Not with a bang or a roar but with a cough and a metallic twanging sound, the engine died.
The world was silent. White. Deadly.
Inside the car, it was warm and cosy, but that wouldn’t last long without the heater going.
For long moments there was silence as Robbie contemplated the choices they’d made today (that he’d made) that had led them here. “Well, fuck,” he said.
Eventually, James stirred. “I saw a building about a couple of hundred metres back,” he said, angling his body so that he was half facing Robbie.
Robbie rested one arm on the steering wheel as he turned to look at James. “And?”
James had his brave little soldier face on. “I’m pretty sure we can make it.”
Robbie stared at him incredulously. “I’m pretty sure I know how this film ends,” he said acerbically. “Hint: cannibalism is involved.”
James’s mouth turned up at the corners. “I’ll bet you’re very tasty, sir.”
He knew what James was doing. Making light of the situation to keep the fear at bay. “Who says it’s me gets eaten?” he said loftily.
“Well, there’s more meat on you.”
“You calling me fat, Sergeant?”
“Not at all, just saying that it makes more sense – the longer the food lasts the more chance of making it to civilisation.”
“You’ve got a point. Anyway, you’d be stringy, like. Tough.”
“Plus, of course, you’d nobly sacrifice yourself, so that my youth and potential are not wasted.”
“Now you’re calling me old?”
James leant forward and made a show of peering out of the windscreen in all directions. As if there was anything to see. “Blimey, that’s a lot of snow,” he said in a marvelling tone.
Robbie smiled, despite himself. “You’ve a knack for stating the obvious, my lad, even when it’s not a transparent and cheeky attempt to change the subject.”
James smiled briefly, an acknowledgement of Robbie’s point, then sobered. “But seriously, sir. I’m quite sure I saw a house not too far back.”
“How sure? It could have been a ruin or a disused barn, couldn’t it?”
“Possible, I suppose. But we need to do something.”
“We should stay in the car until rescue arrives.” That was current conventional wisdom to increase stranded travellers’ chances of survival, wasn’t it? God. Chances of survival.
“We should have emergency supplies and working mobiles. And yet,” James said bitterly.
“Have you checked to see if we still don’t have reception?”
James looked like he wanted to point out that if they hadn’t had reception the last 14 times or so he’d checked in the last half hour, when they’d realised they were lost, it was unlikely in the extreme that would have come back now. He also looked like he didn’t want his head ripped off. He held up his phone. No bars.
“Not even a bloody map book,” Robbie had snarled. “How incompetent are these bloody jokers?”
“Do they even bother with them anymore,” James had mused, “when everyone has GPS on their phones?”
Robbie hadn’t bothered to point out that he wouldn’t know if his phone had GPS on it if his life depended on it.
Call themselves professionals.
Robbie had been tired, and cranky. It was supposed to have been a quick jaunt up to Newcastle to tie up a few loose ends on a case that had ultimately been handed over to Northumbria Police. James had volunteered to come along to drive. ‘It’ll give me a chance to check out your old stomping grounds, sir,’ he’d quipped.
Instead, they’d got bogged down in paperwork, dotting every i and crossing every damn t. They’d ended up leaving hours later than they’d planned, with the weather steadily worsening. James had been disappointed that he hadn’t got to see much of Robbie’s home turf, but Robbie’d just wanted to be done with the whole thing and be home in his own bed.
He hadn’t even thought about it when they’d set off back to Oxford. He’d just assumed James had checked over the car they’d been temporarily issued after their own vehicles had been called in for their annual inspection. Whilst James—not completely unreasonably, Robbie was grudgingly prepared to admit—had assumed that as the car had been issued to the Detective Inspector, that Robbie would have seen to ensuring it was properly kitted out for the conditions.
Instead, they discovered too late, the boot lacked even a basic first aid kit, never mind emergency blankets or water bottles. “Let’s just hope we don't run into any problems,” Robbie had joked, when the possibility of becoming stranded, lost and incommunicado was a remote possibility and not a potentially life threatening reality. Robbie would be writing a strongly worded reprimand to someone in Fleet Services.
Assuming they survived this.
In their defence, the weather forecast had been for snow, yes, but not for the bleeding snowpocalypse that had descended on them, obscuring street signs and entire bloody roads. They’d have had second thoughts about even setting out, never mind leaving the motorway in search of a late dinner after James’s tummy rumbled loud enough to be heard over the world music he was playing through his iPod.
Later, Robbie would remember the unending, freezing, swirl of white, the dampness finding its way under the hood of his anorak, seeping under his scarf, the chill seeping into his bones.
Later, Robbie would remember the journey as one long, aching, exhausted, despairing, stumbling step in front of another, the heavy, precious weight of James’s arm across his shoulders bearing Robbie down as the man stumbled blindly, trustingly, along with him into the unknown when the cold sapped his strength and his ability to think clearly.
Later, Robbie would remember the desperate attempt to keep his eyes fixed on the tree line, the way it would intermittently disappear in snow flurries, or when he’d stumble and lose focus as he attempted to recover his balance, mumbling reassurances to the ominously uncomplaining James. He’d remember how at one point it disappeared for so long that Robbie stopped, his eyes fixed on the place he thought he’d last seen it, praying to the God James still believed in. Because if it was gone, they were lost. If it was gone, they were dead.
Later, Robbie would remember the figure emerging out of the terrible, endless, frozen wasteland, looming, tall and dark and a miracle, taking James’s weight from him. He’d remember how the burden literally being lifted from him gave him a last surge of energy to stagger after the figure urging them both on: not much longer, just hang on, we’re nearly there, you’re safe now.
“I’m all right, sir,” James insisted, his hands clasped firmly around the mug of hot chocolate he held clutched against his chest. He took a careful sip, his eyes daring Robbie to comment on the way they still trembled, on the way his body still shook with the occasional tremor.
“Never mind this stiff upper lip business you’ve got going. You nearly died—not enough meat on your bones—and you still look like death warmed up. I can’t take care of you properly if you don’t tell me what’s really going on with you.”
Robbie leaned forward to try to get a better look at James’s downcast face. The blanket slipped from his shoulders, but it didn’t matter, the room was toasty warm. Their hosts—their saviours—had bundled them both up in fleecy blankets and given them hot, sweet drinks to sip while they built up the fire as high as it would go.
Robbie would have liked a doctor to have a look at James, but with the blizzard conditions no one was getting in or out for the foreseeable future. ‘Nothing some cocoa and TLC won’t cure,’ Mrs Morgan had assured Robbie, peering up at him as she squeezed his hand with her surprisingly strong blue spotted hands, their knuckles swollen and bent with the rheumatism.
Once assured that they were warm and comfortable and had everything they needed for the night, the elderly couple had gone to bed, instructing Robbie to wake them if they needed anything or if, God forbid, the young man took a turn for the worse. Mrs Morgan had been a nurse once upon a time, she told him, and her matter of fact way of ministering to James and her confidence in leaving him in Robbie’s care was oddly heartening.
“Sir? On the plus side?” James’s teeth were still chattering in a way that Robbie couldn’t help but find worrying, but the mischief in his Sergeant’s eyes was reassuring. He couldn’t be too badly off if he was up to being cheeky.
“Now you know where to bring Doctor Hobson for your do over.”
Robbie glanced around the room. Shag rugs in shades of deep red thrown generously over wooden floorboards gave it a warm appearance and enhanced the red feature wall opposite the fireplace that gave the room a modern touch. Bedside lamps on either side of the raised double bed cast warm, soft lighting over which shadows danced as the fire crackled warmly.
In other circumstances this would be right romantic. For a moment Robbie allowed himself a moment of regret as he recalled his and Laura’s aborted attempt at a weekend away. He’d never quite worked out what that weekend was supposed to be about – Laura had told him she’d booked two rooms. Would they have taken the opportunity to get closer?
