Robbie pushes the station door open with a resentful sigh. At two o’clock on a Saturday morning – on a rare weekend off – this is the last place he wants to be. And if it does turn out to be all James Hathaway’s fault, he’ll flipping murder the bloke himself, and bury the body where no-one will find it.
He was woken by a phone call half an hour ago from DI Linton’s sergeant, Deakin, who said Linton wanted him to come down to the nick “if at all possible.” Deakin had then added, “Sergeant Hathaway is here, and the DI said it would be helpful if you came.”
Helpful. Hah. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.
He’s about to take the stairs up to Linton’s office when the desk sergeant calls to him. “Inspector, DS Deakin said to tell you to go to Interview Room 3.”
He nods, but now his resentment is turning to anger. Linton has his sergeant in a bloody interview room? And without him there to talk to James first and find out what’s going on? Linton bloody better have a damn good explanation for this.
He enters the interview room without knocking. Linton’s there, sitting at the table with Deakin standing behind him – and, yes, there’s a tape running. And James is alone – the stupid sod hasn’t even had the sense to call in a Police Federation rep.
And then James turns towards him, and whatever Robbie’d been about to say to stop whatever it is that’s going on here just dries up on his lips, because the side of his sergeant’s face that had been turned away from him has a stark white bandage square in the middle of the cheek. There are obvious bruises elsewhere on James’s face, and now that he’s looking properly at the bloke he can see that James is holding himself oddly.
He’s been beaten up. James is the victim of a crime, not the perpetrator.
He closes the door behind him with a firm shove. “Someone better tell me what’s going on here.”
Linton leans towards the tape machine. “DI Lewis has entered the room. Interview suspended at 2:12 am.”
“Interview?” He can feel himself glaring at Linton. What’s the bloke doing here, anyway? What’s a DI doing getting involved in a simple assault case?
“Witness interview, Robbie. James, would you like to brief your governor?”
James shifts in his seat, the stiffness of his bearing suggesting that he’s not completely comfortable with this. Robbie’s tempted to ask Linton and the others to leave, but clearly they already know what’s going on. He moves to the table and pulls up a chair opposite James. “Go on, Hathaway.” The words are formal, but his tone’s deliberately gentle.
After a deep breath, James looks across at him. “Earlier this evening, I was at the Castle Tavern with a friend.” Ah. The Tavern’s probably the best-known gay pub in Oxford. “I went outside for a smoke and saw three men accost another man I’d seen inside earlier.” He describes the incident, an obvious – to James – hate crime with homophobia as the motive, with the level of detached detail Robbie’d expect from a copper. “I’d already been seen, so I had to make a choice,” he adds then, “between calling Dispatch, and risking escalating the incident, or trying to intervene myself to prevent further injury to the victim, who at that point was on the ground and being severely kicked. I chose the latter option.”
You bloody idiot, Robbie thinks, but he’s not going to criticise James in front of Linton. “What happened then?”
“I managed to deflect some of their focus, enough to let the victim get up and out of reach. By then, I could hear sirens, and the three suspects ran off. I tried to give chase, but unfortunately I tripped and fell.” James flushes, looking thoroughly embarrassed.
“However,” Linton intervenes, “Sergeant Hathaway was able to give excellent descriptions of the three suspects, and we’ve circulated those to uniforms. That’s not all, though. A threat was made which we’ll be following up on.”
“Oh?” Robbie’s gaze diverts to James again. Is he in danger?
“One of them said, and I quote, You might have survived this time, but we’ll get you poofters at the Festival. There’ll be enough of us there you won’t know what hit you.” James frowns in distaste.
“The Festival?” It sounds familiar, but Robbie can’t place the context.
“LGBT Festival weekend in Henley.” Robbie nods; he did know about it. It’s next weekend, isn’t it?
“I want to go undercover, sir.” James sounds utterly determined. “I would recognise those three again, and I know what to look out for generally. We need undercover officers to prevent more violence.”
