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Knight at Arms (A Quiet Conquest)

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It’s the evening after Robbie has had to give that ruddy speech to the press, extolling the virtues of the police. So he’s expecting a certain amount of ribbing from Laura about his write-up in the Oxford Mail, over this drink he owes her for going above and beyond on the case. Small price to pay.

It had occurred to Robbie that there’s certainly something gone very wrong with the police, the press, or the press’ estimation of their general public if such a speech had to be made in the first place. Innocent had certainly felt it had to be made. And since watching Robbie’s own ordeal seems to have, suspiciously, restored her good humour after all this Hugh Mallory business, Robbie had kept that thought to himself.

Apart from sharing it with Hathaway, who Robbie has found himself saying all sorts to over the course of this past week.

Hathaway had nodded sagely, making one of his faces, and suggested that Robbie ‘refrain from mulling over that idea while delivering the speech. Sir.’

Good advice, as things turned out. Innocent had informed Robbie, cornering him in the leisure centre bar, straight afterwards, that she was perfectly well aware Hathaway had written it.

“Was it the words of more than two syllables that gave it away, then?” he’d asked.

“It was Hathaway who gave it away.” And his surprise must have registered on his face because there was the familiar impatient eyeroll, also restored. “No, of bloody course he didn’t betray you, Lewis. Watching him gave it away. He was like a politician’s speechwriter, I could see the curbed affront whenever you went off-message.”

Ah, fair enough. Robbie had noticed that too. And it’d be hard for anyone not to slip a sidewards glance to catch Hathaway’s quick half-smile of gratification, every time one of his witticisms got a laugh. It’d gone down well, though. Hathaway’s speech.

Laura’s mind, this evening, is not on Hathaway’s speech. Although, as it turns out, it is on Hathaway.

“Your sergeant,” she says, settling into her seat, amused, “has created a bit of a stir. The way I heard it, he was dangling your chief suspect by the arm off the top of the Natural History Museum. And then he decided he’d try letting go of the bloke. To prove a point.”

Robbie finds himself wincing, and that stiffening cut above his eye makes itself known once again. It’s not the only mark this case had left on him. “The way you heard it isn’t far wrong.”

Laura’s eyes widen as she picks up her glass. “God.” She shakes her head, impressed. “He’s managed to go so far the rumour mill couldn’t improve on it.” But her follow-up glance at Robbie, as she returns the glass to the table, is harder to place.

“What?”

“Well. Hathaway. He always seems so—by the book.”

“By the book? He’s writing a whole new book.” And the last few days it’s like he’s been holding it out to show Robbie and then quickly retracting it. So the lines slip out of focus and can’t be read, after all.

“Innocent gives him a talking to,” he tells Laura. “A proper one by the sounds of it. And he informs me, seriously, that he’s thought it over—and with him you’d better believe he means it when he says he’s had a long hard think—and he’s decided to keep with me against the rules, thanks very much. Even though I make sure he knows I’d let him off the hook.”

Hathaway had also said, relating that talk, ‘…but she made me bloody mad, and I didn’t stick up for you, and I just feel ashamed’. As if he'd not only expected Robbie to know something Innocent obviously hadn’t—that he’d decided to throw his lot in with Robbie long before this had happened—but he was already berating himself for lapses in the standard of his loyalty.

Robbie is not about to disclose that to Laura. He’s thinking back to Brasenose Lane. And Hathaway, coming to a halt, standing under the lamps set high in the stone college walls. Hathaway, with his impeccable white shirt and cream silk tie, pale skin almost shining too, looking at Robbie, frowning his intent, so that where his loyalties now lie couldn’t be mistaken any longer. Or overlooked.

It could have been the odd slant of the lane underfoot that had given Robbie that moment of disequilibrium, that feeling of being headily, pleasantly off-balance. The lane had a medieval gutter, no less, running down the middle of it, after all. And he’d just had a glass of wine with Stephanie Fielding. There were all sorts of reasons why Hathaway suddenly making declarations for him would give Robbie a bit of a pleasant lurch.

What was harder to explain was why Robbie had then found himself standing in front of Innocent, making a declaration right back.

He finds he also doesn’t feel inclined to tell Laura about that. What he’d countered Innocent’s threat to Hathaway with. For his sergeant who's only been with him five minutes, in the scheme of things.

But Innocent’s words had put this look on Hathaway’s face, for an instant, and—the sense of sheer wrongness that had risen up at that. At that, on Hathaway, who turns and looks at Robbie, when he’s having trouble facing Rachel Mallory’s body hanging. As if the moment Robbie starts to talk, Hathaway expects he can throw a lifeline and make matters better.

Laura is looking at him, her forehead rumpled, as she absorbs this new perspective on Hathaway. “Maybe not exactly by the book, then,” she says, “if he’s decided to let himself come under your renegade influence. But he seems—almost too courteous to act like that. Too restrained, is that what I mean?”

“Courteous?” Robbie is almost nostalgic for a vanishing world when he used to think that too. “That’s just on the outside. You need to listen closer. You’ve no idea the half of what he’s thinking and not saying. Last week, I’d settled on the edge of his desk to see something he’s showing me on the computer, and I knocked the last of his coffee over. It gets on the cuff of his shirt sleeve. He assures me this isn’t a problem. But I can feel these silently reproachful glances coming at me, even after I’ve dabbed the worst of it off, sacrificing my nice clean handkerchief.

“So to cheer him up, I tell him not to fret, if I won’t come out at the drycleaners, I’ll pick him up a new shirt in Sainsbury’s. ‘I sincerely hope that’s a euphemism, sir,’ he says. Then his eyes flicker wide, and he looks up at me. ‘You don’t,’ he says, ‘You don’t really—’

“Right through the staff meeting that afternoon he keeps looking over at me, when he thinks I’m not watching. Gazing at my shirt. Bemused.”

He’s lost Laura somewhere along the way. “Do you actually pick up your shirts in Sainsbury’s, Robbie?”

Robbie exhales. A sigh that has nothing to do with these unsolicited opinions on the origins of his wardrobe. He doesn’t feel capable of describing these looks of Hathaway’s. Like Robbie is a species hitherto unbeknownst to him, but that he badly wants to observe further. Being on the receiving end of Hathaway’s gentle, but intense, searching looks is one thing when Hathaway is apparently trying to work out what would possess a man to pick up a shirt at the supermarket checkout. It’s quite another when Robbie has acquired this sergeant, almost by happenstance, and he’s not entirely sure that wasn’t because of a certain look Hathaway had sent across to him, after their very first case, while Innocent was conveying Hathaway’s surprising stance about wanting to be Robbie’s second-in-command.

And now suddenly there seem to be all these—declarations.

But he knows. He knows he won’t be able to put any of this to Laura. He knows from the restless feeling he’s getting discussing Hathaway with her, as if it’s somehow become disloyal to do so. He can just see Hathaway’s expression, looking at him, mildly questioning this. As if he’d feel it as a betrayal, minding underneath it all, and yet not raising any objection. Except with these looks. He might as well be here now distracting Robbie properly, the way his look, in Robbie’s mind’s eye, is preventing Robbie from saying anything further.

Which is a damned shame. Because the one thing that’s clear about Hathaway, is that Hathaway badly needs discussed with someone.

“He’s a cheeky sod.” Robbie protests instead, shaking his head.

Laura raises her eyebrows. She’s known him entirely too long.

“What?”

“You,” she says, gesturing at him as she picks up her glass again, “are enjoying him no end.”

=

They’ve convened in the pathology office for Laura to quickly go through her report with them, before breaking for the weekend. Robbie, she’s just learnt, is heading up to Manchester. He’s listening to her as she explains a couple of things in more detail, pre-empting their questions.

But Hathaway has removed himself to what could be called the far side of this small space. He’s bent in close, one ear to the radio murmuring on the desk. He can sandwich himself up like nobody’s business.

Robbie nods at her to go on, his gaze warm and relaxed.

But Hathaway straightens right up. Young, and athletic, and lovely, and entirely oblivious to it. There are these moments of odd grace when he inhabits his body, distracted by his mind’s focus and forgetting to be uncomfortable with his own unusual length. She sees Robbie’s glance move sidewards, caught by the movement. Just as his gaze keeps getting snatched by Hathaway.

“You’ll need to rethink your route, sir,” Hathaway says. “There’s a coalition of the unwilling on the A34.”