James was still looking at him with his best innocent expression. Robbie shook his head in exasperation. “Give over, you,” he grumbled. “You know that isn’t happening.”
“She’s seeing someone else now. Another doctor, far as I know.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” James looked mortified.
“Don’t be.” He’d been ambivalent about the whole thing. Laura was lovely, and a trusted friend. And when it looked like there could be something there…. Well, he’d felt obliged to try, hadn’t he? If he was going to ‘move on’ like everyone expected—even Lyn had mentioned it the last time he’d been to visit. Mum wouldn’t want you to mourn forever, Dad. You know she wouldn’t. You’ve been alone too long.
And now it was too late. And the fact that Robbie couldn’t bring himself to care very much about the whole thing probably meant he’d made the right decision in not trying harder with Laura.
He watched James drain his mug and then continue to sit hunched over with it clutched in his hands, staring into the fire. “Feeling any better?”
James looked up, but he was somewhere far away. “Hmm?” he said, his eyes clearing. “Oh, yes, thank you.” He seemed to hesitate. “Still a bit cold,” he admitted.
“Not surprising,” Robbie said. “You’ll be warmer in bed, I reckon.”
“Thank God for hot water bottles.”
“Thank Mrs Morgan’s habit of never throwing anything away, more like.”
She’d assured them, when she appeared in the bedroom doorway with half a dozen old fashioned rubber bottles, that they weren’t depriving her. “We use heat bags, now,” she said. “Easy to make and just pop them in the microwave for a couple of minutes and Bob’s your uncle. We only keep these old things for spares for when the power goes out.”
Robbie kept an eye on the doorway after James shuffled off to clean his teeth with one of the spare toothbrushes Mrs Morgan had left out for them, blanket still firmly clutched around his shoulders. The bathroom was just down the icy hallway, he shouldn’t be gone long, but Robbie found he didn’t want to let James out of his sight while the lad was still looking so shaky.
When James got back, he went to stand in front of the fire, huddled close as he could get. He was shivering violently again. Robbie pressed his lips together to stop himself reminding James he’d be warmer once he was tucked under the mound of duvets piled on the bed. There was a fine line between looking out for a sick and miserable James and ‘babying’ him, as Robbie had discovered earlier, when James had definitely been less compos mentis that he was now. James had snarled at him, and then looked immediately stricken—on the verge of tears, and mortified at his own reaction. Robbie had backed off, trying to leave the poor man his pride.
Eventually James, with a sidelong glance Robbie didn’t know what to make of, shuffled over to the bed. He unwrapped the fluffy blanket from around his shoulders and added it to the pile on the bed. Raging blizzard or not outside the window, Robbie had a feeling they’d be warm enough even if the fire went out during the night.
James stood for a moment, looking irresolute, and Robbie restrained himself from a facetious comment about how well the man of the house’s spare pyjamas became him. Sure, the old fashioned flannel stripe looked somewhat incongruous on his stylish Sergeant, but at least they fit him reasonably well. The old man also somewhat resembled a beanpole, although Robbie suspected the old man’s leanness owed more to age and possible infirmity, having caught a glimpse of the robust and hearty figure the man had once been in family photos that lined the hall.
The fact that James had not taken the opportunity to gently mock the way the pyjamas Robbie were wearing were rolled up at the ankles, or the fact he was wearing a jumper because the top hadn’t fit him comfortably at all, spoke volumes about how out of it James must still be feeling.
He watched James crawl under the covers and become a mound under the blankets.
“Good night, sir,” the mound mumbled, sounding sleepy already.
“Good night, lad,” Robbie said, softly. He sat staring into the flames, wondering if the car was completely covered now, still feeling chilled inside despite the heat emanating from the fireplace at the thought that they might still have been stuck there, or worse, lost out in the snow. They’d have frozen to death by now, if Morgan hadn’t happened to glance out of his window as he went to close his curtains before bed. He’d caught a glimpse of something that might have been headlights and decided to check it out, just in case, and come across them, staggering blind and exhausted in the deep snow.
What were the odds? Almost enough to make one reconsider one’s position on the existence of a higher power. Robbie liked to think that Val was watching over him and the kids.
The sheets were cold when Robbie finally got back from his own icy dash to the bathroom, except for the pockets of warmth from the now lukewarm hot water bottles. Robbie pushed them both down to his feet and edged closer to the warmth radiating from the lightly snoring figure beside him. He smiled to himself. James would be mortified later when he told him but it was only to be expected. He’d be very surprised if the lad didn’t pull up with a bad cold after this. If they both didn’t.
He was toasty warm already, should probably get rid of a couple of layers of cover now so they didn’t overheat. He was asleep by the time he finished the thought.
He did wake once, hot and uncomfortable and feeling smothered, pressed down by the weight of all the covers. He sat up, shivering in the chilled air. The room was dark but for the glow of the embers, a bare few flames licking at the remnants of the logs, mostly crumbled to ash. Gritting his teeth, he slid out of the bed, grateful for the shag pile beneath his feet. He made his way over to the fireplace by way of the numerous rugs, avoiding the icy floorboards as much as he could. He placed several new logs in the fireplace and made his way back to the bed. James was twisted in the covers, as though he’d tried to push some away in his sleep.
Reluctantly, Robbie reached over and switched his bedside lamp on. James murmured something indistinct and turned his face away from the light, his face scrunching up. He looked flushed and somewhat sweaty. Robbie rested the back of his hand against James’s forehead for a moment. He was definitely too warm now.
Better that than the opposite, but still. Robbie got out of the bed and carefully pulled back the top couple of layers of blankets so that they were positioned at the end of the bed in such a way that they could easily be pulled up again. He slid back under the covers and snuggled down, his eyes on James’s face, watching as it smoothed out again. It made him look younger than his years and strangely vulnerable.
Robbie’s eyes were just drifting closed when James stirred. He rolled over, towards Robbie, so that their faces were so close that Robbie was aware of James’s soft breath on his face, still smelling faintly of spearmint toothpaste.
Robbie should move back, put space between them. But that would put him precariously close to the edge, and there was nothing to stop James rolling closer again. He could attempt to roll him back, but he was loath to risk waking the man, not after the night he’d had. Tentatively he placed a hand on James’s shoulder, ready to give him a gentle nudge. James mumbled something, his eyes fluttering as if he was about to wake up.
Robbie yanked his hand away. James’s face smoothed out again, going still. He’d stopped snoring now he was on his side, and Robbie had a sudden, nightmarish image of him lying out in the snow, his face still and serene and cold. He had to clench his fist to stop him reaching out, to assure himself that James was real—that he was really alive.
Their closeness was comforting now, James’s puffs of breath against his face reassuring. Robbie fell asleep staring at James’s peaceful face.
He awoke again, snug and warm and with the vague idea that it was somewhere near dawn, but with the heavy curtains firmly closed there was no way to tell; the embers in the fireplace provided only enough light to allow him to orient himself in the dark room. He thought about checking the time—he’d left his watch and phone on the bedside—but even as he thought to move he realised he couldn’t, not without disturbing his bed companion. Robbie must have turned over in his sleep and James was snuggled up behind him, spoon-like, his arm wrapped firmly around Robbie’s middle.
It was completely inappropriate and the police guidelines probably had very strict things to say about cuddling with one’s subordinates, even if you were both asleep at the time, and no doubt James would be beyond mortified if he realised what he was doing but Robbie found he didn’t want to move. He’d never been the snuggle-ee before and it was unexpectedly comfortable and soothing. He wasn’t even particularly sleepy anymore, so he just lay watching the glowing embers in the fireplace, not thinking of much in particular except the reassuring warmth of James’s body breathing softly behind him.
