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The Retreat

Chapter Text

Robin stared at her left hand. The pale strip on her ring finger was almost invisible now. She had gone twenty-seven years without a breakup, and now she’d had two in one year.

She had been neither surprised nor heartbroken over the breakup, but breakups were never fun, no way about it. She’d been dating Casey O’Keefe for three months, and it had been pleasant all the way through, if not particularly passionate. He was two years younger than her, and the owner of Ginger, a successful bakery in Waterloo. Robin had met Casey on a week-long stakeout. She had sat in his bakery for hours at a time, waiting for her client’s wife to leave the office across the street. Casey was friendly, sweet, and very ginger, and Robin had liked him enough to give him her number when he asked for it.

They’d had fun together for three months. Casey took Robin to street fairs and basement concerts together, things that Matthew would have considered too cheap and dirty. They crashed galas and snuck free cakes into their bags, they went to indie art shows that displayed paintings of naked women with octopus heads, they had picnics in ancient graveyards and tried to find the strangest headstone. Robin discovered a new side of London, a middle ground between Matthew’s stark corporate world and the gritty underbelly that she navigated with Cormoran every day. She fell in love with the city all over again.

Casey was a very devout Catholic, which meant that he was perfectly content to move slowly on the physical aspect of their relationship. They had fooled around plenty, and then gone a bit further, but they had never actually had sex. They hadn’t even seen each other fully naked. Robin was fine with that.

Then last night they had walked along the Thames and Casey had broken it off.

“I’m tired of feeling like a temporary fix,” he’d said, “A placeholder until you find somebody better.” Robin wanted to deny this, but she couldn’t think of a very convincing argument. The truth was that she’d had one foot out the door since the day they’d met. So she kissed him and told him that she was sorry, and she told him that he was a wonderful man who would make some woman very happy. And she told him that she’d had a wonderful time with him, and she thanked him for showing her a side of London that she’d never seen. Then she went home and cried for about an hour, and was ready to move on.

She had enjoyed being single after her divorce, being able to do what she wanted when she wanted. She had never lived alone before, and she was delighted to realize that she could eat what she was hungry for when she was hungry for it, and sleep in until noon on weekends. She could go to movies by herself, and cry at Disney films without being teased for it. One of the greatest parts of being single was that she no longer had to worry about Matthew and Cormoran. She could stay at work for as long as she liked, tailing people all hours of the night, if that’s what she wanted. Cormoran had put another desk for her in his office, with a folding screen divider to give them a semblance of privacy, though usually the divider stayed half-folded in one corner. They enjoyed sharing a space, and being able to bounce ideas off of one another easily. Without Matthew’s constant judgemental shadow, Robin found it easier to be open with Cormoran, and talk about things that weren’t strictly work related.

Would she tell him that she was single again? She couldn’t deny a small, tight line of tension between them, a constant reminder of what could have been. Lord knows all of their friends and family were expecting them to end up together. But she knew Cormoran. To jeopardize their work, their friendship, the risk was too great. Cormoran was no coward, but he wasn’t impractical.

Robin unlocked the door to the office and went in. She would wait to tell Cormoran she was single until it came up naturally.

Chapter Text

Cormoran ran his hands through his hair in frustration. Robin giggled and he shot her a baleful glance.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“When you do that to your hair you look like a grumpy lion,” Robin said.

Cormoran shook his head and turned back to his computer, but he couldn’t help but smile.

“What’s got you down?” Robin asked.

“Money. Once we finish up with Nose Hair we’re going to be out of clients.”

“You act like we didn’t just make a windfall in the August rush.” She shook her head, remembering the insanity of the month before, when they juggled fifteen clients in a month. They had even needed to assign Alyssa to some basic surveillance gigs just to cover their asses. “Is it busy like that every year?”

“It’s the heat. It drives people nuts.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “That money will only last us so long. After paying you and Alyssa, we only have enough rent for two more months.”

“This slump is not going to last more than two months, Cormoran. It never does.”

Cormoran surveyed her through narrowed eyes.

“Does it ever get exhausting?” he asked, “Being so damn optimistic all the time?”

“Better than the alternative.”

There was a tap on the door and Alyssa stuck her head in.

“There’s a Regina Oni here to see you,” Alyssa said, “She doesn’t have an appointment but should I send her in anyways?”

Robin’s eyebrows shot up.

“Did you say Oni?” she said.

“Yes,” Alyssa said, “Why? Do you know her?”

“I know her podcast,” Robin said, “See her in.”

Cormoran looked at Robin curiously.

“A podcast?” he asked.

“It’s a psychology podcast called ‘Truth Speaks’. It’s on relationship counseling.”

Regina Oni entered before Cormoran could respond. She was a small woman, but when she walked she owned the room. Her hair was straightened and pulled back into a tight bun, and she reminded Robin of a bird.

“Miss Oni,” Robin said, “I’m Robin. I have to say, I am a fan of your podcast.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you,” Regina said, shaking Robin’s hand with a talon grip, “Your reputation has preceded you as well. I hear you are the best in the business.”

Cormoran offered Regina a chair, and she sat.

“So what can I help you with?” Robin asked.

“I need help proving an infidelity,” Gina said. Robin raised her eyebrows. It seemed like an unorthodox method for a couples’ counselor to take. “Not for a client,” Gina said quickly, reading Robin’s expression, “It’s a coworker. I believe that he’s seducing his female clients.”

“What’s this man’s name?” Robin asked.

“Colin Lachlan. We’ve worked together for years, and we've recently come together to start a luxury couples’ retreat center in Scotland, where couples can work on their issues away from the distractions of life. But unfortunately his wife died last year, and he has responded to the grief by sleeping around.”

“Why do you think that?” Cormoran asked.

“We live next door to each other, on the grounds of the retreat centre. I’m always seeing different women, women I've never met, coming out of his house in the morning. I’ve been willing to turn a blind eye until recently, saying that sex is a common response to grief, and that it was none of my business. But I’ve noticed that in his work he’s started holding individual therapy sessions with just the female clients in a partnership.”

“Is that uncommon?” Cormoran asked.

“One-on-one sessions can be helpful in particularly difficult relationships, but this is becoming a pattern. And recently I found an email, sent to me by accident, by one of his female clients. A love letter. When I confronted him about it he claimed that it was transference.”

“Transference?” Cormoran asked.

“Transference is when a patient transfers their feelings of desire onto a therapist,” Robin explained to him, “Believing that they’re in love.”

“Yes,” Regina said, "Very good."

“I studied psychology at university,” Robin said, blushing.

“Transference does happen occasionally,” Regina said, “But I’m still nervous.” She stirred her tea and stared into the whirlpool in her cup. “I’m not concerned about him . We all have our vices, even counselors. But I am worried that he’s preying on his clients at a very difficult time in their lives, and taking advantage of their heartbreak. Our job is to heal relationships, not tear them apart.”

“Absolutely,” Robin said. She glanced at Cormoran, who nodded. “We'll take it.”

Chapter Text

They discussed the case over sandwiches and tea at Pret a Manger.

“Have you read the love letter yet?” Cormoran asked.

“The email?” Robin said, “Yes. Standard smut, though not very well written.” She placed it on the table between them. Cormoran looked over it.

Colin,

You know what I need, and you’re the only one who can give it to me. I will do anything you want. I will pay anything, do anything. I am begging on my knees. Please help me find relief.

“We can’t all be Shakespeare,” he said.

“The most obvious response would be to go undercover as a couple at the retreat,” Robin said.

“You do love undercover work don’t you,” Cormoran said.

“Do you have any better ideas?”

“Yeah. Talk to his past clients. If he’s been making advances, surely somebody will be willing to talk.”

“Good luck with that,” Robin said, “First of all, we don’t even know who his clients are, and due to patient doctor confidentiality we never will. Second of all, there’s no guarantee that they would talk, and if we go snooping around word will get back to Lachlan.”

“What are the details on this couple’s therapy conference?” he asked.

“It’s a week long event at a retreat center near Greycrook.”

“It’ll be hard to get away from the office for a full week.”

“It’ll be good for us. We could use a vacation after the insanity of August,” Robin said.

“And if we get any cases while we’re off?”

“Alyssa has proven herself more than capable. She’ll just tell them we’ll meet when we get back. It seems silly to put off a case we have in exchange for the possibility of a future case.”

Cormoran ran his hands through his hair.

“You’re right,” he said, “Of course. I just hate putting you out as bait for some skeezball.”

“I wouldn’t have to be bait. I wouldn’t have to be the one seducing him. But we do need to go on this retreat and get a closer look.”

“I know. I still don’t like it.”

“How many times do I have to tell you that I can take care of myself?” Robin said.

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I’m just overprotective. I’m working on it.”

Robin smiled.

“Keep it up and I’ll start calling you Dad,” she said.

“Oh God, let’s not even think about that.”

“What, that doesn’t turn you on?” she teased.

“What! No!”

“Not even a little bit?”

“You’re disgusting.”

Robin giggled into her tea.

Cormoran loved this new, post-divorce Robin. It had been over a year now since Matthew’s infidelity had been revealed, and Cormoran had watched as Robin blossomed in her newfound independence. She drank more, and stayed out late, and made suggestive jokes. She went on dates and flirted with bartenders. She was still Robin, still cautious and gentle and kind, but she walked with the confidence of a woman swimming in her own freedom. Even though she had been dating one man in particular, Casey O'Keefe, for a few months, she maintained the lightness and ease that she had adopted over the past year. It was the sexiest thing Cormoran had ever seen.

“We’d have to go undercover as a couple,” Cormoran said, “How would Casey feel about that?”

Robin flushed slightly.

“Actually, Casey and I are no longer seeing each other,” she said.

“Really!” Cormoran found himself tying his napkin into a knot under the table. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah well we’d only been together since July, so it wasn’t incredibly serious. Which was part of the problem, I guess. He wanted to get more serious.”

“Been there,” Cormoran said, “When did this all go down?”

“Sunday night. I should have told you, but it didn’t seem to come up, and-”

“It’s fine. I understand.”

“Anyways, a faked relationship won’t be a problem,” she said.

“Right. Yeah. Good.” He scratched his neck. “That’ll be grand.”

It had taken six months for Cormoran to finally believe that Robin and Matthew were officially over and not just on a break. Then it took three more months for him to build up the courage to admit to himself that his feelings for her were more than just a temporary crush. Before he could officially reveal his feelings, however, she was dating Casey and the window of opportunity had closed. So he stayed quiet. Now, though, a faked relationship with newly single Robin… He shook the thought off like it was a persistent gnat.

Robin pulled out her laptop and started writing up a new file on their fake identities.

“Alright, so we’re married,” Cormoran said, “How did we meet?”

“Shouldn’t make it too different from reality, so let’s say we met at work.”

“Good thinking,” Cormoran said, “And we work as… Gastroenterologists.”

Robin made a face.

“Gross.”

“Nobody will ask any questions if we’re gastroenterologists. Nobody wants to know. And if they do, I’ve picked up enough from Nick to get by.”

“Okay, you’re a gastroenterologist, I’m your secretary.”

“My secretary?”

“Colin is not going to approach me if he thinks I spend my days elbow deep in shit.”

“That’s fair.”

“We’re at this couples’ retreat because we’re having marital problems.”

“Right. Our sex life has dried up,” Cormoran said.

Robin raised her eyebrows.

“That way we won’t be expected to be overly demonstrative,” he explained, “Any awkwardness around public displays of affection will be easily explained.”

“But I can’t be too prudish, or Colin won’t make his move.”

“Right. You’re sexually frustrated.”

“Possible porn addiction.”

“Nice touch.”

“Thanks. And our names?”

“Something familiar enough that we’ll answer to it.”

“I’ll be… Sandra,” Robin said, grinning.

“You’re never going to let me live that one down, will you. Alright, you’ll be Sandra, and I’ll be... George.”

“Oh God, that’s my uncle’s name,” Robin said.

“No wonder our sex life dried up.”

Chapter Text

Robin booked George and Sandra two tickets to the retreat in a week’s time. That would give her enough time to cement their identities and do background research on Colin Lachlan. She scanned the retreat itinerary. Activities, lectures, and group therapy. Group therapy. She would need to make sure that their identities were air-tight. It would be hard to fake a personality under the careful questioning of a therapist. Lachlan had written a book on the advantages of group therapy that she wanted to read before meeting him. She would also need some new clothes if she wanted to fit in with the wealthy couples who would be attending the retreat. Some sexy outfits for snagging a man, some dowdy pajamas for sharing a bed with Cormoran. God, how would she manage faking a relationship with him? She laid her head on her keyboard and groaned.

“You alright in there?” Alyssa called.

“Oh, hi Alyssa,” Robin said, straightening up. “What are you doing at work? I thought you had to watch the girls today.”

Alyssa came to the doorway.

“Yeah, their school is on holiday,” she said, “But Christopher offered to babysit today.”

“Christopher?”

“You call him Shanker.”

“Oh.” Robin supposed she’d always know that Shanker wasn’t his real name, but she had never given it much thought. “I never thought of him being much of a babysitter.”

“Ah, he’s good enough in a pinch. He knows I’d kick his ass from here to China if anything happened to them.”

Robin was still a sceptic, but she figured that Shanker would do just about anything for Alyssa.

“How are the girls liking their new school?” she asked.

“They like it just fine,” Alyssa said, “Angel has been having some problems with fighting, but we’re working through it. She’s feisty.”

“I wonder where she gets that from,” Robin said, smiling, “I’m glad to hear that they’re doing alright.”

Alyssa gestured to the computer.

“You sounded frustrated just now,” she said, “Want some tea?”

“Nah, I’m okay,” Robin said, “Thanks, though.”

“Want some whiskey?” Alyssa asked.

Robin laughed. She liked Alyssa.

“If it wasn’t eleven in the morning I might take you up on that.”

“What are you working on?”

“Creating identities for Cormoran and myself. The therapy case. We’re going undercover as a married couple.”

“Fake romance,” Alyssa said, raising her eyebrows suggestively, “I’ve seen enough TV to know where that’s heading.”

“Cormoran and I are just friends,” Robin said.

“Maybe to you.”

“What do you mean?” Robin asked.

“He likes you.”

Robin rolled her eyes.

“Please,” she said, “He just sees me as a colleague.”

Alyssa raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips.

“Mmm-hmmm,” she said.

“I’m serious,” Robin said.

“Mmm-hmmm.”

“Ok, fine,” Robin said, “You want to know the truth?”

“Mmm-hmmm.”

Robin laughed.

“Okay,” she said, “The day after Matthew and I broke up Cormoran took me to Thorpe Park to cheer me up.”

“Awwww.”

“Shut up. Anyways, I might have gotten a little tipsy, and I might have... asked him to stay the night.”

Alyssa was smiling a giant shit-eating grin.

“Uh huh, keep going.”

“He said no,” Robin said.

Alyssa’s grin fell.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. He said he didn’t want to be a drunken one-night blunder.”

“Well, Strike is a gentleman,” Alyssa said, “He could mean that he wanted a more committed relationship.”

“That’s what I thought. But I waited nine months before I started dating again. He had every opportunity to make a move, but nothing happened.”

“He’s shy.”

Robin shrugged.

“I don’t really care anymore,” she said, “I’m over it.”

“How can you and Strike both be so brave in every aspect of your lives, but both be so afraid of love?” Alyssa asked.

“Okay, Nicholas Sparks,” Robin said, “First of all, cut the Bridget Jones routine. Second of all, I’m not afraid of love. It’s not being loved back that’s the problem.” She leaned back in her chair. “But enough about me, what’s going on with you and Christopher ?”

“I’m leaving now,” Alyssa said.

“Oh, you can give it out, but you can’t take it?” Robin asked, laughing.

“Are you saying something?” Alyssa called from the other room, “I can’t hear you!”

Chapter Text

 

The week moved forward without event. They closed out with the Nose Hair client, they packed, they made preparations for a week away.

Then it was Friday. Robin pulled up in the Land Rover at ten. Her nails were newly manicured and her hair was blow-dried into an immaculate golden wave. Her eyeliner was so straight it could have been applied with a slide rule.

“You look nice,” Cormoran said as they pulled out.

“Thanks. I figured if Regina is paying for me to look like a poncy elitist, why not look the part.”

“The Land Rover doesn’t fit much with that image, does it?”

“Hopefully nobody will notice.” She looked him up and down. He was well dressed too, in an ironed button-down and tighter jeans than normal. “You don’t look half bad yourself.”

“I mentioned to Lucy that we were going on a luxury retreat and she had a near conniption. She said that wealthy men don’t wear, quote, ‘saggy baggy grandpa trousers,’ and made me go shopping.”

Robin laughed.

“I like it,” she said, “You look very svelt.”

“I look like a wannabe hipster. You know how hard it is to put tight jeans on over a prosthesis? It’s a bloody nightmare.”

“Beauty is pain.”

Robin handed Cormoran a sandwich and they ate in silence for a stretch.

“I’ve been reading Lachlan’s book,” Robin said, “It’s quite informative, actually.”

“Any clues as to his character?”

“Not especially. He really stresses that couples should talk a lot about what they like about each other. I assume that he’ll bring that up during the sessions. I think if he asks me what I like about you, a good tactic would be to mention some qualities that you two share.”

“Like how?”

“For example, he’s very tall, like you, so I could say that I like how tall you are. He’s a therapist, so I could say I like how you’re a good listener. He’s an authority figure, so I could mention that I’m turned on by you being my boss. Honestly, if you turn this red every time we talk about anything sexual our cover will be blown in minutes.”

“Sorry,” Cormoran said, blushing furiously, “Just not used to it.” He sighed. “I know we said that it would be best if our characters mirrored life as closely as possible. But I don’t want us to get confused, and start overlapping truth and fiction. Messing with psychology, that can really fuck up your head.”

“I know. I was a psychology major, remember? I think as long as we can be open with each other outside of our characters, and talk about what was real and what wasn’t, we’re going to be okay.”

Cormoran nodded along, but the thought of being open and honest with Robin was absolutely terrifying to him.

They lapsed into silence again. Cormoran reread the information on George Austin, then dozed for a spell. The radio played news of Kate Middleton’s morning sickness. City turned to hills and back again. After a spell Cormoran glanced over at Robin, who was biting furiously at her nails.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Robin said, a bit snappier than she’d intended.

“You’ve bitten off your new manicure.”

Robin glanced down at her hands and sighed.

“I guess I’m a bit nervous. I don’t know how good I’ll be at catching Lachlan’s eye. I’ve never been much of a seductress.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I got together with Matthew in secondary school, and back then seducing somebody meant doing the bend-and-snap.”

“I don’t know what that is but it sounds incredibly painful,” Cormoran said.

Robin grinned.

“I knew a girl who threw her back out doing it,” Robin said.

“But you’ve been on dates and such since ending it with Matthew.”

“You mean those three times I went out to dinner with those utter wankers? Those dates were all online situations that ended poorly.”

“Even Casey?”

“That just sort of happened. He asked me out and I went with it. I didn’t have to woo anybody.”

“You don’t have to woo Colin Lachlan either, you know. We’re only coming to this thing to get a closer look. Maybe talk to some clients, see if he does anything suspicious. You’re not going to prostitute yourself for this case.”

“I know, I know. You’re right.”

They drifted back to silence. She started biting her nail polish off again. Cormoran sighed.

“Alright, fine,” he said, “You want to know how to flirt?”

Robin grinned.

“Yes please.”

“There’s only three things you need to do. First, you make eye contact. Second, you laugh at all of his jokes. Third, you listen to him like he’s the most fascinating man in the world. That’s it.”

“That’s it?” Robin asked, incredulously, “That’s how you get so many women?”

