As Robbie cleared the empty bottles off the bench, he looked across at James, half asleep on the couch. It was never the wisest move to have a heavy night in the middle of the week, not that that had been their intention when they’d headed back to Robbie’s, but what was done, was done. It was now after midnight and he didn’t have the heart to send James off in a taxi. He walked up behind the couch, rested his hands on James’s shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze, prompting James to tip his head back to look up at him.
“I s’pose I should go,” James mumbled and attempted to stand. When Robbie pressed him back into the couch he didn’t protest.
Robbie sat back down next to James. “Why don’t you stay, sleep on the couch? I can drop you at yours in the morning.”
James gave Robbie one of his rare, contented smiles and nodded.
As Robbie reached across to pick up the telly remote James leant in and, quickly and softly cupping Robbie’s cheek in his palm, pressed a firm kiss to his lips.
Robbie stilled and his eyes widened. He laid a hand on James’s chest and slowly but firmly pressed James back so he could see his face. James placed his hand over Robbie’s where it lay on his chest and was startled as Robbie pulled it away roughly and scooted back to the far end of the couch.
James’s body went rigid as he absorbed Robbie’s face and posture. Suddenly sober, James swallowed hard to avoid being sick.
They stared at each other, separated by a single cushion that might as well have been a chasm. Robbie stood stiffly and walked back to the kitchen.
Speaking slowly to control his voice, he said quietly, “I think, perhaps, it would be better if you went home, James.” He called for a taxi.
Robbie stayed in the kitchen. He leant against the bench with his arms folded tightly across his chest. James sat perched on the edge of the couch, arms crossed over his stomach as one leg bounced nervously. He stared at the coffee table. Neither spoke. When the taxi arrived James almost fell forward off the couch and bolted from the flat.
Robbie sat down on the couch and stared at the spot where James had been sitting. He raised his hand to his lips where James had kissed him; his hands shook. What the hell had just happened?
Robbie was still sitting, staring at the couch, at 3am, his thoughts a jumble.
James's car wasn't in its usual spot when Robbie arrived at the station that morning. Nevertheless, he hesitated before approaching his – their – office. As he stepped through the doorway he took a sharp second look the nameplates, which were now a good five inches apart. He was certain they were touching the last time he paid any notice. He felt ragged. He’d finally gone to bed at four, though sleep eluded him; he’d stared at the ceiling until his alarm went off.
Robbie went back over the options his confused mind had pulled together before dawn. Simplest thing was to blame the beer and tiredness and call it a misunderstanding; a simple apology on both sides and they could put it behind them. James's non-appearance told Robbie that idea had probably been considered and discarded by James. The kiss could merely have been poor judgement, and that too could be put down to the alcohol. The other possibility was that James had wanted to kiss Robbie, perhaps for some time, and the action was deliberate.
Robbie covered his face with both hands and leant his elbows on the desk. He once again concentrated to recall James's face and body language after ‘it’. He'd been upset, shaken – terrified – he hadn't said a word, hadn't tried. Bloody hell. It had been a choice, obviously fuelled by Dutch courage, but still a deliberate a choice James had made. James was the least impulsive man Robbie knew; he had to have been thinking about ‘that’ for some time. Bloody buggering hell.
A light knock at the door broke through his thoughts. Laura.
“I hope James’s absence doesn't mean you've finally choked him for his cheek, he's been in fine form...” She registered his expression and pallor. “Robbie? What is it? What's happened? Is James..”
“Lewis, my office. Now.” As suddenly as she was there, Innocent was gone.
Laura stared after her. Robbie wearily pushed his chair back. Either James had contacted her or the office grapevine was working at top speed this morning. Or maybe it was completely unrelated. He groaned tiredly – fat chance of that.
“Robbie?” He grimaced at the concern in Laura’s voice and face.
“Sorry, Laura, not just now, maybe later.” He sighed and gave her upper arm a gentle squeeze as he passed her. “If I can figure it out meself.”
“James has requested a week’s leave for urgent private business. Were you aware of this?” She was watching him carefully.
Relief flooded through Robbie at the realisation that James hadn’t over-reacted – yet, he cautioned himself – and he almost fell into the chair in front of Innocent's desk. She frowned, perplexed and curious. “Lewis?”
“I was expecting – I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting,” he sighed.
“Would you care to elaborate, Inspector?”