A gentle knock on the door roused him from his reverie, and he was just deciding whether to get up when the door creaked open and the concerned face of their hostess peeked around the door.
“Morning,” Robbie said, softly.
Her eyes met his and then wandered past him and widened. Belatedly, Robbie realised what they must look like. He thought about explaining, but her eyes had returned to his face. Just wanted to check on you boys,” she said softly. “See if you were ready for breakfast. The radio says the storm’s over now, but the roads won’t be cleared today, not in these parts. If you want to call someone, the landline’s probably your best bet. My son says he can never get a signal in our house.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Robbie hadn’t been called a boy since he was a boy, and the sensation was odd, even from a woman old enough to be his mother. “We might just lie in a bit longer, if that’s all right.”
“Of course, just come down when you’re ready.”
The door closed again with a soft click. Against his neck he felt James’s smile as the man snickered.
“Oi, how long have you been awake?”
James rolled away on to his back and stretched luxuriously. Robbie was aware of an odd sensation of loss as he took his arm away. “Not long,” James said, blinking up at the ceiling.
Robbie thought about pressing him—had he been awake before their hostess came to check on them too? Had he too been enjoying their closeness?
Best not mention it. What happens in a strange bedroom in north Yorkshire stays in a strange bedroom in north Yorkshire.
“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Innocent said, sounding exasperated.
“I’d have to agree, ma’am,” Robbie said, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm in his voice.
Her sigh was audible over the line. “Sorry, but we’re a bit snowed under here, if you’ll pardon the pun. And there you are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yorkshire isn’t exactly nowhere.”
“Am I right in thinking you have no way of doing actual police work there?”
“Not without our laptops or internet, no. Bit of a dead zone around here, apparently.”
“Not much use to me, then, and emergency services are a bit stretched across most of the country at the moment. I’ll put a call in, but it might be a while before they can dig you out. May as well enjoy the break.”
“Right you are.”
“I’m glad you’re both safe,” she said, her voice softening.
For a moment Robbie was back in the freezing white nothingness, putting one aching leg in front of the other, exhausted, despairing, wondering how much longer he could coax the disorientated James along with him, the weight of James’s arm across his shoulder getting heavier and heavier. “Me too, ma’am,” he said.
James was in the kitchen with Mrs Morgan, stirring a large pot of bubbling soup that smelt absolutely amazing.
“How did she take the news?”
“About as well as can be expected. Told us to enjoy our break, though.”
“Good of her.”
“Not in a hurry to get back, then?” the old lady asked, as she sprinkled some sort of fresh chopped herb into the soup.
Robbie took a seat on the sturdy-looking stool at the kitchen counter. “We’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible,” he assured her.
“No doubt you boys will want to be on your way as soon as the snow stops and they can clear the roads, but don’t feel you need to leave because you think you’re imposing. We’re glad of the company, aren’t we, Fred?” she said, as her husband entered the kitchen with an armful of wood.
“Aye,” Morgan agreed.
James let go of the spoon he’d been stirring the soup with. “Here, let me,” he said, hurrying to take several pieces off the top of the pile the old farmer was carrying and adding them to the pile beside the stove.
“It occurs to me that we could make ourselves useful while we’re stuck here,” James said after lunch, when their hosts had disappeared off to have a nap or perform satanic rituals in the cellar, whatever it was that sweet old couples did of an afternoon in the wilds of Yorkshire.
“I was talking to Mrs Morgan while I was helping her with lunch. Their son doesn’t make it up from London very much—he’s something important in the City—and there are some things that need doing around the house that are a bit much for them at their age. She was talking about getting an odd job man in when the weather clears, but I’m thinking we could probably take care of some of it.”
“Good idea,” Robbie agreed. That was James for you. For all he came across as aloof and even abrupt to those who didn’t know him very well, which Robbie sometimes suspected encompassed everyone except him, he could be thoughtful, and generous when it counted.
Their hosts had invited them to treat their home as their own for the duration of their stay, so Robbie made cuppas and took them out to where James was sat in the sun room, already nose deep in a book. The room was unexpectedly cosy, given the wall of white outside the floor to ceiling windows. The storm might be over but snow still drifted softly about.
James was curled in a comfortable-looking old leather armchair by the radiator. “Of course you’ve found something to read,” Robbie said, with a surge of fondness, as he put James’s cup down on the table beside him. James must have heard the emotion in his voice because he tilted his head back against the chair to grin up at him, his whole face lit up, bright and engaging. James really was an attractive man, Robbie thought suddenly, unexpectedly. He’d have the girls—or boys—all over him if only he smiled like that around other people instead of just Robbie.
“They’ve a whole library full of books,” James said.
“Makes sense. Probably not a lot else to do out here in the middle of winter.”
“There’s board games too. Mostly old kids’ ones though. Could have a look if you like.”
“We’re not that desperate for entertainment yet.”
“I saw a TV in the main living room.”
“Afternoon telly—no, thank you,” Robbie said. “Which way is the library?”
It was getting latish when their hosts reappeared. Mrs Morgan mentioned she was going to start dinner. James put his book down and followed her out of the room. Morgan sat down in the seat James had vacated. Robbie put down his own book, a Dennis Wheatley one from a series he remembered enjoying as a boy.
“Everything all right?”
“Fine, thank you,” Robbie said. “Cosy,” he added, thinking of the warm rugs and piles of comforters.
“There’s a fold out bed in the cellar somewhere,” Morgan said, perhaps misunderstanding his meaning. “You’d have to go foraging, mind. Probably need a good clean. Now that your young man’s feeling better you could get it up the stairs between you, I’m sure.”
Robbie thought about attempting to manhandle a no doubt elderly metal frame up the two flights of stairs and thought he felt his back twinge in sympathy.
“Good of you to offer,” he said. “Hopefully we won’t trouble you much longer, though. Not worth the effort. My back’s not up to much these days, you see.”
“Probably not, thought I’d mention it, in case.”
“They don’t need the spare bed,” Morgan announced to his wife when they came inside.
Robbie looked at James’s raised eyebrows. “Needs carting up the stairs and a thorough clean,” he explained. “Just thought it wasn’t worth the effort for one or two more nights.”
“No, of course not,” James agreed placidly, and went back to the potatoes he was peeling.
Dinner was pork sausages and mash and homemade mushy peas. Nothing like the supermarket fare Robbie had been making do with these last years. The Morgans talked contentedly about life on the farm, of their upcoming 50th wedding anniversary that their son, Henry, was coming up from London for. Morgan’s hand curled lightly around his wife’s on the kitchen table, as though it normally rested there without them consciously thinking of it. The love between them was unmistakable.
Sat around the table with these strangers who’d welcomed them into their home, treated them like family, with James, who was more than his sergeant, who was his best friend, Robbie was suddenly, painfully, homesick for the life he’d once had. He put down his knife and fork. Out of the corner of his eye he saw James shooting him worried glances. Of course James had noticed, didn’t miss a trick, that one, especially where Robbie’s moods were concerned. Robbie turned his head to smile at him, trying to convey reassurance. James didn’t look convinced but he turned back to his food, and responded to the question Mrs Morgan had just asked him without missing a beat.
He’d known how to play bridge, once upon a time. He and Val used to make up a pair at the local club, at least for a while. After they’d had to forfeit once too often due to inconveniently timed murders, Val had found a new partner in their obliging neighbour Edith, with Robbie’s blessing. Truth be told, he’d never been that mad about the game; he’d gone along more to spend time with Val than anything.
