaxing haloperidol and whiskey down the throat of a devastated man and the next you’re hawking lettuces to weekenders down from London. All one’s ways are pure in one’s own eyes, said Nan’s voice in his head. He stayed outwardly calm, even while his mind raced. Nico had gone to buy them coffee; Gavin had to keep Lawton away from him. “I assume you haven’t done a runner, unless you’re spectacularly bad at prison escapes.”

“I’m on licence.” Her affect was flat and her eyes cold. “My application was approved last month. Everything’s in order.”

“Fascinating as that may be to you, I’m not interested,” said Gavin. He saw Nico down the road, his back to Gavin, paused to chat with a vendor. “Still pen-pals with Simone Hollingsworth?” That was cruel; he oughtn’t to have said it. He was shocked by the flutter in his pulse, the tremor in his hands.

“I’m not permitted,” she said stiffly. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Mind you keep to your conditions, then, Ms. Lawton,” said Gavin. He wondered what Barnaby would have said. “And choose your friends a bit more carefully this go-round, for heaven’s sake.”

***

Nico offered him a paper cup, piping hot and rippling the cool air with steam. “Find anything good?”

Gavin didn’t acknowledge him, instead pretending to look at a display of beaded jewellery before indulging in a brief look over his shoulder. Lawton was watching him. “Old client. Nothing to worry about, but could you step off a bit, then follow me in a minute?” He snuck a glance at Nico, whose brow had furrowed as confusion warred with his natural agreeableness.

“Erm, okay,” said Nico.

After another minute or so, and a question to the vendor Gavin talked through on autopilot, he wandered off more calmly than he felt and collapsed on the first bench he found once he’d rounded the corner, heedless of the damp, and perked up again only when Nico came back into sight.

The man arched one eyebrow in affectionate reproach. “Now do you want a coffee?”

Gavin nodded, grateful. “I’m sorry. There wasn’t any danger. But she is a murderer, even if she is on parole, and I didn’t want her to see you with me. I’m not her favourite person.” He sighed, then took a sip of coffee to steady himself. Nico took his free hand and gave it a squeeze, which steadied him all the more. “I’ve no idea how she managed parole. She’s a right nasty piece of work.”

“Who is she?”

“Sarah Lawton.”

“Lawton… Is that the mill case, with that Alan Hollingsworth? Cully told me a little about it.” He shuddered. “Are you alright? Do you want to go?”

“No, no,” said Gavin. “I don’t want to spoil our Saturday.”

“You couldn’t,” said Nico. He grinned. “Not so long as you’re wearing that leather jacket. We almost didn’t make it out of the flat, you showing up in that.”

Gavin couldn’t hold back his own silly smile.

Nico took a quick look round, then kissed Gavin’s flushed cheek.

Hang the market; Gavin wanted to take him home straight away. He looked at Nico, blond and cheerful. Safe. “How about you? Did you find anything besides caffeine?”

“Actually, yes,” said Nico. He tugged on Gavin’s hand, leading him toward the far side of the market, away from Lawton. “There’s a woman from Midsomer Parva who makes these little resin pendants, and I wonder if Cully would like one for her birthday, so come and help me pick one out.”

“Hang on, you think I would be good at picking out jewellery? You fell off your chair laughing when I told you about my mum’s birthday.”

“You gave her a car vac.” Nico shook his head. “Besides, maybe I want your opinion to rule ones out.”

“That’s clever, actually,” said Gavin, enjoying being towed along in Nico’s wake. “Lead the way.”

***

“Did you know Sarah Lawton was on licence?”

Barnaby looked up from his desk. “Good morning to you as well, Troy. My weekend was very pleasant, thank you.”

Mildly chastened, Gavin said, “Good morning, sir. But I saw her at Finchmere Market on Saturday.” He rooted in his desk drawer for a biro to mask his distress.

“In fact, so did a friend of Joyce’s, who called her, and Joyce told me straight away. I just got hold of the report, in fact. Told the parole board she was utterly remorseful and repentant, and someone from the prosecution service testified that she’d been extremely helpful in building a case against Simone Hollingsworth and Vince Perry.”

“Helpful, my arse,” said Gavin, and slammed the drawer shut. “She grassed on those two for revenge.” He ought to know: he had orchestrated it. Laid out the clippings, the wedding announcement; rubbed salt in the wound.

Barnaby gave a rueful smile. “Yes. I made a similar observation. But ours not to reason why. And with Simone locked away, she’s not likely to re-offend.”

“She poisoned Alan Hollingsworth, sir. Slowly. In person. And then she walked away. She’s the definition of cold-blooded.”

“I am aware of how the crime was carried out, thank you.” Barnaby sighed. “She was tricked into believing that he was beating Simone.”

“You’re not taking her side, are you? If that’s what she thought, she should have gone to the police.”

“You know perfectly well that victims of domestic violence are among the least likely to do so.”

“Well, she wasn’t—a victim, I mean—and neither was her girlfriend.”

Barnaby pulled a handful of coins from his pocket. “Go and get us a coffee, will you, Troy? Not from the canteen. From that café round the corner, by the camera shop.”

“But—“

“Fresh air. Clear your head.” Barnaby had dropped his voice.

 Gavin realized that the other detectives in the room were watching him. He was making a scene. “Yes, sir,” he said, and took the money.

He was annoyed with himself for getting worked up, and too, with his frustration for Barnaby’s even-handed sympathy, which was actually one of the things Gavin admired most about him. He took the long way to Barnaby’s café of choice, circling around from the opposite direction, and finding that a good pace was what he needed, looped around twice more before making the requested order and returning to the office.

He didn’t mention Lawton again, but he did fetch his old file from the cabinet.

***

Five months with Nico. They’d gone in a snap. Cully knew, and Nico had told his mum, but Gavin hadn’t told anybody. Mind, it wasn’t like they skulked around or met in the dark of the moon—they went for dinner, or to the pub or the cinema, and spent weekends together, and of course, there was the cricket team. And since he’d come back to Causton, Nico had been working at the Blackbird again, staying upstairs but spending a few nights a week at Gavin’s, which Gavin wouldn’t have traded for anything. On top of which, Avery and Tim had bought a cottage in Morton Fendle, so they weren’t round to mind Nico’s comings and goings. On balance, everything was going well.

It made Gavin nervous.

While Nico had been away, Gavin had done two things apart from work: read The Seagull—reread, actually, as he’d done it in uni—and thought about how to be a good, well, boyfriend. He supposed the basic principles were the same, whether you were boyfriend to a woman or a man, but with no prior experience as either, his decisions tended to come down to educated guesswork or—in a pinch—thinking of what the people in his cases would do, then doing the opposite. He was trying, at least. At a restaurant the week before, Nico had reached across the table for Gavin’s hand, and Gavin’s first response had not been to flinch or to look around for people they knew, but to blushingly smile and hold out his open hand for Nico’s touch. He’d then spilled his drink when the server came by, but that was clumsiness, not panic.

But Nico was so patient, so understanding. Which seemed a foolish complaint. But when he’d kissed Gavin’s cheek at Finchmere Market, for instance, he’d first made certain they were alone, and surely he wouldn’t want to do that forever. At the back of his mind, in a place Gavin barely dared acknowledge but which never fully receded from view, he was desperately worried that Nico’s patience would run out. Gavin had to be amazing, just to hold on to him. To be worth it. To keep him from walking away.

***

To wit, that Friday night Gavin tried—with little success—to put Lawton out of his thoughts, and managed—with a great deal more success—to cook a chicken pie that was both attractive and appetizing, and afterward took Nico out for ice cream, because as good as the pie had been, the day had been the first properly hot one of the season and getting out of the flat seemed a sound notion. They took the long way back, walking along the river, and though the evening had cooled marginally, Gavin was grateful he’d changed out of his suit. It wasn’t only a matter of temperature; he felt more like his private self in casual clothes.

“I’m not working tomorrow,” said Nico.

A thrill shot through Gavin, starting somewhere in his belly and rippling outward. He tried to tamp down his smile. “No one’s been murdered—yet—so I should be free as well. Want to do something?”

“Like sleep in ‘til noon and then watch that X-Files marathon on Sky?”

That was exactly what Gavin wanted, but he’d been too shy to suggest it, for fear of being dull. “How did you—”

“It was circled in your listings. And—” He laughed, ducking in self-deprecation. “My mum called to tell me.” He shrugged, turning his palms to the sky. “What can I say? She knows me.”

“I could kiss you,” said Gavin, without thinking.

“Why don’t you?”

Gavin froze—only for a moment, but too long, all the same.

Nico’s smile faltered—only for a moment, but too long, all the same. “Never mind.”

“Damn, I…” Gavin trailed off.

Nico arched an eyebrow. “Take me home and make up for it?”

With great exertion of will, Gavin forced himself not to check for onlookers, and instead caught Nico’s elbow, tugged gently to stop him walking on. He thought his heart might beat out of his chest, and although he hadn’t planned to, he wrapped his arms around Nico, held him close. “I’m trying,” he said.”

Nico held him too. “I know,” he said.

They kept walking, and Gavin hoped that the moment could be forgotten.

But Nico said, after a few minutes, “There’s something to be said for facing one’s fears.”

“I know that,” said Gavin hurriedly, “and I—”

“But Gav, I’d never want you to feel you had to do something that was more than you were ready for, or something you didn’t feel safe doing. I’m not out to everyone; there are places we shouldn’t cadge a snog; that’s life.”

“I hate being afraid,” said Gavin, more honest than he’d meant to be. Far more. He winced, braced for Nico to recoil from such bare, unpleasant emotion.

Nico bumped Gavin’s shoulder with his. “I get it.”

“Can I ask how that audition went?” The Causton Playhouse, with much fanfare, was putting on a new play from local lad turned Olivier-Award-winning writer-director Peter Ainsley. (Nico had explained the Olivier Awards—and Ainsley’s play—over pints the week before; a big deal, Gavin gathered.)

