Enduring Night

an excerpt



Prologue

The view from the window hadn't changed since the last time Ben had studied it-one grey, depressing wing of the building, the car park below, and some scraggly trees, still bare in January. Farther away, he could see the roofs of some houses, and perhaps, if he let his imagination run away with it, the distant hills of Bodmin moor. He didn't speculate much in the realms of fiction these days though. He brought his gaze back to the utilitarian architecture.

The seagull was back, perched on the sill, as it had been day after day. Sometimes, it tapped the window with its beak. Ben was never sure if the gull wanted in, or for him to open the window and join it outside, flying or falling. Freedom either way.

Secretly, Ben thought the gull was an albatross. It was so vast, so impressive, that it seemed inconceivable it could be an ordinary gull blown in from Plymouth Sound and sitting on the grimy ledge. The first albatross perhaps to make it to England, tossed on ocean currents all the way from the Chatham Islands, lost, alone. If it was, then it was in good company. Ben had never felt so lost or so alone, and he had spent a fair proportion of his life being buffeted by metaphorical winds far stronger than those that prowled the vast oceans of the world.

The wind ruffled one immaculate white feather, and an immediate adjustment was made, beak ferreting and smoothing, replacing and realigning. Then the beady eyes fixed back upon Ben. One sharp tap on the glass.

Ben peered down at the drop below the window. He was four storeys up with unforgiving concrete beneath. He shook his head at the gull. He wasn't ready to join it quite yet. One day perhaps.

There was a sound from the bed behind him, but Ben didn't turn with eyes wide with expectation. He'd done that for the first few days. The noises had never meant what he'd thought, and so disappointment had gradually crushed bright hope. Now, he heard every small shift or exhale, but stored the knowledge away, staying unresponsive.

Unresponsive. That's what Nikolas had been when he'd laid him gently down on the floor in the little medical centre.

Of course, it's difficult to be responsive when you're dead.

The gull gave him one last, baleful glare and then just tipped away from the glass, launching itself into the cold air currents, wings unfurling, catching and lifting. A little bit of Ben's heart went with it. It did every day he watched the same display of effortless escape. It wasn't that he thought about doing so himself. He had tried that once in Denmark and had failed. It was more that he wondered if the bird took something else away with it when it flew so fluently into the air. For if Nikolas had once fallen from heaven, as Ben had accused him of once or twice in private moments, then wasn't it equally possible that he could one day rise again? Ben had no doubt that if souls did ascend, then Nikolas's would be riding thermals, fast and furious, just as he'd ridden pathways on solid ground. But no soul as big and as powerful as Nikolas Mikkelsen's could rise in a single moment of graceful beauty. No, it would ease away day-by-day, small flutters upon the currents of the earth until it was entirely free.

So Ben watched the gull rise over the roof of the grey hospital and wondered if a tiny slice of Nikolas was leaving with it, borne aloft upon those perfect white wings.

He turned away from the view and sat once more in the armchair alongside the bed.

He took the unresponsive hand in his and lowered his head.

Once more, he repeated his promise.

Then he waited for a sign, which, so far, had been noticeable by its absence.



Chapter One

It had been an almost perfect Christmas. No one had been murdered. No one kidnapped. No torturing had been necessary. They had celebrated together in the big glass house in Devon. It was fortunate it was spacious. They had an extensive family now, lots of guests-Babushka and Emilia, Miles and Enid Toogood, Squeezy, Tim, Jennifer and Reginald Armstrong and, of course, their daughter, Molly Rose Rider-Mikkelsen.

Perfection didn't necessarily mean peaceful, however. As Ben had pointed out to Nikolas one night, when they'd lain too exhausted to do much more than gaze at cold stars through the glass ceiling of their room, Christmas was supposed to be chaotic, exhausting, fuelled by family disagreements and too much food. They were too eclectic a bunch to glide through the holiday like a fictional family on pleasantries and goodwill, but their arguments were robust and carried on good-naturedly enough.

In contrast to their first Christmas together, when neither had mentioned the day nor changed their routines in any way, both he and Nikolas agreed this was...better.

They welcomed the noise in some ways. There were too many silences that needed to be filled. Ben heard them in Nikolas's head-the spaces of cold terror that could not be eased, even by his unfailing love and attention. But he knew he was the source of some of Nikolas's pain as well. Nikolas shouldered the weight of the world and resented anyone else sharing his burdens. Ben had not only shared them, he'd taken them on and destroyed them. Ben knew Nikolas was still skirting around the discovery that he had not known him as well as he'd thought.