Now he found himself racking his brains to remember which suit trumped which, while James, who’d mentioned he’d ‘played a bit in college’, cast him long-suffering looks and sighed in an exaggerated sort of way whenever Robbie mucked it up. Meanwhile the Morgans, who looked so sweet and innocent, took gleeful advantage of Robbie’s gaffes and would have had the shirts off their backs, if they’d owned the shirts they were wearing.
“Not our best showing,” James drawled, once the ruthless card sharks had allowed them to retire to their room, dignity in tatters. He crouched by the fire, adding logs and stoking the flames.
“Never did have much of a head for cards,” Robbie admitted, sinking onto his side of the bed, absently noting the way the firelight highlighted the fine cheekbones and the pale hair. He reminded Robbie of one of those angelic fellas the Renaissance artists were so obsessed with painting.
James shot him a slanted smile. “Yes, that was clear.”
“Don’t be,” James said, rising from his crouched position with an ease that Robbie envied. “It was fun.”
Robbie thought about the evening just gone, of the expression of concentration on James’s face during their hands, his poker face that soon cracked when he realised just how screwed he was with Robbie as a partner, and the good humour with which he accepted his fate. Robbie smiled fondly. “Yes, it was,” he agreed.
Robbie opened his eyes to the sight of an unfamiliar ceiling, and a twinge in his back from a mattress softer than he was used to. For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was or how he came to be there but he felt awake and well rested—more so than he’d felt in a long time, actually, so he couldn’t bring himself to be too bothered about the situation.
A snuffle against his neck and he became aware of the weight of someone’s head on his shoulder, the sensation familiar and yet long-missed, and he remembered that he was Detective Inspector Lewis of the Oxfordshire Police and the person plastered against his side, that Robbie’s own arm was curled around, could only be his apparently not so aloof and self-contained Detective Sergeant Hathaway.
And if he wasn’t mistaken, that was the feel of another man’s morning wood against his thigh, although it had been some years since he’d experienced it himself, but even as he was thinking about it, he was aware of the familiar coil of arousal creeping through him, slow and comfortable and missed. There was no sense of urgency though, and he couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty, or be bothered to move away, to put space between them like he undoubtedly should.
He should probably be more concerned about the erosion of professional boundaries them being confined in such close quarters was seemingly causing, but right now it felt like all was right with the world. That feeling was too rare not to hang on to, as was the opportunity to have a decent lie in, so he let himself drift.
When James finally stirred, Robbie was aware of the exact moment that his Sergeant became aware of their respective positions because his whole body stiffened.
“I never took you for a cuddler,” he said mildly.
James held himself stiffly for long enough that Robbie wondered if he was going to freak out anyway. Then he relaxed, abruptly, his whole body going limp against Robbie’s. Well, not his whole body. “I’m not,” he said.
“I beg to differ.”
“I’m as surprised as you are,” James said, yawning.
“Are you planning on moving any time soon?”
“Not really, no.”
“All right, then,” Robbie said, after a moment, because apparently he wasn’t moving either. He closed his eyes again. Eventually, though, his back gave another twinge, and when he shifted to try and get more comfortable, James seemed to take that as a cue to get up. He swung his legs out of bed and sat up, scratching his fingers through his cropped hair as he yawned again.
He got up, shooting Robbie a smile as he turned to the pile of assorted clothes of Morgan and cast-offs of the London son that Mrs Morgan had left in the room for them the night before, and disappeared off to the bathroom. Robbie got up more slowly, wincing at the various aches making themselves known. He was missing his orthopaedic mattress.
Robbie spent the morning in the garage ostensibly helping the old man give his classic Rover a tune-up, but mostly chatting about The State of The World and Young People These Days. Morgan was surprisingly liberal in his views. Live and let live, he said several times, pointing a spanner at Robbie.
James had disappeared with Mrs Morgan after breakfast, supposedly to help her out with a few minor tasks such as changing blown lightbulbs and dusting the tops of the high cabinets. After a while, though, Robbie became faintly aware of the sound of music, of a piano and a guitar being played, if he wasn’t mistaken, and voices, singing in harmony.
“Aye, Marg will have lured the poor man into the music room. She doesn’t get much opportunity to play any more, apart from church on a Sunday.”
Robbie smiled. “He wouldn’t have taken much convincing.” He was glad of it, that James had found something to do while they were stuck here that he enjoyed.
There was a league match on in the afternoon, so all other activity ceased as they gathered around the large flat screen mounted on the wall of the living room. Present from Henry, Morgan said, as he brought in four large bottles of homebrew on a tray, with pint glasses and bowls of crisps and beer nuts. He looked to be about to bend down to place the heavy tray on the coffee table when James smoothly stepped forward and took the tray from the old man with smile and bent to slide the tray onto the table himself, then perched on the edge of sofa to pour them each a glass.
Morgan sat in what was obviously His Chair, worn and comfortable-looking, with a footrest for his slipper-shod feet. Mrs Morgan took a seat at the card table off to the side, where a large jigsaw puzzle waited, half done. James took a seat at the table too. He could see the screen but Robbie rather thought the jigsaw puzzle would be of more interest.
Once the game started though, James joined him on the sofa, sliding into his usual spot by his side. He picked up a bowl of crisps in the hand not holding his beer and sat back, balancing the bowl between them where their thighs brushed as James stretched out his long legs.
Robbie took a turn helping Mrs Morgan cut up the veg for dinner while James read his book, then spent the evening watching the goggle box with the old couple, keeping half an eye on his Sergeant, seated in the farthest armchair, his legs flung over the side, engrossed in his book. Occasionally James would glance up and catch his eye and smile one of those enigmatic smiles of his and Robbie would smile back, fond. He was a bit surprised at how comfortable James seemed here, amongst strangers, but he was glad of it. It did his heart good to see James happy.
At bedtime, James announced he was going to stay up and read for a while, if having the bedside lamp on on his side wouldn’t keep Robbie awake?
“I shouldn’t think so,” Robbie assured him. “Val used to stay up reading her crime thrillers. Me, I got enough of the real thing—was usually knackered enough come bedtime I’d be asleep as soon me head hit the pillow.”
He was taking his watch off to leave it by the bedside, as was his habit, and vaguely wondering why he was bothering putting it on of a morning. Within the confines of these walls, with nowhere to be and no deadlines to keep, the sense of time passing was oddly unimportant. It was only when he looked up and saw that James was staring at him, apparently transfixed, his book resting unopened in his lap, that he realised what he’d said. He waited for the familiar sense of loss, the grief, to wash over him.
It didn’t happen. Instead, he felt suffused with a sense of warmth, of nostalgia for the love that had been his centre for so many years. All the love he felt for Val was still there, but the pain was gone, as though a chapter of his life had finally closed and it was time to turn the page.
“Good night, James,” he said, closing his eyes, the image of Val smiling warmly, approvingly at him, accompanying him to sleep.
“Good night, sir.”
He roused somewhat later as the bed shifted. He was aware of the light switch clicking off, the mattress dipping again and the bed clothes tugging as James settled down to sleep beside him. There was a few moments of stillness and then a draft of cold night-time air making him shiver as the bedclothes beside him lifted away. Then there was warmth, the presence of a body close beside him, and then, hesitantly, “Sir?” Half-awake, not caring to think any more of it, Robbie reached for him. He drew him close as James inched closer still, echoing the deep sigh James made as he sank against him.
Robbie awoke abruptly to the sound of a door slamming somewhere downstairs, the heavy front door by the sound of it. He blinked and realised that he was staring into startled blue eyes. Their faces were so close together on the pillow that one of them would only need to lean forward a fraction and they’d be kissing, and with that epiphany came the realisation that their bodies were tangled together, arms around each other, one of James’s legs pushing between his own, impossible not to notice their respective erections.