“I’ve taken a pledge not to talk about it,” said Nico. “For luck.”

“Alright,” said Gavin. In everything but his own sexuality, he was by nature easy-going, as if all the average tension of a normal person had in him concentrated around that singular point, a black hole where rationality turned to smoke. That realization alone had been hard-won—had burned out his introspective capabilities, as it were—but as Nico’s professional superstitions stood apart from all that, Gavin smiled and chalked it up to the general inscrutabilities of theatrical types. For Nico’s sake, flexibility was easy.

***

When they got back to Gavin’s flat, he turned the lock in the door, then looked at Nico, smiling in shy invitation. He hadn’t mastered he words, barely knew them. Kiss me? No. Take me to bed? No. Fuck me? Definitely not! Nico understood him, in any case. He tasted like chocolate ice cream and got his hands under Gavin’s shirt as quick as you like. God, but Gavin loved Nico’s hands on him. They got out of their shirts, kicked off their shoes, their trousers, their pants, a trail of breadcrumbs leading to Gavin’s rumpled double bed, where they sank down together. Gavin had one moment of surreal awareness: he was naked, with a man, with Nico, who had seen more of him, more often, than anyone else alive, apart from his mum, who was not welcome in his thoughts at that particular moment. Then Nico’s hand slipped between his legs and he stopped thinking.

***

The next week, while Gavin toiled at his desk, television marathons and the feel of Nico’s hands but a distant memory, his telephone rang.

“Causton CID, Sergeant Troy speaking,” he said, balancing the phone between his ear and his shoulder while he separated the layers of a form typed in quadruplicate, ready to staple each to the corresponding cover page.

“Hey, it’s me, you’ll never guess what’s happened.”

The voice was distant, studded with static—an elderly phone box, Gavin reckoned—but still he knew right away. “You got the part? Oh—” Did Nico’s superstitions apply even if he himself brought it up? “I mean… You’re right. I couldn’t possibly guess. Tell me?” Forms stapled, he set them on his desk.

“I didn’t get the part!”

Gavin was confused. Even through the dodgy connection, Nico sounded like he’d won the lottery, and yet he’d been dead keen on the role. “I’m… sorry?”

“No, no, don’t be. Peter, the director, called me. I’m down the street from the playhouse right now. He wants me for Henry—that’s right, the better part I didn’t have the nerve to try for, and it’ll pay more too.”

“That’s fantastic,” said Gavin, beaming, paperwork forgotten. “Congratulations, you.”

“I’d say we should go out tonight and celebrate, but Peter wants us to do our first read-through tonight. That’s the other reason I’m calling. My god, I can’t believe. Is that okay?”

Gavin laughed, delighted by Nico’s exuberance. “Of course. We’ll definitely celebrate, but whenever you’re free. Especially since this means you’ll be around Causton for the next couple months, right?”

“I know!”

Nico’s enthusiasm was contagious, his unadulterated pleasure sparking a glow in Gavin’s belly.

“I can’t wait to tell Cully.”

The glow expanded. “Hang on, you called me first?”

“Well, yeah.” As though the choice were obvious.

“Okay, you go call her, and call me later, when you’re free?”

“Might be late”

“No worries.” Gavin hung up and found Anderson watching him from across his own desk. “Careful,” he said, so pleased that Anderson’s inquisitiveness could not intrude on the moment. “Your face might fix like that.”

“Gavin Troy, are you after the guvnor’s daughter?”

Gavin managed a laugh, though his mouth had gone dry. “No,” he said, and swallowed. “Now go away. Some of us are working.”

***

Peter Ainsley started as he meant to go on, running Nico—and the rest of the cast and crew, presumably, though Gavin wasn’t fussed about them—absolutely ragged. And that was on top of Nico’s shifts at the Blackbird and cricket practice, which Nico held onto as a chance to stay active in the fresh air. (“And with you, on top of it,” he’d said, the other day, as they packed their gear.)

Left to his own devices, Gavin worked, worked, and worked some more, and on Saturday, drove to Finchmere alone to visit the market again. He bought a coffee and drank it slowly, wandering among the stalls and tables, and even the cramped shops packed amongst the arcades, then bought a jar of honey and a loaf of that crusty bread Nico liked before admitting to himself that the real reason he’d come was to look for Lawton. When he found her, he watched her surreptitiously, sequestering himself beneath an awning across the road. She was polite, but chilly; she didn’t chat with the customers, but only took their money and handed them their veg. He watched her for about 20 minutes. Then he went home, unsettled. Someone ought to be keeping an eye on her.

***

At least Nico was pleased with the bread and honey. Gavin brought it over to the flat above the bookshop on Sunday, which, if not permitted by the requirements of their modern lives as a day of rest, at least allowed the morning. Even so, he could make out footsteps and general puttering about in the shop below as one of Nico’s colleagues—he couldn’t remember her name—readied for the noon opening. Gavin was glad of it, not only to have Nico to himself but also to avoid Avery and Tim. He hadn’t given much thought as to why he might find avoiding the couple a relief: it was enough to know that his logic had discomfort at its heart. That black hole again.

“That woman still there?” Nico was stood on tiptoe to fetch the toaster off the cupboard.

Gavin hadn’t expected him to remember Lawton. He started, then made a face. “Unfortunately. We didn’t talk.” He fixed two cups of tea, then settled at the kitchen table, enjoying the cool morning breeze blowing inward through the window over the sink. “How’re rehearsals?”

Nico joined him with a plateful of toast and honey, which both men dug into immediately. “Good, on balance. Though I would like to have a proper sleep sometime in the next month.” He polished off his slice and took another. “Some big personalities, but that’s theatre for you. Peter mostly keeps them in check. I think it helps that he’s not been back here for a while. Has no earthly notion of whose granddad is feuding with whose illegitimate child over the 1947 Midsomer in Bloom competition, and couldn’t care less.

“Amen to that,” said Gavin. “Don’t bring up Midsomer in Bloom to my nan, by the way.” He’d said it without thinking, then remembered that—of course—Nico had never met her and that she herself didn’t know Nico from a hole in the ground. And whose fault was that?

Nico laughed. “I know I’ll be considered a newcomer until I’m 90, but at least I have some idea what’s going on. Peter hasn’t the slightest. It’s the first time he’s been back here in years, and there’s more than a couple lifetime Midsomerites in the cast—and the crew, of course. It’s driving them mad.”

“Anyone I know?”

“Probably. Mabel Wilkins?” It was one of Nico’s pet amusements to name various Midsomer residents he’d encountered to see if Gavin knew them. Gavin usually did, at least by name, much to Nico’s delight.

“Mabel Wilkins…” Gavin scooped a blob of honey from the plate and licked it off his finger. “Short woman, big long braid, face like she bit a lemon.”

Nico clapped his hands, face lit up with pleasure. “See, you always disagree with me when I say you know everybody, but you do.”             

Gavin glowed with pleasure of his own to hear Nico say “always” in respect of the… relationship, whatever it was, between them. “She’s from Badger’s Drift—‘explains a lot,’ Nico interjected—and used to volunteer at Causton Comp. So she’s terrorizing the playhouse now?”

“I’ve never seen grown men so careful with their clothes. James Ffoulkes?”

“Ah, who could forget Jimmy Fucks?”

“You did not!”

I didn’t,” said Gavin, with great dignity. “I was two years above him.”

Nico went after the rest of the honey drizzled across the plate, and with his concentration settled on the task, said distractedly, “Do you know Thomas—Tom—Alder? God, this is delicious, Gavin.”

Gavin frowned, scanning his memory. He shook his head. “You got me there.”

Nico was silent a moment, perhaps disappointed that he’d finally stumped Gavin. “Never mind, then. Lucy Cooper?”

Anxious to repair the moment, Gavin was relieved to put the conversation back on track. “Luce? How is she? I thought she moved down to London.”

“She just moved back, to be closer to her mum.”

“What did you say the other one’s name was? Alden?”

“Alder. But never mind him. Cricket’s not for another hour and a half…” Across the table, he grinned.

Susan. That was the name of the girl downstairs. “But Susan might… hear,” said Gavin, whispering the last word, despite his desire to take up Nico’s offer with no further discussion.

“We’ll be quiet,” said Nico.

That settled it.

***

Two weeks since he’d discovered Lawton was out, and she’d been out even longer. She was trouble waiting to happen, so on Monday morning, before lunch, Gavin snuck from the nick and went to the parole office across town in search of Louise McMasters, offender manager. He showed his warrant card at the front desk, then paced the waiting room.

“Sergeant, er, Troy?”

He lifted his head. “Ms. McMasters?”

“That’s me.” She had short, grey-black hair and looked to be in her forties—it was hard for Gavin to tell: she was older than him, younger than Barnaby, he figured—and though she wasn’t muscular, she looked wiry strong. She looked a bit like Simone Hollingsworth. Gavin wondered if she was a dyke. Didn’t anyone think? “I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes. What can I do for you?”

“I worked under DCI Barnaby in the murder of Alan Hollingsworth,” said Gavin. “I understand you’ve been assigned to manage Sarah Lawton?”

“That’s right. Since her conditional release in May. Is there some sort of problem?”

“That’s what I’d like to ask you.”

McMasters looked uncomfortable. “I couldn’t discuss details with you, Sergeant, unless there was legal grounds to breach confidentiality?”

“I think we both have an interest in public safety, Ms. McMasters,” said Gavin, trying to be charming. Failing, given how unimpressed McMasters looked.

“Is there an active investigation involving Ms. Lawton?”

Gavin shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably, unwilling to lie. “Not at this time.” He thought he knew most of the parole officers in the county; how did the only one who wouldn’t extend a professional courtesy end up between him and Lawton? He eyed her up and down, frowning.

