A lone man jogged through the streets of London, winding through the early-morning traffic, his strides easy and sure as he took his time.
Liam didn't push himself these days, not anymore, not since he'd learned where his job was taking him: A Sergeant's position, but at a desk. Off the streets. Away from Nicholas. It sounded like a nightmare more than anything else, but he couldn't appeal the decision without blowing their cover on so many levels.
The trail on Derek Seward had grown cold since their close encounter with Horace Skinner two years prior, and all relations with the London underground had been strained as well, to say the least. On top of that, Liam's public popularity had pushed him away from Nicholas, who was viewed as superior in the field but less marketable, and the Met was suddenly in need of a new PR rep.
Liam fit the bill perfectly. Plus, Evan Barclay, who'd since been promoted to Inspector, wanted to keep Liam close. He'd taken to mentoring Nash toward his Sergeantship, at times even denying his requests to go out on patrol with Nicholas. Their private lives became more stressful as Nicholas picked up a new girlfriend to keep suspicions low, and Liam went out partying with his friends on the weekends, the two of them forced to squeeze in a quick kiss or a heated look behind closed doors, sometimes even at work, which had almost gotten them caught twice already.
And then there was the internship problem…
Two of the new interns, finishing school kids on the fast-track to the precinct, had just been accepted at Constabulary positions, and Liam was expected to tutor one of them almost immediately. That would leave him no free time whatsoever for Nick, which didn't matter half the time, as Nicholas's new girlfriend was all over him like a bad sun burn.
Thinking about sun burns all over Nicholas didn't help his mood that morning. Nor did running into Nicholas ten minutes later at the front door, both of them just finishing their runs.
"G'morning, Nick," Liam panted, catching his breath as they leaned against the wall outside. "How's things with…um…Paula?"
"Paulette," Nicholas corrected, shooting him a quick look before rolling his eyes.
The two of them shared a terse laugh before Nicholas pushed off the wall, motioning for Liam to follow. After they were half a block away, Nicholas began to talk, his voice barely above a whisper, his tone level.
"They're taking the case," Nicholas said, hearing Liam gasp beside him, "And I doubt it's coincidental."
"Putting me on the desk and taking the case," Liam sighed. "It does sound like a plot, doesn't it?"
"Next thing you know, people will start to disappear," Nicholas said, barely allowing a smile.
"You better watch out, then," Liam replied, his voice a bit too urgent, "And me too, I suppose, if they're really looking to bury this."
"It's not that," Nicholas interrupted, shaking his head imperceptibly. "It's gone to the next level. National shite, MI5, something about terrorism in the UK, related to Al Qaeda possibly. It doesn't sound like Derek at all, but then again it's been almost ten years since I saw him last."
Without thinking, Liam allowed his fingers to brush against Nicholas's between them, looking pointedly at the ground as Nicholas pretended to not notice the contact.
"I'm still here," Liam murmured, feeling Nicholas tense his fingers around Liam's. "I've just moved a little, that's all. But I'm still here, Nick."
"I know," Nicholas replied with a sigh, "But it's not the same."
"I'll make sure you're not forced with another partner if you want," Liam offered hurriedly. They both knew what he really meant: Nobody could replace Liam, and if they tried, it'd be disastrous.
"You're the one who really deserves this," Liam said after another pregnant moment of silence. "I mean, you've worked harder, and accomplished more, and everyone knows you're the better officer-"
"Liam, we're not having this conversation again," Nicholas said, raising his voice a little, so that one or two passerby did turn and look. Nicholas glanced around warily before continuing, "We both know that you've done a bang-up job, Liam. If I'd been more of a brown-noser -- And I'm not saying you are, babe -- Then I'd have gotten a position, maybe, yeah. But people like you, and I'm not concerned with making friends, so in that respect, you do deserve it more. You've a more rounded portfolio than I do."
They were quiet again as they turned off the main street and strolled pointlessly around, looking for a nonexistent secluded spot, for perhaps one last rendezvous before their lives changed irrevocably. In a blind spot between a metal barrier and a high stone wall, Nicholas pinned Liam to the wall and melded their lips together, silencing their cries and brushing away tears, their bodies flush together as they enjoyed their last few moments as partners, and in more senses of the term than anyone knew.