So it was with some genuine pleasure that when Ben opened his Christmas present from Peter Cameron, thinking it might be tickets to the director's latest movie-a film which, as he'd written to Ben, had more explosions than dialogue, especially for him-it turned out to be a holiday. Ben couldn't remember the last time it had been just him and Nikolas. Time to reassess, perhaps, reacquaint themselves with who they were.

He'd actually forgotten to open the envelope during the loud, messy exploration of presents earlier. It had almost been cast aside with some other cards. But now, lying on his back next to Nikolas, contemplating the stars, he saw it on the bedside table.

Nikolas turned his head, watching him unstick the flap. When Ben huffed in pleased surprise at the contents, Nik plucked the letter away from him. He couldn't read it without his glasses, and definitely not in the low light, so he handed it back as Ben asked, "Where's Jasper Bay?"

"Hmm?"

"Peter's bought me a holiday in somewhere called Jasper Bay. An arctic experience."

He felt Nikolas shudder theatrically.

"Jasper Bay?"

"It sounds familiar but I do not recollect from where. Does he not say?"

Ben sat up so he could read better, his strong, powerful muscles stark in the starlight. Nikolas placed a hand on him, moving it slowly up and down Ben's spine.

"Svalbard."

"What!" Nikolas sat up and took the letter again, as if he could see the offending name.

"Where's Svalbard?"

"Somewhere we're not going."

Ben retrieved the letter and stowed it for safety in the drawer next to the bed. He eased over Nikolas, propped up on one elbow, considering him. He snorted.

"What?"

"Very blond for midwinter."

Nikolas shoved him off. "Give the holiday to your moronic friends. I think they would appreciate it."

Ben chuckled, thinking about Tim and Squeezy. They had entered a new phase of their relationship-Tim's words. Squeezy had privately confided to Ben he was banned from shagging away from home. The jury was still out, he moaned, on whether this meant he could bring people back to shag. Tim said they might commit. Squeezy said he might go back to women-they were less clingy and nagged less, in his vast experience. Ben listened to their various complaints, occasionally relaying salient points to Nikolas.

It would be a good idea for his friends to have a holiday together.

The more he thought about it, the more he could see the advantages of being shut up in a luxury hotel, surrounded by snow, with nothing to do but have sex. And eat...

Bugger Squeezy and Tim.

Not literally, of course.

That was reserved for Nikolas.

***

The next morning, Ben discovered Nikolas at the breakfast table with Molly Rose. Nikolas was studying Peter's letter. Molly was reading a thick biography in Danish, which Peter had given Ben earlier that year. Ben frowned and took it off her then gave her back her small cloth book, which she immediately stuffed in her mouth. Nikolas only commented, "She was enjoying that."

Ben glanced at the book, which he had yet to even open. He'd been a little busy since Peter had given it to him. But they didn't talk much about that. "Enduring Night?"

Nikolas shrugged. "Eclectic tastes in literature. Unlike her father. It is a very interesting book."

Nikolas read a great deal more than Ben did, and quickly, consuming words as avidly as Ben demolished food. But Ben had forgotten Nikolas had read his book from Peter and felt guilty he hadn't made a similar effort.

The kitchen would soon be full of hungry people demanding a traditional Boxing Day breakfast, so he put on a pan and filled it with sausages, cracking eggs into a bowl with his free hand. As he cooked, he scanned the first few pages, glad his Danish was still good enough.

The story appeared to be set on Svalbard-the tribulations of a Danish polar explorer who had experienced the isolation, the terror, of being abandoned by his companions on the coast of that remote place.

Nikolas was giving him amused consideration and said wryly in Danish, "I think Peter has decided his next film project."

"A movie of this book?"

"And guess who he wants to play the doomed Danish explorer?"

"You?" Ben couldn't decide whether he was impressed or dismayed by this possibility. Nikolas rolled his eyes, and Ben then got it. "Me? But I'm not...Danish."

Nikolas chuckled. "I was worrying more about your woeful acting ability."

"I'm not that bad." He held Nikolas's gaze, and knew Nikolas got exactly what he meant. When it suited him, Ben could act very well indeed.

He brought the sausages over to the table, separating out a fair few to cool for Radulf before the vultures arrived and fell on them.

Nikolas took the book off him. "I remembered this morning where I had heard of Jasper Bay. The similarities are too much of a coincidence, no? I wonder what his next tactic will be."

