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The Way Clear (Phantoms epilogue)

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“My round,” James says, sliding out of the booth. Laura’s eyes track him as he crosses the pub toward the bar then she turns back to Robbie.

“He’s chipper,” she says.

“Aye,” Robbie says, unable to suppress a grin.

“So are you,” she says, taking a sip of her gin and tonic. “In fact, you looked rather happy when I visited James in hospital. Which was a bit odd if you think about it. Just glad he was all right, were you?”

“Aye,” Robbie says again, grasping for something to distract her with. His empty pint is no help; this particular cat was never going to stay in the bag they’d put it in.

This is the first time Laura’s seen the two of them together since she popped in to check on James in hospital. James had been asleep then, and Robbie, having just returned from the cafeteria, wasn’t holding his hand. An injured Sergeant and his worried Inspector, nothing more. At least that’s what he’d hoped they looked like.

They haven’t spent a single night apart since Robbie found James in the attic, a fact that they’re not keeping a secret exactly, but they’re not broadcasting either. Laura, of course, has already seen right through their flimsy attempts at misdirection. She is studying him now, no doubt confirming her assumptions regardless of anything he may say to the contrary.

It’s fine, Laura knowing. Who else besides Lyn does he even have to tell such news? And Lyn, how is he going to tell Lyn? She’s always liked James, but James as his sergeant who is in cahoots with her to get her dad to eat more veg is a far cry from all the sex he and James been having this past week.

If he’s lucky, Lyn will have sussed them out the moment she looks at the two of them together, like Laura did, and Robbie won’t have to broach the subject, only explain and smooth things over. All the same, he’d wanted to keep it to themselves for a bit longer. James had too, though he hadn’t said it in so many words. Muttering something about secreting themselves away and making up for lost time, that may or may not have been a line from a poem, as his lips explored Robbie’s naked skin.

He shouldn’t be thinking about that now, the heady feeling of James’ mouth on his, the press of James’ body against his own, the way James’ skin feels under his hands. It’s as if the prospect of almost losing James has kicked his libido into high gear, like a flame has been rekindled inside him, a flame he’d long thought extinguished for good. Now his every idle moment—and not so idle moments as well—are filled with thoughts of James, scenes from the past week played back in his mind’s eye. In his bed, on the sofa, against the kitchen worktop, in the car on the way back from doing the shopping.

It’s been lovely waking up to the warmth of another body in the bed next to him. The smell of coffee and the sounds of breakfast being prepared from the kitchen. Falling asleep to the sound of James’ breathing, James’ arm across his chest. Leaning together on the sofa of an evening and missing half the film they’re watching for snogging. Being allowed to touch, whenever he wants, and be touched. James’ new habit of running his hand from Robbie’s shoulder to lower back, or lower when they’re alone, every time he walks by; a hello, a promise. James’s follow-up to those promises in the bed that has quickly become not his, but theirs.

“It’s a good look on him,” Laura says, her smile turned indulgent. Here Robbie is having drinks with a friend, and he can’t even keep his mind on the conversation. He’s going to have to sort himself out if he’s ever going to manage to solve another case once they’re off leave and back out in the field.

“Aye,” Robbie says for a third time. He doesn’t bother trying to keep the fondness out of his voice. Laura gives him a crooked smile.

“Only you two,” she says, shaking her head. “It would take a blackmailer bent on revenge to get you together. I’m glad you’re both happy.” Her smile is kind, knowing, a bit cheeky. Robbie wants to ask how long she’s known, if she knew before he did. If she’d known during all the attempts they made to date over the years. Laura winks at him, as if she knows exactly what he’s thinking, then downs the last of her drink as James returns with the next round, long fingers deftly balancing the glasses despite the cast on his right arm. Robbie feels his face go hot at the memory of what those fingers were doing this morning.

James settles back in against Robbie’s side, his posture conveying how much he wants to give Robbie a kiss of greeting but doesn’t feel he should in front of Laura. But now that she knows, now that Robbie knows she knows, there’s no reason not to. Robbie leans in and plants a kiss firmly on James’ lips. James nearly upends his pint. Laura looks nothing but pleased when he turns back to her. She raises her glass.

“Here’s to you two kids, finally making a go of it,” she says. “Congratulations.”

James gives Robbie a sideways glance, we’re telling now, are we, then raises an eyebrow at both of them, seemingly unperturbed save for the slight tinge of pink on his cheeks which matches the heat Robbie can feel in his own.

“Cheers,” James says, taking a good long drink and leaning into Robbie a bit more even as he turns to Laura. And that’s the end of it, their secret revealed and life carries on as usual. James and Laura are off discussing a new special exhibit on at the Ashmolean, making plans to see it together, as if the fact of Robbie and James sleeping together has no bearing on it.

Which it doesn’t. Sleeping with James hasn’t made Robbie any more interested in fifteenth-century manuscripts, Latin or otherwise, but he can now admit how much he enjoys watching James discuss them. The curve of his lips that gives away the extent of his excitement, though he’s trying not to show it. The way his fingers curve around his pint, stroking it, toying with the beermat, taking a sip. The line of his throat as he swallows. It’s all Robbie can do to not touch, not reach out his hand and follow the line of James’ throat down into his open shirt collar, undo a few more buttons, so he can get his hands on all the gorgeous golden skin hidden beneath.

James scratches at the short hair behind his ear and Robbie feels the echo of those fingers on his skin this morning; nerve endings coming alive, a wash of sensation as James ran his hands down Robbie’s chest, across his belly, to the crease of his hip, to his cock, already hard and waiting by the time James’ hands made their slow way there. So primed for sensation he’d gasped when James touched him, gasped and arched up into the fingers wrapping around his cock. He’d had no idea it would be like that. He’d had no idea it would continue to be like that each time, that he could at once be so familiar with James’ touch and so electrified by it, that he could be so turned on and still want more. That he could have this again and at this point in his life.

Laura and James are both looking at him, Laura’s asked him a question and he’s got no idea what it was. He feels his face go hot again. James has him thoroughly distracted without even doing anything. The thought of James’ fingers, his tongue, his mouth. Robbie shifts in his seat, his trousers becoming uncomfortable, and James shifts next to him, picks up his pint with his right hand, and puts his left on Robbie’s thigh under the table. Not going to make the situation any better.

Laura is watching them over her gin and tonic, amused, question apparently forgotten.

“Well, I’ll leave you two to it, then,” she says, finishing half of what’s left of her drink. “I’ve got rehearsal in less than an hour, anyway.” Laura stands and leans over to give them each a peck on the cheek. “Thursday,” she says to James as she leaves.

“Yes, ma’am,” James says. Then it’s just the two of them at the table and James’ hand moving further up Robbie’s thigh as he nonchalantly takes a sip of his pint with the other.

“If you want me to be able to walk out of here anytime soon you’d better stop that,” Robbie says.

“Oh?” says James, the perfect picture of mock innocence.

“Cheeky sod.”

“I was looking forward to getting you home to bed,” James says, giving Robbie’s thigh another squeeze, then removing his hand.