The girl's body is found by a young mother, out for a ramble after her son went off to school. The body isn't far from the path, but the morning is even colder and greyer than usual for late October, so it's not particularly surprising that she wasn't seen by the early morning crowd.
The inhospitable weather is nowhere near an acceptable excuse to James. He's already muttering, not quite to himself, as they stand at the edge of the dirt track, about the sort of people who can pass so close to tragedy without being able to tear their eyes away from their own petty business to notice it. He's clearly in rare mood, and the sun's barely been up an hour.
James has been a bit sniffly all week, rumblier-voiced than usual and even more prone to frowning when something is irritating him. Robbie's taken far more than his usual share of interviews and briefings, leaving James to his desk and endless cups of tea, but there's nothing to be done for it when there's a fresh scene.
Laura is standing near the body when they approach, her gloves still on. "Emma Harrison - and no, not that one. Eighteen. Lately of Manchester, according to her driving license, but there's a University Card as well, undergraduate. Stabbed, minimal defensive wounds, but no sign of the weapon yet. She seems to have bled out here. I'll have to confirm with the weather reports, but I'd say early evening last night as a starting point. 7 or 8 pm?"
There is a bag dumped out onto the leaves, a few yards beyond her, evidence markers already set out.
"Wallet's been opened," Laura says. "ID still in it, hence the preliminary identification I have so helpfully provided you with. Presumably stripped of cash, but there didn't appear to be any cards missing."
It puts robbery on the table, and Robbie tries to hold in his sigh. As distressing as acquaintance murders are for everyone involved, at least they give a detective a pool of suspects to draw from. Random crime like this can mean hours of searching CCTV for a glimpse of the victim and anyone who might be following her, leaving the scene, or just passing by at a convenient time. And if James is like a bear with a sore tooth now, well. It's going to be a long week.
They spend another half an hour trampling as delicately as they can through the underbrush, but there's nothing to be found with the naked eye, and it's a better use of a SOCO's time than a detective's, so Robbie and James take themselves off for likelier pastures. James has a copy of Emma's course listing on his phone by the time they're back to the car, and off to the halls they go.
The porter at Lady Matilda's hasn't seen Emma since midmorning the previous day. He still turns out to provide the only useful bit of information they turn up that morning.
"I thought," he says, before breaking off, and continuing in a more confidential tone. "Well, to be honest, I thought she might have run off home."
"What, in the middle of the week, second week of term?"
"She had a boyfriend, sir, or close enough that I couldn't tell the difference, from up home. I don't think she'd have had an easy time fitting in, with this lot, and I'm not sure she tried. I've seen it happen before."
"Do you have any idea of his name, this boyfriend? Or could you describe him for us?"
"I never met him up close, face-to-face, but they had more than one row, just outside the gates. Not every day, mind, but I've seen him a fair few times already. I'm sure it was the same lad."
"I'm sorry," James says. "Just so we're clear, you're saying that one of your residents was having altercations in the street with an unknown man. That's no type of relationship for anyone to have, much less a young girl just away from home, yelling all the time. You never intervened?"
James's relationships could have done with a bit more yelling, Robbie thinks, but that's hardly the point at hand.
"I'd hardly call him a man, sir, but I did try! The first time I heard them, but she, Emma, she warned me off. They went off together after, more often than not."
Robbie gestured for James to step back, and turned to the porter himself. "And he never came in to ask for her, you say? You never spoke to him?"
"No, sir," he said. "Sorry, to not be of more help, sir."
Emma's room is frustratingly light on clues as well - bed made, stack of books on the desk, a laptop that James tags to bring back to the station to go through at length. No ominous, threatening handwritten notes, or compromising photos sticking out of a notepad. No photos at all, actually, just a brightly colored poster of a band Robbie's not heard of, par for the course for far too many years now. Another scene best left to the professionals of the fine-toothed comb type. "Is that even a thing that students still do now," he asks, "print out photos, now that everyone is always on their phones?"
James doesn't turn away from his perusual of her bookshelf. It seems like quite a collection for such a short residence. "I don't spend any more time in college rooms than you do, sir. I really couldn't say."