“I wouldn’t say so many…” he protested. Robin gave him a look. He grinned. “Fine,” he said, “Yes. That’s how I get so many women.”

“There’s not a facial expression or something? I’m not supposed bite my lip or thrust my tits out?”

“I personally have never had much luck with thrusting my tits,” Cormoran said, “But I’m not well endowed in that regard.”

Robin was still giggling by the time they pulled into the front drive of the retreat center.

Chapter Text

The retreat centre looked like something out of a fairytale. It was a large, elegant brick mansion, carefully designed to look like a country cottage. Bushy trees gave an air of wilderness to the otherwise pristinely manicured lawns and gardens, and a gentle little stream burbled around the front of the house.

“This is incredible,” Robin said, “I know money can’t buy happiness, but God, this does come close. Can you imagine coming to places like this all the time?”

“Charlotte used to come to places like this,” Cormoran said. Robin looked at him, surprised. He didn’t often mention their time together. “After one suicide attempt she stayed at a place that looked just like this. She called it a platinum band-aid covering a festering wound.”

“That’s very poetic.”

“She had a way with words,” Cormoran said.

They parked around back, then came into the front where they were met by Gina Oni.

“You’re our first arrivals,” she said, “That’s good. Plenty of time to get settled before we begin supper.”

She led them on a brief tour. The kitchen, the dining room, the common room, the ballroom. Robin found her head swimming with the beauty of the place. She couldn’t stop shooting Cormoran expressions of incredulous amazement. I must have the best job in the whole damn world.

“You’ll be room 203,” Gina said, “It’s quite private, so you don’t have to worry about your work being overheard.” She handed them each a large folder. “This is your itinerary, a workbook for the sessions, and your keys. We will see you down for dinner at seven.”

The room was light grey, with large window looking out on the grounds and a bed like a massive white cloud in the middle of the room. Robin flopped backwards onto the bed and beamed up at the ceiling.

“This is incredible,” she said, “God, how did I get so lucky.”

Cormoran looked down at her, her red hair fanned out against the white duvet, and had to agree.

Chapter Text

Robin spotted Colin Lachlan towards the head of the dinner table and squeezed in next to him.

“Colin, hello, I'm Sandra Austin,” she said, “I'm a huge fan of yours. I've read your books so many times. I even went to a book signing, but I doubt you remember me.”

“She quotes you constantly,” Cormoran said, sitting beside Robin, “She gave a copy of your book to everyone for Christmas.”

“Oh,” Colin seemed a bit shocked by the sudden heap of praise. “Well, thank you very much, Miss Austin.” Colin was a tall man, greying at the temples but still quite attractive. He spoke with a deep, gentle cadence that instilled almost immediate trust. Robin wondered if he was actually trying to seduce the women on the retreat. She imagined that it wouldn’t be overly difficult.

“Please,” she said, “Call me Sandra.”

“Alright Sandra, and what is it that you do?” Colin asked.

“I'm an administrative assistant. Which is just the fancy word for secretary.” She giggled.

“Well, the world wouldn’t function very well without secretaries, would it,” Colin said.

“You should tell that to my husband,” Robin said. Eye contact, laugh at his jokes, listen to him. You can do this.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cormoran said, “I’m George, by the way.”

“And what is it that you do, George?”

“I’m a gastroenterologist.”

Colin’s smile stiffened and he nodded politely before changing the subject to the weather. Cormoran caught Robin’s eye and smirked. Told you nobody would ask questions.

The dinner was shepherd's pie, with carrot cake for dessert. Cormoran watched Robin as she talked with Colin, making simple, vapid conversation about their trip down from London and their hometowns. She was glowing, beaming up at Colin like he was the reincarnation of Christ, bubbly and animated. She was clearly taking Cormoran’s advice, keeping eye contact and laughing constantly. She was also taking her own advice, biting her lip and leaning forward quite fetchingly.

“So tell me, Colin,” she said, “In your book you talk frequently about your wife. Is she here this week?”

“No, actually, she passed away about a year ago.”

Robin’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said.

“Yes, it was very difficult. I’m writing my next book on the grief process.”

“I look forward to reading it.”

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Colin said, “I think we’ll begin.” He stood, and the room fell silent.

“Welcome, everyone,” Colin said, “Thank you for being here, and being on time. As most of you know, my name is Doctor Colin Lachlan, but you can call me Colin. I know you’ve met a bit at the meet-and-greet, but maybe we could go around the room and give your name and how long you’ve been with your partner.”

Each couple went around the room as the serving staff collected the plates. Amy and Max, together for ten years. Connie and Frederick, twenty years. Bella and Ramone, seven years. Sheila and Patrick, one year. Savannah and Steven, thirty years. Around the room, until it reached Robin and Cormoran.

“I’m Sandra, this is my husband George. We started dating five years ago.”

“Excellent,” Colin said, “Now that we all know a little bit more about each other, we can get started. We’re going to begin with a bit of an activity. My partner Gina is going to hand out some paper, and pencils…” Gina waved at the mention of her name. “This first activity is called ‘Remember When’. I’m giving you two minutes to write down the first time you saw each other. If you’d like you can also write about your first date, or your first conversation. Now, rather than the bare facts, I want you to write about your feelings at the time. What did you think about them? What was the first thing you noticed? What were your impressions? You only have two minutes, so I don’t want you to overthink it. Any questions?” There was a pause as everybody glanced around the room. “Alright, then. The two minutes start…. NOW!”

Robin and Cormoran glanced at each other, shrugged, and started writing.

My first feeling when I met George was sheer terror,” Robin wrote, “I was on my way of to the office, and a woman knocked into me and nearly pushed me down a flight of stairs. George reached out and caught me. That spike of adrenaline and the relief when he caught me was so intense, when he offered to buy me tea I just couldn’t say no.” Robin chewed on her pencil, thinking. She was writing as Sandra, of course, trying to imagine what her undercover counterpart would do and say, but the timer up front was ticking away and she had barely anything written. She went back to the paper.

“I was immediately intrigued by him. He was very quiet at first, almost gruff. It took me awhile to really understand him. I felt like he valued me, and cared about what I had to say. I wasn’t immediately attracted to him, but I always wanted to know more, to get closer. I wanted to be around him all the time. I’ve always felt as though we’re two halves to one whole.”

The timer dinged and there was a rustle across the room as couples hurried to finish their last thought.

“Alright, finish that thought and then put your pencils down,” Lachlan said, “Now we’re going to trade papers with your partner.”

Cormoran looked like he’d swallowed a goldfish.

“We have to trade ?” he said.

“It’s okay, George,” Robin said, “I know you don’t really mean it.” To the rest of the room it would sound like the scathing burn of a bitter wife, but Robin hoped Cormoran would hear it for what it was: a reassurance that she wouldn’t read anything into it, that she knew he didn’t love her in that way. Cormoran sighed, then nodded and slid the paper across the table to Robin. Robin looked down.

“My first impression of Sandra was that she was kinder than I deserved. She came into my life like a ray of light. Everything she did brought beauty. My life was chaos. My mind was cluttered and dark, and she made sense of everything. She’s incredible.” Robin could feel herself turning red and pressed a hand to her cheek. “ My first impression was that she really cared. She went above and beyond in her work. She went the extra mile not because she was going to be paid well for it (she wasn’t), but because she cared about doing things right. She has a big heart, and this shows in every aspect of her life.”

Robin glanced up at Cormoran, who couldn’t manage to make eye contact with her.

“Is everybody done?” Colin said, “Good, now let’s talk about the purpose of this assignment…”

Colin started talking about memories and keeping the spark alive in a marriage, but Robin couldn’t focus on what he was saying. You’re undercover you little fool, she thought, he didn’t mean any of it. But there it was, in his spiky scrawl. She reread it again. “ Everything she did brought beauty.” He was more poetic than she’d expected, but then he did have a strange habit of quoting Latin classics. She wondered if he would ever stop surprising her.

“Sandra.”

Robin looked up. The rest of the room was standing.

“Oh, sorry, lost in thought I guess,” she said.

“Classic Sandra,” Cormoran said, “My little space cadet.”

“We’re going into the ballroom,” Colin said.

Chapter Text

 

The group stood in the ballroom as Gina began to speak.

“I’m Regina Oni, as I have said before, and we are going to begin by leading you in one of my favorite activities.

“I’d like to start by telling you a little story about my parents,” she said, “My mother moved to Nigeria at eighteen as part of her gap year, where she met my father at a dance hall and they fell in love almost immediately. At nineteen she got pregnant, so they got married. Their relationship had their ups and downs. Her family was from a poor rural town here in Scotland, his family was very wealthy. They had language and cultural barriers. At one point, when I was five, my father developed a flirtation with his secretary. He told my mother that he wanted a divorce, so that he could be with this woman. My mother agreed, on one condition. Every evening for a month, he had to dance with my mother. He didn’t have to take her out anywhere special, he didn’t have to be especially good at it. He just had to dance. Of course my father went along with it, he thought it was silly. He thought he could do what she wanted for a month, divorce her, and live guilt-free.”

Robin yawned, tired from six hours of driving. She wondered where the story was going.

“So the first evening they went into the living room, put on an old Elvis record, and started dancing,” Gina continued, “Their first dance was what he expected. Stiff and awkward. At five years old I thought it was great fun, and my sister and I joined in, dancing around them together. My father told his secretary that the divorce was still on.

“The next evening as my parents danced, my father began to look at my mother, and remember all of the dances they had danced when they were younger. The night they met, their early dates as teenagers, and on their wedding day. He began to realize that he had missed being close to her.

“In the days that followed he took her out to ballroom dancing clubs. He realized that since my sister and I were born, they hadn’t gone out on dates together, or spent any quality time together. My father realized that he had been lacking intimacy in their marriage. Not just sex, but real intimacy. The trust that comes with physical contact. It only took him three weeks to tell his secretary that he was staying with my mother. He continues to dance with my mother every night.”

Robin wondered how her marriage with Matthew would have fared if they had danced together every night. She couldn’t imagine it helping overly much.

“Now, I’m not saying that intimacy will immediately heal your relationships,” Regina said, “But it can help rebuild lost trust and remind you of past feelings. Because of this, and in honor of my parents, every night after dinner we will have dancing.”

Cormoran swore under his breath. Robin tried not to smirk.

“Do you think I can plead my leg?” Cormoran whispered.

“Just stand and sway,” Robin whispered back, “I doubt they’re going to make us boogie down.”

Cormoran snorted so loud that several people turned and glared, which made him giggle even more.

“Partner up, everyone,” Gina said, “We don’t need to be expert dancers here, it’s just about closeness.”

La Vie en Rose started playing from a set of speakers and couples around the room paired up to dance. Cormoran turned to Robin.

“I guess I’ll just…” He moved his hands to her waist, barely touching her.

“Right, yeah, that’s fine, I’ll put mine here, or maybe…” She took one of his hands in hers and put the other on his shoulder.

“Good, yeah.”

They swayed stiffly, Cormoran staring blankly over Robin’s head, Robin keeping her eyes on their feet, both hoping desperately that the other wasn’t disgusted by their sweaty palms.

“I feel like an awkward seventh-year at her first school dance,” Robin said.

“I know what you mean,” Cormoran said, “I half expect a teacher to pop up with a ruler, telling us we’re standing too close.”

“I trust Gina, I love her podcast, but I don’t know how dancing is supposed to build romance,” Robin said, “It feels so contrived. It just makes me nervous.”

“You mean you don’t find seventh-year flashbacks incredibly arousing?” Cormoran said, grinning.

“Ah, yes, my sexy days of baby fat and braces,” Robin said, “I was a little butterball as a kid.”

“I bet you were cute,” Cormoran said.

“Not in seventh year. But then my fat rearranged itself into curves, so it mostly worked out okay.”

“Better than okay.” He regretted the words immediately and felt himself turning beet red. “I mean, not in a creepy way. I just meant that you’re an attractive woman. Or, you know. In a non-partisan way, I have noticed that you’re not bad looking.” He winced at the sound of his voice. How was he suddenly so awkward? He hadn’t been this flustered around a woman since he was about thirteen.

Robin just smiled and leaned in closer, matching the sway in her hips to his.

Chapter Text

 

After dancing was cocktails and schmoozing, which went smoothly and without event. Cormoran was a natural mingler, winning over the older women with tales of his nephews and a general decrying of millennials’ technology addiction.

Robin hunted down Regina and Colin, who were discussing Gestalt Dream Theory. To her pleasant surprise, Robin found that she remembered enough from her university days to join in. She enjoyed being back in a psychology setting, speaking to like-minded people. Faking attraction to Colin wasn’t an entirely unpleasant task. He kept interesting conversation, and was friendly enough. He didn’t made dirty jokes or rude comments about women, the way that Matthew’s coworkers used to. Robin couldn’t see any immediate signs of lechery, and wondered if Regina was mistaken.

Then, before they knew it, it was time for bed and couples began drifting off to their rooms. Robin excused herself, leaving Cormoran to finish up his conversation (questioning why millennials weren’t having children).

By the time Cormoran managed to extract himself and head up to the room, Robin was already there. She stared down at the bed with her hands on her hips, like it was a puzzle she couldn’t crack. She was already in her pajamas, a pair of sweats and a tank top. Cormoran found himself staring at her freckled shoulder blades. How could shoulder blades be so damn erotic? She wasn’t even wearing anything overtly sexy, but God.

“I think you did a better job at seduction than I did,” Robin joked, “I’m pretty sure half of those women wanted to propose marriage to you.”

“Bit of an age gap, isn’t it?”

“Age is just a number.”

“I could use a wealthy benefactor.” He gestured to the bed. “Is this going to be weird? Sharing a bed?”

“Not if we don’t make it weird. It’s a big one, so we’ll both have our own space. I used to share with my brothers all the time on holidays. We just made a wall out of pillows between us, and had our own blanket sets.”

“Right. Yeah. Shouldn’t be any different than that.”

Cormoran went into the bathroom to change into his pajamas and brush his teeth. He splashed water on his face. Siblings. Just like siblings. You can do this.

When he came out on his crutches Robin had made a wall of decorative cushions down the center of the bed, and was making up her side with her own set of blankets. She had seen him without his leg once before, back on the Quine case, but that day he had pinned his trouser leg neatly in on itself; she had never seen the scarred bare stump hanging out the bottom of his shorts. It felt strangely intimate, and she tried not to look as he climbed onto the bed.

“Light off?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She flipped off the lamp.

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.” They lay in the dark, painfully aware of the other’s breathing.

 

Chapter Text

 

Robin woke up to the sound of birdsong outside her window, and the first rays of sun filtering onto the ceiling. She had been up most of the night, acutely aware of Cormoran’s weight next to her, petrified of rolling over and accidentally touching him in her sleep. She turned to look at him. His face was slack and soft, gentle in sleep. He was dreaming, his lips moving slightly. Robin smiled. Sleep stripped years of wear and anxiety off of his face, and for the first time Robin could imagine what he must have looked like as a boy. A curl had fallen down over one eye, and it was all she could do to not reach out and brush it back. Soon her alarm would ring, and they’d step back into their role as a bitter old couple. But until that happened she could stay here in this pale morning light, watching Cormoran breathe.

Chapter Text

At eight Robin woke up a very disgruntled Cormoran and headed down to breakfast alone. The seats next to Colin were already filled, so she sat down at the other end of the table, next to a man she remembered being named Max.

“Good morning,” Robin said, “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I was expecting it to be chilly,” Max said, “It looks like I didn’t need my coat.”

“Apparently this town had the UK’s highest recorded temperature,” Robin said, “It’s their one claim to fame on Wikipedia.”

“You did your research. I like that.” Max stuck his hand out. “I’m Max.”

“Sandra.”

“Do I hear a Yorkshire accent?” Max asked.

“Yes, I grew up in Masham. You?”

“Helmsley.”

“I have an aunt in Helmsley! What a small world.”

“This is my wife, Amy.”

Amy was tall and gaunt, with piercing blue eyes and short blonde hair. She was thin but muscular, and had the jumpy energy of a boxer about to go into the ring. Her eyes kept darting around the room, and her fingers fidgeted on the table. She nodded to Robin.

“Nice to meet you,” she said.

“I looks like we’re in the same group for group therapy,” Max said, looking at his folder.

“I guess we’ll get to know each other very well then,” Robin said.

 

After breakfast the ten couples all went into a meeting room, where they sat on squeaky metal chairs and listened to Gina give a lecture on conflict.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” Gina said, “You’re all here because you’ve been having some troubles in your relationships.” Heads bobbed in agreement around the room. “I spoke to each of you in the application process, so I know some of the issues you’re dealing with. You’re struggling with a wide variety of situations, from infidelity to economic differences. But you’re all dissatisfied in some way, and you are all disagreeing in some way. Now, disagreement isn’t a bad thing, really. We all disagree. That’s what makes us human. However, we have to learn how to disagree in a healthy way.”

Cormoran glanced over at Robin. She was listening raptly and taking diligent notes. He smiled. She was a psychologist at heart.

“Now let’s start by talking about listening,” Gina said, clicking open a Powerpoint presentation. “Often in a disagreement, we see the problem as being somebody else. You think, ‘if they could just change, this would all be better.’ Now I’m sure that we’ve all experienced this in some way or other, but telling somebody to change often makes them less likely to change. Anyone who has been told to calm down can attest to this.”

Cormoran managed to pull his eyes away from Robin and looked over at Colin Lachlan. Colin was a few years older than Cormoran, but he clearly took better care of himself. He was in excellent shape, with an natural even tan. His hair was neatly trimmed and gelled back, and the silver at his temples lent him a dignified air. Cormoran couldn’t remember the last time he had attended a gym. He looked down at his own belly protruding over his belt and vowed to start swimming again.

“Certainty makes us feel secure,” Gina said, “And in arguments we hold onto the certainty that we’re right and they’re wrong. We assume that only one person can be right. But most of the time the truth is more complicated. Now, that doesn’t mean that we have to give in. It does mean, however, that we have to listen. Just because you’re trying to understand them doesn’t mean you’re losing the argument.”

Cormoran thought back to his old arguments with Charlotte. What would have happened if he had made more of an effort to understand her? But he had made an effort. He had listened to her stories of abuse and neglect, he had researched her plethora of psychological disorders, studied her origins, tried to crack her codes. And in the end the truth he had discovered was worse than the lies: under all of it, she didn’t care about him at all. Under all of it, she just wanted to control him.

“There’s a lot of ways that you can be a good listener,” Regina was saying, “First, acknowledge that it’s okay for them to disagree. Repeat what they said, so that you make sure you understand. Clarify what they’re saying, so that you don’t misinterpret. Put their feelings into your own words. Play detective. This means asking questions and gathering information. And remember, it’s okay to admit ignorance. They might have information that you don’t have. Rather than fighting, you’re just trying to learn more about the issue.”

Six months ago Charlotte had given birth to a son with Jago Ross. A beautiful baby boy named Kelly, with Charlotte's dark eyes and a tut of perfect blonde hair. She’d sent Cormoran a message the day after he was born. “I’ll never love him the way I loved yours.” He had thrown the phone across the room. The screen still had a large crack down the center, held together by packing tape. Charlotte lived in Croy now, in the Ross manor not two hours away from the retreat centre.

Robin nudged his knee with hers, shaking him out of these dangerous thoughts. He glanced over at her and she leaned into him.

“Pretty sure if Matthew had said any of those things when I confronted him I’d have wanted to punch his tongue out his ass,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

The retreat comprised of ten couples, twenty people in total. After Gina’s lecture they split in half and separated into two different rooms for group therapy. Regina had made sure to place Robin and Cormoran in Colin’s group.