"Congratulations, Sergeant," Evan smiled, clapping Liam on the shoulder.
They were dressed in full uniform, awaiting the official ceremony and appointment in the conference hall upstairs, standing in the main lobby after a short public press meeting. A large portion of the Met staff had come out to wish him well, and though he scoured the crowd, he didn't see Nicholas anywhere.
He pressed thoughtfully at his breast bone; an intriguingly-shaped silver key hung on a chain, concealed beneath his uniform, that Nicholas had given him that morning.
"It was my mum's," Nicholas murmurs, reaching around Liam's neck to fasten the clasp. He fiddles with the collar of Liam's shirt, slipping the key and chain beneath his lover's jumper. "It means my door is always open to you. My hea- I'll always be here for you, even if…no matter what."
Liam rubs the key through his shirt; it's a beautiful charm, a heartfelt memento, and he can't help but start to cry again.
"We can't be…after this," Liam infers, looking longingly into Nicholas's eyes, willing this to just be a nightmare. "We'll never have what we had, will we?"
Nicholas swallows hard, shifting uncomfortably, and when he meets Liam's gaze again, his eyes are going cold. Reaching up, he cups Liam's cheek gently for the last time. Their lips meet briefly, bitterly, and this time they both pull away.
"We never had anything," Nicholas whispers.
"No," Liam affirms, getting the drift as he turns away, "I guess not."
They should walk away now, they mean to, need to. They have to walk to the station and pretend they're coworkers and nothing more and never mean anything more to one another again. Tense, coy, witty with one another, but nothing more.
Nicholas's hand moves of its own accord, and when Liam turns to rebuke him for the inappropriate contact, they both have tears in their eyes.
"I love you," Nicholas breaths. "I lo-"
Liam crashes against him, hands clinging desperately to Nicholas's shoulders, feeling his lover's arms around his waist, their mouths working fiercely against one another, suffocating their sobs with the desperation of the kiss.
"I know. I know, I love you, Nicky-" Liam whispers between hiccoughs and kisses. "No matter what."
"We can't," Nicholas finishes, his frame shuddering as he exhales. He sniffles, wipes angrily at his tears, and places his open palm on Liam's chest, covering the spot where the key rests against Liam's skin. "But we can remember."
"Are you feeling alright, Liam?" Evan asked, looking inquisitively at Liam, whose face was contorted in a heavy grimace.
"Oh…oh, yes, thanks, I'm fine," Liam replied, blinking rapidly and forcing a smile. "Bit of a stomach ache, I'm afraid. Nerves, you know."
"You've no blody fucking clue," Liam thought bitterly. "Or else you'd have left me with Nick. Irksome prat…"
"Ah, Sergeant Nash!" Chief Inspector Kincaid called suddenly, appearing out of the blue and clapping Liam on the shoulder. "Ready for your big moment?"
"Umm…yes, Chief Inspector," Liam said nervously, shying away from Kincaid as the senior officer pressed his hand heavily against Liam's arm.
"Please, call me Kenneth," the Chief smiled, winking at him. "You know, Sergeant, you should come to dinner this weekend. My wife is a terrific cook, and I'd be delighted to introduce you to my daughter."
"Th-thank you, sir- I mean, Kenneth, sir," Liam stuttered, the Chief laughing dryly before turning to address someone among the crowd.
"Don't mind Kenneth," Evan said, supplying Liam with a line of conversation. "He's been trying to show off his daughter ever since she got accepted at MI5. She's quite attractive, but he'd never let any man take her; one of six children and the only girl. She's cursed, really. Anyway, Liam, you'd do well to collect your thoughts. What's eating you, anyway?"
"FIRE!" shouted a familiar, high-pitched voice with a Scottish accent, before a water balloon collided with the back of Evan's head.
Duncan and Adrian came skidding into the crowd, followed closely by Kels and Rory, the four of them pelting the room with watery projectiles, several other Constables whipping out similar weapons and turning on their fellows. General, good-natured chaos erupted, silly laughter echoing against the high metallic ceiling.
"Congratulations, Sergeant!" Kels cheered, trapping Liam's head and giving him a noogy.