Emma's hallmates seem to have met a quiet, determined young woman, wholly at odds with the type of wild girl who'd be having screaming matches with a boy in the streets.
"She was nice? I know she came back from Freshers' Fair with all sorts of pamphlets, but I'm not sure if she got into any of it."
"I think she had brown hair," says another. "Is that the one? Up on the third floor hall, courtyard side?"
Her professors, at least, seem sure of which student Emma Harrison was, but if she had been due to distinguish herself from amongst her peers, she hadn't managed it yet. It's an opinion held by all of her professors in equal measure, save the one who'd run her last lesson on Monday afternoon, and he's proving to be frustratingly elusive.
"By all accounts, then," James says, "Emma Harrison was quiet, at least an average level of bright, and most definitely had hair." It's a statement delivered with none of his usual cheek, and his voice has been fighting a losing battle against his irritated throat all afternoon.
By half four, they're both feeling no small measure of frustration at what is beginning to seem like a wild goose chase to follow a series of dead ends. Robbie's regretting his decision not to set a DC to wait until their last likely quarry returned home. Every person they speak to is quite certain of where Dr. Phillips has gone next - the college administrator's office, off to pick up a book from one colleague, a brief conference with another.
"Why don't you head off?," he suggests. "Check in with Dr. Hobson, see if she's got anything to offer yet. I'll finish this up, see you in the morning? I can find my own way home."
"If you're sure, sir," James says. It's the fact that he doesn't bother to argue it that seals it for Robbie, and he waves James off and settles himself in to wait.
Dr. Harold Phillips, when he arrives to his rooms some three quarters of an hour later, is a large, striking man: thick dark hair just starting to go to gray, features - maybe Italian or Greek? - that could be sharpish on a man less fit and clearly full of health, and two or three inches taller than Robbie, easy in his height.
"Oh," he says. "Hello. I was told I had someone waiting, but this is a pleasant surprise."
Robbie holds up his credentials. "DI Lewis, Dr. Phillips. I have a few questions about Emma Harrison?"
His expression doesn't flicker uncertainly - it goes straight from pleasantly engaged to quietly sad. "Oh, yes. Of course you must. Please do come in," he says. "Can I offer you a cup of tea? Horridly gray out today, isn't it? Like it's already gone winter, and summer barely faded in our memory."
After the effort it had taken to locate him, Robbie had half-expected their mystery professor to be one of those lofty sorts, too good for anyone else's timetable. This makes sense as well, though, now that he's seen it, that this man has just spent the afternoon gently bouncing off the corners of life before rolling back home.
When he ushers Robbie into his rooms, he seems genuinely pleased at the prospect of being helpful, just as a few minutes later he seems genuinely more deeply disturbed by the circumstances of Emma's untimely death, though he'd only just met her days before. He touches Robbie's elbow to guide him in, and then leans toward him once they're seated. The only people Robbie's known to be less nervous around a copper are sociopaths and practiced liars, and if he's honest, he's a bit disappointed when Dr. Phillips seems to have a quite solid alibi for the window of the murder. After a bit of rummaging, he produces a set of lecture notes from the previous evening, with requisite reception to follow. It's just unfortunate circumstance that his brief meeting with her was the last one they could confirm before her death.
If Robbie had any reason to believe that Dr. Phillips could have committed the crimes, he might have reason to be curious what lies behind the facade, and reason to stay and chat. But to be honest, it's warm, and he's been shown to a chair that well supports his back, and it's likely to be a frustrating night to follow what has been a long day. There's little enough harm in Robbie staying until he finishes his tea.
"I'm sorry to say that I don't think I've ever seen Emma further than ten feet from this door. For most of my students, I could at least tell you who I'd seen them with out in the yard or discussing something in the halls. It's so early in the year though. Even this boyfriend - that's the sort of thing that tends to crop up, any time our conversation veers off. Oh, I do my best not to mock them." There's a smile, then, and Dr. Phillips leans even closer, inviting Robbie into the jest. "They're such bright things, and usually quite earnest, but... Well, young love, you know. Always the most important thing in the world when one's in the middle of it." He sighs. "Heartbreaking for the parents, I'd imagine, sending her off to university only to have this happen days after she'd left their home."
