“Thank God, this week’s over,” Inspector Robbie Lewis groaned as he struggled into his coat. He’d be glad when the cold started to loosen its grip. A soft strangled noise drew his attention to James who was at full stretch in his chair – long, lean limbs pushed out in opposite directions, and a yawn big enough to drive a bus through. Lewis waited until James was slumped back over his keyboard, wearily rubbing his face.
“Pint, James?” No response. “Hathaway, Earth calling Sergeant Hathaway.”
James let his head roll backwards slowly, and blinked lazily at his Governor. “Sorry?”
“I asked if you fancied a pint – my shout.”
James raised his eyebrows in mock disbelief. It had better be bloody mock, thought Robbie.
“As tempting as the offer is, I, er, I can’t. Sorry.” James looked apologetic and focused back on his monitor.
Robbie watched as James’s eyes dropped shyly to the keyboard and – was he blushing? “I hope they appreciate what they have,” Robbie said quietly.
“What?” James frowned at the seeming randomness of Robbie’s comment.
Robbie sighed, concentrating on buttoning his coat. “Whoever it is who’s captured your attention – I hope they appreciate what they have. Third night this week you’ve knocked back a pint with your Governor; I’m beginning to feel unloved.”
James’s jaw worked furiously, but no sound came out. Robbie was amused – a flustered, speechless Hathaway was a rare and endearing sight.
“It’s not like that; it’s just, that is to say...” He coughed once, harshly. “I’ve giddy-up fallen,” he mumbled.
Robbie’s hands froze on the last button. “You’ve what? Want to put your teeth back in and try again, man?”
James slumped back in his chair with a heavy sigh. “I’ve given it up for Lent... sir.”
“Then I’ll buy you a nice single malt.”
“All alcohol, not just beer.”
“Then I’ll buy you all the tonic water on the rocks you want – you like a bit of ‘spurious glamour’.”
“Now you’re just mocking me, sir.” James folded his arms tightly across his chest and slouched further down in his seat.
Robbie perched on the edge of his desk, his voice kinder. “It’s never bothered you before; you didn’t knock back an invite – or a tonic water – when you did that detox thingy-whatsit after your rather… memorable New Year celebration.”
James cringed at the memory, sighed, and tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. “This is different.”
“If it’s such a hardship, why are you doing it? Seems a bit daft.”
“That’s the whole point. It’s a form of penance.”
“Form of bloody torture, if you ask me. Why didn’t you give up cigarettes instead – that’d make more blasted sense.”
“Tried that last year – the pen?”
Robbie snorted. He remembered that very clearly. James had walked around for over a week with an old pen clenched between his teeth, until the day he sucked too hard on the end; it took another week for the bright blue stain in the corner of his mouth to fade.
“So that was Lent.” He nodded, stopping to look at James quizzically. “But... you were smoking soon after that, so, what, you didn’t do the whole thing?”
“No. But that was my choice, so it didn’t really bother anyone else at the end of the day. However, this year I’ve promised Father Andrew…” He looked across at Robbie and shrugged. “And a promise is a promise.”
Robbie waited. He knew there was more to this than James was saying; the question was – how much would James reveal?
James squirmed. “Father Andrew witnessed my New Year... revelry. To say he was disappointed was an understatement – compared to him, you were amused. This is a step towards…” He puffed out a sigh. “…getting back into his good graces.”
New Year had been a touchy topic between James and Robbie. James had been rostered off for New Year, as his band was performing on New Year’s Eve and both Innocent and Robbie wanted him to have the opportunity to enjoy himself afterwards. At seven in the morning on New Year’s Day, to his horror and disbelief, Robbie had found James passed out in the driver’s seat of his car, in front of Robbie’s flat, and hauled him inside to sleep it off. Robbie had arrived home that evening to find a very contrite James, a spotless flat, and dinner cooking on the stove top. It hadn’t stopped him reading James the riot act on appropriate behaviour for a police officer, drink-driving, and self-preservation. James, mortified and unable to remember the countdown to midnight or getting into his car, had borne the tirade without argument or attempting to mount a defence.
