Title: If I Speed Away 5/5)
Characters: James Hathaway, Robbie Lewis, Jean Innocent, Laura Hobson
Genre: gen, friendship, hurt/comfort, AU (wingfic)
Length: 8708 words
Spoilers/Warnings: none in this chapter.
Summary: When James is shot by a murder suspect, Robbie discovers something very unexpected about his sergeant.
A/N: And finally, the end. I owe many thanks: the readers who encouraged me and patiently waited while I struggled with an uncooperative Muse; canaana, who encouraged and advised, despite not belonging to this fandom; complexlight, who shared many details about holidays in Bournemouth; sasha1600 and uniquepov, who listened sympathetically to my kvetches and insecurities; and above all, my amazing beta, wendymr, who poked and nudged, and constantly challenged me to do better. Those of you who have read or heard of scenes that did not appear in this story should know that they will appear in the sequel.
The next few weeks go by in a blur. A pleasant blur, Robbie has to admit. They return to Haydon Wood several times. On one occasion they have dinner with Jem Merryweather, who is delighted to see Robbie again. His daughter Ellen joins them. She’s a grown woman now, and proudly introduces her husband and young son.
To Robbie's delight and secret amusement, James enters fully into the conversation, talking about cattle feed and crop rotation with the same ease that he discusses Shakespeare and theology. I keep forgetting that he was raised on a farm. 'One o' the kids off the estate.'
On another night, they go out for Thai with Laura Hobson. James insists on paying.
Laura swallows a bite of green papaya salad and smiles at James. “This is lovely, but what’s the occasion?”
He flushes. “Just a thank-you. For your help when I was in hospital.”
“All I did was clean blood off a bullet. You can best thank me by making sure I never have to do it again.” She directs a mock scowl at Robbie. “And you see to it that he stays out of trouble.”
Robbie returns the scowl with interest. “What do you think I am, a sodding miracle worker?”
Hathaway laughs. It’s a good sound, and it’s one that Robbie is determined to hear more often.
As spring progresses, James does laugh more often. He’ll never be an extrovert, but he’s friendlier and more approachable at the office. And there’s something different about his face, something that makes him look younger.
He’s happy, Robbie realises. This is what happiness looks like on James Hathaway. Robbie savours it like a unexpected and undeserved gift. Once, while escorting Innocent to a fancy do for high muckety-mucks, he was served a glass of 40-year-old Glenfiddich. It was probably meant for some favoured philanthropist or University official, but a twist of fate (in the form of a confused waiter) handed it to a plain, ordinary copper. James’s friendship is like that: it’s rare and far more than he deserves, but he’ll savour it while he can.
It’s a rainy Friday in early June. They both have after-work errands, so Robbie brings home a Chinese takeaway. Twenty minutes later, James appears at his door, dripping wet, and with a face stormier than the skies over Oxford.
“Come in man, and get out of those wet things,” Robbie urges. “I’ll pop the wonton soup in the microwave—or would you rather a drink first?”
James doesn’t answer. He stands there, just inside the closed door, and his expression makes Robbie raise his brows. “James?”
“When were you going to tell me?” The words are as sudden and hot as lightning.
“Tell you what?” Robbie is bewildered.
“About your holiday plans.”
“What holiday plans?”
“Exactly.” The cold smile is one that Robbie’s seen before—in the interview room, when a suspect has made a fatal mistake with an answer.
Time to get this under control. “James, you want to mind your tone of voice. Take off your coat, sit down, and talk to me like a sensible person about whatever’s got you so riled up.”
James hesitates only a moment, then responds to the voice of authority. He strips off his mackintosh and seats himself on the far end of the sofa. “You’d already left the office when Innocent came in. She wanted something from the Smithson file. As I was retrieving it, she made some small talk about my upcoming holiday. Said she hoped I’d have a good time, but my governor was likely to be a grumpy old sod until I returned. And then I discovered that you hadn’t requested leave for yourself.” His voice is quieter than before, but no warmer. “So, I repeat: when were you planning to tell me?”
Every now and then, Robbie has a nightmare about being in court. He’s called up to testify, and only after being sworn in does he discover that it’s the wrong trial. The accused is someone he’s never seen before, and he knows nothing about the case, but the CPS barrister and the judge keep bombarding him with questions. This bizarre interrogation makes him wonder if he’s trapped in a similar nightmare. He grasps at the scraps of information he’s been given, and tries to piece them together. “You thought I was going on holiday with you? To the island?”
“Yes, to the bloody island! Is that a surprise? You’re the one who nagged me about it.”
“Y’know, you didn’t actually invite me,” Robbie says carefully.
“Did you want an engraved invitation? I know I have a reputation for being a loner, but did you honestly expect that I’d choose to spend two weeks on a deserted Scottish island by myself?”
“You didn’t say anything and I didn’t think you’d want me along,” Robbie replies.
“Who then, if not my so-called best mate?”
“I thought...” Robbie sighs. “Look, I saw that letter from Sir Andrew. Didn’t mean to, but it was there, just under the information you printed out about Lyn’s gift. He said you could meet others... like you, and I thought that’s what you intended.”
“Is that your way of saying I ought to stick with my own kind?”
“No! Yes... I don’t know. I enjoy spending time together outside work, and for my own sake, I don’t want that to change. But for you... you deserve things I can’t give you. Like someone to fly with.” He lifts his head and meets James’s gaze, willing him to believe his words. “You deserve to take joy in who you are, and that’s... I can’t—I’m just an ordinary man, James.”
