“So, any big plans for Tuesday?” Robbie asked, when they were both putting on their coats to head out for the weekend.
“Why, what's Tuesday?” James asked, temporarily absorbed in his buttons.
“Valentine's Day, man.”
James shrugged. “Not dating anyone right now.”
“How would I know? You never tell me.”
James lifted his eyebrows at him. “I'll try to involve you more fully in my love life in future, sir.”
Robbie blew out a breath. “Never mind. Sorry I asked.”
James paused at the door. “Are you –” He shook his head, started again. “Is this about Doctor Hobson?”
“Not really,” Robbie said, meaning it. They'd broken up a few weeks before Christmas, both of them agreeing it wasn't meant to be. Robbie had tried to be depressed about it, but he was sorry to say that all he truly felt was relief. “It's just – the time of year, I suppose. Dreary.”
James studied him for a long moment, then said, “I did have plans, actually, but they're not exactly romantic. There's an open mic night – music, poetry, a bit of everything. Thought I might go down and sing a couple of tunes, have a few pints.” He paused. “You should come.”
Robbie shook his head. “Thanks, but – I don't think so. Not really my thing.”
“It's at the James Street Tavern. You like that place.”
“Yeah, I do,” Robbie conceded. It still didn't sound like something he'd enjoy, but they did have great bitter.
“Come on, then,” James said. “You can laugh at my playing.”
“I'd never,” Robbie said, and James smiled at him. “Oh, all right then.”
“Good,” James said, raising a hand to say goodbye, and Robbie nodded. After he was gone, he couldn't help but wonder what he'd just agreed to.
A date, with Hathaway. On Valentine's Day. That's what you've bloody agreed to.
“Bugger,” he said, making one of the new constables jump as he walked by the door.
Robbie fretted about it the whole weekend. When Monday rolled around, he found himself hoping a dead body would be discovered somewhere, but none ever appeared. There was just the endless pile of paperwork from the last case and the quiet presence of Hathaway in the room with him, tapping diligently on his keyboard, occasionally firing off a question or crossing the space between their desks to hand him a draft report. It was a scene they’d enacted literally dozens, if not hundreds of times over the years, and yet Robbie found himself becoming distracted by the tapping, or the way Hathaway loomed over him when he stood near his desk. Christ, but he was a tall one.
Late on Tuesday afternoon, Robbie found his distraction reaching new levels, and in the process he spent nearly an hour typing data into the new electronic record-keeping system that was supposed to be easier and faster and more efficient – and when he went to save it, the screen went blank. “Oh, bloody hell,” Robbie snapped.
James’ head appeared from around his monitor. “What is it?”
“I’m about to throw this computer through the damned window, that’s what,” Robbie said. He hit a few keys at random, but the screen remained blank.
“Here, hang on,” James said, bounding to his feet and coming round behind Robbie. He leaned down, and Robbie nearly jumped as he felt James’ breath on his ear. “What did you do?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place, would I?”
James snorted. “Sorry, should have been clearer. I mean, what were you trying to do?”
“I was trying to save me work!”
“And the last time you saved it was…”
Robbie shifted in his chair. Did Hathaway have to lean in so close? “I hadn’t got round to it yet.”
“Now, sir,” James drawled, and Christ, this close to his ear it sounded like he was purring, “what did they say in the training about periodically saving your data?”
Robbie turned his head to glare at James, and started when his nose almost grazed James’ cheek. Hathaway pulled back abruptly, and his face turned a bit pink. Clearing his throat, James nodded at the screen. “Look, all may not be lost. Why don’t you budge up and I’ll take a look at it?”
Robbie blinked at him. “Erm, yeah, sure,” he said. “Thanks.” Pushing his chair back, he rose to his feet. Hathaway slid into the seat and began tapping away, too quickly for Robbie to make out what he was doing. In a trice, his screen was back, exactly as he’d left it a minute ago.
