(Story #1 in the Land-Bridge series)
Murphy poured tea, trying to take a special care in his movements here. Hospitals made him uneasy; the current situation was ample justification for his nervousness. They were places where too many good people teetered between life and death, and all too often fell off on the wrong side of the tightrope. He had seen it happen to family, workmates, friends.
This time it was a workmate and a friend under the knife. Bodie was good, but not Superman (much as the braggart soldier would like to pretend otherwise); humans need a certain amount of time to react to stimuli, and a bullet's speed from its origin to its target is far less than human reflex.
Far less than comprehension of a mate's warning cry.
Murphy turned back to the waiting area, a cup in each hand. It was a courtesy cuppa for Cowley, but Doyle needed the tea and Murphy planned to see that he got it if he had to force it down the man's throat. Agents tended to forget little details like food and sleep when their partners had been shot; especially if they were laboring under the delusion that they could have prevented the shooting by having inhuman reflexes granted to them upon request.
Murphy turned down the corridor and saw Ray Doyle standing next to Cowley at the far end; a balding man in a white coat was talking to both of them. News, news, news, cries the swift. Murphy stopped where he was. He watched. He saw Ray's head drop as if its strings had been cut, and Cowley become visibly smaller. He saw Ray jerk away from the older man's hand on his shoulder and stride away down the hall in the opposite direction. Murphy nodded, his hands taking in the warmth of the teacups. Doyle didn't need the tea now. There was no reason to wait. No one to worry about any more.
Murphy bowed his own head where he was and took Bodie's death inside, examined it and understood it and stored it with the deaths of family members, other friends, other workmates. Cowley had taught his heir- apparent that trick, had taught him to do it alone, always. He'd warned Murphy that it would be necessary to continue a high-level performance no matter how dear the life lost; yet to ignore the death completely was suicide in the long run, making him too cold and ruthless for the difficult job. So now Murphy mourned for a friend and one of CI5's best agents as thoroughly and quickly as he could, alone. The other agents would have their usual noisy knees-up at the local that night for their fallen comrade; Murphy would not be there.
Nor would Doyle; of that Murphy was sure.
And in a tiny cold-blooded moment that always happened at such events, Murphy again felt gratitude that Cowley had never partnered him with anyone. No partner to share things with, to joke with and work with -- and no partner to lose, the losing of whom was like the loss of your right arm, your breath, and your savor. Lone Wolf Murphy, the other agents joked; but Murphy stood apart, safe and aloof, when the others howled. An island never cries...
The balding doctor was still standing with Cowley, who was looking toward the approaching Murphy. "Sir," Murphy said, offering a cup. He met Cowley's level gaze, and nodded. "I know, sir."
"Six-two, go after four-five," the older man said, the loss in his own face deepening the lines; veteran that Cowley was, he felt for every death of his lads. "And stay with him. I don't want Doyle doing anything stupid. He does not have the right to deprive me of two agents in one day."
"Understood, sir." Murphy gave the other tea to the sad- faced doctor and set off in the direction Doyle had gone at a brisk trot.
It was a triple loss with Doyle, wasn't it? Most agents suffered a double loss at the death of a partner; partners were often best friends. But Ray wasn't just an agent who'd lost a partner, a man who'd lost his best friend; Doyle had also lost a...spouse. ("Lover" was too lascivious a word for what Murphy had witnessed between the two men -- and Bodie'd come back from the dead and kill him if he even thought the word "wife.") They'd been exclusive for six years, defending their union by a cold united front, almost daring Cowley to find a change in their working relationship and use it as an excuse to dismiss his two best agents. Murphy knew only because Cowley had been notified, and as his successor knew as much about every agent in CI5 as its current controller. He doubted anyone else in CI5 knew. Just as well; amazing how a man's sterling work performance became worthless once the chinless wonders of Whitehall disapproved of whom he was boffing after hours...