“You know, I would have given almost anything to have a friend to fly with,” James says conversationally, and Robbie feels his heart sink. “When I was five or six years old, that is. I daydreamed of chasing him across the Great Lawn and over the apple orchard, and flying circles around the Folly until we got too dizzy to continue. I’m not a little boy any longer. I’m a grown man, and I don’t want a playmate. What I need is a friend. Someone who understands me.” He gives a meaningful glance over his shoulder. “All of me. Someone who’s willing to put up with my quirks and moods and smartarse attitudes. I thought I had that.” He takes a deep breath. “Was I wrong?”
“No, you’re not wrong,” Robbie says slowly.
“What I don’t need in a friend is someone who’ll go behind my back to do what he thinks is best for me.” James ducks his head slightly. “It’s your right to do that at work as my governor, sir... but not as my friend.”
“Fair enough,” Robbie concedes, “only I didn’t do anything behind your back. I made an assumption, which was stupid of me, but you made an assumption, too. I need to trust that my friend will tell me what he needs.”
James’s shoulder slump, and his head droops. A long, slow exhale seems to take some of his tension with it. “Sorry for being such an arse. Old habits die hard.” Robbie nods acknowledgement and James continues, “Erm... so, will you join me on holiday?”
“I’d like that. You’re sure it’s okay?”
“Sir Andrew said I could bring a friend. That was in the letter, too.”
“But he’s not the landowner, is he?”
“No. The island actually belongs to his cousin. Thomas Kilgore, the ninth Earl of Glenmurray.”
Robbie raises his brows. “His Lordship doesn’t mind Sir Andrew letting the place to strangers? For that matter, doesn’t he use the island himself?”
“I gather that the family prefers to summer at one of their other properties.”
“What, they’ve got a bigger, better island?”
“They do. Also townhouses in Edinburgh and London, a shooting lodge in Lochaber—a small place, just twenty rooms—and a palazzo in Venice,” James says matter-of-factly. “Then there’s Kilgore Castle, the family seat.”
“‘The rich are different from you and me’—didn’t some famous writer say that?”
“Worded slightly differently, but yes, they are. Very different.”
He would know that. “They don’t scrimp and save for a caravan holiday in Bournemouth, that’s for certain. So, what’s two weeks on an Earl’s private island going to take out of my pocket, eh?” At James’s frown, he retorts, “You are not going to pay my way. You can buy me a drink—but, no, there won’t be a pub there.”
Sighing, James names a figure that has Robbie’s brows shooting upwards because it’s suspiciously small. “Are you taking the piss? That little to let a cottage for two weeks?”
“We’re not actually letting the cottage,” James explains. “The fee is to stock the kitchen with food, petrol for the generator, and a payment for the boat captain who’ll take us across. As you said, there’s no pub, but if you’d like to bring along a bottle to share, I wouldn't object.”
“Or pick up something local?”
“It would be appropriate. We have to travel via Oban, and I believe it’s got a distillery.”
Oban does indeed have a distillery, which offers a tour, complete with samples. “Lunch first,” Robbie decrees. The eight-hour drive from Oxford was wearying, even though they broke it up by overnighting at a cheap hotel off the M6. They’ve got time to kill, as their ferry ride to Castlebay on Barra isn’t scheduled until mid-afternoon.
The queue for the ferry is surprisingly long. There are at least sixty cars waiting to embark, and James informs him gravely that the ferry will hold ninety. The five-hour trip isn’t as tedious as he feared. There’s a coffee cabin and an observation lounge—a TV lounge, too, though he’d much rather entertain himself by reading the newspaper, watching his fellow passengers, or talking with James. James isn’t very talkative, Robbie notes. He makes frequent trips to the outdoor seating area, and not just to smoke. Sometimes he stands silently by the rail, watching the waves, the distant islands, and the seabirds wheeling overhead. Is he thinking ahead to the moment when he can join them in the cloudless sky?
Even at a distance, Robbie can read the tension in his friend’s stiff back and the way he paces the deck. Anticipation? Or apprehension? Probably a little of both, he decides.
At last the ferry arrives at Castlebay. Robbie, following James’s recited directions, turns left out of the ferry terminal. Two minutes and a few more turns bring them to an inlet where a dozen boats are moored. Mostly charter boats for tourists, judging from the legends painted on their sides. He pulls into the car park. You’ll be met at the dock, the email from Sir Andrew said. Met by who?
There’s a small crowd of people near the dock. Most of them are tourists, brightly dressed and bedecked with cameras, heading back to their hotels and guest houses after a day on the water. The boat captains stand by their vessels, chatting amiably with departing customers or with each other. One captain detaches himself from the group and strides briskly towards them. He’s about Robbie’s age, lean and wiry, with lively hazel eyes set in a weathered face.
He addresses James. “Mr. James Hathaway?” James admits his identity. “I’m Dan Sturrock. Sir Andrew Morrison sent me.” He turns to Robbie with a look of polite inquiry.
It take Robbie a moment to understand. Sturrock was told to meet Mr James Hathaway and friend. James is the invited guest and Robbie is the tagalong. He smiles and holds out his hand. “Robbie Lewis.”
In no time at all their luggage is out of the car boot and into the cabin of the Island Voyager. Sturrock takes Robbie’s keys, promising to store the car safely until their return.
They seat themselves in the cabin, not wanting to distract the captain as he navigates out of the narrow inlet. Once the boat is onto the open sea, Sturrock addresses his passengers. “We should arrive at Araney in about twenty minutes. If you’d like a cold drink, that yellow cooler has bottles of water, Coke and Irn Bru.” Robbie realises that this is the first time he’s heard the name of the place where he’ll be spending the next fortnight. He’s got used to thinking of it as just ‘the island’.
