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The Most Terrible Poverty

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Robbie pulls up outside James’s flat, noting as he does that there’s a light on in the living-room. Good.

Not that it’s a surprise. He already knows James isn’t at the station – it’s the first place he checked. And these days, if James isn’t at the station, or at the pub with Robbie or at Robbie’s flat, then he’s at home – and, more than likely, drinking more than is good for him.

It’s more than time someone put a stop to that – and, given James’s complete lack of a social life, that someone’s going to have to be Robbie.

He supposes that bringing beer to the home of a man he already suspects is drinking too much is probably not the best of ideas, but it’s what’s going to get him inside. If James suspects Robbie’s motive for being here, he won’t get further than the doorstep.

James answers the door barefoot and wearing some sort of hoodie-thing that makes him look like a teenager who’s trying to hide from the world. “Sir! I thought – it’s not a callout, is it?”

“Nah – am I dressed for a callout?” He gestures to his own apparel: jeans and a rugby shirt beneath the old suede jacket Val bought him for his birthday a few months before she died, and which he just hasn’t been able to bring himself to get rid of even though it’s mostly rubbed shiny by now. “Besides, wouldn’t be bringing this, either.” He holds up the six-pack.

James steps back to let him in, and as he passes his sergeant Robbie can smell the whisky on the younger man’s breath. Damn. He really should have done something about James weeks ago. The bloke’s holding it together on the job so far, but judging by the state of him that’s nothing short of a miracle. If he carries on like this, it won’t be long before someone else notices, and then it’ll be suspension and the alcohol abuse policy.

There’s no way that Robbie’s going to let that happen, and not just because James is his sergeant. He just cares about the bloke too much to see him destroy himself like that – not just losing his career, but sinking into that sort of despair.

Make or break, this is. He’s got to get the lad to talk to him.

A couple of minutes later, they’re on James’s couch, and it hasn’t escaped Robbie’s notice that James has chosen another two fingers of whisky instead of a beer. “So what brings you here?” James asks, reasonably enough.

Robbie shrugs. “Was feeling at a loose end and thought I’d see if you’d mind some company. Probably should’ve phoned first, I suppose – never thought, but you could’ve had someone here.”

Not very subtle, he thinks in retrospect, but James has had a few. Maybe he won’t notice.

James notices. He turns his head, his face suddenly very close, and gives Robbie a raised-eyebrow stare that says more than a dozen or more words would have.

Robbie pulls an apologetic grimace, and after a moment James relaxes, his lips almost forming one of his mocking smiles. “Should I be reassured or worried that your social life is as barren as mine, sir?”

He’s been mocked about his lack of a life outside work too many times for it to bother him any more. But there is one thing about James’s comment that does irritate him. “Ah, for god’s sake drop the sir, would you? I don’t want to feel as if I’m still working.”

James does a perfect expression of a goldfish. “Sorry,” he says after a pause. “I never realised...”

“My fault. Should’ve said something before now. Long past time I did.”

The lad’s recovery’s quick, as always. “So what would you prefer? There’s Robbie, of course, but I wouldn’t want to presume. Mr Lewis? Your-”

He doesn’t wait to hear whatever James’s next ridiculous suggestion’s going to be. Bloody smartarse. “Robbie. And you know that’s what I meant.”

In response, he gets one of James’s trademark grins, lips just turned up at the corners. And, strangely, for one of those smiles he’d forgive the lad almost anything.

 

***

It’s at least half an hour before he feels ready to broach the reason why he’s here. James gives him an opening by offering another beer.

“Nah, think I’ve had enough. An’ you have too, by the look of it.”

James is instantly on his guard, the barriers up. “So that’s why you’re here. Policing my drinking habits now, as well as my private life?”

It’s not anger Robbie hears in his voice, it’s hurt. Not hard to work out what the bloke’s thinking: that Robbie’s visit has nothing to do with wanting company. Course, he’s not far wrong, though Robbie does enjoy James’s company and – if he didn’t feel guilty about taking up the bloke’s free time – he’d be happy to have more of it than he does.

“Not policing,” he says, keeping his tone calm – kind, even. “I’m worried about you. I don’t like to see you like this – and not because I’m your governor. Because we’re friends.”