“There’ll be coppers all over the place as it is, won’t there?” Robbie says, not liking the idea at all. James is already hurt; there’s no way he’ll risk the bloke getting further injuries.
“Even plainclothes, they’ll stand out a mile.” Sod it, the lad’s got his stubborn face on. He’s not going to be easy to talk out of this; Robbie’s just going to have to put his foot down. “I won’t. I can blend in much more easily.” For a split second, Robbie wonders what James means, but then the penny drops. The Tavern... James has all but said he’s gay.
“He’s got a point,” Linton says, and fuck it, the bastard’s ready to approve this. “Hathaway would be a real asset in this operation.” And, Christ, it’s Linton’s operation, isn’t it? This is why Linton’s here. And next thing he’ll be taking it to Innocent, with all the arguments about why James’s involvement should be approved.
Robbie sets his jaw and eyeballs Linton. If he can’t stop James, he can bloody well make sure he’s not going in unprotected. “If you’re bound an’ determined to do this, then I’m going with Hathaway. Better two pairs of eyes than one.”
He hears a sharp intake of breath from James, but keeps his focus on Linton – who widens his eyes, then smiles slowly. “Well, Hathaway may attract our suspects’ attention more readily if he has an obvious partner. So as long as you both think you can be convincing, then I don’t see why not.”
An obvious partner... What has he just got himself into?
"I'm…" James is looking a bit shaken. "I'm sure Inspector Lewis wasn't suggesting… didn't know you meant…"
"I'm old enough to speak for meself, lad," Robbie says, giving James a gentle look. James nods and now merely looks worried and shaky instead of looking and sounding worried and shaky.
What does Robbie want exactly? He wants to protect James. True, he hadn't imagined that would involve posing as his significant other… but Linton's already determined to send James in, and Robbie is just as determined to go with him. And if this is what he needs to do, then he decides on the spot he'll do it. James has fared badly enough without him this time. If there's a chance things will go pear-shaped… and there is… Robbie needs to be there to help.
"I understand the terms," Robbie says firmly. "And I agree. We'll go in as partners, him and me."
Linton looks tickled. "Excellent." His expression smoothes over into something more businesslike. "Now. I'll be asking that you two be given time off to work exclusively on your back-stories and covers for this weekend, given that you don't have much time to prepare and we want to be thorough. As you're going to be posing as a couple, you may want to spend some additional time together working out some basics, such as what types of touch are permitted and…"
Robbie looks at James, and James looks desperately pale.
"Linton, man," Robbie says gently, "don't you think we can discuss this another time? It's late. James has been hurt. We both of us need our rest."
Linton would clearly do every bit of briefing he could think of now, but he does see the sense in Robbie's suggestion, and he nods reluctantly. "All right. But I'll expect to meet with you tomorrow to work out the details."
"Fine," Robbie says. He looks at James. "Are you ready to go, lad?"
Without a word, James nods, standing to go, arms close to his body in a self-protective gesture. Robbie wonders what James is protecting… or who he's protecting himself against.
James waits until they're in Robbie's car to speak. "You didn't have to do that."
"Yeah, I did," he says, keeping his tone casual. "We're partners, right? I'm not gonna let me partner do something risky like this without me by his side. And I've been undercover before."
"Not like this." James is staring straight ahead, through the windscreen into the dark of night. "Not having to pretend..."
"Don't think it'll be much of a hardship," Robbie says, deliberately cheerful. "Unless you'd find it...?"
"No," James says immediately, defensive. "I... but Linton's right, we need to be clear about boundaries and... and..."
"And we will, but not tonight." Robbie's firm on that. "It's already after three in the morning, an' we were both supposed to be off-duty for the next couple of days – though Linton's scuppered that with wanting to meet with us tomorrow. Let's get some sleep for what's left of the night, an' we can talk in the morning."
James nods, then seems to take stock of his surroundings. "This isn't the way to my flat."
"You can stay at mine tonight." Apart from anything else, by the time he'd have driven to James's and then back home it'd be closer to four in the morning. "Besides, it'd be as well to get used to spending time together at close quarters. Might think about spending a few nights at mine over the coming week."
