The pubs, bingo hall and cinema yet to empty, there were few people on the street. His head down, hands punched deep in the pockets of his waist-length jacket, Doyle forced his leaden legs to increase their pace in an attempt to out-distance his thoughts. His abstraction was such that he didn't notice the man at the bus stop until he walked into him. Doyle's automatic apology faltered then died when he recognised the face illuminated by the flickering street lamp.
And the chase was on.
Haring after the long-legged figure, unarmed and without an RT, Doyle cursed his rank stupidity. He entered the narrow alleyway so fast that he cannoned into the brickwork on the other corner. Righting himself, his stride lengthened as he closed on the other man, only to skid to a halt as Kenny turned on him, a thin, wickedly-edged blade gleaming in one hand.
Backing away, adrenalin flooding his system as he dragged off his jacket and wrapped it around his arm, Doyle pushed back the fear and catalogued his odds on surviving the next few seconds. The weight dragging the rear pocket of his jeans belatedly identified itself: Elias Canetti's knife. There was a God.
The switch-blade opened sweet as a kiss, the haft nestling in Doyle's hand as if custom-made. A cold smile crossed his face when Kenny edged away.
"What's up? Not used to targets who fight back?" Doyle inquired, moving in fast and low.
Silent and intent, they fought in the confines of the alley which stank of whatever was rotting in the plastic refuse sacks dumped where the alley led on to a muddy track. Doyle's boot heels crunched over hardcore pounded to a treacherous slickness by the weight of delivery vans. The shops which backed on to the track were all lock-ups so there was no one to see what was happening. Not that anyone would have cared. Not in this area of London. Not in most areas come to that; lethargy had become a national past-time.
Be nice to have the luxury of taking it up, thought Doyle grimly, yet to credit his luck in being armed. It had been sheer chance he had spotted Elias out too late and in the wrong company. Doyle had returned the boy to the bosom of his uninterested family, minus his switch-blade. Not that Elias was another Benny. With an impressive record at the ripe old age of thirteen, Elias would be doing hard time before he was twenty.
Feinting left before moving in, Doyle's eyes were cold with purpose. It was funny how the old skills came back to you on the street as they never did in one of Macklin's training sessions.
Fifteen years old and fighting for his life; thirty-three and he was still doing the same thing. Not very bright that. You were supposed to learn by your mistakes.
Doyle side-stepped a sweep intended to eviscerate him, teeth bared in a grimace of cold satisfaction as he parried before moving into the attack.
Funny how you never forgot.
Fifteen years old and fighting to prove he was a man; thirty-three and he was fighting for what? Queen and country? Cowley? Or because it had become a habit: a way of life - and death.
Still, at least he had Kenny, the most wanted man in Europe. All he had to do was take him in alive.
Kenny was too valuable to kill. It must be nice not to be expendable. Or not until you had been bled dry of information.
Kenny's capture would be a feather in CI5's cap. Kudos for Cowley, damage limitation for Doyle. Not that this was doing much to increase his self-esteem.
Watching and assessing, Doyle waited for the moment.
Cowley needed Kenny alive.
Cowley might have to be disappointed. Doyle felt too tired for much finesse.
He grunted when Kenny's next lunge drew blood. He tried to hook Kenny's feet from under him, but Kenny recovered too fast and Doyle floated back, sweat burning his eyes. The shallow cut along his ribs throbbed fiercely after the initial numbness, but the warmth trickling down his side could have been sweat just as easily as blood. It wasn't enough to distract him from the man trying to kill him.
He wouldn't have recognised Kenny if he hadn't gone into the briefing room before he left headquarters. There had been no reason to go in, except that he had hoped to see Bodie. Instead he had seen three grainy black and white photographs pinned to the board and received a bollocking from Cowley before being kicked out. There had been no sign of Bodie.
Doyle's expression sharpened after his lapse in concentration, reflexes saving him from major injury as Kenny moved in again. After a hectic flurry the skirmish was over until the next time, the sleeve of Kenny's leather jacked slashed from shoulder to elbow.
It was like riding a bike, thought Doyle with savage satisfaction, you never forgot.
Chance would be a fine thing.
One day he would have to tot up how many people he had killed.
A near miss from a training session with Macklin during their first three months with the squad chose that moment to return to haunt him.
Having shot Bodie, he could hardly blame the bloke for taking umbrage.
