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Out of Kilter

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Out of Kilter

 

 

 

 

Robbie reaches for his phone, glancing at the caller display. Laura. “Robbie? I was out for a drink and I’ve run into James. And he’s in no fit state to be out on his own.”

“James isn’t?”

“Not by a long shot.”

“Where are you?”

“White Horse. And, Robbie, look, the person I was meeting for a drink—” She sounds awkward, which she shouldn’t. He knows it’s obviously Franco. She knows that’s not a problem.

“—it’s Jean.”

Oh, Christ. Robbie closes his eyes for a moment.

“Have you left a drunken James alone with Innocent while you’re outside phoning me?”

“Well—”

***

It’s a lovely summer’s evening outside as Robbie heads for his car. It’s the kind of long Friday evening that’s almost made for sitting outside a pub, chewing over the past week, in the light of the more relaxed glow made up of the pint, the surroundings and the company. Bantering with someone whose quick wit and warm presence help you decompress, or maybe just enjoying the silences. Would’ve been better than the rather restless, unsettled evening Robbie had been enduring.

So what’s James think he’s at, going out drinking by himself?

In the few weeks since Robbie’s official departure from the force, he’s certainly texted suggestions to James that they must get together for a pint. When that hadn’t exactly materialised into a definite arrangement, he’d taken to sending cheerful updates about his new activities instead, which had virtually invited snarky comments. They hadn’t been forthcoming either. James’s replies had been pleasant and vague and hadn’t had much punch to them somehow. It was sort of hard to get a handle on him at the moment.

If Robbie had tried to date this certain elusiveness of James’s—and all right, then, so he has tried—then he’d have said it rather dated from the time he and Laura broke things off. Which was, of course, exactly the time that the clock had really begun to run down on Robbie’s retirement. James had become just slightly withdrawn. Matter-of-factly sympathetic over Robbie’s and Laura’s break-up, although not exactly—reacting much to it, either.

Not seeing him day-to-day now—well, it makes it that bit harder to wait out whatever’s going on in James’s head. It’s one thing giving him space when he’s actually still got him there. Robbie’s used to that. It’s quite another thing altogether when he doesn’t get to see him.

Well, the bloke has a lot of swotting up to do, Robbie had reasoned. For a new department. And, he’d supposed, James had new colleagues to make the effort to bond with over a pint, too.  Not really on for Robbie to mind, in the circumstances. And yet—he really wouldn’t have thought somehow that he’d have slipped already down James’s priority list. It fits all the facts, but intuition was always one of Robbie’s strengths as a detective, seeing where something felt wrong even if all the facts were pointing in one direction. And there’s something off about this.

The eventual solution thrashed out between James and Innocent had left Robbie thoroughly relieved.  Only days after James had done as he’d said he would and tried to make his resignation official, Innocent had dropped by their office on a quiet afternoon, and raised the topic again. Robbie, well aware of her increasingly exasperated glances in his own direction, had kept his focus on his computer screen. He wasn’t going to join in with her interrogation. Even if she sort of had a point.

Because Innocent was asking about James’s next step with a mixture of suppressed frustration and, Robbie detected, real concern. It didn’t surprise him. She’d be deeply uncomfortable to think one of her officers was so burnt out by the job that he was simply leaving with no further plans. Robbie was with her on that bit. James was the last person who needed surplus time on his hands to think. Robbie had had an inspector like that once.

As Innocent had departed, not in the least satisfied, Robbie had lifted his gaze to James. He was gazing out the window now. He’d looked slightly helpless. And that obviously didn’t stem from any inability to evade Innocent’s queries.

“Dearden’s looking to expand the team for his project now,” Robbie had offered.

“What, crime prevention by computer analysis? Interspersed with a little light detecting? Home in time for tea?”

“Might do you no harm for once,” Robbie had said imperturbably. There had always been moments with James when he needed Robbie to see straight through the sarcasm. This had felt like one of those moments.

That feeling of urgency, to somehow have James sorted before Robbie left, had returned full force when he’d seen his sergeant already starting to torment himself trying to figure out what to do next. Even though he wasn’t really in the best state to make major life decisions.

Robbie wasn’t going to push this. He’d just make sure James knew he had options. And that he didn't have to find a long-term, fulfilling, worthwhile option, drawing on all his talents, right this minute.  Sometimes James, for all his analysis, missed seeing the simple things. You don’t have to try righting the wrongs of the world every day, lad, he’d wanted to say. You could give yourself a break. But anything that touched too close to home wasn’t the best idea at the moment. James didn’t feel he’d righted any wrongs on their last case. He felt he’d contributed to more.