Heartbreaking no matter when it had happened, Robbie thinks, impossible to compare any one loss to another; it leaves a hole all the same. There's a picture behind Dr. Phillips, propped on a shelf, of him with two young teenagers who bear a striking resemblance to each other. Maybe he can imagine, with that nightmare all parents have of their child suddenly being gone.
Robbie points to the picture that had drawn his attention. "Do you have children yourself, Dr. Phillips?"
"Oh, those. No, they're not mine. Nieces and nephews, that lot. And Harry, please, if you don't mind." Robbie accepts the offer with a nod, even if he won't reciprocate. He turns his head to look at the picture, and it's only then that Robbie notices that the remainder of the pictures are all of Harry Phillips with the same man - weathered face, thinning blond hair. Typically smiling down at Harry, who is smiling back in return in almost every image, regardless of setting.
"Ah," Robbie says. It'd be none of his business, he can't imagine what relevance Harry's private life could have to the case, but it's not like he seems in any way reticent about it, not with that many pictures out. "And does he live here as well?" Robbie asks, with a gesture to the others.
"No," Harry says. "He never did, we had..." Harry pauses, and when he looks away from the photos, he seems less the breezy matinee star and more human. "We lived elsewhere," he says. "Privacy of a sort you can't find in a college apartment. Nothing secret, just space to live our lives," he says. "Karl passed away two years ago," he says. "Cancer. I didn't want to stay in our flat after that. It was too... well. Too much."
"My condolences," Robbie says. "And you were... together?"
"Oh, yes," Harry nods and runs a hand through his hair, and a lock of his hair curls its escape in the wake of it. "Nearly ten years. He was, well, the tired line is 'the best thing that ever happened to me,' but it's no less than the truth.
"It was hard for me, as a young man," he continues. "You know what those days were like, of course. Terribly lonely for men like me, having to decide whether to hide, and if you did, constantly a bit frightening that it would all go off the rails. It's different now, of course, but," he breaks off with a quiet chuckle, "Well, I've found that I no longer have any interest in hiding who I am or have been. Karl helped me to that, and if it helps one of these posh young things stand up to daddy - not that most of them have any trouble speaking their mind, or being the voice of rebellion, as I'm sure you well know. But, in case it helps, here I am, with so many pictures out that you'd have to be much duller than my average student to not know."
Robbie's just got the one picture of Val out - ages old, her with Lyn and Mark at a bit of a picnic do for Lyn's school. He hadn't been able to be surrounded by her and carry on with daily life. Harry, though, his flat is littered with pictures of he and Karl for all that he said he'd needed a change. Different sorts, and all.
"We came together later in life Karl and I - friends for ages, of course, but nothing more until we were both 'confirmed bachelors' in the eyes of the world. I don't think my mother would have been able to bear it, but at least my brother was able to carry on the family name and give her some grandchildren before she passed.
"He was kind," Harry says with a sad smile that Lewis feels himself answering despite himself. "Far kinder than I've ever managed myself. That's partly why, well, as you see." He gestures around him at the photos on the mantle, the bookshelf, the window sill. "To remember that it's out there, that kindness." The silence stretches out for a few seconds, Robbie in the midst of a sip and Harry staring into the middle distance, but then he catches himself at it. "All of which has nothing to do with your investigation. Goodness. Well, I am one of those talky sorts of academics. Like being in front of the room more than anything else, as most of this lot could tell you. Might be true, for all that," he adds with a grin.
Robbie pushes himself to his feet with reluctance, but his bones kindly spare him the worst of their middle-aged creaking. "Thank you for your time, Dr. Phillips. And the tea. We'll be in touch if we need anything more." He hands over one of his cards, and Harry does the same. "Is this the best way to reach you?"
"Mmm, quite inseparable from my phone," he says. "E-mail, text, voice."
Robbie may not be much of a talker, but he's more of a talker than a texter, that's for bloody sure. None of that is information he needs to volunteer though; idle chatter can have its uses, but they've already had one conversation that got away from them. There's no reason now for him to be trying to draw Harry into further conversation or confidence.
As Robbie passes over the threshold, mind already on to his next task, Harry reaches out to touch his elbow again, and it's so wholly out of context that Robbie grinds to a halt, curious, without fully intending to.