“James, promise me it’ll never – ever – happen again and we’ll put it behind us. You were bloody lucky no-one else found you, and no-one got hurt.” He didn’t tell James he’d checked his car over for any signs he’d been in an accident. Robbie’s disappointment always affected James more than any bollocking could ever do. His sorrow and remorse were etched in his face and body language and Lewis had forgiven him. “You ever feel the need to get that drunk again – for whatever reason – you come round to mine before you start. I’ll try to talk you out of it, but if I can’t at least I’ll know where you are; I’ll know you’re safe, and I’ll be able to stop you before you pickle that big brain of yours.” James had made the promise and Robbie knew James didn’t make promises lightly.
“Maybe I could have a word with Father Andrew...?” Robbie offered. James looked up in horror. “...or maybe not,” Robbie drawled. James looked ill. “James?” James winced at the concern in his voice.
“You really don’t want to know. Nothing... no, you don’t...” James was scarlet and seemed to shrink under the heaviness of the ensuing silence. Outside their door, the office had emptied and the night was drawing in. Neither moved nor spoke.
Staring downwards, Robbie exhaled heavily. “I owe you an apology, lad.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw James’s head flick upward to look at him. Robbie lifted his head slowly and made eye contact, certain he looked as guilty as he felt.
James frowned. “Sir?”
“Father Andrew called me in January, when you were away in Birmingham with the band. He told me what he… how he found you, and how you fled. He thought I should know.” James went paler than Robbie thought possible and Robbie paused, briefly debating with himself. “He told me you talked to him about me – a lot. He said, ‘James listens to you and trusts you’.”
James was frozen to his chair, on the edge of full-blown panic. It was a look Robbie had seen all too often, usually on the faces of those who had suddenly realised their carefully woven web of lies had been torn apart.
“You know?” James breathed. “You’ve known all this time – and you’ve said nothing?”
Robbie’s heart ached at the anguish on James’s face. “There was nothing to say, James.” James was shaking his head slowly in disbelief. “James – it’s none of my business. And nothing’s changed, not to me. You’re the same James Hathaway who walked out of here early on New Year’s Eve, the same James I’ve walked beside and trusted for years. You are who you’ve always been. Aren’t you?”
James just stared. Here was his Governor – straight as an arrow, married twenty-plus years, father of two, and highly respected senior police officer, Robert Lewis – the one person whose respect James sought above all others, telling him that the fact that he knew James had been caught in flagrante delicto with another man changed nothing. James wanted to run and hide and couldn’t work out why his legs wouldn’t take him.
“You never said… I…” James stammered, visibly shaking. “Just so you know, I don’t... I knew – know – him... we’ve... before...” James spluttered. “I’m not gay, not completely; I like women too, I just prefer...”
“James…” Lewis walked over and sat on the edge of James’s desk. His voice was patient and kind. “It doesn’t matter to me. It didn’t matter in the past, it doesn’t matter now. You are who you are. And to me you’re a good copper – you’re a bloody excellent copper, one of the best – and, most importantly, you’re me best mate,” he stressed.
Lewis gently laid his hand, cool and steady, on James’s shoulder. “The drinking mattered, the drink-driving mattered, the ‘what you’re seen to do in public’ mattered – and I gave you a right bollocking for those – the rest, no. Not to me.”
James’s head dropped, and he closed his eyes and concentrated on the comforting pressure of Lewis’s hand. He no longer felt as though his heart was going to break his ribs, but he still couldn’t decide whether to stay or flee.
“What you do in your free time, as long as it doesn’t affect your work, doesn’t hurt you or bring harm to another...” Robbie kept his hand still, the temptation to massage James’s shoulder held at bay. “Even knowing – it hasn’t upset us has it – please tell me I haven’t treated you any differently between then and now?”
James considered the question far longer than Robbie expected him to.