“Then I can’t speak to you about her case.” McMaster chewed her lip. “Look, I can tell you that I am not concerned with the performance of any offenders currently under my supervision.”

“Has she tried it on with you?” Gavin hadn’t known he was going to say that, but he hadn’t been certain he wouldn’t, either. Clearly no one else had thought of the risks. “Or maybe made you think you should?”

“I beg your pardon,” said McMasters, drawing herself up.

“It’s only, she’s a dyke,” said Gavin, hurrying to get the rest of his thought out. “And if you’re also—”

“Sergeant Tr—”

He revised on the fly. “You know, a lesbian, and so I wondered—”

“Sergeant Troy!”

Gavin shut up.

“I don’t know how it works at Causton CID, but perhaps I’ll pop round tomorrow and accuse you of professional misconduct, and throw a flew slurs about while I’m at it, and we’ll find out.

“Hang on—”

“Good day, Sergeant.” McMasters turned on her heel and left.

Gavin swallowed hard and watched his shoes, avoiding the eyes of the girl at the desk. After a moment, he went out to the car, unlocked it, climbed in, fastened his seatbelt, and put the car into gear, cursing McMasters all the while—her damned attitude; her stuck-up, self-righteous moralizing; her defence of a woman who didn’t deserve it, who probably was eyeing up her offender manager, even if McMasters hadn’t figured it out yet. And if she had… Stupid dy—

He parked the car. He’d got back to the nick without paying the slightest attention to the drive, and though he’d arrived without a single slammed brake or beeped horn, his own thoughts had caught up to him like a car crash all the same. Stupid dyke. That was what he’d been thinking. He felt a rush of saliva in his mouth, like he was about to be sick.

***

He tried to concentrate on paperwork—his lunch held no appeal—but the words blurred and shifted before him, and his write-ups repeatedly trailed off mid-sentence. He was relieved when Barnaby called him away from his desk. He’d wanted to call Nico, picked up the phone to ring the bookshop half a dozen times, but what could he have said? Nico would be furious, or worse, disappointed.

“I’ll drive,” said Barnaby.

“Alright, sir,” said Gavin, uninterested in banter, even if he had recently finished the driving course again, with his highest score yet. He fastened his seatbelt and focused his mind on the matter at hand. “Where’s the case?”

“No case,” said Barnaby. He turned toward the perimeter road that led out of Causton and into the country. Towards Gavin’s flat, actually.

“I received a call from Louise McMasters at the National Parole Service.”

Gavin knocked back against the headrest. Wonderful.

“She was rather distressed,” said Barnaby. “I can’t say that I blame her, once she explained your conversation. I suppose you’d like to share your side of the story.”

“I’m sure Ms. McMasters covered all the relevant information, sir,” said Gavin, resigned, looking out the window, brickwork buildings blurring together as they drove on.

Barnaby was silent a moment, perhaps surprised that Gavin hadn’t argued. Perhaps for dramatic effect.

“Troy, I’ve always felt it best to lead by example, and so I’ve given you a lot of leeway.”

“I know you have, sir, and I—“

“Don’t interrupt.”

Gavin subsided, sufficiently quelled.

“I’ve said before that you don’t have a soft pedal when it comes to the English language. If such are your genuine opinions, that is your private business. But if the expression of such opinions interferes with your ability to be an effective police officer, to effectively earn the trust of the public… We serve everyone, Troy. Not only the people we like. Not only the people we feel comfortable around.”

“I know that, sir. I—“

“I’m not finished,” said Barnaby. He stopped the car.

Gavin recognized his flat.

“Yes, Sarah Lawton killed a man with intent and that cannot be undone. But our job is done, Troy. She went to prison; she served her sentence; she is under the supervision of the National Parole Service, not mine and not yours. Not to mention the fact that Ms. McMasters is your colleague.”

Gavin’s face burned terribly.

“I didn’t realize how deeply you’d invested in this case.” Barnaby sighed. “Perhaps I ought to have been paying closer attention.”

Barnaby was right, of course. Gavin had never before obsessed over a case as he had with Lawton’s—not even Gerald Hadleigh’s, which had given him nightmares for weeks. He swallowed, then, thinking of all the things Barnaby didn’t know and that he couldn’t explain. None changed the fact that he’d been wrong to go after McMasters as he had. But was it so wrong to care about keeping Lawton off the street?

“You said the other day that Sarah Lawton wasn’t a victim, and neither was her girlfriend. Now, it’s true that Alan Hollingsworth was not a wifebeater, but the fact that Sarah was his attacker doesn’t mean she wasn’t also Simone’s victim—emotional manipulation, fear-mongering, abuse of trust.”

Gavin hadn’t thought of what happened to Lawton as domestic violence, per se. Even after all that happened in his own life, after Nico, he still thought Lawton had played the cards and lost. You took a chance on being queer and more likely than not, you lost. That was how he’d always thought it worked. The thought that he had been wrong, terribly wrong, was an awful shock.

“Don’t come in tomorrow and I can tell Ms. McMasters I suspended you.” He paused, then added, “I’ll tell admin you’re home sick.”

Gavin curled his fingers around the door handle and gathered his tattered dignity. “It’s not my opinion, sir,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“I was out of order with McMasters and that was wrong, but it’s not my genuine opinion. Not anymore.” He didn’t want to look at Barnaby, to see his face.

Barnaby’s voice was softer, after that. “Stay away from Sarah Lawton and stay away from McMasters. Got that?”

“Yes, sir,” said Gavin. He got out of the car and didn’t look back when he heard Barnaby pull away.

***

Gavin took off his suit jacket and his tie, but otherwise didn’t change out of his work clothes. He left the radio playing—he kept it on while he was out to discourage burglars, but didn’t usually use it while at home—and puttered about the flat, half-heartedly tidying. He piled up dirty dishes, but didn’t wash them. He pulled the sheets off the bed to run them through the laundry, but left them in a heap on the kitchen floor. He opened a pile of bills and a new issue of The Hawk, but left the torn envelopes on the table. He opened the refrigerator, then closed it again; opened it; closed it. The phone rang, but he didn’t answer. It rang again, a little while later, but again, Gavin didn’t answer, because he was sitting on the edge of the bathtub with his cuffs unbuttoned and his sleeves rolled up, confused and frightened, because he could not stop crying. His breaths came fast, hitched, and he couldn’t seem to get a proper one; his nose was blocked, his cheeks stinging with the scrub of rough tissue. It was mental, what he was doing, and he couldn’t stop. He heard the crunch of bicycles tires on gravel, footsteps on the inside stairs, and after a minute, the key in the lock. Oh no.

“Hey, Gavin—you here?”

Gavin stiffened. Nico. He caught his breath and held it, trying to force himself to calm down. Nico had been at the Blackbird or in rehearsals every spare minute; what sort of terrible luck brought him down on Gavin’s head now? He couldn’t pretend he wasn’t in: he hadn’t closed the bathroom door. He wondered if he could throw himself into the shower in time. A sob leapt out of his throat and the fist he pressed to his mouth wasn’t enough to smother it.

“Gavin?” Nico’s footsteps came closer.

Gavin flung out with a desperate kick to close the door, but couldn’t reach it, and Nico appeared in the doorway, his expression shifting from general inquisitiveness to horrified concern. “Gavin, what’s happened?”

“Nothing,” said Gavin. Another sob. He buried his face in his hands. He’d never in his life been so embarrassed. Never. Not even when Oliver Philips had written obscene graffiti about him in the boys’ toilets in sixth form and why had that memory reappeared right then? “I’m fine.”

Nico knelt beside him. “Obviously not.” He put his hand on Gavin’s knee.

Gavin flinched and felt even worse than before. He’d have to tell Nico what had happened and Nico would be appalled. Rightly so.

Nico withdrew his hand. “God, not your nan?”

Gavin tried to breathe through his nose, making a disgusting noise. “It’s fine. I promise it’s fine. I’ll tell you in a minute, I just need—” He needed to be alone. He couldn’t be seen like this.

Nico rose to his feet. The sound of running water, and he pressed a cool washcloth into Gavin’s hand. “I’ll, erm, make you some tea?”

***

Gavin meant to go out and meet him in the kitchen, but he couldn’t seem to get himself under control, and by the time he’d stopped crying and washed his face—twice—Nico was already back with a mug. Gavin was wrung out—embarrassed, overheated, thirsty, and his cuffs were wet where he’d pulled them down to wipe his face.

“So,” said Nico. “Nobody’s dead or dying?”

Gavin shook his head.

“Okay. Erm, can I give you a hug?”

Gavin didn’t deserve it, but nodded anyway, and the comfort of Nico’s arms around him was more than he could have expected. He’d only ever felt happy with Nico, since they got together; he’d never thought about what it might be like to have Nico nearby when he was down. He ought to appreciate it while he had it; who knew how much longer that would be?

“Can we go sit in the lounge?”

Gavin nodded, and followed Nico there. They sat on the sofa. Gavin sipped his tea, but noticed Nico’s hands were empty. “Did you want something, though?” he said, as though it were a normal evening. “To drink?”

Nico shook his head. He bit his lip, then said, “Avery let me off early, so I called you to leave you a message, and then I thought I’d come over, maybe cook. I’m glad I did, so you know. I mean, I hope you’re glad. Or… okay with it, at least”

Gavin swallowed. He had to tell the truth. “You know Sarah Lawton?”

“Yeah…”

“I called her offender manager a dyke. Basically.” Gavin picked at a loose thread on the sofa back.

“What? Why?

“And I… implied that she might be… susceptible. To Lawton.” The thread came free and Gavin rolled it between his finger and thumb. “I was trying to get information on Lawton’s file, and this woman, McMasters, I was furious with her, and I got back in the car and I drove back to the office and I realized what I’d said. I felt sick.”