“I’m sooo glad I’m in your group,” Robin gushed, sitting down next to Colin, “I can’t wait to hear your brilliant insights.” She was laying it on thick. Cormoran caught her eye raised an eyebrow. Don’t overdo it now. Robin grinned and squinted one eye in a half-wink that only he could see. The intimacy of that one tiny gesture swept through Cormoran in a wave of heat that nearly sent him reeling. He looked away, trying not to turn bright red.

“Welcome to group therapy,” Colin said, “Let’s begin this session by going around the room, sharing our names again and, in one sentence, your own personal hopes and goals for this week.” He turned to the woman on his right. “Constance, let’s start with you.”

“My name is Connie, and I hope to reignite the spark in my marriage.”

“I’m Frederick, and I hope to find a solution to our constant bickering.”

“My name is Max, and I hope to come up with some insight on how to help Amy.”

“I’m Amy… I want to learn how to be there for my husband, in spite of my PTSD.”

Robin’s ears pricked up at this, and she made a mental note to connect more with Max and Amy later. She remembered the profound guilt she felt after being attacked, for not being a good enough girlfriend for Matthew. She had attended a support group afterwards, and it had proved very helpful to speak to other women who had felt the same thing.

“I’m Genevieve, and I’d like to rebuild the trust that I broke when I cheated.”

“I’m Leon, and I’d like to learn to forgive my wife.”

Around the room until they reached Cormoran and Robin.

“I’m George, and I’d like to be able to satisfy my wife..." He cleared his throat. "Physically.”

“I’m Sandra, and I’d like to regain intimacy with my husband.”

Colin clapped his hands together.

“Right. Well, now that we’ve done that. You all attended Regina’s lecture this morning, and I’d like to hear some of your thoughts, or questions.”

There was a silence as the people in the group glanced around, hoping that somebody else would speak first. Cormoran raised his hand.

“Yes, George.”

“I struggled with the points a bit,” Cormoran said, “She said that you need to listen. But that’s such a two-way street. I tell Sandra all the time that it hurts me when she watches pornography, but she doesn’t listen. She does it anyways.”

Robin snorted and rolled her eyes.

“I’m a woman , George, I have needs . You haven’t had sex with me in six months.” Cormoran opened his mouth to respond when Colin interjected.

“Alright,” Colin said, “Let’s back up here.” Robin and Cormoran both sighed huffily and turned to look at him. “We’ve talked about all of our goals, and I think the subject of sexuality is an important one here in this group. Does anybody have any thoughts on how we, as a team, can address this issue?”

Several couples looked around the room, worried about jumping in the middle of George and Sandra’s argument. Finally the woman named Genevieve cleared her throat.

“I think that it’s possible that we’re looking at too shallow of an issue,” Genevieve said. "We’re talking about George’s feelings when it comes to Sandra’s pornography, and we’re talking about Sandra’s feelings when it comes to George’s sexual practices, but we’re not talking about what may have caused either of those things.”

“That’s a very excellent point,” Colin said, “You’re both trying to get to the heart of the problem, but you’re tackling two completely different problems. George is tackling the problem of pornography, Sandra is tackling the problem of sexual frustration. So your connections get crossed. So what next steps do we take?”

The man named Leon raised his hand.

“I guess we need to find the root of the problem,” Leon said.

“I don’t know why I haven’t wanted to have sex with Sandra,” Cormoran said, “I just don’t want to.”

“Do you not want to have sex with Sandra ?” Colin asked, “Or with anybody?”

“I don’t know,” Cormoran said, “I haven’t tried with anybody else. Whether or not I’m sexually attracted to Sandra, I still love her.” He stared down at his hands. “I love her with all my heart.”

“How do you feel when he says that, Sandra?”

Robin shut her eyes and tried to stay in character. What would Sandra say?

“I… I find it hard to believe that he loves me, when he can’t be intimate. I feel like he sees me as his sister, not as a wife. I am still attracted to him, emotionally and… and sexually, but I can’t live like a nun.”

“Has your relationship been sexual before this?” Colin said.

“Yes. Up until the past six months, it’s been excellent,” Robin said.

“Then what happened?”

Robin and Cormoran shared a glance. In all of their planning, they hadn’t considered this question. Cormoran thought back on his past relationships for inspiration, but he had always had an illustrious sex life, even when every other aspect of the relationship was going down the tubes.

“I don’t know…” He turned to Robin. “What happened six months ago?” he asked.

“How am I supposed to know?” she said.

“I guess…” Cormoran reached into his brain for answers, and there it was. “I guess six months ago my ex-fiancee had a baby.”

Robin stared at him. This was, in fact, true. She had seen the tabloids, “The Honorable Jago and Charlotte Ross Introduce New Son, Kelly Ross,” but Cormoran hadn’t mentioned it.

“Did you know about this, Sandra?” Colin asked.

“I heard it in passing.”

“Let’s talk about this fiancee,” Colin asked, “What was her name?”

“Char-” He caught himself and cleared his throat. “Sharon.”

“When were you two together?”

“Six years ago. Shortly before meeting Sandra.”

“Why did you break up?”

“She… She faked her own pregnancy. I think. Or something like that.”

“What a profound breach of trust,” Colin said, “That must have been very painful.”

Cormoran blinked. He didn’t know how this had gotten so deeply real in just a few moments.

“Yes. Yes, it was.”

“So then finding out that she had a baby, did that bring back some of those feelings of mistrust and vulnerability?”

“I suppose so.”

“George, I want you to look at you wife.”

Cormoran turned to Robin.

“Is this Sharon, sitting here?”

“No, obviously not.”

“Sandra, would you ever hurt George the way that Sharon did?”

“No, never.” She met Cormoran’s eye. “I would never, ever hurt you.” Her eyes dropped to her lap. “I just wish you would have told me this,” she said, “I wish you would talk to me.”

Cormoran was silent.

“Do you hear your wife, George?” Colin asked.

“Yes…” Cormoran’s voice was low, almost a whisper.

“What do you hear her saying?”

“That she wants me to talk more.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“She doesn't know what she's in for.”

“Can you explain that further?”

“I'm so fucked up. She doesn't want to know what's in my brain. The things I've seen, the things I've done. I don't want her to know.”

Across the room, Robin could see Amy blinking hard.

“Why not?” Colin asked.

“Because it would hurt her. I want to protect her.”

“Sandra? How do you feel about that?”

“Frustrated. He's always trying to protect me, and it makes me feel like he thinks I'm weak.”

“I don't think you're weak,” Cormoran said, “Christ, Sandra, you're one of the strongest people I know. But that doesn't mean I'm going to intentionally cause you pain.”

“But by not telling me you're causing me pain anyways.”

“Let’s open this conversation up to the group,” Colin said, “Does anybody have anything to contribute?”

“I feel the exact same way as George,” Amy said, “It’s like he’s reading my thoughts.”

“How so?” Colin asked.

“I was in the military and saw some terrible things. I did some terrible things. And I try to tell Max about it, but it’s just so hard.”

“Max, how do you feel about this?”

“I don’t know what to say when she does tell me,” Max said, “How far can ‘I’m sorry that happened’ really go?”

Cormoran thought back to the months after he returned from Afghanistan, his leg and his mind in pieces. He’d felt like he was walking around with an arrow stuck through him: he had a primal need to pull it out, but doing so would cause such a hemorrhage he didn’t think he could survive it. It had been a slow process, involving therapy and a lot of alcohol, but eventually he’d begun to speak up about it. The responses had varied, from shock and horror (Lucy) to mild pity (Charlotte). Ultimately, though, it had been Nick and Ilsa who had sat and listened, and told him that they were there for him.

“A long way,” Cormoran said, “A damn long way.”

Chapter Text

 

After lunch was leisure time. Robin and Cormoran followed Colin and a few other couples out to the property behind the house, where there was a neat little patio around a glittering blue swimming pool. While the others swam, Robin and Cormoran lounged on the adirondack chairs, Cormoran with a beer and a paperback mystery, Robin with an iced tea and an issue of Cosmopolitan.

“Cosmo?” Cormoran said, “Really?”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Robin said, “They have some really good articles.”

“Really.”

“Yes. Did you know that sleeping naked improves sleep, reduces stress hormones, and boosts your immune system?”

“You know what else boosts your immune system?” Cormoran said, trying not to think about Robin sleeping naked, “Eating dirt.”

Robin flipped the page of her magazine and hummed in interest.

“Here’s an article about how women who wear hijabs are often given sub-par medical treatment,” she said.

“Really!” Cormoran said, “That actually does sound interesting. Come over here, show me. I’d like to read that.”

Robin raised her eyebrows. Cormoran patted the space next to him on the deck chair. It was a large chair, but it would still mean getting quite close. He nodded to her, his eyes serious, so she got off her chair and sat down next to him.

“Thanks,” Cormoran said softly, “I wanted to check in.”

Robin curled up into his side and held up the magazine for him to see. Cormoran wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pretended to read. He had rolled up his sleeves in the heat, and Robin found herself staring at the hair on his arms. Snap out of it, girl.

“So what do you think?” he asked. Robin could smell him and tried to focus. He smelled like rain.

“You mean do I think Gina's suspicions are correct?” she asked.

“Right.”

She considered.

“Too soon to say,” she said, “I didn’t get a creepy vibe from him, though. He seemed to really want George and Sandra to work out their issues. If he just wanted to get in my pants I feel like he’d be trying to break us up, not the opposite.”

“He was… quite effective,” Cormoran said. Robin could feel his breath on her ear when he spoke.

“I know,” she said, “We’re going to have to give George and Sandra some more issues to work out.”

Cormoran smiled.

“That should be fun,” he said, “What are some reasons to argue?”

“Political differences,” she said.

“I’m interested, go on.”

“You make me dress up as Margaret Thatcher in the bedroom.”

Cormoran burst out laughing.

“That’s a good one,” he said, “What else could we fight about?”

“I feel like your being a gastroenterologist has all kinds of untapped potential.”

“Are you thinking poop fetish?”

“Hell yes.”

They clinked their glasses and drank.

“This is quite lovely,” Cormoran said, “We should do all of our briefings like this.” Robin shot him a look over her sunglasses. “I mean, you know, by a pool,” he said hurriedly. Robin smirked a bit to herself.

“Indeed. Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll utilize said pool.”

She got up, cracked her back, and, before Cormoran could realize what was going on, peeled off her sundress and tossed it back onto her chair. She was wearing a high-waisted 1950s style red bikini with polka dots. It wasn’t an especially revealing swimsuit, but somehow Cormoran felt like he needed to close his eyes to protect her privacy. She did a perfect dive into the cool blue water and came up laughing.

His impure thoughts were interrupted when Amy sat down on the chair next to him, a beer in hand. He nodded in greeting.

“What military branch were you?” Amy asked without preamble.

Cormoran set his book down and considered. He thought about denying his military experience, but wasn’t sure if she would buy it. Then again, he didn’t want her looking him up and discovering his true identity.

“Armoured Corps,” he lied, “How’d you know?”

Amy shrugged.

“Something about you,” she said, “The way you stand, and walk, and eat. It just fits.”

“Old habits die hard. What branch were you?”

“Navy.” She pointed to his leg. “Where’d this happen?”

“Bosnia,” he improvised.

“Yep. I’ve still got a piece of Fallujah in my spine,” she said, “You’re not supposed to know that, though. Women aren’t supposed to be in close combat, dontcha know.”

“I know. I’ve seen the fucked up way the military treats women.”

“I just wanted to thank you for what you said in group therapy,” Amy said, “I don’t think Max really understands how important it is to me, to just have him there, listening, and saying that he’s sorry and that it sucks.”

“Yes, well, I had PTSD before. I know how it goes.”

“I’m sorry. That sucks.”

Cormoran smiled.

“There you go, now you’re the one saying it,” he said.

“I guess the tables have turned.” Amy sipped at her beer. “How’d you learn to deal with it?” she asked.

“Therapy. Time. Accepting the love of friends and family. Hobbies, and goals.”

“Were you with Sandra at the time?”

“No, another woman. She was even more damaged than me. That probably appealed to me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“With Sandra it’s totally different,” Cormoran said. He glanced over at the pool, where Robin was swimming. “She’s had her own share of trauma. But she’s just… Fantastic.”

“And the PTSD got better? Actually?”

Cormoran looked down at his prosthesis, hidden under thick denim in spite of the heat. Did it ever really get better?

“I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s like ocean waves,” he said, “You can’t stop them, but you can learn how to surf.”

Chapter Text

 

Dinner was served at six thirty, and Cormoran and Robin sat next to a couple named Savannah and Steven, who had been married for thirty years.

“We just sent our last son away to university,” Steven said, “We’ve never been married without kids before.”

“We got married when I got pregnant,” Savannah said, “And for the past thirty years it’s just been one baby after another. We figured that this retreat would be just the thing to figure out this new stage in our relationship.”

“Thirty years,” Robin said, “What’s the secret?”

“The secret is being married to the most wonderful woman on earth,” Steven said. The group awwwed around the table.

“The secret is keeping the young spark alive,” Savannah said, “We may be married for thirty years, but Steve is still my Sugar Plum.”

“And Savannah is still my little Snuggle Bunny.” Watching them was like eating a full cup of straight sugar, and Cormoran felt rather sick. He shared a glance with Robin, who had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

“Aren’t you two just the cutest thing,” a woman named Sheila chimed in, “Nicknames and all. Patrick and I use pet names too, but they’re not as sweet as yours.”

“She’s Gorgeous, and I’m Patty,” Patrick said.

“That’s very cute,” Savannah said. Then, to Robin’s horror, Savannah turned to her. “What about you, Sandra?” she asked, “Do you and George have nicknames for each other?”

“Erm, yes,” Robin said, “George is my…” She racked her brain for the first pet name she could think of. “Bear… Cookie…” She looked over at Cormoran, who raised his eyebrows. “My Bear Cookie. Yep.”

“Bear Cookie… Isn’t that a type of fungus?” Sheila asked.

“Yep,” Robin said, her face a mask of innocence, “That’s right.”

“And Sandra is my Monkey-Butt,” Cormoran chimed in.

 

After dinner the group returned to the ballroom for more dancing, this time to “As Time Goes By”. Cormoran leaned in close to murmur into Robin’s ear, feeling the warmth of her cheek not quite touching his.

“Bear Cookie?” he said, “Really?”

“Better than Monkey-Butt,” she said.

“Monkeys are cute. Bear Cookie is a type of mold that grows on trees.”

“Mm. It’s because you grew on me over time.”

Cormoran laughed out loud. Then, to both of their surprise, he leaned down and kissed her on her forehead.

“What’s that for?” Robin asked.

“Can’t a man kiss his Monkey-Butt if he so desires?”

Robin found herself so overwhelmed in giggles that she had to excuse herself to the restroom and splash cold water on her face to calm down.

**************************

When Cormoran got out of the shower that night, Robin was sitting in bed, reading. Cormoran took a moment to appreciate the image. The yellow light of the bedside lamp turned her skin gold, and she chewed a piece of her hair as she read.

“What’s the book?” Cormoran asked, climbing in on his side of the cushion wall.

“It’s one of Colin’s. It’s about the benefits of group therapy over individual. It’s actually quite good, I’m enjoying it.”

“Read me some," he said.

“What?”

“Go on, give me an excerpt.”

“Alright.” She cleared her throat. “‘ It is necessary for every member to feel a that they are valued by the group, and to feel that they are useful to one another,’” she read, “‘Before they join the group, it is important to stress to the members that, in joining the group, they are committing to listen to and assist to one another.’” Robin glanced down at him.

“Go on,” he said.

“‘The most important aspect of group therapy is the acknowledgement that you are not alone, and that you have a whole team of people working alongside you to make it right.’” Cormoran felt the gently lilt of her voice wash over him, and he closed his eyes.

“‘To emphasize this point, it is beneficial to phrase questions in the first person plural sense. For example ‘What can we do to fix this problem’ rather than ‘What can you do’ or ‘What can he do’.’” Robin was interrupted by a gentle snore, and looked over to find Cormoran asleep. She smiled to herself and turned out the light, hugging one of the pillows to her chest.

Chapter Text

Cormoran and Robin woke up at the same time the next day, and went down to breakfast together. Breakfast that morning included pancakes, cereal, and a large bowl of fruit in the middle of the table. This immediately grabbed Cormoran’s attention.

“Peaches!” he cried, “I love peaches. Where the hell do they find peaches in September?” Cormoran proceeded to grab a very ripe peach and dive into it with great vigor. Robin looked away, but couldn’t keep her eyes to herself for long. He wasn’t an animal when it came to table manners, but the peach was very ripe and he was devouring it with gusto and passion that made Robin weak in the knees. Juice dripped down his chin and Robin looked back down at her breakfast. She was glad that she’d gotten herself oatmeal. There would never be anything sexy about oatmeal. She was grateful when Regina called them all back into the lecture hall for another talk.

*****************

“All arguments are ultimately wrapped up in one main issue,” Regina said, once they were all seated in their folding chairs. “That issue is identity.” She clicked the PowerPoint to a the word IDENTITY. “You can’t change your core identity, or the issues that are there. But you can learn to identify it.”

Robin thought back to her relationship with Matthew. In Matthew’s mind, her identity belonged either to him or Cormoran. He couldn’t fathom the idea that she had an identity of her own. So when she showed interest in her job he couldn’t believe that she was doing it because she loved the work. In his mind, she had to be doing it because she loved Cormoran.

“When our identity is challenged, that triggers what’s called a core fear,” Gina said, “These core fears question our self-worth. We begin to ask ‘Am I competent? And I good? Am I lovable?’”

Robin hadn’t stayed at the job because of Cormoran. At least, not solely because of him. She wouldn’t have stayed if he had been rude or disrespectful, of course. He had been kind, and had shown an interest in her as a talented employee. But it was the job that had called her, not him. At least at the time.

“Now we can’t change our core identities, but we can be a little be less rigid with them. For example, part of my core identity is that I’m a kind person. That’s incredibly important thing to me. Now, if my husband accuses me of saying or doing something that hurt his feelings, suddenly that identity is in question. Am I a kind person? How can I be kind if I hurt my husband’s feelings? Now if your identity is incredibly rigid, it’s prone to extremes. I tell myself that if I’m not always kind to everybody all the time, I must be a horrible person. With a rigid identity, I’m either a hero or a villain. So when my husband tells me that I hurt his feelings, I want to deny it completely and invalidate what he’s saying. However, if I can see my identity as more flexible, then it’s easier for me to validate his feelings. So instead of saying ‘I’m a kind person all the time,’ I can say ‘I’m a kind person who isn’t perfect all the time, and that’s okay.’”

Robin still loved the job. If she wasn’t working with Cormoran she’d probably open up her own PI business. But the thought of doing anything without Cormoran made her suddenly incredibly sad. It felt right, having him next to her. She’d harbored a massive, aching crush on Cormoran for ages, but after nine months of singleness she had finally tried to move on. That attempt had been unsuccessful, clearly. As much as she’d tried, Casey had been right when he’d said he was a placeholder for someone else. The ghost of Cormoran had loomed large in their relationship, keeping her from any real commitment. She wondered if it would always be that way.

Chapter Text

“So how has it been going since our meeting yesterday? Has anybody seen any progress?” Colin asked.

“Well, Genevieve and I had a long conversation,” Leon said, “My wife was unfaithful, and, like George and Sandra, we weren’t going deep enough to the true root of our problem. I thought that the problem was her infidelity, but in actuality it was a much deeper issue in our relationship. When we heard George and Sandra talking about their own struggles identifying the problem areas in their relationship, it made us realize that we need to go about the issue in a different way.”