“A what?” she asks, blankly.

Hathaway gives her a look. “A traffic jam.”

Laura laughs.

“You see,” says Robbie to her, in his best longsuffering fashion. “This is what I’ve been saying.”

Hathaway, unaware of Robbie’s recent entertaining mulling over of him, over that drink, frowns at her, obviously trying to decipher what’s been said before he joined the room. He does not, she has noticed, like it in the slightest when this happens.

She generally finds that amusing; his displeasure seems like some remnant of a ‘the grown-ups are talking about you’ vibe.

This time, she looks at Hathaway, who’s now valiantly ignoring both of them in favour of his phone screen, battling down his discomfort in order to rectify this route mapping issue for Robbie. And it feels unfair to tease. He fusses. Hathaway. He tries to hide it, to make it seem casual. And his protectiveness is endearing. But isn’t this, in some way, also what Robbie needs, having lost his tribe?

And of course the heart of the matter with Robbie Lewis is not just what others do for him. Where he hits problems—and she knows full bloody well it’s already happened briefly with a couple of women on a couple of his cases since he came back to Oxford— is when his own protective urges get aroused. And then she looks at Robbie, more closely, as he, too, watches Hathaway. Robbie’s gaze is more of a wry grimace now. He looks as if he may be regretting what he'd just said too. And two further things occur to her, in quick conjoined succession. Like pins tumbling quietly as the right key clicks opens a door.

One is that she’s abruptly thankful Hathaway has decided to take Robbie’s welfare on board as his own personal casual-formal mission; he’s perfectly positioned for the job. The strength of her relief about that tells her just how worried she’s still been about Robbie.

The other is that it’s quite disconcerting how Robbie’s glance keeps getting snatched by Hathaway. And then held.

 

===

 

It takes a bit of time to secure the scene, such as is left of it, after James has been dispatched in an ambulance. He’d come to a little, muttering, when they’d put him on the stretcher. Which was both a relief to Robbie and maybe not the best thing for him because the drugs Zoe had given him might as well do one merciful thing and grant him oblivion a bit longer from this night. It had seemed utter nonsense he was muttering, though.

But Robbie still hadn’t been prepared for what meets him when he reaches the ICU side room where he’s been told James has been parked, under observation, until they’re fully reassured about his breathing.

Jean Innocent is standing in the corridor. “Lewis,” she says, relieved, turning from the window into James’ room. Like she’s been watching an interrogation.

Robbie takes one look and shoves the door open. “You won’t need those,” he says to the nurse. Who looks relieved to hear it, if dubious. They want to put him in soft restraints. He seems to be trying, amid mounting agitation, to get up. Robbie flashes his warrant card. The police part never hurts. “Press the call button if—” the nurse murmurs, as she makes her exit.

Then Robbie is sitting on the high hospital bed with a hand firmly through James’ hair. God knows it’s as hard to get purchase on that shorn head as it has been on him these past few days. But he cradles James’ scalp, warm, overwarm, and resisting him. “Hathaway,” he says. “James.” James turns his head from side to side. He’s not giving in. He closes his eyes, but not in sleep. He’s trying to shut out the whole world, or at least any parts of it he’s currently aware of.

Robbie gets a knuckle from his free hand to that sharp cheekbone and tries to battle away the certain knowledge that he’s about to get his heart torn to shreds here. James turns into the pressure, so hard it’s raising a white mark on his cheek. Since this is a small price to pay, what with the evening he’s had, Robbie neither moves nor ceases the pressure. Instead, he jams his forearm against James’ shoulder for good measure.

James pushes into the touch. But not to throw him off.

When Robbie next thinks to turn his head, Jean Innocent has mercifully disappeared. He can but hope she’s been gone some time.

 

===

 

“Ah, Robbie. Yes.” Innocent looks pleased to see him and as if his appearance as scheduled in her office, after cooling his heels outside waiting for her to finish up on the phone, has just reminded her of whatever the matter in hand is this time. “There was a minor disturbance on the seven thirty-one to Paddington on Saturday. Someone with a ill-health crisis, I gather. One of ours was there, off-duty, and intervened to sort out seating. And there’s been a complaint this morning, from a Professor Walker, shining light of one of our illustrious institutions, about the officer’s manner while doing so.”

Robbie straightens his shoulders, in a half-hearted effort to conceal his impatience. It’s a Monday morning and this hardly qualifies as the most pressing matter in the nick. It hardly qualifies as a matter. “And this concerns me because…”

“Because it sounded like Hathaway.”

Oh, and where had he been headed off to in London on the weekend, so bright and early and very much unmentioned? He’d kept that one up his sleeve. “There’s more than one copper in this nick answering to the description of tall, blond and skinny.” Robbie objects. Hopefully this professor hasn’t added ‘posh.’

“Yes,” Innocent says, thoughtful. “She reports the officer said—” She glances down at her notepad and reads clearly, “It’s a seat reservation, ma’am, not an ancient birthright.” She looks back up.

“Ah.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, that does sound like—”

“Quite.”

“I’ll have a word.”

“You do that, Lewis.”

He’s about to take his leave, and do what’s expected of him, and of James, to deal with this non-event, when he sees she’s still considering him.

“Robbie.”

“Ma’am.”

“It is still working well, though? The partnership? With Hathaway?”

He’d like to react as if that’s coming out of the blue, but in truth he’s felt it coming, recently. He doesn’t want to think too much about what’s put them front and centre on her radar, but something certainly has. And he’s sincerely hoping it’s not that she’d seen fit to train her mercilessly evaluating gaze on any one of the gaps in his report on the Phoenix case.

But he dates it, uneasily, from then. She’s been showing this—sharp sort of interest in them—over the past few months.

He considers talking of Hathaway’s qualities as a sergeant; attempting to divert her focus with Hathaway's progress, his promise, his workrate, and his, frankly bloody remarkable, inspirations on cases—but decides, on balance, to take the least-said-soonest-the-conversation-endeth road out of this one.

“Aye,” Robbie says, easily. “He’s a sergeant in a million.”

“I’d go higher,” murmurs Innocent.

James looks welcoming when Robbie arrives back at the office, so Robbie perches on the side of his desk. Giving him a mildly injured look when James, carefully, moves his coffee cup. There’s two coffee cups. James been out, had his smoke, and picked up decent coffees, all in anticipation of Robbie’s return. “It’s a seat reservation, ma’am,” Robbie says, watching him, “not an ancient birthright”.

“What? Oh. What’s that got to do with—”

“The price of tea in China? Very little. Except that Herself wanted me to Have A Word.”

“She made a complaint.”

“She made a complaint,” Robbie agrees. He settles himself more comfortably and takes the lid off his cappuccino. “You don’t seem very surprised,” he asks, curious.

“When someone makes a complaint about your dubbing the Romantics ‘The Boys in the Band’…You begin to realise what city you’re in.”

Robbie grimaces in acknowledgement.

James sighs. “It was never this Oxford in Cambrige,” he mutters to himself.

 

===

 

James thinks he's doing well. With the talking in the car. Not so little as to elicit a question, not so much as to arouse suspicion or ignite that flicker of concern he’d seen spark in Lewis’ eyes into the flame of something James can’t handle now.

They’d been midway through the interview in that out-of-the-way farmhouse in the wilds of Oxfordshire when the thud of the pulse in his ears had become overly loud, drowning out all else. Drowning out anything further Mrs Naessens had been saying. It had been an old story, to her, what she had been telling them. The main players, she’d taken pains to say, are long gone now. But it had turned out to be too stomach-slippingly close in time and place to Crevecoeur. It’s too close.

And now they’re driving across a single-tracked moor at the world’s end to get away, to get back to civilisation, and James is talking about an item that’s on the radio. Or was on the radio. He’s focusing so hard on all of it that it takes a belated moment for his mind to process that the radio has stopped. That the car has pulled onto the grass verge, and stopped.

Lewis turns his head, towards James, the hair at his left temple brushing against the headrest. “We’re just going to sit here for a bit, sergeant,” he says.

But his eyes are kind and direct, and there’s that well of unspoken concern, still there, still just as deep, despite how, last time it had been offered to James, James had turned against it and turned against it yet again and lied, unforgivably, to Lewis, also again, and yet it’s still there, this concern being offered, however many times James tries to escape it, and he can’t take that. James, elbows on knees, takes the only escape route left in sight, drops his head on one hand, and shuts his eyes.