"I'd just like to say," Harry says. "I'm sure you can't, in the midst of all this. Compromising the investigation and all that. But you do have my number now, and I'd like to see you again, maybe for dinner? I promise to try to not monopolize the conversation again."
Robbie opens his mouth to reply, though he's got no idea what might come out, and Harry raises a hand to forestall his answer.
"No, no I can see from the look on your face that I've overstepped. I won't say that it never hurts to ask, but. Well, sometimes it doesn't." He smiles. "You seem kind, too."
Robbie doesn't know just what look was on his face for Harry to discern - he doesn't usually have trouble maintaining a blandly interested look during an investigation - but after the door closes between himself and Harry, Harry's words stay with him. Of course he can't become involved with someone in the midst of a murder investigation, but if he's honest, it's not like he hadn't before, and there's no harm with a little flirting.
It's nice to be admired, is all. Flattering that Harry might be interested, especially if he's not actually a psychopath or a liar trying to put Robbie off his own game.
When Robbie walks back into his office, James has already got the outlines of the investigation pinned up on a board for review. Just one board, for the time being, but Robbie has an awful feeling that this one will splay out in every direction. "Her mobile was still on her, iPhone, the usual apps for someone her age. Gurdip is looking into her social network activity. Any luck on your end?"
"Finally caught Dr. Phillips in his rooms." Robbie can feel himself flushing at the unfortunate turn of phrase, but Hathaway's back is to him, transferring something from a printout to the top corner of the board, so it goes unnoticed.
This would be the point, if they were quite the kind of mates to talk about it, that Robbie would tell the story about Harry asking him out - ha ha, what a laugh.
But he's not sure that James is made of the type of stuff that would let him be lighthearted about it.
And James probably wouldn't take it well, at that. It's not the same sort of joke as it would be if it'd been a woman who'd fancied him. Robbie can easily imagine how DC Hooper might've told it, if it'd been his story, and he's not sure that James would hear the difference. That might be a lesson that he owes James, yet, but now is almost certainly not the time to try.
Instead, he hands over Dr. Phillips's card so that James can compile his information into the report, but not before scribbling the phone number on a scrap of A4 that he sticks under his keyboard.
By the next morning, Dr. Phillips and any relevance he might have had to Robbie's or James's lives is well in the past. Emma's parents are due in to view her body, which always heightens the urgency to know anything, no matter how little they're free to share. 'We're doing everything we can,' is ever a poor substitute for answers.
James has added a fair few names to his diagrams, and not managed to cross any off yet. "No threatening messages, at least not that we've found, though she could easily have deleted them. There is one young man who's commented on nearly every status and photo Emma had posted in the past several months that we've looked back. I've printed off some of his photos to bring round to the porter. Oh, and the SOCOs found a knife, possible match to the murder weapon, a fair distance back in the woods. They're running it for prints and DNA now."
That's something at least. Two bits of evidence are better than the none they'd had at the end of the previous day. "These comments, does he seem the type to cause trouble, do you think?"
"Hard to say, sir. On the surface, it could be broadly similar to the old-fashioned sort of stalker. Just more tools at his disposal. Or it could be entirely harmless. Some people just do that, we'd have to look into the rest of his own activity to say whether there was anything noteworthy in his interactions with Emma."
"Our Lyn, she's got a friend like that. Drives her right up the wall sometimes. I suppose it's the type of thing that everyone has now, like the neighbour who's always hanging over the fence in the back garden?"
James rolls his chair from desk to board, and drops down into it so that he can lean back and consider. "I really couldn't say, sir. I'm conversant, but I wouldn't classify myself as an avid user. Facebook didn't take off locally until I was past my school years, and I had mostly local friends. I find that I still prefer the immediacy of speech for my personal conversations."
"Go on, pull the other one," Robbie says. "Like you're not glued to that tiny keyboard."
"That's different, sir," he shoots back. "That's a question of efficiency."