James just nods without comment.
Another thought occurs to Robbie. "D'you think the bastards who attacked you an' the other bloke realised you're a copper?"
"No." James sounds firm on that at least. "I didn't produce my warrant card or do anything to identify myself."
"Good." Robbie nods. "So maybe we'd both best keep a low profile this coming week, before the festival, in case they're still around Oxford. Well, a low profile as coppers, anyway."
James glances at him, looking wary and uncertain again. Bugger.
Robbie sighs. "James, I know I got myself into this without so much as a by your leave. I didn't want you going through this alone. But I hope you know I'll do anything I can to make you comfortable with this. It wasn't…" He pauses. "I never meant to embarrass you. That's not why I'm doing this."
James looks at him for a long moment, then nods. "I know."
Robbie nods. "So. Back to mine, and I promise not another word about this tonight. We can start thinking about what we need to do tomorrow."
James looks a bit relieved. "That…sounds better. Thank you."
Robbie doesn't say it, of course, but what he thinks is, Lucky they didn't hurt you worse. I'd've had to find them then, and I'm not as diplomatic as you.
When they arrive at Robbie's flat, Robbie is about to ask if James needs anything when he hears the telltale sound of James flopping onto the sofa. He glances over to see James sprawled across the furniture, eyes closed, letting out a sigh.
With a warm look at James, Robbie turns off the light, slipping off his shoes before he pads to his bedroom.
"Goodnight, lad," he whispers.
In the morning, Robbie quietly comes into the living-room to see if James is up. The lad's still out cold on the sofa, the blanket Robbie had thrown over him last night still covering him. Robbie starts to back away, but treads on a creaky floorboard, and a moment later James blinks awake. "Wha' time is it?"
"Crap." James swings into a sitting position, allowing Robbie a clear view of the bruises on his face. There's not much of his face that isn't covered by darkening marks or scratches.
"That must hurt," Robbie says, moving closer to James. He stops himself as he realises he was actually about to reach out and touch the lad's face. What was he thinking?
James shrugs, then winces. "Actually, if you have some paracetamol..."
"Can do better than that. Why don't you go an' have a long, hot shower, and when you come out I'll have breakfast ready. And paracetamol." James glances down at his crumpled and stained clothes. "You're in luck," Robbie adds. "Last time you stayed the night, you left a change of clothes here. I've put your bag in the bathroom."
"Thanks." James disappears, rubbing his eyes and wincing again, and Robbie starts to get breakfast ready.
It's fifteen minutes before James reappears, hair damp and spiky, and he's unshaven – Robbie's not sure whether that's due to reluctance to use Robbie's razor or because it would've been too painful.
"This is... Thank you, sir," he says as he sits. And Robbie can see the precise moment when James remembers what they're supposed to be talking about today, because even with the bruises his face goes pink.
They can't avoid it for ever, though. "S'pose we'd best start figuring out our... relationship," Robbie suggests, bringing two mugs of coffee to the table.
James nods, face still flushed. He takes the mug of coffee and curves his hands around it to warm them. "I suppose we should work out the basics. How long have we been together?"
"Let's keep it simple," Robbie suggests. "Close to the truth as possible. We can say we met when we actually met. We just have to decide if we were immediately attracted or if it went from friendship to more."
"I like beginning with friendship," James murmurs. "More convincing."
Robbie nods. "Right. When did we become a couple?"
"A few years ago," James says. "You had a close call at work. Unexpected danger. It made me realise how I really felt about you."
"And I felt the same but hadn't wanted to say," Robbie says.
James looks at Robbie, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "Did you?"
Robbie doesn't know if they're in their characters or not. It's a dangerous game, this. But he reaches out and gently touches James's hand with his fingertips. "Course I did."
James turns his hand over to hold Robbie's. His hand is a little bit cold, and Robbie's grip tightens instinctively to try to warm him. "In the matter of touch… I suspect I'm more comfortable with open affection than you are."