"Fecking cheat!" Duncan giggled, "Should've gone te' Adrian or me-self, y'know, mate. Ye're not te' make too much of yourself, or we'll jus' have te' knock ye'down a bit, yeah?"
"Oi, Duncan, sod off!" Adrian laughed, grabbing Duncan around the waist and squeezing him, tickling him until Duncan cried.
Liam felt a pang of jealousy; it was a thinly-veiled secret, the relationship between Adrian and Duncan, the two Constables content to stay as such or else be promoted together. They were devoted to one another. He and Nicholas, though…No matter how much he said he loved him, Nicholas couldn't let go of the job enough to really love Liam, and while Liam had always said he was fine with it, and he understood Nicholas had loved him more than anyone else previously, he didn't love him enough.
It wasn't enough. And Liam didn't want to wait forever for half a love that would never be whole.
"Sergeant Nash," Constable Angel acknowledged, passing Liam in the locker room two weeks later.
"Constable," Liam responded curtly, yanking his jumper over his head and tossing it into his locker. He wasn't used to all this sitting, and found himself going for runs during his lunch break instead of taking meals with the senior officers as Evan had requested.
"You seem to be taking well to your new position, if I may say, sir," Angel commented, his eyes fixed dead ahead as he reached into his own locker for a dark blue T-shirt.
Liam shot him a surreptitious glare; he'd become his old self, cold and distant, in a matter of days, and Liam was quickly seeing what it was that made the other officers despise him so. He quickly decided he wasn't going to let Nicholas get to him, though, and made his move accordingly.
"You know, Constable," Liam said silkily, taking a page out of Evan's book; he'd actually learned quite a good deal of useful tricks from the Inspector during their short time together. He slid across the locker room, nearly on top of Nicholas before the other officer could react. Their bodies were close, both of them topless, but while Nicholas seemed totally taken off-guard, Liam had perfect mastery over his actions and knew every move he was about to make.
He leaned against the locker beside Nicholas's, shamelessly looking Nicholas up and down, recognizing the look in Nicholas's eyes from months before. Bedroom eyes, he'd joked back then. His eyes were the most expressive part of his body, and no matter how good Nicholas got at controlling the rest of his body, those gorgeous eyes of his would always give him away. Now they were telling him how much Nicholas still wanted him, the layers he'd built quickly over the last two weeks proving to be weak and flimsy, falling away readily at the first advance.
"I'd say I'm taking to it perfectly," Liam replied, waggling his eyebrows before clapping Nicholas amiably on the shoulder and turning away.
He'd jerk Nicholas along. But that was all.
A hand was on his arm unexpectedly, yanking him back, spinning him around, slamming him against the cold metallic bank of lockers. Nicholas glared ferociously down at him, his grip tightening until Liam was sure he'd have a perfect set of Nicholas's prints left on his arm for CID to identify his killer with.
"What-the-FUCK??!?" Nicholas spat, giving Liam a quick shake that made his head slam against the lockers. "What the FUCK are you doing?"
"I could ask you the same thing, Constable," Liam smiled condescendingly, trying to shake Nicholas's grip as he tried to rub the back of his head.
"Don't fuck around with me, Sergeant," Nicholas growled. A look of exhaustion passed over Nicholas's face, and a moment later, he shoved Liam away from him, turned away, grabbed his shirt from where it had fallen to the floor.
"…M'sorry," Liam whispered, shaken to the core. He'd been coy with Nicholas before, nearly every day really, but this was the first time he'd carried it into a one-on-one setting. Apparently, he'd need to eliminate such encounters, even if it meant staying later to get the locker room to himself.
He went back to his locker, shoving the last of his things inside and grabbing for his shirt and bag. Tossing the napsack on the bench, he was about to pull the jumper over his head when a familiar hand caught his arm again.
Whipping his head around, he saw Nicholas standing calmly beside him, a sneaky grin on his face that he'd not seen for some time.
"You're still wearing it," Nicholas murmured, his eyes flicking to Liam's chest.
The key still hung on its silver chain around Liam's neck. He actually never took it off, save when he showered. He didn't want to tarnish it, after all.