They're saved the trouble of locating Emma's supposed boyfriend, and her possible internet stalker as well, when James finds the lad standing in the hall outside the viewing room in the morgue. He wouldn't be the first smooth bit of bad news to have gotten in with a girl's parents and stayed to watch the aftermath, but the boy couldn't give two shits - his words - what Hathaway wants, he refuses to budge until Emma's parents are back out in the hall with damp eyes and a hug that they and the lad seem to need equally.
He's a bit of an odd young man, Alex: skinny, half-folded in on himself even through his bluster. He's got an untidy swoop of hair and a long coat over his jumper and jeans, and he's absolutely from Manchester, bless him, as soon as he opens his mouth, though as he turns, James makes a snarky comment under his breath about being a decade too late. After a bit of silent negotiation over the unexpected, James takes the parents off for a quiet moment, and Robbie takes Alex for a quiet bit of questioning.
"Weren't like we were official," Alex says. "But I would have liked to be. Emma, she said it wasn't time yet. Had a bit of a shout at me about it, too. She's always so sure of what she needs to do. Sure what I needed, too, more often than not. I think she'd have had the whole world sorted, if it let her."
"So you followed her down here," Robbie says. "And she thought you shouldn't have.
"Just wanted to see her. There's nothing wrong with that, missing your girl. She liked to see me, too, just thought I should be doing other things. Working, like."
"And we know she was in residence at St. Matilda's, but where were you staying?"
"I've got a cousin, or close enough, proper smart like Emma, who works down here. He let me kip on his couch."
"And did you fight often? You said she shouted at you."
Alex shrugs. "No more than usual. Less than me mum and dad did."
"When you argued, Alex, did it ever get out of hand?"
"What, you mean like hit her?" He shakes his head, wildly, and Robbie has to wonder whether he'd even realized that they were considering him a suspect in Emma's death. "No! It weren't like that between us at all. Never, not once. I wouldn't hurt her. And I wasn't here, besides. I went home Sunday, took the train from Bournemouth at 3, so don't you say that. It's not true." He draws in a shaky breath, and when he continues, it's quieter. "Don't you say that to her mum. I wouldn't. I wouldn't."
"Okay, son." Robbie says. "Alright. We'll need to confirm that, but okay. Can you tell me why was it that you suddenly left, after you'd followed her here?"
"Wasn't sudden," Alex says. "Had to be at work for Monday, new job, and my Mum, she wanted me home for tea." He breaks off then, looks away from Robbie with a great wet sniffle and swipes across his eyes with his sleeve. "I should have stayed," he says. "If I'd been here, she wouldn't be- If I'd been here, it wouldn't have happened."
Robbie's got nothing to say to that. The simplest truth is that if there'd been someone walking with Emma, that yes, she probably would have survived the evening. He offers the only thing he can. "It's not your fault, lad. Sometimes, terrible things just happen. We all have to live our own lives."
There's a knock on the door, and when Robbie goes to open it, James is on the other side, holding up his phone, though the screen's dark. "They've got someone, sir."
In the end, none of Alex's care or Emma's plans had had any traction on random chance. The prints on the knife came back to a mugger who'd been making a comfortable living off posh young things fresh into town, if the contents of his flat and his mates' pockets were anything to judge by. Maybe he'd just been scared as well. Horrible waste, all the way around.
James packs everything away into boxes with his typical care - Harry's card and Alex's photos, Emma's notes and course calendar, crime scene photos and all the rest - compiling what gets forwarded to the prosecutors and what gets sent to the archives. They leave for the night with fewer words between them than usual.
They've been working through a handful of cold cases in their days between new ones - the current one is one of Knox's first as lead investigator, and it shows in the record-keeping, but Hathaway's been useful in talking through Knox's process as he knew it. It still makes Robbie's head hurt, and every day he's happy enough to see the clock tick past five, so that he can walk away for a while with a clear conscience.
"Fancy a pint?"
Hathaway looks briefly conflicted. "Is it just a pint, sir? It's just that Ren threatened to boot me if I skivved off again, and then we've rehearsal after."
"No, no, you go on," Robbie says. "I won't say that I'd mind the chance to talk about something other than this mess, but a bit of telly will soothe me well enough. And for this lot, well, it's nothing that won't keep for morning and coffee instead of evening and drink. You go enjoy yourself."