James had been looking across at him, questioning.

Robbie had taken his chance. “Look, Innocent wants to keep you that much, she’d likely let you shift to something less gruelling. ‘S’all right to just tread water for a bit sometimes. Buy yourself some time. You could leave this job, our job, without actually abandoning your whole career. Don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

James had looked rather startled. But his chin had jutted up a bit in that way it did when he was thinking. The way it did when he was acknowledging to himself that someone had made a noteworthy point.

“Indeed, what shall I do, sir,” he’d said lightly, after a moment, “when I no longer have your daily homespun wisdom to shed light upon my tortured musings?”

“You’ll pay your new governor a bit more heed, and give him less cheek, that’s what,” Robbie had grumbled.

And they had looked at each other for a moment across their desks, as the reality of this ending caught up with them once more. Before, as ever, turning back to their work.

But that evening James had tapped him on the shoulder, as they made their way out of the building, and when Robbie had turned, he had lifted a hand in farewell and veered off in the direction of Innocent’s office instead.

Robbie had waited until it was all a bit more final to tell Laura. They'd still been together then. “Could work for him,” she’d said, interested. “Have you told him that’s pretty much how you landed up overseas? Taking a secondment instead of leaving the force?”

“No,” Robbie had said, much too sharply, and then in answer to the lift of her eyebrows; “No need to put ideas like that into his head, is there?”

She’d just looked at him. Well, James could work that one out for himself. Robbie didn’t even want to think about overseas options. Next thing he knew, James would be slinging on a rucksack and departing to do God knows what, God knows where. Probably, knowing James, literally following some sort of divine inspiration at the expense of his own wellbeing. Laura had just kept right on looking at him, though. She was good at that.

So Robbie should have been able to head into retirement with an easier mind. But it turns out something’s off with him now too. James would use terms like existential flu. Robbie thinks something’s out of kilter. And he hasn’t yet had the chance to think of casually musing around the topic deep into a second pint and hearing what some philosopher or poet had to offer. Why’s it so much bloody harder to text than it was to casually suggest a pint when they were both heading out of the office?

There’s something missing from Robbie’s day. And he’s pretty sure it’s not the dead bodies. Or the  callouts in the early hours. Or the endless paperwork. He knows full well that if he voiced this to anyone they’d have said it was early days and told him he was in the first stages of the adjustment process to retirement, as Innocent’s repeated little talks, and her official onslaught of material, had both told him. She’d been merciless once she’d finally accepted he was really leaving. And of course, it’s a big change and could leave someone feeling as out of sorts as Robbie does.

But the trouble with that very reasonable theory is: it doesn’t feel like it’s true.

***

The pub is both crowded and noisy at this stage, slightly disorientating after the quiet of the drive, causing Robbie to make his way carefully around knots of people to get to the corner booth where the three of them are hemmed in. None of them spot him at first. Because James is holding forth. Robbie can tell he’s in a state from the very careful way he’s gesturing. Although he’s certainly seen him worse than this. But James obviously hasn’t made it home from work yet to change. Then Robbie tunes into the words.

To be precise, James is holding forth to his chief superintendent on exactly what he thinks of her management style. Her strengths and her weak points. Rather in the style of a performance review. Laura is looking highly amused. Innocent is just gazing at James. Then she spots Robbie.

“Well,” she says, getting up quickly, “that was certainly enlightening, sergeant. Many thanks. Must leave you in the capable hands of your ex-Inspector now. Dinner reservations—think we’ll just pretend this one never happened,” she mutters as she passes Robbie. Robbie resists the urge to mutter ma’am, in agreement.

“Bye, James,” says Laura cheerfully, as she rises to follow Innocent. “It’s been very entertaining—He seems to have been on whiskey. Get some water into him before bed,” she reminds Robbie as she pauses beside him.

Robbie gives her a quick grin. Whatever wrong’s with Robbie just now, he does know that it’s not the break-up of his fledgling relationship with Laura. He doesn’t feel he misses Laura herself because he’s still got her, essentially. Still got that friendship with her, mercifully not descending irrevocably into awkwardness.