"I intend to keep wearing it," Liam replied, refusing to meet Nicholas's eyes. "If it's all the same to you, Constable-"
"Nicholas," Nicholas cut him off.
Their eyes met, Liam's filled with confusion and surprise, Nicholas's warm and reserved. They stood in silence, regarding one another calmly, letting the distant sounds of the station fill the void.
"It is my name, after all…Liam…" Nicholas finally said softly, his smile growing for a moment.
"Alright, then," Liam responded, grinning in return. "That's fine…Nicholas."
"What's she like?" Liam asked. Nearly four months since his promotion, he and Nicholas were sitting in the cafeteria with Rory and Duncan, the four of them having randomly met in the queue, preferring to dodge the rain and tolerate the horrible food on-site.
"She's a CSI," Nicholas replied, popping a cherry tomato in his mouth and chewing thoughtfully.
"I imagine she has breasts?" Duncan inquired, earning a jab in the ribs from Rory.
"Yes, Bathe, she does," Nicholas sighed, rolling his eyes in exasperation, though somewhat in jest as well.
"Like Duncan would know anything about that," Rory added, Nicholas and Liam sniggering as Duncan made a face and pretended to cop a feel off Stetson. Rory gave an indignant squeak, pretending to enjoy it, before shoving Duncan away, much to everyone's amusement.
"We're actually living together now," Nicholas divulged, a bit more open than usual. Sometimes he was receptive to company, and today was a particularly good day for him; the weather was horrible, and most of the hard-core criminals seemed to be taking a break, so everything was going smoothly.
"So are you at your place or Janine's now?" Liam asked. He remembered Nicholas's apartment quite well, having lived in it for a time himself, and felt an odd pang in his gut at the thought of a woman sharing that bed…
"Oh no, her place was much better," Nicholas replied hastily. He recognized the look on Liam's face, because he felt it vaguely mirrored in his own heart. That was why he'd gotten rid of the bed, telling Janine the upstairs neighbors had flooded their bathroom and ruined his mattress, and also why it seemed such a better idea for him to go there as opposed to the other way around.
Having her at his place would open too many wounds.
A loud, urgent chirping cut into the conversation, and Nicholas excused himself quickly, leaving his half-eaten lunch behind; when you got a call, you had no choice but to respond.
"And how're things coming with you these days, Sergeant?" Rory asked, tossing one of Nicholas's forgotten tomatoes at Liam's head.
"Oh, fairly well," Liam replied cheerfully, catching the projectile and popping it in his mouth. "Grace and I are going on holiday with her family next month. Japan of all places, can you believe it? She's even got me learning Japanese, just for the trip!"
"Have you told Nicholas yet?" Duncan asked, peering thoughtfully at Liam through his long eyelashes.
Liam swallowed a mouthful of soup too quickly, burning his throat. He'd confided in Duncan once, right around the break-up, knowing the officer would be understanding at least. He'd been better than that, and since then they'd been nearly inseparable, especially with Adrian's promotion upcoming and Duncan desperate for a loophole to keep the two of them together. That at least was something Liam could manage.
"No, he doesn't," Liam grumbled, coughing fitfully into his napkin. "I don't see why he should, either."
"S'true," Rory pointed out. "I mean, we practically have to drag details on Janine out of him. Although, my friend Bob Wallace says he knows her, too. I'm meeting him for drinks tomorrow night at Blackfriar's, so if you lads are interested, he might bring her along."
"God knows Nicholas will never be there," Duncan joked. "I've never known anyone to have such an aversion to the drink."
Liam grinned half-heartedly as the other two had a good laugh. There was no need for him to tell them about Nicholas's past, his fears, his convictions and morals that he'd spilled nervously to Liam until familiarity and comfort loosed a torrent that neither of them could handle. They'd shared everything it seemed, heart and soul, so while Liam could have told Rory and Duncan all sorts of stories and anecdotes as to how and why Nicholas came to feel so about drinking, he instead chose to revel in the memory of his own ascertaining.
He liked to remember Nicholas that way, not as the man who sat ceremony in his office for reviews now and again, and tolerated his presence at best from time to time. He chose to remember him as Nick, propped up in bed with a book open on his chest, surrounded by downy-soft, white sheets, exuding warmth and strength that always made Liam feel so at peace, curled against him in sleep.