His breathing laboured, his vision blurring, Doyle moved in fast. He couldn't afford a long fight.
He didn't have the stamina for a long fight. He had begun to wonder if he had the stomach for it.
Right. But not until Kenny was safely put away.
Wondering if he was coming down with flu, Doyle drew on the disciplines which had kept him alive all these years.
There was a peculiar intimacy to the circling figures, a cautious two-step broken by oddly graceful flurries. Feint, parry, withdraw and the deadly dance began again.
Envying Kenny his trainers, which provided better traction on the mud-slick track than the boots he wore, Doyle's concentration flickered then strengthened. It would be death to relax.
Live and make die. He was good at that.
Survival of the fittest.
He had tried to stop asking himself 'fit for what' some time ago.
There should be a special name for those who shot their partners. You weren't entitled to much in CI5, but you were entitled to believe your partner would guard your back rather than put a bullet in it. It had never occurred to Doyle that Bodie was in danger from him until he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, with absolutely no idea of his partner's whereabouts.
And so he had shot Bodie. In the back.
Doyle had not been able to stop reliving the moment since then. In his mind's eye he still saw Bodie crumple before he fell from the thirty foot high reel of paper he had been running across.
What was worse in a way, as he lived the moment over and over again, was that Doyle could not make sense of the assignment they had been on, forever trapped in a repeating cycle of horror as he let his partner down in the worst way possible.
Sensing Doyle's lapse in concentration, Kenny thrust fast and low, even as the belt he had unfastened lashed out. Tasting blood, expecting the searing agony of a knife in his gut, honed reflex kept Doyle alive. Metal rang on metal, the force of the meeting blades jarring bone. Kenny wrenched his knife free and up, leaving a burning trail in its wake. He was forced to retreat rather than follow through when Doyle made a fast recovery.
Fire streaking from his gut to his diaphragm with each rasping inhalation, Doyle ignored the distracting flap of his cut shirt and tried to concentrate.
Cowley needed Kenny alive.
They circled again, having learnt to respect each others' skills. Their balance centred, they watched, waiting for the moment. Their feet constantly moving, their concentration on each other was total and unrelenting.
Kenny swooped under Doyle's guard. Doyle reacted with a classic stop thrust as his right foot shot out, fast and hard. But Kenny must have come up through the same hard school because he took the kick destined for his genitals on his flank.
Bugger, thought Doyle, without extravagance because he was too tired for emotional expenditure.
For the first time he accepted that Kenny might kill him and escape. The knowledge did not spur him to greater heights; he had nothing left to give. He stayed on his feet because the alternative was death, which would free Kenny, for whom he now felt a personal dislike.
Just as Cowley needed Kenny alive, so he needed Bodie. And not just alive; he needed Bodie to be with him. It should, he supposed, be enough to know that Bodie was alive and happy somewhere in the world. Unfortunately he wasn't that altruistic. He needed Bodie with him. But first he needed to see the proof that Bodie was alive. To do that he had to take Kenny. The only question was how.
Trained as Doyle was trained, Kenny had the advantage of height, reach and age; he looked as if he could last all night. For his own part, Doyle couldn't remember ever feeling this tired. Not after a week with Macklin. Not after the Parsali op. Not even after their run-in with the KKK, when for a few hours he hadn't known if Bodie would live.
A train rumbled in the distance and some way off a dog barked hysterically; closer at hand a cat yowled. There were no other sounds of life.
Doyle's world had narrowed to the crunch of dirt beneath his feet, rasping breathing and the occasional metallic ring when blade rang against blade.
Perhaps this was just another nightmare. He had been having a lot of those the last couple of nights.
Perhaps he had died and this was hell. Perhaps he had been condemned to perform an everlasting dance of death in an alley that stank of cat's pee.
Pull back! Cowley needs him alive.
Fuck. It must be Kenny's lucky day, Doyle thought, knowing beyond doubt that it wasn't his.
He wondered if this was what it felt like to be old. But the haft of his knife sat solidly in his hand like an extension of his flesh. It might become one if he wasn't careful.
Shadows engulfed the two men circling one another, the metal grill which protected the rear doors of the shops offering bizarre distortions of their reflections in the lamplight. A high brick wall closed in on them as they travelled up and down the track when first Doyle, then Kenny gave ground, or had retreat imposed on them.
His clothing plastered to him by this time, Doyle could smell the rankness of his own sweat; it mingled with the metallic stink of blood and the harsh ammonia reek of stale urine. The track was obviously used by late night revellers staggering home with a bladder full of beer. And worse.