Lewis’ hand plants itself, warm on his back through the jacket of his suit, applying pressure as if Lewis thinks he needs to stop a wound.

Lewis must be sitting upright, making no effort to see James’s face, probably gazing straight out the windscreen. Almost as if that lifesaving hand might belong to someone else.

James might just sit like that until the end of his days. Or until the warm compress that is that hand draws out the dark pestilence that moves through his veins at times like this. Whichever comes first.

Eventually, it occurs to him that Lewis won’t move until he does, and he forces himself upright; Lewis’s hand falling from his back. It doesn’t feel like a loss because Lewis, who has turned sideways in his seat, his head tilted now against the headrest, continues to regard James so intently that it’s impossible not to feel that as another warm, firm, steadying contact. Keeping James with him and still making no demand.

Lewis is extraordinary. He’ll use every technique James knows, and more besides; the sheer gentle force of his personality, to elicit, cajole, trick and demand and bully information out of people—as much as he feels they should be giving him for the case in hand and his own dogged pursuit of justice.

And then he’ll ask for precisely nothing from James. Only, when James starts fighting him off, to know what’s wrong. And within their own particular push and pull pattern, just at this moment, James isn’t forcibly fighting him off. So Lewis isn’t as worried, he isn’t asking to be let in, in any way further. He’s just—here. Peaceably. Offering to sit here with James until James can rejoin the world.

“No rush,” Lewis says.

No rush until what? They need to be back at the station? No rush getting around to telling him? He does require an explanation, after all?

“No rush,” Lewis says, again, more to himself than to James.

Oh, he just means—no rush. He's, quite literally, giving James time.

James gives him a confused nod, which appears to be a signal, because Lewis nods back at him. James has no idea which signals he’s sending now.

“Home?” Lewis asks.

The answer should clearly be a yes, or a no, and either is impossible. James can’t contemplate the station, he can’t be left to his thoughts, he can’t even face a pint at a pub, however quiet, he can’t face the thought of people or solitude, work or his flat, his efficiently distracted work self or his guilt-ridden alone self.

But he knows what answer he should give, and with that comes a certain anxiety-allaying reassurance.

“We should file that report—”

“There’s nothing in that poor lass’ story that’s going to get us any further with this case. We’ve gone as far as we can today.”

How does he manage to do that? To be so sure, to wait developments out. James would need to push further, would feel he has no right to stop when all that’s in this case is becoming his responsibility and yet being quietly, easily, overridden by Lewis just feels—

“We can stop to pick up dinner, if you like,” Lewis says. “There’s this new Thai place Laura was talking about.”

He means his home. He’s going to take James home with him and still not ask. Like other evenings before. But they happen because of a ‘Come over to mine later, and we’ll go over those statements again,’ case-related suggestion from Lewis, or a ‘Come in for a beer, why don’t you?’ one when James drops him home. It’s the first time it’s been so plainly an invitation. Or at least it’s the first time he’s heard the ‘Home?’ question not as ‘You ready to head home, James?’—even if he’s subsequently asked into Lewis’ flat—but as an invitation to come home with Lewis. He doesn’t think Lewis has framed an invitation back to his like that before.

Or maybe he has, but it’s the first time James has heard it properly.

The utter relief as he takes in he’s not about to be left alone with his treacherous thoughts, means that James won’t refuse. He feels himself slip a little sideways and he corners his forehead briefly on Lewis’ suit-jacketed shoulder. Very briefly, he tells himself. Almost an accident. Despite how far his neck has dipped.

But it takes everything that’s in him not to turn his head further into Lewis and forget the world narrowing in on him for a while.

“That’s it,” says Lewis’s voice, approvingly. In the voice he uses, in the ‘no rush’ way he tutors James in the ways of his fellow man, at crime scenes.

Everything that’s in him.

It’s almost difficult to breathe for a moment. James tells himself that’s the effect of having your face so close to someone shoulder. It’s not that, though. Because he breathes against Lewis and inhales his particular scent that’s come to be there more strongly throughout the day, everyday, and it’s pure safety.

He’s not sure how much time goes by, but when he’s raised his head and nodded at Lewis again, and Lewis starts the car, James looks at the clock on the dashboard and realises that the whole event has taken no real time at all, their own pause untrammelled by everyone else’s cares, and demands, and greater needs; just for once. It hasn’t even made a mark on the world’s radar. Not the way it does, for many years, on James’.

 

===

 

It’s a couple of hours before Lewis returns to the station but Jean ambushes him, with a neatness born of long practice, the moment he does, and she diverts him into her office.

“Lewis—what was that this morning?”

“The photo board? A timeline, ma’am.”

She gestures at him, impatiently. He knows full bloody well she’s asking about Hathaway’s behaviour, not the precise nature of his little project. Ever since she’d left the whole matter in Lewis’ practiced hands this morning, she’s found herself torn between wanting to know what’s been going on and a distinct feeling of relief at not having to handle it herself.

Which is a feeling the two of them increasingly engender in her as the years go by.

But she’s had a particular feeling of foreboding about this one since the moment she’d come across that little tableau. Hathaway had had a wine bottle, empty, and a wine glass on the table behind him, no less. And a can of some energy drink he’d presumably then applied to himself at some stage in the proceedings to counteract the wine. The bottle should have been more than an issue than the glass, but—where did he get a wine glass from? He really does nothing by halves, does he? Does he keep one in his desk drawer in anticipation of nights like this? Does he actually make a habit of this sort of thing? Why would he spend the entire night, off the clock, poring over evidence from a long-since-closed case? And how does anyone in creation jive along so happily to Mozart’s bloody Requiem?

She doesn’t feel she’s even coming up with the right questions, but she does feel Lewis is the one who should be answering them.

“Ah,” Lewis is prepared to dissemble a little further, in face of her look. “He was following up a hunch I had—something I’d said. It’s looking promising in terms of getting this little lot of silent witnesses to finally talk to us.”

That was Hathaway following up on Lewis’ hunch? Now there’s familiar territory. That was how she’d lost Hathaway irrevocably to Lewis in the first place, all those years back. Or had learnt that she had. God knows when Hathaway had actually decided his intentions there. But Hathaway, risking his career on investigating one of Lewis’ hunches, was how she’d found out just how far he’d escaped down that road. And next thing she knew she’d had the the mother of all migraines—

She tries to summon up the picture of that day, the two of them up before her, in here, and Lewis, battle-scarred, but unexpectedly calling her bluff, letting her know she’d soundly misread things from his end too—

But what comes into her head, instead, startlingly clear, is Lewis, seen through a window, bent over his sergeant in a hospital bed. One hand on his head and one hand framing his face. Pressing him onto the bed with his forearm. Holding him together and in place. It had put her in mind of someone doing their best to press something broken back together, as they waited for the glue to do its work. Using sheer force to try and narrow the cracks so they’d be less like permanent fractures.

The reports from the scene had told her Lewis had gotten Hathaway out himself, unaided, before the place went up. Then again, the reports from that scene had told quite her a lot that she sincerely did not want to probe into in the aftermath, and if Lewis’ plain language on paper had leaped some chasms; he had mercifully provided a narrative she could go with. It had been masterful. She’d found herself thinking how far he could have gone in the upper ranks if he wasn’t so dogmatically straightforward. And then wondering how on earth Hathaway had managed to be the one to prompt him to break that code.

Hathaway had been so out of it he would never have remembered that night in the John Radcliffe. She’d thought—the part of her that wasn’t Chief Superintendent Innocent had thought—that rather a pity. She didn’t think the picture would ever quite leave her mind.

And now she thinks Hathaway must, in some way, know. Whatever—there is to know. Making gestures like this. Going on all-night quests to honour Lewis’ truth.

If Lewis were another man she’d be—She looks at him, again. Lewis is looking a little off-centre, meditative, not quite meeting her gaze, all the same, and—well. This is Hathaway. She decides, with relief, she can safely leave this about Hathaway to him to sort too. In all respects.

The part of her that is CS Innocent and the part of her that is very much still Jean join in agreement in bloody well hoping she’s right in her instincts here.

 

===

 

Ms Turner can spare fifteen minutes, she reiterates apologetically to them when they reach her, otherwise mercifully empty, classroom. If she can be of any use. On the way through the building, James had been shooting curious looks at the doors they’d passed. Robbie is not fooled by the apparent quiet of this place. He can feel the barely restrained energy thrumming though the building.