For a moment Robbie was angry at James, furious at having to cover for him again. But that was unfair. Yes, James had done some rash and foolish things in the past; however, in his defence, most had been triggered by an external event or person and complicated by James's intense privacy. What was the tipping point last night? Robbie was starting to wonder if he wasn't in some way partly responsible; had he said or done something that encouraged James to…?
Robbie weighed his words carefully. “We had a ‘disagreement’ last night. James... said something I suspect he deeply regrets this morning.”
Innocent exhaled slowly to give herself a moment to think. “You’ll have to give me more than that, Lewis.”
Robbie rubbed his hand roughly over his mouth and chin. “I can't Ma'am, not until I can talk to James.” He didn't need to add ‘if he's willing to talk to me’. “I don’t fully understand myself.”
Innocent pressed her lips together, her eyes sending a warning. “Was there alcohol involved in this 'disagreement'?” Robbie's body language gave her the answer and he wisely voiced no defence.
Innocent blinked slowly and fixed Robbie with a stare. “There’ve been rumblings amongst the other teams that I allow you and Hathaway too much rope. And they’re right.” She raised a hand to stall Robbie. “Only because you’re one of my best teams. But I can’t continue to do so; I'll approve James' request this time. I’ll let you know who to hand your case to – you’re on leave as at close of business today as well.”
Robbie jerked up in the chair. “But, Ma’am...”
“No buts, Lewis. It’s fairly quiet, we have a full complement and you’re not handing over a murder; I expect you and James to sort out whatever it is within the week. I’ll see both of you back in this office next Thursday morning. No excuses, no extensions. Understood?"
“Ma'am.” Well that couldn't have gone much worse.
At the end of the day Robbie counted six unanswered texts, four messages left on James’s mobile, and three unanswered emails. Clearly James did not want to talk to Robbie; he had spoken to Innocent when she’d called to confirm his leave, and also to Julie when she needed him to clarify some notes on the case. Robbie was angry. How dare James put him in this position then ignore him like this? There were two of them on the couch last night.
That night on his way home, Robbie stopped his car outside James’s flat. He could see James pacing behind the curtains. Robbie tried calling him again, and watched with sadness as the silhouette looked at the phone then cancelled the call.
Robbie fell into an exhausted sleep on his couch, eventually waking mid-morning. A soft thud alerted him to his mobile falling out to his hand. He fumbled around until he found it, and squinted blearily at the screen; no missed calls but two texts, both from Laura:
Received 9:00am: //Where are you? Why does Laxton have the Kingston case? Call me!//
Received 10:43am: //Talked to Jean. What’s happened?//
Robbie groaned and deleted both messages.
Over the remainder of the day Robbie ignored two more texts from Laura, left three messages on James’s phone and sent one text.
//Just let me know you’re ok. Please.//
It was just after seven when Robbie threw open the door. He tried and failed not to look frustrated when it was Laura.
“Good evening, Robbie. Good evening, Laura,” she prompted.
“Sorry. I was... Hello.”
She stayed in the hallway. “You were hoping it was James.” Robbie stayed silent. Laura huffed. “Sorry if I’m a disappointment.”
“Laura, don’t, please.” Robbie turned his head away from her searching eyes.
Laura was as observant, perhaps more so, than any detective, and what she saw saddened her: blood-shot, dark-circled eyes; reddened patches on his face and neck where he’d been repeatedly rubbing with his hands; dishevelled hair; stooped posture; flat voice.
“Robbie, what’s happened?” She reached up to touch his cheek, recoiling as he jerked away from her hand. “It’s James, isn’t it? Jean told me – no, I tricked her into telling me – about his leave. Is he okay, Robbie?” She was aghast when he shrugged his shoulders. “Haven’t you spoken to him? Robbie!”
“He’s not talking to me!” Robbie snapped at her; regret immediately washed over his face. “Sorry, Laura.” He heaved a painful sigh and slumped against the doorframe. “I’ve tried calling, he won’t answer, and I’m not going round and to knock on his door and b… Laura, look... I’m sorry; I’m not up for company tonight. I just need to be...” He couldn’t - or wouldn't - meet her gaze.
She was reluctant to leave Robbie like this but knew it was pointless to argue. “Right. You know you can call me? Anytime.”
Her heart ached as his shoulders drooped a little more. “Aye, I know. Good night, Laura.”
She stood there as Robbie slowly closed the door on her.
“James!” Laura was beyond angry, she was scared. His car was there, the lights were on and she could hear music – she knew he was home but he wasn’t answering the door. “James Hathaway, if you don’t open the door I’m calling an ambulance, because if you don’t need one right now, you damn well will when they get here.”