"You're being ridiculous. He gives me a book, then sees a holiday in the same place-a coincidence-and thinks about me again. That's all this is. It's your phobia about me becoming a Hollywood star that's putting two and two together and making five."

There was some justification for Nikolas being slightly wary of Ben's fame, but also some truth to Ben's assertion that he was being ridiculous. Nikolas's recent, largest, acquisition ensured Ben mostly stayed anonymous. Peyton Garic ran benrider.com. It had been Peyton's idea. He controlled access to any information on Ben whilst at the same time using his more unique and unethical skills to subvert anything Nikolas didn't want coming out or being available for too long on other sites.

Nikolas was saved from making a reply and pointing any of this out, however, as Emilia and Miles came in from the grounds, stamping snow off their boots. They'd been to see to Mr Darcy, Emilia's horse. Nikolas employed a fulltime groom for his horses, who lived in nearby Ashburton, but during the holidays Emilia took care of her own animal and she was, apparently, training Miles.

Miles had yet to see the point of horses, claiming they were extremely dangerous, even to superheroes, but he liked studying things and had become something of a theoretical expert on the creatures. Although he had yet to ride one, he could knowledgeably discuss their most likely injuries and illnesses. Now, however, he was eyeing the sausages with something akin to grief. Miles channelled his inner Nikolas at all times, but at mealtimes he found this particularly stressful.

Ben heard a faint, annoyed, yet at the same time resigned and amused huff from Nikolas as he helped himself to some of the cooling sausages. Sometimes Ben loved Nikolas so much it was a wonder he didn't tell him more.

With this tacit permission, Miles now happily joined Emilia in demolishing the rest of the English breakfast, so with a sound very similar to the one Nikolas had just made, Ben rose to make another batch for the lazier adults who were yet to join them.

He liked cooking.

He'd recently questioned this hobby, wondering if it...unmanned him somehow. After recent events in a redbrick house in London, he'd decided there was nothing much going to do that, and if it did, no one would dare call him on it anyway. Besides, sometimes Ben reckoned that if he didn't cook, Nikolas wouldn't ever eat. He only seemed to now because he liked the whole process of observing Ben, being his taster, and making irritating assessments on things Ben suspected he knew nothing about.

Perhaps, Ben reflected in quiet moments, watching Nikolas trying the things he'd cooked, he'd only adopted this new hobby because he wanted, needed, to feed Nikolas. In even more private thoughts, Ben wondered what would happen to Nikolas if something ever happened to him...Who would feed him then? Dear God, was he mothering Nikolas Mikkelsen? But if he was, then maybe it was the first time Nikolas had enjoyed that kind of care. Despite Ben's occasional gentle suggestion that Nina had not killed herself, that some more sinister fate had befallen her, Nikolas seemed sanguine about his belief in her suicide. This spoke volumes to Ben. Although he had not voiced this opinion to Nikolas, for obvious reasons, it seemed to him that there was a great deal more to Nikolas's experiences with his mother than he had ever related. Ben could only imagine what a ten-year-old boy had witnessed that would lead the adult man to so calmly accept that his mother had made the ultimate statement about his worth to her.

Ben shook himself from the unpleasant introspection and glanced at the table.

Miles was now studying Ben's letter as he ate. "Did you know-?"

At Ben's faint groan, Miles stopped and turned. Ben regrouped and smiled. "What? Did I know what? Bet I did."

"That a polar bear's fur isn't white at all-it's transparent."

Ben frowned. "No, it's not. It's white." He glanced to Nikolas for support, but as with all his conversations with Miles, Nikolas was conveniently busy doing something else. He was smirking though.

"No, honestly. Transparent. It's actually reflected sunlight that makes it appear white."

"But what about dead ones? What if you skinned one and put the pelt in...a purple room? It would be a purple bear?"

It was Miles's turn to appear puzzled. "Did you actually do physics at school?"

Ben was tempted to say he'd only just done school, but realised in time that he'd only be giving the boy more ammunition. "Bet you've never seen a polar bear."

Miles looked aggrieved at this but countered, "Have you?"

Ben narrowed his eyes at the boy, and was considering lying, when Nikolas said nonchalantly, "I shot one once."

All eyes swivelled to him. Miles and Emilia were vociferously angry with him, Emilia as a defender of whales and all species other than boys, and Miles because heroes weren't allowed to have dark sides.