Bloody nation of pet lovers, Doyle thought as he stepped back into a pile of dog excrement. He pressed forward again. He might fall, but not into a heap of dog shit.
He thrust and parried without conscious thought, allowing his trained body to do what his exhausted mind could not.
Kill or die.
Except Cowley needed Kenny alive. He couldn't take the easy option. The fight would have been swiftly over if he had been free to kill. If it went on for much longer Doyle knew it just as likely that the less experienced Kenny would finish him.
They circled again, their deadly ballet destined to continue until one of them dropped.
His teeth exposed in a smiling rictus, Doyle's universe had narrowed to this unprepossessing track and the man opposite him. You wouldn't expect a bomber to be a knife man. Bombers usually played it safe, getting their kicks from long-range destruction and the sanctity of their cause.
Kenny didn't look much. He didn't look anything: tallish, thinnish, whitish, and a knife man.
Doyle wondered in which city Kenny had learnt to fight. Despite the name, Kenny wasn't Irish - or not so far as anyone knew. His sole claim to fame was as a death-bringer: a fanatic without a stated cause.
Kenny was beginning to slow at last, his breathing coming in shuddering sobs, as Doyle's had been for some time. Doyle wondered how long they had been fighting; it seemed like forever. His vision blurring, he blinked sweat from his eyes, then went for broke before his will could be ground down as surely as the dirt beneath his feet.
Kenny faltered at the sheer audacity of the attack. Then Doyle tripped on a piece of stone dislodged by their gouging feet and stumbled. As he fell he managed to twist clear of Kenny's lunge.
Doyle's knife hand stung fiercely, blood sliding between his fingers where he had cut them on the hardcore. Without conscious thought he switched the knife to his left hand and moved in again.
The shock of discovering Doyle was ambidextrous broke Kenny's faltering nerve.
Suddenly it was all over, Kenny a fraction of a second too slow. The knife flew from his nerveless grasp. Doyle's next blow knocked the disarmed terrorist out cold. The mantra Doyle had been repeating to himself since the fight began stopped him from following that blow through.
Cowley wanted Kenny alive.
Kneeling in the mud, his splayed hands on his thighs as he tried to regain control of his breathing, it was only then that Doyle recognised his next problem. Now he had Kenny how did he keep him until the cavalry arrived? He had no handcuffs, no transport and no RT.
Necessity provided the answer. Using Kenny's tie to hobble his ankles, Doyle used the terrorist's belt to lash Kenny's wrists behind him. Doyle used his own belt to make an effective choke chain. Taking a deep breath and trying to push away awareness of his hurts, he hauled the groggy terrorist to his feet. He half-lifted, half-dragged the taller man back up the track to where the alley led on to the street. It seemed further away than Doyle remembered. Bracing himself, he had to pause to catch his breath several times. He finally emerged on to the High Street with his own breathing almost as laboured as that of his half-strangled prisoner. Kenny's face was an ominous shade of lilac.
The pubs and bingo hall closed by this time, the street was deserted of both pedestrians and drivers. It had begun to rain.
Doyle stared around in disbelief. There wasn't so much as a phone box in sight.
It wasn't fair, he thought peevishly, shivering despite the sweat clammy against his skin, he'd done his bit. He wanted to go home and die in peace.
Headlights winked further up the road as a car approached. Doyle half hoisted, half dragged Kenny to the kerb, but the rare passing car he tried to flag down only swerved and accelerated away from the bloodied figures revealed in the headlights.
One hand laced through the belt fastened around Kenny's throat, Doyle tugged the terrorist into the glow from the street lamps.
"This way, sunshine."
Blinking sweat from his eyes, Doyle continued to search for a solution to his problem. Cracked and uneven paving slabs, rubbish lining the gutter and caught around the scruffy edges of the shops. Apart from street lights there wasn't anything else.
The bus stop where it had all begun provided the answer. The sturdy concrete post holding the bus stop sign also supported a graffiti scrawled metal rubbish bin. Lashing the belt restraining Kenny around his arm, Doyle braced himself and finally succeeded in yanking the bin from its metal supports; he gave a yelp of pain as various sore spots protested.
While it required some effort, not least because he had to continue to keep a hold of Kenny, Doyle finally succeeded in breaking the unprotected window of a small electrical shop which sported a burglar alarm. He used Kenny's body as a shield against flying glass. Cowley might want the bastard alive, but Doyle had given up caring.