The click of the lock being released answered her and the door drifted open. She saw James’s shadow moving down the hall and stepped inside.
James slumped in a corner between the kitchen cabinet and the wall. Every inch of his body and face warned her to stay back. Laura stood in the entry to the kitchen and studied him. For God’s sake, he looked worse than Robbie. Was that even possible? There would be no discussion here, no confessions or admissions. But Laura couldn’t just leave this here, not now that she’d seen them both.
“James...” His stare dared her to continue; she called his bluff. “I don’t know what happened; Jean doesn’t know and Robbie won’t tell me – and quite frankly, with the way it’s affecting both of you I’m not sure I want the details.” James looked at her sharply. Dear God, he has no idea. “Robbie’s hurting, James – deeply – and he’s worried about you. Damn it, look at you, you’re a mess.” She pleaded with James. “Only you and Robbie know what’s gone on, which means only you and Robbie can sort this out. James, please, you have to talk to him; for both your sakes.”
James’s shoulders sagged a little, but he said nothing, his face impassive. Laura watched for a few minutes, the silence between them so complete she could hear the tick of his watch.
“I’ll see myself out then,” she said quietly and left.
James didn’t move until he heard the solid clunk of the door closing, then he slowly slid down the wall as his legs folded beneath him. Curled in the corner he wept silently.
On Friday, Laura was gently persistent. Over the course of the day she called Robbie twice, and was relieved when he answered both times. She didn’t try to argue with or cajole him, merely asking how he was, had he something to eat/drink, did he want to go for coffee/lunch, had he tried to contact James?
“Fine.” “Yes.” “No.” “Not today.” Each time.
She sighed as she hung up and tried calling James again. Three times she tried and three times he rejected the call. She thought about sending a text but knew he could, and probably would, simple delete it. Laura reasoned she would just have to turn up on his doorstep again. James didn’t like being the centre of attention—she was confident he’d eventually let her in. She just wanted to know he was okay, but would take any opportunity to convince him to talk with Robbie.
Laura was startled when James answered the door immediately and stepped back to let her in.
He opened two beers and they perched at opposite ends of the couch as they fumbled through the unpleasant pleasantries, the conversation awkward and stilted.
“James, you have to call Robbie, or at least answer his calls,” Laura blurted out, her worry for him and Robbie spilling over, tossing all plans of a reasoned discussion out of the window. “You’ll have to face him next week in front of Innocent, whether you’ve settled things or not.”
“Not if I don’t turn up.” James' voice was flat. He hunched forward, with one arm wrapped tightly across his stomach and his face blank.
She snapped at him. “James, you can’t...” She stopped as James flinched, and took a moment to calm herself. “James, love, please don’t run from this. I know it’s hard, but once you start running... One day you won’t have anywhere left to run.”
He glared at her, and for a moment Laura was certain he was going to ask her to leave; then he closed his eyes and nodded. Laura released the breath she was holding and moved up closer to him.
Cautiously she laid a hand on his arm and spoke gently. “You don’t have to tell me what happened, unless you want to; I don’t need to know, James. Robbie’s not said anything either. I know you probably think I’m a nuisance...” She gave wry smile at James’s huff. “But I’m worried about you – both of you – and so is Jean, though she’s not likely to come out and say it.” She waited, studying his face. “Do you have any idea how important you are to Robbie? You know I knew Robbie before…? He changed James, a little part of him closed off and he started to step back from others. You were the first person to truly break through that, James. He trusts you. You’re more than his bagman, you’re his best friend. You do realise that, don’t you?” James nodded, but his eyes revealed his uncertainty.
James was torn; what Laura said was true, or at least it had been. He wanted to clear the air with Robbie but was petrified at the same time. He’d wept because he’d hurt Robbie and didn’t know how to ‘make it better’, or if he even could. If he were to tell Laura what happened would she have any insight or would she back away too? He was certain Robbie was backing away; James hadn’t had a single text or call from him today. To hell with it! What did he have to lose? He’d already decided to request a transfer or resign and let Robbie retire in Oxford with dignity. He wouldn’t have to see Laura after that. Did it matter what she knew? Though, more to the point, could he actually get the words out? James released a long slow, shuddering breath.