Something stirs in the back of his brain. How did Sturrock know who they were? There were other men in the car park, and other cars that didn’t have ‘S’ for Scotland on their number plates.
As if reading his mind, James says, “Captain Sturrock? How did you know who I was? Did Sir Andrew give you a description of me?”
“Didn’t have to, now did he? I know what to look for.” Beside him, Robbie sees James stiffen. Sturrock notices it too. “Ah, it’s like that, is it?” He pulls down on a lever and the boat slows to quarter-speed or less, then turns the pilot’s chair sideways so he can look at them and still mind the wheel. “May I?” His glance towards Robbie completes the question.
“You can say anything in front of my friend Robbie,” James says. His voice is steady and his face shuttered.
“Fair enough. I should start by saying that Sturrocks have worked for the Kilgore family for five generations. My da was a gardener at Kilgore Castle. I crewed on His Lordship’s yacht when I was younger, and my brother Luke captains her now.”
“But you run your own business,” Robbie observes.
“Aye, thanks to His Lordship, who helped me secure a loan to get started. That’s the sort of man he is—the sort of family they are. And Sir Andrew is a Kilgore through and through. His mum was Lady Margaret Kilgore, the old Earl's sister. He and His Lordship are closer than brothers. He grew up at Kilgore, in the Dower House. Brought his wife there when he married, and...” Sturrock takes a deep breath. “You’ll know about his daughter, I suppose?” At their nods he continues, “Miss Helena was the sweetest lass. Kind and good-natured, though she had a mischievous streak in her. My boy Jack is an arborist for the Forestry Commission. When he was at uni, he spent his summer hols working in the gardens at Kilgore. One day, he was taking soil samples under the Victoria Jubilee oak when Miss Helena dived down from the top branches and landed next to him. Jack nearly pissed his trousers, he was that startled, but he couldn’t be angry at her. No one could. When she passed, we all grieved.”
Sturrock bows his head for a moment, then continues. “For decades, the family have used Araney as a sort of retreat for themselves and for friends. If I were to name names, you’d recognise them. Sir Andrew also used to send some of his patients there. After Miss Helena died, he invited guests more often. For the past twenty years, no one has set foot on Araney—not man nor woman, child nor dog—unless I brought them over.” He looks steadily at James. “It’s a subtle thing. The shape of the body, the tilt of the shoulders, the curve of the back, and even the way of walking. Other than Sir Andrew, I daresay no one in Britain has seen more fir sgiathach than me. I can tell by looking at you—to anyone else, you’re just another tall, skinny Englishman.”
James twitches the corners of his mouth. “Thank you, Captain Sturrock.”
“Dan, please. While we’re at it, I’ll tell you that you can safely fly about a kilometre in any direction. It’s not near any shipping routes, and the fishermen and the other charter boats know to stay clear. The Kilgores are respected in the area, and none of the locals would dream of trespassing on His Lordship’s property or disturbing his guests.”
James nods. “Good to know.”
Sturrock hands him a sealed envelope. “This is what you might call a flyer’s guide to Araney. Comments and advice from previous guests. I’d suggest you read it over before your first flight. Some of the sea-winds can be a bit tricky.”
Araney is a little gem of an island, Robbie decides, at least what he can see of it in the fading light. It’s been gentled but not completely tamed. The unpaved walkway up from the dock has terraced steps dug into the earth in the steeper places. Robbie trails behind Dan (carrying both suitcases) and James (carrying his guitar and laptop). It’s clear he’ll get plenty of exercise on this holiday, unless he remains near the cottage for the full two weeks. Which might not be such a bad thing. Inside the old stone walls, the cottage is modern, comfortable, and welcoming. He suspects that some interior walls were torn down to reconfigure the rooms. Each of the two bedrooms is large enough to hold an extra-long king size bed, which makes James smile. Room enough for his wings and his bloody long legs.
For his part, Robbie likes the look of the open-plan lounge/dining area. His detective’s eye sweeps the room, taking in the details: a stone fireplace, a wool hearth rug in a cheerful multi-coloured chequered pattern, and matching throw cushions on the blue-grey couch. Armchairs. A low bookcase. A battered oak table with a blue and white tartan runner. The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of misty Scottish landscapes, and a framed topo map of Araney. A large watercolour painting—a seascape—holds pride of place over the fireplace. “Very comfortable.” Because Dan Sturrock is in the room, he doesn’t voice his other thought, And not at all posh.
Sturrock gives them the tuppeny tour of the practical aspects of the cottage: generator, circuit box, firewood, satellite Internet and phone connection, and emergency shortwave radio. It’s all pretty straightforward, except for the Internet thingummy, and James will sort that, he knows. They thank Sturrock, who smiles and nods and refuses to let them accompany him back down to the dock. Two minutes after the cottage door shuts behind him, Robbie hears the muted roar of the Island Explorer’s engines.
He looks at James. “What now? Supper?”
“Actually, I’d like to go outside. Watch the sunset,” James says. There’s an unexpected note of shyness in his voice.
Robbie is hungry and tired, and part of him would like to point out that there will be a sodding sunset every sodding night, but a good mate doesn’t do that. “Right.” He starts for the door, but out of the corner of his eye he can see that James isn’t moving. He’s stripping off his windbreaker and t-shirt, and throwing them onto a chair. Of course. I should have guessed. Robbie pauses to study one of the photographs on the wall, which was taken from the interior of a sea cave. Beyond the cave mouth, he can see sunlight glittering on the water, and the hazy silhouette of a distant island. Which philosopher compared life to being imprisoned in a cave? He can’t remember. One of the Greeks, probably.