Nico was silent.

“Barnaby sent me home,” said Gavin. “I’m suspended. Sort of. Barnaby told me to stay home until the day after tomorrow.”

“Could you apologize to her?”

“What? She doesn’t want to see my face again, I’m sure.”

“You could telephone. Or write.”

Gavin looked up. He was unbelievably tired. He’d been so miserable all day, he hadn’t thought of making reparations. “You think so?”

Nico shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Even if she hangs up on you or shreds your letter, at least you tried.” He put his hand over Gavin’s. “You’re going to pick a hole in the sofa.” He sighed, and his next words were barely audible. “Gavin, why’d you say it?”

Why had he? He was angry; it was a reflex, his old store of insults. He had felt put down by McMasters, was scared of Lawton—of what she stood for in his memory. “I don’t like Lawton,” he said. “I let it get to my head, and I knew I was wrong to go prying at the parole office, so when McMasters called me on it… I’m sorry.”

“Tell her that.”

“No, not that—I mean, not just that. I’m sorry to you.” He looked up; Nico’s expression was confused, guarded. “I’m not ashamed to be with you. I’m not. I get…” Scared.

“If your instinct with strangers is to say nasty things about being gay, I can’t imagine what you say to yourself.”

“You should be more angry with me,” said Gavin. “You shouldn’t be so nice.”

 “‘Cos that would do a world of good. You’ve obviously been sat here all afternoon yelling at yourself. There’s not much left for me to do. Why does Lawton bother you so much?”

Gavin thought back to how pleased he’d been to show the woman that Simone had dropped her; how she made his skin crawl; how he’d felt relief like a desert oasis when Barnaby had said he thought Gavin’s masculinity intimidated her. “I don’t know,” he said, quietly. Lying.

“Drink your tea,” said Nico. “And tell me everything you know about Cordelia Hepplewhite.”

“What? From the Causton Examiner?” Gavin blinked, rubbed his eyes again, and sniffled a bit, though he tried to disguise it.

“She’s coming to dress and to opening night. Peter’s put us all on reconnaissance, so I thought I’d ask the expert.”

***

Nico chatted with him for a bit while he drank his tea, they eventually sorted dinner—cheese toasties—and by 8:00, back on the sofa, Gavin was yawning. Having a breakdown really wore a person out.

“I’m done in,” he said, apologetically, through a jaw-splitting yawn.

“Alright,” said Nico. “I can take my book.”

Startled, Gavin blinked at him. “You want to stay?”

“Do you… not want me to?”

“No! I mean, I do want you to stay. I am glad you’re here. I only thought—”

“When I’m mad at you, I’ll tell you,” said Nico. “I won’t make you guess.”

“That makes sense,” said Gavin, who’d never thought of applying a rule that way. He groaned, struck with a sudden realization. “I never made the bed. Everything’s on the kitchen floor.”

“Only partially correct,” said Nico. “Everything is, in fact, in the tumble dryer.”

“You did the laundry?”

Nico winked. “I’m not sleeping on a bare mattress.”

“Thank you,” said Gavin, with feeling. “I’ll go put the sheets on and, er, join me, when you’re ready?”

***

In bed, Nico sat up reading by the light of the bedside lamp, while Gavin chased his thoughts around and around until at last he fell asleep.

***

Nico was gone when Gavin woke up—he’d slept clear through his usual time and it was nearly 9:00—but a note sat by the kettle.

Call me at the Blackbird if you want to talk.

Or come see me!

xxx, Nico.

Gavin had never felt the urge to keep mementos before, but that note… It wasn’t exactly a love letter—except that that’s exactly what it was.

He phoned the parole office before breakfast, before even his first cup of tea, and was silently grateful that the receptionist put him through without checking if McMasters would take his call.

“Louise McMasters, National Probation Service, Causton.”

“Ms. McMasters, this is Gavin Troy. We spoke yest—“

“Sergeant Troy; how could I forget?” Her tone was caustic. “What do you want?”

Gavin had dialled before he lost his nerve, but also before he planned what to say, and all the words he’d rehearsed before he had at last fallen asleep, exhausted, had fled his mind. “Erm,” he said, stupidly. Desperately, he gathered himself. “I was out of order.” He was conscious that he was speaking more quickly than usual but helpless to stop it. “I was wrong to speak to you that way—actually to approach you at all—and I apologize.”

Silence. Then, “I suppose your guvnor put you up to this.”

“No,” said Gavin. “I felt terrible, after. I asked a friend’s advice. Anyway, I’m sure you don’t care how I feel. I wanted to apologize, so I’ll let you go. I’d offer to buy you a pint, but I’m sure you’re done with me. Maybe I could post you a tenner?” He was babbling.

“Stop talking, Troy. You’ll sprain something.” McMasters’s tone, though, had thawed, if marginally. “DCI Barnaby has assured me you’ll stay away from my clients.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Goodbye, sergeant.”

“Goo—”

She’d hung up.

Gavin took a deep breath, and then a shower. Then he called Nan in Midsomer Worthy.

“Gavin, dear, what a nice surprise,” she said. “Aren’t you meant to be at work?”

“Got the day off today,” said Gavin. “Wanted to call and say hello. How’s your garden?”

“My roses are going to be tremendous this year,” she said, before adding, wickedly, “Lucinda Wandsworth won’t know what hit her when she sees my Arthur Bells. You’ll come to the garden show, won’t you?”

“Nan, I come every year.  You know how much I enjoy seeing you put the Wandsworths in their place. I buy my ticket in advance.”

“Maybe this year you’ll buy two. Bring a companion with you?”

She was the only one allowed to tease him that way; the only person who’d ever made it feel like love and not like mockery. “Maybe, maybe not,” he said, the same answer he gave every time. The garden show was in September. Maybe he’d be brave enough to ask Nico to come with him, to introduce him to Nan, and she’d say she thought he was a nice young man, so handsome, and that Gavin had done well for himself, and invite them round for tea. Of course, Nico might also see reason before then, and break up with him.

“Speak of the devil,” said Nan. “I see Lucinda coming up the path.”

Gavin laughed, despite the thread of worry wound around him. “I’ll call you later, then. Love you.”

***

He did go round the Blackbird to see Nico, in the end. Walked into town instead of driving— his car was still parked at work, since Barnaby had brought him home the day before—and so made an outing of it: a long, slow walk in the bright summer sun, a stop to pick up one of those fancy lattes Nico was so fond of, the musical jingle of the bells over the door when he crossed the threshold. Nico looked up from the desk, his face shining with pleasure. Gavin took a deep breath, and it felt like the first time his lungs had worked properly since he’d had it out with McMasters.

“For you,” said Gavin, and set the latte on the counter.

“Bless you,” said Nico, with feeling. “It was such a dull morning, you wouldn’t believe. I was in very real danger of falling asleep under the counter.”

“I called that woman, McMasters,” said Gavin, without further preamble.

“Oh?” Nico said, neutrally. He sipped his coffee. “How’d that go?”

“Alright. She didn’t hang up on me.”

“Good for you,” said Nico, and smiled.

Gavin looked at the man before him. He had got so very lucky. “So,” he said, groping for a subject-change before Nico could realize his mistake and boot Gavin out of the shop. “Need any help around here? Nothing too intellectual, mind—any heavy lifting, throwing one’s police weight around?”

“Actually,” said Nico. “Okay, don’t laugh, but…”

“I’m not going to laugh. I’m going out of my mind for something to do.”

Nico’s cheeks flushed—Gavin realized he really was embarrassed—and he said, “We had a delivery this morning, and there’s a whole great stack of boxes on pallets in the alley. Tim wants me to move them into the shop and start unpacking…”

A smile tugged at Gavin’s mouth—not in derision, never that, but in the fullness of his affection.

“In my defence, they’re very heavy, and I’m very tired,” said Nico. “You said you wouldn’t laugh.”

“I’m not laughing,” said Gavin. “Use me for manual labour. I’m at your service.”

***

He was bloody sore by the end of it, but glad of it—and glad to have spent the afternoon with Nico, who had rehearsals all that evening and who—on account of a new murder apparently caused by aliens, according to their witness—Gavin didn’t see again until Saturday, when Nico knocked on his door at about 9:00 in the evening. Gavin hadn’t hardly got a hello in before Nico was in his arms, kissing him fiercely. He was hot with the exertion of his bicycle ride in the warm evening, but even so Gavin, whose new appetite for such things repeatedly shocked him with its intensity, acquiesced with enthusiasm, though he managed to pull away for the barest moment to ask Nico if he wanted anything to eat. “I’m sure you’re not getting enough food,” he said, by way of explanation. That sounded more motherish the he’d meant, so he amended, “I mean, Mrs. Barnaby gets after me, so I think about that sort of thing now.”

“I’m alright,” said Nico, looking up at him fondly. “Thanks, though.”

So Gavin got Nico into bed, got him out of his shirt, and stopped. “Oy, what’s that?”

“What?”

A purpling bruise discoloured the left side of Nico’s ribs.

“Oh, that,” said Nico.

“Yeah, that.” Gavin touched the bruise gingerly and felt Nico tense. “That must have hurt. That’s not from cricket, is it?”

Nico made a face. “No… We were blocking a fight scene in rehearsals this morning. It’s a bit of a melee, see, and life imitated art.” He rolled his eyes. “Amateurs.”

“Occupational hazards,” said Gavin. “Did you report it?”

“Well, Peter was right there.”

“No, to HSE.”

“Health and safety? It’s not that serious.”

Gavin raised an eyebrow. “You could have bruised a rib. I don’t think you’ve cracked any, though; that’d hurt more.”

“It’s alright, really.”

Gavin kissed him. “Okay.” He didn’t want to make a fuss. Didn’t want to be difficult. Didn’t want to drive Nico away. “Just asking.”