James leans forward to pour himself another whisky, his thigh shifting against Robbie’s – how is it that they always seem to sit so close together, even when there’s plenty of room? – then drinks it in one gulp. “I appreciate the concern, sir, but it’s not necessary.”

“Ah, give over,” Robbie says immediately, refusing to rise to the bait. “Y’know, there was a time when I could’ve drunk you under the table. Still could, I bet. Course, I preferred brandy, but whisky’s fine too.” He reaches out and takes the glass from James’s hand, and then goes for the bottle.

“No.” There’s a different kind of tension in James’s voice as he grabs the bottle, then stands and strides into the kitchen with it. “I won’t let you-” He halts abruptly, breathing heavily, then turns to the sink, and Robbie realises that he’s about to pour what’s left of the whisky away.

“James?”

Without turning, James speaks. “I remember, a few months after we started working together, hearing you talk about the year after your wife died. I thought you were exaggerating, until a couple of people at the station thought it was a good idea to tip me off that I should keep an eye on you, just in case. I’m not going to let you go on a binge, Robbie, and if that means I don’t drink either, then that’s the way it has to be.”

Does James really think...? He gets up and walks into the kitchen, stopping when he’s close enough to lay a hand on James’s arm. “You don’t need to worry, soft lad. I’m not in any danger of going back to that kind of drinking. Haven’t done it for years – not since before I knew you. But,” he adds as James turns to look at him, “maybe now you can understand why I’m worried about you?”

James’s arm is rigid under his hand, but Robbie doesn’t let go. It’s almost a full minute before the lad relaxes; he exhales slowly, then reaches out to set the whisky on the counter.

Robbie doesn’t comment. Instead, he reaches for the kettle, nudging James aside to fill it. “Cuppa?”

 

***

“I know you want me to find a partner.” James is avoiding Robbie’s gaze, and he’s rubbing the back of his head. Definitely uncomfortable with this topic – but he’s not the only one. It’s certainly not the conversational topic Robbie had in mind when he came over here.

“I think it’d be good for you, yeah,” he says carefully. He did say he’d only mention it the once, and – apart from the fact that it’s really none of his business – he knows James too well to risk alienating him by going on about the lad’s personal life. “You need someone to come home to – a reason not to do nothing but work.”

That’s far from the only reason he wants James to have someone in his life, of course, but it’s the only one he feels comfortable mentioning. James is far too touchy when it comes to comments on his personal life – which is fair enough, of course. Robbie’s his boss, not his – what? Best mate? Though it feels like James is his.

“I know you mean well,” James continues, his voice quieter. He’s still not looking at Robbie. “It’s not going to happen, though. I’m sorry.”

Choosing his words carefully, Robbie says, “Hope you know you don’t have to do anything just because I suggest it, man. But you sound very sure about that. Shouldn’t give up yet. The right person might be-”

“Just around the corner?” James finishes, voice dry as dust. “No. It’s not as simple as that.” He takes a gulp of tea, and Robbie catches his gaze wandering longingly to the whisky bottle in the kitchen. “Finding a partner,” James continues, and his fingers form quotation marks, “generally implies romance. Sex. Those things aren’t possible for me.”

“Aw, don’t be daft, man,” Robbie begins, then hesitates; how can he say this without sounding ridiculous? “You’re... well, you’re a good-looking bloke. I mean, Laura calls you dishy, and don’t think I haven’t noticed you turning heads when we’re out and about. You’re just a bit...” Again, he fumbles for words. “I dunno, shy, maybe, when it comes to makin’ the first move.”

Abruptly, James surges to his feet again and starts to pace, hands linked at the back of his head, everything about his movements jerky. “I don’t mean people aren’t interested in me. I mean I’m not interested. In them. In anything.”

Robbie’s brows crease. Is James suggesting that he really is... what was the word he used back when they were investigating the young Croatian woman’s death? Celibate? Though that doesn’t make sense. He’s seen James with women. He knows James slept with Fiona McKendrick and Scarlett Mortmaigne, and there has to have been more.

But anyway, celibacy implies a choice, or at least that’s how he’s always understood it. Whatever James is talking about, it doesn’t sound like something he’s chosen. It sounds like he’d rather choose anything but.