"It's not a question of enjoying myself, sir," James says with the usual twist of his lips. "And I know you're well aware that I enjoy your company. It's just that in this case, someone else has beaten you to the punch, and you'll have concede." James cuts off his train of thought with visible effort and shuts his mouth, pinning his lips between his teeth before starting again. "And you're a fair bit kinder to my ego than Ren is."
A snort escapes Robbie, and he waves James off. "Right, then. Thanks for that. Off with you then, leave this kindly old man to sit alone."
As he's shutting down his computer, contemplating the evening of telly and ready meal, it's that silly thought, kindly, that makes him check for Harry's number on the slip of paper under his keyboard. It's still there. Unlabelled, it would look like sloppy work if anyone should be called to sort through his desk, but he's unlikely to forget whose it is. After a moment of consideration, he picks up his cell phone and punches in the number.
"Harry? This is Inspec- this is Robbie Lewis. I thought you might still be interested in that dinner."
The restaurant isn't overly crowded - a mix of students and a few older couples avoiding the dinner rush. The food is good. The conversation is adequate, and Harry's good to his word to actually have a conversation, not a lecture or a confessional. They spend a fair bit of time talking about Lyn and Mark, and Harry's own extended family, a bit about Harry's students and hardly at all about either of their careers. It makes Robbie feel a bit old, to be honest. Grandfatherly.
It's hardly a couple of rowdy pints over rugby or football, which constituted most of Robbie's evenings out on his own since he and Val became an item. Harry seems like the sort who'd collect his friends for an evening around a long table, wine and debate, or maybe Robbie's just putting that cliche on him. The better part of his reference for how people live their lives these days comes from suspect interviews and alibi checks, which is perhaps not the best yardstick to use.
So Harry asks him questions, and Robbie answers, and before he's put much thought to it, they've finished their meals and split the check, and they're back on the streets of Oxford on a chilly fall evening. He and Harry, they might just be mates out for a bite to eat, except that Robbie can't remember the last time he was out in public for dinner with any man who wasn't James.
It seems obvious that he's still being courted. Robbie's honest enough with himself to admit that it's an awkward bit of business, but it's not uncomfortable. It's nice to feel wanted, that's no surprise, but Robbie keeps catching himself being aware of it: aware of making an effort, aware of balancing the conversation, aware of every time Harry's effusive gestures cross over into Robbie's personal space. On the walk back to Robbie's car, Harry had briefly grabbed on to his hand to direct his attention to a display of some book in a shop window.
"Would you like to come up for a nightcap-" Harry breaks off with a chuckle as a yawn catches up with Robbie. "Or a coffee," he says.
"Can I take your coat?" he asks. Robbie shrugs out of it gratefully - Harry's rooms were well-heated the last time he was there, and he's already feeling a bit flushed after the walk.
Harry shuts the door behind them, revealing the coat rack in the corner behind it, and drapes Robbie's coat and scarf on one of the hooks. "Can't spare the space for a proper wardrobe, though I can still hear my mother telling me I'll ruin my nice things by mistreating them such."
Harry turns back before Robbie steps into the room, and suddenly they're awfully close, far closer than they'd been seated across from each other at dinner, and facing to in a way that they hadn't been on the walk back. Harry looks. Well, he looks intent, and it sets off a flutter in Robbie's gut that he couldn't say for sure whether it's nerves or something else.
"Tell me if I'm overstepping," Harry says, "but I'd really like to." And then he's leaning in, and in holding Robbie's gaze, Robbie realizes that he's going to have to tip his chin up a bit for their lips to meet. It's a more active assent than he would have guessed.
It's not unpleasant, when their lips meet, so much as it's disconcerting. He's definitely being kissed more than he's doing the kissing. There's just. Nothing. No urge to kiss back, no urge to be close to Harry. No urge to run away even. So, not nerves then, that flutter. At least not the sort that he ought to have, if he's being kissed. He's fairly sure it's plain on his face, when Harry pulls back.
"I thought not," Harry says. "Do you mind that I tried? I do miss having someone to fuss over."
"I think we've just proved that you deserve better," Robbie says.
Harry's smile is worn, but steady. "I think I still quite fancy you, Robbie Lewis, but it looks like we both deserve better. Would you still like that coffee?"