Well, they weren’t going to allow that to happen long term. But thankfully it hadn’t taken long to rebalance. Thankfully, because Robbie is so used to having her as a part of his life in that way, to seeking her advice and her companionship at different times over the years, long before they’d really tried to turn the ease of that into something else. And, rather confusingly, failed.

He knows that’s not what’s wrong now, because their relationship attempt had ended very shortly after Robbie had begun to work his notice. It’s been over long enough for Laura to be rather swept up by the return of this Franco fellow, so that there’s an undeniable spark about her again now.

“Thanks,” Robbie says, “for phoning, like. And hanging on here. Lucky you spotted him.”

“He’s a bit hard to miss, to be honest.”

“Aye, he is that.” Robbie gives James an affectionate grin. It’s just good to see him again regardless. “Too bloody tall to blend into a crowd, even when you’re up to no good, aren’t you, lad?”

James doesn’t respond. He’s watching Robbie and Laura intently. Robbie slides into the booth right beside him as Laura departs. James has leaned his head on one hand, elbow on the table.  “Hello,” he says, very seriously, to Robbie.

“Hello, yourself.” Someone has already provided James with a glass of water. He nudges it towards him. “Drink that.” Then he watches while James obligingly complies.  James is always highly agreeable when truly drunk. Must be the missing sarcasm, reflects Robbie. “You ready to go home now?”

“You haven’t had a drink,” says James, concerned. “A pensioners’ special, isn’t that what I was to get you? On a Tuesday.”

“You’re all right. It’s Friday. And I’ve got the car.”

“Okay,” says James, getting up, reluctantly, following Robbie out of the booth. Robbie is surprised that the bloke can stand sort of steady. He puts an arm around his shoulders anyway, to guide him.  And it suddenly hits him.

He’s missed James. He’s physically missed James. His own indefinable scent and his warmth. Having that constant presence at his shoulder throughout the day, watchful and alert. The swell of amusement in those blue eyes and the quirk of those lips when Robbie turns his head to share a silent joke with him.

He’d known he’d missed having James around but, God, he has physically missed having the lad this bloody close to him. He pulls him into a hug.

“Nice,” says James approvingly in his ear, “should do this more often.” Then, surprising Robbie, James’s hand comes up for a brief moment and caresses Robbie’s cheek with his knuckles, turns Robbie’s head very gently into James’s shoulder, James’s neck. Then the hand is gone again and, worse, James is gone, stepping back to stand in front of Robbie, hands behind his back. Much as he does—much as he used to do—when awaiting orders.

Robbie feels a bit shaky. He takes hold of James’s arm, and turns him, prompting him gently towards the door. There’s the urge to hold him again, touch him more. He puts his hand to the top of James’s head to prompt him to duck as he goes under first a low beam and then the even lower lintel. Robbie has to duck in this pub; James really shouldn’t be choosing it as a venue to get so drunk.

“Am I being arrested?” James enquires, rather concerned, as he feels his head cupped.

“No, you’re safe enough.  I haven’t even got me warrant card anymore.”

“Oh, that’s a shame,” James remembers. “You had to give it back. It wasn’t fair—"

He sounds suddenly very impassioned and Robbie tries to interrupt, to soothe; “It’s procedure—"

“—why d’you have to go and be older than me anyway?”

Robbie, taken by surprise, has absolutely no answer for that.

***

By the time he pulls up outside James’s flat, he’s been treated to the most confusing flow of meandering discourses on all manner of topics. Almost as if the lad had had them all stored up for him for weeks. But Robbie’s none the wiser about what’s led to James getting into this state.

“We’re just getting your stuff for the night, all right?” he says once he can get a word in. That gives James pause.

He frowns at Robbie, interested. “Are we?”

“Yeah. You can come back to mine.” It’s not strictly necessary. James isn’t dangerously drunk. Which is strange, because it’s unlike Laura to exaggerate. But he wants James to come home with him, all the same. He has far more chance of getting to the bottom of what’s brought this on tomorrow morning, he tells himself. And quite honestly, now he’s got him beside him again, he just doesn’t feel like leaving him. “You stay here. I’ll be five minutes. Okay?”

“Okay,” says James obligingly. Life would probably have been a lot tamer over the past few years if James was half as co-operative sober as he is drunk, Robbie reflects. A lot easier and a whole lot less interesting.

The flat provides no clues as to what’s brought on this solitary drinking bout. It’s at the level of slight disarray that’s pretty normal for a Friday evening. Robbie should know. Friday evenings were always the most likely time for him to land up in here after all. Everything looks the same.