Robbie was going to move away immediately and they’d both pretend that this never happened. Then James, still looking startled, shifted his leg, presumably in preparation to moving away. The friction against his cock was unexpected and startled a gasp out of him. James froze and they stared at each other, and then James’s eyes dropped to Robbie’s mouth. He couldn’t be thinking of… he wasn’t going to…
Downstairs, the whistle of the kettle boiling mingled with the approaching tramp of Morgan’s steps on the creaking wooden stairs. Robbie pulled away, rolling on to his back and staring at the ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye he could see James doing the same thing. James was taking deep, even breaths. Robbie knew that any minute now, James was going to apologise, James was going to flagellate himself over this and that wasn’t on. That wasn’t fair on either of them. “Don’t,” he said, sitting up and rubbing his hands over his face.
James was staring at him, a crease between his brows.
Robbie made himself meet James’s eyes. “Just don’t,” he said, waving his hand vaguely. “Don’t overthink this.”
James tilted his head in that birdlike way he had sometimes.
Robbie sighed. “We’re okay, yeah?”
James still looked confused, but the worry, the guilt had been smoothed away. “Yes, sir,” he agreed.
“Right,” Robbie said decisively, getting to his feet and grabbing clean clothes. “Last one to shower is a rotten egg who gets the cold water,” he said and then legged it to the bathroom in case James did in fact try to challenge him.
“Good news!” Morgan greeted them when they entered the kitchen, showered and dressed and avoiding one another’s eyes. “The snow’s finally stopped and the forecast is clear, so your car’s been towed to the local garage. The mechanic’s had a look at it, reckons you’ll be good to go tomorrow.”
“What about the roads?”
“Main roads are being cleared by the council as we speak and some lads from the village will be up later to clear our driveway.”
“That’s good to hear,” Robbie said, and wondered why it didn’t feel like the truth.
The ‘lads from the village’ that came to clear the snow from the Morgans’ driveway turned out to be a motley group of teenagers of assorted ages and sexes. They trooped cheerfully up the road the snow plough had cleared earlier that morning, shovels over their shoulders. A couple of the older boys were carrying familiar-looking travel bags.
Once he was changed into his own slim-fitting jeans and jumper and a bulky parka borrowed from Morgan, Morgan having deemed James’s own coat Not Suitable for Working In, James went outside to have a fag and to give the ‘lads’ a hand. Robbie, feeling more like himself back in his own clothes, watched from the window as the teens, initially respectful in that way it sometimes seemed like only country children were nowadays, soon lost their wariness in response to whatever James said. The work soon devolved into a snowball fight and ended up with the lot of them leaping on top of him, their laughter mingling with James’s mock protests, the words indistinct but his amused tone carrying clearly in the still air.
“He’s good with kids, your young man,” Mrs Morgan said. Robbie jumped. He hadn’t even noticed her come up to stand beside him at the window. “Do you have any of your own?”
“Two, long grown up now. One in Manchester, one in Australia,” Robbie said absently, still watching the pile of flailing limbs in the snow.
“No, I meant,” the old lady said, and then stopped, looking oddly flustered.
“What did you mean?” Robbie asked, even as his brain caught up with the conversation they were apparently having. It wasn’t the first time one of their hosts had referred to James that way, he realised.
Mrs Morgan was looking embarrassed and Robbie felt abruptly unable to cope with the conversation. “I’m going to go see if James needs rescuing,” he said and escaped.
“Were you aware that the Morgans apparently believe that we… that we…”
“Engage in rumpy-pumpy?”
“That we’re together?”
“I had rather got that impression, yes.”
“Did they say something?”
“It was more the knowing looks when we snuggled on the sofa—”
“We did not snuggle!”
“It probably appeared that way to the people who aren’t aware of your habit of taking up the entire middle of whatever piece of furniture you’re occupying. Not a lot of personal space left by the time I sit down.”
“I do not!”
James raised his head to stare at him, his expression one of exaggerated disbelief. Robbie thought about the Morgans’ old sofa. He had sat down in the middle, not even thinking about it, used to the shape of his own sofa at home, the comfy spot that was the perfect position for watching the telly from. The one he was used to having James slide in next to him on, the warmth of him along his side after a difficult case, present and reassuring and home.
“Also, Mrs Morgan may have asked how my parents had reacted to my ‘lifestyle choices’,” James said dryly, and he might as well have used air quotes. “It appears that they have their suspicions about Henry and his flatmate Simon, and she wanted my advice about how to talk to him about it.”
“You didn’t set them straight?” James’s mouth quirked. Robbie sighed. “You know what I mean,” grumbled.
“There didn’t seem much point trying to deny it after the old lady saw us all cuddled up in bed that first morning.”
“That’s easily explained, man! What were you thinking?”
“Actually, I was thinking that representation is important.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I saw no harm in allowing our hosts to continue to believe that these two nice, respectable police officers might be gay.”
“But why? It’s not like they’re homophobic. The opposite, I would have said.”
“Not everyone’s that accepting. They’re obviously worried about their son.”
“So, I was trying to show them that they don’t need to be.”
“Is this about straight lines and Yorkie bars again?”
“If it bothers you so much, we can set them straight later,” James said tonelessly. Robbie looked at him, at the way he was stood with his arms tightly crossed over his chest, his body language as closed off as Robbie had ever seen it, not since the court case with the poor dead girl, and Crevecoeur.
“It doesn’t bother me that they think we’re gay, it bothers me because it’s not true.”
“What?” James said, taking a step forward. There was a flash of something on his face, gone too fast for Robbie to make out.
“It feels like we’re lying by omission, I mean.”
“Of course,” James said, as if to himself. If possible his shoulders got even more hunched.
What was that about? Robbie’s stomach clenched uncomfortably. He’d missed something, he knew it, but he knew James. The more he pushed, the more James would withdraw.
The bloody Sphinx had nothing on James sometimes, honestly.
It was finals night and Morgan was generous with refilling their glasses with his homebrew. Robbie found himself drinking too much as he cheered their team on, and he rather suspected James was too, from the glimpses he’d caught of James swigging it back.
Back in their room, James folded himself carefully into a cross-legged position in front of their fireplace and started feeding smaller sticks to the embers. “You didn’t tell them,” he said, as he poked at the embers to generate flames.
“Didn’t seem much point—it being our last night and all.” Robbie sank into the armchair opposite and regarded James’s bowed head, the nape of his neck exposed and oddly vulnerable-looking. “And I did think about what you said, about representation and normalisation and such like.”
“Thank you,” James said, quietly, still staring into the flames.
The subject had been hovering between them for years. There would never be a better time. “This is personal for you, isn’t it?” Robbie asked gently.
It stretched on, but Robbie was loath to break it. James had to know that nothing he could say would make Robbie respect him less. Care for him less. Either James would choose to trust him with his private self now, or he wouldn’t, and they would go on as before.
“I should have had wine tonight,” James said finally, meditatively.
“What?” Robbie was thrown by the apparent non sequitur. “Why?”
“Well, you know—in vino veritas?”
“Well, how about in vino … what’s the Latin for beer?”
“In vino crevisia, then.”
“Although the phrase has come to refer to alcohol in general. No need to break Latin.”
“Go on then, clever clogs.”
“I’m not sure I’ve had enough.”
“I think we both have. If not, we can just pretend we did later, if that helps?”
James sighed, deeply. “I’m not sure it does, but thank you, sir.”
For all that James frequently managed to infuse the word with sarcasm, humour, and even affection, it seemed wrong suddenly, after the closeness they’d shared these past few nights, after their years of trust and support and friendship. “It’s Robbie,” he said.
“Robbie,” James repeated. A pleased smile hovered at the corners of his mouth.
They both watched the fire. The silence was comfortable. After a while, James said, still staring into the flames, “I never told my dad.”
“You can tell me.”