The distinctive ripping sound of Velcro brings him back to the here and now, and to the sight of James, completely bare above the waist, wings neatly folded. “You don’t want a t-shirt at least? It’s not exactly Majorca out there.”
“I’ll be fine for a few minutes,” James replies. “I need to feel the air.”
The air outside is cool, verging on brisk. They move to the right side of the cottage, where there’s a clear view to the horizon. The ruins of the old lighthouse loom behind them. The western sky is streaked with vivid colours he hasn’t seen since he returned from the BVI. He turns to James to share a memory, and the words die on his lips. Here is a sight more glorious than any sunset. James has spread his wings to ‘feel the air’ and the reflected light paints his pale feathers rose, gold, lavender and blue. He extends them into a nearly horizontal position. A flying position, Robbie thinks. He’s not going to go sailing off now, is he?
James sighs. “That sky is magnificent.” It’s clear he doesn’t just mean the colours.
“It is,” Robbie agrees. “You have plenty of time to become better acquainted with it.”
They stand in silence until the last gleam of colour fades. “Supper,” Robbie says firmly.
James folds his wings with a soft rustle that sounds like another sigh, and follows him back inside.
A quick inspection of the kitchen shows that they’re spoilt for choices. “Spag bol?” Robbie suggests. “I saw a package of mince in the freezer.”
“Could do.” James’s muffled voice emerges from the fridge, which appears to have swallowed his entire head. “Or maybe—aha!” He withdraws, displaying something wrapped in greaseproof paper.
“And what might that be?”
“That is a filet from a salmon that was probably swimming in the Atlantic just this morning.” James beams as proudly as if he’d caught the bloody fish himself. “Sturrock must have come over earlier today to stock the fridge. We’ve fresh milk, too.”
They set to work. Within twenty minutes they’re sat at the table, tucking into pan-fried salmon, couscous, and salad. Afterwards, Robbie tackles the dishes while James reads the flyer’s guide to Araney.
“Planning your first go?”
“Not much to plan,” James says with a shrug. “This says the southeast cliffs have strong, reliable updrafts. Just the spot for someone as out of practice as I am. Jump, glide for a while, then land. Repeat as desired.”
He has to ask. “Jumping off a cliff sounds a bit chancy for someone who’s two years out of practice. Maybe you should start on level ground, by way of a warm-up? The map shows a nice bit of open space not too far from the cottage.” James, the cheeky sod, is biting his lip, trying not to laugh at him.”All right,” Robbie growls. “I won’t try to teach my grandmother to suck eggs. Just don’t fancy having to call the Coastguard to pull you out of the sea.”
James’s sea-coloured eyes are bright with humour. “I appreciate your concern, but really, the simplest, most basic form of flying is a fixed-wing glide from a height. I don’t quite remember my first flight—I was two or three—but it was from the hayloft. More of a slow fall than actual flying.”
“Sounds like a parachute jump.” Not that he’s ever done that, or ever will.
“A bit more controlled, but yeah. It’s even easier if there’s an updraft, because that does most of the work for you.”
“That’s well enough, but are you sure your wing is fully healed? You’ve done your exercises and all, but you haven’t really put it to the test.”
“All right. You know best. Just restrain your impatience until a reasonable hour of the morning, will you? I’m not getting up at five to watch you greet the rosy-fingered dawn.”
“I’ll wait. I’ll even let you have your coffee first,” James promises.
“Coffee and breakfast. You, too. You can’t conquer Scottish airspace on an empty stomach.”
It turns out that Scottish airspace has other plans. When Robbie wakes, the bedroom is darker than he expected, even with the curtains drawn. He stumbles out to the lounge, and discovers that the steady sound of water beating down is not James taking a shower. James is standing in the kitchen, shooting murderous looks at the coffee maker. Since that inoffensive appliance is obediently making coffee, Robbie deduces that James’s strop has more to do with the rain outside. “Morning,” he ventures.
James sighs. “Morning, Robbie. Coffee's almost ready.”
“Ta.” He gestures at the window. “That supposed to last long?”
“All day and night. Clearing tomorrow morning,” James says in the flat voice he reserves for VIP receptions, team effectiveness meetings, summons to the Chief Super’s office, and other disasters.
“Pity. Suppose we’ll have to have a quiet day in.” The cottage has no television, but there’s the radio, and James has his laptop and iPod. Plenty to read, and last night he spotted some games on the bottom of the bookshelf.
James gives him a brief nod. After breakfast, James settles himself in front of his laptop, and Robbie starts in on Keith Richards’ autobiography. He skims through the opening pages and the account of a drug bust during the Stones’ 1975 American tour. He’s not surprised or shocked. There'll be a lot more of that in the 500+ pages to come. He read about most of those scandals when they were first splashed across the front page of every tabloid. Now they’re just old, sad news. The second chapter, describing Keith’s childhood and first exposure to music, is more promising. Keith is older than Robbie, and grew up poorer, but Robbie feels a certain kinship with the working-class lad who became a rock-and-roll superstar.
He sets the book aside, goes to the loo, then borrows James’s laptop to email Lyn. Eventually, somehow, the dragging hands of the clock announce lunchtime. After the cheese toasties are consumed, and the few dishes washed, he wanders over to the bookcase to look at the games. Chess is an invitation to humiliating disaster. He’s never cared for draughts or backgammon, and he’d have to be more stoned than Keith Richards to get out the Cluedo box. But there on the bottom, underneath Snakes and Ladders...