“How did you –”
Hathaway grinned up at him and wriggled his fingers at the monitor. “Black magic, sir.”
“Oh, go on with you.”
James laughed. “I’ll write down the steps for you, shall I?”
“Please and thanks,” Robbie said, as dryly as he could.
“You need a cup of tea after that trauma,” James said, as they switched places.
“You’re a smug smartarse, but I would like a cuppa,” Robbie said. “Black, one sugar.”
“I know,” James said; Robbie could practically hear him rolling his eyes. He looked up and caught James looking down at him with what could only be termed affection; as soon as their gazes caught and held, though, James’ expression went as blank as the screen.
He pointed at the door. “I’ll just –”
“Yeah,” Robbie said, his voice sounding rough to his own ears. “Thanks.”
After Hathaway had left, Robbie blew out a breath and slumped in his chair, while a voice in his head said, Cheer up; at least you have a date for Valentine’s.
James picked him up at the door, his guitar case in hand. “Want to walk?” he asked. “It’s a mild night.”
“Sure,” Robbie said, throwing on his coat and closing the door behind him. It was probably about a half hour walk to the pub, but he’d put on a couple of pounds over Christmas and hadn’t got round to taking them off again, so he didn’t mind.
They set off, walking at a beat or two slower than their normal stride; Hathaway didn’t seem to be in a big hurry, and Robbie matched his pace. Occasionally, their arms or elbows brushed, but neither of them made any effort to move apart. It occurred to Robbie that they often did that – sat or stood or walked close together. He wasn’t the sort to need a lot of personal space, anyway; Hathaway, however, tended to keep his distance – well, from most everyone else. This was the first time Robbie wondered what that could mean.
It probably didn't mean anything, Robbie chided himself, only that they spent far too much time together. And coming with James tonight was actually a good idea, because it would remind Robbie of how little they had in common outside of work. The James Street would be chock a block with students and the bohemian crowd that James liked to play music with, and Robbie would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, even in the new jeans and casual shirt Lyn had bought him for Christmas.
When they reached the pub, it was beginning to fill up, but James managed to snag the last small table near the stage. The show hadn't started yet, but the noise level was already high enough that James had to lean close to be heard. “Pint?” he asked.
Robbie nodded. “Thanks.” He began to dig for his wallet, but James laid a hand on his arm. Robbie felt the unexpected thrill of contact even through the coat he wore.
“I dragged you out; tonight's on me,” James said, legging it for the bar before Robbie could protest. Despite Hathaway's occasional jokes about always paying, they traded off pretty evenly. The offer made this feel less like a couple of mates going out to a pub, and more like –
Robbie shook his head as he shrugged out of his coat. Stop that. It's not a date.
James returned in short order with two pints, handing one to Robbie as his gaze furtively flicked up and down. “What is it?” Robbie asked.
“Erm,” James said, blinking as though he were waking up, “That's a new outfit.”
Robbie looked down at himself. “Our Lyn's Christmas presents,” he said. “She said it was time for me to wear something made in this century.”
James only nodded, still staring at Robbie. Robbie dropped into his chair, trying to ignore the fact that the temperature in the room seemed to have suddenly gone up ten degrees. As James sat, Robbie noted he was dressed up a bit more than he usually did off-duty, with a brightly striped button-down shirt open at the throat.
Probably goes a bit more fancy when he’s performing, Robbie thought, and he half believed it to be true.
They sipped their pints in silence as Robbie scanned the crowd. He’d been right, it was mostly students, but there were some older folks as well. He also noticed that most of them seemed to be paired off, in various combinations.
“James, you made it!” A huge man with long blond hair barrelled towards their table, arms outstretched, and James rose to his feet and returned the offered bear hug. To say that Robbie was surprised was the understatement of the year.
“Sue’s been looking for you,” he said. “She’s in the back room warming up. Has a song she’s hoping you can help out with.”