“You’re gonna have to explain, man,” he says, keeping his voice calm, non-judgemental. He knows he sounds like he’s talking to a victim’s relative, or a witness, and James isn’t so drunk that he won’t recognise that, but Robbie’s instincts are telling him that it’s the kind of approach that’s needed here. “I’m not following you.”

James halts, coming to stand against the living-room wall, head thrown back, gazing at the ceiling. “I’m asexual. That means-”

“I know what it means.” Robbie interrupts even as his brain’s whirling. Asexual? How? He knows James has had sex – relationships, even. Fiona McKendrick. Scarlett Mortmaigne. He’d been curled up on a bed with Zoe Kenneth, that mixed-up woman/man who’d almost killed him, and Robbie hadn’t needed to think very hard to work out what they were doing there. “But you...” Unsure of how to put it – and the term rumpy-pumpy comes to mind, making him want to groan in embarrassment – he trails off.

“Being asexual doesn’t have to mean you can’t have sex, or become aroused.” James has switched to his lecturing voice. “It means you don’t enjoy sex. Don’t want it. And, yes, before you ask, I’m very sure. I spent long enough trying to disprove it, only to realise that it’s exactly what I am.”

And he’s not happy about it. Bloody miserable, from what Robbie can see. Why? Not because he doesn’t want to be different – that’s never bothered James, has it? He’s who he is and, if people can’t accept that, he doesn’t care. That’s how he’s been all the time Robbie’s known him.

Because he doesn’t want to be alone?

Though James has been alone almost as long as they’ve known each other, apart from those brief interludes. It’s only in the last few months that it’s seemed to get to him. Of course – because he said it’s only recently that he’s accepted what he is. Who he is.

Not able to have the kind of relationship most people take for granted. Alone, and contemplating spending the rest of his life on his own. Not knowing what the rest of his life’s going to be, either, if Robbie’s guess is right – and he’s pretty sure it is, given James’s hints about not staying in the force once Robbie retires. And miserable as a result, trapped in a pit of despondency he doesn’t seem able to drag himself out of.

Robbie stands and walks over to James, standing beside him, deliberately shoulder to shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Immediately, he senses James’s shock and withdrawal, and quickly adds, “Not that you have to. Course not. It’s personal – why should you? But if I’d known I’d never’ve gone on about you needin’ a partner that day. No wonder you looked...”

Wounded. Betrayed. As if Robbie’d stuck a knife in his gut.

Regardless of what James had said about him and kindness later, he’d hurt the lad.

James shrugs. “You didn’t know. As I said, I know you meant well. That’s why-” James exhales slowly. “I thought you should understand why it won’t happen.”

He turns towards James, reaching up to lay his hand against his friend’s arm. “I never meant to-”

“I’m fine.” James’s voice is sharp, the keep out message clear. “I appreciate your concern, but it’s not necessary.”

“If you say so,” Robbie comments mildly. It’s always better not to argue with James when he’s in this mood, and it’s not as if the bloke can actually stop Robbie from being concerned and wanting to help.

Trouble is, it’s pretty clear that the best thing he can do for James right now is to leave him alone.

Even though just about every part of him’s telling him not to, he squeezes James’s arm lightly and then steps away, giving the lad a gentle smile. “I’ll be off, then. See you tomorrow.”

The nod he gets in return is grateful. Robbie lets himself out and drives home, and it’s a wonder he doesn’t crash given he’s not concentrating on the journey at all.

He doesn’t sleep much that night.

 

***

James is his usual professional self the next morning, though a little more distant than normal. He’s completely focused on their case, sirs Robbie more than usual, and figures out several esoteric clues by mid-afternoon. And not by one look or gesture does he even hint that last night’s conversation ever happened.

Robbie can’t forget it, though, and his mind keeps fast-rewinding through the past several years, remembering things that should have been significant at the time and now line up to curse him for the oblivious idiot that he is.

James’s social life being as barren as his own – and he’d actually imagined the lad was just taking pity on him all those evenings they’d spent at one pub or other, or when James had appeared at his flat on some case-related pretext and had stayed to share takeaway and crap telly. The way James’s lips would tighten whenever Robbie told him that he should be out with people his own age, with strong hints that this really meant finding someone to fall in love with.

Pushing James towards any halfway-suitable woman – Fiona McKendrick, that botanist Liv what-was-her-name, Briony who got killed on that horrible woman-scorned case a few months ago. Asking him outright, years back, whether he was gay. Telling him to find a partner. All of it rubbing in the very things James couldn’t, wouldn’t, have in his life.

