Chapter Eighteen

Giles hugged the blueberry bush container with both arms, the leaves tickling his nose and obscuring his vision. He couldn’t see where to put his feet, but relied on a lifetime’s acquaintance with the path around the side of the house to avoid the cracked paving slabs. Who’d have thought a plant could be this heavy? It felt like the container was full of rocks, although perhaps it was just sodden. Giles was uncomfortably aware of a growing damp patch on the front of his T-shirt.

As he rounded the corner to the back garden, he almost bumped straight into Rick, returning with the wheelbarrow.

“You shouldn’t be doing that, Mr Rathbourne,” Rick chided. “You’ll put your back out. Let me.”

Rick took the weight of the pot and Giles’ shoulders gave a sigh of relief. He helped Rick place it into the wheelbarrow then straightened up. A chill wind ruffled Rick’s hair and made Giles shiver as it insinuated itself through his clothing.

“This must be the last one,” Rick said. “I’ll be off in a minute, then.”

“Yes, of course. I’ve kept you long enough. I expect you’re keen to get back to your colleagues.”

“Yeah,” Rick blushed, looking every inch the gawky teenager. “D’you think I should ask Dylan out for a drink after work. Can’t hurt, can it? Not if it’s just as mates to begin with.”

It was on the tip of Giles’ tongue to say that in his experience, love could end up hurting you worse than anything else, but he bit back the words. Rick reminded him of an over-eager puppy, and Giles didn’t have it in him to deliver a kick to the teeth. He gave his encouragement and smiled through a polite goodbye instead, then turned towards the back of the house.

The breakfast room doors swung in the wind. What the hell were they doing open? Giles stomped over to shut them, trying not to think about what he might see inside. Whatever was going on between Smutty and Fabian, it was bound to cause hurt to the man he loved, and possibly even worse hurt to Giles.

But the room was empty. Giles slammed the doors shut and rested his head against the glass. Every breath tore from his chest with a sickening pain. There was only one place he could think of where they’d have gone.

The boat.

Smutty had said he’d needed to talk to Fabian. Talking. That’s all it was. Giles clung to that thought, but doubt dug its claws into his back.

As he turned to face the orchard path, the first drops of rain fell. Ice cold and driven with the force of the wind, they stung Giles’ face as they hit. It wasn’t until he saw tiny chips of ice bouncing off the pathway that he realised they were hailstones.

He could walk down there and find out what was really going on for himself, but wasn’t it better not to know? Better to seek oblivion in a bottle or two of claret. Or perhaps a pinot noir to match his black mood.

Giles swung towards the kitchen door, fully intending to follow through on that thought, when a memory hit. Smutty, sitting on a tatty old camping chair and spitting out a mouthful of wine in disgust. He heard the glugging of the bottle he emptied onto the grass; felt it growing lighter in his hand as the liquid fed the earth. That had been the last bottle he’d opened. Smutty’s abstinence probably wouldn’t have been enough to dissuade him on its own, but combined with his tale of being tricked and raped by drunkards… Well, Giles would have to be as cold-hearted as Fabian to go on drinking around Smutty.

And Giles wasn’t like that.

Smutty deserved better, and he had Giles on his side, whether he needed him or not. There’s no way Giles was going to leave him at the mercy of his lying, cheating bastard of an ex.

There’s no way he was going to let him go without a fight.

Giles squared his shoulders and headed out through the meadow. He took the direct route through the long grass, ignoring the mown path’s meanderings. Stems flattened underfoot. Twigs snapped from branches as he battered his way through the trees. Hailstones bounced off his head, unheeded.

A flickering light ahead caught his attention. Giles drew in a breath. The cloying tang of paraffin and burning wood caught in his throat. Surely Smutty wasn’t fire-dancing in this weather?

The flames flared brighter, too bright for Smutty’s torches, and a dull boom battered his eardrums.

Giles began to run.

***

Smutty’s eyes stung so sharply he couldn’t keep them open, but that hardly mattered as his vision was greying out around the edges anyway. He shut off the smoke-hazed image of Finn struggling to open the bolt on the door. It had always been obstinate. Should have put some WD40 on that, shouldn’t he?

Should have bought a fire extinguisher when he’d noticed Grouch hadn’t left him one.

Too late now, though.

Smutty laughed mirthlessly, but all that came out was a desperate wheeze. His ribs still ached from where Finn had decked him, but who cared about a little pain when he couldn’t breathe?

Every attempted gasp for air ended with Smutty choking on thick, oily smoke. He should drop to the floor for the cleaner air, he knew, although how he’d get up again was anyone’s guess. Felt like his knees were about to make the decision for him, though.

They buckled. Smutty swayed. Toppled.

Pain struck him in the side of the head, ricocheting around inside his skull.

Everything went black.

***

Smoke poured from the blazing boat, sending up thick black clouds soon swallowed up by the storm. Flames licked out of a hole halfway along Freya’s side, and she listed alarmingly, but Giles didn’t spare her condition any more attention than a cursory glance.