“I’ve had dinner at yours most nights, and slept on your couch several times a week, far more than before, case or no case.” James looked at Robbie, a scowl forming. “And you’ve let me chose what we watch and actually watched it without complaint – so I’d say, yes, you have treated me differently.”
“James, I never meant...”
“I thought perhaps you were doing it because... you were keeping an eye on me, weren’t you?” James accused, pushing himself backwards just out of Robbie’s reach.
“No, not keeping...” Robbie became defensive. “You never had to accept any of the invitations; it’s not like we’d been working day and night on any case. I just wanted...” His voice trailed off and he sighed heavily. “Okay, yes, maybe it started that way, but I... I liked having you there. And then this week you started knocking me back, and I wondered...”
James glanced away. “Oh. You thought I was seeing...”
Robbie nodded sheepishly.
The fight – and flight – left James. It really was going to be okay. He should have known; Lewis had said it directly and obliquely in so many ways since Will and Feardorcha and The Garden. He thought I was ditching him for Alan and he let me have that space, without question. James realised that Lewis’s gentle prodding wasn’t just because he was concerned about James; he was saddened because he thought that, for whatever reason, James hadn’t felt secure enough in their friendship to give him some explanation for suddenly not wanting to spend time with him.
Lewis gently lifted James’s chin, his thumb resting near the corner of James’s mouth. “So... what have you been doing the past two nights you knocked me back?”
James was surprised by the intimacy of Lewis’s touch but dismissed it as a product of his relief. “Went home. Read a bit. Played guitar a bit. Smoked a lot. Slept badly.”
“Can’t be having that.” Lewis gave him an exasperated frown. “Not having you go all elmo on me.”
James snorted. “Emo, sir. Elmo’s a character...”
“You knew what I meant.” Lewis aimed a playful swipe at James’s ear. “Come to mine? I need you to make bad telly bearable. Curry and all the tonic water on the rocks you can handle. Though we’ll have to stop at Tesco’s on the way to the Indian.” James raised his eyebrows questioningly. Robbie grinned at him. “I’m all out of ‘spurious glamour’.”
James dropped onto the couch as Lewis came through with fresh drinks – a strong brew for two.
“You don’t have to do this you know. You shouldn’t have to suffer because I am.”
“I’d be suffering more sitting here on me own night after bloody night, with no-one making snarky comments, or pointing out when the narration’s wrong. And the thought of making me own coffee every morning’s a bit too depressing.”
“So I’m the lesser of two evils, then,” James remarked dryly.
“Steady now, lad, I didn’t say that. You’ve put yourself through the wringer before to help me; s’only fair I support you where I can.”
James took the offered mug. “Thank you, s– Robbie.” James smiled shyly at the pleased grin from Robbie; he’d been at him for ages to drop the ‘sir’ when they were off-duty – tonight was the first time James felt truly comfortable doing so.
They sat back, only half focused on the telly. Robbie had turned off all bar one lamp, and the dim light and low volume were soothing. Robbie wanted to understand exactly what he’d ‘volunteered’ for. “So, when did Lent start then?”
“Last week, Ash Wednesday.”
“And when does it stop?”
“Remind me when’s that exactly?”
“The day before Good Friday.”
Robbie sat up straight. “But that’s five bloody weeks away!”
James stared at him dejectedly and nodded. “Yup.” He popped the ‘p’
“So we’re going to be ‘dry’ until we go up to Lyn’s? You are still coming to Lyn’s aren’t you?”
A small, pleased smile settled on James’s face at we’re. “Yes and yes.”
“So how’re we going to pass the evenings between then and now?” Robbie, not really focused on the movie, had been quietly tossing the idea around.
“I take it you mean besides takeaway, telly and questionable beverages?” James, obviously not expecting a response, ploughed on. “I could cook for you, you could come to band practice; I’m sure Father Andrew would take comfort from seeing you ‘keeping an eye on me’.” The expected snark and resentment were missing, for which Robbie was quietly grateful. James stared at the ceiling as he thought some more. “If we get really bored we could bring home cold case files – Innocent would like that – oh, I know!” James shot forward in his seat, eyes bright with mischief. “We could try to get a glimpse of Mr Innocent, sit outside her place like they do in nearly every crap police show, wait...”