James hasn’t been hanging around with Robbie off-duty because he feels sorry for his governor. He’s been doing it because he’s lonely – and Robbie’s been pushing him away, making the lad feel that he’s not wanted, that his boss has been letting him hang around on sufferance. Which is bollocks, but how was James to know that?

Well, he won’t be pushing the lad away any more, but he needs to do more than that. He needs to understand exactly what this thing means. After all, he made a fool of himself that time he asked James if he was gay, and James showed him, pretty cuttingly, that he really didn’t know the first thing about sexualities. He’s not going to be caught out so easily again.

His email beeps; there are forensic results available. He sends James off to deal with it, and pulls his keyboard towards him. Google is his friend, James has told him more than once. Time to put that to the test.

 

***

Over the next few days, Robbie reads as much as he can about asexuality – which isn’t easy, given he can only do it when he’s in the office without other pressing work and James isn’t around. The combined frustration of lack of opportunities and almost being caught in the act by James a couple of times almost makes him rethink his determination not to have internet service at home. He could use his Blackberry, of course, but he’s still not got the hang of much more than its phone and email functions, and the bloody keys are too small, not to mention the screen.

There’s the library, and internet cafés, but he’s also rather not run the risk of anyone else seeing what he’s looking up. It might seem paranoid, but Robbie’s been a detective for too long not to be aware of the possible consequences of random strangers not being so random, or being more interested than is apparent in what he’s doing. And, of course, James’s habit of working late means he can’t just go back to the station when everyone else has gone home.

On the positive side, James seems to have relaxed around him again, probably because he’s made no reference to their conversation and James’s admission, and he’s carried on treating his sergeant the way he always has: the same mix of absolute trust combined with occasional pulling rank and just as occasional fond exasperation on duty, and casual invitations to have a pint off duty.

Finally, almost a week later, he’s ready. It’s a good day, too: they’ve solved their latest case, got a confession from the murderer and the reports for Innocent and CPS are in first-draft stage. Enough for one day, Robbie decides, and informs James that it’s time to go home.

James actually shuts down his computer and follows Robbie out of the office. As they hit the stairs, James catches his eye. “Pint?”

“Excellent idea, Sergeant.” He jogs downstairs, then glances at James again. “Noticed BBC2’s running a Best of QI tonight. Fancy coming back to mine for a takeaway after the pub?”

The surprise on James’s face is instantly followed by a look of genuine pleasure. “Thank you. I’d like that.”

“Might as well leave your car here.” As James lights up in the designated smoking area, Lewis stands next to him. “You can either take mine when you’re going home, or sleep at my place and we can go to yours in the morning so you can change.”

At the pub, conversation gravitates to the case, which is fine with Robbie; he doesn’t want to bring up the other stuff until they’re safely at his flat and James is relaxed after a meal and a drink or two. “You’ll have everything ready for CPS by lunchtime tomorrow?”

“Should do.” James takes a drink. “I just want to check over everything again. Last time we worked with Morgan, I sent the wrong version of one form and got a shitogram from him complaining.”

“A what?” Robbie chokes back laughter.

“A shit-” James’s mouth quirks upwards. “Over-the-top, hyperbolic email pointing out all the ways in which I fail to meet required professional standards.”

Robbie’s eyebrows raise. “If he tries that wi’ me he’ll regret it.”

James gives him a knowing look. “You’re a DI. That’s above his pay grade. I think I made him regret it anyway – particularly as my spelling’s better than his – but I’d rather not risk the possibility that he’s stupid enough to do it again.”

“I’m sure your shitograms are more effective than his any day,” Robbie comments, draining his pint. “Ready to go?”

 

***

It’s not until a few hours later that Robbie finally introduces the reason he invited James around. Not until after Indian takeaway and three episodes of QI – during which James demonstrates not only his extraordinary memory and knowledge of esoteric facts, but also his dry humour, which keeps them both laughing. Not at all for the first time, Robbie finds himself reflecting on how much he enjoys the lad’s company – and how lucky he is, really, that James never found anyone to have a serious relationship with.

Not that that’s fair on James. He deserves to be happy, and to have someone other than his grumpy old boss to spend his off-duty time with.