“And did you have success with that?” Colin asked.

“I realized that I had stopped expressing to Genevieve that I found her desirable. We had sex, but I stopped paying her compliments. I just assumed that after eleven years of marriage she already knew all of those things and didn’t need to hear them out loud anymore. I thought that she could infer them from my actions.”

“It’s important for me to have vocal affirmations,” Genevieve chimed in, “I’m getting older, and I’m not as beautiful as I used to be.”

“Do you agree with that statement, Leon?” Colin asked.

“God, no. Genevieve is more beautiful than ever. That’s why I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t fathom her ever thinking otherwise.”

“That’s excellent progress,” Colin said, “Sometimes in the business of day-to-day it’s easy to forget those things.” He looked over the group. “Anybody else seen any progress? George? Sandra?”

“We had sex, if that’s what you’re asking,” Cormoran said. Robin cleared her throat loudly.

“Excuse me, you had sex,” she said, “I laid there, enduring.”

“I’m sorry, I did what you wanted, I made love to you. I did everything right. Just because you didn’t enjoy it doesn’t mean that I’m at fault.”

“Oh yeah?" Robin bit, "So whose fault is it?”

“Alright, let’s open this up,” Colin said, “Does anybody in the group have any thoughts on this issue?”

“Well, this sounds very familiar,” Frederick said, “Connie and I had very similar problems when we were younger. We were having sex, but just because we thought we had to, in order to be a happy couple. That obligatory feeling leads to bad sex, and it isn’t healthy.”

“Right, well the alternative is not having sex at all, and that has not been working for us,” Robin said.

“Let’s back up a bit here,” Colin said, “Genevieve and Leon were just talking about vocal affirmations. I think that these two subject can be tied together quite nicely.” He turned to Robin. “What do you find attractive about George?”

“You think by listing off all the reasons I’m attracted to him all our issues will clear up?” Robin said.

“Why not?” Colin said.

“Because our problems aren’t that simple.”

“But maybe it’s worth a shot,” Colin said, “If you feel comfortable doing so.”

Robin glanced at Cormoran. She was grateful that they’d discussed this in the car ride over. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to center herself. We practiced this. It’s just a character. That’s what he thinks.

“Alright, well he’s really smart,” she said, “I find that very sexy. He’s always been very mature, very solid and grounded, while I’m a bit wild. That might be our age difference, but I like that.” She could feel Colin watching her, and she felt a sudden cringe of anxiety in her chest. She didn’t want to lie, she didn’t want to read from some script designed to make her more attractive to Colin. She looked over at Cormoran, who was staring at her with a serious, attentive expression. “I love how kind he is,” she said suddenly, “He likes to pretend that he’s this big tough guy, but he’s actually incredibly gentle and sweet. He cares about people, and he wants to protect them.”

“Good,” Colin said, “Now George, are you attracted to your wife?”

“I… What?” Cormoran looked like he’d been given an electric shock.

“Do you think that your wife is sexy?”

“Uh, yes, of course. I married her, didn’t I?”

“People get married for all kinds of reasons. Now, what attracts you to Sandra?”

“I…” Cormoran felt the blood coursing through his face.

“The first thing that comes to mind.”

“Her sense of humor,” Cormoran said, “She makes me laugh.”

“Good, good,” Colin said, making a note on his clipboard, “What else?”

Cormoran searched his mind for something innocent, something normal, anything that wouldn’t reveal his true feelings.

“The way she smells,” he said, “She smells like like coconut, but also sand? Does sand have a smell?”

Robin didn’t know where to look. She was biting her thumbnail, blushing so hard she could feel her pulse beating in her face.

“You’re doing great. Give me three more things.”

“I love her curves, and how soft she looks-- feels,” he corrected quickly, “How soft she feels. Her hair, obviously. And…” He looked over at Robin, praying that their friendship could withstand these confessions. No matter how much they insisted that it was purely part of the characters, he couldn’t invent physical characteristics. “And I love her mind. She’s incredibly brilliant, and whenever she solves a problem, it just… Christ, it’s amazing.”

Chapter Text

Robin and Cormoran didn’t speak through lunch, and afterwards Robin said that she needed to go for a run.

She was furious, and every pounding footfall seemed to echo the drumming of anger in her mind. She’d shared things she didn’t want to share, and Cormoran had shared things that Robin didn’t want to hear. She felt violated and exposed. She was mad at Colin for making them say things. She was mad at herself for meaning the things she said, and mad at Cormoran for not meaning them. She was mad that Casey had broken up with her, and mad that he had every reason to. She ran until her breath came out in forced wheezes and her chest ached. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she get over one grumpy old nicotine addict? Did she somehow have daddy issues that had never been addressed? She felt pathetic, stupidly running after a man who would never want her. She was an independent woman now, she wasn’t supposed to get hung up on love.

She reached a small overlook with a view of the valley spread out below, where she paused to catch her breath and wipe the sweat off her forehead. She sat on a little bench and listened to the birds singing in the trees above her. It was beautifully calm here, the leaves just beginning to turn. She took a slow drink from her water bottle, then began the slow walk back, her anger burnt off.

She had told Alyssa that she wasn’t afraid of love, she was afraid of not being loved back. But that wasn’t true. She was afraid of love. She was afraid of feeling something so much, of letting it take her over, control her. Her love for Matthew had eaten away at her bit by bit until there was almost nothing left. She was afraid of the lack of dignity that came with love, embarrassing yourself in front of the world and being too far gone to even care. She couldn’t do that again, not for anybody. She had to take care of herself now. She couldn’t take care of anybody else, and nobody else was going to take care of her. She followed her own rules. For years she had been introduced as “Matthew’s girlfriend,” “Matthew’s fiancee,” or “Matthew’s wife,” her whole identity wrapped up in her relation to him. She couldn’t do that anymore. She didn’t want to belong to anybody else, or to be an add-on to anybody else’s introduction. She was Robin Ellacott, nothing more.

She was back at the retreat centre before she could finish working this hard little knot out in her head. Amy was sitting under a tree, reading, and she waved Robin over.

“Hi Amy,” Robin said, “What are you reading?”

“Pippi Longstocking,” Amy said, “Children’s books are just about the only thing I can handle reading right now. Most other things give me flashbacks.”

Robin nodded. She had read Nancy Drew compulsively after she was attacked.

“I loved Pippi when I was younger,” Robin said, “She’s so wild. I dressed up as her for halloween three years in a row.”

“George only has one leg,” Amy said suddenly. Robin smiled. She liked how Amy brought up strange and taboo subjects with no context.

“One and a half, really,” Robin said, “It’s just the shin down.”

“He hides it well. I didn’t realize at first.”

“He doesn’t like being treated like a special case.”

“Understandable. But you don’t have a problem with it.”

“With his leg?”

“With his baggage, and his issues.”

“God no. I mean, we all have baggage and issues.” Robin saw the hunger in Amy’s eyes and sighed. She knew the feeling, the desperation to be accepted for your brokenness, to be told that it doesn’t matter. “Listen, even when he’s in a bad mood, when he’s grumpy and cynical and depressed… God, he’s still just one of the best parts of my day.”

Amy blinked quickly and smiled.

“Thanks,” she said.

Chapter Text

Dinner was lavish, as always, grilled lamb with little round potatoes. Robin wondered how Colin and Regina managed to afford such a luxurious retreat centre. True, the retreat itself cost more than she and Cormoran made in months, but with the special counseling, the regularly cleaned rooms, and the five-star meals, it barely added up. Then she started to eat and all thoughts but the joy of the food vanished from her mind. She was glad she’d gone on her run, or she would have trouble getting into her trousers.

After they had eaten for a spell, Regina cleared her throat and the room fell silent.

“So tonight at dinner we’re going to have a bit of a conversation starter," Regina said, "Let’s go around and each couple will share who proposed and how.” Robin and Cormoran shared a glance. They hadn’t prepared for this particular question. Cormoran nodded slightly, telling Robin that he would handle it.

“I’ll start,” Regina said, “My husband proposed to me thirty years ago. He took me on a hike at our favorite trail. There was a big overlook, where you could see for miles. Once there he got down on one knee and told me that he loved me and wanted to spend his life with me.” Gina’s face softened as she told the story. “I said yes, of course. We went down the hill, and he had surprised me by having my whole family fly in from Nigeria. We had a huge party.”

She nodded to Amy to continue around the room.

“I proposed,” Amy said, “We were so drunk.” Beside her, Max chuckled at the memory. “I was leaving for basic training the next day, so we all went to Blackpool and got wasted. I said, ‘let’s get married.’ So we went to the courthouse and did it.”

“We were very spontaneous back then,” Max said.

“And very broke.”

“Leon proposed,” Genevieve said, “He took us to the restaurant where we had our first date, and put the ring on top of a cupcake.”

“She nearly swallowed it,” Leon said.

“I proposed,” Frederick said, “I was in a band, and we wrote it into a song.”

“I’m very shy,” Connie said, “I hated how public. But I said yes anyways.”

Around the room, each couple shared their story.

“He proposed on the beach at sunset. It was perfect.”

“She proposed in a letter while I was away at school.”

“I couldn’t afford a ring, so I did a painting of the perfect ring, the one she deserved, and I gave that to her instead.”

It was Cormoran’s turn, and he took a deep breath, casting a nervous glance at Robin before he spoke.

“Well,” he said, “She first brought it up. She asked if I would ever want to get married, and I said yes, of course. Then I proceeded to… well, to panic is the word. I wanted the proposal to be perfect. Something with emotional significance. I thought about the place we first met, but that was a hallway at work. Hardly romantic. The restaurant where we had our first date had been shut down. There weren’t any sunset beaches nearby. I carried my mother’s wedding ring around in my pocket everywhere I went. I was in a state of high anxiety for months.”

“I thought he was having second thoughts,” Robin said.

“Then there was a day… She was in a cab on her way to meet me, and there was an accident.” A crease of pain flashed across his forehead. “I was nearby, and I ran the whole way. I was so scared. I saw her there in the car, and I realized that I didn’t want to live one day without her. And any proposal would be a perfect proposal, because it was her. Anything with her and me would be perfect. So I sat in the cab with her, and I started laughing…” Cormoran blinked several times. “And I told her I loved her, and I took the ring out of my pocket. And she said yes.” He sniffed. “Thank God, she said yes.”

 

Dancing after dinner was now becoming a routine, and Cormoran and Robin moved together like they’d been doing it for years.

“That was quite the story,” Robin said as they danced.

“What can I say? I’m quite the romantic.”

“It reminded me of the last night of the Quine case.”

“I suppose it shares some similarities.”

“How did you propose to Charlotte?” she asked. She could feel him tense slightly. Normally she would rush to reassure him that he didn’t have to answer, but this time she just waited.

“We had been fighting about it for quite some time,” he said, “She wanted to know what our future held, which was a reasonable request.” He sighed and she could feel his chest rise and fall under her hand. “Look, you met me right after Charlotte got violent. But I wasn’t some innocent victim. I never hit her,” he added hurriedly, seeing Robin’s face, “But I had trouble committing. I sent mixed messages. I spent all my time away, and put her off.”

“Well, you knew that it wasn’t a good match.”

“She brought out the worst in me,” Cormoran said, “She brought out the worst in everybody. So we fought, and she threatened to leave me if we didn’t get married. So I agreed to get married.”

“That was it?”

“Yeah. Never even got a ring. Couldn’t afford it, but honestly I think she prefered life without it. She liked having men fawn over her.”

“And yet somehow your fake story was so romantic.”

“Different people, different circumstances, isn’t it? I’m quite the charmer if I want to be. And tonight I wanted to be.”

Robin laid her head on his shoulder and smiled.

 

Chapter Text

 

Dancing finished and couples moved out onto the patio for wine and mingling. It was a cool cloudless evening, and somebody started a fire in the outdoor firepit. Cormoran hated wine on principle, but tonight he filled up a glass anyways and tried not to grimace to badly at the taste. He gravitated back to the older ladies, who were now discussing the various gay people they knew, as if to prove how open-minded and hip they were. Cormoran nodded along, refilling his glass and paying just enough attention to fake attentiveness and not accidentally agree to anything offensive, while keeping half an eye on Robin. Robin stayed close to Colin, flirting and making small talk. She sparkled, throwing her head back in laughter, staring up at Colin from under her eyelashes. Her hair was firey red in the lavender evening light, and she moved with the elegance and grace of a shore bird. She was captivating. Colin didn’t seem particularly interested, though, and kept pulling away to talk to other people.

Eventually the sun went down, taking the last bit of warmth with it, and couples began filtering off to bed. Robin sat down on a secluded bench and gestured for Cormoran to join her.

“It’s not working,” she murmured, “I might just not be his type.” Cormoran shot her a sceptical look.

“Robin.” His voice was flat and incredulous.

“What?”

“C’mon.”

What ?”

“You’re everyone’s type.” Cormoran glanced down at his cup and wondered how many glasses of wine he’d had to drink. Robin felt herself blushing from her toes to her hairline.

“Well then maybe Gina’s just wrong about this one,” she said, “Maybe he’s not seducing his clients. Maybe he’s just a really good therapist.”

“Do you want to call it a night?” Cormoran asked. Robin nodded.

“I’m tired,” she said, “Let’s go to bed.”

Robin and Cormoran were almost out of earshot when Robin heard Colin speaking.

“Amy, a moment?” Colin asked.

Robin grabbed Cormoran’s sleeve and tugged him back. They stood inches apart behind a large pillar, listening breathlessly.

“Yes?” Amy said.

“I heard that you like birdwatching, and I was wondering if you’d like to go for hike with me tomorrow afternoon. There’s a lovely little trail, starting out by the old chapel that ends in an overlook, where you can see a lot of different kinds of birds. I think you’d enjoy it.”

“I… Well, alright. Yes, I’d like that.”

“Good night, Amy. Sweet dreams.”

********

After putting on her pajamas, Robin pulled a map of the retreat centre out of her welcome packet. She traced a trail with her finger.

“Right, so if I’m correct, he’s taking her along this path,” she said, “I ran along it today. Thankfully it’s quite wooded and has plenty of switch-backs, but we’ll still have to be careful, and probably won’t get within earshot.”

“Could we go through the wooded area off the trail and listen in?” Cormoran asked.

“Snapping along branches and through the shrubbery,” Robin said, “We’d be even more obvious.”

“True.”

“The trail ends in an overlook here. Now, if I was going to make a move on somebody, it would most definitely be there. There’s a little bench, very romantic.”

“So we could stay behind them a bit, wait for them to get to the lookout spot, then hide in the bushes to observe them.”

“It’s not ideal, but it’s something. Hopefully they’ll be so caught up in the moment they won’t be paying too much attention to the shrubbery behind them.”

“Good work, Monkey-Butt,” Cormoran said. Robin laid back in bed and smiled at him.

“Thanks, Bear Cookie.”

 

Robin tried to sleep, but couldn’t manage it. Every time she closed her eyes she was plagued with the image of Cormoran that morning at breakfast, devouring that peach, licking the juice off his fingers, humming in pleasure at the taste… She rolled over with a groan and covered her head with a pillow, like that might silence the obscenity in her head.

Chapter Text

Cormoran woke up early the next day. He could sleep almost anywhere, at any time, but he had noticed that at the retreat center he had woken up more well rested and relaxed than usual. He glanced over at Robin, who was snoring slightly. The slow hum of her breathing worked like white noise on his soul and relaxed him like nothing else could.

“Hey, Monkey-Butt,” he murmured.

“...Gimme no biscuits…” she muttered in her sleep.

“What?”

“...I ain’t no fool...”

Cormoran couldn’t decide if he wanted to laugh or kiss her or both. He had kissed her before, while dancing, and had been unable to get the memory of it out of his mind. The smell of her hair, the feel of her skin under his lips… But it was one thing to do that while undercover on a crowded dance floor, and another thing entirely to do it while alone in bed together. He shook his head and crutched to the shower, which he swore to keep ice cold.

*******

They settled into the lecture, ready for another hour of listening to Gina speak, but she had an alternative plan for the morning.

“Today we’re going to talk about the Doctors John and Julie Gottman,” Gina announced. “The Gottmans were two psychologists, who created the Gottman Sound Relationship House Theory. They believed that a marriage is built like a house.” She opened a slide with a picture of a house on it.

“In order to have a sturdy house, you have to have a firm foundation. In order to create this foundation, the Gottmans believed that you need something called a love map. A love map is everything you know about your partner. The facts. You can’t work well together if you don’t know who the other person is. By knowing facts about your partner, you are showing that you prioritize them enough to learn about them, and remember the important details about their life. So today instead of a lecture, we’re going to do an activity.

“Some compare this activity to the newlywed game. I’m going to ask you a series of questions, designed by the Gottman Institute. After each question you’re going to write down the answer. Then you will share them with each other, and we’ll do the next question. If you don’t know the answers, that’s great. It means you’re learning something new about the other person. Nobody else will see them, just you and your spouse.”

Colin went up and down, handing out pencils and paper.

“Alright, let’s begin. Write as fast as you can, don’t worry about spelling or punctuation.” Cormoran and Robin shared a glance. Their back stories were carefully planned out to be as similar to their real lives as possible, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to answer the questions. But as much as they had grown closer over the years, there had always been a certain attempt at professional detachment. They were private people, and their knowledge of each other had some glaring gaps.

“You first question is: Name your partner’s two closest friends,” Gina read.

Robin wrote down “Nick and Ilsa” . Cormoran stared at Robin, considering. Robin didn’t have many friends. He knew she liked Alyssa. He wrote “Her mum and Alyssa” .

“Switch with your partner,” Gina said. Robin read Cormoran’s paper, then shrugged and nodded. He was right about her mother. If she had to really categorize it she would say that she was closer to Cormoran than just about anybody else in the world. But she liked Alyssa just fine.

 

“What was your partner wearing when you first met?” Gina asked.

They thought for a moment, then both wrote.

“Switch.”

Cormoran looked at the Robin’s paper and snorted. She had written “Who the hell remembers that?” Cormoran had written, “ A white sweater .”

“How do you remember that?” Robin asked. Cormoran turned a shocking shade of scarlet.

“It was a nice sweater,” he said.

“You little perv,” she said, trying to ignore the little thrill of pleasure this gave her.

 

“Name one of your partner’s hobbies,” Gina read.

Cormoran wrote “Driving and car maintenance.” Robin chewed her pencil, then wrote “Watching football” .

 

“What’s stressing your partner out in their life right now?” Gina asked.

Cormoran and Robin glanced at each other. There was always stress, they had a stressful job. Robin remembered Cormoran’s angst-ridden face earlier and wrote down “Money” .

“Switch.”

Robin read Cormoran’s answer and snorted. He had written “Her boss is a real asshole” .

 

“Did your partner have any childhood pets?” Gina read.

Robin couldn’t imagine Leda Strike staying in one place long enough to have any animals, so she wrote “ No ”. Cormoran wrote “A dog named Rowntree and a pony named Angus” .

“Is my answer correct?” Robin asked.

“When we were in a squat in Brixton we had a possum," Cormoran said, "He didn’t have a tail so he couldn’t hang with his mates, which made him desperate and friendlier than most possums. Lucy would feed him bits now and then. She named him Puppy.”

“God, that is both adorable and tragic.”

“Ah, like myself.”

 

“What is your partner’s fondest unrealized dream?” Gina read.

Robin was utterly baffled by this. Finally she wrote “He doesn’t have one. He lives in the moment.” They switched papers. Cormoran had written “To receive her black belt in Krav Maga.” To his utter relief, Robin looked very pleased with his answer.

“What is your dream?” Robin asked. Cormoran shrugged.