"I think no," Robbie says, and Harry shakes his head in acknowledgement.
"We'll see each other around, I suppose," Harry says. "I should probably hope not too soon, though."
When Robbie gets in to work in the morning, James isn't there. The not-thereness is something of understatement, one that James himself might be drolly proud of. What James is, is entirely absent: computer turned off, files still stacked up for the evening so as to keep out of the way of the janitorial staff; no coffee cups, either emptied or half-full and forgotten in the pursuit of an idea; no notes for Robbie, scribbled in middle-of-the-night insight and stored up for morning, because Robbie's never been able to keep his phone straight on when it was allowed to notify him and for what.
No email, no text, no voice message.
At half nine, Innocent pokes her head in the door. "A moment, Inspector?"
He follows her back to her office and enters when she pauses to talk to her assistant and waves him in ahead of her. She doesn't shut the door when she makes her own entrance.
"You're still feeling well, I trust?"
"Yes, ma'am. And yourself?"
"Fine, thank you, but I'm not the one attached at the hip to someone on sick leave."
It's absolutely unlike her to be nonsensical, but it still takes Robbie more than the alotted moment to draw a logical conclusion.
"I just wanted to run through the contingency duty roster with you, in the event that James is out sick long enough that you need outside support for your investigations. I'm frankly amazed that he took a day before he was either miserable and wildly contagious, or admitted to hospital."
"I'm sorry, ma'am. I feel like you've got, or rather I've got, the wrong end of the stick here. Hathaway is out on sick leave?"
Innocent looks lost for words to a degree that Robbie's not sure he's managed before, and there had been a phase, early on after his return, when he'd taken some pride in his attempts.
"You mean to tell me that you didn't know?"
"No, ma'am. Although I dare say if he's ill enough to call off work voluntarily, that he's probably ill enough to forget a few little details."
"I don't believe that you've ever constituted a little detail in that man's life since the day he met you. He- No. That's neither here nor there. Yes, James is out of work. So, the rota-"
Robbie holds off on physically checking in on James until the end of the day. He pokes out a text message to around noon, heard you were poorly. still alive? to which he gets a yes in response about half an hour later, which might well be a record delay in the history of their communications.
The end of the day finds Robbie at Tesco, collecting soup and soda crackers and orange juice, and a few packets of biscuits, because he's never quite got over his childhood belief that the worst thing about being sick is having healthy food forced on you.
He arrives at James's flat prepared to lean on the buzzer if that's what it takes to rouse him, but he can hear the radio inside the flat, and the volume turns down after Robbie's first, polite, ring.
When James opens the door a few seconds later, face blank, he looks fairly healthy, if dressed a bit like a teenaged nightmare of himself. "Sir," he says. Not a question, quite, but no more to it, either.
"Sick day, is it?"
James frowns, ducks his head as he scuffs a hand over his hair. "Ah. Apologies, sir. You'll have to trust when I tell you that it was the more professional of my options for the day."
"Do I, now?"
James's expression twists inward in his complicated sort of way. "It'd be a kindness if you would."
James sighs, and steps back from the door. "You can come in if you'd like, parrot questions at me from the couch instead of the hall."
"Does sitting on the couch mean you'll answer? Because If you honestly think that you could go from healthy as a horse to too sick to work in twelve hours, and none of us would kick up a fuss, man, I hardly know what to say to you."
"It should have been a personal day, strictly speaking, but this seemed simpler, and I'm unlikely to use up my quota of either, so I figure they're fungible. Er, flexible, sir. Interchangeable. Although, to be fair, I was quite hung over this morning."
"Rough night out with the lads then?"
Somehow, that catches James off-guard. "What?"
"After your rehearsal. You all went out and you got carried away, like?"
That's his first clue, that it takes James a moment even to twig to his own plans for the previous night. He clearly considers his answer before speaking. "Not as such, no. It's all sorted, now, though."
"You'll forgive me Sergeant, if I say otherwise."
James looks up, maybe praying for who knows what. Maybe just inspecting the ceiling. "I don't suppose I'll get anywhere saying, 'can we not,' sir?"
"Not likely," Robbie answers. "But I've bought all this, and there's no need to start on an empty stomach," he says, gesturing with the bags. "Might as well make use of it."