He’s just gone to the kitchen for another couple of bottles of beer. He hands one to James, then lowers the volume on the TV. James, who knows his boss very well by now, glances warily in his direction. “What?”

“Want to talk to you,” Robbie explains. “About what you told me last week, at your place.”

James’s expression changes completely, to that icy, withdrawn look Robbie knows so well. It’s a measure of the solidity of their friendship, though, that he hasn’t moved. If this had been a few years ago, the bloke would have been out the door already and their working relationship would have been very distant for several days.

“So this is why you invited me over.” Anger and disappointment are loud and clear. The anger Robbie expected, but disappointment? Looks like he was right. James is lonely, and he’s been grabbing on to any offer of company that he gets from Robbie as a result. Apart from that one time he turned down Robbie’s invitation for a pint and a footie match – but he’d started pushing Robbie towards Laura again then, hadn’t he? Until Robbie set him straight on that one.

“You should know better than that,” he replies evenly. “If I’d only wanted to talk, I’d’ve done it at the pub. You’re good company. I like having you around.”

As he hoped, James relaxes a little at that. With a resigned sigh and an expression that’s still very wary, he says, “Go on then, if you must. What did you want to say?”

“Been doing some research,” Robbie says, keeping his tone casual. “Y’know, on the internet, like. About asexuality.”

James stares at him. “What, on Wikipedia?” It’s almost a sneer, and James clearly recognises that he’s been rude, because immediately he continues, “Sorry.”

Robbie ignores it; if he was James, he’d be sensitive about this, too, and he’s been sensitive himself about plenty of things over the years. “Actually, a site called AVEN. The Asexual Visibility and Education Network. You’ve probably heard of it.”

This time, James is not only taken aback; he’s clearly impressed. “Yes. Though only in the last few months.” He shrugs awkwardly. “I only just started reading up on it myself recently. I think I didn’t really want to acknowledge the possibility before that.”

He really wanted a partner – a family – that badly? But then, most people do. And James is by nature not a mixer, so it’s not as if the lack of someone special in his life is offset by a busy social life. If he’s not at home alone or sharing a pint with his boss, he’s at the station working until the small hours.

“What about it, anyway?” James adds after a moment as Robbie’s slow to speak.

“You were right that I didn’t know much about asexuality,” Robbie continues. “And I didn’t want to talk to you about it again until I was better informed.”

James nods. “Okay.” He’s still uncomfortable, though. Best get to the point, Robbie decides.

“What I didn’t know is that there’s different... well, variants, I suppose. I mean, like some people still form very close relationships. Some can fall in love. They just don’t want sex.”

James’s gaze slides away. “And?” The word’s clipped, a clear what’s your point?

“Yeah, yeah, you know all that. I was just wondering... well, what’s stopping you? I mean, you’re not... what’s the word? Ascetic?”

Just like the previous week, James surges to his feet, raking hands through his short hair. “Always assuming I could feel that way, how could it ever work? Anyone I might feel that way about who’s willing to consider a relationship with me would want sex, and I don’t want that. It’s impossible.”

“I think you’re giving up too easily,” Robbie suggests, still calm.

James spins to look at him. “With all due respect, sir, how would you know? Are you aware of every relationship I’ve had in the time we’ve known each other?”

Holding James’s gaze, Robbie says, “Come back over here.” He jerks his head at the sofa. Though clearly reluctant, James actually obeys him. Once the bloke’s sitting again, Robbie continues, “First of all, I’ve already told you: no sirring me. Second, course I’m not, but I know you. An’ I’m only gonna say this once, too: you’re a lovely bloke. Decent, kind, considerate, funny – who wouldn’t enjoy bein’ with you? Sex...” He shrugs. “I’m not denying it’s important. I could hardly do that, could I? But it’s not the most important thing in a relationship, and I say that as someone who had a healthy sex life when...” He shrugs; James knows what he means.

James is looking down at his own hands, though, and there’s a familiar red flush spreading over his face and around his neck. What, not used to hearing himself praised like that? He’s probably not, Robbie realises. Who would he hear it from? No family that Robbie’s aware of, and no close friends that he’s ever seen evidence of or heard James talk about.