“Don’t have anything big,” he said, “I guess I’d love to go to Alaska.”

“Alaska. Really.”

“I had a layover in Juneau once. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”

 

“What is one of your partner’s greatest fears or disaster scenarios?” Gina asked.

Robin wrote, “Seeing the people he loves hurt”. Cormoran wrote, “Being powerless in the face of injustice". Around the room, couples discussed their answers to the question, but for Cormoran and Robin there was nothing else to say. They knew these answers better than many of the others.

 

“What is your partner’s favorite way to spend an evening?” Gina asked.

Robin wrote, “ Drinking beer and watching football ”. Cormoran wrote, “ Drinking wine and watching CSI.

“We sound like a couple of alcoholics, don’t we,” Robin said.

 

“What is one of your partner’s favorite ways to be soothed?” Gina asked.

Cormoran didn’t have the faintest idea, so he wrote “snuggling ” and hoped that was specific enough. They switched papers and his jaw dropped. Robin grinned at his reaction. She had written, “ He likes having his hair played with ”.

“How did you know that?” Cormoran asked.

“You mess with your hair when you’re stressed,” Robin said, “It’s the logical conclusion.”

 

“What are some of the important events coming up in your partner’s life?” Gina asked, “How does your partner feel about it?”

His best friends are adopting a baby,” Robin wrote, “He’s excited, but a little nervous about how it will impact his relationship with them.”

Cormoran had no idea what was happening in Robin’s life besides her newfound singleness, and he could hardly write that down at a couple’s retreat. In the end he left it blank. Robin nodded.

“My life is pretty low-key at the moment,” she said.

 

What are some of your partner’s favorite ways to work out?” Gina asked.

Robin knew Cormoran liked to walk, but it was hardly comfortable. She wrote “ Swimming and boxing ”. Cormoran wrote “ Krav Maga ”.

 

“Name one of your partner’s major rivals or enemies.”

“His stepfather.”

“Noel.”

 

“What medical problems does your partner worry about?”

“His leg.”

“None.”

“Is that… correct?” Cormoran asked.

“Well, at the moment I’m anemic,” Robin said, “But I just take supplements and it’s okay.”

“Really! I had no idea.”

"I'm an enigma."

 

“What was your partner’s most embarrassing moment?” Gina asked.

Cormoran couldn’t fathom what that could be, so he wrote, “ Her shower curtain fell down when she was camping and everybody saw her naked. ” Robin wrote, “ He peed himself in his sixth year ”. They switched papers and Robin’s eyes could have popped out of her head.

“How did you know that?” she demanded.

“Wot?”

“The camping story? Who told you?”

“What, nobody! I made it up. That really happened?”

“Yes! God, you mind reader. What’s yours, really?”

“Well, firing you,” Cormoran said. Robin was about to answer when Gina called out the next question.

 

“Name one of your partner’s favorite novels/movies.”

Easy for Robin, she wrote “ Catullus ”. Cormoran was amazed at how much this question stumped him. He had known Robin for years, yet he had no idea what she liked to read. Eventually he wrote “ Dorcas Pengelly ” and hoped she wouldn’t hold it against him. She read it and smacked him on the shoulder.

“Seriously?” she said.

“I’m not judging you,” Cormoran said, “You do read Cosmo.”

“I like true crime." She reddened a bit. "And also young adult fantasy novels.”

 

“In what ways do you and your partner operate well as a team?” Gina asked.

Robin thought, then wrote, “He’s more practical, I’m more emotional. We balance each other out.”

Cormoran wrote, “We make each other laugh. I enjoy spending time with her. We have fun. And we trust each other.”

 

“In what ways could you improve as a team?” Gina asked.

Robin didn’t have to think before writing “Communication. ” Cormoran wrote, “I guess talking more. There’s a lot I don’t know about her.” Robin smiled at this.

“I guess we have that in common at least,” she said.

 

“How is this relationship different than those that have not worked out?” Gina asked.

“We’re on the same page,” Cormoran wrote, “ We want similar things.

“He listens to me, and values me for who I am.”

 

Regina clapped her hands together.

“Alright, let’s discuss the importance of this assignment,” she said.

As Regina lectured, Cormoran sat and watched Robin’s hands. She was doodling little snails all around the edge of her paper, and he noticed that she had a callus on her middle finger from where she held her pen too tight, and a round pink birthmark on one knuckle. Cormoran remembered how soft her hand had been years before, when he had kissed it. Now her palms were calloused from Krav Maga, and she had a bandaid on her left pinky where her nail had been slammed in the door trying to question an angry witness.

His urge to reach over and take her hand in his was so strong that he had to sit on his hands just to keep them to himself.

Chapter Text

They sat down for group therapy, and Colin had barely prompted anybody before Savannah started speaking. She and Steven had so far kept mostly quiet, and Robin had assumed it was because they had a happier marriage than the rest of the members. They always appeared very affectionate, calling each other pet names and tanning together on the lawn.

“I thought that once our youngest moved out, we would be able to focus on our relationship again,” Savannah said, "But our oldest, Cal, he's having some... problems."

“What kind of problems?” Colin asked.

“He’s a junkie,” Steven chimed in, “No other way around it.”

“He’s not a junkie,” Savannah said, “He’s just having some bumps in the road.”

“Savannah wants Cal to move back in with us,” Steven said.

“He’s our son, ” Savannah said, “He’s living in a filthy squat. It’s not safe.”

“He stole from us. We can’t enable him anymore.”

Cormoran’s fingers drummed on his knee. He remembered all of the times he overheard similar conversations between his aunt and uncle.

“He has a child ,” Savannah said. Steven snorted.

“His girlfriend only says the brat is his so that we’ll take care of it.”

“Alright,” Colin said, “Let’s look beyond the facts of the case and examine our feelings.” He turned to Savannah. “Savannah, let’s imagine your son moving back in. How do you feel?”

“I feel scared that he’ll steal from us again, or use drugs in our house. But more than all of that, I also feel such profound relief that he’s safe.”

“And Steven? What do you feel?”

“I’m also afraid of what might happen if Cal comes home. He’ll steal our money, our house will turn into a crack den. And I guess I also feel a lot of disappointment. I was hoping to spend these next years getting to know Savannah again.”

“Yesterday Regina was talking about identity and core fears. How does this decision impact your identity?” Colin asked. Savannah considered this.

“If I don’t invite Cal back home, what kind of a mother am I?” she said slowly, “I’m abandoning my baby.”

“And Steven?”

Steven sighed and put his head in his hands.

“I need to protect my wife,” he said.

“How do you mean?” Colin asked.

“Cal will just break her heart. He’ll take advantage of her love, he’ll rob us, he’ll just get worse. He needs to hit rock bottom before he can get back up.”

Robin’s fingers brushed over Cormoran’s hand and he looked down. He had been inadvertently clenching his fists until his knuckles turned white. He relaxed them.

“Let’s open this up to the group,” Colin said, “Any thoughts?”

Cormoran cleared his throat.

“Yes, George.”

“You said there was a child involved?” Cormoran asked.

“We don’t know whose-” Steven started.

“I didn’t ask whose it was,” Cormoran interrupted, “I just asked if there was one.”

“Cal’s girlfriend,” Savannah said, “If you can call her that. She’s got a little one. He’s six months now. She says he’s Cal’s.”

“Where’s the baby now?” Cormoran asked.

“He’s with his mum. In Camden, last we checked.”

“Maybe Cal will steal from you, and use drugs in your house, but the baby won’t,” Cormoran said, “Not if you do something now.”

“You’re saying we should adopt a baby?” Steven said, “Who’s most likely somebody else’s, and whose mum is a mad junkie?”

“I’m not saying adopt him,” Cormoran said, “I’m saying meet him. Babysit. Read him a bedtime story. That’s all.” He took a long shuddering sigh. “It could save the kid’s life.”

“You sound like you’re speaking from experience, George,” Colin asked. Cormoran blanched slightly.

“Mm. My mum was…” His voice was barely a hoarse whisper. “She had poor taste in men, and… Her brother and his wife…” He scratched at his forehead. “My aunt and uncle were good people.”

“That’s different,” Steven said, “They knew you were theirs.”

“They didn’t give a damn about my genetic makeup,” Cormoran growled, “They saw two kids at risk and they saved our fucking lives. Because that’s what you do.”


*********

“You’re really getting into this therapy thing,” Robin told Cormoran over lunch, “You ever thought about taking a class in psychology?”

“Sometimes I feel like our job is therapy,” he said, “With all the people crying in our office it ends up looking more like a therapist’s than a…” Cormoran caught himself and glanced around the room. Several people were listening to their conversation. “Than a gastroenterologist's.”

Robin tried not to burst out laughing.

“Gastroenterology is a very emotional business, believe it or not,” she explained to the room, “Lots of tears.” The whole table collectively grimaced.

“Happy tears,” Cormoran said hastily, “Not tears of pain. I’m good at my job.”

Robin had to cover her face with her napkin in order to control herself.

 

Chapter Text

Amy and Colin took off for their walk after lunch, and Cormoran and Robin followed as soon as they were out of eyesight. They tried to stay just around the bend, occasionally catching a glimpse of Amy’s red sweater amongst the trees up ahead. To Cormoran’s relief, Amy wasn’t an incredibly fast walker and he and Robin did not have to rush to stay close by. Unfortunately the road was fairly steep, and about a mile and a half long, so his prosthesis was chafing by the time Robin pulled him off the trail.

“We’re almost there,” she whispered, “We should stay off the road so that we’re not seen. Careful about noise, though.”

They crept forward, keeping low and high-stepping around branches and spots of dry leaves until Robin held up a hand for him to stop. Colin and Amy were up ahead at the lookout point, their voices filtering through the trees. Robin and Cormoran were just barely close enough to hear them, still too far to be seen.

“I really appreciated some of the questions you’ve been asking this week,” Colin was saying, “You think like a therapist.”

“My dad was a therapist,” Amy said.

“That must be helpful in dealing with your PTSD.”

“Not as helpful as I’d like. I still can’t sleep at night. And something as small as a car door slamming will send me spiraling.”

“Yes, I did receive the email that you sent me.”

“I was wondering when you’d bring that up,” Amy said.

“It’s your back, is it?”

“I was struck by a piece of shrapnel. It’s still in there. They’re afraid to operate in case it causes paralysis.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“They say that I can’t have more pain pills, because the physical pain is bearable. But even though the physical pain has lessened, the mental pain is as bad or worse than ever. Oxy is the only thing that calms me. It’s the only thing that helps me sleep. I haven’t had more than five hours of sleep in months.”

“I can help you,” Colin said, “It won’t be cheap, and it’s certainly not legal, but I can help.”

“Anything. I’ll do anything.”

Their voices sank, and Cormoran and Robin strained to hear them. Cormoran stepped closer to get within earshot, not noticing a loose stone hidden in the dense underbrush. His knee twisted and his leg gave out under him in a red-hot rush of pain. He cried out and listed heavily onto Robin.

Amy and Colin stopped talking.

“What was that?” Colin asked.

Robin helped support Cormoran as he took slow, steadying breaths.

“Shit, Cormoran,” she whispered, “Are you alright?”

“They’re coming back,” Cormoran said, “They heard us. Fuck!”

“Oh God, he’s coming, here we go-”

Before Cormoran could think, Robin pulled him down into the dry little shrub, wrapped her legs around his waist, and kissed him.

It was a sloppy kiss, with half of her mouth on his chin and some severe smashing of noses. By the time Cormoran realized what was happening, Robin was pulling away, flushed and a little shaky. He looked up to see Colin staring down at them.

“Oh, God, sorry Colin,” Robin said, “This is incredibly embarrassing.”

“Perfectly alright,” Colin said, smiling slightly, “Sorry for interrupting. Er, Amy and I will just… Keep moving…”

He back away and soon he and Amy were out of sight.

Chapter Text

“I’m so sorry,” Robin said, her legs still wrapped around Cormoran’s waist, “I got startled and...”

“And practically broke my nose?” Cormoran said, but he was smiling. He could still taste her mints on his lips.

“Sorry.”

“You get points for enthusiasm, I’ll give you that.”

“Any more enthusiasm and I think I’d have killed us both,” Robin said, climbing out from under him. She was so red Cormoran could feel the heat radiating off her face. “I hope I didn’t damage your knee any further.”

“I’m fine. Just give us a hand here, and...” He clasped Robin’s forearm. “Alright, one… two… three… Pull!” Robin tugged and Cormoran tried to heave himself up. His skin turned suddenly a very sickly grey color and he sagged back down onto the ground, nearly pulling Robin back down with him.

“I… Fuck…” He couldn’t catch his breath.

“Okay, okay, just sit for a minute.” Robin had never seen him so pale. She squatted down next to him.

“My phone has no reception,” he said, “Yours?” Robin shook her head. “You could run after Amy and Colin, but not without spoiling our little charade back there,” he said. They sat for a moment, trying to think. Finally Robin had an idea.

“Remember that night in the hotel, when I offered to carry you?” she said. Cormoran smiled.

“I told you it would be the last thing you'd ever do.”

“Well, the offer still stands.”

“So does my response. I'm twice your size. At least.”

“You have any better ideas?” Robin asked.

“Just let me- WHAT THE FUCK!”

With a light “Hup!” Robin had heaved Cormoran up onto her back in a perfect fireman’s carry, her left arm behind his knees, his right arm over her left shoulder.

“Have I ever mentioned that my uncle used to be a firefighter?” Robin asked.

“You have so many uncles, Robin, I can’t keep them straight,” Cormoran gasped from her back.

“Right, well he is, and he taught us all how to do this when we were children. You can carry somebody much heavier than you with little effort.”

“What the bloody…”

“Are you in pain?” Robin asked.

“No, no, just… Jesus, Robin…”

“I told you, I’m stronger than I look. Now can we proceed?”

Chapter Text

Thankfully everyone was still out by the pool by the time they returned, so they managed to get into their room undetected. Cormoran fell onto the bed with a groan.

“What do you need?” Robin asked.

“I need to survey the damage. Can you roll up my trousers and see?” Robin got down on her knees and tried to roll up his trouser leg, but it couldn’t fit over the hard plastic of the prosthesis.

“Goddamn Lucy, trying to make me more stylish,” Cormoran said, “She told me that slimmer trousers were the only way to blend in with the rich crowd.” He shook his head. “I’m going to have to take them off.” He glanced up at Robin, nervous. “You don’t have to be here if you don’t want,” he said, “It’s a bit weird.”

“As long as you’re wearing something underneath I don’t mind,” Robin said, grinning. She was glad to see a blush spreading across his pale, sweating face.

“Right, it’s easier with two anyways,” he said, “Could you pull the trousers off once I get them undone?”

“Yes, of course.” She looked away as he undid his belt, although she didn’t know why that was somehow more private than pulling his trousers off completely.

“Alright.”

Robin tugged his trousers down, making him curse and bite his fist as the fabric tugged at his knee.

“Sorry, sorry,” she said, “Are you alright?”

“I will be. There’s a pill bottle and a knee brace in my suitcase, and an ice pack downstairs in the kitchen refrigerator. If you could get those, that would be lovely.”

“You came prepared.”

“Always.”

Robin rushed down to the kitchen, nearly toppling down the stairs herself in her haste. When she returned, Cormoran had removed his prosthesis and was gently probing his knee, breathing like a woman in labor. Robin handed him the ice, then rummaged through his suitcase until she found the things he needed and knelt by his side. She tried not to stare at the old pink scars that ran up the sides of his thigh, or the way his knee was red and swollen. She handed him the painkillers with a bottle of water, which he accepted gratefully.

“Alright, so it would seem that I’ve dislocated my kneecap,” he said, “And I’m going to need to relocate it.”

“Here? By yourself?” Robin’s voice came out a shrill squeak. “Shouldn’t we take you to a doctor?”

“I’ve done it before, and it’s going to be fine. I just need a little help.”

Robin nodded, unsure if she could trust her voice.

“Okay,” Cormoran said, “All I need from you is for you to slowly, slowly bend my leg and straighten it. Can you do that?”

“Erm- uh huh. Yeah.”

“Good. Now bend it…”

Robin put one hand on his knee, the other on his thigh, and slowly, carefully, bent his knee. Cormoran tried not to hiss in pain.

“Alright, now Robin, I want you to look at me while I do this, okay? Not at my knee, look me in the eyes.” Robin stared up at him and nodded. His eyes were serious and dark, dilated from the pain. “Okay, keep bending and straightening it, as slow as you can.”

Robin thought she might be sick. Her hands on his leg were slippery with sweat.

“Okay, here we go,” Cormoran said, his voice low and reassuring, “Don’t look away, I need your eyes on me.”

Robin’s blood was pounding through her fingers, and she could feel her pulse in her wrist. She stared up at him. He was pale, and there was sweat on his upper lip, his mouth a hard, tight line of pain. But his eyes stayed on hers, deep brown with a thin ring of green around the outer edges. She focused on that ring of green, one grounding thread, holding her steady as she slowly moved his leg up and down. She felt his fingers brush hers as he slowly slid his kneecap into place. He gave a little gasp of pain, his eyes closing for just a moment, then he sighed in relief.

“Okay. All done.”

Robin let go of his leg and breathed for the first time in what felt like minutes. She sat next to him on the bed, shaking and winded.

“Wait, Robin,” he gasped, “Be a dear and fetch me that trash can?”

“Yes, of course.” She handed him the small waste basket in the corner. “Why-?” Cormoran grabbed the basket and vomited in a great hot rush. Robin ran her hands over his back, humming softly. Finally he was done. He took a long pull at his water bottle, spat into the bin, and flopped back on the bed. Robin handed him a pack of extra-strong mint gum from her pocket, then laid down next to him. Cormoran stuffed five pieces of gum in his mouth and chewed them all at once.

“You’re alright?” she said.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”

“You’ve done this before?”

“A couple of times. I’ve gotten sick every damn time.”

“Does it hurt, doing that?”

“Of course. Not as bad as you’d think, though. Mostly it feels weird. It helps to focus my eyes on something else. Hence the eye-contact.”

“And here I thought the eye-contact was for my benefit.”

“Mm. You can tell people that version. Protect my street cred.”

“Whatever you need,” Robin said.  Cormoran smiled, then chuckled, then, to Robin’s utter bewilderment, he found himself overcome with giggles.

“Need,” he said, “ Kneed .”

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Robin asked, “You didn’t damage your head as well as your knee?”

“Yes. I- yes.” He tried to catch his breath but dissolved back into laughter. Now Robin was laughing too. “You should know by now that I handle adrenaline by giggling my ass off.”

“I do seem to remember that, after a certain car crash, yes,” Robin said. Cormoran caught his breath and wiped his eyes.

“God, yes, that night. Sitting in the cab and cracking up. The cops must have thought I was insane.”

“You were brilliant that night,” Robin said, “It was incredible.”

“So were you.”

They laid there for a moment, looking at each other. Cormoran wanted to study every inch of her face. God, but she was perfect. A strand of hair had escaped her braid and had fallen over one eye, and he tentatively reached out and brushed it behind her ear. Hhe found that he didn’t want to pull away, so he gently followed the edge of her jaw with his fingers, rough and calloused against the softness of her skin. Her lips were a bit parted and her eyes were wide. He imagined waking up next to her like that, lying next to her in the bed, no wall of pillows separating them. He couldn’t keep looking at her or he’d do something they’d both regret. He shut his eyes tight.

“Are you hurting?” Robin asked, breaking the moment, “You need another pill?”

“I’ll take one before bed. For now I’ll elevate it and put the brace on.” He sat up and neatly fastened the brace around his leg.