Ms Turner takes her seat behind her desk. Robbie takes the other adult one. James, after a barely perceptible pause, elects to stand behind Robbie’s shoulder with his hands loosely clasped behind his back, assuming his relaxed-guard-dog position. Which is a shame as it denies Robbie the pleasure of seeing him striving to maintain his dignity with his knees around his ears. He’d seen James look at the size of the child’s chair in blatant disbelief. He must feel like Gulliver has wandered into Lilliput again.

Unluckily Ms Turner’s doubts seem well-founded. What she can tell them about her former next-door neighbour is unlikely to prove of much use. Robbie is politely winding up the interview when he gets that feeling. His sergeant is emitting distress signals. He glances sideways, following James’ stare, to scan the backboard and see what on earth has him bothered. All that’s there is painstaking instructions for getting ready to go outside for playtime. ‘Take one glove and put it with it’s partner’ instructs the board in cheery yellow chalk…put it with it’s…Ah, hell.

“Well. Much as I‘d prefer to…” Ms Turner breaks into this, wholly-oblivious. “I’m afraid I really do have to go now. Cycling proficiency tests. God help me,” she murmurs. James inclines his head pleasantly at her and holds the door open for her and Robbie to precede him. Impeccably chivalrous, as always. Robbie is not fooled.

He waits until they’re outside the side door, back out in the little play yard and the cold air, before he stops, which brings James to an unquestioning halt.

“Show me your hands,” Robbie demands.

“Sir?” Oh, and he’s all injured enquiry.

“In your own time.”

He realises Robbie means business, and he draws a loose fist from his coat pocket. Robbie takes hold of his wrist, lets his fingers journey upwards to support the knuckles, and squeezes, lightly, an instruction to draw out the fingers. James obeys. And Robbie is lost for a moment, the briefest of moments, he thinks, afterwards, in the palm of Hathaway’s hand. Lying there upturned across his own. James’ hands have given more things to him over the past few years than any others, it seems to him. Files, and pieces of evidence and carefully-timed pens offered before he can think to ask for what he needs, appearing right there within reach whenever they’re in the thick of things. Suit jackets and coats to armour himself with as they move to head out onto the street once again. The cups of tea and the evening pint glasses that bring a pause, a bit of rest to his day. This hand, with all the things it gives him, should be so wholly familiar to him so as to not draw a second glance.

James is standing, quietly waiting.

Robbie focuses in on the one thing that should be drawing his attention here. A chalk-dusted bright yellow thumb.

“I knew it, you stole an apostrophe.”

James assumes his lofty look, unrepentant. Insomuch as a man can be said to look lofty and unrepentant while simultaneously looking sheepish round the edges.

“I did not steal—”

Robbie releases that hand. “You stole an apostrophe. My own sergeant, caught in the act yellow-handed. Talk about corruption in the rank and file. Look at you, you’ve even fingerprinted yourself. I ought to make you go in and put that back.”

“You can’t. You can’t make me complicit in disseminating false information to innocent young minds.”

“Innocent young—have you ever been in a room with thirty-odd of the little buggers? It’s crowd control. Half an hour of that and your ability to punctuate sentences will have deserted you too.”

He looks doubtful. Fair enough, he’d probably let them run free between the desks while he got the declensions right. In latin.

They’re interrupted very effectively by the sort of unified, off-synchronised, prolonged yell only a crowd of five year olds not-quite-cooperating can make. A stream of them, outpacing adult containment, pours out of the door and straight into James, a tall tree arrested in their path. Some of them split around him just in time. Some of them bounce right off him, creating a pile-up. Children in bicycle helmets. James stands frozen, staring down alarmed at the general region of his knees. It’s as if so many giant psychedelic mushrooms have come to life to attack him.

Robbie shakes his head at him and reminds himself he’d miss this if he’d had the sense to retire. And that it’s entirely too early for a pint.

 

===

 

The door to Laura’s office opens suddenly, and equally suddenly it slams shut again. Although not before she’s caught a glimpse of James’ enquiring face. Well—enquiring, shifting rapidly through alarm to something more like dawning shock; before his abrupt disappearance. Decent reflexes he has too. It’s a shame they’re not matched by his ability to knock.

“James,” she says, in Alan’s ear, releasing him reluctantly.

“Hathaway?”

Frankly, if you’d told Laura a few short days ago, while she was busy declaring Alan ‘not my type’ to Robbie, that she’d find herself in this particular compromising position, so early on what’s turning out to be a very bright Monday morning, she’d have been almost as taken aback as James.

It was a mixture, she’d thought afterwards, of Robbie making his displeasure blatantly evident at the thought of someone else asking her out—and then failing, once again, to follow up on that—and, perhaps more so, Alan’s demeanour. He’d clearly read the situation, finding Robbie there, outlasting him in the room.

Which meant she’d been surprised when he had returned, bearing no files nor excuses this time, stuck his hands firmly in his pockets, and asked her anyway. In a nothing-ventured sort of way. And she’d looked at him, taken unexpectedly by the straightforwardness of this, and thought ‘Why the hell not?’ She bloody well was free, after all.

She’d phrased it a little more politely to Alan. He’d looked surprised, and then sent her a sudden, boyish grin.

When Saturday’s dinner had progressed, to the extent that the thought of taking him home had caused a surprising frisson of interest, she’d been expecting—well, competent with a diligent attention to her pleasure. Competent and diligent seemed to have become her lot in life over the last few years, and she bloody well refused to become resigned to that, but finding the other was proving frustratingly elusive. She had not been expecting what had rapidly unfolded. Nor, she thinks, had he, quite. Competent and diligent hadn’t had a look-in. They weren’t even distant cousins of Alan Peterson in bed.

She’d felt remarkably cheerful throughout Sunday. Alan had been perfectly gentlemanly, stayed as expected, and buggered off obligingly after an amiable breakfast. Well, after they’d checked, with a certain amount of curiosity from them both, to see if the previous night had been some one-off intense fluke of chemistry. It hadn’t. Then there’d been breakfast. Eventually.

What she also hadn’t expected was that an initially polite follow-up text exchange that night had turned into a sufficiently interesting conversation that she’d missed half her Sunday night film. Laura hadn’t enjoyed a weekend this—thoroughly—in ages. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like to enjoy a weekend quite this thoroughly.

All of which meant she couldn’t say she’d been sorry to arrive at work this morning and find him leaning against the wall in the deserted morgue. Waiting. He’d had some vague excuse about an urgent need for a report, but his eyes had met hers, and he’d smiled right through his own transparent artifice.

And now here’s—well, where there’s one, there’s invariably the other.

When she opens the door, James appears to have given Robbie the impression that he’d walked in on the display of some particularly delicate autopsy pictures. “My apologies, Doctor,” he intones. Inspecting a notice on the wall behind her.

“Robert,” says Alan, cheerfully. Adjusting the impeccable knot she’s just tied on his tie. His eyes pass over James thoughtfully. “Hathaway,” he says, slowly.

Robbie, Laura sees, has both registered, and is unimpressed by, Alan looking contemplatively at his sergeant. Oh, honest to God.

James narrows his eyes back at Alan in wary affront, but that’s practically a default facial expression for him. So nothing to arouse suspicion there. Although she wonders how much she minds if Robbie’s suspicions are aroused. This weekend has proved very liberating from such concerns.

Ten minutes into the autopsy they’ve come to observe, and which she’d clean forgotten they wanted to be there for (this weekend having driven all sorts of things from her head, as it turns out) and Robbie steps out to take a call.

James watches him out of hearing and promptly hisses at her, from his place by the door, “Don’t do this to me again.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, I’m not doing anything to you—Robbie,” she breaks off, with a smile. Robbie smiles back at her, coming back in, pocketing his phone. Hathaway shakes his head wildly at her from behind Robbie’s back, his lips a tight despairing line. She has an overwhelming urge to laugh.

“What’s wrong with everyone this morning?” asks Robbie, craning his neck to get James back in his accustomed place in his sightline.

“Nothing, sir,” James says, lugubrious. “It must be you.” Robbie sends him that exasperated look. She wonders if James, who watches so avidly where Robbie is concerned, can see the affection and half-despair in that look. She’s not sure if he can let himself feel it, however often he must see the look.