“It’s…Laura...he’s not just my Governor, not just my friend,” James stumbled. “It’s more than that. I... I think... Things went too... I made an assumption and... I’ve overstepped, expected more from him than I have a right to. The other night – he didn't quite throw me out, but I wouldn't have blamed him if he had.”
Laura was shocked. “James, there has to be an explanation, something you’re not seeing. Robbie’s one of the fairest people I know – after me, of course.” She got the hint of a smile she hoped for. “You probably just caught him off guard, misinterpreted his response.” James couldn't speak. In his silence Laura continued carefully. “Had you been drinking, were you tired?” James nodded and Laura gave him a comforting smile. “Well, there you are. Those things affect our judgement, our responses. I’ve only spoken to Robbie briefly, but... Call him James, talk to him. You shouldn't let this fester between you. I'm confident that at the end of the day Robbie will be flattered that you see him as more than a mate, though he probably won't say it. One word of advice, though." She gave him a cheeky smile. "Don't call him Dad."
With those four words Laura ripped down the small flag of hope that James had allowed himself to raise. He forced a smile and a small laugh, for her sake, as his heart sank like a stone once again. You didn’t see his face Laura; he’d definitely prefer Dad over Darling.
Laura only stayed a few minutes longer; she had seen the physical change in James as the stress of the past couple of days caught up with him. She talked him into lying on his bed rather than the couch, and helped him to his room, for which he murmured his thanks. Before she left, she extracted a promise from him that he would think seriously about calling Robbie, but he wouldn't give her any guarantee. Laura headed home, still puzzling over what James could have possibly done to upset his seemingly unbreakable partnership with Robbie. After all, it’s not as though he would have tried to snog Robbie. Her eyes widened. No, that couldn't be it. James may or may not be gay, but Robbie certainly isn’t and James is well aware of that. Laura Hobson, stop being foolish, she scolded herself.
James lay on the bed staring at the wall. Though he was still tired, further sleep eluded him. He argued in circles with himself. With a sigh of resignation, he sat up and gathered his phone off the bedside table. He scrolled through to Lewis’s number and, taking a deep breath, dialled.
He cancelled the call halfway through the second ring and tossed the phone on the bed. He threw himself down on the mattress and dragged the pillow over his head.
Robbie stared at the missed call. He would wait for James to call again. He knew James – at least he thought he did; if he’d taken that first step, he would go a little further the next time. Laura had called to say she’d seen him and he seemed okay; there were no signs of excessive smoking or drinking, though he looked done in. It was enough for now.
It was Sunday morning before James waited for Lewis to answer the call. One, two, three, four rings.
James swallowed down the hard lump that had formed in his throat. He’d expected anger, coolness at the very least. Concern and anxiousness weren’t even on the list, yet that was all he heard. “Sir.”
“You all right, lad? Have you...?”
James hiccupped, and it poured out. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ignored you didn’t answer your calls or your texts and I deleted the messages you left and the texts and I’m sorry for fucking things up and I don’t blame you for hating me I’m not coming in on Thursday I’m going to email...”
“James, stop.” James took a sharp breath, so fast and deep it hurt. “I just want... Are you all right, James?”
“I... er... I’m.” James closed his eyes to try and slow his mind and mouth. “I’m sober and I haven’t done anything stupid, but as to whether I’m alright...” He faltered, unsure where to go.
“James. I need to talk – we need to talk, before either of us makes any foolish decisions. Please, James.” Robbie wasn’t pleading, he’d promised himself he wouldn’t plead.
“There’s nothing to talk...” James mumbled.
“Stop there. D’you think you’re the only one this has affected?” Robbie had reached the limit of his patience, as worry spilled over into anger, his voice low and cold. “What about me James? D’you think I haven’t been thinking about it, tossin’ ‘n’ turning. You hide at home and I’m the one who had to front Innocent. What do think I told her James? Hmm? What? Nothing. Because I don’t know what’s bloody well going on in your head. And I want – need – to know.”
James had physically recoiled at Lewis’s attack; it happened so rarely that it always shocked him, and it knocked him for six to realise that he didn’t even have to be in the same room. He stood trembling, one hand braced against the kitchen bench. “I, ah, I never meant... I never thought..."
Robbie's anger had burnt itself out; he waited for James to continue.
They had agreed to meet in the morning at University Parks, by the Cherwell. Robbie had let James choose the meeting place, somewhere neutral where they could hopefully talk privately and openly.
