Title: Something close
Summary: Something unsaid on the Death Road.
Word Count: 3,200
Warnings: No sex, sorry. Self-beta.
Disclaimer: These are characters that happen to have the same names as real people. I don’t know anything about the private lives of those real people, I’m making it all up. Honest.
“Hammond, I want to say something to you I wouldn’t say at any other time.”
James means it to sound lighter than this. Humorous. As if he was wearing a windblown dress in a technicolour melodrama and not following a battered Toyota, in an equally battered Suzuki, by torchlight.
“Please, don’t leave me.”
He is tired and just more than a bit afraid, and too sick of this rubbish to cover it up. So it isn’t humorous, because it is all he can do to stop it being so gut - wrenchingly close to everything he is actually feeling the words would fail him anyway.
He doesn’t quite grasp the deeper truth beneath it. Not immediately, anyway.
Something in the tone of James’ voice paralyses Richard’s take the piss system and for once he doesn’t tease. The grin never breaks across Richard’s face, the jibe gone before he’s even thought it. I’m not cocking about, not about this, not here.
“Oh God. Those words are going to stay with me for a bit. I’ll struggle to get over that.”
Perhaps I’m just too tired, stinky and too close to the edge (the edge being both my wits and a cliff) to play at comedy Richard on this bloody road.
“No, I won’t.”
James doesn’t pause and doesn’t speak. He just punches Jeremy right in the face and carries on walking.
Jeremy reels, about to retaliate on instinct, and Richard stands in front of him, hands raised placatingly although they ache from the shot suspension so much he can barely lift them above his sides. “Really mate, don’t.”
“He hit me.” Jeremy says.
Richard looks at the camera crew, who wordlessly nod and put the equipment down. This incident is just a little bit too far.
“He bloody hit me!”
“I know,” says Richard. “You deserved it. What’s really surprising is that he didn’t use the machete.”
“There had better be a bloody fine apology, with gold lettering and a frame…”
“Oh, stop it for five minutes,” Richard says. “He was really fucking scared, Jez.”
“That makes two of us,” Jeremy says. He holds his fingers apart. “I was this far from the edge and it was crumbling with a car the size of God’s bloody slipper pushing me to certain death. In the rain!”
It’s only the echo of remembered terror Richard sees in Jeremy’s eyes that stop him following James’ example. Instead, he changes his tone.
“It’ll be all right,” he says, firmly. “We’ve been through too much shit for this to get in the way now.”
He thinks it’s possibly as much to convince himself as anyone else.
James is almost regretting it, as he lies in a dusty bed that at least is flat compared to the Suzuki. Almost. At the time, he figures, he didn’t care, just needing to know he wasn’t alone. Now he knows he’s exposed himself, his every instinct is to hide. He briefly wonders if he should cry off, back out of this and claim he’s caught some unspeakable tropical malady. He could ask, he supposes, for them not to show that bit of film – although he suspects will make good television for the alleged hoards of women who want to mother him.
As he lies back and looks up into darkness, he’s almost aware he felt closer to his friend on that radio than he ever had standing at his side.
Richard, a room away, tries not to think of the cockroaches. It’s surprisingly easy to do now he’s bone achingly tired and there’s actually a real pillow and a real mattress. Instead, the conversation with James is replaying in his head. Had he imagined the depth of that plea and turned it into more than it was?
What if I over responded, gave something away? What? Gave something away? What am I on about?
He’s lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling, into the dark. He wonders if he invented the idea he’d gripped that radio long after the conversation ended. Trying to touch his friend, bridge the gap through the night.
James walks out of the pre-broadcast screening, after watching Jeremy’s brush with death. Even on film the drop is enough to make his mouth dry, the dramatising extra footage added by the film crew really doesn’t help. He claims it’s something he ate that morning, and he needs to get some air; not that he can’t bring himself to sit through the reminders… or his sudden guilt at punching the man who was arguably one of his best friends, in the face.
The real thing he can’t stomach though is that moment of exposure laid bare for all to see - it’s bothering him more than being filmed naked, frankly – and he certainly doesn’t want to deal with Clarkson’s laughing, guilt or no guilt. Shouldn’t have turned up at all, he mumbles to himself, sparking up a cigarette in the car park.