***

After they’d finished, but before they’d cleaned up, when they lay still tangled in the sheets, catching their breath, Gavin said, “thank you.” The week had started so badly and was ending so well. He was mad lucky.

“I’m going to end up with a massive ego on account of you,” said Nico. “Thank you yourself.” He smiled, letting Gavin know he meant it.

Ego was what made him think of it and the, well, intimacy, he supposed, of Nico’s company made him brave enough to say it. Something dredged up from the river-bottom of his heart. But it was Nico who had made him realize it, and it was Nico who he wanted to share it with. “Want to hear a funny story?”

“Okay.”

“I should warn you, the first bit’s not funny. Work stuff.”

“Murder stuff?”

Gavin said nothing.

Nico said quietly, “Is it Lawton?”

Gavin nodded, momentarily overcome, despite his desire to reshape his history into an amusing anecdote for Nico’s enjoyment.

“Go on.” Nico rolled over and propped himself up on a pillow, mouth twisted for a flash when he put pressure on his bruise. He rested his chin in his upturned hands.

“This woman, Lawton, she was having an affair with Simone Hollingsworth.” That much had been in the papers, and Nico nodded. “Hollingsworth convinced her to help to fake her own kidnapping and then to murder her husband. Lawton took the fall, while she ran off and had a great life out in the Lake District.”

“Good lord,” said Nico.

“I went to see her, at the prison,” said Gavin. “I brought her a book she’d asked for. Bought it at the Blackbird, actually—from you. I don’t know if you remember that.”

Nico’s eyes widened. “I do. You had the—“ He gestured over his forehead.

“Yes, yes, that awful fringe, I know.”

“It wasn’t awful,” said Nico, protesting. “You want to know the truth? I thought it was fashionable for CID. Plainclothes police, the suit and tie; almost as good as that leather jacket…” His gaze went faraway for a moment, then sprang back. “That book, it was the McEwan, wasn’t it?”

Gavin nodded.

“God, it was for a murderer. That makes a horrible kind of sense.”

“Anyway, I also brought clippings of Hollingsworth with her new husband—and her new lover, another woman. And the life went out of her. She called Barnaby to grass on them that afternoon, and I was so proud of myself. It was one of the first things I did on my own, see, and it worked. I was proving something to myself—that I was good police, I thought, but it wasn’t that.” Gavin took a deep breath. “It was that it would never work, being gay; that you’d always get let down.”

“I thought you said this was a funny story.” Nico rested his hand on Gavin’s chest. “You had a tough go, hey, honey?”

“What?” Gavin laughed and shook his head. “No, nothing like.”

Nico gave him a stern look.

“I mean it, though,” said Gavin, protesting. “Nothing happened to me. I happened to other people, people who were braver than me. Look at McMasters. All my nonsense was in my head; that doesn’t count.”

“You are such a boy,” said Nico, laughing and rolling on top of him, kissing him.

Thus distracted, Nico’s weight on him, Nico’s mouth against his, Gavin’s rebuttal was delayed, but not entirely pre-empted. “Of course, I am. That is the whole entire point of this story.”

“Feelings are real, you numpty,” said Nico, and kissed him again, so that Gavin lost himself in it for a while.

“I can handle it, though,” he said at last.

“I know you can. But it’s obviously still bothering you.”

Gavin frowned and fidgeted.

“I’m not teasing. Honest.”

“We-ell,” said Gavin. “Maybe it’s not entirely handled yet.” He rolled Nico onto his back and led him into kissing again. “Should I get to the funny part?”

“Is it actually funny?” Nico held his gaze. “Or are we going to have to talk about feelings some more?”

“I think it’s funny.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question. But go on.”

“Before I went back to the prison, before we even wrapped that case, Barnaby wanted to have another crack at her, Lawton, and he told me I should stay back; he wanted to go alone. He said—” Gavin was unable to suppress an anxious giggle. It was funny, once the fear was put aside. “Said that me being so ‘thoroughly male’ got her back up. Too masculine! God, I was so pleased.”

Nico didn’t laugh. Only looked at him—softly, head tilted, full of affection. He didn’t seem to get the joke.

“I think now,” Gavin continued, “that he was only being nice to me. If he’d thought I was being an arse, he’d have told me so.” You don’t have a soft pedal when it comes to English, do you?

“I still don’t see what’s funny.”

“Don’t you? Me thinking my ‘maleness’ scared that woman! You saw me back then. She could have eaten me for breakfast.”

Nico bit his lip, a smile quirking the corner of his mouth. “Junior sergeant versus Midsomer matron,” he said, pretending to muse on it. “I think—” A giggle escaped him, a companion to Gavin’s own of a moment before. “I think I see the problem.”

“I told you so!” Gavin dissolved into laughter, managing to add, through hiccoughs, “I’ll have you know, though, that I’m great with all the grannies. Tea and biscuits for days.” A thought popped into his mind. “Good lord, did I ever tell you about the time Barnaby ate a pot brownie by accident?”

“He did not. You’re having me on.”

“My hand to God,” said Gavin, and told him.

***

It was only as he was falling asleep, just as he was slipping into unconsciousness, that Gavin realized what Nico had done at the bookshop: given him a manly, masculine, manual job— any heavy lifting?—to make him feel better. To make him feel needed. I love… Gavin drifted off.

***

Barnaby and Gavin sorted out the crop circle murders. Surprise, surprise, it wasn’t aliens: only eccentrics and their vendettas. Gavin was glad for the case, though; it had helped put Lawton out of his thoughts properly. His Lawton file had been gone from his desk when he’d got back to work the day after his “suspension”; he let it go.

“You’re the science fiction buff, aren’t you, Troy?” Barnaby said, as Troy drove them back to Causton. “Weren’t you the least bit curious as to the validity of Kirby’s claim?”

Fiction, sir,” said Gavin. “Science fiction.”

“Louise McMasters telephoned me again,” said Barnaby, out of nowhere.

“Sir, I swear I haven’t—“

“She wanted to know if I’d ordered you to apologize.”

“Oh.”

“In fact, I believe I told you not to go near her.”

“You did, sir, but I…”

“You what?”

“I telephoned.”

Barnaby laughed. “Well, Troy—good god, mind those sheep!”

***

Gavin dropped Barnaby off at the nick to get his own car, then headed home himself, opening the door to find the flat smelled like someone had been cooking. Cooking properly. He slung his jacket roughly onto a hanger in the hall closet, kicked off his shoes, and followed the low murmur of Jon Sopel into the lounge, where he found Nico watching the 6:00 news, tucked into the corner of the sofa with his knees drawn up to his chin, watching intently.

“Scotland repealed Section 28,” he said. “I made lasagna, also, since it’s cooler today.”

“Are you saying you want to move to Scotland?” Gavin fell onto the sofa beside him.

“And leave Murderous Midsomer? Never. But can you imagine what it would be like? I can’t, really, to be honest. I don’t know that it’ll ever happen down here.”

Gavin took hold of Nico’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze, because he didn’t know what to say, and in silence, they watched the news, where Sopel had gone on to give an update on Euro 2000.

Nico spoke first. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“Do you think it would have made a difference for you? If schools weren’t afraid to have support groups or counselling or whatever, without the law saying you were ‘promoting the lifestyle.’”

Gavin shook his head. “Honestly, no. At Causton Comprehensive? Or even at uni. There was no way I was talking to anyone, ever. I hadn’t even got right with myself”

“Really?” said Nico, surprised. “I’d have thought…“

“It’s hypothetical, at this point,” said Gavin, trying to explain himself. “If they’d never passed that amendment it would have been because people were different, England was different. But it wasn’t. At least not for me.” He shrugged. “Thanks for making supper. What about you?”

“Me?”

“Yeah. At school.”

Nico looked up, wrinkling his nose. “I started a student support group at school. But the council was afraid of violating the law, so they shut it down. Then I tried to run it off school grounds, at this café down the street, and the school still suspended me. I’d like to tell you I fought it to the highest court in the land and won…”

“But?”

“But. Small town, no other school to transfer to, no money to move elsewhere, and my mum was wild about me not dropping out. She always supported me, I was lucky for that, but she'd never finished school, see, and when it came to making a political statement or taking my A Levels, she made her opinion clear. I couldn’t fight her.”

“You were a kid,” said Gavin. He kissed the back of Nico’s hand.

“I was the only card-carrying communist in town.”

“Of course you were. Can I kiss you?”

“Honey, you just did.”

“You know,” said Gavin, blushing, and Nico turned toward him like a flower to the sun, and Gavin lay them both down on the sofa, and kissed Nico Bentley as well as he knew how—which was better and better all the time, under Nico’s instruction. He wanted to be slow, gentle; to make Nico happy; to make him feel good. He tugged up the hem of Nico’s shirt and Nico pulled it off, team effort, then ran kisses down Nico’s throat, his shoulder, his chest, his belly, a careful survey of Nico’s body: the old bruise healing, no new ones in sight.

Nico urged him back up, then. “You wanted to kiss me, so kiss me.”

So Gavin did, and loved it—loved Nico’s lips against his, Nico’s tongue in his mouth, his tongue in Nico’s mouth, things he’d once thought disgusting, unable even to imagine them with a woman. Now Nico was all he wanted. He was afraid to say it, though. For someone recognized by half the county as Tom Barnaby’s sergeant, he was zealous in the protection of what privacy he still possessed. He sometimes felt as though strangers passing on the street could see in his face that he was consumed with desire, wanted nothing so much as to be in bed with Nico—or on the sofa, he wasn’t fussed—that he didn’t know what to do. But he was afraid to say all that to Nico, who was happy with him for the moment, he was pretty sure, but long-term? With a guy who’d been in the closet his whole life, who still kept a few suits there, who’d never been with anyone else? Gavin was living on borrowed time and he knew it.