Robbie arrived early, afraid if he was late James wouldn’t wait around. The chill wind and looming clouds had kept many people away and the grounds were surprisingly quiet. As he approached the designated meeting place he saw that James had already arrived. Robbie spotted him easily as he sat on a bench – well, he was more curled up – with his back to Robbie. His ready identification of James simply from the way he sat gave Robbie a jolt. He doubted he would have recognised his own son so easily. It was yet another in a growing list of observations that made it crucial for him and James to talk through what had happened.
Robbie hesitated as he approached the bench. Not for the first time in his adult life, he fervently wished he could turn the clock back. He didn’t want to have this conversation, yet knew that without it nothing would be resolved. Things could go right, very wrong, around in circles, or all of the above. He wanted to be hopeful.
James rose and turned towards him in a single, graceful movement, and started to walk slowly away from the bench towards the path, his coat wrapped tightly around his lanky frame. He glanced back at Robbie, who followed. They walked in silence, out of step and with enough space between them for a small child, pretending to be an aeroplane, to hurtle through. Both kept their hands stuffed firmly in their pockets. The little conversation they eventually had was awkward and stilted. Robbie followed James to the water’s edge where there was a more secluded bench; they sat at opposite ends, staring straight ahead.
James got to the point, though not the one Robbie was hoping to clear up.
“Would you like me to apply for a transfer or would be better for me to resign from the force?”
Robbie swallowed down his gut reaction and responded lightly. “S’pose that depends on whether you want to stay in CID with a new Governor, or you want to try your hand at something different.”
James took a deep breath. “But what do you want...”
“James, your career, your professional future is not my decision to make for you.” Robbie sighed inwardly. “But since you ask, I’d rather not break up a good team over this. That’s gonna happen soon enough when I retire. Though, if it makes it easier for you to stay, I’ll bring my retirement forward. Can’t see Innocent arguing too much.”
Panic rose in James’s voice. “She’ll want to know why, you’ll have to tell her about... I could be up on...”
“Oh for God’s sake, man.” Robbie was in disbelief. “She doesn’t need to know – and do you really think I’d drop you in the shit over one small mistake like that?”
“What if it wasn’t a mistake?” James’s voice was steady.
Robbie studied James, who was staring at some point in the distance. Robbie held his breath. “Ah, I had wondered...” He gulped down his anxiousness. “How long?”
“What?” James’s head snapped around and just as quickly flicked forward again.
“How long had you been thinking about it? It wasn’t spur-of-the-moment, was it? That’s not you.” James fidgeted and gnawed at his thumbnail. Robbie took pity on him. “So. It wasn’t a new thought; you simply seized the moment?”
James nodded. “It should never have happened, sir, I... I’m not sorry though. At least now I know.”
“We still need to talk this through, lad, though heaven knows neither of us are talkers. But I’ve been turning...”
James interrupted him. “Is it simply because we’re both men or that I’m far younger than you? Or both?” Robbie fixed him with a stare. “Sorry, sir.”
Robbie exhaled hard. His spoke quietly and with great care. “I’ve been turning this over and over in me head, talked to Val about it too.” He saw James’s eyebrows twitch in surprise. “Aye, I talk to Val a lot, helps me find another perspective. Anyway...” Robbie leant forward, his elbows pressing into his thighs. “Is it because we’re both men? Not entirely. I’ve reached the conclusion that's not the most important thing. But it is a huge factor; I’d say I’m strictly heterosexual, never been attracted to men in the past, nor now, so it’d be one hell of a leap for me to even consider it.” He studied James out of the corner of his eye, trying to gauge his reaction. “Is it the age gap? A bit. Twenty odd years, James – that’s sizable, whether man or woman. Neither on its own need be an issue – it’s about the person, about what you feel, but it’s also about who you – who I – am. And who I’m not.”
James whispered, “But you do like me?”
“Thing is, James...” Robbie sighed as James's head dropped. “Thing is, if anyone else were to ask me, I'd honestly be able to tell them I love you.” Robbie winced inwardly at the look of hope he was about to strike from James's face. “But not the way you want, the way I think you want. And I’m sorry, so, so sorry if I’ve ever said or done anything that gave you the wrong impression.”
James drew himself up and took a steadying breath. “About the person, about what you feel – tell me, please.”
Robbie paused to consider his answer. “I see you first and foremost as my friend, James, my closest friend, and only second as me Sergeant. We’re a good balance for each other. And, yeah, I do like you as well.” He leant backwards, huffing out a great breath as he ordered his thoughts. “I’m not sure where we go from here, James. I still want to spend time with you – I enjoy your company, you’re good for me, you’ve stopped me falling into a well of self-pity many a time; you’ve saved my life – and not just in the line of duty.”