As he returns to the car, with James’s things thrown hastily in a bag, he can see that James, still sitting in the passenger seat, looks like he’s gone a bit quieter.

When he gets back in, Robbie sits and takes a long moment to look across at him. “You cut your hair,” he says abruptly.

“No, a barber did it,” explains James.

“Right, well, I just meant—”

“D’you not like it?”

“No.” He doesn’t. Is it the haircut making James’s face look a bit too thin, too angular? Or is it that he’s actually that bit skinnier? It’s only been a few weeks, he reminds himself helplessly. How’d they get so—cut off from in each other—in a few weeks?

“I’ll grow it again, then,” James assures him. “First thing tomorrow.  Promise. Just for you.”

“You do that, lad.”

The rest of the drive passes in relative silence until they’ve nearly reached Robbie’s flat. Then—

“Robbie,” comes a voice.

“Yeah?”

“I just like saying your name. Out loud. To you. Robbie.”

 Robbie is amused. “You’re not exactly compos mentis, are you now?”

“Latin! You speak Latin! I never knew. ” James seems overcome with delight.  Like an alien on a strange planet who’s found a fellow life-form to communicate with. Robbie feels strangely sorry to let him down.

“No, you know I don’t. Compos mentis. Alibi. Adeste Fideles. Dulce et decorum est. That’s your lot.”

“That was fantastic,” James says loyally.

“Made sense to you, did it?”

“Well.” The frown is back again.

***

They’re sitting on Robbie’s couch, Robbie keeping James company with a matching glass of water. He should probably send him off to bed in his spare room but it’s kind of nice just sitting here again, James lolling contentedly against him. He doesn’t want it to end just yet.

“What’s it like then—your new department?” he asks.

Your new boss, Robbie wants to ask, what’s he like? Is he decent to you? Does he know how to spot when you’ve been overdoing it and pull rank and send you home at a reasonable hour?  Does he have the slightest idea how bright and dedicated and loyal and kind-hearted you are and what kind of a rarity he’s got in you? Does he know how nearly you left and that he needs to keep an eye that you don’t get over-immersed in cases?

Well, thankfully the cases James will pull now won’t be the harrowing, all-consuming cases he pulled when with Robbie, because he doubts Dearden has a flaming clue what he has in James.

“They’re okay.” James grimaces. “My boss, he’s quite stupid,” he confides. “Doesn’t get things. Ssh! Don’t tell him though. It’s a secret. I don’t think he knows that he’s that stupid.”

“I won’t,” Robbie promises. But his heart sinks.

James yawns beside him. “D’you mind if I turn in?” He looks pleasantly surprised when Robbie hands him his bag and wanders off to the bathroom. Robbie half expects him to just keep on wandering into the spare room when he’s ready and go to sleep. He isn’t surprised when he eventually hears him go in there.

Robbie only moved here while working his notice and he doesn’t actually think James has stayed over in this flat after a late night brainstorming on a case, or a late night drinking beer on the couch. Which is ironic, now that Robbie finally has a spare room to offer him. But James knows his way around. Helped Robbie move in, didn’t he?

Then James reappears, obviously ready for bed, clad in the t-shirt and cotton pyjama bottoms Robbie had packed, but carrying the spare-room bedding. Robbie is bewildered. “What are you at now? You can stretch out on a proper bed, you know.”

“But I want to sleep on the couch. Like old times.”

“Like–”

Oh, fair enough.

***

James lies back on the couch and humps his knees up under the blanket. Robbie leans against the windowsill and looks down at him. Bends to yank the bedding across to cover his bare feet. “Go to sleep.”

But James really hasn’t finished with tonight, not just yet. Turns out he’s kept his best speech until last. “Laura,” he says meditatively.

“Laura?”

“Yeah. You and her. I mean, why…”

“Why, what?”

“Why? I mean she’s lovely,” James says expansively, “but you didn’t look at her tonight like you—like you’re—”

How the hell did he manage to zone in on that? “We’re not—not any more. You know that.”

“You are and then you’re not, and now you’re not, so soon you’ll—are.”

It takes Robbie a moment to work that one out.  “No. After we gave it an actual go at last and it didn’t work—for either of us— we went back to being friends. For good. Good friends. But no more. We won’t be almost-trying or actually-trying that again.” He doesn’t know why he’s explaining this to a bloke who won’t remember.  Must tell sober-James this too.