Nico tugged at Gavin’s belt buckle, but Gavin nudged him away. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “What about you?” One day soon, he thought, he’d like to take Nico in his mouth; to try that. But he wasn’t ready, no matter how much he wanted to be. Nico had done that for him, once—the rest of their time together had been kisses and hands and thrusts against one another, all more than enough. But still.

“I told you,” said Nico, and he gave Gavin’s shirt-collar a little tug. “Kiss me.”

A reprieve—and a glorious one at that. Gavin surged upward, covered Nico’s body with his own and felt the man’s contented sigh as he swallowed the same in a deep kiss, and Nico gripped and thrust against him, gently, without urgency. Nico had taught him that: to love slowly, to enjoy pleasure as it came. No matter what raced through Gavin’s head the rest of the time, it went away when they lay down together

The timer rang.

“My lasagna,” said Nico, eyes wide, panting a little and struggling to sit up.

“It’ll be fine,” said Gavin into the crook of his shoulder, and for a moment, he thought he’d won, because Nico melted beneath him for a moment, but he soon said mournfully, “it’ll burn,” and wriggled free to sprint to the kitchen, pulling his shirt back on as he went.

“I can’t eat,” said Gavin, calling after him. “Because I’ve died.” But he loved Nico’s lasagna almost as much as he loved Nico himself, so he took a few deep breaths, straightened his shirt and his trousers, and toasted garlic bread under the broiler while the lasagna rested on the countertop and Nico retrieved two beers from the refrigerator. He had just set the bread on the table when he realized what he’d done, what he’d thought as casually as could be: I love him.

Of course he did.

Now what?

***

With dinner and dishes and tea afterward, and Nico taking a shower, and Gavin figuring he ought to as well, it seemed an eternity between the moment the oven timer had interrupted them and the moment Gavin had Nico out of his clothes once more—properly, this time, and in Gavin’s bed rather than on the sofa, but Nico was as hungry for kisses as he’d been then, insistent and eager, and Gavin wanted nothing more than to please him. He spread his broad hands gently over Nico’s ribs, ran his hands down Nico’s sides, and Nico revelled in the touch —in his touch—as Gavin had known he would. Glorious. Gavin kissed him and touched him and brought him off, and followed him over the edge a few moments later. And after that they subsided into the pillows, Gavin lying on his side so that he could stroke Nico’s arm. He liked to do that, to be close to Nico afterwards, and though he had been too embarrassed to ask if that was strange, Nico smiled when he did, so he figured it was more or less alright.

“Gav?”

“Yeah?”

“Now, first of all, you’re always nice to me.”

“Okay,” said Gavin, not sure where Nico was going.

“But I’ve noticed that when you’re having a rough time, if you have a bad day—like, a really bad day—you’re, well, extra nice to me?” His voice rose on the last few words, as though he hadn’t managed to say what he’d meant. “What I mean is, are you alright? Not that I’m not fully supportive of everything that just happened. ”

“Me? I’m fine,” said Gavin, brushing it off.

“Nothing with Lawton and all that?”

“No, really. I’m trying to put that to the side, really I am. I—” Gavin swallowed, realizing what he was about to say a moment too late to stop himself. “I love you.” He pulled the sheet over his face so he wouldn’t have to see Nico’s.

Nico pulled it down again, and stared at him.

“Sorry,” said Gavin, cheeks heating. “You don’t have to say it back. In fact, never mind. Forget it. Okay? Okay.” He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Still recovering from the McMaster debacle, Sarah Lawton—reformed or no—roaming the streets, and he’d given Nico a shove to start his way out of Gavin’s life. God.

“Why would I want to forget it?”

Gavin didn’t reply.

“Why would you? Gav, look at me.”

Gavin took a deep breath and turned back toward him.

“Look, I understand. It can be intimidating. If you really want to forget it, we’ll forget it. But if you think that I want you to forget it—“

“Don’t you?”

“Not if you meant it.”

Gavin pulled the sheet over his face again. “So you’re not breaking up with me?”

What?” Nico pulled it down again. “No. One-hundred-percent no. Honey, look at me.”

Gavin, who had squeezed his eyes shut, cracked one eye open. Skeptically.

“What I meant, just now, was that… Look, don’t be embarrassed, but when you’re bothered or… hurting… you seem to…”

Gavin furrowed his brow, intrigued in spite of himself.

“Pour it all into loving me,” said Nico, in a rush.

“Loving y—You mean you think I have… sex…with you because I feel bad?” Gavin’s attempt at incredulity was undermined by his inability to say the word “sex” at a normal volume. In fact, Nico had hit it right on the head: confessions of love and self-deprecating anecdotes aside, he had been so immersed Lawton’s file and his own memories, his own shame, shadows of the way he’d thought and spoken and acted, that it seemed the only way to prove a change in himself would be to love Nico, and since he couldn’t put that into words, not properly, he’d thought to use his body instead. He had always been more physical than introspective. And then he’d gone and messed it up anyway.

“No,” said Nico, patiently. “I mean, I think you put a lot of pressure on yourself to treat me well. But I want to treat you well too.”

Gavin blinked. “But you do all the time.” The sheer surprise of Nico’s statement spurred him to babbling. “You joined my cricket team and you’re so smart and you come over, and you cook, and my nan would adopt you straightaway, and you saw me have a breakdown, and—”

“I haven’t wanted to rush you,” said Nico. “I know this is new for you and I didn’t want to scare you off. It’s a big world out there, and maybe you want to, you know, see more of it, or… other me—people?”

Gavin shook his head, frantic. “Scare me off? I didn’t want to scare you off.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Nico, holding up his hand to allay Gavin’s distress. He sighed. “Unless you tell me to, of course.”

Gavin took a deep breath. If Nico had seen him sobbing like a kid and not run off, maybe he could tell the truth. “Okay. So, there’s Lawton, but also—“ He coughed. “I’m not… experienced. I know that. And I wonder if maybe you want, you deserve, someone better. Than me. That’s all.” He did not want to have this conversation, but there it was, happening anyway.

“I had a boyfriend at drama school,” said Nico. “And he was good at sex. Like, really good.”

“Hang on, is this story supposed to make me feel better?”

“Let me finish. I learned a lot from him. I felt lucky to have him, at the time.” Nico brushed his thumb over Gavin’s cheek. “But he never kissed me like you do, I swear to god. I feel… better with you. He never kissed me at all, actually. He hated it, and maybe I ought to allow a man his preferences, but I—”

“You love it,” Gavin said, unable to resist pointing it out, a bit of lover’s knowledge he held and treasured.

Nico smiled broadly. “Exactly. You know that. He never bothered learning what I liked; he thought he knew everything and I had to catch up, and for a while, I thought so too. Wasn’t so great, in the end. But with you, it’s different. I think you like learning from me?” He paused.

Gavin nodded.

“But I like learning from you too.”

Gavin scoffed at such a ridiculous remark. “Learning what?”

“What you like.” Nico poked him in the shoulder. “You’re already an amazing detective; you can’t be brilliant at everything straight out the gate. Practicing is fun, isn’t it? And—” He blushed, then, and trailed off. “God, this is embarrassing.”

Gavin eyed him quizzically. “What?”

Nico picked at the sheet. “I don’t want you to think that I’ve got some wild history. I’ve slept with, er, four guys, and dated two, and that’s counting you. Okay?”

“I do love you,” said Gavin, overcome with it, though he followed the declaration with a mumbled, “Sorry.”

“Going to have to work on that apology reflex.”

 “Sorry,” said Gavin, smiling to invite Nico into the joke. Nico answered by leaning down to kiss him, long and deep and loving, even though Gavin was not a drama school sex god, even though fear ran rampant in him now and again, even though he didn’t know any of the rules for what was happening between them. At least his sheets were clean. He’d run them through the laundry the night before, just in case.

“I love you, too,” said Nico. “So  you know.”

His words prised a terrible great weight from Gavin’s shoulders, a weight he hadn’t even known was there until it had gone.

***

On the night before the dress rehearsal—which Gavin wasn’t allowed to attend, same as he wasn’t allowed to attend previews, on account of Nico’s superstitions—Gavin left work around 6:00, and because Nico had said he expected to be done around the same time, he stopped at the Causton Playhouse to surprise him. Maybe they could go out for a bite or a pint, or else Gavin could simply give him a lift. He hadn’t seen Nico all week, what with that UFO case —finally behind him, paperwork and all—and Nico’s mad rehearsal schedule. The only reason Nico was being set free at all was that their director wanted them well-rested for the day to come.

He parked the car—and didn’t bump the sidewalk at all, thank you very much, guvnor —and walked up to the building. From the lobby, he could hear raised voices, so he slipped into the theatre itself thinking to sit unobtrusively in the back until the rehearsal was done. Though the lights were still up and from his spot in the back Gavin could see flickers of movement in the wings, the stage was empty but for two figures, small-seeming at a distance. They were… What had Nico called it? Blocking? Recognizing Nico’s blond head, Gavin felt a private thrill and leaned against the wall to watch the man work.

“Oi! Come off it,” said Nico, dodging a shove, then turning to walk away.

The other man swung out his arm, Nico crumpled to the floor, and Gavin’s world inverted, adrenaline rushing through him, because that had not been stage-play. Without thinking, he rushed down the aisle and vaulted onto the stage, all fear tamped down to keep the tide of it from swamping him. The man aimed a kick at Nico, still on the floor, but Gavin got there first, taking the man firmly by the shoulders and shoving him back.

The man blinked in surprise a moment, and Gavin used his lapse in concentration to fetch his warrant card out of his coat pocket. “DS Troy, Causton CID,” he said. “You going to behave yourself if I let go?”

“Who called the police? We’re just rehearsing, aren’t we.”