She waits until whoever is trying to get hold of Robbie conveniently takes him off again, and she waves off his apologies.

“Right,” she says to Hathaway’s expression. “D’you fancy a drink, James? After work this evening?”

=

“I didn’t think he was your type,” James says, avoiding her gaze, in favour of glancing around the bar she’s chosen. He says that like it’s his own thought occurring to him. So Robbie does talk occasionally.

Sometimes it’s endearing when James slips unknowingly into slightly-needling interrogation mode like this. Sometimes it is not. In the same way that Robbie’s restless, proprietary interest in his sergeant had ceased being a source of indulgent amusement some time ago now and come to feel more like a stumbling block. But it’s one she’s never quite been able to make out the shape or size of, in the dark. Or at least she’s never been able to see enough to work out just how much it might be in the way.

She’d tried, once. Years ago. On one of those pleasantly relaxed evenings, having a drink with Robbie that never quite went anywhere further.

“Is Hathaway gay?” she’d asked. She’d not intended to ask any such thing, but she’d abruptly felt like she needed to know, for her own sake. Something had pulled at her, some feeling of misgiving which had had a lot to do with the way Robbie had been since that house fire he’d carried Hathaway out of. The question had almost seemed fair game in that aftermath. She’d been—disquieted—by the whole thing. And the enigma that Hathaway was had seemed to be looming, worryingly quietly, on the horizon.

Robbie hadn’t seem surprised at her bluntness. “I don’t know,” he’d said, slowly, musing to himself. “He did give me a Yorkie bar.”

Sometimes they make less sense when they’re sober.

She nudges James’ glass towards him now, and lets him take a restorative draught in advance, before she deals with this.

“Well, it turns out we’re highly compatible,” she says briskly. “Alan and I. In ways we hadn’t realised. There’s more to him than you’ve seen, and he’s a bigger man than you think, James. A man of hidden talents.”

The flush that starts to spread makes James look overwarm and flustered and thoroughly undone in a fascinating manner. He also looks unhappy. “I just didn’t want to know,” he says, but looking at her openly now at least. “Again.”

“So don’t tell Robbie. It’s up to me, after all.”

“But if I don’t say anything he sees that as not-telling him.”

Ah. Yes. “I’ll tell him as soon as we’re ready to tell people, James. And I’ll also happen to make him aware that I asked you not to, okay?”

And this, it turns out, is fully enough to satisfy him. It must meet the strictures of his ever-evolving code of honour where Robbie is concerned. It’s a very nice evening, after that. James is always more stimulating and amusing company than he seems to realise. So it’s not until afterwards that she’s startled to realise something that he, no bloody doubt, had immediately, and silently, picked up on.

That she’s not thinking in terms of an ‘if’, with what happens with Alan Peterson; but a ‘when.’

 

===

 

Laura spots them heading out of the building, as she gets out of her car in the station car park. They both look worn-down, which is little wonder with the week they’ve just had. But they both seem to lighten as they spot her in return, and a wave of fondness for them comes over her at that. It washes a recently recurring thought to the forefront of her mind.

“You’ve managed to get the weekend free, anyway?” she asks, approaching them.

She understands the rueful look Robbie gives her. It had been a bloody depressing case. Although it’d wrought the worst of its havoc on her hours, and her faith in humanity, at the earlier end of the week. What had surprised her was the effect of having Alan there a couple of times as the week wore on. The remarkable ease of having to explain little or nothing about how her day had been. She’s always had that gulf in understanding about her job to overcome with a partner before, try as some of them might. Sometimes that gulf encompassed polite wonder about why this would be her chosen field. She’d told herself, over the years, that it didn’t particularly matter. But removing that barrier altogether hadn’t just been refreshing; it had been remarkably comforting.

“I fancy cooking dinner,” she announces, “properly. I could do with two properly appreciative guests.”

She sees Robbie manfully supress the urge to ask if Alan will be there. No, Alan will not be there, Alan is visiting friends back in Sunderland this weekend, but it’s been a few months now and they do need to get used to the idea that from now on, he may well be. James, she thinks, is suppressing surprise at his inclusion. But it feels inevitable. It feels like the right moment. Maybe it’s because of Alan, changing all these things, somehow. Maybe it’s the passage of time. Maybe it’s that part of her secretly hopes that easing a path like this might someday give Robbie that bit of a push—

“Saturday?” she suggests. She receives two surprisingly similar conflicted frowns on two very dissimilar faces for her efforts. “What’s wrong with Saturday?” she asks, curious. Because they don’t look annoyed at not being available. They look put out. As if she’s proposing thwarting some plan, and they might have to let her. “It’s like being glared at in stereo,” she tells them.

“Boat race,” they chorus.

She looks at them. “You watch the boat race together?”

“Annual event ,” James says gravely. “Murder and mayhem permitting.”

Robbie just grins at her.

“Doesn’t that get a bit—fraught?” she asks curiously. Murder and mayhem are probably right. She’s seen how partisan Robbie gets with sport, whenever there’s been a Newcastle football match on in the pub. Although—she wouldn’t have thought the rowers of Oxford University would have held such a place in his heart.

They’re both grimacing separately now, side by side.

“Two years ago, when there was a clash of blades, which was clearly Oxford’s fault—” James starts.

“Hush, you,” Robbie tells him. Shame. She’d like to know exactly what’s putting that meditative look on James' face, as he remembers now, obediently in silence.

“And you both just sit there politely, side by side on Robbie’s couch, and cheer for rival teams?”

“Hathaway’s couch. Well, you can’t take this one anywhere in public when it’s on. I tried that the first year when I knew no better. He’s like a discombobulated crab, the gestures he’s making throughout. You’d think he was in the boat, rowing the whole way with them, and yet he’d send it askew if he was.”

James had blinked, startled, at the crab description. “We don’t cheer,,” he says, loftily. Well, perish the thought. “I comment—”

“He shouts in high dudgeon about Cambridge’s technique, and I yell on Oxford ,” Robbie enlightens her. “Of course that’s cheering,” he says to James, “What d’you think you’re doing, dictating an instructional booklet?”

“I’m encouraging them to maintain the necessary rate of striking at key moments—”

“Need to take you to a proper football match.” James looks momentarily pleased; before he recollects himself to give the expected response and roll his eyes at this threat. It’s hard to imagine him at a football match.

And they’re both behaving as pointlessly as each other, in Laura’s view. Whatever they may think they’re doing, they’re yelling at a depiction on a screen of an event that’s taking place not fifty miles from James’ flat. They could go and stand on Putney embankment and yell where they’d be heard. Or whatever it is that James does. Still, maybe they like doing it this way together.

“Well,” she says, “it does only take twenty minutes. If you’re free after?” She has no real interest in tying them down to Saturday. Her dinner is literally a moveable feast. Her growing curiosity is about whether they’re arranging to spend the day together, on into the evening. Or whether they’re willing to acknowledge to her, or even each other, that they have such a deliberate arrangement here, breaking away from their constant succession of ever-casual pints.

A silence has fallen while she’s mulling over this. James is staring at her. “Just twenty minutes? Just twenty—you see if it feels like just twenty minutes when—and it’s nowhere near twenty minutes, done properly, tideway permitting, sixteen minutes and nineteen seconds it was in ninety-eight, which is the race record still, just to take a completely arbitrary feat of human endurance—just twenty—and nowhere near—”

It seems to strike him that he’s trying to argue in two different directions simultaneously, and he subsides, still signalling incredulity at her. Laura grins at him, even as she turns her head to share her enjoyment with Robbie. But Robbie isn’t looking at her. He’s watching James. And if the corners of his mouth are folded in, concealing amusement, the look in his eyes is unmistakable. The missing piece of why Robbie Lewis watches the boat race clicks into place. He thoroughly enjoys having James so completely riled up and unapologetically unleashed. It’s a version of James Hathaway that only he gets to see.

“Loser buys dinner,” James informs her, once he’s recovered sufficiently. Oh, there it is. “Well, if Cambridge were to lose, then I cook. If Oxford lose, then he buys takeaway.”

“He won’t even shop for ingredients, just in case,” Robbie informs her. “Says it’ll be unlucky and unnecessary. We have to go out shopping after Oxford win. Nearly every year.”