James's jaw dropped as he registered what Robbie was telling him and Robbie gave him time to process before he continued. “I sometimes wonder where I’d be if you hadn’t met me at the airport that first day. By just being you, you made me love you, even with all your snark and cheek. I don’t love you like I loved Val, or how I love Lyn and Mark. It’s different. I’m not sure how to describe it, other than saying that all I want for you is what’s best for, what completes you, and I’ll do everything I can – within my ability – to see you get that. But physically, I can't do or be anything more to you than I already am. When you kissed me I was shocked, but more than that I didn’t... I didn’t feel anything. There was no spark, no ‘oh, my’ moment. That’s not me, James. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you but I have to be honest with you. I owe you that much.”
“You don’t owe me anything, sir, but thank you.” James’s voice was barely a whisper as he studied the lowering skies.
As the wind picked up it brought with it the first scattered drops of rain. They wouldn’t be able to stay much longer but Robbie didn’t want them to part at this point. James had said nothing about how he felt or what he wanted. If they were going to have any chance of moving forward both sides had to be heard and acknowledged. Thankfully, James apparently felt the same way.
“Sir, this weather... I, er, come back to mine?” His voice wavered a little. “I need, I’d like a... the drive home will give me a chance to... I can’t really chicken out if it’s my place.” Robbie accepted humbly, and tried not to feel guilty for being relieved they weren’t going to his place. For all he’d said, he was grateful he would have the option of leaving if things didn’t go well.
Robbie’s eyes followed James as he moved around his kitchen, preparing lunch. James had insisted that Robbie relax and do nothing as he was only making soup and sandwiches. Robbie wondered if it was actually because James wanted to maintain some distance for the time being.
They ate in silence, though it wasn’t the uncomfortable silence either had anticipated. Their exchange was general; ‘safe’ would have been the word Robbie used.
James moved the conversation on when he got up to make a fresh pot of tea. “Thank you, sir,” he murmured, standing side-on to Robbie. “Laura said... Thank you for not judging me, for not... for not giving up on me. I’m sorry I avoided you. I panicked. I was... ashamed, because I’d compromised you. I saw both our careers shattered because of... And I... I should have known better, known you wouldn’t have said anything to Innocent without speaking to me first.”
He brought the pot to the table and sat down opposite Robbie. Slowly he raised his head, and was humbled by the kindness in Robbie’s eyes. “It won’t happen again, sir. I now know where you stand and therefore where I stand. It was the ‘what ifs’ and the unknowns... ‘Tis better to have loved and lost.’” James huffed. “But I haven’t exactly lost, have I? So I’m luckier than... I just have – something different to what I’d... dreamed about but that’s dreams for you, all about hopes and fears, and I’d definitely have some serious problems if my fears came true so I suppose I should be... and I’ll just shut up now.”
Robbie waited until he was sure James had stopped, a little shocked to have learned... learned what exactly? That James dreamt about him? That James had held hopes for a different future with him? “James, you’d be honest with me, right? You’d tell me if you didn’t think you’d be comfortable to keep working as a team? I don’t want you trying to be someone you’re not. I’d like to think we can to stay friends and partners, but if we can’t I’d rather find a way for us to stay friends over working together.”
James stared him straight in the eye. “It won’t be a problem, sir. My action was... foolish, poor judgement. You’ve been very tolerant with me, sir, and kind. I appreciate and respect your position, and would like very much to remain your friend and continue as your bagman.”
James’s words were spoken with conviction, and Robbie had no reason to doubt his sincerity.
They waited in Innocent’s outer office. James leant against the wall while Robbie fidgeted in a chair; both stared at their feet. Whoever was inside the office was receiving a bollocking. Another voice offered an apology. Robbie glanced sideways at James and mouthed, Action Man. James snorted, ducking his head down as the door swung open and Peterson stalked out. Robbie had to bite his lip to keep a straight face.
Innocent caught both movements and allowed herself a moment’s relief that, at least on the surface, things seemed back to normal. United against Peterson has to be a good sign, surely? She gave Robbie a small nod as they went into her office.
Jean and Laura watched them from a distance and met up regularly to share their observations. It appeared all was well with the ‘Dynamic Duo’; whatever had happened been dealt with and, like the two ‘grown-ups’ they sometimes were, they’d moved on.