“Ah.” James nods, pleased. “Good.”

“Good?”

“Good.”

Robbie wants him to elaborate. Which is pure stupid in the circumstances, surely, but he really wants him to. “Because?” he finds himself asking.
            
“You’re not suited,” James informs him promptly. “She’s too small, for starters. You need someone taller. So you can rest your head against their shoulder when they hold you. Lean on them a bit. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Someone taller than you so you can feel a bit more protected. ‘Course you would,” he says confidently. “‘Cause you’re a lovely man and you look after people. Someone should look after you.  Definitely someone tall. And—” James pauses, thinking.

“Mad enough to take me on,” jokes Robbie, playing along. Lad really doesn’t know what he’s saying, after all. Does he?

“Clever enough to see what you’re like and snap you up, soon as they get a chance.” Which is what James had done, first chance he got, first case they worked on, it suddenly occurs to Robbie. Secured Robbie for his own. In a purely work capacity, of course, he tries assuring himself. But then he’d held on firmly right through all those years and everything they’d held, right up until Robbie had—left him. He feels suddenly stricken.

“You need someone kind,” James is musing now. “You won’t find anyone as kind as you, cause that’s impossible. Or as loyal as you either. Or as nonjudging…what’s the word?” He frowns briefly and then gives up. “As nonjudging. Or as forgiving.”

He gives a sigh. “Must be hard being you. You’ll never find anyone as lovely as you are, ever. But—” he cheers up a bit “—someone who really knows how lovely you are, they’ll do. Long as they understand they’re lucky to hold on to you. And if they come in in the morning and you’re there, the world is all to rights.

“Someone who knows that, when you stand like that, your back’s a bit stiff and they’ll want to massage it. So, if they can’t, they’ll just make sure you don’t sit still too long in the office.  Pester you to make the tea. Make up reasons to call you over to look at stuff on their computer. ‘Cause no-one can keep mentioning it or you get all grumpy ‘cause it makes you feel old. You’re not old. But make sure I pick pubs in the evenings where there’s seats with proper backs.

“And someone who knows those extra lines around your eyes mean you’re not sleeping, so they’ll bring you stronger coffee in the mornings and weaker in the afternoons and not let people bother you with things that don’t matter during the day.  And not really ask about it, ‘cause that annoys you too.

“But they’ll keep an extra eye on you then, in case something’s bothering you, and pretend they want to go for a pint to discuss a case just so you can have a chance to talk about it. If you want to. By the river. It’s easier to talk when you sit beside a river, isn’t it? Good thing they have pubs there.”

He turns on his side now, away from Robbie.  “Missed you, sir,” he says with a yawn, pulling the blanket up to his chin.

Robbie drops down on the arm of his little-used armchair. He feels a bit unsteady.

***

He doesn’t sleep for a long time that night, when he finally gets to bed. Too much to think about.  He’d noticed a fair amount of those little gestures, of course.  Well, maybe he hadn’t quite worked out about why James wheedled him to get the tea sometimes. He’d always rather enjoyed putting up a gruff resistance to things like that, and watching James’s persuasive tongue get him his own way in the end.

It was just hearing it all together, unmistakeably, like that, with all the warm intent suffusing it, and—well, James had sounded almost yearning. Like he badly misses doing that day to day stuff now. It suddenly puts his recent drawing back into a whole new context. Maybe, when it came right down to it, James couldn’t quite handle being left.

And then seeing him, how purely good it had felt to Robbie to see him and just have him physically there again. Especially in that moment when his head had been gently turned into James’s neck. That’d felt—like he’d just wanted to stay there. Regardless of them standing in the middle of a pub, he feels like he wouldn’t have moved if James hadn’t then, so quickly, withdrawn.

He’d felt like a part of him that had been abruptly removed had unexpectedly returned tonight. An integral part whose absence he hadn’t quite taken in, removed while he slept, oblivious to its essentialness.

He misses chastising James for the minor stuff and knowing from the look in his eyes, above his irreproachably straight mouth, that it’s not actually working. He misses pretending to keep him in line. He misses the banter and the quips and the sudden lift of spirits he experiences when James’s dry wit brings a moment of levity amongst the depressing or the mundane.  He misses that sharp brain and the fact that James gets things, gets Robbie, like no-one else on earth does.