“I bought some biscuits,” Robin said, “I was going to save them for the ride home. But I think we’ve both earned a snack.” She grabbed her suitcase and pulled out a box of Oreos.

“God, you’re a genius,” Cormoran said, “Those pills will make me fall asleep in minutes, I won’t be down for dinner.”

“Speaking of pain pills, that brings us to the real subject.”

“Colin is selling prescription drugs,” Cormoran said.

“That’s what it sounded like. That changes things.”

“Do you still have that email Gina gave us?”

“The love letter? Yeah, let’s see.” Robin scrolled through her phone until she found it in her inbox. “Here we go. ‘ Colin: You know what I need, and you’re the only one who can give it to me. I will do anything you want. I will pay anything, do anything. I am begging on my knees. Please help me find relief.’

“We thought it was a love letter,” Cormoran said, “But right now I can see that it could be a drug deal.”

“The most obvious response would be to have George hit him up for some drugs. Shouldn’t be too hard for you to go undercover as a man in pain, should it?”

“As long as he doesn't get suspicious."

"I’ll go down to dinner and ask him some questions, probe around a bit, scope out the scene. I'll bring you up some food when I'm done.”

“You talk to him,” Cormoran said, “But-”

“Be careful. I know.” She smiled at him, wrinkling her nose. “ Dad.”

Cormoran chuckled and rolled his eyes.

“Still doesn’t turn you on?” Robin asked.

“Keep trying.”

Robin stood to go.

“I always will,” she said, winking, then went into the bathroom to change for dinner.

As soon as the bathroom door was closed behind her, Robin leaned against the sink and took a deep breath. What the hell was that? Did I really just wink at him? She shook her head at her reflection in the mirror. Adrenaline makes you completely insane, child.

Chapter Text

Dinner was macaroni and cheese, with steamed vegetables and garlic bread. Robin sat next to Colin.

“I’m afraid George can’t make it to dinner,” she said, “He dislocated his kneecap again. I might fix him a plate and bring it up to our room after I’m done eating myself.”

Colin winced in sympathy.

“Of course.” He took a sip of wine. “You say again, like he dislocates his knee often,” he said.

“It happens more than we’d like. I don’t speak of this often, but... My husband was in a terrible car accident. He’s missing his leg from the shin down.”

“Oh my God, I had no idea.”

“He hides it well. But he’s in constant pain.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“It was my fault that he injured himself today,” Robin said, “I was just too… enthusiastic this afternoon, when we were…”

“Right, when I so rudely interrupted…”

“Oh, it wasn’t your fault, we were being reckless.” She found it was not overly hard to blush at the memory. She sighed. “It’s difficult, having him in such frequent pain. And because his mother was an addict, his doctors say he has a predisposition for addiction and shouldn’t be given too many painkillers.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t like the way that the NHS tries to control those things. There’s just no trust.”

“He’s being punished for the sins of the father,” Robin said, “Or mother, in this case. If anything, seeing his mother’s struggles with addiction make him even less likely to be an addict. He’s seen what it does to people.”

“They must give him some painkillers, correct?” Colin asked

“Yes, but not enough.” She shot him a calculating look. “Are you a psychiatrist or a psychologist?” she asked.

“Psychiatrist. I attended medical school, and can therefore prescribe certain medications.”

“Like painkillers?”

“Yes, hypothetically.”

Robin looked around the room. Everybody seemed deep in conversation, no one listening too closely to her and Colin. She leaned in closer. “I think you might be able to help us with that.”

Colin’s mouth grew to a hard line as he realized what Robin was asking.

“I have a number of clients who deal with chronic pain,” he said.

“I couldn’t help but overhear you talking to Amy…” Robin said, “Perhaps we could discuss this further? But maybe this isn’t the time or place.”

Colin’s eyes darted back and forth. He licked his lips.

“No, it’s not.”

“Is there a better place for us to do this?”

“I occasionally do individual therapy sessions, after the rest of the group has gone on to bed. Usually around two AM, in my office.”

“I promise we’ll make this worth your while.”

“I’ll see you tonight, then.”

********

 

Cormoran woke up to the smell of macaroni and cheese and the sharp pang of hunger in his gut. His leg was still aching badly, and he sat up with a groan.

“Hey sleeping beauty,” Robin said, “I brought you some food.”

“God I love you,” Cormoran murmured, still half asleep. Robin flushed and smiled.

“You’re high off your ass,” she said, handing him a plate heaped with macaroni and cheese and steamed vegetables. It was all Cormoran could do to not dive into it with his hands, he was so hungry.

“I’ve been researching Lachlan,” Robin said, “Fairly boring, predictable. No red flags. He’s born and raised here in Scotland, married, two kids. His wife died last year. Attended Aberdeen Medical School. He initially studied to become a pharmacist, but then switched over to psychiatry.”

“Understandable. Pharmacists have a shitty job,” Cormoran said.

“Agreed. You make one mistake and somebody has ODed. Plus you get robbed all the time.”

“Maybe I’ll contact Hardacre, see if he can dig anything up on his databases.” He set down his plate and looked outside, where it was already dark. The drugs were beginning to wear off and he was feeling more alert. “What time is it?”

“Nine-fifteen.”

“Jesus.” He shook his head and wiped the sleep out of his eyes. “Did you talk to Colin?”

“He didn’t admit anything, obviously, as we were in a crowded room. But he offered to meet us tonight at two AM.”

“Both of us? Or just you?”

“He didn’t specify. Are you up for moving about?”

“I’m sure as hell not going to let you go in by yourself.”

“I thought you might say that. How’s the leg?”

“Hurts. Give me some more of those drugs, would you?” Robin handed him a pill, which he threw back with some water. “I don’t like us going in blind,” he said.

“What else are we going to do?” Robin asked, “We can’t hand our suspicions over to Wardle without evidence.”

“I know. We’ll do it. But I still don’t like it.”

“You don’t like anything.”

Cormoran shrugged in noncommittal agreement.

“You have the button cams?” he asked.

“I do. You have the audio recorder?”

“Always come prepared,” he said.

 

Chapter Text

Cormoran’s painkillers wore off around one in the morning, and the throb of his knee kept him from going back to sleep. Robin was asleep sitting up, her computer open on her lap, her head nodded over.

“Robin,” Cormoran hissed, “Robin, are you awake?” She didn’t answer, so he tried to gently shut the computer.

“Sod off, ya peach-eating bastard,” Robin mumbled in her sleep. Cormoran shrugged, amused, and carefully placed the computer on the bedside table. He crutched his way into the bathroom, where he splashed water onto his face, trying to wash away the lingering effects of the drugs. He texted Graham Hardacre, telling him to call when he woke up. He didn’t have high hopes, as he knew Hardacre had small children and often went to bed around ten, but to his surprise Hardacre called him back almost immediately.

“Hullo Graham,” Cormoran said, “What’s got you up at this late hour?”

“Christie is having a slumber party,” Hardacre said, “Twelve-year-old girls are louder than any frat party, I swear.” He yawned. “What do you need from me?”

Cormoran gave him a brief rundown of the situation at hand.

“So you’re undercover as a married couple, then,” Hardacre said. Cormoran could hear the sly smile in his voice. “How is it being Mr. Ellacott?”

“It’s Mister Austin, actually,” Cormoran said, “It’s going fine.”

“Does Robin talk in her sleep?”

“She just called me a peach eating bastard.”

Hardacre snorted.

“I bet she did. So what do you need from me?” Hardacre asked.

“Well, as I told you, we have reason to believe Lachlan is selling painkillers and other drugs. We’re meeting him tonight. I was wondering if you could find any information on his dealings in Scotland.”

“I’ll look him up in our system.” Hardacre was interrupted by a high screech. “Good excuse to ignore the food fight that’s happening in Christie’s room.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Cormoran said.

“I’ve faced neo-nazis, ISIS, serial killers, without flinching. But somehow I can’t manage eight twelve year old girls.” Cormoran could hear him typing on the other end of the phone. “Alright, I’ve got his name here. Colin Lachlan. Aberdeen Medical School, married, kids… Alright, he has been arrested before, for...”

“Drug dealing?”

“Tax evasion. Apparently he did it as a form of protest. He’s also a high-up member of the Scottish Libertarian Party.”

“Interesting. How extreme are they?”

“Not anarchist, if that’s what you’re asking. Extremely pretentious, sure. But not dangerous.”

“Interesting. Thanks.”

“Alright,” Hardacre said, “Goodnight, peach eating bastard.”

********

Robin’s alarm went off at 1:30, and she struggled out of bed. Cormoran was already dressed, his pant leg neatly pinned below his knee, crutches in hand.

They had splurged in June to purchase two button cameras, with good quality sound and a wireless connection to a nearby computer. The cameras didn’t blend in completely and Cormoran hoped that Lachlan wouldn’t be looking too closely, but in his experience people rarely paid too much attention to sweater buttons. Robin poked her own camera through the buttonhole of her favorite black cardigan and taped it into place. Cormoran nodded his approval. It was almost the same size and shape as the other buttons. She also carried an extra microphone in her pocket in case there was a problem.

“Listen, one thing,” she said, “Colin wanted to know why you couldn’t get more medication legally, so I told him that you had a genetic predisposition for addiction, from your mother.”

Cormoran sucked in his breath.

“My mother?”

“I know, I’m sorry. I was on the spot and…”

“Don’t apologize. It’s fine. It’s part of George’s backstory.” Why’d she have to say my mother? He straightened his coat, turned on the camera, and they headed down to Colin’s office.

Chapter Text

Colin answered the door when they knocked. Group therapy took place in one of the sitting rooms, so neither of them had ever been to his office before. It was neat, with vaguely african prints on the walls and plain beige sofas. Cormoran had been half expecting some sort of torture chamber, and was disconcerted by the normalcy of the situation. He had witnessed drug deals in all manner of places, but this was by far the tidiest. A white noise machine was on and the blinds were closed.

“Sandra, George,” Colin said, “Thank you for coming. Please have a seat.”

They sat on the sofa, and Colin sat across from them, staring at them with his signature sympathetic expression.

“Would you like some tea?” They both shook their heads, so Colin poured himself a cup from a hot water dispenser on a bookshelf. “I’d like to start by asking what exactly you think I can do for you,” he said.

“Well, I struggle with chronic pain,” Cormoran said, patting his leg, “Thanks to this fucker. When Sandra and I were… in the woods today, we overheard you speaking to Amy about helping her with certain pain meds. I need more pain meds, but because my mother…” He cleared his throat. “My mother was an addict, so apparently I have a predisposition for addiction. They only give me the bare minimum.”

“You use the past tense when speaking about your mother,” Colin said, “Is she still alive?”

“No. She died when I was twenty.”

“Did she die of an overdose?” Colin asked. Cormoran was confused and thrown off guard by the line of questioning, which he guessed was Colin’s intention.

“Why is this important?”

Colin leaned back in his chair and touched his fingers together.

“Just getting to know you,” he said, “Do you currently have any addictions?”

“I smoke.”

Colin nodded.

“You said on your entrance questionnaire that you work at Wandsworth Medical Centre?” he asked.

“Yes,” Cormoran said.

“And you can’t access your own painkillers through your work there?”

“I… No. I actually don’t work there anymore. They caught me trying to take pills and fired me. Threatened to have me arrested.”

“So you don’t work there.”

“Not anymore. They fired me last month. I tell people I still work there to avoid awkward questions.”

“I have a friend who works at Wandsworth, and he said he doesn’t recognize you.”

“It’s a big place.”

“Yes, well, it just so happens that I do recognize you.”

Cormoran felt his stomach plummet.

“Sorry?” he asked.

“I didn’t recognize you at first, of course,” Colin said, “But I always research my more… private clients, and when I started researching you this evening, I remembered. Right after graduating from medical school, I volunteered as a psychiatrist at Pathway Healthcare for the Homeless. That’s where I met Leda Strike.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cormoran said, “I don’t know who that is.” Robin found herself instinctively reaching for his hand. Cormoran squeezed it gently.

“Your mother came in seeking psychological assistance, for her suicidal urges. She showed me your photos, told me all about you and your sister. She loved you two.” Colin took out his tea bag and squeezed it, a look of great sadness on his face. “Suicide was not uncommon amongst our clientele, but hers did stand out in my memory, as public as it was. I was asked to speak at the trial, but I refused, thinking that it was not my place. But I’ve always wondered… Maybe if I could have confirmed that it was a suicide, you would have found peace.”

“I don’t know who you think I am, but-”

“I can’t help you with what you want,” Colin said, “I’m afraid I don’t have access to the painkillers you asked for.”

“But you told Amy-”

Colin shook his head with an expression of deep disappoint.

“I liked you, too. I thought we were making progress, growing. But you came into my retreat centre, this safe space that I built to help couples heal their broken relationships, and you tried to tear it to the ground.”

Robin’s mind was racing. If Colin knew the connection between Regina and them, Regina might be in some danger.

“Fine,” Robin said, “You got us. We were hired by one of the members here who suspected their spouse of cheating. Once we heard you and Amy speak we thought we could cash in on something bigger.”

“I want you gone by the morning,” Colin said. Robin tried to interject but Colin shook his head. “No. I want you gone. I’ll tell them that you had a pressing family emergency and had to leave.”

“And if we don’t?”

“What do you gain? Once the others discover your true identities, you’ll never be able to get any information on anybody.”

Cormoran didn’t know how to respond besides standing to leave. It was nearly two thirty, and his mind was fuzzy and dull.

“And Mister Strike,” Colin said, “Your mother was not killed. She was suicidal. The sooner you can come to terms with that, the sooner you can accept her death and move on.” He gave a slight bow. “Have a good evening.”

***

“What are we going to do?” Robin asked, as soon as their bedroom door was shut behind them.

“We’re going to get some sleep and leave in the morning,” Cormoran said. His mouth was a hard line of determination.

“And give up? Just like that?”

“What else are we going to do? He knows who we are. There’s no way we can find out anything more. He’s going to be guarding himself, he won’t let anything slip.”

“What about Amy? Maybe I could get Amy to let something slip.”

“You do that. I’m going to bed.”

He laid on the bed, his back to Robin.

“Cormoran?” Robin asked, “Are you okay?”

“‘M fine. Just tired.”

Robin turned out the light and laid down on the other side of the bed. They stared into the dark, the pile of pillows between them. After several minutes Robin broke the silence.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I insisted that we go undercover, and fuck around with therapy… It’s not good to mess around with psychology like this, and I should have been more careful. It got too real, and I’m sorry.”

Cormoran didn’t speak and Robin wondered if he really was asleep. Then he sniffed.

“The night she died…” he started, then cleared his throat. “I was watching the movie Some Like It Hot. With Marilyn Monroe.”

The memory didn’t mean anything, it had no message or symbolism. But it was a memory, something dredged up from the deep, stagnant sludge of Cormoran’s darkest moments, and Robin was the one he chose to share it with. She felt as though she’d been gifted with something fragile and precious. She didn’t know what to do other than push the pillows out of the way and wrap her arms around him, resting her cheek on his broad, warm back.

Chapter Text

 

Robin woke at five to an empty bed. Cormoran’s bags were neatly packed and stacked by the door. She was confused, then worried. The bathroom was empty, their toiletries packed away.

“Cormoran?” She dialed his number and paced as it rang.

Surely Colin wouldn’t… But what if… She ran out into the hall. Nothing. Cormoran wasn’t downstairs in the kitchen, or in the group therapy room. Robin opened the front door and stepped out into the dim morning light. There was a thin mist that made everything soft around the edges, and the sky was just barely lavender. The grass was wet and froze her bare feet.

“Cormoran?” she called, “Cormoran!”

***

Cormoran took a long drag at his cigarette and let Max cry. They were sitting on a bench under a tree, talking over the events of the past three days.

“I knew she had a problem,” Max said, “I just didn’t think she’d try anything illegal. God. When she signed us up for this retreat I thought it meant that she was making a turn for the better. Thinking about the future. Making an effort.”

“As someone who has been through what she has been through, I can tell you that she is making an effort,” Cormoran said, “It’s hard to see from where you are, but she’s trying. For her, these drugs might be the only way she can see a future at all. A future with you.”

“Did you ever abuse your painkillers?”

“I never abused my painkillers. I saw what drugs did to people when I was a child, didn’t want to touch the stuff. I can understand the temptation, though.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “When you have PTSD, everything is difficult. Every action, every breath, it’s just a nightmare. The desire for ease and simplicity, and just some fucking quiet from the noise in your head... It’s overwhelming.” He shook his head. “I wasn’t without my vices. Alcohol and an unstable woman did about as much damage to my life as drugs ever could.”

“How did you survive it?”

“I had people around me who loved me. Friends, family.” He leaned back, considering. “Took a long time. Still have bad days. Sometimes I think I didn’t truly get over it until Robin came along.”

“So that part was true?”

“Robin and I aren’t actually married. Everything else was true.”

In the distance, Cormoran could hear somebody yelling. He pricked up his ears.

“Cormoran?” Robin called. Cormoran stood, but couldn’t see her.

“Over here!” he called.

She emerged out of the mist, red hair wild and flaming in the dim morning light, looking like a fairy queen in flannel pajamas. When she saw Cormoran she let out a gasp and a “Thank God!” and rushed over, throwing her arms around him.

“Don’t you ever scare me like that again,” she said into his chest, fear pulling her vowels into a more pointed yorkshire accent. “I thought Colin had attacked you.”

“You don’t think I could’ve taken him down?” Cormoran asked, grinning.

“Of course you could’ve taken him down, I was worried we’d have to bury a body,” she said.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Cormoran said, “I thought you’d still be asleep.”

“You could’ve left a note.” She sighed and leaned into him. “I’m just glad you’re okay.” She looked over at Max and quickly released Cormoran from her tight embrace. “Hello, Max,” she said.

“I was just telling Max about the things we’d discovered,” Cormoran said, “About Colin. And Amy.”

“I’m going to tell Amy that I found the email she sent to Colin,” Max said, “And that I want to go with her to meet with him, in case it’s dangerous or intimidating. Then I’m going to wear a wire.”

“Even if it would mean implicating Amy?” Robin asked.

“I’ve weighed the costs and I’ve decided that it’s the best thing. I’m hoping that we can strike a deal, if it comes to that,” Max said, “But yes. Amy is breaking the law. And she needs help. Help that I can’t give her right now.”

Robin blinked hard and nodded.

“Your love is… very inspiring,” she said.

“So is yours,” Max said.

Chapter Text

They pulled out in the Land Rover just as the other couples were beginning to filter down for breakfast. Robin couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness at leaving. She had enjoyed her time away from London, and she had liked the people at the retreat. She silently wished them well in their marriages as the retreat centre disappeared in the rearview mirror.

Cormoran had left several voicemails on Regina’s phone, updating her on the situation. She texted him back after breakfast, letting him know that she was safe and that Colin didn’t suspect her. Colin had informed the group at breakfast that Sandra’s father had had a heart attack the night before and they had to quickly return to London.

Robin was exhausted, running on three hours of sleep. She stopped to get gas and coffee, then scanned the radio until she found a hip-hop station and blasted it as loud as she could, just to keep herself awake enough to drive. Cormoran drifted in and out of sleep, coasting on the sound of Nas spitting out righteous anger. His leg was still sore, but not unbearable, and the pain pills stayed in his suitcase.

“I'm the young city bandit, hold myself down singlehanded/ For murder raps, I kick my thoughts alone, get remanded/ Born alone, die alone, no crew to keep my crown or throne.”

Somehow his exhaustion turned the words into a lullaby, and Cormoran found himself plunged into deep sleep.

