Oh, The Places You'll Go

And All Shall Be Made Known

Notes: A story in the When Two Go Together Along the Way 'verse. This comes third chronologically. Set after series 5, no spoilers and no warnings. Thank you to entropical for beta. <3

There's no getting away from it; James is nervous. He's dressed up and dressed down, pretending he's regarding his reflection with a dispassionate eye. His mirrored self stares back at him without judgement. Liar, thinks James and clenches his jaw, yanking his faded t-shirt over his head. There's the rough-edged sound of fragile material separating at the seams.

This shouldn't be important. If he spoke it aloud to anyone they'd regard him with the look he's grown used to when he uses the words 'priest' and 'police officer' in the same sentence. It is, though--important--even if James can't explain exactly why. He opens another drawer and tries again.

Where he's going is a short drive away and James cycles through the radio channels, settling on a classical piece that he has to work to recognise as one of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte. The soft piano melodies ripple towards each other, intertwining and building their separate lines into something almost majestic when they lock step. Each melody can carry the piece forward alone, but it's the combination of the two that is the pinnacle of the composition. If James could cup the music in his hands and offer it up, perhaps it would say everything he needs to say without the necessity of finding words of his own.

He parks a few streets away. It seems more respectful to arrive on foot, somehow. A levelling of the playing field. It makes no sense outside his head, but then, none of this does, really. It's early June and the raw greens of spring are darkening, readying themselves for the richness of summer. Vibrantly coloured flowers vie for attention, turning their faces to the light to show themselves off to maximum benefit. James pauses to watch a bumblebee wander in a seeming haphazard manner from bright foxgloves to pale lavender and back again. It has a job to do, and so, in a manner of speaking, does James.

It's remarkably easy to remember the way, though he has only been here once before--five years or more now. This fact should, perhaps, denote some significance, but it isn't the only thing about that day that stands out stark and clear in his memory, reminding him of how far he has come. It startles him awake at night sometimes, the bemused thankfulness that whatever his shortcomings, whatever his sins (and there have been so many), he has been granted a chance for happiness. Or, if not happiness, then surely contentment and peace, both things James has not hoped for since his cocoon of self-righteous certainty disintegrated to expose only a kernel of doubt. On those nights God is closer than He has been for a long time, and James is grateful for that.

Only a few steps from his destination James takes a deep breath and flushes, suddenly embarrassed by his mission. Now he's here it seems overwrought--childish even--but he's learning to trust his instincts and they've led him to this place. It isn't always easier to go forward than to go back, no matter how often the platitude is repeated. He tugs at the hem of his neatly pressed t-shirt, straightening it.

"Hi," he says, dropping to his haunches. "Hope you don't mind the unannounced visit." He casts a look around. No one else is here, not even a scull or a punt on the river. James isn't surprised. It's a warm weekend on the cusp of summer: England barbecues. When the breeze lifts, desultory leaves shrugging into life on their branches, he catches the bittersweet scent of smoke and charred meat on the air. He puts a hand out to test the ground. It's dry and he relaxes on to it, crossing his legs.

"No need to get up on my account," he says. There's no response, of course, and James carries straight on. "I brought you these." He proffers the flowers tucked under his arm. "Sweet Williams. They only have a short season, but they last a long time when they're cut. I thought you'd like that. I'll just see to them then, shall I?"

Shuffling forward, he tugs the dry stems out of the rose, the faded petals of dead flowers crumbling to dust between his fingers. It's been hot these past few days, but even so, it must have been a long time since they were placed here. It's interesting. James lays the old stems aside and sets about arranging the new flowers.

"It's not my forte," he says, attempting to force a too-thick stem into a hole with hopeful vigour. It bends but does not break. It won't stand up straight, though, no matter how James tries to cajole it. "There," he says, when he's finished, crumpling the paper wrapper and shoving it away in a pocket. "That doesn't look too bad now, does it?"

The Sweet Williams are a mass of colour: reds, purples, pinks and whites, some more than one colour in the same bloom. It's as if they're deliberately refusing to make up their minds. James likes that about them. He settles back and admires his handiwork for a moment.

"So," he says, when the tight-packed flowers can no longer prevent his eyes wandering upwards, "I suppose you're wondering why I'm here." He lets out a soft laugh. "Well, I accept that's highly unlikely given the circumstances, but sometimes pretending makes things easier, don't you think? At least in the short term."