He caught up with Doyle halfway across the car park. He did not try to cry out or halt Doyle with his voice. The curly-haired man was striding across the lot, hands shoved into his jacket pockets, red eyes fixed straight ahead of him, face expressionless. Murphy strode alongside him. "Leave the motor, Doyle. I'm taking you home."
"Fuck off, Murphy, you're not taking me anywhere." Doyle's voice was a handful of dry twigs flung at an approaching tank by an unarmed man. "Get away from me. Now."
"Can't. Orders." Murphy kept up the other man's manic pace.
"What's Cowley afraid of?" More broken dry twigs, just on the edge of bursting into flame. "That I'll smash up the motor? Or I'll put a gun in my mouth?"
"Or you'll go after the bastards who put Bodie under."
"It's my right!" The shrill voice cracked on the last word. Doyle spun to face Murphy, rage and his reddened eyes making the man look positively demonic. "Dammit, it's my right!"
"You are off this case as of now, Ray." Murphy's ironclad voice made the personal name as unyielding as if he'd referred to Doyle by his RT frequency. "You want them brought in, they'll be brought in. You want to dance on their hides, we'll skin them alive for you. But we are going to skin them by the book. One cock-up, Ray, just one, and they go free as if they'd been jaywalking. And you're up before the Board explaining why you shot a man who wasn't resisting."
"And you'll lose everything. Not the least of which is your job. You know what the headlines will say -- 'Enraged CI5 Homosexual Goes On a Personal Vendetta on Your Taxes.'"
That stopped Ray like a bucket of ice water. He stood, so stunned that he did not move, did not speak.
"Ray." This time Murphy's voice was aimed at that laid- open wound. "I know, and it doesn't matter that I know. But you won't do any good this way. The best way you can honor Bodie is to let us follow every legal procedure to nail those bastards' balls to the wall." He smiled, thin-lipped and close-mouthed, the smile he'd seen on a cobra at the zoo. "Promise you, Doyle -- by the time we're done with them, they'll wish we'd just let you take them apart."
Doyle remained stock-still. The look in his eyes was as if someone had struck the back of his head with an axe. Murphy suddenly realized that without that blind, fury- driven purpose that had sent him out of the hospital, the man had gone into shock.
"C'mon, mate. Back inside." Murphy turned Doyle and gently herded him back to the hospital entrance.
Murphy sat with some tea of his own, waiting. Cowley had gone back to the office, once he was assured that Doyle was in good hands. Next time, Murphy thought grimly, it would be his turn to go to the office and deal with all the paperwork of a deceased agent, while Cowley stayed behind and dealt with the survivors. The undertaker who handled CI5 casualties when the deceased had no immediate family was coming to get Bodie out of the morgue. Ray had gone in; it was something he had to do.
Prove to himself that the doctor wasn't lying. See the corpse. Say goodbye before they pretty him up for the funeral.
Murphy took the tiniest pride in how calmly and coolly that thought came to him. He was behaving in the fashion of a proper controller. Bodie had been about as close to Murphy as anyone was in this organization, and still he was able to think above and beyond one agent's death. He would be able to handle CI5 when his time came.
He was finishing the cup when Doyle walked stiffly out of the morgue room of the hospital. His white face was expressionless in the face of the enormity of his loss. The doctor who'd broken the news was saying something to Ray, his voice the trained gentle tone of someone who has perforce become an expert at delivering tragic news.
Murphy stood to take the wooden-faced Doyle off the doctor's hands like a member of a bizarre relay. "Come on, Ray. I'll get you home. It's out here."
He led Doyle outside, walking to his own car on the lot. Doyle did not react as they walked slowly across the lot he had raged across earlier; he was playing his part in this death too well. Ray was never demonstrative at the best of times, save for a flurry of temper or an obscene chuckle at someone else's expense. Now he was a snow-covered mountain, unmarked, unapproachable.