To Robbie all seemed well – most of the time. He and James went to the pub after work, and at least once a week they shared a meal at one of their flats. Robbie made sure that any drinking was kept to one or two beers – no point in tempting fate, and it’s better for me health he repeatedly told himself. Occasionally, when they watched telly, James would briefly rest with his head against Robbie’s shoulder, something he’d done in the past. They found a rhythm again, but to Robbie something felt off. Surprisingly, it was Peterson who made the first observation.
“Is James getting ready to fly the nest?”
Robbie looked at him quizzically.
“Well, you two are usually joined at the hip, most of the time you’d struggle to slip a credit card between you.”
Robbie was getting annoyed at Peterson. “Do you have a point, man?”
Peterson took a step back at the nark in Robbie’s tone. “Oh, er, it’s just… seeing him lately, he’s always a clear step or two ahead – or behind – standing out more, separate. Just wondered if he was preparing to take his OSPRE?”
“Oh.” Robbie backed down. “I, um, he hasn’t mentioned it recently.”
“Right.” He heard Peterson's drawl as he quickly walked away.
Robbie began to see other changes, and initially chose not to question James about them, presuming he would eventually 'snap out of it'.
Unless they were working on a case, James consistently left Robbie’s by 10pm, even on a weekend. And he never accepted an offer to sleep on the couch, insisting he slept better in his own bed. He avoided inviting Robbie back to his flat, and Robbie never sought an invitation.
James stopped sitting on the edge of Robbie’s desk, instead standing ‘at ease’ in front of or to the side, or else he leant against the window ledge.
He was still snarky and continued to deliver a fine line in dry wit and unwanted quotes, but he judiciously avoided any double entendres, or references to ‘better halves’ or ‘happy marriages’.
Whenever James helped Robbie with his computer he now instructed him on what to do, rather than lean over his shoulder and sort it himself as was his practice.
And either James had lost weight or he had bought slightly larger shirts. No longer did the buttons gape when he sat or slouched.
Until those moments were missing, Robbie hadn’t realised how often he and James were physically in contact on a daily basis, nor how aware he was of James’s behaviours; he was, however, very conscious that this distancing was spilling over into their personal time.
They regularly spent up to fifteen hours a day in each other’s company, yet they had never been further apart than they were now.
Robbie eventually realised he had to talk to James before what was left of their friendship was in ruins.
He watched James pick over the last of the chips.
“I think you should either transfer to a new Governor or take your OSPRE. The sooner the better.” Robbie worked to keep his voice moderate and even.
James gaped at him, chip halfway to his mouth. “Wha..? Why? You’re not retiring now, are you? You haven’t said anything, why haven’t you...” James voice rose in disbelief, his words cut-off by Robbie’s raised hand.
Robbie huffed. “I’ve not said anything ‘cos I’ve not decided on when.”
James frowned. “Then why do I need to do anything now? Why should I move? Why can’t we stay as we are?”
“Because what we are isn’t what we were, what we were before ‘you-know-what’? D’you remember I said if we couldn’t work together and be friends, go on as we were, then I’d rather keep your friendship over being your Governor?” James nodded, his face darkening as his frown deepened. “I don’t want to lose your friendship James, but if this partnership doesn’t go... You’ve changed lad, you’ve become too careful, too precise, too ‘correct’. At work it’s been just bearable, understandable, but now it’s poisoning times like this.” He swept his arms wide to take in the pub.
James stared in disbelief. “I haven’t changed, I’m being... All I’ve done is taken your feelings into consideration and made a conscious effort to not make you ill at ease. I don’t want to split our partnership. I don’t see any problem...”
“James, you said you’d tell me if you were uncomfortable working with me. If you’re deliberately changing your behaviour then you’re clearly not comfortable. I feel like I can’t even joke around with you anymore – anything with the slightest double meaning and you either clam up completely or start apologising profusely. It’s like being on a knife edge. If we can bring it down to one relationship, our friendship then...”
“Sir, I haven’t changed!” James half-rose out of his seat in indignation
Robbie sighed and pointed to James’s glass. “James, you can’t even relax at the pub over a pint. You’ve been drinking tonic water on the rocks by choice for weeks now.”
“Sir, I... That’s not...”
When Robbie persisted, James walked away. Robbie didn’t follow. He knew he was watching James shut down and fall apart in front of him, and he loved James too much to let that happen.
Sadly, James’s reaction was what Robbie had feared, and he now knew what he had to do.