Five minutes later, he’s sat at the dining table, a Scrabble board between him and James. “Not what I would have guessed as your choice for Sunday afternoon entertainment.”
“Val loved the game, was in a club and everything. She used to practice on me,” Robbie says. “I learned a few tips.” It’s true, but he has no illusions that some friendly games with his wife twenty years ago will help him against a clever-clogs who probably reads the OED for fun. I’m going to be slaughtered.
It’s not quite a slaughter. Robbie draws a few high-scoring letters, and remembers one of the ‘Q’ words that don’t need a ‘U’. He loses anyway, but not by as much as he expected, and James is able to coax him into another game.
In the second game, James gets cocky. He concentrates more on finding obscure, highbrow words (pyx? fanon?) and not enough on the strategy of playing the coloured squares that can double or triple word values. For his part, Robbie remembers some of the funny two-letter words that fit nicely into tight spots. Then he looks down at his tile rack and sees a lovely, ordinary, lowbrow word—and the perfect space on the board. “Here’s a good’un,” Robbie announces as he lays the tiles down. “For 108 points.”
“Jukebox?” James says incredulously.
“It’s how we used to listen to music, back in the Dark Ages, before iPods were invented.” He grins. “Best two out of three?”
“Later?” James suggests. “At the risk of seeming a poor loser, I don’t think I can face another game just now.” He stands up and stretches, arching his back and partially extending his wings. “In fact, I think I’ll go for a walk.”
“It’s only rain. The Shipping Forecast said wind 5 to 6. Not exactly a gale.” He’s wearing jeans and one of those sweatshirts with slits to accommodate his wings. He disappears briefly into his bedroom. When he returns, Robbie sees that he’s swapped his trainers for boots, and added a back-slit hoodie over the sweatshirt. It’s another layer, but not waterproof.
“Shouldn’t you put on a mac?”
“Didn’t bring one.”
“You could borrow mine.”
“Thanks, but it won’t fit.”
This sounds ridiculous until Robbie fills in the unspoken part of that answer. His mac won’t fit unless James puts on the binder that’s tucked away in his duffel at the bottom of the wardrobe, and Robbie is pretty sure that James would rather go naked. He wants to say something, but he’s not sure what that something should be. Be careful? Stay away from the cliffs? James is a grown man, a copper with good instincts, and the last thing he wants is his governor fussing over him like a fretful old granny. It’s a wet summer afternoon in Scotland, not an Antarctic expedition. He gives James a friendly nod of farewell, then busies himself with tidying up the Scrabble set.
Robbie switches on the radio. Sunday afternoon is a wasteland of showtunes, cooking tips, unfunny comedy, and celebrity gossip. He’s not in the mood just now for sex and drugs and rock-and-roll, so he goes to investigate the bookcase. It’s a real hodgepodge, with a 19th century history of Scotland shelved next to a Mills & Boon romance, a biography of some Brazilian footballer, Harry Potter, the Bible, the Nautical Almanac, and the 1928 edition of Scouting for Boys. A few spy novels look interesting, and he plucks one from the shelf. Soon he’s deep in the Cold War adventures of a British agent. The hero, on the run from Soviet spies, takes refuge in an abandoned barn. Robbie can almost hear the wind in the rafters and feel the icy chill of a Norwegian winter. With a shake of his head he comes to himself. The wind he hears is real enough, and is blowing stronger than before. As for cold, yeah, it’s got a bit chilly. He could take the electric heater out of the utility cupboard, or... With sudden determination, he sets aside the novel and goes to kneel on the hearth-rug. Everything he needs is right at hand. Hope I haven’t lost me touch.
He hasn’t. True, it takes more than one match, but in moments, a cheery blaze is crackling in the old stone fireplace. Robbie returns to the sofa, and sits admiring his handiwork. He’s about to reach for his book when he hears the click of the door-latch. Turning, he sees James enter, and bites back a laugh. The lad is drenched. Water drips from his clothing, wings, and hair. “You’re as wet as an otter’s pocket! Get undressed, then come and get warm by the fire.”
Wordlessly, James heads for the bathroom, making squishing sounds with every step. Five minutes later, he reappears, dressed only in a pair of briefs, and carrying a dry bath sheet. His hair is towel-tousled, his skin is damp, and droplets of water glisten here and there on his wings. He spreads the bath sheet over the hearth-rug, and carefully lies down on his stomach, chin cradled on his overlapping hands, wings half opened. “This is good,” he murmurs, and closes his eyes.
The only sounds in the room are the crackle and hiss of the fire and the drumming of the rain. Robbie stares down at James. This is the first time he’s been able to look closely without James being aware of his attention. The firelight transforms the wings, turning ivory to gold and gold to bronze. More remarkable than the colours are the textures. All those other times, he was so busy looking at the wings that he didn’t properly notice the feathers. There are different kinds—different not just in size, but in shape and structure. Some have pointed tips, some blunt. Some are smooth-edged, some serrated, and some as soft and downy as an Easter chick.
His gaze follows the curve of one wing to the place where it joins James’s back. It doesn’t look as strange as one might think, a feathered structure emerging from bare skin. No more strange or out of place than a tree growing out of the earth. Visible beneath the skin are the firm ridges and curves of the muscles that make the huge wings flick with annoyance or shake off water or stretch wide to greet the rising moon and setting sun. That make them fly. He’s beautiful. Robbie has thought this before, but tonight it hits him full force. Amazing.
When he visited Italy with Lyn, Robbie saw a lot of statues of handsome young men by famous artists. They were world-famous masterpieces, according to the bits that Lyn read from the guidebook. Not one of them can hold a candle to the masterpiece that’s right here in front of him, made not of cold marble, but of ivory feathers, golden hair, and fire-warmed skin.