The alarm shattered the relative quiet.
It took thirty-six minutes for a police patrol car to answer the alarm, by which time only cold fury was keeping Doyle on his feet. One numb hand knotted in the leather leash, the other was cramped around the knife which he held at Kenny's throat.
Feeling exceedingly ill by this time, Doyle was beyond the stage of realising what interpretation the police would give to the scene. Both he and Kenny were stained with blood, the blade of his switch- blade shining wetly in the golden haze cast by the street-lamp.
His first sight that of his bandaged torso, Doyle blinked at his surroundings, then grimaced. He recognised a hospital bed when he occupied one.
If this was an out-of-body experience he didn't think much of it, he decided, yet to work out which way was up. He fought against the encroaching darkness because he had learnt to dread the dreams which accompanied it, knowing he would find no rest.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, it was some time before he noticed the dark silhouette standing by the window of the small room he was occupying.
But it was only Cowley.
It took Doyle some time to recover from the disappointment and even longer to regain control; he knew he would need it.
"I thought you'd be interrogating Kenny before me," he announced, surprised by the odd, croaky sound of his voice.
Cowley swung round, then limped towards the bed. In his dark overcoat he was as neat as an undertaker.
"You're supposed to be asleep."
"I was. I didn't kill Kenny, did I? I tried not to. Knew you needed him alive."
Cowley's expression relaxed. "He's alive." Standing at the side of the bed, he waited until he was certain he had all Doyle's concentration, such as it currently was.
"How did you recognise Kenny?" he asked in a conversational tone.
Doyle gave him an impatient look. "From the photos at the briefing, of course."
"Which briefing was that?" The voice was as smooth as an expensive malt, never a reassuring sign.
"I'm the one who's supposed to be cracking up, not you. This afternoon. After you suspended me. It's your fault I had that long fight. I would've been armed otherwise." Doyle wanted to ask about Bodie so badly it made his chest ache. The expression which crossed Cowley's face did nothing for his peace of mind. "Anyway, I thought you'd be interrogating Kenny, not me." His tone was sulky.
"I will be as soon as he can talk. You damn nearly strangled him with that belt. You damned fool!"
"Right," said Doyle, his voice flat.
He had not expected to be overwhelmed with praise, but a simple thank you would have been nice. Bodie would have been better but Doyle dared not mention him to Cowley; he was terrified of what he might be told.
As Doyle moved restlessly various hurts throbbed, burned and ached. A peculiar tightness across his ribs suggested he must have been stitched. That seemed odd because he couldn't remembered being cut that badly. He couldn't remember much about the fight at all, but something about Cowley's expression bothered him.
The small room suddenly seemed very hot and Doyle plucked restlessly at the sheet and honeycomb blanket which covered him.
"Kenny's in better shape than you. How do you feel?" Cowley asked in a milder tone.
In anyone else Doyle would have called the tone concerned. Taken aback by the query because Cowley's beside manner was renowned for its absence, Doyle blinked in confusion.
"Alive." That came as something of a surprise, all things considered. "At least I suppose I am," he added with doubt. Though if this was supposed to be Paradise, he wanted a refund.
"Try and get some rest. You have a temperature." Cowley's calm tone was the one he reserved for occasions when other men gibbered.
Fortunately Doyle did not notice.
"I'd rather have Bodie." Staring at his feet, which felt as if they were floating about his head, he was blissfully unaware of the sharp look the Scot gave him.
Cowley shifted his weight from one foot to the other, as if trying to ease the cramp in his leg. It had been a long night.
"He can't see you for a while yet."
"Can't or won't?" Doyle's unblinking gaze was fixed on the ceiling.
"Can't," said Cowley firmly.
Everything seemed to be pulsing too fast and too hot and he seemed to be floating some way off the bed again. Because Cowley gave no sign of noticing, Doyle didn't mention that embarrassing fact.
This levitation lark wasn't all it was cracked up to be, he decided unhappily as the bed began to spin again.
"Get some sleep," repeated Cowley in a gentle tone few of his squad would have recognised.
"Is Bodie dead?" Doyle asked abruptly, sitting up to clutch at Cowley's sleeve. For a fleeting moment his hot hand gripped Cowley's cooler one.