James laughed a little at that, but not like he was genuinely amused, and it seemed to catch in his throat. He looked up. “I hope you’re not implying that you sit in loco parentis—”
“Enough of the bloody Latin—”
“—because my feelings for you are not at all filial, Robbie—”
“—and if you tell me you think of me as a son—”
James’s voice had risen, a flush across his cheeks that wasn’t there a moment ago.
“Of course I don’t think of you as a son. I’ve got a son. You’re me partner, and me friend—”
“Thank the Lord for that,” James said, heartfelt. He rose up on his knees, put his hands on Robbie’s thighs and before Robbie realised his intent, before Robbie could put a hand out to stop him, to remind him that, tipsy as they were or not, they couldn’t do this, whatever this was, James kissed him.
It wasn’t a friendly kiss. It was rough and slightly off centre and Robbie found himself clutching James, hanging on to James for dear life and by the time they drew apart to catch their breath, Robbie had forgotten all the reasons why this was a bad idea. He was suffused with heat and not from the fire that James was urging him down in front of. He was stretched out on the floor, another man’s body blanketing him, pressing him down into the shag pile rug. James was kissing him as though he would devour him, as though he was desperate for him. Robbie found himself matching his partner’s fervour, pulling one knee up so he could use his foot against the floor to thrust upwards, trying to rub himself against James’s erection.
James didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get off, though. James was kissing him and kissing him and not letting up. He wasn’t letting Robbie up and Robbie was finding out new things about himself all the time because the feeling of being held down by a partner stronger than him, the slight roughness of James’s beard stubble, reminders that this was a man he was kissing, weren’t a turn off, not at all.
And Robbie’s judgement was obviously impaired, or he would be putting a stop to this, but he’d been drunker than this more times than he could count and he’d never been tempted to snog another man, not even that time when he was 19 and their football team smashed their rivals 4-0. He and his best mate Craig had been on a high, celebrating with pints of bitter. Craig had slid his hand up Robbie’s thigh and cupped his cock. He’d been good looking and fit and Robbie’s cock hadn’t cared that it was a man fondling it, but even half-drunk and half-hard Robbie hadn’t been tempted.
But that was another lifetime ago and what Robbie felt for James was nothing like what he’d felt for Craig. James took care of him, just like he tried to take care of James. James was always there for him, even when Robbie tried to push him away. James was sarcastic and too smart for his own good and vulnerable in a way that made Robbie feel protective of him. He was lanky and pale and gorgeous and how long had Robbie been noticing that about his Sergeant?
Robbie’s brain was whirling. It was hard to think clearly. He was hard and aching and he wanted James to touch him; it wouldn’t take that much to make him come.
And then James stopped kissing him and sat up, straddling Robbie’s thighs. He was undoing Robbie’s trousers, staring down at Robbie with a challenging glint in his eyes. He wasn’t waiting for permission. Robbie didn’t want him to.
Robbie’s hands were sliding to join James’s, trying to help, fumbling, getting in the way. Then James took firm hold of his trousers and pants at the hips and was pulling them down; Robbie was lifting his hips to help. James was moving back, sliding his pants all the way off so that Robbie was naked from the waist down, exposed, his cock already hard. James was kneeling at his feet, staring, his eyes burning and Robbie put his head back on the rug and stared at the shadows dancing on the ceiling. He didn’t know what James wanted from him, but he wasn’t ignorant; he knew the sorts of things men did together. He trusted James.
James’s hands were sliding up the inside of his calves, slowly, as though giving Robbie time to say something, to change his mind, maybe. Instead, he found himself parting his legs, all his attention focused on the trail of heat James’s hands were creating. Those hands were sliding along his inner thighs now and Robbie was panting harshly, anticipating their touch on his cock, his balls. He’d always loved having his balls played with.
The sensation disappeared. “Look at me, Robbie.”
He lifted his head with an effort, only to see James had stood up and was briskly divesting himself of his borrowed clobber. Naked, he was made of shadows and firelight. Robbie caught tantalising glimpses of pale smooth skin and the finely muscled form leaning over him. James had the cushion from the chair in his hand. He was putting it behind Robbie’s head and Robbie automatically curled his body up further so that James could push the cushion under his shoulders. James adjusted the cushion so that Robbie was slightly propped up and then slid back down Robbie’s body, holding Robbie’s eyes all the while, a mischievous smile on his face.
James wanted Robbie to watch. Jesus.
James was settling down on his stomach between Robbie’s legs, his hands on Robbie’s hips. He looked up through his eyelashes at Robbie, as if to make sure Robbie was paying attention. As if Robbie could have torn his eyes away.
Then James proceeded to worship his cock. There was no other word for it. The enraptured expression on his face was nothing like Robbie had ever seen before; he looked like one of those people in the mediaeval paintings looking up at the heavenly bodies, though he had a feeling James wouldn’t appreciated the comparison.
It was getting hard to keep his eyes open. They kept falling closed in order to focus on the pressure building in his balls, James was playing with him, sucking hard one minute, bringing Robbie close to the edge, James, please, that’s it, and then taking his mouth away, blowing softly across the head of his wet cock, the sensation making him shiver, and then fondling his balls, finally, a whole other focus of sensation.
James was sucking him again. Robbie was suspended in time, his whole body aflame, desire shivering through his limbs. He forced his eyes open again. “James,” he said; he pleaded. At least, he thought he did. His voice sounded far away to him, but James must have heard him; James lifted his head. James blinked slowly once, twice and then he smiled, just as slowly. He got up onto his knees and sat back.
Robbie had a clear view of James’s cock, hard and bobbing against his flat belly and Robbie found his own mouth watering with the desire to taste him in return, to feel James’s length fill his mouth. For a moment he thought that was where they were going next and he parted his lips in anticipation, but then James’s smile turned absolutely wicked.
As Robbie watched, he lifted his hand to his mouth and slid two fingers into his mouth. His cheeks hollowed as he sucked them, and then he slid them out with a wet pop. His fingers glistened in the firelight. He was bringing his hand down, and Robbie couldn’t close his eyes now if he wanted to, his cock was so hard it was leaking. But James wasn’t reaching for his cock, or his balls. James’s hand was sliding past them and Robbie didn’t even think about it, Robbie pulled his knees up and back, his feet resting flat on the floor.
James was smiling in approval. James’s fingers slid along his perineum and don’t stop, don’t stop until they got to his arsehole. They were circling. Jesus, Robbie hadn’t realised that could feel good, nerves he hadn’t even realised were there were sparking, pulsing.
There was a probing, pushing sensation and then a finger was pushing in, and it didn’t hurt, it felt fine, it felt good. Jesus, were they really doing this? Robbie felt drunk on the pleasure of it; even the illicitness. He trusted James not to hurt him; he trusted James to make it good for him. “Do it,” he said.
James’s head jerked up. He stared at Robbie as though he couldn’t believe he’d heard correctly.
“You can fuck me,” Robbie said, so there was no misunderstanding. It felt forbidden to say it. It felt dirty, and his cock was leaking copiously now, flat and hard against his tummy.
James grabbed the base of his own cock and squeezed. “God, Robbie, you can’t just decide that now.”
“Have you ever? Before?”
“Of course not.”
“Of course not. That’s why.”
“I trust you.”
James bowed his head. The firelight cast shadows across his face and Robbie couldn’t quite make out his expression. He stayed like that for so long that Robbie worried that he’d said something wrong; that he’d put James off, but James’s cock was still hard and James was still sat there.
“I want to, believe me. But you’d hate me tomorrow—”
“Okay, maybe not, but you’d regret it, and I couldn’t bear it.”