James heats up the soup and Robbie makes them both a cuppa, and then they're sat on the sofa, facing the telly, rather than at the table facing each other. James stops the channel on what looks like a preview of the Rugby League World Cup, but Robbie couldn't possibly be less interested. For anyone looking in, their soup might be the most compelling substance ever created. The only thing Robbie is looking forward to less than having to have a conversation about what's bothering James is having to start a conversation about what's bothering him.
"James," he says, but that's as far as he gets.
"I saw you," James says, mostly to the table, or maybe the ottoman beyond it. "Last night, with that man, on my way home, I saw you. Which is why I was wasting perfectly good scotch on getting drunk, and why I was ill this morning, but it's done. I was stupid and angry, and I know I've no right to be. It's all sorted now. It won't be a problem, sir."
The only problem is, if Robbie's ever met anyone who could let go as easy as saying it, it's certainly not James Hathaway. They're definitely going to have to have the conversation. And all this over an evening that might never have happened, and probably shouldn't have.
"D'you want to tell me why it was a problem to begin with?"
"Not particularly." James takes a swig of his tea like he wishes it was something stronger, and Robbie can well picture how he'd have gotten into trouble the night before over it. "I saw how he was looking at you. He had his hands on the lapels of your coat, and he was looking at you like a lover. Like he wanted to be nearer." He pauses, but doesn't turn to Robbie like he's expecting a response, which is just as well, because Robbie doesn't have one ready to offer, even as the silence stretches out. "It was one thing to know you didn't think of me like that, wouldn't, and to know you were out with a female companion. It's just, it turns out it was something else entirely to find that it was... That it was just me in whom you were not interested."
Christ, that they could have carried on forever if not for that slip of paper. It's hard to know which is the more treacherous path, but by this point the only way out is through, and at a minimum, there are facts to be addressed. "And could you see my face as well, then?" he asks.
James takes another sip of his tea, and places the mug down with care. "No."
Robbie resists the urge to put his head in his hands, and instead turns so that he's facing James, even if James won't look back. "Whatever you saw, or thought you saw, it's well over now. I don't think I'd even say that it started."
"Brilliant," James shoots back. "I do so enjoy making an arse of myself over nothing."
There's a lapse back into uncomfortable silence, and Christ, Robbie feels guilty for thinking it, but he absolutely wishes that James had been violently struck down with flu rather than this. At the very least he can offer James the truth.
"Do you know why I went out with him, James? He asked. And I'm -" James makes a noise as if to interrupt, but Robbie holds his hands up, stop, wait and continues on. "I'm not saying that you should have asked, or even that I should have asked. I'm just saying that's all it was. That he asked, and that I wasn't entirely against it."
"And would you be," James says, "would you be entirely against it, if I were to ask?"
It's then, looking at James's face, that Robbie feels what he hadn't the night before. It's not fireworks and butterflies, but he can see the look on James's face, the look that had so bothered James to see on someone else's, and he thinks maybe. He tries thinking we could and then we are and it feels like the truth. James leans in, and Robbie meets him more than halfway.
James had been gracious as they passed through the receiving line, and wished Harry and his husband well before mostly fading into the background, or at least as far into the background as he ever managed. He had made it all too clear that he was reluctant to attend, until Robbie had shown him the actual invitation and its handwritten request to bring "your James" as Robbie's plus-one. Any jealousy he'd felt towards Harry had long since faded, and he'd only needed to be reassured that there was none on the other side.
"Karl and I never..." Harry says. "I'm not sure he would have wanted to do all this, so much fuss. It's important to Winston, though. The celebration, that his family wanted to celebrate with him, it's extraordinary." From a few yards away, Winston notices Harry's attention and smiles before turning back to his conversation. "I never thought to imagine this," Harry says. "I never thought I'd get another chance."
He looks over to where James is gamely dancing with a very small girl whose braids bounce as the two of them sway back and forth. She is standing on the toes of James's polished shoes. Robbie thinks she might be Winston's daughter, or maybe, like Harry, Winston only has nieces and nephews. "I suppose you can understand that."
"Aye," Robbie says. "That I can."