"Why should you suppose - ? No, of course he isn't dead. Rude health sums him up perfectly. Settle down. That's the way." Cowley patted Doyle's shoulder gingerly, as if uncertain how the younger man would react. "The only reason Bodie isn't here now, plaguing the life out of the medical staff, is because he doesn't know you're in hospital. If you remember, he's been on a days' leave - and as per usual he neglected to leave details of his whereabouts or to take his RT with him. He's back on duty tomorrow morning. I've no doubt you'll see him soon after."
With an obvious effort Doyle turned his head and tried to focus on the older man's face.
"Are you sure he's all right?"
"I'm positive. You know I wouldn't lie to you about a thing like that."
Doyle visibly considered the claim.
"I suppose even you've got limits," he conceded, his tone grudging.
Cowley's mouth twitched. "You're right, I do."
"I must remember that."
"You do that. Wouldn't you like to rest?"
"No. I thought I might have, you see. Killed him, I mean. Glad I haven't."
"Why should you think you'd killed Bodie?" inquired Cowley in a prosaic tone. As if realising he was in for a long night he drew an uncomfortable moulded plastic chair up to the bedside and tried to make himself comfortable.
Doyle began to wonder if Cowley shouldn't be occupying the bed instead of him. "That job in the warehouse. That's why you suspended me. That and for what happened at Christmas with the holly."
Cowley frowned. "Warehouse?"
"Macklin? Tell me about the warehouse," commanded Cowley.
"What about the holly and the Christmas man?"
Cowley tensed for a moment before his expression relaxed. "I know all about the holly," he reassured Doyle.
"I wish I did," grumbled Doyle in a petulant tone. "'S bin a bloody confusing few days. I can't make sense of anything."
"So I gather. Tell me about the warehouse and Macklin," Cowley repeated.
Doyle made his report in the tone of one humouring an idiot, which had earned him the rough edge of Cowley's tongue more than once in the past. Despite his attempts to concentrate Doyle found it difficult to get anything in the right order and Cowley had to prompt him a few times. He seemed untypically patient about it all. More patient than Doyle in fact. Although at least Cowley seemed to know what had been going on.
"Is that it?" asked Doyle tiredly.
Looking oddly relieved, Cowley leant forward so that his face was finally in the light.
"Aye, that's it. Don't worry yourself about the warehouse. That all happened a while ago."
"Yeah? How long?"
"About four years ago."
Doyle gave a derisive snort. "I suppose you'll be telling me you didn't suspend me either."
"Not recently - despite the temptation. Not since your involvement with Miss Holly in fact."
"Then what - ? Am I cracking up?" Doyle felt no more than an academic interest.
"No. Just living in the past. You've a high-grade fever. You've been delirious. Memories are notoriously unreliable at such times."
"Yeah? I don't think much of it. Rambling and all?"
"Rambling and all," confirmed Cowley, his voice rich with reassurance.
Doyle thought about it.
"It's lucky you already know all my darkest secrets. Delirious... Well I'm buggered. I thought I felt odd. I hope it's contagious?"
"Why?" asked Cowley, not for the first time fascinated by the other man's convoluted thought processes.
"Because if there's any justice that bastard Kenny will catch it. What about Bodie?"
Cowley closed his eyes for a moment but none of his irritation reached his voice.
"Bodie's fine. There'll be a bottle of scotch for you when you're in a state to enjoy it," he added quickly as a nurse came back into the room.
"Sir, you were supposed to notify us the moment Mr Doyle..."
Everything beginning to spin with increasing rapidity, Doyle closed his eyes as he was sucked into a vortex of red-spiked darkness, trapped there by his own weakness.
Doyle was as prickly as a hedgehog because he still did not know exactly what he had said or done during his hours of fevered delirium. His one certainty was the fact the squad would never let him live this down: walking out in the middle of a briefing to wander the streets; reliving a training incident which had occurred in the first month he and Bodie had been teamed, only to mix it with the only time Cowley had suspended him - when he had been involved with Ann Holly. To cap it all he had been responsible for a fracas at the Deptford nick. While the police were used to being called fascist bastards - and worse - the taunts didn't usually come from an ex-Met. man with one of the most wanted terrorists in tow.
God only knew what he had said to Cowley.
Doyle gave his stomach an irritable rub. He had been sweating about what he might have said to Cowley since he had woken up in his right mind four hours ago. Suspension would have been preferable to burbling to Cowley who, at best, was bound to say he needed a few sessions with Kate Ross.