“Are you absolutely sure that’s a good idea?”
Jeremy’s voice startles James. “I’m not sure what it being a good idea has to do with it,” he says.
“Do you know what I think?”
“I suspect you are going to tell me.”
“I think you’re not feeling sick at all,” Jeremy says, bluntly.
“Thank you for your opinion, Doctor Clarkson.”
“I’m going to say this once. I’m sorry.”
James coughs. “What did you say?”
“Pull yourself together, you girly haired spanner-stroker.”
James permits himself a smile, even if that uncomfortable feeling hasn’t quite gone away. After all this time, Jeremy can still surprise him. He replies to Jeremy’s first comment. “So am I.”
Richard is staring silently at the screen, watching himself, emotions buried but threatening to break on the surface. There’s something there, he remembers it being there even if video tape and several thousand miles have mellowed it. That said, he doesn’t have a clue what to do about it except it seems to make him want to drive very quickly. He’s gone by the time Jeremy and James return, hoping a race to nowhere will make it go away.
Instead, he pulls over when he realises he’s gripping the wheel too tightly to do anything but turn jerkily around corners. The scene recurs in his head, so intensely that even the bright shaft of sun in his eyes fails to break into it.
Why did I read so much into it? Why was I…
he doesn’t want to use the word scared because somehow that’s maybe too close to the truth
… concerned what was on that tape? Sure, it was touching… but hardly a bombshell. You were tired, he rationalises. Made it seem closer, more acute than it was. You were both stressed to hell. That’s all.
When he drives on, it’s with a sense of something that feels, unfathomably, like disappointment.
James, for once, is first off the mark. He works it out while he’s putting his underpants in the washing machine, around 11 am in the morning. “Sometimes,” says the man on radio 4, “men have to have a barrier between them before they can open up...” James laughs a little at that, closes the door on his pants.
“Hello pants,” he says, through the door. “This is me, opening up through the…” he taps the glass, “whatever you call this see through bit.… Oh.”
He thinks about it for a minute.
“Cock,” he says, quietly.
The irony isn’t lost on him.
It’s a very, very snowy day just after New Year, when Richard’s phone rings.
“Richard, it’s James.”
“Yes, I know, when you ring your name comes up on the phone, it’s a dead giveaway.”
“Oh,” a pause. “I hope you’re not driving.” Another pause, “because that’s dangerous, looking at your phone and driving. Particularly in this weather.”
“Well no, I’m not. I’m parked in ASDA car park hoping no one from Morrisons sees me. Did you call for a reason or just to talk road safety?”
“Do you want some free beer?”
Richard is aware his face takes on a mask of suspicion. “What’s the catch?”
“It’s proper beer, at a Winter Beer festival. I have tickets.”
“Is Jezza going?”
“No, he said something about it being full of sweaty pies and stodgy bikers and he’d give it a miss. Actually, that might have been the other way round, the pies and bikers thing.”
“Okay,” Richard says, before he can stop himself.
“I haven’t told you when it is yet,” James comments. Richard recognises the verbal equivalent of the suspicious face he knows he was just pulling.
“Well provided I’m not busy,” Richard covers.
“Saturday,” James says.
“I’ll have to… er... check my diary.”
“You don’t know if you are busy this Saturday?”
“Gotta go mate, there’s a man from Morrisons….”
Why am I doing this?
Richard stands in a line behind a stodgy biker, his hand wrapped around a pint glass that’s already showing signs of one too many. James rumbles enthusiastically and too knowledgeably about the hops, and all Richard can do is wonder just why the hell he’d never thought just how –nice- James’ voice sounded before that moment.
Oh God, why am I thinking like this? It must be the beer. More beer! More beer will sort it out. And besides, he’s a presenter; it’s good to have a nice voice, if you’re a presenter. Even Jeremy’s got a … well... okay maybe not…
He hands his glass over and chooses the most ridiculously sounding ale he can.
“You don’t want that one,” James says, amiably.