 

He woke up an hour later, sensing a tension in the air. A shortness in Robin’s breathing, a slight taughtness in her hand on the clutch. He glanced over at her, only to see her mouth struggling to hold back emotion.

“Robin?”

“Mm?” She couldn’t trust herself to speak.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. I’m fine.” Her voice was higher than normal, like a wire pulled tight.

“Robin…” He turned down the radio.

“I’m alright,” she said, “I am.”

Cormoran reached out and put a warm hand on her shoulder blade.

“God, why am I always the one crying,” she said, “Why can’t you be the weepy one for once.”

“Because I’m emotionally broken,” Cormoran said, “Come here, tell me what’s wrong.”

“I’m just tired. That’s all.”

“Do you need to pull over? We’re not in any rush to get home. If you need a nap we can find a rest area and you could sleep.”

“No, I’m fine, I can do it.”

“Then tell me what’s really the matter. Is it because of the recent breakup? Those things can take time to get over.”

To his surprise, Robin huffed out a laugh.

“No, it’s not because of Casey. To be honest I almost forgot all about that completely.”

“Then what?”

Robin sighed and ran her hand through her hair.

“It’s just… It’s hard, going from undercover back to regular life.”

Cormoran nodded slowly.

“It was an intense undercover job,” he agreed, “The psychological aspect made it a lot more personal.”

“I’m going to miss them,” she said.

“Who, the other retreat goers?”

“No, George and Sandra.”

Cormoran smiled.

“You’re going to miss their constant bickering?” he asked. Robin shrugged.

“I think they really do care about each other, under it all,” she said, “At least Sandra does.”

Cormoran moved his hand from her shoulder and placed it over hers.

“Yeah,” he said, “George too.”



They didn’t get back to London until four, and Robin dropped Cormoran off at the office and returned to her flat, where she tottered into her flat, kicked off her shoes, and fell into her bed fully dressed and was fast asleep before she could even tell it was happening.

Chapter Text

Cormoran woke up on Wednesday, scrunched into one corner of the bed. Normally he slept spread-eagle, but after so many nights with Robin and a wall of pillows, his bed seemed unbearably vast. The painkillers and short night on Monday had messed up with his sleep schedule, causing him to wake up at four AM that morning, unable to get back to sleep until half an hour before his alarm went off. He buried his face in the pillows and groaned.

 

Cormoran entered the office and was instantly tackled by a shrieking Alyssa.

“OH MY GAHD I MISSED YOU SO BAD I THOUGHT I WAS GONNA DIE.”

“It’s Wednesday, Alyssa, I haven’t been gone that long,” Cormoran said, carefully extracting himself from her voluptuous embrace.

“Where’s Robin?” Alyssa asked.

“She’s taking the day off. She didn’t sleep well this weekend, she needs some rest.”

“Was that her idea or yours?”

“Mine, but she fell asleep halfway through her argument this morning, so she didn’t take much convincing.”

“You’ve got four appointments scheduled this week, but I put them all off until tomorrow and Friday. I assumed you’d need today to get resettled and work on your report for this case.”

“Bless you,” Cormoran said.

He spent the morning typing up the key events of the weekend, making sure to record only the things most essential to a potential lawyer. He felt like he was writing an account of fictional events, or something that had happened years before. The retreat seemed like a different world, George and Sandra like total strangers. He thought back on their interactions, not quite believing that any of it had actually happened. Had they really danced together, and called each other pet-names? Had he really kissed her on the forehead? And God, had she really kissed him on the mouth ? He shook his head, exhausted. He would most definitely not be including any kissing in the report.

He worked into the afternoon, when his thoughts were interrupted by Alyssa rapping on his doorframe.

“You hungry?” she asked, “I brought some leftover stew from home, if you want it.”

“You’re brilliant, you know that?” Cormoran said. Alyssa beamed.

“I do now.”

Cormoran limped into the front room and got himself an icepack from the freezer, which he placed on his knee with a sigh of relief. Alyssa handed him a glorious smelling bowl of stew, which he devoured like a man starved.

“This is excellent,” he said, “You’re some cook.”

“It’s not mine. My mum visited this weekend.”

“Really!”

“Yeah, I decided to get back in touch with her.”

“How was that?”

“I’m glad she came, I’m glad she left. We have a lot of things to work out. But I’m glad we’re trying again.”

“Believe me, I know all about strained parental relationships.”

“She was always very strict, growing up. She didn’t approve of me getting pregnant out of wedlock, so I ran away from home. She’d never even met the girls until this weekend. But she loved them.” She tugged at one of her braids. “I’m doing it for them, more than anything. They should know their grandmother. It’s important to know your roots.”

“Well, give her my compliments on the stew.”

“I will. She’ll like that.” Alyssa shook herself, as if to rid herself of the seriousness of the conversation. “Anyways. I don’t really like to talk about it much.”

“I get that.”

She sat back and gave him a long, sly stare.

“Enough about me, then,” she said.

“What’s that look?” Cormoran asked, wary.

“You and Robin…”

Cormoran lifted his hands heavenward.

“God when will people stop badgering me about her?”

“It’s clear that you like each other, okay? Your sexual tension drives us all mad.”

“There is no sexual tension between us,” Cormoran lied.

“Please. I used to be a stripper, and even I think you two need to get a fucking room already.”

“We had a room. For three nights. Nothing happened. She could have made a move, she didn’t. She’s not into me.”

“Three nights? Strike, she gave you nine bloody months!”

Cormoran cocked his head like a confused puppy.

“Wot?”

“Those nine months after the divorce, she was waiting for you, letting you make your move, and when you didn’t of course she was going to move on!”

“It wasn’t… It’s not… What?”

“God, you’re both such fucking cowards. You’re a matched set, you know that? Neither of you willing to take the first step. You’re both going to die miserable and alone, and you’ll deserve it, too.” Cormoran was staring at her like she’d started speaking yiddish. “She wanted to be with you, you dumb fuck!” Alyssa said, “She wanted to be with you for a long time.”

“She told you this?”

“Yes!”

Cormoran shut his eyes and slowly shook his head.

“Oh my God.”

“Mm-hmmm.”

“Oh my God, what an idiot I am.”

“No shit Sherlock.”

“She told you this? Actually?”

“Would I really fucking lie about this?”

“Oh my God, I fucked it up so bad.” Cormoran ran his hands over his face. “Oh my God. What have I done.”

“You can still make it right. Just tell her how you feel.”

“It’s too late,” Cormoran said, “I missed my opportunity. She’s moved on.”

“It couldn’t hurt to just tell her. It’s good to know these things, even after the fact.”

“I’m telling you, as somebody who just learned after the fact, it’s not good. It’s total shit.”

Alyssa softened and put her hand on Cormoran’s shoulder.

“Go take the rest of the day off, get some sleep,” Alyssa said, softening, “You look like Satan’s turd right now.”

“Always with the compliments,” Cormoran said, heaving himself off the couch.  

“Rest up. Tomorrow, when you’re refreshed and handsome again, then you tell her how you feel.”

Chapter Text

Nick found Cormoran at the Tottenham, already a good way into his third pint.

“What’re you doing here?” Cormoran asked.

“I’m having a drink with my friend, aren’t I?” Nick said.

“Did Alyssa send you?”

“She may have given me a ring.” Nick sipped at his beer. “But I needed a drink too, and I figured misery loves company.”

“Yeah? What’s your misery?” Cormoran asked.

“You know how we were supposed to adopt this baby boy named Omar?” Nick said.

“From Sierra Leone, right.”

“It was just determined that he has AIDS.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah. Ilsa and I don’t care, we already love the kid and we’ve only seen his photo. But it complicates things with immigration. I don’t know if they’ll let us do it.”

“Christ, that’s awful.”

Nick took another long pull.

“It’s not great, that’s for sure.” He wiped his mouth and leaned back. “So what’s got you down tonight?”

“Well now I’m sad because Omar has AIDS,” Cormoran said. Nick snorted.

“Come on, tell me. All Alyssa said was that she said something that upset you. What was it?”

“It’s nothing, really.”

“Then why are you on your third pint? Come on, man.”

“Well…” Cormoran ran his hand through his hair. “I guess it turns out... I could’ve had a shot with Robin. And I missed it. I mean I missed it big time.” He sighed, puffing out his cheeks. “Somehow knowing I could have been with her and I blew it is so much worse than it being an unattainable dream.”

Nick nodded thoughtfully.

“And you don’t think you still have a shot?”

“Of course not.”

“Why not?”

“She’s moved on. Alyssa as much as said so. It’s just the way it is.”

“So you’re not going to tell her?”

“Why? Just to make it weird? I had my chance and I missed it. It’s best to move on too.”

“You know how many times I missed my chance with Ilsa?” Nick said.

“How so?”

“I mean first I broke up with her, horrible mistake.”

“When you left for school? I thought that was mutual.”

“It was, sort of. I brought it up, we talked it over, in the end she agreed that we should end it. Anyways, we tried to do the ‘just friends’ thing, which worked alright, although we were both still mad about each other.

“That November I invited her up for a visit, so she drove all the way up to school to meet me. We spent a weekend together, just as friends. I showed her around, we had fun. On the last night there was this beautiful sunset, we were on the water, it was the perfect moment. She looked me in the eyes and I knew that I wanted to be with her… And I chickened out. I blew it. I freaked out and gave her a thumbs up.”

Cormoran couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

“It was bad,” Nick agreed, “It was so bad. I felt awful, so next holiday I drove down to see her. Same thing. We spend time together, we have fun, time comes for me to leave and I choke. I hug her, I jump in the car, I leave.”

“God, you were terrible.”

“Takes one to know one. Anyways, time went on. We graduated, we still wrote letters. I would pause before signing every letter, agonizing over if I should sign it love, or Xs and Os, or sincerely. She would always sign with a heart, which was utterly confusing.

“Then she came and visited me, and we got street food and we both came down with the worst food poisoning. Just spouting from both ends. She was on the toilet, I was vomiting into a bucket. Then she turned to me, her face all sweaty and grey, and she said that she loved me. And I told her that I loved her. And then I shat myself.”

Cormoran had to wipe tears of laughter out of his eyes. Nick grew more serious.

“You always go on about the Kairos moment, the supreme telling moment,” Nick went on, “But that’s bullshit. When it’s real, there’s not just some little window of time that you have to squeeze into. When it’s real, every moment is a Kairos moment. When it’s real, you always have more chances. Always.”

“What if it’s not real?”

“Well I guess you have to ask yourself if Robin is worth the risk. But I’ve seen you two working together for years now, and I have to say that if she’s not absolutely mad about you I’m both deaf and blind.”

Chapter Text

Robin arrived Thursday morning and greeted Alyssa with a cheerful embrace. Alyssa caught Cormoran’s eye over Robin’s shoulder, an expression of apology on her face. Cormoran nodded. He had never actually been angry with her, just with himself.

“You have an appointment at ten, and another at one,” Alyssa said, “Both sounded like cheating spouse situations over the phone, but hard to say exactly.”

 

Alyssa was correct in this assumption. Their first client was Kent Arbor, a loud and greasy ad executive. Robin disliked him from the start. He thought that his wife was sleeping with her assistant, a young man half her age. Robin thought that his suspicions were more projection than anything, but agreed to take the case anyways. They needed the business.

Their second client was a Lillian Devon, an older woman who had clearly spent an enormous amount of time and money trying to stop the passage of time. Though in her late fifties, she was preserved like Nerfertiti, with flawless skin and blonde hair with an unnaturally brassy sheen. She was a zumba fitness coach, who suspected that her husband was cheating. She was quite friendly, and clearly very anxious. She kept on repeating “I’ve never done anything like this before,” and ate all the biscuits.

Cormoran was quiet, letting Robin take control of the interviews, only chiming in every now and then. He watched her from the corner of his eye, Nick’s words drifting about in his head. You have to ask yourself if she’s worth it. Cormoran had loved every minute of his three day marriage to Robin. It had felt right, more right than anything else ever had.

Alyssa had urged him to tell Robin his feelings for her, but Cormoran didn’t know entirely what his feeling for her were. Saying that he fancied her felt childish and an extreme understatement. Saying that he loved her was sudden and overwhelming. Love had so many interpretations and meanings. Cormoran loved his mother, but he also loved chips, so who knew which he was comparing Robin to? He wished that he could put his love for her on a sliding scale. He didn’t know how he felt about her, all he knew was that she made him supremely happy, and that if he didn’t kiss her again he would regret it until the day he died.

At three Alyssa stuck her head into the office.

“Strike? Can I speak with you for a moment?”

Cormoran shrugged at Robin and followed Alyssa out to the hallway.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Are you going to tell her?” Alyssa asked.

“Tell her what?”

“How you feel, dumbass.”

“In the office? With you right here? It’s hardly professional.”

“If my presence is what’s holding you back, I’m going to go out and refill the tea and biscuits. I’ll be back in half an hour.”

“Wait, Alyssa-” Before he could finish his thought Alyssa had given him a little finger wave and disappeared.

Cormoran walked back into the office.

“What was that about?” Robin asked.

“She’s going to refill the tea and the biscuit tin.”

“Alright. We also need paper towels. I’ll text her and let her know.” Robin thought it was odd that Alyssa had called him aside to discuss something she did every week, but she let it slide.

Cormoran watched Robin and wondered if what Nick said was true. Was it possible that Robin could have romantic feelings for him? There was energy between them, of course, and tension, but Cormoran had always tried not to read anything into that.

He would do it. He would tell her how he felt. But doing it stone sober was just unnecessarily painful. He reached under his desk and pulled out a bottle of Jameson.

“Day-drinking? Really?” Robin asked. Cormoran shrugged and poured a generous helping into his mug.

“It’s three,” he said.

“Well I’m not going to let you do it alone,” she said, holding her own mug out with a smile, “That’s just sad.”

Cormoran poured her half a finger.

“To George and Sandra,” he said.

“To George and Sandra.” They clinked mugs and threw it back. Robin made a face. “I always forget just how much I hate whiskey,” she said.

Cormoran’s leg was bouncing up and down with nervousness. He knew he was turning red, he could feel it, and he tried to will his blood away from his face. He felt like a teenager on a first date.

“You alright?” Robin asked.

“Fine. Fine. Just a little…” He trailed off, staring around. “I have to use the john, sorry,” he said, standing up. Robin looked confused for a moment, but it passed.

“Yes, go ahead.”

 

Cormoran splashed water on his face and slapped himself on both cheeks. He rested his forehead on the mirror and took deep breaths. He shook out his hands, like that might keep them from trembling. Was he really going to do this? Was he going to put it all on the line? Their friendship, their business? He thought about Robin. Robin laughing, Robin dancing, Robin’s cool blue eyes grounding him as he relocated his knee. He sighed. Yes. It was worth it.

Robin looked up when he came back in. His face was still damp, and red from where he’d slapped himself. She stood immediately, concerned, and came to his side.

“Are you okay?” she asked, putting a hand on his arm, “Are you sick?”

“No, I’m fine, I just…” He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “You know how you said you’d miss George and Sandra?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t miss George and Sandra, but… Well, I do miss you.” He scratched at his neck. “Quite a lot, as it would seem.”

“You see me every day.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Can you be more specific?” Robin asked.

“I miss…” He scrunched his eyes up, trying to gain the courage. “I miss dancing with you every evening, and… And doing our briefings curled up next to you.” He felt like his words were coming out very far away, and wasn’t entirely sure that he was saying them at all. “And I miss sharing a bed at night, and waking up with you in the morning. And talking about things. And I miss... I miss kissing you.”

“You enjoyed that?” Robin asked, grinning, “I nearly killed you with that kiss.”

“Maybe…” he said, his heart pounding in his ears, “Maybe we could try again?”

Robin moved in until they were almost touching. He could see that her eyelashes were two-toned: blonde on the tips and brown at the base. This caught him off guard. How could you have two colors on one eyelash? He couldn’t remember how to breathe.

“I think I’d like that,” Robin said. Then she bridged the gap and her lips were touching his, close-mouthed, a little awkward and hesitant. Time went funny, breath went still. She pulled back, her eyes a question. Cormoran reached out and cradled her jaw with his hand, drawing her in again. Her arms came up around his neck and she pressed against him, her mouth opening slightly in a gasp of pleasure.

 

Kissing is a strange and wonderful thing. There is no biological function for it. It’s not like sex, which in its essence is for reproduction, or even hand holding, which comes from a basic protective instinct. Kissing is for no purpose but the bizarre and useless joy of it. And Robin found herself ringing with that bizarre and useless joy, she was buzzing from head to toe, she never wanted to do anything else for as long as she lived. She wanted to try every flavor, every style, every speed. She wanted tiny soft kisses like flower petals, and she wanted hard intense ones like the ocean. She wanted to bite his lips and feel his tongue on hers and feel his breath in her mouth and feel his hair in her hands. She wanted to do it all. So she did.

 

Eventually the door on the outer office banged open and Cormoran and Robin jumped apart. Robin sat down heavily, blushing furiously and beaming like a lighthouse.

“Hullo Alyssa,” Cormoran said, hurrying to his desk, his voice a bit shaky, “How are you?”

Alyssa stuck her head in the door, eyes narrowed. They were sitting at their separate desks, a look of profound innocence on their faces.

“Not as good as you, apparently,” Alyssa said.

 

Chapter Text

Cormoran was about to answer when his phone buzzed and he looked down. It was an email from Max with the header “recording”.

All of Cormoran’s embarrassment vanished.

“Max emailed me the recording,” he said.

“Oh my God.” Robin hurried to his side as he opened his email.

The message read,

“Hello Mr. Strike. I had some trouble with the recording device, but I think I got most of it. You mentioned you knew a good lawyer, and I think we’ll need one. It’s hard for me to thank you at the moment; my life is in pieces, after all. But I know that this is ultimately for the best, and I know that you have Amy’s interests at heart. I’m glad you caught this early, before she went too far. I can’t thank you yet, but I’m confident that I will be able to, soon enough. I wish you and Miss Ellacott all the best.”

Robin sighed heavily. Destroying relationships was par for the course in their line of business, but this felt different. She knew this couple, she’d shared with them, and she liked them a great deal.

Cormoran started the recording. At first there was nothing but rustling of fabric, and Robin’s heart fell. Then Colin’s voice rang out loud and clear.

“I didn’t know that Max was coming,” he said.

“He insisted,” Amy said, “But I promise he’s trustworthy.”

“I want this as badly as Amy does,” Max said. There was more rustling as they sat on the sofa, and the white noise machine turned on, masking them all in static. Cormoran swore and turned up the volume.

“I did some research on both of you,” Colin said, “I saw that you were Navy, Amy.”

“Yes. That’s where I was injured.”

“And Max, you’re a photographer?”

“Correct.”

“How exactly can you afford what I have to offer?”

“My mother,” Amy said, “Old money. Nobody will question it, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”

“How does this work, exactly?” Max asked, “What’s the process?”

“I’m not a drug dealer,” Colin said, “I don’t give out pills, I give out prescriptions. I worked with the NHS for twenty years, I’ve seen how it works, and I disagree with their practices. I’m a libertarian. I think that all drugs should be legalized. What you do with painkillers is your own business, not mine. If you decide to take them all at once, that’s your decision, not mine.”

“I just need to ease my pain,” Amy said, “That’s all.”

“Like I said, your decision.”

“How much do you charge? ” Max asked.

“Ten thousand for one prescription. It will need to be renewed once a year.”

“And it’s off the record?” Amy asked.

“Your pharmacists and doctors will never notice a thing. I do recommend, however, that you switch between pharmacies so that they don’t come to recognize you.”

“I doubt that it will come to that. I just need enough to help me sleep.”

The recording dissolved into static, then stopped. Robin and Cormoran looked at each other.