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then?”
Robbie sighed. “Ah, I’m sure we’ll think of something. Can you really cook?”
James tried his best to look offended and hurt, however, Robbie knew him too well to be taken in. “I’m no Jamie or Nigella but I can do the basics, and a bit more.”
They quickly settled into an adaptable pattern, alternating dinner at each other’s flats, depending on work and commitments. While Robbie never slept at James’s – neither would let the other sleep on James’s couch – James always stayed at Robbie’s. James set himself a personal mission to ensure Robbie could make something other than egg and chips, and Robbie silently vowed to initiate James into the world of John Wayne.
On a quiet night near end of the third week, James, never taking his eyes from the screen where John Wayne and Dean Martin were fighting for justice, whispered, “What exactly did Father Andrew tell you?"
Robbie glanced at James, noting the fixed gaze and tight jaw. They’d agreed that it was a closed topic, though Robbie had suspected James wasn’t quite finished with it.
“Do you really want me to say it?”
“Yes. I do.” His voice was firm.
“This isn’t verbatim, mind.” James nodded. Robbie gathered his thoughts. “He heard noises after he believed everyone had left the concert – that was the one you were playing at?” Another stiff nod from James. “He went around the back of the parish hall. You... he saw you leaning up against the wall, and a ‘young man who was known to him' was...” Robbie took a steadying breath as images flooded his mind, just as they’d done when Father Andrew spoke to him. “...on his knees, at your feet... 'pleasuring you with his mouth'.” Robbie coughed sharply to cover the roughness in his voice. “From what he overheard, you were a, a 'willing participant'.”
Robbie felt, rather than saw, James shrink down lower. He risked a quick look and was relieved to see, even through the dim light, that James was blushing as hard as he was; Robbie had to stifle a giggle at the ridiculousness of the scene.
James cleared his throat. “Is that all he said?” Robbie didn’t think James could get any redder.
“Just that – and the bit I told you before, about you listening to me. I think he thought that meant I might have some kind of guiding influence over you. I didn’t shatter his illusion.” When James didn’t rise to the bait, Robbie asked cautiously, “Was there more?”
James sighed. “No. He appeared just as... We’d barely... Alan – that’s his name – he just wanted to... get into it.”
Something in James’s tone puzzled Robbie. “You sound disappointed.”
James exhaled heavily. “Alan and I saw each other for a while a couple of years ago – you were seeing a bit of Dr Hobson at the time.” Robbie thought James looked jealous, but of course, that was ridiculous, he’s never shown any interest in Laura before and he certainly couldn’t be wanting... could he? Robbie forced himself to focus on James’s words. “It... It had been a while since... anyone and we’d had... I thought naively that we might pick up where we left off, that there’d be kissing and... all the rest... beforehand, but he just... And then I did a runner, left him in the churchyard and went and got... well, you found me, you know.” Biting his lip, he rolled his head to look at Robbie, his eyes seeking a response.
“You planning on seeing him again?”
James blinked, the question clearly catching him by surprise. “I, ah. No.” James gazed up at the ceiling again. “It... we... He’s already seeing someone else. Story of my life.”
”Daft bugger then, isn’t he? You're a good catch lad, don’t sell yourself short." He playfully nudged a furiously blushing James. “Tall, good health – better if you gave up the smokes – decent job, brains, not bad looking, bit mouthy though. Never mind lad, his loss, my gain, eh?”
“If I didn't know better, sir,” James drawled dryly, “I'd say you were trying to hit on me.”
“If I were fifteen years younger who knows what could happen, lad?” He nudged James again, his smile unreadable. “More tea?”
Offering his cup, James laughed, only a little uncertainly. Robbie was clearly taking the mickey, because, well, just because. Get a grip James, this is Robert Lewis.