His face flushes for reasons having nothing to do with the heat of the fire. Christ, he’s almost as bad as that vile old bugger, Mortmaigne—treating James as a decorative object, and not a human being.
“You can touch them if you like.”
Robbie starts. James hasn’t moved, but his eyes are open. Obviously he’s noticed Robbie staring at him. “What?”
“My wings,” James says sleepily. He waggles one wingtip, as though Robbie might need a reminder. “You can touch them if you want. I’m surprised you haven’t asked before this.”
“Don’t usually go around touching other blokes,” Robbie retorts. “Not unless they’re injured, resisting arrest, or carrying a rugby ball.”
“Arrested many fir sgiathach, have you?” James quips. Before Robbie can respond, James gets up into a cross-legged sitting position, his back to the fire. "You're curious. Go ahead. I really don't mind."
“If you’re certain,” Robbie begins.
“Or I could touch you.” Without warning, James flicks his right wing up and forward, brushing the tip lightly across Robbie’s hand. He leaves the wing extended, resting on the sofa next to Robbie.
Robbie runs a tentative finger up one of the longest feathers. It’s sleek, but not especially soft. Firm. The shape is different to what he would have thought. It’s not at all symmetrical. The quill-thingy runs close to the outer edge of the feather instead of in the middle.
“That is a primary flight feather.” Robbie recognises James’s lecture voice. “The primaries extend to here...” He lifts the wing, pulling it closer to his body so he can point at the different sections. “And the secondaries from here on down. You’ll notice that the secondaries are blunt-tipped, and lack the distinctive notch of the primaries. Above them are the coverts—” He breaks off abruptly. “I’m boring you.”
“No,” Robbie protests. “It’s just a bit technical for me. Doesn’t mean I’m not interested.” He reaches out and strokes the—what did James call them?—covert feathers. Those are softer, more like what he expected. “Can you feel that?”
“Yes and no. There aren’t any nerve endings in the feathers. But I can feel the pressure indirectly, the way you can feel someone touching your hair.”
Robbie nods, and touches some of the other feathers, noting the differences between them. “Thanks.” James draws in his wings and shakes them slightly before folding them. “You dry now?”
“Dry. Warm.” James glances down at his mostly naked self. “Ready to get dressed.”
“Get a move on, then. I’m ready for tea, and it’s not going to cook itself.”
“I thought that was your job,” James teases.
“What am I? Your sodding chef?”
“I thought you were my best mate.”
“You’re a pain in the arse, that’s what you are,” Robbie grumbles. To emphasise the point, he snatches up on of the little sofa cushions and swats James on the top of the head before stalking over to the kitchen.
Spag bol makes a nice hot meal for a cold, rainy evening. Afterwards, Robbie builds up the fire again.
“Where did you learn to do that?” James asks. “I know that you were born after the invention of central heating, and I’d bet a week’s pay you were never a Scout.”
“Never had time for that nonsense,” Robbie agrees. “As for central heating... there were plenty of older houses in Newcastle that were built before the war and relied on open fires. Me gran lived in one like that, so I got plenty of practice.”
“I bow to your superior survival skills,” James says with a smirk.
“As well you should. If we run into trouble and the radio-phone conks out, I’ll build a signal fire.” He pauses just for two seconds. “And you can fan it.”
James’s laughter echoes off the stones of the fireplace.
They’re up early. James wants to be out flying as soon as possible, and Robbie intends to be there to watch. They take time for breakfast—flying burns a lot of energy—and Robbie brings his second cup of coffee outside. There’s a bench near the cliff edge, the sort that looks simple and rustic, but is made of teak and probably costs at least two weeks of his take-home pay. He sits down and watches with amusement as James does his warm-up exercises. It’s not that the exercises themselves are odd-looking. They’re similar to the physio James did when he was recovering from his injury. The slow, stylised movements resemble the Tai Chi he’s seen people doing in parks back in Oxford. All very graceful and elegant. James’s wings, outspread in full sunlight, are as bright and glorious as he imagined on a dreary February afternoon in Oxford. The humorous note comes from the outfit James is wearing: tattered jeans and a sweatshirt that must be older than its wearer. Robbie peers at the stylised logo of an American band that was popular when he was a young man. “The Eagles?”
James shrugs, his wings echoing the movement of his shoulders. “Got it at a charity shop. It seemed appropriate. Araney means eagle’s island.”
“I think so. I’ll find out shortly.” James walks to the edge of the cliff. He bows his head, and his lips move silently. A prayer? They he lifts his wings into a horizontal position, bends his knees, and leaps.
As James drops out of sight, Robbie rushes to the cliff edge. It’s about 120 feet down to the sea, and James is halfway there and descending fast. Robbie holds his breath until he sees James level off into a slow, wide circle. He seems to be searching for something—maybe one of those updrafts he mentioned? A moment later, he finds it, and begins flying upwards, wings pumping steadily. He rises back to the cliff top, but instead of landing, he gives Robbie a wave and a cheeky grin and dives back down.
Robbie watches, spellbound, as James glides in lazy circles above the sea. Sometimes he climbs up and then swoops down, but mostly he soars on an even plane, keeping within a hundred yards of the cliff. After ten minutes of this, he flies up once again, and lands with an audible thump. Almost immediately, he stumbles over to the wooden bench and collapses onto it with a sigh.
“James? You all right?”
“Fine. Just... tired.” His voice comes out in hoarse gasps. “It’s like any other exercise—the first time after a long hiatus is hell on the body.”