Nikolas went back to his newspaper, claiming if they didn't want to hear the story then...A chorus of annoyance ensued, including Ben muttering testily, "I hope it shot back."

Nikolas appeared theatrically wounded. "What? I had no choice. It was stalking us. For weeks we..."

Ben rolled his eyes and tuned out what he could tell was the start of an unlikely and unsuitably gory story, and went back to cooking breakfast, glad when Squeezy emerged so he had another adult to talk to. Squeezy listened to the conversation at the table for a moment, leaning on the counter. Nikolas was up to the part where he'd hidden from the bear under the polar ice in the frozen arctic sea, staring up at it through the translucence, as its blood-soaked muzzle had tried unsuccessfully to scent him.

Squeezy seemed gloomy. Ben gave him a freshly cooked sausage to cheer him up.

As he was munching it, Squeezy mumbled around a mouthful, "It's all his fault, by the way. Wassock's."

Nikolas was to blame for a lot of things, Ben knew, but narrowing them down was always a little tricky, so he gave a non-committal grunt and cracked some eggs into the pan.

"All this fucking domestication. Kids." Squeezy shuddered.

Ben snorted. "Feeling the pinch?"

Tim came out of the bedroom he shared with Squeezy, pulling on a sweater, and Squeezy's expression changed, a smirk of delighted imprisonment creasing one corner of his mouth. Ben shook his head. It was one of Squeezy's sweaters. They were wearing each other's clothes. No coming back from that.

One by one, the others wandered in for breakfast. Enid was the last to arrive, mainly because she took a long time to make it to the table with her walking frame. It was Nikolas's present to her for Christmas. He'd said he'd be really upset if she didn't use it, and being from the generation she was, good manners always outweighed personal preferences, and so she was finally able to get around the vast glass house with relative, if slow, ease. That he'd also given her the plans for a purpose-built, adapted bungalow he was going to have built in the grounds for her, so she and Miles would live with them, Miles's future thereby being assured when she had passed on, had gone some way to make this Zimmer-frame gift very acceptable indeed. That he'd decorated it with tartan bows, Ben reckoned, had been the clincher.

They made a noisy group around the table, drinking vast quantities of tea, and debating what to do for the day.

Nikolas appeared to take no part in either the noise or the decision-making, quietly reading his quality newspaper, but somehow all suggestions were weighed and assessed and filtered through him until it was decided that they would go to the zoo, which is what Ben knew he'd wanted to do in the first place. Tim and Squeezy immediately begged off, saying they were going to a party, and Enid preferred not to put her new present to that much of a test.

Molly's grandparents opted out of the trip as well, Jennifer wanting to visit her friend in Exeter. Her absence always cheered Ben up a little. He felt intimidated around his daughter whenever Jennifer was present, always afraid he'd drop Molly, drown her, lose her to child traffickers, or some other mishap that her fragility and beauty seemed to invite. Consequently, he avoided holding her or playing with her when her grandparents were around.

Now, he was free to take control of her, carrying her on his back. He marvelled how he had gone from carrying nearly two hundred pounds across mountains in Afghanistan to this feather-light creature, who, in many ways, weighed him down more. Once or twice in his past he'd had to shed his kit and run, fast and light. He couldn't shed this burden. His daughter.

***

They wandered around with no particular direction or aim, but knowing that Emilia and Miles wanted to see the big cats. They weren't in cages; this was a world-respected zoo, and they'd attempted, as best they could in Devon, to recreate a natural environment for the lions and tigers. The main selling point for the visitors were the glass panels around certain points of the enclosures, which enabled them to stand only a few centimetres away from such majesty.

Ben was watching the tiger. It was watching him. It seemed confused to be there. He knew how it felt.

"Did you know-" Ben closed his eyes and prayed for strength "-that if you shaved a tiger, its stripes are on its skin too?"

He considered Miles's contention and parried, "How do they know? Who's ever shaved a tiger?"

Miles conceded this was better than Ben's usual efforts in their interesting conversations and wandered off to find a member of staff to ask. Ben felt Nik's presence at his side, and Molly was lifted out of her carrier. She was wearing a tiny little ski suit in ice white with a fur-lined hood, which Nikolas had bought her for Christmas. With her black curls and green eyes, she was incredibly striking. In Nikolas's arms, her ice-white jacket against his black cashmere overcoat, the impression was startling. Nikolas kissed into Molly's hair-something he always did with a small, challenging, wicked smile at Ben, as if daring him to be jealous.