"Let's get you home then, Ray," Murphy said softly, wishing he could shake the dead stare out of Ray's eyes. Other agents who'd lost their partners could afford to be more demonstrative; Doyle was overcompensating so that no suspicion could fall on the organization for harboring lovers-of-men. He hoped it was overcompensation. It is nothing I can help. The more I deal with such things the better, to gauge how much I can do and what I cannot. Four-five is just another member of CI5 who requires what aid I can give.
Ray did not resist as Murphy helped him into the passenger seat of his car; he was at least autonomic enough to attach his own seat belt.
"Want to kip with me tonight, Ray?" Murphy said casually. Ray's own place was the flat he and Bodie had shared. It would be full of reminders of the living Bodie -- unfinished business from the day before, perhaps even from that very morning.
Doyle shook his head.
"All right, then." I can't help him, I mustn't try. I am just to keep him from doing something stupid.
Murphy swerved through the light rain and thickening traffic of early evening while Ray stared out the window, neither man speaking. They pulled into the car park of the block of flats where Doyle lived. Where Bodie had lived, until 11:24 this morning.
"Can do it myself," Doyle muttered, shaking himself free of the car like a terrier tossing a rat. "Ta for the lift."
Murphy got out, and pulled out an overnighter. "Orders. Rather face down you than the Cow."
Ray snarled at him, for a moment his old bad-tempered self. He knew as well as Murphy that only Alpha One's direct order would counteract his previous order. Like it or not, four-five was stuck with six-two until the Cow's order was remanded.
Both men went up the stairs. Murphy stayed three steps behind as Ray undid the locks and went through first. Procedures.
The flat looked no different than any other quarters shared by roommates, if a little tidier; Bodie's barrack-room neatness had never left him. A sunken couch in the small main room had a few magazines scattered across it; a white sweater was draped over a chair in the kitchen. Murphy sat on the couch, surreptitiously gauging Doyle's reaction to being in the rooms that had been their home.
"Tea," Doyle said; a slight lift on the flat dull word made Murphy realize it had been an inquiry.
"Please." Murphy watched as Ray moved stiffly into the kitchen, determined to play the host. Doyle obviously needed to be doing something. And maybe he did want a cuppa for himself.
While tea was readied, he sat on the couch and pondered moving around the flat putting away Bodie's things; remove the stimuli that would make this place a hell for nights to come. But he wasn't sure whose were the motocross magazines or the Geographics; which items belonged to whom. Better for Ray to do that himself anyway; it would help him realize the finality of Bodie's death and let him move on. I can't do anything to help him. I mustn't. He has to learn to be alone again.
When Ray came back, Murphy accepted the mug offered and said nothing when Ray sat on the couch too. He winced at the slurping noises emanating from the other man, but said nothing about that either.
"When'd you find out?" Ray said as if it didn't matter. Or as if he didn't care.
"When Cowley did," Murphy replied in the same tone, still staring into his tea.
More silence. "Never said anything."
"Never came up." Fascinating pattern in the bottom of the cup.
"Never looked at us."
"Never acted different around us."
"Nor did you."
A long silence after that. "Couldn't." In that one word was all the regret for the undercover operation that had been Bodie and Doyle's personal life. That near-whisper was a branch heavy with snow, trembling under its load.
Doyle made an especially angry noise drawing in his tea. "Being gay sucks, Murph. You don't matter to anyone. Your own side'd as soon kill you as the blokes you're fighting."
"Alan Turing," Murphy said.
"Yeah. Broke a Nazi code for us, and his own people broke him for being a poof. His own--" Doyle cut off the rest of the strangled sentence and dived into his cup again.
"I know." There were layers of meaning in those two words, layers that Doyle would hear and understand after years of the shorthand speech he'd shared with his mate.
Broke by his own people.
Bodie had stopped Russian spies and American bombers from destroying England, had been active in preventing assassinations of Cowley and the PM -- and a British gunrunner who owed his life and safety several times over to Bodie had killed him.