“Nothing strained or injured?”
He shakes his head. “Just aches and pains. My muscles are sore—hell, even my feathers are aching.” Despite his words, his eyes are bright, and his grin is a metre wide.
I was wrong, Robbie decides. It’s not James’s wings that are truly glorious—it’s his joy.
Robbie would have suggested a hot shower, but James declares that cold, not hot, is the best treatment for sore muscles. After downing a full litre of an alarmingly-blue sport drink, he suggests they go for a dip in the sea pool. Robbie’s seen it on the topo map. It’s just under two kilometres from the cottage. “You up for that much walking?”
James assures him that his legs are fine. They change into swimming shorts, then throw towels, snacks, and bottles of spring water into a small rucksack which Robbie hoists on his back. They set off along a well-marked trail that cuts across a grassy field. In the distance, he sees a scattering of gnarled shrubs. As the trail begins to descend towards sea level, it undulates in gentle curves past clumps of feathery green ferns, and wide swathes of heather that are just starting to flush pink. It’s a beautiful landscape, despite the lack of trees.
The sea pool is part of a natural inlet, a roughly circular basin about thirty feet across. The sea has carved a shallow ditch across the rock-strewn shingle. At high tide, the basin will fill to the brim. At low-tide, which it is now, a man can sit on one of the submerged boulders that line the edge of the basin, up to his neck (Robbie) or shoulders (James) in seawater.
Robbie strips off his t-shirt. His swimming shorts are bright blue with yellow and white flowers—a souvenir of his time in the BVI. James is wearing a pair of black swimming briefs that are so obviously new that they may as well have the price tag from the shop still attached.
“You had me heart pounding at the beginning, there,” Robbie says. “Thought you were going to dive into the bloody sea.”
James shoots him a reproachful look. “I’m not a cormorant.”
“Nah, more like a bloody stork, you are.” Robbie pushes off from his boulder, swims a few strokes, then turns over to float on his back. “This is nice. Haven’t done this in a while.”
“You know, it is possible to swim in Oxford. There are leisure centres with indoor pools, and I believe I saw a poster somewhere about discounted memberships for public servants.”
Robbie stares up at the cloudless sky. What would it be like to see James soaring overhead from this angle? “What? No, that’d be a waste of money. I just like to paddle around a bit. Besides, swimming has always meant the seaside to me. Used to go to Whitley Bay when I was a lad. And Val and I took the kids to Bournemouth for summer holidays. We had a lot of fun there.”
“Alas, there’s no arcade on Araney,” James says dryly.
“Don’t need it, do I? I’ve got you to amuse me.”
A long silence, and then a quiet voice floats across the water. “What did you do in Bournemouth?”
Just in time, Robbie stops himself from saying, ‘You know, all the usual stuff.’ James doesn’t know. His family didn't take him to the seaside when he was a boy. He may have read about it, or heard schoolmates discussing their own summer hols, but Robbie would bet that James has never made a sandcastle nor played the penny falls.
Robbie shuts his eyes, letting his memory drift with his body. He’s not much of a storyteller, but for James’s sake he tries. He spins a tale as timeless as the sea and as ephemeral as candy floss on a child’s tongue. Strolls along the beach... Lyn making a sandcastle for fairies to live in, and Mark adding a garage for their cars... the pleasure of decent fish and chips, with fish fresh from the sea. He remembers the time that Mark sneaked off to visit the arcade on his own. “He won two pounds from a tuppeny slot machine and spent it all on sweets. We didn’t know about it until the middle of the night when he sicked it all up.”
“Did you punish him?”
“That sort of thing is its own punishment, mostly. We gave him a stern talking to, and he wasn’t allowed ice cream the next day.”
“Pierced through the heart with your stern cruelty."
Shakespeare? Shelley? He’s not going to ask. “I daresay Mark would have agreed. Day after that, we took a drive to the New Forest, had a picnic. Val bought a Battenberg cake for afters. Mark used his slice to lure one of those little donkeys that wander around the forest—then threw a right strop when the beast grabbed it and ate it.”
“So he had to go without?”
“Well, Lyn took her slice—”
“And gave it to her little brother? That’s sweet.”
“Actually, she fed it to the donkey.” At James’s sputter of laughter, Robbie swims to the far edge of the basin and pulls himself upright. The slope above is carpeted with a wildflower he’s never seen before: thick, ground-hugging stems fill the spaces between the rocks, and tiny, delicate pink cups peek out between fleshy leaves. Araney is full of lovely surprises.
They eat and drink, chat and reminisce until James decides he’s soaked for long enough. They haul themselves out of the water, make the obligatory jokes about wrinkled, prune-like skin, and head up the trail back to the cottage. They take turns in the shower, then have a late lunch outside. Robbie wishes he could safely take a snapshot of James, whose wings are spread wide to dry in the breeze while he enjoys a ham sandwich and a bottle of ‘Fair Puggled’ ale. He takes a swig from his own bottle (‘Kilt Lifter’, by the same Oban microbrewery) and sighs contentedly. It’s going to be a very good holiday.
And so it is. Robbie takes long walks around the perimeter of the island; sometimes with James, sometimes on his own. At night, or when it rains, they chat, read, listen to the radio, or play games. James practices his guitar. He flies farther and longer every day, steadily gaining strength and agility. His wings really aren’t designed for acrobatic flying, but he manages some spiral dives that are terrifying to watch.
Near the end of their stay, James decides to try a night flight. The rain didn’t clear until after sundown, and he’s restless. He waves off Robbie’s concerns. “It’s a wide open sky. No trees to get tangled in.”