Apparently satisfied at something he saw in Ben's lip curl of annoyance, Nikolas put Molly down on the ground and she leant against the glass that was separating the visitors from the tiger enclosure. Ben was fairly sure if it hadn't been for the fascination of the huge cat staring at her, she'd have been off, attempting to run with her oddly puppet-like, dancing-leg gait to escape their control.

Nikolas gave a quick glance around, ensured they were relatively unobserved, and tugged Ben a little closer by the lapel of his jacket. He wouldn't kiss him, not in public, even in Devon where they were relatively safe from celebrity culture, but even this much was uncharacteristic. Nikolas pouted for a moment and began to speak.

Suddenly, there was an ear-splitting hiss.

The tiger launched itself at Molly Rose. The accelerated mass of five hundred pounds of muscle, fur, and claw slammed into the glass, one inch from her tiny body. Ben and Nikolas both flinched and averted their faces, an instinctive reaction of any human to such a ferocious attack, but then Nikolas recovered before Ben and scooped Molly up and pressed her to his coat, covering her, turning her away.

Delayed by shock, muffled against Nikolas, Molly's scream was nevertheless piercing and drew all eyes.

Ben thought he'd heard a crack. Armoured as it was, he thought he'd heard the panel crack.

Visitors who hadn't actually been that close were laughing and taking photos of the tiger. Molly was still screaming, and Ben heard a few muttered comments about fathers and speculation about what she'd done to cause the animal to attack. He wanted to punch them and was glad when he felt a hand on his arm. It was usually him restraining Nikolas, but this was equally effective.

Ben then realised Nikolas was only handing him the distraught baby-Nikolas didn't do scenes. Ben took Molly and gave a small prayer of thanks when Babushka whisked her away from him and began to shush her in the secret language known only to midwives.

Ben took his first breath for what seemed like a very long time. "What the fuck?"

Nikolas raised his brows but for once didn't pick Ben up for swearing.

"Did you know-?"

"Miles! Not now!" Ben turned away and began to march to the nearest concession stand with a view to buying his daughter something-anything-to stop the screaming, to stop the thump, thump of his heart. Nikolas went with him, his hands thrust into the pockets of his overcoat, his amusement at Ben's reaction both obvious and infuriating. Ben wanted to ask Nikolas what he should get, but instead chose the first thing he saw without stripes and fur, and at the laughter he knew was being suppressed behind his back, snapped, "What?"

His hand was shaking. Drowned, dropped, kidnapped, and now eaten by a tiger. He was crap at this.

Nikolas took the kaleidoscope Ben had bought, putting it to his eye with apparent interest. "Nothing. I was merely wondering what you were doing next week."

Ben snatched the toy back. "What I'm always doing. What do you mean?"

"Oh, I thought I might go and see the Northern Lights. A romantic break in a luxury hotel would be rather sad on my own."

Ben felt his whole body droop for a moment. He wanted to lean against Nikolas, suck up his essence, his strength. He closed his eyes. "This is harder than I'd thought it would be."

Nikolas huffed. "Since our house has been full of children, I've been harder than I ever wish to be."

A tingle of lust and anticipation trickled down Ben's spine. He gave Nikolas a quick, penetrating glance. "Well, now that you mention it, sir, I'm not doing anything next week."

"Excellent. Benjamin Rider-Mikkelsen, would you like to accompany me on a polar night experience?"

"Can you guarantee it's only the two of us?"

"Oh, I think once I mention the tiger incident, Jennifer will agree Molly should return home, don't you? Even though St Albans is...not what it once was."

For one moment, Nikolas mimicked Jennifer Armstrong's cut-glass English vowels, and the imitation was so perfect Ben spluttered. Nikolas smirked and plucked the kaleidoscope from Ben once more.

He suddenly added privately in Ben's ear, "I cannot imagine what we will do to pass a week in perpetual darkness, can you?"

Ben looked puzzled. "Watch TV?"

Nikolas snorted and began to walk back to their small family group.

Ben offered helpfully, "Read? I could finally get around to Peter's book." Nikolas handed Molly her new toy as Ben added, "Catch up on our sleep?"

He was still making useful suggestions when they got home, none of which Nikolas took up, as he'd worked out his own plan in the car and claimed he needed to make a start on it that night. As he said, practice for when it was dark all day.

Ben reckoned Nikolas didn't need practise.

He was a natural.