Oxford have won more often, if memory serves, since James became Robbie’s sergeant. James looks aloof, hands clasped behind his back, inspecting something on the horizon. Or at least he manages to give that impression, even with no horizon visible in the unlovely environs of the car park. He’s probably torn each year between wanting to plan exactly what to cook for Robbie and fearing he’s betraying his team with a lack of faith. She finds herself wishing that this boat race came around more often for them, they still seem to need the excuse of it. Which brings her back to—time to have another go at arranging her own dinner.

This conversation both seems to be still on topic and yet has veered right off track. This has a habit of happening with them. It usually makes her feel rather sorry for Jean, trying to handle them in a professional capacity.

“So—Sunday?” she tries.

James, having realised that not only is this ritual not being threatened but he most assuredly is now being included in dinner plans, suddenly unleashes that full smile of his straight down at her. But he must also be a joyous thing to behold, if Cambridge win.

“Sunday.” Robbie nods. “This is a turn-up for the books,” she hears him say, pleased, as they walk off together. His shoulder is bumping against James’ in a way that makes her gently despair of them. “I’ll be having a home-cooked meal both days this weekend…”

 

===

 

“Ah, hell. There’s no bloody Bertie in Manchester,” Robbie says, staring at his phone.

There’s a silence while James brings the car to a halt, yet again, and reapplies the handbrake. Because their journey home is progressing at the rate of slowly going nowhere fast. He turns his head to regard Robbie, bemused. Under the streetlights' unforgiving reach, the shadows overfill the hollows in his cheekbones and make him look more weary.

“Well—I’m sure there must be one somewhere,” he says. “Statistically speaking, it seems unlikely—all the Roberts can’t go by Robbie can they? Superior diminutive though that obviously is…”

“No, I mean—it’s a train for Jack. For Christmas. Lyn says it’s out of stock everywhere.”

“And it has to be that one?”

“Aye. Because I promised him a while back I’d get him the whole Thomas the Tank Engine set. Like his Uncle Mark had. Mark had half a dozen of them. I didn’t know they’d expanded it that much, did I? So Lyn normally picks them up–she knows which ones he has. I don’t remember which ones I’ve bought already—”

“Hard to keep track of,” James suggests. “So to speak.”

“Christ, that’s awful.”

James slants him a grin.

“And this year he has his heart set on Bertie.”

“Well—this would seem to be our first port of call then.”

And James flicks on the indicator to start negotiating his way into the lane that’ll eventually bring them into a retail park. Robbie sees his thinking. There’s an oversized toy shop sitting slap bang in the middle of the place. But that lane should have a flashing orange ‘enter at your own peril sign’ as far as Robbie is concerned. The whole place should. Most of this traffic palaver will be caused by a tailback composed entirely of last-minute shoppers and mayhem in that car park, and James surely wants to be at home after the day they’ve had—

But he looks again at James, who’s looking a bit more animated at this entirely different quest. A far different and less depressing quest than the one they’ve been engaged in today, on this going-nowhere case that he's taken too much to heart. It strikes Robbie that the offer of a pint earlier probably wouldn’t have gone amiss. Maybe keeping James with, for a bit, wouldn’t be the worst idea.

“I blame all these new ones,” he offers, after a moment. “Whole big cast of characters. He loves watching them on television. Gets all involved with the storylines.”

“Bertie’s not new.”

And sometimes the reminders of James' age hit home in a whole new way. “You must have watched them? The original series?”

James glances over. “We didn’t have a television at Lodge Farm. But we had the books in the school library when I first went there—well, library was a grandiose misnomer. It was a village school and more of a bookshelf really.” He releases the brake again and moves smoothly forward.

But by his standards this is practically confessional. He’s even said Lodge Farm. It’s as much information as a biographer would be lucky to get out of him, to write a very slim volume of verse on his early years.

Robbie, curious, bides his time for a follow-up question. Until they’re edging their way down the aisle of the toy shop. Turns out the traffic jams outside are nothing to the one in here. Innocent has been making a publicised push about putting extra feet on the street, to crack down on antisocial behaviour with pre-christmas revelry. Robbie needs to tell her she’s misdirected all her efforts. The whole of Oxford is in this place. He’s wishing he’d left his coat in the car.

James looks flushed and overwarm and there’s almost a sheen to him. But he doesn’t look like he does mid squash-game, when he’s adrenalised still. This is him laconic, inwardly-amused, and bright-eyed and fully including Robbie, complicit in this joke that he’s dragged him into. He looks like he should be lying back, post-exertion, and still staring up at Robbie, amused and thoroughly enjoying himself, with that particular complicit gaze—

His glance becomes more questioning as Robbie abruptly shakes his head. “So you used to like them?” Robbie asks abruptly. “These trains?”

James frowns, reluctant, apparently displeased with his own lack of discernment. “Well—it was an entirely misogynistic representation of the world, and don’t get me started on the issues with the inherent social hierarchy…”

Robbie really won’t. “Must’ve gone down dead well with the other kiddies when you told them that in the playground.”

“I obviously didn’t know that at the age of four.”

“No, you’d have been at least six before you started spouting stuff like that,” Robbie agrees. They mustn’t have had ‘War and Peace’ on that school bookshelf to occupy his young mind. “Anyway you’ll be glad to hear that there’s more—women trains—these days.”

“It’s not just fair and accurate representation in numbers, it was the way they characterised the female carriages as being appendices to a male and only relevant in relation to his actions.”

“Male appendices? They’re sodding trains. They’re inanimate objects.”

“Yes, sir. Although—you’re the one who keeps calling him Bertie. And I think he’s a bus.”

“Bertie’s a bus?”

“I’d swear Bertie rescued Thomas’ passengers when there was a snowdrift on the line—”

He’d probably studied those books.

“I don’t need his life history, I just—this place is a nightmare.”

Robbie may be gesturing too hard. He’s attracted the attention of a young girl, kneeling in front of the shelves, doggedly restacking them with the contents of the floor. Trying to hold back the tide alone, as far as Robbie can see, in face of the madness. “Can I help you?”

“Yes. We’re looking for a train who goes by the name of Bertie,” James says gravely, inclining his head at her. “Except he’s a bus.”

Bloody hell. “No, we’re all right, thanks,” Robbie assures her. “The names are on the packets,” he growls at James, sotto voice. “You great pillock.” The lass must be new to retail, a late emergency addition to their Christmas staff, being mad enough to stick her oar into an argument between a couple in a toy shop mere days before Christmas. The Chief Super of this place would be drafting in new recruits on a daily basis to cope with all this potential for civil unrest. And couple of people, that’s what he means, a couple of folk. Christ.

James crouches down to examine the array of trains, brushing close to Robbie. How he manages to look graceful and louche while doing something so ungainly, under these harsh lights, is beyond understanding. His thighs easily take the strain, muscles making themselves known through that silky fabric of his suit trousers that moves so smoothly with him and rests snugly round the outlines at these moments. There’s a memory. From years back now. Of James crouched down, taking the weight of a full-grown man, alone, over a sheer drop from the top of the Natural History Museum. Gripping an old stone arch. Of declarations made. But she made me bloody mad and I didn’t stick up for you and I just feel ashamed. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. And here Hathaway still is. Having become James and still throwing his lot in, on a daily basis, with Robbie. Even while searching for a ridiculous toy train. Bus.

“There’s a Jack,” he says, glancing up at Robbie.

Robbie comes to. He thinks he’s suffering from heat exhaustion. “He’s a tractor who helps out on occasion. He’s got him all right. I hear complicated stories over the phone whenever he appears, he relates the entire episode. Well, his version of it. For a man of pretty limited vocabulary he can fairly tell a tale—what?”

James is just gazing at him.

“Nothing.” He turns his attention back to the display. “As an alternative to Bloody Bertie, we do have, in your own alliterative vernacular, sir; Flaming Fergus. And that one could be Damned Daisy. We also have Sodding Stanley—” Robbie cuffs his shoulder to interrupt this stream of not-fit-for-toyshop adjectives, which James is enjoying far too much, and prompt him to his feet.

The girl shoots them another curious glance.

There’s no Bertie though.

=

James leans forward, and peers at his phone screen, outraged. “Do you have any idea how many of Thomas’ ‘friends’ there are? He must be counting facebook these days.”

Robbie sets his well-emptied pint glass down, feeling considerably better. “This is what I’ve been saying. And the finish line keeps on moving. Every time Jack talks to me, there’s another new name. He’ll have grown grow out of them before I complete the collection.”