James’s shoulders were knotted muscle, his hands clenched on his thighs. Robbie’s head was clearing now. He was still hard, but the urgency had gone, James’s distress as effective as a cold shower. He sat up, and covered James’s clenched fists with his own. When James looked up at him, his eyes wide, Robbie leaned forward and kissed him.
It felt different this time, with him taking the lead. James yielded to him immediately when he placed a hand on his chest and gently pushed, lying back against the dark rug, his skin pale and lovely in the firelight.
Robbie was gentle with him, kissing his jaw, his ears, his throat, kissing him all over as James whispered his name, over and over, in a tone of awe. It was Robbie who finally lined up their cocks together and wrapped his hand around them both as best he could as they rocked together, both of them watching as they spilled over Robbie’s hand, Robbie first, James following him over the edge. They lay panting, spent, their heads close together on the pillow, staring at each other in the fading firelight.
Eventually James sat up, and Robbie lifted a languid hand to rest on the pale, sweaty back, the skin shivering under his touch as James leant forward to put another couple of logs on the fire. He turned to look at Robbie, but his face was in shadow.
Just when Robbie was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t James who was having regrets, James slid forward into Robbie’s arms and tucked his head into Robbie’s neck. Robbie felt him press a lingering kiss there. He heaved a deep sigh and his body went limp. “All right, love?” Robbie murmured, only realising what he’d said after the fact. He couldn’t bring himself to regret it, though; it had felt natural. There was no response, though, to either his question or the endearment. He wasn’t surprised; he was right knackered himself. He’d get up in a just a minute, he thought, as his eyes drifted shut.
Robbie woke to the sight of his partner lying on his side facing him, head propped on his hand, regarding him contemplatively. At some point during the night they’d managed to stumble into bed and Robbie was glad of it now; he’d hate to think what state his back would be in this morning if they hadn’t, not to mention the frostbite they’d probably have ended up with in delicate places.
Despite the early morning chill of the room, the covers were only pulled up to James’s waist, and Robbie was treated to the sight of his partner’s naked chest, nipples tight little buds that Robbie had a sudden vivid memory of sucking on, gently worrying with his teeth as James groaned and clutched at him and don’t stop, and just the memory of it sent a surge of arousal through him. Christ, it was too early for this, for the talk they were going to have to have.
“I don’t regret anything, just so you know,” James said, evenly, but with a hint of defiance. His face was carefully blank, but it had been years since that façade could fool Robbie. James looked like he was bracing for rejection.
“I knew you’d been drinking. I should feel guilty but I don’t. I know it can never happen again, that it’s unprofessional, that you’re my superior officer, that we have to work together and that you don’t swing that way normally—”
“You think, what, that you seduced me? Took advantage of me?” Robbie asked, raising his eyebrows. He wasn’t ready for this conversation. He’d just woken up, for cripes’ sake, hadn’t even had his morning coffee yet. Of course James wanted to—needed to—hash this out right here and now; the poor man had probably been awake and stewing about it for hours. “Because I seem to remember someone exercising self-restraint last night and it wasn’t me,” he admitted, feeling his cheeks flush at the memory of what they’d nearly done, what he’d wanted James to do.
“It’s Robbie, I’ve told you. Nothing’s changed.”
James choked out a laugh. Robbie could nearly taste the bitterness. “Everything’s changed.”
Robbie rubbed his hands over his face. “Look, I for one need the bathroom and some water,” he said. “I’m parched. If you want to go and have a ciggie or something”—to calm your nerves, he didn’t say—“waiting ten minutes to talk about this won’t kill us.”
In the bathroom, Robbie gulped down two glasses of water using the old toothpaste mug—beggars couldn’t be choosers and they weren’t in a position to be fussy—and splashed water on his face. He stared at his face in the mirror over the sink. He didn’t look any different. Still the same lined, average-looking face that for some reason a man young enough to be his son inexplicably found attractive, if the trail of love bites on his neck and shoulder were any indication. Bloody hell, a man of his age, with love bites. Just the sight of them, the memory, and his cock was stirring again.
The fire had been stoked, and the room was already perceptibly warmer than it had been when he’d bolted for the bathroom, robe and slippers hurried pulled on against the chill. James had got back into bed, still presumably naked. He was propped up on the pillows, his book in his hand but unopened, as though he’d picked it up to read and then forgotten what he’d been intending to do. His eyes flew to meet Robbie’s when he entered the room.
“You’re right, this can’t go on,” Robbie said. Best to rip the Band-Aid off, and for all that he knew James was expecting him to say that, the pain in his partner’s eyes tore at his own heart. He took the robe off and draped it over the dresser, and slid back under the covers, aware that James was watching him, eyes wide. He supposed getting naked into bed with a man you’d just told you couldn’t have sex with was probably a bit of a mixed message at that. “For most of the reasons you reeled off when I’d barely opened me eyes—”
“For all that you’re me friend, and more,” Robbie waved vaguely between them, “the bottom line is, I’m your boss and there are rules against this sort of thing for a reason, so no, we can’t keep on with this.”
“I know,” James said.
“So you need to get off your arse and tell Innocent you’re ready to sit for OSPRE and go for DI.”
“Since the promotion and pay increase weren’t motivation enough, consider this your kick in the pants.”
“You mean you want to….” James looked lost for words for once.
“You’re not gay.”
“I thought you were against putting labels on people,” Robbie said pointedly.
“No, I’m proving your point.”
“Just like that?”
“If you’re expecting me to freak out, sorry to disappoint. I know I’m a bit behind the times with some things, like the latest smartphone apps….”
James regarded him speakingly. Robbie was relieved to see the tension seemed to have disappeared from his shoulders. He no longer looked like he was expecting his world to come crumbling down around his ears.
“But I like to think that I’m up to speed on the important things, including it not being the end of the world to find out one happens to fancy a person of the same gender.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“No, it’s not.” Robbie held out his hand. For all that James had all but declared himself with that little outburst a few minutes ago, he found himself holding his breath. A simple gesture, but it felt as if he was jumping off a cliff, a cliff with a signpost pointing off the ledge, pointing him to James. “These last few days—just spending time with you, telly and jigsaw puzzles and home-cooked meals—I’ve been happy. It got me thinking—how much time we spend together, not just at work. How much a part of my life you’ve become. How important to me.”
James took his hand. “Robbie,” he breathed.
Robbie looked at their fingers tangled together. His own blunt, weathered fingers tangled with James’ elegant ones. “I’ve been happy,” he repeated, wonderingly. “Going to bed together at the end of the night has been a big part of that, having someone to cuddle, not being alone….”
He looked up. Although it would have been easier to say the next part to their joined hands, James deserved a courage to match his own. James eyes were fixed on him, unblinking, and very blue. “As for the other… we both know it wasn’t just the drink last night.”
“Robbie,” James breathed again, his tone one of wonder. His eyes dropped to Robbie’s mouth and this time Robbie was the one to lean in, to press his lips against James’s. When James’s lips parted, to breathe, to say something maybe, it was Robbie who deepened the kiss.
There was no urgency this time. He was becoming aroused just from kissing James, his cock starting to fill, but first things first. “So you’ll sit the next exam?”
“Innocent will be pleased.”
James looked like he couldn’t care less what Innocent thought. Robbie didn’t blame him. He abandoned his attempt to tease him and deliberately pushed all the covers down to the end of the bed. The room wasn’t quite warm enough yet, although the fire was crackling away merrily, but he wasn’t planning on having time to get chilled. He reached out and pulled James down on top of him, sliding his hands around his waist and down to his arse, cupping his bum cheeks and giving them a squeeze.
“I never imagined your taking to the whole gay sex thing quite so enthusiastically,” James said, sounding breathless, as he adjusted his position so that their cocks were aligned and some of his weight was taken by his arms.
“What can I say, I’ve always been an arse man,” Robbie confessed.