It sort of makes sense that James had been unable to handle the change from one level of relationship to what might have felt like a lesser one. Robbie himself doesn’t want to establish a routine of occasional or even regular pints, after all; he wants James’s warm, inimitable presence back, every bloody day. That’s the thing, isn’t it? James is inimitable. He’s never going to manage to fill that gap with anyone or anything else. He doesn’t even want to try.

It’s been far more than a working relationship for years, between them, he knew that. Turns out they just needed to take away the scaffold and excuse of the work bit for the real shape of what it actually is to become glaringly obvious to Robbie. God, James has obviously been well ahead in understanding the real tenor of their relationship here. It’s how to show him that Robbie has finally caught up properly that’s going to be a challenge. Because James is obviously firmly in self-protective mode now, and so all the certainties that are crashing over Robbie tonight—well, maybe he’ll need to show James rather than tell him.

His late night book of revelations must be why James actually manages to wake up before him. Robbie wakes from his restless night to the sound of a slight clatter in the kitchen and the smell of coffee. He can’t help taking a moment just to lie there and grin to himself.

It’s sort of nice to hear the sounds of someone else there. It’s more than nice to know that that person is James. And if they come in in the morning and you’re there, the world is all to rights.

Although—this is not exactly going to be James at his best. It’s unlikely that the paracetamol Robbie had left out will have made much of a dent in that headache.

***

“How are we feeling this morning then?” Robbie asks in sympathetic tones. James certainly looks miserable. The cafetiere is full, but he’s standing staring at the bag of ground coffee in his hand.

“I didn’t notice until I’d made it. It’s decaff.”  Miserable and indignant.

“Go an’ shower your head and you’ll feel a bit more human. I’ll make you some proper coffee while you’re gone.”

“Oh, that’ll work,” mutters James but he takes his bag when Robbie presents it to him, frowning at it, and retreats in the direction of the bathroom. Robbie chuckles at the tone. Sarcasm restored. He’s unsure whether that comment was directed at his coffee-making abilities or how restorative a hot shower might be, but he suspects it was both.

They sit at the table to drink the coffee. It’s a good idea because James is holding his head propped up on the steepled fingers of one hand. He’s ignoring the toast at his other elbow.  “Did I call you last night?” he asks.

“No, you ran into Laura.”

“Oh.” James frowns for quite a while, obviously struggling to catch hold of some elusive memories and then visibly giving up the effort. It’s a beautiful morning, but Robbie reckons the warmth and sunlight are rather lost on his breakfast companion. Robbie has his kitchen window open already for the breeze, and the background noise of someone’s mower is drifting in. James is actually wincing at any fluctuation in its rhythm.

“I tend to talk a bit when I’ve had a bit to drink,” he ventures.

“You’re not wrong there.”

“I remember bits, but I’m not sure—well, what was I actually talking about?”

“You gave me some advice on me love life.” James goes very still. “Yeah,” Robbie continues, “desirable characteristics in my ideal partner. Height requirements. That sort of thing.”

There’s an extremely long pause. “Anything else?” James asks his coffee mug.

“Something about massages and insomnia and rivers.”

“Right. Right.” James looks heartily thankful. Obviously thinking he’d simply ranted incoherently for a bit.

He doesn’t realise that he’d made absolutely perfect sense. And finally shed an unmissable beaming spotlight on what’s been so wrong with Robbie’s life, the past few weeks.

“You didn’t have to do this, you know.” James’s voice cuts into Robbie’s thoughts.

“Make you excellent coffee? And toast that you won’t touch?”

“Any of it. Come and get me, bring me here, have me to stay. I’m not—” He’s flushing miserably now “—your responsibility, any more, you know."

“‘Course you are, says Robbie softly. "And I’m still yours, all right? Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Wouldn’t be fair to ask James questions this morning, or have him trying to think through things with that sore head. But, regardless of what’s going to happen next with them, he hopes he’s got this one message through to him, all the same.

He reckons James looks like he might nod if that wouldn’t be too painful.

***

“Sure you don’t want a lift?” Robbie leans against the door jamb.

James gazes back inside at him. “I’d really rather walk. Think the air might help my head.”

“Any plans for the rest of the day?” Robbie enquires. James shoots him a look. “Yeah, I guess not,” Robbie says agreeably. “But no visits to the barber, mind.”

“What?”

“You promised,” says Robbie gravely.

“Okay,” says James helplessly.

Robbie breaks into a grin as he shuts the front door. Monday. He’ll give him until Monday.