His own people.
It was a long time before Doyle said anything more. Then it was a sigh that sounded as if it carried out his spirit as well as his breath. "That's it, then," he said quietly, catching his lower lip in his teeth, the familiar bleak look in his eyes. "Nothing for it. Bodie's dead and that's that. Can't do anything about it."
"Accept," murmured Murphy. "And remember. What the living can do."
Doyle nodded like a flower whose head is too heavy for the withered stem. "Can't do anything foolish. He wouldn't let me. Kick my arse all the way back to here if I did anything. Like last time."
Murphy let the last statement pass. "Bodie was good at living." He tipped the mug to finish his tea.
"Always was." Silence. "Good at making me live, too. Kept me from rolling over when Mayli nailed me. Kept me alive."
"'Sright, he got to you first," Murphy responded, remembering the report on Doyle's injury.
"And he wouldn't let me die, even when I wanted to," Ray murmured, the memory in his eyes. One hand reflexively rubbed the spot over his chest where the bullet had gone in. "He and Cowley. I kept dreaming about them while I was under the gas. Both of 'em told me to keep fighting, keep living. Bodie kept telling me to stay cool; maybe that's why I didn't panic or choke. I saw my coffin coming, and Bodie told me not to go. I didn't."
Murphy nodded. That both men had entrenched themselves as the voices of Doyle's subconscious was not very surprising. Doyle let few people in; the ones that did had to have extraordinary qualities. Cowley certainly did -- and Bodie had.
"Told me to keep fighting." Doyle stared into his untouched tea. His eyes were clearer than they had been; his face was still carved in stone. He sucked his teeth. "'Swhat I have to do now, don't I, mate?" he murmured; Murphy knew Doyle was not talking to him. "Stay cool. Keep fighting. Got to do for myself. Ah, Bodie." His head sank till his chin was on his chest. "Who'll pull me out of me sulks with a joke or two now, eh?"
I know a joke or two, Ray, Murphy thought, fleetingly. But no -- Doyle was going to have to face this alone. Alone was the only way to handle this. It would make Doyle stronger to be alone in this.
At one point Murphy rose to make sandwiches for both of them. He looked over at the stereo, the records beneath it. He started to ask Doyle if he wanted some music put on, but stopped the words before they left. Whatever album he chose, Doyle would never be able to hear it again without his memory calling back this night, and this death. He brought in the food, ate, and took a certain amount of pleasure in watching Doyle finish half of his sandwich.
They did not speak very much more as the night grew small and cold. Murphy was finally starting to feel his body's tiredness as the cherrywood clock chimed the hour of one. But he'd been ordered to stay with four-five. He had a duty to perform, one not to be set aside for mere sleep deprivation.
The decision was taken out of his hands when Ray rose to go to bed. "Got some sheets and blankets in that cabinet, Murph. It's a good couch."
"Fine." Murphy said nothing more. He watched as Doyle went into the bedroom and closed the door, and staggered to his feet to make the couch into a bed.
Instant wakefulness was a trait desired in a good agent. As Cowley's heir being groomed for the crown, Murphy, of course, possessed that trait. Only his exhaustion kept the sound from waking him at first. But it persisted, even though a door and alpha-wave sleep barred the way. Murphy finally started awake and listened for what had roused him in the darkness.
The sound continued, rising and falling, and it was a lance twisting in Murphy's entrails. He could imagine a gigantic black hound out on the moor making that sound. Or a soul in Purgatory. This was the truth behind the stone facade at the hospital, behind the bleak sorrow of that afternoon.
Murphy sat up, stunned, as realization swept over him. This -- this -- was the truth behind the cool professionalism of the best team in CI5; behind the casual banter and the callous comradeship presented to everyone else. This warm, living, bleeding thing was all that was left of a bubbling spring of passion and love that the two agents had successfully hidden from all prying eyes for six years.