“Because it tastes like shit,” he says. The bartender glowers a bit. “In my opinion,” James adds.
“But… it’s got a funny name,” Richard says, in his defence. “And to be fair, I can’t taste bugger all difference between them anyway.”
He drinks the thick, dark drink in one, largely because at the first sniff he knows James is completely right about it. “There, yum,” he adds.
James looks at him, somewhat expectantly.
“If you’re waiting for me to throw up, it won’t happen.”
“Give me your glass and let me get you a proper drink,” James says.
Why am I doing this?
James looks over at Richard, who has found a table and is making a passable impression of being half sober in the face of the inevitable autograph seekers. He has a grin on his face at least. James personally wants to tell them to piss off, can’t he just have a night out with his mate?
It’s not as if he actually likes the beer. And he only drinks like that if he has something to prove. What’s he trying to prove? What am I trying to make him prove?
The thought that he, James, might be in someway responsible for Richard downing a 9 % porter just because he’d had a personal revelation doesn’t sit easily. You are too old to be playing this kind of silly game, he thinks, as he sits down at the table and hands over a much more sensible but still nicely hoppy pale ale.
“Is there anything you’d recommend, if you don’t mind me asking?” says one of the autograph hunters, who at least has the decency to be using the beer guide properly.
For that, and because James thinks he should be encouraging more young people to drink proper drinks, he doesn’t tell them to bugger off. Instead he smiles, and asks how big a hangover they’d like the following morning. They giggle a bit, listen to his suggestions, and have the good grace to leave them alone.
“This one,” says Richard, pushing his half empty glass in James’ direction, “is actually nice.” He’s wonderfully on the cusp of silliness, a slight I’m a bit drunk in his voice. James thinks it’s adorable.
“That one,” says James, “comes from a small microbrewery just outside Stourbridge. I thought you might get along with it. It’s got a surprisingly full but gentle…” he stops, because this isn’t a wine programme. “Do you like it?”
“I’m not planning on a relationship with it,” says Richard. “Might sleep with it, though, see how it goes.”
There has to be, James thinks, a thousand and one artful, witty, suggestive and subtle retorts to that statement.
He can’t think of a single one. He just smiles into his pint.
The moment comes for Richard, not with pants, but somewhat after kicking out time.
He’s leaning up against a wall, trying to decide if he feels sick or not, because the world is spinning and his legs are certainly rebelling at this point. There’s a gentle but unexpected touch on his shoulder, and when he looks up, James is looking at him. Not just looking, because James looks at him all the time so that’s hardly new. No, he’s really looking at him.
“You all right?” James says.
“You… bought me to the place with all the beer in the first place,” Richard says, pointing mock-accusingly.
“Didn’t think you were going to down a pint of porter though, did I, you daft bastard.”
He’s…. all concerned. That’s nice. Richard thinks. No, that’s really nice. He’s even touched me… which is also nice. Actually… he remembers clutching a radio, in the dark, a long way away. Longer ago, before this, he remembers a familiar voice drifting in and out of coma dreams. Actually, I don’t want him to stop.
Shit. I think I’m… I have… something... for James
“Man contact!” Richard squeaks, stealing Jeremy’s phrase because if he was here he would have said it for him.
James drops his hand away as if he’s been burned. “Right, sorry.”
I didn’t mean, Richard thinks, but he can’t find a way to say it that doesn’t sound wrong, I didn’t want you to…
“Taxi!” James shouts, and flags down a black cab.
Reluctantly, Richard sobers himself up enough to convince the cabby he’s not a liability, and climbs in next to James, who is looking distractedly out of the window. The fact James has now gone from looking at him, to pointedly not looking at him hurts like hell.
This… James thinks, is exactly why I don’t do people.
He kicks the cupboard under the sink, slops milk into tea, can’t quite resist slamming the fridge door.
Now there’s a hole in me. That’s what happens, when you touch, give bits of yourself away, you leave holes. Did I really think…
“You all right?” James is surprised to hear Richard’s voice from the couch.