“Well, yes. He’d be my age if you get him one for every Christmas and birthday.”

James had proved willing to wear out his shoe leather, traipsing between such toy shops as there are in the city centre, and finally, when Robbie’s temper had been fraying at the edges, he’d drawn him into a pub and suggested they moved the search online. He had not referred to the indisputable fact that he had mildly suggested that a good hour or so before. And he’d found a picture of what they were looking for. With a not-in-stock label plastered over it at every turn. He’s now delving deeper into the internet to see if he can come up with any fresh leads.

“Ah,” he says, sitting back. “Bertie appears to have recently starred in his own spinoff. It’s been uncritically well-received amongst the under-threes.” This seems to close the case of no bloody Bertie.

Robbie accepts the verdict, and his fate, wryly. He’s thawed out pleasantly in here after the chill of the walk, and there’s a cheerful atmosphere. The stew was surprisingly good and the cold ale just what the doctor ordered and James—he’s such a peaceable, obliging sod at times for someone so contrary.

Lyn texts that a carefully-aimed bedtime story has semi-persuaded Jack that Daisy will do.

“I’ll order her for you. Next day delivery. Save you going back there,” says James, gravely.

Robbie drains his pint and considers another. “Thanks, though,” he says. James inclines his head at him.

=

It’s a good way to spend Christmas. It’s nice that the tradition of it is becoming so established, these last couple of years as Robbie’s made more of an effort to get up to Manchester more often, that some folk even send Robbie's parcels here. It’s more than nice that Lyn, without remarking on it, does this under-the-tree ceremonial present opening with Jack, in just the same ways as they’d done with her and Mark.

“And this came for you, Dad.” Lyn reaches for a plain jiffy bag under the tree. Unknown writing and a Hastings postmark—none of the extended family live in Hastings.

Robbie opens it and glances in at the contents. “It’s bloody Bertie,” he says, taken aback.

“What?” Lyn is righteously indignant, taking the jiffy bag off him and shaking out a handwritten receipt. “From eBay? But eBay didn’t have him.”

Bertie isn’t new, he’s a bit well-loved.

“You—went on eBay?” Tim enquires politely, making no noticeable attempt to hold back his disbelief behind his grin. “Unsupervised? I thought you’d had to get Lyn to talk you through it in painstaking steps just to rescue your sergeant’s guitar. She was having a very stiff gin when I got home that evening—”

“Of course I didn’t, I don’t know where this—oh.”

“Santa,” suggests Tim, straightening his face.

“No.” Jack stops running Bertie up his father’s arm long enough to lift his head. “Santa brought the Island of Sodor,” he reminds him, with an element of doubt.

“That’s right,” says Robbie, stoutly. “No—this would have to be a remarkably skinny, kindhearted Santa, wouldn’t it?”

“Santa on a paleo healthkick,” Tim chips in. Robbie is fond of his son-in-law, he’s a decent, cheerily irreverent bloke, and he makes Lyn happy. He defuses her when she seems to be getting het up. She cares a lot about a lot of things, does Lyn, just like her mam. It’s just occasionally that Robbie thinks, with nostalgia, of the way the boyfriends of Lyn’s teenage years were conveniently intimidated into unusual levels of respect by her dad being a copper.

“Oh, it’s an older one.” Lyn has managed to divert Bertie’s path long enough to get a proper look. “A real original. Probably almost as old as Mark. Might’ve been worth a bit, if it wasn’t so…”

The bits of Bertie that Robbie can see, around the firm grasp of Jack’s fist, are battle-scarred. He must have come out of retirement in someone’s attic. Jack’s pleasure is completely unalloyed by this. It’s good to think of him enjoying making new chips in the paintwork, giving Bertie a whole new lease of life.

“Well, you didn’t have to, either way, Dad, he’d have been quite happy with Daisy—”

“Two trains!” exclaims Jack, realising this.

“That’s right. What do we say to Grandpa?”

“Bloody Bertie,” says Jack fondly to Robbie.

Robbie suddenly experiences what Laura means about being glared at in stereo. Indignant parental stereo. Except the looks of reproach are not aimed at Jack. Ah, hell. That’s gone and done it now. That one’s going to stick.

“You’re welcome,” he intervenes, hastily, “Happy Christmas, Jack.”

=

“I wasn’t sure it’d get here in time,” James says, “so it seemed best to send it to Lyn’s.”

Robbie has persuaded his sergeant out for a pub dinner, and a post-mortem on the Bertie case, the evening after Boxing Day. There’s quite a clamour of good cheer in this pub, but James had been here first and had managed to secure them a table near the fire when Robbie had arrived. Spotting him, comfortable and familiar, engrossed in his book with his pint, had given Robbie a swell of good cheer himself to match any of the other punters, that had cleanly washed away the disheartened feeling that had been threatening when he’d returned to his own quiet flat today.

“It was right decent of you—” he says.

James shrugs. “It seemed important to you. Well, going solely by the amount of swearing as an indicator…”

“Aye,” says Robbie, dryly, “it was quite the surprise when I opened him. So much so that I used his given name.” It takes a moment, and then James’s lips start to dimple inwards. “Our Lyn says she’s instigating a swearing box and I’ve to put in the price of a pint every time—”

“Oh—that could get expensive,” James demurs. “Just as well it’s my round.”

It’s not though. This whole evening is certainly on Robbie.

=

“…and it turns out he’d rooted round online and contacted folk who’d listed the older trains before, to ask them to have a rummage to see if they could find a Bertie.” Robbie is telling Laura about how his sergeant had made Jack’s Christmas. “He goes above and beyond. And then he brushes it straight off with a ‘seemed important to you.’” Or, a Well, you thought, something wasn’t right. James, turning away from him.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Robbie, he’d do a hell of a lot more for you than hunt down a toy train.” Laura sounds sharper than warranted but Robbie’s more focused on his memory of that early morning in the station. James, tousled and tired but also bright-eyed and buoyed up with being on a very different quest. Or maybe not-so-different. To him.

“Bertie’s a bus,” he tells Laura after a moment, absently.

Laura stares at him. Then she shakes her head, slowly, her eyes not leaving his face. “We’re having a New Year’s Eve party,” she announces, suddenly. He’d swear she put that in deliberately while he was distracted.

“You are?”

“Yes.”

“First I’ve heard of it—”

“It’s impromptu,” she says vaguely. Then her tone regains her usual briskness. “Oh, don’t look so pained. There’s a perfectly decent swing in my garden, and there’ll be copious decent champagne. You and James can slope off and gently freeze outside to your hearts’ content. There are worst ways to start a new year.”

He supposes that’s true. And apparently the dishy sergeant is accompanying Robbie to this one too then. Robbie will need to inform him of that.

In the event, he’s caught with James in the spiralling tail-end of a case and has to phone in his apologies.

Well, it lets him off the hook for more being polite to Alan Peterson off the clock.

But Laura sounds fairly frustrated, on his behalf, and he finds himself feeling conscious of his own wry feeling of disappointment, which tells him how he must have warmed to the idea. He’d even bought a new shirt. Not from Sainsbury’s either.

But there’s little can be done and that’s an end to it.

Or it might have been. If James hadn’t gone and started the new year by jumping in the ruddy Cherwell.

 

===

 

Even as he’s running, his feet, in shoes not made for this, thudding on the uneven towpath, and his breath loud in his ears, part of Robbie’s mind registers something missing; another thud of feet gaining on him, James flying past him to reach for the lifebuoy first.

Robbie processes this, and he slows. And he turns to find his sergeant has stayed at the spot where Miller, the bloody mastermind who’d lit off from the boathouse while being questioned, had leapt in, trying to swim the river to shake them. Miller is going under already. James has discarded his shoes and coat and is tearing off his suit jacket.

“Hathaway,” bellows Robbie.

James turns.

His eyes meet Robbie’s for the briefest of moments, in an expression of regret.

And then the sodding idiot, with impeccable life-saving water-entry form, jumps straight into the freezing, treacherously smooth, fast-running water of the Cherwell.

It’s over before it starts, really. As Robbie reminds himself throughout the rest of that day. Robbie makes it back, throws the lifebuoy, and after a couple of attempts, and an ungainly struggle, there’s a half-conscious Miller and a sergeant as drenched as a half-drowned cat on the riverbank, and Robbie, nearly as soaked as either of them, finds his instincts for triage have deserted him and he’s reaching for the wrong man.