Murphy forced himself to lie back down and pull up the covers. Good, he thought to himself fiercely. It's to be expected. Better than trying to go all John Wayne and pretend it doesn't hurt.
The sound that was anguish given a voice continued.
Just go back to sleep. Leave him alone. Last thing he needs is you coming in and watching him bawl like a baby. He'd try to cover it up, laugh it off, push it deeper down -- and the next time it comes out, it comes out of a gun at his temple. Dangerous to bottle that pain. So much pain. So much pain. Ray, I had no idea what you'd be going through--
He shook himself angrily. Let him cry all bloody night if he wants! He's got a right, hasn't he? So just roll over, ignore the noise, go back to sleep.
Murphy brought the blankets up to cover his ears, burrowed deeper into the pillow, and let his mind go blank. And every time sleep began to take him back the noise intruded, showing no signs of ebbing.
You've heard worse and lived to tell about it. It's just crying. It won't kill you.
An agent had to do for himself. Death, horror, abandonment, pain; all these had to be dealt with. And in the end, every person in the world was all alone, could not rely on an outsider for anything.
Murphy had learned that lesson early, when Mum and Dad had run away and left him with Aunt Jill who hadn't wanted a kid at all. She'd never beat him; she never cared enough about the 3-year-old to give him even that kind of attention. If the boy had ever had a first name, Jill never used it; by his parents' surname she called him, always, and he grew up with no other appellation. (When he came of age, he'd tracked down his birth certificate -- and by that time, the Christian name he found on the document was alien to him. Now it showed up in his official papers only; he never used it.) He'd learned early to fend for himself, and to rely on no one else; to control himself, and others.
What good would come of coddling Doyle? He'd expect more, which Murphy couldn't promise. Worse, he'd start feeling something, and if another gunrunner shot Murphy, Doyle would be left alone all over again. Better to stay away; let that wound cauterize completely and leave a clean healed stump. Foolish of both of them to have gotten so close in such a dangerous line of work in the first place. Look at me, Doyle, Murphy's iron spirit pleaded with a fierce desperation; a wall trying to hold back a rising flood within. I worked with Bodie, I drank with Bodie, and I'm able to move on now that Bodie's dead. Alone and free, that's the way to be. An island, Doyle. Learn how to be an island, just like me...
The tearing cry began to break up into heart-splitting sobs, sounding rougher as the voice hoarsened. Doyle sounded like a man drowning. He sounded like he couldn't breathe properly.
Might be choking. I can't let him choke--
With that infinitely rational fillip, the iron wall Murphy had built found the exit point -- the justification for giving in to what he truly wanted to do.
He was through the bedroom door and feeling his way to Doyle's bed in seconds, not bothering with the lights. He touched a bare, cold, shaking shoulder, and squeezed it, sitting on the bed's edge.
The strangling cry was choked off as Doyle turned toward the human warmth and burrowed in, clutching at Murphy as if he were indeed drowning, and this other human being a floating timber.
Murphy's arms went around Ray, trying to transfer his body heat into the cold skin under his hands; he squeezed him hard, trying to stop the violent shaking by sheer force, muffling the other man's anguished cries in the soft folds of his shirt.
And stay with him.
"Couldn't even say goodbye to him, Murph," Ray whispered. He was calmer now, the remnants of his outcry coming out as an occasional hiccup or gasp in his speech. He was sitting up, but his arms were still around Murphy. The bewildered pain in his voice cleaved Murphy to the bone. "The doctor was there, watching. I couldn't -- couldn't do anything. Just look sad and walk away. Nothing. I couldn't say goodbye to him."
The morgue. No display of Ray's true grief would have been tolerated by Joe Public -- in this case, the doctor in the morgue with Ray. A man could wail at the sight of his dead wife in that hospital basement drawer, would be allowed -- expected -- to stroke her hair and kiss her one last time, to cry without stopping. Not a big tough CI5 agent who'd lost a partner -- who didn't dare expose his true tie to the dead man. Undercover even after death had parted them, Doyle would only have been allowed with the dead Bodie the proper response of a man saying goodbye to a friend: a few embarrassed tears, perhaps; a controlled expression of sorrow. Bodie's official status at his death was still Single; the barmaids would cry about that handsome young man who'd never found the right girl. As far as the official registers were concerned, Doyle did not exist.