James had left him there (curled up under a duvet and an opportunistic cat) and gone to bed half an hour ago. After staring at the curtains for some time, James had realised he wasn’t going to be able to get to sleep without a cup of tea.
“There was banging.”
“Loose cupboard. Thought you were asleep. Do you want tea?”
“Two sugars please.”
“Give me a minute.”
“James….” His name is left hanging there, as he gets another cup, rinses it, re-boils the kettle. “Are you really all right?”
No, he thinks. I’m not bloody all right. I let myself worry about you and you, unsurprisingly, laughed it off. “Yes.”
“Only, you don’t usually kick things….”
“Shut up, Hammond.”
“Have I pissed you off?”
“Do you want to drink this tea or take it externally?” James says, on his way out of the kitchen. “I will throw it at you, but then I’ll have to clean the sofa too and I’ll get cross.”
Richard sits up, looking much closer to sober than he had just half an hour before. “ I have pissed you off, haven’t I?”
“No,” says James, firmly. I have pissed myself off over you, but that’s a different thing altogether. “Drink your tea.”
Richard sips at the tea (James has forgotten to put the sugar in it, but, never mind that) wondering if there’s enough drink left in him to excuse what he is about to say. He doubts it.
I should stop waiting, he thinks. James isn’t going to move first, because either he already has or he never will.
“It’s still with me,” he says, softly. So softly he wonders if James hasn’t heard, else has no idea what he’s talking about. “What you said, in Bolivia.”
James glances at him, about to speak. Richard doesn’t give him the chance.
“I think maybe my head has re-arranged it though. You know, it still does that sometimes. So I have to ask something.”
“Yes?” James prompts.
“I need to know if it’s just me that keeps remembering… If it’s just me that’s imagined something else…”
“What kind of something?”
“That’ll be a no then.” Richard suddenly feels slightly sick and suspects it isn’t the beer. “So, moving swiftly on.”
“It’s not a no. It’s an I need more than that to go on.”
“I don’t have any more than that.”
“You must have an idea.”
“If I did, I wouldn’t have said ‘something’. Let’s just forget I said a word.” He’s embarrassed now, but he James isn’t going to let this drop.
“What kind of thing… did you want it to be?”
Richard contains the shiver that starts when James asks him that, looks down into his mug of tea and swirls it. “A close thing,” he says.
“Close like mates who’ve been through some utter shit together kind of thing?”
“No,” says Richard, fighting hard to stop his voice giving out, “closer than that.”
He’s still staring into the mug of tea when James moves, and sits beside him. Not right next to him, but definitely closer than he needs to be. It’s like a rush of heat to his skin. When Richard turns his head, James is focusing on the grain of the table.
“There may,” says James, slowly, “have been a something a bit like that. Yes.” He looks up. Richard catches his eyes.
“James…” Richard doesn’t know if he’s trembling or if it’s just that his heart is racing so fast. Don’t let me be wrong. Don’t let me be wrong about this. Don’t let Jeremy leap out of the cupboard with a microphone and a demand for hush money.
“I think I want you to kiss me.” There, the words are out and it was surprisingly easy.
James eyes search Richard’s face. “I’m not very good at kissing blokes.”
“Don’t care.” Don’t care, don’t care if it’s the worst snog in the history of bad snogs, James. I just want that feeling back.
James’ hand brushes the side of Richard’s face, tipping his jaw up as James leans down. “Promise me…” James says, his lips so close now Richard can feel the warm breath against his mouth, “that you aren’t still drunk.”
“Mate,” says Richard, his hand pressing against James’ shoulder and curling up round the soft fabric of his shirt. He suspects that plea is going to stay with him for a bit, too.
He makes James look at him so there can be no doubt.
I’m not cocking about, not about this, not here. “I promise you, I’m not.”
As James finally, wonderfully, kisses him, Richard realises he hasn’t a clue where to put his hands and settles for on James somewhere. James is clumsy, inexpert and awkward, all teeth and tongue and the taste of tea, testing the edges of Richard’s mouth with debateable accuracy. More than once there’s a collision of nose with nose or nose with jaw.
It doesn’t matter though.
It’s something close.