“That sounds ominous,” James said. “Sparky, I’d like you to meet Robbie Lewis. Robbie, this is Sparky, the Dangerous Poet, our host for the evening.”
Robbie was already rising to his feet, but he faltered a little when he heard James use his given name. It occurred to him then that James hadn't called him 'sir' all evening, and was clearly not going to explain their relationship to this bloke. “Pleased to meet you,” Robbie said, shaking the other man's hand.
“What's your poison, then, Robbie? Music, poetry, rap?”
“Oh, no, I'm not here to perform. Just to – ah, appreciate.”
Sparky's gaze flicked between James and Robbie. “Well, James is certainly worth appreciating. I keep telling him he should share his talent on YouTube.”
James shook his head and smiled. “I'm just an old-fashioned boy, I'm afraid,” he said. He glanced at Robbie from under his eyelashes, and Robbie stared back, feeling his stomach attempt something akin to a somersault.
Who are you and what have you done with my Sergeant? he wanted to ask, but James had already broken the connection, bending down to pick his guitar case. “Do you mind if I desert you for a few minutes?”
“No, no. Go ahead,” Robbie said. Sparky and James headed off towards the back of the pub, and Robbie stood there watching them and wondering if he might be dreaming.
He took another sip of his bitter. It tasted real enough.
“Better get another just to be sure,” he muttered, downing the last of it and heading off to the bar.
By the time James returned, the open mic night was in full swing. Sparky had started things off with an ode to beer and a rap that Robbie thought covered everything that was wrong with the NHS bill, and then surrendered the stage to an accordion player in a kilt and a woman who played the spoons. After that came a lad who sang an a capella Otis Redding song that had Robbie transfixed.
“Thought you might like him.” Robbie started at James' voice in his ear after the applause had died; he hadn't even noticed his approach. “He's all of twenty-one. I try not to be madly envious.”
Robbie turned to James, who was standing – well, quite close, his guitar in hand. “You're not exactly lacking for talent. I've heard you should be on YouTube.”
James smirked at him. “Funny,” he said, and once again Robbie couldn't help but notice the lack of a sir tacked on the end of it. “Well, you're about to sample some of my talent in a moment, for better or worse.”
“Looking forward to it,” Robbie said, surprised when James bit his lip. “You're not nervous.”
James shook his head. “Terrified,” he said, but before Robbie could respond, Sparky was back up announcing the next act.
“Our next performer is a regular on our stage, and we're pleased to have her here tonight. She has more musical ability in the tip of her nose than most of us do in the tips of everything else combined. Sue Greenway!”
The crowd applauded and cheered as a slim woman with a shock of short, dark hair and a height to rival Hathaway's took to the stage with a tenor saxophone. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she said into the mic. “I'd like to introduce another musician well-known to many in this crowd, a very accomplished guitarist and singer, James Hathaway.”
The applause for James was more subdued than for Greenway, Robbie noted, but it was still much more than he expected. Clearly, James was well regarded, and Robbie wondered how often he performed like this. He realised the feeling that accompanied the thought was jealousy: he was envious of these people for knowing more about this part of James than he did.
And what exactly that meant – well.
“We'd like to sing two songs for you tonight, one from each of us, representing two aspects of love on this Valentine's Day. We flipped a pound coin out back and I won, so you get mine first.” And after a short, quick count, they launched straightaway into a rollicking version of “Stupid Cupid” that had everyone laughing and clapping along.
At the end, the pub erupted, and Sue and James took their bows. As Sue thanked the crowd, Hathaway snagged a stool from the back of the stage and hauled it up to the mic, then perched on it, briefly tuning a couple of strings before speaking. “Thank you, everyone. It's been said that love is a form of madness. I've decided that I could do with a little more madness in my love.” And with that cryptic comment, he started to play.
Robbie recognized the chords before the saxophone began its interpretation of the melody. He watched James, head bowed over his guitar, not looking at the crowd at all. And when the solo was over and the applause died, he finally raised his head – and locked gazes with Robbie as he began to sing.