When the paramedics arrive, he dispatches James with them too, heeding no arguement. He’s not fond of sending James off in the back of ambulances. Once was more than enough for one lifetime. But he’d seen the struggle, in the look on James’ face as he’d exerted all his will over his energy against the grip of the cold water; Miller a dead weight against him. He’d seen how James had struggled to overcome every force of nature pulling against him, in that instant where he could either manage that one more kick against the current towards Robbie, to grasp the lifebuoy, or things could have gone an entirely different way.

Robbie puts the restlessness that afflicts him throughout the day down to that. The closeness of this particular call.

James texts that he’s being kept in for a few hours for observation. And he seems fine when Robbie drops off spare clothes in his lunchbreak. Making dubious-polite grimaces over the combination of clothing Robbie had pulled from his drawers when he’d swung by James’ flat. Apparently this layering of t-shirts thing is not half as random as it looks.

He tells James to text him again when they’re happy he’s been thawed out, done his time and made proper restitution for his heroics. And he returns to the nick where there’s more than enough to keep him occupied. Because quite apart from Miller turning out to have only a spurious connection with this whole case—and some day they’ll catch a lucky break and get to question a witness who isn’t busily keeping a whole host of guilty unrelated secrets of their own—the incident report on this latest exploit of James’ is going to be the length of Robbie’s arm. Again.

But Robbie sits in the car, in the car park of the John Radcliffe, at the end of that long day, and he waits. He turns up the heater of the car, in anticipation of James’ appearance, and he waits for him, and he sees that look again. Not the desperate, wordless grimace James had sent him from the water, his eyes locked onto Robbie’s, in that one instant when things could have gone either way. Nor the intense relief that had looked almost like pain, in the moment it had become certain that James had a firm enough grip on the life ring to be helped back to shore. Those looks were almost familiar to Robbie, it turned out. From picturing James, in his head, so many years, as a rower.

No, it was the other look. That look of regret. A rueful sort of regret, and resignation, mingled. Which Robbie could just add to his whole collection of James’ looks. Those looks…For someone whose words can be so reticent and evasive, those looks of James’ can be wholly open at the most unexpected of moments, and that undoes something deep within Robbie that should be staying closed up when it comes to his sergeant.

But right throughout the quiet journey to drop James home, it’s still there. The restlessness stirred up from that look. Seeing James all in one piece, looking quite different now, won’t seem to replace it. He looks exhausted. With his head lying back against the seat rest. He looks pale and dishevelled and roughly tousled, having not had the chance to do—whatever he does—to his hair. It makes the risk and the edge of today feel present, right here in the car.

It makes him turn to James as soon as he’s pulled in, outside James’ flat, and break the silence. “Why d’you look at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“You know what I mean. Before you jumped in.”

He expects James’ expression to close up. Instead he gets a shrug. James’ head is still lying back. He’s curiously calm. “Like what?” he asks, again.

So he wants Robbie to say what he saw. All right. “Like you were sorry. You knew that could be it, you knew you were risking your life, and you were apologising. Regretful. But your regret was aimed at me.”

James shrugs again. But his eyes are still on Robbie’s. And used as Robbie has thought he was, before today, to any of these looks from James, this one is new. This one is wholly unscreened. This one makes all his thoughts about this; cease.

James leans forward, and his lips brush Robbie’s. He leans back, and his glance flickers to Robbie, under his brows, a question.

When Robbie opens his mouth, he doesn’t know what words he expects to come out first. “James,” he says, “I’m your boss—”

And just like that it’s gone. The access James was offering him, to everything, for just a moment there.

“Yes,” he says. “Sir.”

And he’s gone too. Out of the car. Out of Robbie’s reach.

=

It’s a week later—and afterwards, when Robbie comes to see how it was, he’s bloody thankful a week was all it’d been—when Innocent sees fit to dispatch them on a follow-up interview in Lincolnshire. Which hadn’t needed them both dispatched on, as far as Robbie was concerned. But he hadn’t raised an arguement. He hadn’t got much left in him to raise.

Since what had happened, had happened, in the car outside James’ flat, things haven’t exactly been—well, it’s been a long week and it’s looking set to be an even longer weekend that Robbie’s facing into, at this rate.

James is talking to him, in the car. He’s keeping up a flow of conversation, by his standards. He must think he’s hitting the right note, sounding engaged and virtually cheerful. Worrying in itself. And then he glances over at Robbie. It takes a couple of miles further, for Robbie to register what it is. James isn’t looking at him when he looks at him. He’s removed all the parts of himself he puts into those looks.

There’s a lay-by, a passing place on this winding road. Robbie pulls over.

It’s always been impossible to see James in pain. And Robbie can see, despite these valiant efforts at preventing him from seeing, that he’s the cause of this pain. He’s not having that. Not if he can have a proper go at matching his sergeant in the bravery stakes.

When he clicks the key, to turn off the ignition in the car; that click turns on a silence between them. He half-turns to face James.

“I give in. All yours, lad. If you still want me.”

Now he’s being properly looked at. “If I still want you?”

“I’m not that much of a fool that I’m about to turn you down.”

“But you said we couldn’t. Because of work.”

“Sod work.”

“But you said—”

“I know what I said—” But Robbie stops, looking at him, and sees him still stranded on the hopeless pain of rejection. “You did know I meant that? Ah, Christ. For someone who listens as much as you, you don’t half hear things wrong sometimes. That’s what I said,” he says, gently now, “and that’s what I meant. That simple, James. You can’t be my sergeant any more. Things’ll have to change. A lot.”

James, seeming unable to make much of a reply to this, tries a nod, but Robbie catches his chin, intent now on making sure there’s no more misunderstanding.

“Work,” he says, directly into that startled, all-eyes look of James’s. “Work. I shouldn’t have started with that. And then you lit off so fast, I didn’t know if you’d had second thoughts yourself. Or you were agreeing with something I hadn’t so much meant to say, that because of the job we shouldn’t—until you just seemed so ruddy miserable—”

He’s silenced, most effectively, by James reaching for him and kissing him in a way that seems strongly intent on showing him how very much he thoroughly disagrees with him. Which seems only right. James is his own disagreeable awkward sod, after all. But that kiss. That kiss is very much agreeable.

He drops his head on Robbie’s shoulder as he pulls away, but Robbie doesn’t miss the look before his head ducks down. He knows that look too even though he’s seen it all too rarely. That one’s his favorite. That one is pure joy. He kisses the top of that head.

“We can sort the job out,” he says. James seems strangely intent on burrowing his head into Robbie’s shoulder. “Even if you'll need to tell Innocent you’ve had a very belated rethink and you want Grainger as your inspector, after all.“

James raises his head. “He must be finished with that court case by now,” he says thoughtfully. “Although I always felt she misunderstood me there, when I insisted you were given first refusal. I meant as a mere matter of courtesy, given as I’d proved myself so useful on the case.”

“That was what you meant?”

“Yes, and it all snowballed from there. It’s been a nightmare. Trying to work out how to extricate myself.”

“All these years and you’ve just been waiting for the right moment to get yourself out of this?”

“Absolutely. A surfeit of politeness has always been my curse.” He grimaces as something cloudier disturbs all that clear light of happiness in his eyes. “There isn’t any rush though, is there? I mean—we’re not actually telling Innocent yet?”

“Not on your life.”

“Can we—we could keep it to ourselves for a bit. Not even Laura, just yet.”

Robbie see how it is; he wants to stay in this cocooned world. He’s in disbelief about the nature of this changing, after all these years. Although James’ head on his shoulder, James’ kiss, hadn’t felt like the revolution they probably should have to Robbie. Not, after all these years, and the quiet conquest his sergeant had already made of Robbie’s heart.

But he’s sincerely not adverse to them buying a bit of time to themselves. And he’s not about to deny James something so easily achieved.

“We’re telling no-one,” he says, and is rewarded by the sparking embers of that long, slow smile of James’ starting right up again, already. “We can keep it to ourselves as long as you want.”

In this brave new world he’s venturing into, Robbie supposes it’s useful to have some certainties still firmly in place. “That’s the advantage to being two uninteresting, unromantic, reticent sods, so set in our ways,” he assures James, comfortably amused by the look of indignation he gets back. “Innocent and Laura? Don’t you worry. They’d never guess.”

 

End