“The things you learn.”
“No problem at all,” James said fervently into his neck. He started laying kisses along Robbie’s throat and chest and it was good, just like last time. Robbie realised that James was following the trail he’d made just a few hours ago, the skin still bruised and hot. James was laving those marks with his tongue, and Robbie’s skin felt feverish; he felt feverish; his cock was hardening alongside James’s.
He tried to move, to thrust a bit, but he couldn’t move enough, then James was adjusting, sliding his legs to either side of Robbie’s, his thighs bracketing Robbie’s groin. James was making gentle thrusting motions, so that their cocks slid together, and it was good, but it wasn’t quite right, rough. Then James sat up; he was sitting on Robbie’s thighs but Robbie didn’t mind the weight. He liked it, even. His hands found their way back to James’s arse, just resting there, letting James do what he wanted.
James’s eyes were wide and focussed on Robbie’s face as he licked his hand, getting it good and wet. Even that was arousing, James’s attention, James reaching down and sliding his hand over his own cock, wetting it and then closing around Robbie’s shaft. James was staring at his hand now, rapt. Robbie followed his gaze to see his cockhead appearing and disappearing into the foreskin, a bead of white appearing at the slit.
James’s thumb slid over his cockhead and then he was raising his thumb to his mouth. He was staring at Robbie again, intent, as he wiped the precome over his lips. Robbie was riveted, all the blood in his body seemed to have rushed to his cock. That James—his James, with his posh accent and his poetry—Robbie wondered if he’d ever be able to look at James’s mouth again without thinking of this moment. Without feeling this rush of arousal. Then James was bending to kiss him and Robbie could taste himself in James’s kiss. Robbie’s hips jerked. He wanted to come; he was close. “James,” he gasped against James’s mouth. He felt James’s smile and then James was sliding down his body again and the last thing Robbie saw before his eyes closed was James’s hand busy on his own cock as his mouth closed over Robbie’s. Then all he was aware of was wet heat and suction and he was coming, hard, gasping James’s name again and again.
Robbie lifted his bag into the boot alongside James’s, noting that it had been properly stocked with emergency supplies—even snow chains. James must have arranged that. Good lad. Robbie’d been intending to stop en route to the motorway to stock up, even though there was only supposed to be light snow for the next few days. Complacency had nearly proved fatal before, he wouldn’t be so careless again.
Robbie shook Morgan’s hand and turned to see James had bent to envelop Mrs Morgan in a hug. He said something in her ear, too low for Robbie to make out, and she nodded. Robbie thought he detected tears in her eyes. She turned to him expectantly, and he bent to give her a hug too. Out of the corner of his eye he could see James rocking back on his heels, beaming.
“What did you say to her?” he asked, when they were in the car and the Morgans had retreated to their front step to wave them goodbye.
“I suggested she invite Henry to bring Simon with him when he comes up for their wedding anniversary, and make his partner welcome just like they would if he brought a woman.”
“I have them occasionally.”
“Speaking of good ideas,” Robbie said, as James put the car in gear and pulled carefully out of the driveway, looking both ways although there was nothing else moving in the white landscape.
“You becoming a DI.”
“What about it?”
“You do want to, right? You’re not doing it just for me?”
“You mean, did I decide my future career on the promise of sex with you?” James asked, casting him an amused glance.
“How does it feel to be a sex god?”
“Seriously? I hadn’t any firm plans. Not sure I’m cut out to be a copper in the long term. But I enjoy working with you.”
“You’ve never stayed just for me?” Robbie didn’t know whether to be flattered or dismayed.
“Not just for you, no.”
“That’s a relief.”
“Don’t get a swelled head or anything, but for the last while you’ve been the deal breaker.”
“I’ll try to restrain meself,” Robbie said dryly. “What do you mean, deal breaker?”
“Just that I wouldn’t have wanted to do the job without you.”
“You do realise that when you become a DI they won’t let us work cases together anymore.”
James’s tone was as bland as the expression on his face as James studiously kept his eyes on the road but Robbie wasn’t fooled. “Well?”
“Ah, but then I’ll have you to come home to, won’t I?”
Come home to. Blimey, was James already planning on them living together? It hadn’t even occurred to Robbie that this was something James might want, at least so soon. But when did James ever do things by half? James had just outright told him that Robbie was the reason was still doing this sometimes thankless job, dealing with the worst of humanity on a regular basis.
He didn’t know what his own face looked like, but James’s expression was suddenly shuttered. “It was just a figure of speech,” he said, tonelessly.
“No, I mean… I just hadn’t thought that far, that’s all.”
There was a long silence. “You mean you haven’t already planned the rest of our lives in the three hours since you decided you might want to explore your newfound bisexuality?” James said finally, in a poor attempt at an airy tone.
James was still uncertain of him, it seemed. It wouldn’t surprise him if James still wasn’t entirely sure that Robbie hadn’t only had sex with him because he’d been drinking. Not particularly flattering to either of them, but he supposed he hadn’t really swept James off his feet with his talk of cuddling and point proving. How could Robbie explain the certainty, the deep sense of rightness he felt, being here with James?
“No, I might need the rest of the trip back to Oxford for that.”
“I was joking.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“Look, I meant what I said earlier. I think I could be happy with you and I want to give it a go. I’m not saying I’m ready to pick out rings….”
James’s head whipped around. The expression on his face was priceless.
“Eyes on the road," Robbie reminded him, with a sideways nod in that direction.
“If I’ve rattled you that much that you’re back to ‘sir’, we should probably hold off on the rest of this conversation till we’re not driving.” He felt the car start to slow. James must have eased off the accelerator. “Don’t stop here, man! With the luck we’ve had with this car it’ll refuse to start or we’ll get rear-ended by a half-asleep lorry driver.”
James cast him another sidelong glance, but obediently accelerated again. His driving was as smooth as ever, and only the occasional tapping of his fingers on the steering wheel betrayed his impatience.
It was mid-afternoon when James pulled up outside Robbie’s building. Robbie was glad to get out of the car. His back was playing up from sitting in one position for so long. He’d considered suggesting that they stop along the way for a cuppa and to stretch their legs, but he’d looked at the determined expression on James’s face and decided to push through.
He put his hands to the small of his back and rolled his shoulders to stretch out the kinks while James opened up the boot. When he looked up, James had got out Robbie’s case and laptop bag and was watching him, a concerned crease between his eyes.
He hadn’t got his own bags out. Of course he hadn’t. James wouldn’t presume.
“You staying?” Robbie asked. “We’ve still got to talk, but right now I would very much like it if you would come inside so that I can demonstrate to you my commitment to broadening my sexual horizons.”
As he’d hoped, James’s expression lightened and he grabbed his own bags and slung them over his shoulder with gratifying alacrity. He locked up the car and joined Robbie on the footpath. “Are you sure? We’re both tired and if your back’s giving you gyp?”
“Not that tired,” Robbie said, “And never mind me back. Unless you wanted to give it a rub?”
James’s eyes positively lit up. He leaned in close, his breath hot in Robbie’s ear, sending an unexpected rush of heat shivering through him. “I’ll rub anything you want me to rub,” he murmured. It was the same sultry tone he used that time to call the sex line, and for all it was probably a put on, the effect it had on Robbie was real enough and his hands twitched with the urge to reach for James.
James drew back slowly and Robbie could see the same heat reflected in his partner’s eyes, but tinged with uncertainty, as if he still wasn’t quite sure of Robbie’s reaction. Robbie could think of only one sure fire way to convince him, for all they were still stood in the street. He reached up and, when James didn’t pull away, slid one hand behind James’s neck. He leaned in, watching the way James’s eyes drifted closed, his lips parting, and he kissed him, before God and the neighbours and the world.