My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable
Yet you're my favourite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But don't change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay, little valentine, stay
Each day is Valentine's Day
Robbie wasn't sure he remembered to breathe for the whole song, and when it was over, he couldn't hear the reaction of the audience over the roaring of his blood in his ears. James finally looked away from him, smiling and thanking the crowd, and Robbie drained the last of his pint and found his hands were shaking.
James leapt down off the stage, making way for the next act, then threaded his way through the crowd, occasionally stopping to talk briefly to someone, accepting a pat on the back. When he reached their table, though, he didn't look at Robbie at all, merely bent down to put the guitar away and snap the case closed.
“Need a cigarette,” James shouted over the noise, pointing at the door. Robbie nodded, or thought he nodded; Hathaway grabbed his coat and was soon swallowed up in the crowd.
Robbie waited a full minute.
“Ah, bugger it,” he muttered, springing to his feet and shrugging into his own coat. He turned towards the door before he remembered Hathaway's self-admonishment: never let your instrument out of your sight. Funny how he still remembered that – or perhaps, not so funny. Turning back, he snatched up the guitar and headed out the way Hathaway had come.
He found James outside, eyes closed, leaning against the whitewashed wall of the pub. There was no telltale cloud around him. “Not smoking?” Robbie asked.
Eyes still shut, James rolled his head back and forth against the wall. “Not smoking. Panicking.”
Robbie had a hundred questions, but none of them felt at all safe. And for every question he had, there was a memory – of a smile, a look, a word, a vow (if you go, I go) that suddenly made sense.
He'd never felt more stupid in his life.
“James.” It was all he could say.
James' eyes opened, staring straight ahead. “Please don't tell me you're flattered.”
“Stop trying to read my bloody mind,” Robbie said, which at least had the effect of startling James into looking at him. “You don't know what I'm thinking.”
James opened his mouth, closed it again, then took a deep breath. “What are you thinking?”
“That I don't know what I'm thinking any more than you do,” Robbie said, and James snorted and ducked his head. “Let's walk, eh?”
They fell into step as they had hundreds of times before, heading back to Robbie's. “Here, let me take that,” James said, and Robbie passed him the guitar. Their fingers tangled on the handle, and Robbie felt that odd, unfamiliar jolt again. They'd touched each other dozens of times; what made this different? Was it just because he knew Hathaway – what? Wanted him? Loved him?
God, he thought, as warmth flooded through him at the thought. You went on a date with Hathaway and he sang you a love song and now he's walking you home and the question is, will you snog him at the door and say goodnight or will you invite him in for tea –
They had stopped as they fumbled with the case, Hathaway's focus entirely on their hands. There was a furrow between his eyebrows as he tried to get hold of the guitar without dropping it, and he looked far too young and impossibly dear, and Robbie felt something loosen inside him, something he had perhaps kept knotted up out of fear, or shame. No need for either of those now, he supposed.
Secure grip on the guitar case achieved, James looked up just as Robbie put a hand on his cheek. It was a bit of a stretch to touch his mouth to James', especially with the lad standing there stunned, but he managed it. James' lips were cool from the night air, but they warmed quickly enough, especially when James sighed and tilted his head and kissed back, his free hand coming up to bury itself in Robbie's hair.
When Robbie pulled away, James still had his eyes closed, as though he were afraid to open them and find himself dreaming. Robbie patted his cheek, and they flew open. “Come along, lad,” he said, smiling, “I'll make you a cuppa when we get back to mine.”
James' face broke into a completely unguarded grin. You make me smile with my heart, Robbie thought; so that was what it looked like. James had meant it, meant every word of it. Robbie's own heart thudded slowly against his ribs, finding a new rhythm.
Their arms and elbows brushed more than usual as they walked, Robbie thought, but then again, maybe not.