“Sit down, sir,” Gavin said, voice hoarse but fierce enough to rattle the belligerent actor into half sitting, half falling into the nearest chair. Others, drawn by the noise, had begun to gather in the wings, their little gasps and murmurs little more than background noise to Gavin, who had knelt at Nico’s side to help him into a sitting position. Nico blinked dazedly, then sneezed, which didn’t help his nosebleed, and moaned rather pathetically. Gavin squeezed his own eyes shut, thought fiercely of Barnaby, and when he opened them, knew what to do. “You,” he said, pointing at the first bystander he set eyes on. “Get me a box of tissue.” He turned to a wide-eyed woman beside her. Surprisingly, he didn't recognize either of them. “You, get me a glass of water. The rest of you, get lost. Give him some space.” He turned back to Nico’s attacker. “Not you. You sit down and stay there until I’m ready to deal with you.”

“Gavin?” Nico was confused, blood all over his chin and the collar of his shirt.

“Sir, are you alright?” The necessary formality was a chilly fist around his heart. “I don’t believe you require medical attention, but we can call an ambulance or I can take you round the A&E, if you’d like.” Gavin had seen his fair share of fist fights and knew a bloody nose was typically worse than it looked, but still. He let formality go. “Nico, are you alright?”

“Don’t need the A&E, Gav.”

“Do you know him? This is police bias—“

“I was born here, I went to school here, I’m a detective here,” said Gavin. “I know a lot of people.” The man had jumped to his feet. Nico blinked, still dazed; the two women returned with tissues and a glass of water. “Now sit down. I’m won’t ask you again.” He pressed a wad of tissues into Nico’s hand and, softening his tone, said, “Here we go. Lean forward; pinch your nose. Did you knock your head?”

 “I don’t think so,” said Nico.

Gavin checked Nico’s head for bumps or bleeding and with great daring, fleetingly caressed the side of his face hidden from onlookers’ view. “Alright. Sit there a minute. Now, you.” He turned to Nico’s attacker. “What’s your name?”

“Tom Alder.”

The name was familiar. Perhaps Nico had mentioned him before. Gavin set it in the back of his mind to percolate while he kept on with his questioning. “Alright, Mr. Alder. Can you tell me what happened?”

“He came at me.” Alder was venomous. “He’s barking. I was trying to defend myself.”

Gavin arched one eyebrow. “I’ve been told there isn’t a bad seat in the house.”

“Excuse me?”

“I had a great view of your disagreement from up there”—he pointed—“and it looked to me like he was walking away when you hit him.”

Alder paled.

“And it’s obvious he’s been hit, but you don’t seem to have a mark on you.” Gavin was calm, but unyielding. “Let’s try something else. What was the fight about?”

“There’s no problem.” Nico’s voice was thick, nasal, muffled by tissue. “Our opening night’s soon; things got a little tense. There’s no problem.”

Gavin frowned. But Alder was immovable and the rest of the cast and crew had melted away: no one was talking. “Fine. Mr. Alder, in the interests of avoiding further unpleasantness, do you admit that you struck this man in anger?”

“He’s—“

“I saw you, Mr. Alder. But if you would prefer to debate the matter, you are entitled to your day in court.”

“Fine. Yes. I hit him. What are you even doing here anyway?”

“Never you mind. Just consider this an official caution. I hear about any more trouble at the Causton Playhouse, Mr. Alder, you’ll have more to worry about than opening night. Do you understand?”

Alder made a face. ”Fine. Can I be dismissed?”

Gavin waved him off, leaving him and Nico alone on the darkened stage— everyone else really had bolted. Nico hadn’t moved from a hunched sitting position, head tilted forward and his hand pressed to his face, and Gavin said softly, “What was all that, then?” He joined Nico on the floor.

Nico was silent

“I hope all your plays aren’t going to be like this,” said Gavin. “Razor blades and poisoned appetizers at Amadeus was enough.” He was trying for a smile, but didn’t get one.

“He’s an overgrown bully,” said Nico, fiercely. “Hits you, then says it was an accident, sweet as can be.”

“He attacked you while your back was turned. There’s grounds for an assault charge.” Like a crack to his own head, then, Gavin placed the name and the rest of the dominos tumbled: Nico had quizzed him about a Thomas Alder with disinterest—feigned disinterest, Gavin realized—but Gavin hadn’t known him; Nico had been exhausted, overworked, falling into Gavin’s arms the way Gavin fell into his, when the rest of the world was too close, too much; Nico had come home with that whopping big bruise. Was it superstition that had Nico keeping Gavin away from the theatre, or was it something else? “Your ribs. He’s the one. You were on me about using…”— he dropped his voice—“sex… to hide my problems from you, and all the while, you…” Gavin was angry to have been kept in the dark, horrified that Nico had been hurt, but Nico looked so miserable that he couldn’t finish his sentence.

Nico sniffed gingerly, wincing. “I have to work with him, Gav. If I want to work after him, you know.”

“That bad?” A terrible thought occurred to him. “I hope I didn’t make it worse for you, getting involved. But he could have really hurt you.” His mind flashed back to Alder, readying to kick Nico in the ribs.

Nico shook his head, then winced again. “No, no, thank god you were here. Oh, the blood; I’m sorry.” He wiped his face with the tail of his already-spoiled shirt.

Gavin caught and held Nico’s trembling hand. “Never mind that. Are you sure you don’t want to go to the A&E?”

“I’m sure.”

Gavin let it drop, planning to keep an eye on Nico the rest of the evening regardless.

“Where’s Peter?”

“He’s taking Cordelia Hepplewhite for dinner. We were packing up for the night.”

“It’s still a leap from a few underhanded sucker punches to clipping you in the face. Or trying to kick your ribs in. Is there anything else going on?”

“It’s not, you know, a gay-bashing thing. He’s an equal opportunity asshole. I stood up to him, finally, and he didn’t like it,” said Nico. “We were doing that fight scene again, and he wasn’t careful. Jack might have broken his wrist, if he hadn’t been so lucky and rolled out of the way, and Jack’s a kid—did his A Levels this spring.”

“You want to come over? I’ve got clean shirts and a bag of frozen veg with your name on it.”

“Yes, please,” said Nico, quietly.

“Hand me all those tissues.”

“It’s disgusting.”

“I regularly see dead bodies on the job, remember? It’s fine.” Gavin deposited the bloody tissues in the nearest wastebasket, dampened a clean one with water and sponged Nico’s face, then helped him stand, and they walked out together.

***

“I have a question,” said Nico, when they’d settled into the car.

Gavin pulled out into the road. “Yeah?”

“Now, admittedly a large man had just punched me in the side of the head so my recollection is spotty, but did you really vault yourself onto the stage?”

“I didn’t pass the fitness test for nothing,” said Gavin, rather pleased with himself, now that his nerves had begun to settle, now that Nico was safe. “I thought it was part of your play at first, to be honest. I didn’t want to interrupt; then he hit you and I thought I was having a heart attack. Nico, he really meant to hurt you, and I don’t know that anyone else would have stepped in. Tell me the truth, are you going to be safe going back there?”

“I always tell you the truth,” said Nico, with a hint of irritation.

Gavin sensibly refrained from pointing out that such was demonstrably not the case.

“Alder’ll behave himself if the director’s around. He gets away with a lot, but he won’t push his luck.”

“Why’s Peter let it go on this long, then.”

Nico fidgeted in his seat. “He’s not big on sensitivity. Considers himself part of the old school, actors should toughen up, and so on. And…” He looked away, rubbing the back of his head. “Alder’s engaged to his daughter.”

“For god’s sake!”

“I know, I know. You don’t need to tell me about it. Like I said, he behaves when Peter’s around. More or less.”

“More like less.” Gavin pulled into his parking spot. Turned off the car. “Bad news for the daughter.”

“I just don’t think talking to Peter would do any good. And it’s a good job, Gavin.”

Gavin sighed. “You don’t need to defend yourself to me. I get it. But I worry about you. And I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Nico frowned. “Remember I said I would tell you if I was annoyed with you? If you keep apologizing—“

Gavin winced. “I only meant, for pretending I didn’t know you. I didn’t want Alder getting any more agitated, and then he was shouting about police bias, and…” Gavin had also been afraid; that was the part he was sorry for.

Nico seemed wrong-footed by that, as though he’d expected something else, and his irritation melted away. “That? Probably for the best, actually. I’m not out to him.”

“Oh.”

“And I wouldn’t want you to be either—not like that.” Nico undid his seat belt. “Can we get that frozen veg now?”

“In a minute. What did you think I meant?”

Nico blushed. “I thought you meant that I… Couldn’t look after myself. Is all.”

“It wasn’t your fault either,” said Gavin, forcefully. “None of it.”

Nico blushed harder and fumbled with his door, leaving Gavin to follow.

***

After Nico had washed his face, Gavin set him up on the sofa with a blanket, a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a dishtowel, two paracetamol, and a glass of water, and they watched telly like that all evening, with a short pause in the middle when Gavin popped out for curries.

Nico kept prodding his bruised face, like he expected a different result each time. “God, are men really expected to do this sort of thing as a bonding ritual? It hurts like hell.”

“You never got in fights when you were a kid?”

Nico gave him a side-eyed glance around the towel-wrapped peas. “You did?”

“‘Getting in fights’ might be a generous way of putting it,” said Gavin. “I got fought with a lot; I never won.” Nico’s gaze had turned to one full of something like pity, so Gavin changed the subject. “You sure you didn’t hit your head?” He checked, though it was more an excuse to comb his fingers through Nico’s hair.

“He surprised me, is all.” Nico pressed his fingertips to Gavin’s mouth. “Don’t say it. You already cautioned him. That’s enough.”

“Can I say one thing?” Gavin chewed his lip. “Please. It’s important.” Nico nodded.