His eyes desperately scanned for movement on the bank as his feet pounded on the ground, crunching hailstones to powder. Where the hell was Smutty?

The doors on the front deck burst open, releasing a dense cloud of smoke. The flames roared fiercely in response, eating up more of Freya’s roof.

A lone figure emerged, soot blackened and coughing. Not Smutty. The size and shape was all wrong.

Giles vaulted onto the boat without breaking his stride. He grabbed Fabian around the waist and hurled him onto the bank, then turned to the door.

Heat blasted his face, singing his eyebrows.

Instinct took over. Giles ripped off his hail-dampened shirt to cover his mouth and nose, then plunged into the fires of hell.

Giles almost tripped over something on the floor. A heavy, inert something. He dropped to his knees and felt his way around, eyes closed against the acrid smoke.

A warm, pliant body, lying in an inch of cold water.

Smutty.

His chest was still.

Tears stung Giles’ eyes and a sob ripped from him. He dropped his shirt to use both arms to heave Smutty up. He closed his lungs against the toxic smoke. No breathing now. Not until he reached the outside. Giles staggered, blinking wildly.

Where the fuck was the door?

Orange lay ahead, so he turned, seeking the paler light of day. There it was. Giles twisted, protecting Smutty’s head from cracking against the doorframe, but whacking his own shoulder instead. He reeled, careened, then felt cooler air damp against his skin.

He drew in great, ragged lungfuls of air between coughs. There were only a couple of feet between him and the safety of land, but each step felt like running a marathon. Setting his foot onto the gunwales and heaving himself up was like climbing a mountain, weighed down with a leaden burden.

But then arms were helping him, a voice issuing commands, and he released his hold on everything he loved.

“Come on, we need to move back to the trees. There might be another explosion.”

Giles vaguely recognised the voice so he followed it through the gloom. Numbness had invaded his mind and body, turning his limbs to clay and his thoughts to mud.

Smutty couldn’t be… could he?

Giles stumbled over a tree root and landed painfully. He wanted to lie there. To sleep forever. To never feel again. But someone was calling for him with a hoarse voice.

“Giles? Are you okay? Speak to me!”

Giles opened his mouth and something came out. It sounded desolate, but it seemed to satisfy the owner of the voice. Fabian.

“Yes, he’s conscious,” Fabian continued. “The other casualty is being given CPR… Yeah, Rick seems to know what he’s doing. Says he has a qualification… Hold on, I’ll check.”

Giles cracked his eyes open to see Fabian striding away from him, mobile phone clamped to his ear. He looked like some kind of chimney sweep, soot blackened and tattered. Fabian dropped to his knees beside something, only a few yards away. A dark shape on the ground. With a red-headed figure kneeling beside it and pushing down rhythmically using both hands.

Giles’ heart tore.

He crawled, heedless of the cold rain now dripping through the shelter of the trees onto his naked back. He had to be there. To see. To touch. To try and beat Fate just this once.

As he reached them Rick ceased his compressions and tilted Smutty’s head back. Giles watched as he pinched Smutty’s nose, sealing his lips over those unresponsive ones.

“Stay,” Giles rasped, clutching at Smutty’s hand and clasping it to his heart, is if he could transmit his own life force into that limp body. “Stay with me. Please, please stay!”

Smutty’s chest rose with Rick’s first breath, then deflated.

“Smutty! I need you to stay. P-please don’t leave me. I need you– I love you–”

Smutty’s chest rose again as Rick blew into his mouth. It took forever. Long enough for Giles to babble out his undying love and a thousand sincere promises for the future.

“I’ll even help you with the vegetable garden, I prom–”

Smutty coughed, his body jerking.

Relief flooded Giles. He reached out with greedy arms, knocking Rick aside and pulling Smutty against his chest.

“Thank you! Oh, thank you, oh God, I can’t believe I nearly lost you.”

Smutty’s breaths came in choking sobs, but as Giles ran gentle hands up and down his back, he gradually calmed.

Giles kissed the top of his head reverently.

Smutty opened his eyes and tilted his head back. His face was smeared with black, making his eyes gleam brighter than ever.

“Hey,” he whispered. “Did you mean all that?”

“All what?”

Smutty coughed again, but recovered and smiled. “About the gardening. Loving me. Everything.”

“You heard that? But you were…”

“I heard it. Followed your voice back, didn’t I?”

Giles grinned, his heart straining under the pressure of so much love.

“I meant every word of it.”

“Good. Coz my boat’s buggered. Think I’ll be staying here after all.” Smutty smiled softly and laced his fingers through Giles’.

“That your only reason?” Giles asked, trying to keep his voice even but failing miserably.

Smutty chuckled, coughed, and leaned his head against Giles’ chest. “There’s this landowner I’ve fallen for, too.”

They sat together, watching Freya burn like a Viking funeral pyre, immolating the past’s hold over them both. Reducing their fears of committment to flakes of ash, dancing on the wind.

Sirens cut through the air.

***

Epilogue

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