"It used to be very clear when I was a child," he says. "So black and white. God was in his Heaven, all was right with the world. You died a confessed death and you got your white robe and your wings and you looked on at this world with a beatific smile and no tug in your heart for what you'd left behind. A benevolent eye, perhaps." James shakes his head, though whether to berate his young self for a shallow fool or to mourn his lost conviction he isn't sure.

"I don't always know what I believe these days," he continues. "I don't believe in ghosts, or plump cherubs with their blond curls. No, nor Milton's spiritual creatures walking the earth unseen neither. I don't believe I'm talking to you in any real sense. There's nothing here but dirt and stone. I know that. But I do believe I owe you something whether you can hear me or not. If that makes me foolish, then I've been called worse for less."

He reaches out and touches the smooth stone, tracing the second grooved and gilded L with a finger. It makes him catch his breath in a way that the bloodied bodies and vacant eyes no longer can. In the end it's easier to find the words than he'd thought.

"I wanted to promise you that I have no intentions of taking your place. I couldn't, even if I wanted to. That you existed, that you were part of his life for so long, that helped to make him the man he is. I'm grateful to you--you can't understand how much."

He tugs at some moss growing at the base of the gravestone. It comes away easily, barely rooted at all. It doesn't belong here. James rolls it between his fingers and then tosses it away.

"And I wanted to promise you that I'll take care of him and you shouldn't worry. That's all, really." He ducks his head, embarrassed again. "I know. What am I doing here, eh?" He sighs, rubbing at his eye with his fingertips.

After a long moment where the graveyard blurs around him, the only thing clear and distinct the inscription on the headstone in front of him, James takes a deep breath and gets to his feet. "So. I'll be seeing you? In a manner of speaking. Though come Judgement Day, who knows?"

He turns to go, but only manages a few steps before he turns back, covering the ground swiftly, and crouches in front of the stone. He reaches out again, this time with both hands, fingers pressed against the V and the L. "I love him, you see," he says and feels the corners of his mouth lifting almost despite himself. "It's a strange thing, but I do. Not the way that you...but it's tough enough being dead, you don't need a lecture on Plato on top of everything. I just wanted you to know. He's safe because I love him."

James rocks back on his heels. "Wow," he says, because he's never spoken that thought aloud before. It isn't something he's ever cared to examine in the light of day. He nods. "Amen," James murmurs. "I suppose." Something inside him twists free, and it's as if his heart spreads open like a flower reaching for the sun.

James is halfway out of the graveyard when his phone rings. He pulls it out of his pocket and glances at the display. It's Lewis. Momentarily guilty, James casts a look back over his shoulder at Valerie Lewis's grave. A coincidence, surely?

"Yes, sir...Lew...Robbie," he says, answering the call. It's the weekend after all. "What do you need?"

Lewis's voice warm in his ear, James takes his sunglasses off the collar of his t-shirt and slides them over his eyes.

"U-huh," he says. "Ten minutes, probably. Maybe fifteen. Mine's a pint."

James ends the call, lifting his face up and letting the late afternoon rays wash over his skin. He closes his eyes. If he stays out in the sun much longer he'll be cooked just like the half-ton of dead meat sizzling on grills across the Oxford suburbs. Red-faced cooks everywhere are taking their eyes off the prize to wipe their brow or swig a beer and finding that a moment is all it takes to burn, but it's a whole lot longer to scrape the black away.

His breath stops in his throat because it's so obvious now. How could he have missed it? At the seminary he had offered himself up and been caught in a fire of his own making, burnt black and shrivelled into something he had never meant to be. And he had thought that was all that he could hope for, all that was left. But since he has met Lewis the charring has been flaked away, slowly and surely over time, the worst of it excised with sharp-bladed words, blackened layers replaced by raw red. The raw that's primed for transformation, not the raw that's primed for hurt, and now James sees the difference.

"You're good," he says, directing his remark to no one in particular. "Two revelations for the price of one. Should Saint John be jealous? I think I need a drink."

He pinches a stem of lavender from the bush near his feet, twirls it under his nose and shuts the gate behind him as he leaves. In a beer garden not far from here there's a pint with his name on it, a newspaper with carefully marked adverts, an empty ashtray and a ready smile. James thinks they'll probably pick up fish and chips for tea. Barbecues are so very last year.

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