Several weeks passed as Robbie set the wheels in motion. He had to do this alone; it wasn’t going to end well, no matter which way he tackled it, and he didn’t have the strength to try and explain it to anyone else. All his emotional energy was being drained dealing with James. Now he faced his penultimate task.
“You’re quite certain about this, Lewis?” Innocent attempted to catch Robbie’s eye but his gaze was fixed on a point over her shoulder.
“Yes, Ma’am.” The flatness in his voice gave her cause to doubt, though if she was honest with herself, she’d been both expecting and dreading something like this. Despite Robbie’s earlier reassurances, she’d seen for herself that all was not as it had once been. She wanted to bang their heads together – as did Laura – but without knowing what had set them on this path it seemed pointless. No amount of cajoling or threats had brought an explanation.
“And James?” She saw Robbie’s shoulders stiffen and held her breath.
“I… He doesn’t know, Ma’am.” His gaze never left the wall.
“Oh, Robbie.” Her sadness was palpable, her disappointment caused her to sink back in her chair. “Why? ”
Robbie finally made eye contact, his eyes heavy with sorrow. His voice was a harsh whisper. “It’s complicated.”
James was early. Again. Robbie opened the door and stepped back for James to come in. There it was again - the formal body language, the fear of putting a finger out of place, everything constantly reminding Robbie of the first boy Lyn had brought home, so certain he would die at Robbie’s hands if he so much as looked at Lyn the wrong way. Watching James move toward the kitchen, Robbie reminded himself he had made the right decision; no matter what the immediate personal cost, in the long term this was the only way real forward for both of them.
Robbie quietly closed the door. He hesitated before walking slowly down the passage to where James stood waiting, expectation in his eyes.
He handed James a beer, ignoring his request for tea. “I’m out of teabags.” It wasn’t a lie, though he did have leaf tea; Robbie needed the beer, and if he was going to have one so was James. Robbie gestured toward the couch; James sat at the dining table. Robbie pushed down the frustration in his chest. There would be no easy way to do this, so he came straight to the point.
“I’m retiring, lad. Six more weeks; Innocent wants me to help get you through your OSPRE before I go and the next lot’s up in four weeks. God knows how she expects me to help you, though – you’ve more than enough brains for the both of us.”
James’s voice was cold. “You’re leaving? You’re leaving me? But. You said... Is this how you... You’re abandoning me?”
“I’m not abando–” Robbie briefly closed his eyes, he had to be calm. “I want you to move up, progress. Damn it, James, you could be Chief Constable one day if you put your mind to it, and I’m not going to be the reason you don’t move forward, don’t grow. And I want to spend time with me grandchildren – I’ve never had a chance to tell you our Lyn’s pregnant again.”
“Oh. Congratulations, sir.” James’s voice was distant and lost, his reply coming from deeply ingrained manners rather than any true sentiment. That wasn’t what Robbie wanted for James; he fought to keep his rising frustration at bay.
“James? Where have you gone? Listen to you, lad. This isn’t the James I grew to know and love. You’ve been replaced by this distant stranger; I can’t reach you anymore. You look like James, sound like James, but you’re not. Look at you, sitting there. The James I knew would be angry, not, not, whatever you are...”
When James spoke, it was as though he hadn’t heard a word Robbie said after mentioning Lyn. “Four weeks. Not much time. It would appear I have some intensive study to do. Good night, sir.” And he was gone.
Robbie stared at the door long after James had gone. James was right, he was abandoning him, but only because he saw no other way. Despite James’s words and assurances, Robbie was convinced that, while he was by his side, James was never going to completely abandon hope that, one day, Robbie might return his affections, and in doing so the real James Hathaway would be lost forever.
Robbie felt far older than his years. He supposed that was what it was like when a part of you died. He’d known James wouldn’t take the news well, but this was far worse than expected. He’d expected fury, tears, even denials, not for James to close in on himself. He made a note to warn Innocent and the station psychologist, as much as he distrusted him; James was possibly going to need both in the near future if he didn’t snap out of it. Robbie wondered for the first time if the station had a chaplain.
One bloody ill-conceived kiss. One small action had slowly, insidiously destroyed the trust and friendship and affection they’d had – because James couldn’t admit that it wasn’t enough, and Robbie was too set in his ways, too stuck in the past, to change. Robbie did love James, and knew he would probably love him until the day he died, but sometimes, he thought, love just isn’t enough.