Doyle was never at his best with her. In fact she ran rings round him. Over him, come to that.
Even knowing what a prat he had made of himself didn't stop Doyle's heart from giving an odd little lurch when the door to his private room opened. Bodie stood in front of him, looking large as life and twice as gorgeous.
"Think you'll know me again?" inquired Bodie acidly, obviously made ill-at-ease by the all-encompassing survey to which he was being subjected.
"You haven't changed."
The relief in Doyle's voice made Bodie pause and frown before his expression cleared.
"Perfection's hard to improve on. Why should I change? What are you on about anyway? I only saw you the day before yesterday. I should've known better than to go off without you. Look at the state of you. Who's made a prize prat of themselves then?"
"No need to go on," sighed Doyle.
"Want to bet? Don't scratch."
"They're my spots, I'll do what I like with them."
"Teach you to catch chicken-pox at your age," remarked Bodie without sympathy. "Though why you had to go for the high drama of delirium. Frightened the shit out of me when I found that message from Cowley waiting for me at your flat." His voice gave a treacherous wobble before it steadied. His glare dared Doyle to comment.
"Silly sod," said Doyle roughly, paying his usual amount of attention to a warning from Bodie. He took for granted the fact that Bodie would have headed straight for his flat rather than going home. "I hope you've bought some food in with you. You wouldn't believe the pap they try and fob you off with in here. I'm starving."
"Stop whinging. Now you've had the all clear the hospital is making me take you home with me."
Doyle's face lit up.
"The good news is that I don't have to keep you," Bodie added, dropping the bag which contained fresh clothes for his partner to the floor.
Doyle barely missed a beat. "That's a relief." The muscles of his face felt as if they were about to shatter and he stared fixedly at his hands. Absurdly he wanted to cry. Bloody fever, he told himself.
"Not to me," said Bodie flatly. Ignoring the chair at the bedside he sank onto the edge of the bed Doyle. "Christ, Ray, we both know I bloody love you. And that I've been too gutless to admit it. Yesterday gave me a chance to sort myself out - and what do I come home to?"
"Me with spots." Having lived on the knife edge of uncertainty for so long it was difficult to believe their future was mapped out. His eyes looking huge and bright, Doyle relaxed back against the pillows so he could soak up the reality of what Bodie had so casually said.
"You with spots," Bodie agreed, tracing Doyle's profile without actually touching him. "No wonder you were so ratty for a couple of days. You must have been incubating this."
"Suppose I must. I'm not infectious any more," Doyle assured him, certain that if happiness was contagious he had enough to infect all London. Probably the Home Counties too.
"So they told me. There are no spots on your face. Where are they?" Twitching the blankets aside, Bodie eased away the baggy hospital issue striped blue pyjamas and peered inside. When he looked up his grin imperfectly hid what he really felt.
"You've got spots on your belly."
"But none on my cock, thank god."
Bodie's eyes widened. "You mean - ?"
"Doesn't bear thinking about," said Bodie with conviction.
Before Doyle could react Bodie had gently parted brushed cotton again and bent to kiss the lax pink curve of Doyle's cock, where it rested on his upper thigh.
Doyle jolted as if he had received an electric shock. "Dear god."
Affection on his face, Bodie righted the pyjamas and covers and decorously hoisted the latter until they were tucked under Doyle's chin.
"Can see it takes more than a fever to slow you down. Wait until we get home where we can relax and enjoy ourselves. I've no intention of rushing our first time."
"I'll see about that," said Doyle in a spiky tone. He was not certain he liked being taken for granted.
Bodie gave no sign of having heard him. "God knows what Cowley's going to say," he remarked with gloom as he linked his fingers with his partner's. His thumb caressed Doyle's palm in unhurried, distracting circles.
"About you giving me a blow job in hospital?" hazarded Doyle, having lost the thread of this conversation. He blamed his inattention on the sweet ache in his balls, which only increased when he thought of unpeeling Bodie from his black cords and rich blue shirt.
"Hardly, because it isn't going to happen. No, about us."
"He won't like it. If you mean it about us settling down." Doyle's tone was studiedly casual, and earned him a light cuff round the ear.
"Stop testing me, you disbelieving little sod. While us shacking up probably wouldn't be his first choice, he might be relieved that we've both stopped catting around - and that you've stopped duffing up harmless coppers."