“Please tell me if he gets after you again. Or, it doesn’t even have to be me. You could tell Barnaby.”

“I’m not going to Cully’s dad!”

“I won’t bug you about it again. I just…”

“Can’t help the big strong copper routine?” Nico smiled.

But Gavin would not be teased out of his point. “Bad things happen in that theatre,” he blurted. “And every case I’ve worked on, if people spoke up when they had the chance, they’d…” He stopped, embarrassed that his emotions had run away with him.

Nico’s smile dropped away. He closed his eyes, opened them again. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about it before. It was… embarrassing. I was trying to handle it myself, and telling you felt like… Running crying to the police.”

“I’m not police,” said Gavin, protesting. “I mean, you know. Not when it’s you and me.”

Nico put the peas on the arm of the sofa, and kissed Gavin gingerly. His skin was cold to the touch. “I promise I’ll tell you if anything else happens. Which it won’t.”

“Thank you,” said Gavin.

“Thank you.” He kissed Gavin once more. “My hero.”

“George Sunday,” said Gavin, pulling the end of the blanket over his lap so that he could settle closer to Nico. He leaned his head on Nico’s shoulder. “That’s me.”

***

By unspoken agreement, Gavin picked Nico up from rehearsals after that—not all of them, but enough—and Nico didn’t comment on it, except to smile when he saw him, pleasure brightening his face. He stayed out of Alder’s way and Alder, his, and on opening night, Gavin went round the back of the theatre, snuck through the stagedoor when a costume-laden stagehand staggered through ahead of him, and made his way down the hall as quickly as he could manage, until he found the dressing room with Nico’s name on it. There were three other names as well. Gavin hadn’t thought of that, but supposed he could pretend to be a delivery-man, in a pinch. A quick knock, an absent-minded “come in” from Nico, and Gavin had slipped inside, so nervous that his palm sweat against the bouquet in his hand.

“I promise, Peter, I’ll be done in five minutes and—“ Nico lifted his head, his face made up for the stage and his chest bare beneath the long-sleeved shirt he’d not yet buttoned. They were alone in the room. “Gavin?”

“Don’t want to get in your way,” said Gavin. “But I brought you something.”

“You bought me flowers?” Nico sounded incredulous.

“Is that… okay? The girl at the shop said they’d be fine to sit a few hours before they had to go in water.”

“Okay?” Nico scooped the bouquet out of Gavin’s arms and buried his face in the blossoms. “It’s brilliant! No one’s ever got me flowers before.”

Gavin felt his smile take over his face. He’d done that, made Nico so happy.

Nico set the flowers gently on his dressing table, then none too gently threw himself at Gavin, so that Gavin wobbled a bit before regaining his balance. Then Nico’s tongue was in his mouth and all thoughts—flowers, balance, and otherwise—were driven from his mind.

A banging at the door made them both jump. “Ten minutes!”

Knowing he was kiss-flushed, Gavin looked sheepishly at Nico.

“Oh dear, you’ve got a—” Nico’s voice quavered. “A-a-smudge.”

Gavin put his hand to his mouth; his fingertips came back pink.

The voice moved down the hall, rousting out the rest of the cast, Nico snorted through the fist he’d pressed to his mouth, and the two of them clung to each other, shaking in silent laughter, until Nico wiped his eyes—and Gavin’s mouth, with a cotton pad—and said, “Right, you better find your seat.”

“Break a leg,” said Gavin, as he opened the dressing room door.

***

Afterward, Gavin waited for Nico in the lobby, chatting with all three Barnabys. Nico was buzzing with excitement when he appeared, face reddened with heat and having hastily scrubbed off his makeup backstage, and the Barnabys gave him their enthusiastic congratulations, while Cully gave Gavin himself a hug as well.

“That was brilliant,” he said, once they’d gone, raising his voice to be heard over the din of cheerful actors and their families and friends, not to mention the other Midsomerites streaming out into the night. “Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure what happened at the end, even with you telling me about it, but I feel like it was kind of meant to be that way? And I forgot everything else while I was watching it.” He meant it, too—had been entirely taken in by the world unfolding on stage. “Hey, what about Alder? I couldn’t spot him on stage.”

“God, it went right out of my head with the Barnabys here and everything.” Nico laughed. “That’s ‘cos Peter sacked him—right before the curtain went up—after you were backstage, even—and took the part himself! Turns out Alder’s girlfriend threw him over, then went to court for a restraining order, which was granted, a little bird told me, in part because he had a caution with Causton CID. She’s gone to France with her Mum—Peter waited until she’d gone before he handed Alder the mitten—Alder’s sulked off to London, Peter’s off to France himself, and all’s right with the world.”

“You figured all this out during the show tonight?”

“And intermission. You know, theatrical types.”

“God bless us, every one,” said Gavin, a bit dazed. His put-upon faculties managed one more realization: he’d helped bring that about, and though what had happened to Sarah Lawton hadn’t been all her fault, and he’d needed to realize that, he wasn’t like her either, not where it counted. Nico was safe, and a young woman, too, thanks to him. He wasn’t half bad at his job, really. He leaned in and kissed Nico gently. He hadn’t planned to; it was an easy movement, as natural as breathing.

Nico looked up at him, expression softened with wonder. “You’re full of surprises, aren’t you?”

Gavin shrugged. “A mystery presently unfolding.”

“Oi, Nico!” One of Nico’s castmates waved cheerfully at them from across the lobby. “You coming to the Lions?”

She hadn’t seen the kiss, Gavin was pretty sure.

“We’ll see.” Nico waved her off.

“What’s this, then?”

“Nothing,” said Nico. “Just, some of the cast—the Midsomerites—were thinking to go over to the Lions for few drinks. It’s not exclusive, though. I mean, people’ll bring their… friends. Probably get a bit rowdy.”

“You want to go?”

“No, not so much.” Nico shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Nicholas Edward Bentley,” said Gavin, sternly. “Do you want to go?”

Nico looked up at him, a smile spreading across his face. “Really?”

“Yes,” said Gavin. “Really.”

“We have to stop at the bookshop first, so I can put my flowers in water.”

“Lead the way,” said Gavin.

***

Eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves, Gavin thought, even as he strained to hear over the noise of the canteen.

“You don’t really think—” That was Warren, one of the other junior detectives. “—That Troy is at it with Barnaby’s daughter?”

“That’s exactly what I think.” That was Anderson.

Gavin groaned and knocked his head against the column. Anderson was a dog with a bone with his nonsense, and had got Warren doing it too, which was the last thing Gavin needed, especially since he and Nico had put both Lawton and Alder behind them. He’d been looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet.

How had he gotten himself into such a mess, putting Cully’s good name on the line for his own secrets? Where had it all begun? Had he taken the first step toward this moment when Sarah Lawton asked him for a book and he stopped at the Blackbird on his way to Gordon Hall, or was it earlier? The first time he set eyes on Nico  Bentley? Or earlier still, when he’d looked at Oliver Philips’s graffiti and known in a place beyond all conscious thought that it was true, if also crudely devastating?

“He takes all these personal calls,” said Anderson. “Talks about the theatre—our Troy—and she’s an actress, right.”

Warren again. “Yeah, and so’s her boyfriend—her actual boyfriend.”

Nico’s old cover story. Gavin pushed his cup away, no longer interested. He’d have to say something, for Cully’s sake.

“What’s it matter to you anyway?” Warren laughed. “It’s not like you ever stood a chance with her.”

Gavin moved to slide out of his chair, awkward as it was.

“I’m only saying, if he’s at it with Cully Barnaby, it’s not really fair, is it? He’s got an in with the old man and—“

“Old man, hey?”

That was Barnaby. Gavin couldn’t help a gasp of surprise himself. He fell back against his chair and wished he could see the other detectives’ faces, even while he was grateful to be hidden behind the column.

“Er, no, sir.”

“So you weren’t talking about me.”

“No, sir.”

“No, you weren’t talking about me, or no, you weren’t not talking about me—and my daughter?”

“Erm…”

“Do you know how old my daughter is, Anderson?”

“No, sir.”

“What about you—Warren, is it?”

“Yes, sir. And no, sir.”

“Old enough that neither I nor you—certainly neither of you, regardless—may dictate in any way her comings and goings.”

“No, sir.” Anderson and Warren spoke in unison, at the very least doing a credible impression of repentance.

“I’m sure you’d agree that if it is of no concern to me, it cannot possibly be of any concern to you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And if you are concerned about Sergeant Troy having some sort of professional advantage, I suggest you look to your own caseloads, hmm? Introspection, my lads, is the key to self-improvement.”

Gavin heard footsteps—he supposed it was Barnaby walking away. He wasn’t angry with Warren and Anderson. Junior detectives took the piss out of each other on the regular. Nor was he afraid that they would hit upon his actual relationship, though he’d have to be more careful, nonetheless. It was not a secret, what he had with Nico, but it was private—something special and worth protecting from prying eyes and grubby hands. What had worried him was the potential loss of Barnaby’s good opinion, the risk of embarrassing him or Cully, or both. But Barnaby had stood up for him, as easy as you please —for Cully, of course, but for him as well. Trusted him to live his own life—in private, if he wanted.

Warren was speaking again. “If you ever bring Cully Barnaby up again, I’ll be handing you your teeth in a paper bag.”

“Fine, fine,” said Anderson, grumbling. “But—“

“No buts. Shut your gob.”

Gavin snorted a laugh, then listened to them walk away. He knocked his head against the column again, softly, more out of surprise than anything else. What a mad old world.

“This seat taken?”

Gavin looked up with a start. “Sir! No, please do.” He gestured toward the table with a wry grin. “Worst seat in the house.”

“I’m sure you mean ‘best,’ Troy,” said Barnaby. He set his tray on the table and maneuvered into the cramped seat. “It’s all in the company one keeps.”