“It’s good of you to say so,” James murmurs after a pause, and Robbie can hear the near-disbelief in the lad’s voice. “But it’s still not as simple as that. Most people, when you show an interest in them, assume...”

“Yeah.” He nudges James’s shoulder with his own until the lad looks at him. “That why you didn’t ask that botanist out? Liv?”

“Not really.” James’s mouth twists. “I did consider it, you’re right. But then she withheld information from us. I couldn’t, not after that. Regardless, though, it wouldn’ve have worked. Oddly enough-” His lips curl sardonically. “Telling someone that you like her – or him – and that you might even quite fancy kissing them and might want a long-term relationship that could mean living together, but you’re never going to want to shag them, just doesn’t seem to go down all that well.”

No, Robbie doesn’t suppose it does. And he didn’t miss the him in there either. So, asexual he might be, but whatever attraction James does feel to other people is both to men and women. “Sounds a bit like me with Laura,” he finds himself saying, completely unintentionally.

James frowns, silently asking the question.

“I like her, course I do. But mostly as a friend. I mean, if it came to it...” He takes a deep breath. “Course I could kiss her, cuddle with her, and I’d like it. But I’m just not interested in any more than that. The only person I can imagine wanting that with is Val, even after all this time. An’ that’s not fair to Laura.”

James’s nod is slow, understanding. “We are more alike than I realised,” he comments, almost to himself. “Maybe...” He trails off, looking down again and fidgeting awkwardly. Embarrassed, Robbie realises.

He’s not going to have that. “No, go on.”

James glances up, apology in his expression. “I was about to be extraordinarily presumptuous.”

Robbie snorts. “I doubt that. Even if you were, surely you know we’ve known each other long enough that it wouldn’t matter.” James still says nothing. Robbie bumps their shoulders together again. “Just say it, soft lad.”

“I need a smoke.” James starts to get up.

“I’ll keep you company.” Robbie starts to stand as well, and James looks at him, resigned.

“If you absolutely have to know, I was going to say that it sounds like you and I should be...” James hesitates, now looking extremely awkward. “What we’ve been talking about.”

It’s the obvious solution, of course it is – so obvious that, naturally, it’s not seriously occurred to Robbie. But only because he’s convinced himself that James should have someone his own age, someone he shares interests with.

But they share interests, don’t they? And not all to do with work, either. As for someone James’s own age, the lad’s an old soul inside that youthful exterior, isn’t he? Middle-aged already, he told Robbie someone had said to him.

It’s not only an obvious solution, it’s what they’ve already been to each other for some time. They want the same things, and don’t want the same things. They get on – so well that half the time they don’t even need to say a word to know what the other is thinking. Well, unless James is being an idiot, like just now. Who does Robbie phone on his day off when he’s bored and fancies an evening down the pub? Who’s the first number on his home phone speed-dial, after Lyn?

“Talk about stating the bleedin’-” But James isn’t listening. He’s already getting up, shoulders hunched, looking for all the world as if he’s laid his heart on his sleeve and been rejected. It makes no sense to Robbie, but that’s not important right now.

He’s never done it before, but if there’s one thing James needs here and now, in Robbie’s opinion, it’s a hug. He stands, catches the lad’s arm and wraps his arms around the bloke, holding on tightly until James finally relaxes and hugs him back, almost clinging, head dropping to Robbie’s shoulder.

It should feel strange, hugging a bloke he’s not related to. But the only strange thing is how right it feels.

 

***

“Not presumptuous at all, man,” Robbie comments a bit later, standing next to James outside his building as the younger man smokes a cigarette. “Reckon we’re both just idiots for not seein’ it sooner.”

“Hardly.” James shoots him a fleeting glance, his face palely visible against the night sky. “Why would you want to?”

Robbie sighs. “What do I have to do, draw you a diagram? Who do I spend most of my free time with?”

James shrugs, puffing sharply on his cigarette, the end flaring orange. “Only for lack of alternatives.”

“Could say the same about you,” Robbie challenges, rather than countering James’s statement – he can and will do that, but not just yet. “Or do you just feel sorry for me? You keep going on about my lack of a social life. Can’t help wondering if you just accept my invitations out of pity.”

James turns back to look at him, eyes flashing with irritation. “If I didn’t like your company, Robbie, I wouldn’t be here, now or any other time you’re kind enough to invite me.”