"You what! I didn't." Doyle's eyes were wide as saucers.
"Have it your own way. Apparently the old man had to go down to the station personally to sort it out. It was only the fact you nobbled Kenny that swung things. Nice going incidently."
"Oh bugger," whispered Doyle, aghast.
"Or words to that effect."
"What if Cowley doesn't come round to the idea of you and me?"
Bodie shrugged. "With my golden tongue we can't go wrong."
His eyes glazing over, Doyle shivered with lust. "Can't wait to test it out," he said huskily, drawing Bodie closer. The rattle of trolley wheels outside in the corridor shot them apart again. Bodie left the bed to stand by the window.
"I love you," said Doyle to his broad back.
Turning, Bodie searched the other man's face. "Why?" Unable to sustain Doyle's steady gaze, he fiddled with the cords of the venetian blind.
Doyle gave an audible sigh. "You've got me there, sunshine. Can't pin it down to just one thing - or twenty. Because you're you, I suppose. Because you laugh at my jokes, put up with my moods, guard my back and steal my food and anything else you think I'll let you get away with. Because I think you need me. And because I'm selfish - I certainly need you. Anyway, ready or not, you've got me."
His face still partially averted, Bodie gave a shaky sigh. "Any readier and I'll go up in spontaneous combustion. There's something you should know though. What I have, I hold."
Doyle's lips twitched. "Arrogant bastard. You ever noticed me being any different?"
Bodie's head swung round, rueful amusement lighting his expression. "I'd forgotten that," he admitted sheepishly as he returned to the bedside. "Though you've put up with me fannying around all this time."
Large-eyed with a mixture of hope and apprehension, Doyle exhaled with gusto. "Sometimes you don't have any option but to wait. This was one decision I couldn't chivvy you into. You really are sure, aren't you." His eyes travelled over Bodie's face inch by inch, dawning wonder on his face as he finally accepted that the age of miracles had arrived.
"As sure as anyone can be. It was never you I doubted. But fidelity - " Bodie shrugged. "That's uncharted territory for me, mate. This is too important to rush. I wanted to be certain I could do my best for you."
His eyes too bright Doyle blinked rapidly, gave a ferocious sniff and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "Christ, Bodie."
"Ray? You all right?" asked Bodie worriedly.
"Course I'm all right, you cretin. Just a bit weak after the fever, that's all." All defensive bristles, Doyle glared up at him.
"Right." Undeceived, Bodie wore an ear to ear smile of pure happiness.
"Smug bastard," said Doyle without rancour, shaking his head at himself. "Though it has to be said I've struck it lucky. You're the one person who accepts me the way I am rather than hoping I'll change for the better. God help you, mate, you love me the way I am. It won't be easy."
"It hasn't been so far," Bodie agreed.
"You sound so relaxed about all this." Doyle sounded distinctly aggravated.
Bodie's grin did nothing to help matters. "I know. Not sure why. I suppose because the worst is over. I'm not a patient man."
Doyle's hands, speckled with the bruises inflicted by the man who had tried to kill him, covered Bodie's.
Mindful of his partner's battered state Bodie stared at him through velvety dark eyes before he carefully cupped the side of Doyle's head, his gaze never leaving the sculptured mouth that seemed to offer a constant invitation to sex.
Their first kiss was hesitant and oddly shy until Doyle recognised the problem. Drawing away slightly, he gave Bodie a light prod.
"Oy, concentrate. And stop looking so worried. It's only chicken-pox. I won't break. And I'm not contagious any more."
"Want to bet?" muttered Bodie rebelliously. "I might have known you'd be a back-seat driver along with everything else."
"Stop complaining and kiss me," Doyle commanded majestically, although he ruined the effect by adding, "Please."
"Blimey, that's a first."
Their faces almost brushing, there was a moment of adjustment to avoid noses colliding. Lips parting, small exploratory forays deepened into a kiss so intense that it was as if Bodie was trying to infuse Doyle with some of his own life force.
Voices sounded in the corridor and something banged against the door.
By the time Cowley entered the private room Bodie had his back to the door and was he peering through the window while Doyle read out the runners for the three o'clock at Newcastle.
It occurred to neither man that the small glass window in the door offered a perfect view of the room and its occupants to anyone in the corridor outside. Cowley had no intention of pointing out as much to them.
-- THE END --
Written 27th May 1995
Originally published in Unprofessional Conduct 7, Gryphon Press, 1997