Now Doyle looked and sounded as if he did not exist.
Doyle had often seemed like a lost soul to Murphy; the man had been notorious for his foul moods and his guilt over things he could not control. The one person who'd been able to jolly the man out of his moods had been Bodie, whose penchant for the irreverent and tasteless in his humor had often been exactly what his solemn partner had needed.
Who'll pull me out of me sulks now? Doyle had murmured bleakly. Not merely the loss of a partner, then; not just a friend or a lover. A lifeline had been severed by that single bullet.
"Couldn't say goodbye," Ray whispered again, trembling in the aftermath of the violent emotional storm. "And I never - - never really told him --" He choked off again, trying to control himself.
Ah. Passionate they had been; verbal in their passion, not. That was something Murphy shared with both of them.
Murphy had seen truth laid bare tonight. He was an outsider, seeing clearly what was overlooked by those closer. He imagined Bodie if the situation had been reversed, and the truth came out of him.
"He loved you very much," Murphy said softly. "You know that. He was crazy about you."
That didn't seem right, the approach he was taking. But then he thought of himself, of things unsaid too often, things that had only made it easier to be an island.
What he could not do for himself, he did for his friends, the living and the dead. "And, Ray--" Murphy said to the stricken man in his arms, "--he knew."
The trembling body stilled beneath Murphy's arms.
The key had found the lock.
This new power was a warm lance of sunlight into an ice cavern. Murphy could feel walls cracking within him, sheeting away to plunge into an upwelling ocean, warm with life.
Surer with each moment of the rightness of this thaw, Murphy completed the thought. "Bodie knew that you loved him. He knew, Ray. He knew. Even if you'd never told him, he knew. Even I could see it."
The key, turning.
Slowly, strongly, arms came up to encircle Murphy's neck. He was drawn down, unsure, recognizing the movement, but--
And then the mouth closed on his, firmly, leaving no question. Warm, wet and salty from crying. Full of gratitude. Full of love.
Murphy wasn't even stunned. In a detatched fashion, he watched his own rational reaction; to tighten his hold on Doyle and press back, giving the kiss back.
Doyle pulled away, but tightened his embrace. "Stay with me tonight, Murph," he whispered. "Please. I won't-- I can't-- I just need to--"
Before he'd finished the stammered request, Murphy was burrowing in under the covers and pulling Doyle to lie against him. "You're freezing, mate. Here."
They twined together like blackberry brambles and relaxed; the stresses and exhaustion combined with the shared warmth to gently lower both into sleep.
And when Murphy awoke much later that morning, he remembered everything and nodded approvingly. He'd been told to stay with Doyle and make sure he did nothing foolish. True, his own bunkers had been lowered by the emotional stresses, but that was to be expected.
What he'd done had been needed, and appreciated; Ray Doyle still slept soundly, blissfully oblivious to the pain that waited for his waking realization that his life without Bodie was just beginning.
And Murphy had done nothing to regret. Neither man had done anything foolish; the pain and loss was too fresh for any sensation of lust, even in an attempt to mask the pain. Simply a fraternal embrace through the darkest hours of the night. He himself was safe again, alone and aloof; as Doyle would have to learn to be alone in the days and months ahead.
Murphy pulled the blanket up to cover the bare shoulder of the sleeping Doyle and sank back into sleep, congratulating himself on his level- headedness and independence. He slept soundly beside the man who would become his partner in six months and his lover in eight, unaware of the shifting tectonic plates that had begun to push a land-bridge between himself and others, turning the island into a peninsula.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink, Manacles Press, 1992