“Just don’t collide with the lighthouse,” Robbie warns. The top of the building has long since crumbled, and there’s been no light there for seventy or eighty years.
It’s visible enough, James tells him, especially since there’s still large patches of white plaster clinging to the masonry. Robbie sits in his accustomed spot on the teak bench, and watches James soar into the hazy night sky. As the lad gains altitude, he’s harder to see. James is wearing dark jeans and a long-sleeved blue t-shirt, and his nearly-white wings don’t show up as much as one might think. It’s hard to judge size and distance without landmarks, especially in the dark. A casual observer might believe he was seeing a gull or some other large seabird. Surely they can find some isolated spot within reasonable distance of Oxford, maybe for a weekend getaway? If James dresses in dark clothing and Robbie guards the car...
He makes the suggestion the next day, and James shuts down. Oh, his ‘thank you, Robbie’ is polite, even friendly, but his face is a mask and his wings are pulled tightly against his body. Robbie abandons the idea... for now.
The sad day of departure comes all too soon. Dan Sturrock is due in the early morning to get them to a 9:00 AM ferry from Castlebay. Robbie is awakened at dawn, an hour before his alarm is due to go off, by the sound of James moving about the kitchen. One last flight? He debates getting up. It’s obscenely early, though he’s used to callouts at all hours on the job, and he loves to watch James fly. The wonder of seeing his friend soaring, free and happy, has not faded. And yet... perhaps James would like this time alone, just himself and the endless summer sky. Robbie turns over, and lets sleep claim him again.
He wakes to the sizzle and smell of bacon. In the kitchen, James is preparing a proper fry-up. It’s clear he’s been up for some time. He’s fully dressed, and his damp hair is neatly combed. “Good morning,” he says over his shoulder.
“Morning,” Robbie replies. He’s heading for the coffee pot when it occurs to him that something isn’t quite right. He’s halfway through his first cup when his brain wakes up enough to function properly. His wings are gone. Well, not gone, obviously, but bound and hidden under his Cambridge hoodie. Now he looks... odd. Incomplete. Funny how quickly your perception of someone can change. I’ve got used to this.
He doesn’t realise that he’s said it aloud until James turns to look at him. “What’s that, Robbie?”
“I’ve got used to this,” he repeats, and waves his hands vaguely about. “Sleeping in, having breakfast cooked for me. It’s going to be hard to get used to ordinary life again. Still, we can’t laze about forever.”
“Very true,” James replies. “Another week here and you’d be interrogating the local insect population about a dead beetle, and phoning Dr Hobson for forensic entomological advice.”
He laughs. “I expect you’re right. And Laura would skin me alive.”
After breakfast and the washing up, they take their coffee outside to sit on the bench. The morning bird noise is in full swing. The squawks and shrieks of gulls, kittiwakes, wild geese, and others, has become a familiar background sound, only half-heard, like the rumble of Oxford traffic.
James says abruptly, “Before we go... I wanted to thank you.”
“Thank me? What for?”
“For encouraging me to come here, but especially for joining me. Having you here has been, well, it’s meant a lot to me.”
“That’s funny,” Robbie replies, “because I was about to thank you for inviting me along.”
“I was afraid you’d find it boring.”
“Compared to my usual action-packed holidays? Nah. Nice and relaxing. Doing a lot of nothing-much with a good mate is my idea of heaven.” He pauses. “Actually, to be heaven, it would need some football on the telly. And rugby.”
“And a pub,” James suggests.
“And a decent chippy.”
“Your notion of heaven is starting to sound like a rainy night in Oxford.”
“Then I reckon it’s a good thing we’re heading back there, much as I’ve liked bein’ here.” They rise and walk towards the cottage to finish packing. Robbie looks over his shoulder. “You reckon His Lordship might let us come again next summer?”
James’s smile is answer enough.
James takes a last slow drag off his cigarette. The first of the day is always the best, but that’s not why he’s sitting at the end of the bed in his underwear. He’s in no hurry to get dressed. Oh, he’s keen enough to get back to work. Can’t laze about forever, as Robbie said, and his brain is ready for something more challenging than Scrabble. Only... he glances at his binder, draped neatly over the back of a chair. He wore it on the trip back from Scotland, of course, but memories of Araney linger in his mind. To wander out-of-doors, shirtless in full daylight, is a luxury he hasn’t enjoyed since he was twelve. And it’s one that he probably won’t have again for another year—or longer. Back to the real world, he reminds himself.
He thinks about Araney as he tugs the binder into place, and adjusts the tightness of the straps. The quiet, the simple comfort, and above all, the freedom to fly whenever he pleased... it was so bloody wonderful. Yet as often as his mind reaches back to those amazing flights, those glorious dives and swoops and the slow glides that let him overlook the island and the sea, he keeps seeing Robbie. Robbie, sharing stories of his own seaside holidays. Hiking the circumference trail and letting James pontificate about the ecological systems of the Outer Hebrides. Setting aside a thrilling spy novel to listen to James play madrigals on his guitar. Sharing a beer. Sharing secrets. Robbie, examining his wings with calm curiosity, then ignoring them... mostly. He’d watched every flight with keen interest, and he’d grumbled when James accidentally jostled the table with his left wing during a game of Scrabble.
“I’m finally winning another game, and if you knock the tiles off with your sodding feather-dusters, I swear I will pluck you as bare as a Christmas turkey.”
Robbie makes him feel normal—no, Robbie makes him feel that normal doesn’t matter. Back to the real world, he thinks again, and smiles. Any world that includes Robbie Lewis is one he’ll be happy living in.
--- THE END ---