Now there was Grace, though, blonde and beautiful and ever so clever. She was cold and stoic on the streets, every bit as professional and hard-nosed as Nicholas used to be, but when she met him at the door to the apartment they also had only begun to share, she was warmth and laughter and a thousand kinds of happiness Liam had somehow forgotten since Nicholas left. Kenneth had told him once that he was the only one who could make her laugh.
Yet he'd been careful to never let her meet Nicholas. He had a funny feeling, a niggling fear, really, that the two of them would click, and he couldn't stand the idea of losing a lover to one he'd already lost.
He loved her too much to let her go.
"I'll kill him."
"No, I mean it!"
"Liam, calm down. Sit down, you're making my head ache with all this damned pacing. SIT!"
He fell heavily onto the couch beside Grace, her hand immediately grabbing his off the cushion between them, her thumb rubbing his knuckles soothingly.
"When did he-"
"He doesn't know me," Grace interrupted. "He wanted the case, and I backed Audrey up. He doesn't know you and I…"
Grace and her partner, Audrey DeLane, were the MI5 team awarded the Seward case. Funny how things seemed to fall in place for Liam. It was like he was chasing the case, or it was chasing him, from one muddled relationship to another.
Except Nicholas had encountered Audrey, and thereby Grace. Purposely. In order to pick a fight over her capability to handle the case efficiently. To her credit, she'd socked him in the jaw, leaving a faint gray-green mark, which had lead nearly half the staff at the station to inquire about his arrests for the day.
When everyone learned he'd been hit by a girl, it was the end of his machismo for a while, to say the least.
"Why're you taking this so seriously?" Grace asked, inching closer and placing a comforting hand against Liam's cheek.
Sighing, he turned his face and kissed her palm, before taking both her hands in his.
"Babe, there's something you need to know…about Nicholas and I…"
Christmas came, the holidays flew by, and soon it was spring again. Six months had come and gone since Liam's promotion, and he and Grace were finally settled in their apartment. Janine and Nicholas were also doing well, and while Nicholas seemed less than happy at times, he was as stable as could be expected for him. Adrian and Duncan remained partners both professionally and privately, despite their different rankings, thanks to some heavy footwork on Liam's part; it helped he was dating Kenneth's daughter, a fact which he was still hiding from Nicholas.
From time to time, though, Nicholas and Liam would find themselves alone together, and they would feel compelled to talk. Nicholas would inevitably ask about the necklace, and Liam would always oblige him with a peek.
Sometimes it would be more than that. Sometimes they would spend the night somewhere. Together.
No matter what, though, they always stayed professional at work. Liam would play at him, dropping hints and jerking him along, and Nicholas would remain as exasperated and blasé toward him as possible. He was close with all his other friends, Kels and Duncan and Adrian and Rory and Wakeman, and the lot of them would on occasion encourage some socializing out of Nicholas. They put on a show, whether the world caught on or not.
There was word of terrorist cells in England, hidden out in the Shire counties, making their way to power in a way that the centralized government and law-enforcement agencies would never be able to catch until it was too late. They'd begun outsourcing people and jobs, hoping a wider coverage base would lead to early detection, but so far there hadn't been any hits, and tensions were on the rise.
Tensions that Nicholas and Liam could only relieve together.
Janine had no clue, but Grace was aware, and though she was unhappy about it, she tolerated it for Liam's sake. She told him she loved him, and that one day she hoped she'd be enough. When she said things like that, Liam would understand once again how he'd felt when Nicholas went to women while they were together, and for a time he would hate Nicholas all over again. For a time, Grace would be enough.
And that was really all he wanted.
Yet he'd always end up back at their appointed place, a little bar hidden from the rest of the world, sheltered in anonymity, and from there to a frequently-vacant flat belonging to one of Nicholas's acquaintances who spent most of his time globetrotting.
If it meant leading two or three lives, he could do that. If it meant tearing himself apart to feel whole again, he could do that, too. And if it meant having one perfect love born of hate and pain and murder, he would damn well learn to live with that, too.