Robbie had a difficult time thinking of James as openly affectionate, but… he almost wanted to see it now that James had said. "I'm old-fashioned, me."
James nods, that slight smile still on his face and in his eyes. "I tease you about that."
Robbie looks down at their joined hands. "You have to remember… when I was a lad, you could be arrested for it."
James says nothing, but his grip on Robbie's hand tightens.
"So," Robbie says after a bit, "holding hands is okay."
James nods. "When I'm... with someone, I also might put my arm around them when we're walking or sitting together."
Robhie nods as well. "I can do that. Or you can do it to me, since you're taller."
"Then there's... names. With respect, sir," James adds, and gives Robbie a slightly sheepish frown, "we won't be very convincing if I call you sir."
"Course not." Robbie smothers a grin. "I like pet names meself. Could call you my bonny lad."
"Yes, darling." James's tone is reproving. "You realise we'll need to stay in Henley? Sharing a room?"
"Nah. Really? You mean we can't get separate rooms?" Robbie grins. It's amusing to wind the lad up; he doesn't often get the chance. "Course I realise that. You'd better book that sooner rather than later, hadn't you?"
"All right. And you'd best tell me how I should dress. Don't want to look like an off-duty copper, an' I'd rather not look like Boy George either."
James actually grins. "Perish the thought. No, I'll take you shopping. We'll have you looking like a perfectly normal fifty-year-old bloke who happens to be gay."
"Try closer to sixty," Robbie comments dryly. "But, going back a moment, there's one thing we've not talked about doing or not doing."
James blushes again. "What are your thoughts on that?"
Robbie shakes his head. "Told you I'd do what you were comfortable with."
James looks at Robbie, his gaze unreadable. "I don't want the day of to be the first time we try it. First kisses always look like first kisses. We'll give ourselves away."
"Kissing practise?" Robbie hadn't expected that. "Makes me feel like a teenager."
James looks amused. "You practised kissing as a teenager?"
Robbie feels his face heat. "Didn't want to get it wrong, did I?"
"I don't think you'll get it wrong with me," James says. "That's not what it's about. It's about… knowing how we fit."
Robbie nods. "All right. D'you want to start, or…?"
James leans in gently, eyes searching Robbie's, and Robbie feels…a bit trembly. Not on the outside, none of that, but… something inside him is… nervous. Shy. Excited maybe. It's been a while. James gently cups Robbie's face in his hands, closes his eyes, and presses their mouths together.
Robbie knows he wouldn't ordinarily be doing this, but he sets his conscious thoughts aside for now. He's doing this so he's convincing… so he doesn't get James hurt or found out. He can follow his instincts in this case. And his instincts have him running a hand through James's hair and opening his mouth to James when James's tongue brushes his lips, because after all these years of nothing, he finds he is hungry for the affection and intimacy in this.
It's really not that different from kissing a woman, he realises very quickly as he allows his own tongue to touch James's in a tentative caress. The only real difference, other than the faint hint of stubble around James's lips, is the hint of nicotine on James's breath – except that Val had been a smoker when they'd started going out, so it's not really that different.
And it is lovely, and it's so long since he's has this intimacy, and he's just starting to shift closer... when James pulls back. And the lad's expression is inscrutable.
"As I said," James says quietly, "We won't have a problem." He pushes his chair back and stands. "More coffee, sir?"
Robbie slumps in his chair, not even looking at James as he moves into the kitchen and puts the kettle on. Bugger it. He made a right mess of that, didn't he? Now James probably thinks he's interested in more than pretence – which he's not, of course, but what was he thinking kissing James back like that? All he had to do was make it look right. Not act like he wants to haul the bloke off to his bedroom.
Well, there's only one way to fix it. "You're right," he says, standing and looking at James, completely businesslike. "We'll be fine. So, we can tell Linton we've sorted what's acceptable an' we know we can look convincing, right?"
"Agreed, sir." James's tone and body language is all formal; they could be agreeing on which suspect to interview next.
Oh, well, it's better than being all awkward around each other, isn't it?