The adrenaline of hours previously had drained away, and in its wake Strike was left empty, shaking, almost nauseous with the lingering fear like a stone in the pit of his stomach.
The antiseptic smell, the sound of the nurses’ trainers squeaking on the linoleum in the hallway, the industrial green walls, all of it pressed in on him until his lungs struggled to draw breath.
Worst of all was seeing Robin, her skin too pale, washed out by the fluorescent, and her face set in an expression so calm, so reasonable, that it only made him more agitated.
“This job can be dangerous, you’ve said it yourself.” Her voice, too, was infuriatingly reasonable, as though they were sitting in the office discussing the weather, as if he was the irrational one. He gritted his teeth and ran his hands through his hair in exasperation.
“Not this dangerous! You’re too bloody reckless.”
“Robin. This is the third time in two years you’ve landed yourself in hospital.” He was pleading now, desperate to make her understand. “You are absolutely reckless!”
“Would you please calm down?”
“I am calm,” Strike snapped. He paced back and forth, driven by nervous energy, welcoming the searing pain that shot through his knee with each step, struggling to master himself. He rounded on her, struggle lost.
“You were fucking stabbed!”
“I’m not-” he paused and, with a visible effort, carried on in a fractionally lower tone, “-shouting.”
“A bit higher, he would’ve hit your lung,” he continued flatly. “He could have severed an artery, you could have bled out on the fucking pavement.”
“But none of that happened,” Robin said, eyes wide and earnest. She leaned forward, reaching out to cover Strike’s hand where it lay clenched on the back of the chair beside her bed. But she had moved too quickly, forgetting her injury; she inhaled sharply, dropping her hand to clutch at her side instead, and Strike felt the last shreds of his self-control disintegrate.
“Well, the next time you throw yourself in front of a knife you might not be so lucky!”
He was shouting again, he knew, and he also knew that Robin didn’t deserve this, to be lectured and berated instead of comforted. She was the one lying on a hospital bed, the stiches on her side no doubt red and raw and painful; he was the one who had fucked up and let this happen. Bitter self-loathing rose in him like bile, and he collapsed into the chair by her bed.
“You’d have been better off if-” his voice, already hoarse, faltered. Robin waited a moment for him to continue, but he remained silent, staring moodily at the wall opposite.
“If what?” she prompted.
Strike took so long to answer that she began to think he wasn’t going to; when he did finally speak, he addressed the wall, refusing to meet Robin’s eyes.
“If you’d never walked through my bloody door. If I’d just sent you home, that first day; if I’d never agreed to let you stay,” he said, voice quiet now, but laced with bitterness and anger.
The words hit Robin like another dagger; but this one sank home rather than glancing away, a sharp thrust to her heart.
“Don’t say that,” she whispered. She felt sudden tears sting the corners of her eyes, and she wiped them away quickly before Strike could see.
“It’s true, isn’t it,” Strike pressed on. “you wouldn’t have that scar on your arm.” He usually avoided looking at the long, jagged scar, faded now but still visible, an ever-present reminder of his failure to do his duty, to keep his partner safe. His gaze rested on it now; he couldn’t force himself to look at her face. “You wouldn’t be lying in this hospital bed.”
And he, Strike, wouldn’t be fighting this anguish, pain so real that he could almost feel it, an ache deep in his chest. When he closed his eyes, the memories flashed past – seeing the lethal glint of the knife and throwing out his arm; the sudden impact of Robin slamming into his side, pushing him away; the world spinning around him sickeningly as he lost his balance, the sharp pain as he wrenched his knee around to keep from falling; and, worst of all, panic overwhelming the pain as he saw Robin – on the ground, clutching her side, scarlet blood welling from between her fingers, red-gold hair spread out on the concrete, catching the morning sun.
“No, I wouldn’t be lying here,” Robin said forcefully, jerking Strike out of his dark reverie. “I’d be working in a job that I hated. Married to a man who-” she cut herself off, biting her lip; she did not like to think too often of her relationship with Matthew in its death throes during those final few months, fury and mortification mingling painfully whenever she did.
Strike was still avoiding her gaze, his expression mulish. She needed to make him understand, to see that the risk didn’t matter to her, that she wouldn’t trade their work – their partnership – for anything.
“I don’t want to think about what I’d be like,” the words caught in her throat, but she forced them out: “without you.”
Strike, staring fixedly at the floor, one large, rough hand rubbing the back of his neck, said nothing. Robin reached out across the space between them; she hesitated for only a moment, then tangled her hand in his dark, curly hair. She felt him stiffen, but kept her grip, tugging a little so that he would look up at her; and, after a moment, he did.
The anger and fear in his dark eyes, she had expected; but there was something else there, some emotion that made her take a deep, shuddering breath – exhilarating, and terrifying at the same time. She slid her hand down to cup his jaw, stubble scratching against her fingers, and he closed his eyes, wincing as though in pain.
“Cormoran,” she breathed, her heart suddenly hammering against her chest walls. Abruptly, he stood, his face closing off as though he’d pulled a shutter down over it.
“I need a coffee,” he said, and strode from the room before Robin – outstretched arm frozen in place – could say another word.
Strike watched, one hand propped against the wall supporting his bulk, as the machine dispensed a spluttering, thin stream of what looked like truly execrable coffee. He could still feel Robin’s soft hand against his skin, still see the expression on her face as she’d whispered his name; he wanted desperately to go back into that room, to wrap his arms around her and bury his face in her neck, inhale the scent of her perfume and feel her warm skin under his hands.
And then the next time – because there would be a next time, he was sure – the next time that she thought a young girl needed to be saved, or a killer brought to justice, the next time she threw herself between a lunatic and his target, he would hold her then too; hold her limp body as she slipped away, powerless to stop the colour bleeding out from her face, the life from draining out of her blue eyes, leaving them dull, empty, staring. Would it hurt more, he wondered, if he held himself back, never got to cradle her face in his hands as he kissed her, never got to wake up with her nestled against him, rose-gold hair spread across his pillow? Or would giving in to his desire simply bind his heart to her more firmly, until he was beyond recovery, leave him even more shattered and hollow when she was gone?
“Cormoran?” He started, and looked around. Robin’s mother was standing behind him, her face tight with exhaustion and worry. He hadn’t expected her to arrive so quickly; she must have broken every speed limit on the four-hour drive from Masham.
“Linda,” he said, and then in answer to the unspoken fear in the woman’s eyes – so much like Robin’s – continued, “she’s awake. She’ll be fine, the doctor said.”
“Thank god,” she whispered, pressing a hand against her chest. She gave him a shaky smile and patted his arm before continuing down the hall towards the room where Robin lay.
“Linda,” Strike called. He hadn’t moved from where he stood. She turned to look back at him. “I’m sorry, I’m-” he hesitated for only a moment. “I’ve got to go. Can you tell Robin – just say I had to go.”
Linda nodded, looking puzzled. Strike didn’t wait for her to speak, but turned and strode away, limping heavily on his injured leg. He had thought that he was past feeling this kind of pain, the pain of having a woman rip his heart from his body. All he could do was run, run as far and fast as he could, and hope that the pain didn’t catch up with him.