“An’ if I didn’t like your company, soft lad, I wouldn’t be askin’ so often. It’s not like I couldn’t find something else to do if I were that hard up.” He shakes his head, giving James a mildly exasperated smile. “Do I actually have to tell you that I like you? Forget our working relationship - you’re me best mate, even if you are thick as two short planks.”

He gets a crooked smile for that. James stubs out his cigarette, then picks up the butt and puts it in his pocket. “Why do you keep trying to push me off onto someone else, then?”

“Same reason you kept trying to nudge me towards Laura, probably.” Robbie leads the way back inside. “Thought it was what you needed. I mean, I didn’t know until last week about the asexual thing, right? And even then I thought you’d be better off with someone your own age.”

“Most people my own age bore me.” Another faint, crooked smile. “Strange as it seems, you’ve never bored me. And...” James shuffles awkwardly, his head dipping again. “I like you too. I’ve never quite dared to think of you as my best friend, but – well, no-one else qualifies.”

“Idiot.” Robbie shakes his head. “All right, enough bloody sentiment for one night. So we’re agreed – partners in and out of work?”

It’s obvious that James has questions, even though he nods agreement. Robbie touches his arm, squeezing lightly. “Let’s just work things out as we go along, all right? No need to define things to death tonight. We managed okay with our working relationship; don’t see why we can’t do the same with this.”

“All right,” James agrees, the furrows in his brow fading. “Come to mine for dinner tomorrow? I’ll cook.”

Robbie nods. “I’d like that. Yeah.”

He smiles at James, encouraging and affectionate, and is rewarded with one of James’s rare genuine smiles in return. “Time I went home,” he says after a moment.

It is getting late. It’s not the time that’s important, though. It’s the fact that, for the first time in more than a year, James actually looks happy. He’s not pretending, covering up the melancholy he doesn’t want anyone else to notice.

Not that Robbie’s naive enough – either in life experience or in his experience with James Hathaway – to imagine that the bloke’s got over the depression that’s been eating away at him in just one evening. But they’ve made a start, and that’s enough for now.

So he nods. “All right. See you tomorrow.”

Robbie’s debating hugging James again, or at least doing something to reaffirm their new status – though it’s not really new, is it? They’ve been this to each other for years. It’s just taken them a bloody long time to see it.

James beats him to it. He steps close to Robbie, dips his head and brushes a gentle kiss against his cheek. “Goodnight, Robbie. And... thank you.”

“C’mere.” Robbie tugs him back as James is straightening and moving away. “You’re too bloody tall for this-” He manages to kiss James on the cheek, stretching upwards, and again it doesn’t feel anything like as weird as it should. “All right, go on with you.”

 

***

They have both been idiots, Robbie reflects after James has driven away. What each of them was looking for was under their noses all along – though it’s entirely possible that he was the bigger idiot, because now that he thinks about it he suspects that James has been aware of it for a while, but never imagined that Robbie would feel the same way. Probably thought Robbie was taking pity on him.

Yeah, they’ve been a right pair, haven’t they? It’s not as if he didn’t know that James would crawl through fire for him – and he’s done that for the lad already, hasn’t he? And would do it again if he had to without a second’s thought. And it’s not just loyalty stemming from their working relationship. Look how they both reacted when they thought the other was thinking of leaving the force. Daft, the two of them.

So they’re – what? Best mates. Partners, that’s how he put it. A sort of boyfriend, though that really does sound weird. They’ll figure out together what that means. So far, Robbie thinks, they’re not doing too badly. They’ve got the companionship thing down pretty well already. If James needs physical affection, and Robbie can’t help but think he’s been starved of it, then he’s pretty sure he can supply it. It’s one of the things he’s missed most since losing Val, after all: cuddling on the sofa while watching TV, for example.

The thought of doing that with James should feel strange, but the odd thing is that it doesn’t. He was fine with the hug, after all, and their goodnight kisses. It felt... nice.

It will be good not to have to worry that he’s monopolising James, or getting in the way of the lad finding someone special. No more feeling that they need an excuse to drop over to each other’s flat after working hours.

Lyn’s going to laugh. She told him ages ago that it sounded like he and James needed to stop messing around and just shack up together. He’ll have to tell James about that. It’ll probably scare the lad witless.

Tomorrow. He can tell him tomorrow.