“Should be enough to implicate him,” Cormoran said.

“I should feel happy that we got him,” Robin said, “but I feel for Amy.”

“I talked to Ilsa. She’s agreed to represent Amy should it get that far.”

“Do you think their marriage will last?”

“We deal in divorce,” Cormoran said, “Breaking up marriages isn’t out of the ordinary.” He sighed. “But I agree, this is different. I hope they stay together.”

“Either way we’ve got Lachlan out of commission. That’s the important part.”

Cormoran leaned back in his chair.

“Would you like... dinner?” he asked. Robin smiled.

“Dinner sounds good.”

Chapter Text

They went to the Tottenham and ordered sandwiches and crisps, a glass of wine for Robin and a pint for Cormoran. Conversation flowed loose and easy. They refilled their drinks, then refilled them again, feeling buoyant and giddy and a bit nervous. Finally Robin stuffed the last of her sandwich in her mouth and leaned back in her chair.

“So what finally changed?” she asked. Cormoran didn’t need to ask what she was talking about.

“Alyssa,” he said, “And Nick, too.”

“What did they have to say?”

“That you were waiting for me, those nine months after your split with Matthew.”

“I was.”

“God, and I was the worlds biggest ass.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I’m sorry.” He stared into his drink. “When I was with Charlotte we were always breaking up and getting back together. We must have split ten times before the final go. I didn’t want you and Matthew to get together again and have me be an even bigger wedge in that relationship. It took me six months to finally realize you were done.”

“Six months? What were you doing for the other three?”

“Well, then I was just shy.”

Robin grinned and shook her head. Cormoran was a war hero, champion boxer, and ladies’ man extraordinaire, but somehow he had been too scared to voice that he fancied her.

“How long have you had feelings for me, then?” she asked.

“Feelings? Since day one.”

Robin let out a crow of laughter.

“Cormoran Blue Strike, you’ve harbored a crush on me for four years and never said a word?”

“Why? How long has it been for you?”

“Hard to say. Two years maybe. It was complicated.”

“You were married,” he agreed.

“Yeah. I didn’t really realize how much I liked you until you were with Elin, and I found myself getting profoundly jealous.” She drained the last of her wine and waved for it to be refilled. “I’m glad you waited to tell me,” she said.

“You are?”

“I needed to figure out who I was post-Matthew, before jumping into another relationship.” She froze, eyes wide. “If that’s what you want, I mean. A relationship.”

Cormoran smiled.

“Yes. I want a relationship with you.”

Robin giggled a bit and held her hand to her mouth. She realized vaguely that the room was starting to get a bit warm.

“This feels unreal. I can’t quite believe that it’s happening.”

Cormoran pensively traced the ring of water made by his pint on the table.

“We can take this slow, you know,” he said, “We don’t have to jump into bed right away.”

“I’ve had a full year of foreplay,” Robin said, “I’m ready. But for you... I don’t mind going slow. If that’s what you want.”

Cormoran was profoundly touched by Robin’s concern for his boundaries.

“Let’s just go see what happens,” he said.



It was dark by the time they split the check and headed outside, both walking with a bit of a sway from the alcohol in their system.

“Do you want to...” Robin started.

“Only if you want to,” Cormoran said hurriedly. Robin laughed.

“I don’t even know how I was going to end that sentence.”

“Me neither. But the answer stays the same. I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Robin wrapped her arm around his waist.

“You sure know how to turn a girl on.”

“Do you want to come up to my flat?” Cormoran asked, “Just to talk. Or whatever.”

“I like talking.” She tightened her arm around him. “I like whatever, too.”

Robin had been in Cormoran’s flat three times. Once after receiving the leg in the mail, and twice when the sewer had busted in the office and she’d used his bathroom.

    She tripped on the threshold and Cormoran caught her, both of them giggling.

    “Are you drunk, Robin?” Cormoran asked, amused.

    “I am not. I’m tripsy… tipsy. Ha!” She flopped down face-first on his bed, bouncing slightly. “Maybe I’m a little bit drunk.”

    “I wouldn’t say I’m stone sober either,” Cormoran said, sitting down next to her.

    “We did start drinking at three,” Robin said.

    “That was my fault,” Cormoran said, “I was nervous.”

    “Did you honestly think I’d say no?”

    “Of course.” He started ticking things off on his fingers. “I’m old. I’m fat. I’m grumpy. I smoke like a chimney. My hair looks like-“

Robin interrupted him by pulling him down into a kiss, giggling into his mouth so that their teeth knocked together.

“You’re absolutely gorgeous,” she said, “Body mind and spirit. Besides, it’s not like you don’t get yours. You’ve slept with some of the most beautiful women in the world.”

“None like you,” Cormoran said. Robin wrinkled her nose and smiled at him.

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” she said.

“I meant what I said in that first letter,” he said, “You make everything around you beautiful.”

He slid his hand down her back and over her ass. Robin shut her eyes and ducked her head in pleasure, biting her lip.

“God, I could just devour you,” he said. He moved his hand lower, sliding down between her thighs.

“Do it, then,” Robin said, her voice breathless. She flipped over so that she was facing him. “Devour me.”

Cormoran groaned slightly and bent down to kiss her collarbone.

“You’re drunk, Robin. A gentleman should never devour a lady when she’s drunk.”

“You’re drunk too.”

“Exactly.”

“So make some coffee, we’ll sober up, then we’ll make sweet love all night long.”

Cormoran smiled against her skin.

“You’re a temptress, you know that?” he said.

“I’ve never been called that before,” Robin said, “You must bring it out in me.” She looked down, a shadow of embarrassment behind her eyes. “I’ve only ever been with Matthew, you know. Nobody else.”

“Not Casey?”

“No. We did other stuff. Over-the-clothes type naughtiness. But he was very catholic and I was very… damaged.”

“We don’t have to have sex,” Cormoran said.

“No, I want to. With you, I want to.”

“Ah, thank god,” he whispered. Robin giggled and stretched her arms over her head.

“Ravish me, Cormoran.”

Cormoran looked down at Robin, considering. He’d had sex while drunk before, with no regrets and no repercussions on either side. He was confident that Robin would still remember this the next day, and fairly certain that she genuinely did want to have sex with him. But this was Robin, and he wanted to do it right. He had waited years for her, he wanted to be in his right mind when it happened.

“Let’s get some water so we’re not hungover in the morning,” Cormoran said, “Then I’ll ravish you.”

“Promise?” Robin pouted.

Cormoran kissed her and stood. By the time he turned around again with two glasses of water, Robin was sound asleep

Chapter Text

Robin woke up to the sound of rain drumming on the roof. The room was cold, but Cormoran’s warm arms were wrapped tightly around her, one hand on her stomach where her shirt had ridden up. She snuggled in closer, feeling him hard against her ass. Cormoran rumbled happily and nibbled at the nape of her neck.

“Morning monkey butt,” he murmured, his voice low and heavy with sleep. Robin could vaguely remember him waking her up the night before, giving her a glass of water, and tucking her gently into bed. She smiled at the memory.

“Hey you,” she said, rolling over to face him, noses almost touching. “Sorry I fell asleep on you last night.”

“You were sweet.”

“How many times now have you taken care of Drunk Robin?” she asked, “Although in the past I never woke up in your bed. I must say I like this development.”

“It’s an improvement,” Cormoran agreed, “We have plenty of time to make up for my past prudishness.” Robin hummed and pressed her lips to his stubbly chin. A distant peal of thunder growled in the distance, making Robin press closer.

“I love waking up to the sound of a storm outside,” she said.

“I love waking up to the sound of your snoring,” Cormoran said. Robin wrinkled her nose at him.

“No pillow wall between us this morning,” she said, “I can give you a good kick if I feel like it.”

Cormoran brushed her hair out of her eyes.

“I was half worried you’d wake up horrified to find yourself in my bed,” he said.

“I was drunk last night, but I wasn’t out of my mind,” Robin said, “I meant everything I said.”

Cormoran kissed her softly.

“Am I awake?” he asked, “Is this a dream?”

“Mm. I’ve never had a dream this good,” Robin said.

“In most of my dreams I have better breath,” Cormoran said.

Robin smiled and kissed him again, slow and lazy, no urgency or intense emotion, just savoring the gentle enjoyment of it. She pulled away and toyed with one of his curls, pulling it taut and watching it spring back.

“Nick and Ilsa are gonna flip when they find out about this,” she said.

“Let’s not even think about Lucy. She’ll want to throw a party.”

“I doubt we even have to tell Lucy, her supersonic radar is already pinging.”

“They’re bound to find out eventually. And I can't say I really mind,” Cormoran said.

“Me neither,” Robin agreed, “It’s strange, part of me wants to keep this as our little secret, with no interfering people to complicate it. The other part wants to print CORMORAN STRIKE FANCIES ME on a sandwich board and wear it everywhere I go.”

“Mm. If we stay in bed much later Alyssa will come knocking and we won’t have much of a choice.”

“Either way, we’re going to have to keep our professional work professional,” Robin said.

“You mean I can’t bend you over my desk and have my way with you?” Cormoran asked. Robin slid her leg in between his, making him catch his breath and hum in the back of his throat.

“Not in front of clients,” she said.

Chapter Text

They spent a large part of the day separate. Robin dashed home to change, then went back to the office to meet with their two appointments. Cormoran headed over to Ilsa's office to meet with Ilsa, Max, and Amy to hash out the legal issues of Amy’s defense.

Amy sat perched on her chair, as far from Max and Cormoran as she could be without making a scene. Her hair was stringy and unwashed, and she had dark circles under her eyes. Ilsa was all smiles and sympathy, offering everybody tea and biscuits, although Cormoran could tell from the sag in her shoulders that her mood was heavy.

“Now Amy, I want you to know that you can meet with me alone, if you would feel more comfortable that way,” Ilsa said.

“Max got me into this mess,” Amy said, “He’s gonna be here to get me out of it.”

“Alright,” Ilsa said, “Now I want you to know that right here you can tell me anything at all. I just need the truth, okay? Even if you think it’s bad, I need to know. I’m going to need all the facts in order to represent you best.”

Amy nodded.

“I can do that.”

“Mister Strike has told me the details of your case, and played me the recording,” Ilsa said, “I know that this is a difficult situation, but we’re actually in a good position right now. We have the recording, and we can use that to make a deal. Have you told Lachlan about any of this? The recording, Max’s suspicions, any of it? It’s alright if you did, I just have to know.”

“I didn’t tell him anything.”

“Alright. Did any money change hands? Did Lachlan actually give you the prescription?”

“Not yet. We were just talking it over. He was worried because George--” She glanced at Cormoran. “--Er, Mister Strike, had suspected him. He backpedaled.”

“Alright, that’s great. You haven’t done anything illegal yet.” She turned to Cormoran. “Can you get us in touch with Wardle? Will he be sympathetic?”

“I’ll contact him. I think I can get him to be open minded about it.”

“Amy, you might be asked to go undercover again as a Confidential Informant, so that we can catch him in the act. I would encourage you to agree with this f they request it, but it’s entirely up to you. If you don’t want to do that, we can find another way to get you off. It would probably be more complicated, but we could figure it out.”

“Would I be protected?” Amy asked, “Would it be safe?”

“I would make sure that Detective Wardle would take every precaution.”

“I think I could do that.”

“Excellent. Now if it comes to it and they don’t accept the deal, we are going to look into using your PTSD in your defense. This might involve a plea of insanity. I know you’re not insane, and that’s a nasty word, but that’s just the name of the plea. Would you be comfortable with that?”

“I’m not insane.”

“I know. But we have to look at all of our options.”

Amy sighed, then nodded.

“If it comes to that, yes. I’ll plead insanity.”

Ilsa leaned forward and looked Amy in the eye.

“Amy, we’re going to get you through this.”

****

“You want a ride home?” Ilsa asked, gesturing to Cormoran’s pronounced limp. Cormoran nodded gratefully.

“Thanks, I fucked up my knee on the trip.”

“Figured.”

“Nick told me about Omar,” Cormoran said, as they walked down to her car.

“Yeah. It’s shitty.” She sighed. “I don’t believe in any of my mums spiritual mumbo jumbo but sometimes feels like there’s a physical force in the universe that’s trying to keep up from having kids.”

“I’m sorry,” Cormoran said. Ilsa unlocked her Prius and they climbed in, Cormoran silently cursing how tiny her car was.

“Could be worse," she said, peeling out of the parking space, "My sister-in-law is pregnant, so at least my mum isn’t wishing for a grandchild anymore.”

“Is that going to be difficult for you, having a baby in the family?”

“I think I’m going to be having some long cries in the bathroom next family reunion. But I’ll be okay.”

“Reunion, right. I got the invitation for that. That’s in January, isn’t it? I’ll come down with you. I’ll pass you tissues through the bathroom door.”

Ilsa laughed. 

“We’d love to have you," she said, "I’m going to keep trying to push the adoption through, but we might have to start looking elsewhere.” 

“If there’s anything I can do…” Cormoran said.

“Actually, there is,” Ilsa said, “Distract me. Tell me something good.”

“Something good?” Cormoran wasn’t sure how to break his own news without overshadowing Ilsa’s. “Pope Francis is still cool, Malala is championing women’s rights, cancer research is improving…”

“Come on, something is making you happy,” Ilsa said, “Out with it.” She had noticed a change in him. He had bags under his eyes, but he moved loose and easy, and was quick to smile. She narrowed her eyes at him.

“What?” Cormoran asked.

“You seem different,” Ilsa said, “Relaxed. You haven’t flinched at my driving once.”

“Well, Nick gave me some excellent advice the other night… and I decided to take it.” He grinned shyly. Ilsa gasped dramatically and stared at him in open-mouthed joy. “Keep your eyes on the road, Ilsa, come on,” he said. She stared dutifully ahead, smiling like a cat with a canary in its jaws.

“You and Robin?” she asked.

“Who else would he give me advice about?”

Ilsa cackled.

“Your sister owes both me and Nick ten pounds,” she said.

“Lucy’s in on this too?” Cormoran asked, “Jesus.”

“She didn’t think you’d ever actually do it.”

“Yeah, she knows me too well. I have a bad habit of sabotaging my own happiness. What was the bet?”

“I thought Robin make the first move, Nick thought you would make the first move. Lucy thought neither of you would ever make a move, and you’d both die alone.”

“Well, give my thanks to Nick for believing in me. You would be right, though. Robin made the first move over a year ago.”

“This has been going on for a year !?” Ilsa yelped, swerving dangerously.

“What? No! I turned her down a year ago.”

“What the hell, Cormoran.”

“I know, I know. But she had just caught Matthew cheating the day before, and it wasn’t the right time. I just assumed she wanted me as a rebound. But then we spent this last weekend together, and…” Cormoran shrugged. “It just all came together.”

“So did you two... do it?”

“‘Do it?’ What are we, twelve?”

“Well did you?”

“Not yet. We got too drunk and fell asleep.” He grinned. “But I’m optimistic about the future.”




Chapter Text

Cormoran got back into the office around five-thirty, and was greeted by the sounds of Alyssa and Robin laughing uproariously. They were sitting on the sofa when he entered, eating takeaway from Lahpet.

“Join us,” Alyssa said, “We got that stringbean dish you can’t get enough of.” Cormoran sat and opened the box of dry roasted string beans with a sigh of contentment.

“You two are fantastic,” he said.

“How’s Amy?” Robin asked.

“Pissed off. Understandably so. But she wanted to have Max in the room with her, so I’m hopeful. And Ilsa’s taking good care of her. How were the two new clients?”

“Good. Standard. One crier, one yeller.”

“The crier was hilarious,” Alyssa said, “She’s a former opera diva and when she cried it sounded like a whistling teapot.”

“In other news, Alyssa is mean,” Robin said, grinning.

“Hardly news at this point,” Cormoran said. Alyssa flipped him off with a graceful finger. Cormoran chuckled and reached for another carton of Burmese food. He spotted a piece of construction paper on the table, with a crude child’s drawing on it.

“What’s this?” he asked. Alyssa and Robin burst into giggles.

“Zahara was supposed to draw her family in school,” Alyssa said.

There were four figures drawn in crayon. One was tall with long, waist-length hair, labelled “Mummy”. Then there were two smaller versions of the same, labelled “Me” and “Angel”. Then, off in one corner, was a skinny pink figure with a jaggedy smile and no hair at all. It was labelled “Shanker”. Cormoran laughed.

“It looks just like him!” he said.

“Her teacher asked her if that was her daddy. She said no. So the teacher asked if it was her uncle, and she said no. Finally the teacher was like ‘So what is a Shanker?’ and my baby girl says ‘Mister Shanker keeps us safe and shanks the bad guys.’”

“He’s going to love that,” Cormoran said, “Shanker the super hero.” He leaned back. “Speaking of whom, I hear he’s gotten a job as a bouncer at a bar.”

“Our Shanker?" Robin said with a look of mock surprise, "Gainfully employed? I wonder what could have caused him to leave his questionable lifestyle.”

“Certainly wasn’t me," Cormoran said, "Now I have to find myself a new informant.”

“Fine!” Alyssa huffed, “I told him that I’d only date him if he left the life.”

“And he did? Just like that?” Robin asked.

“Of course not,” Alyssa said, “Crime is what he does. It’s all his friends, his family. You quit overnight you get killed. But it’s a start.”

“My mum always wanted him to quit,” Cormoran said, “It’s like quitting a drug.”

“I have terrible taste in men,” Alyssa said, “I'm looking before I leap this time.”

“I'd say he’s a good guy, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it,” Cormoran said, “But he’d die before hurting you or the girls. I’ll give him that.”

"I know," Alyssa said, "He's proved that to us many times." She checked her watch.

“Speaking of which, they'll be expecting me home soon. Chris may be a good enough guy, but he's a shit math tutor and Zahara needs help with her homework. I should get going. Thanks for the dinner, Robin.”

“Any time.”

Alyssa helped Robin put the leftover boxes of takeaway into the refrigerator, then grabbed her coat and purse and hugged both of them goodbye. She turned before heading out the door.

“Have fun tonight,” she said, with a pointed wink.

 

They listened to the sound of her footsteps receding down the hallway. Robin walked to the sink and poured herself a glass of water, wondering how their office had suddenly gotten so quiet. Cormoran stood, draining his mug of tea.

“So…” he started.

In two steps Robin was in his arms, her hands around the back of his neck. He kissed her breathlessly, like a man starved, nearly bending her backwards in his enthusiasm.

Finally he pulled away for air and rested his forehead on hers. She was wearing a very familiar, very tight white sweater.

“You wore this sweater…” he managed.

“My first day working for you, yes. I had to do some digging to find it. I’ve gained quite a bit of weight since then.”

“You just get more beautiful every day,” Cormoran said. He ran his hands up her sides, feeling the warmth of her skin under the soft cashmere. “This is a very nice sweater.”

Robin giggled and caught his mouth with hers, smiling against his lips.

“Just wait till you see what I’ve got on underneath,” she said.

“You gonna give me a hint?”

“Well it’s not a shirt, I’ll tell you that.”

Cormoran growled into her mouth.

“I’m not drunk tonight,” Robin murmured around kisses.

“Mm. I noticed.”

“So you don’t have to be a gentleman anymore.”

“No?” Cormoran was only half listening, distracted by the spot right below her earlobe.

Robin slid her hands down his chest.

“No. You can take me upstairs and do all kinds of… ungentlemanly things to me.”

“I’m always a gentleman,” Cormoran said, “A gentleman always knows how to treat a lady. And I plan on treating you very well.”

Robin pressed against him, feeling him hard against her stomach.

“I can’t say I’m feeling particularly ladylike,” she said.

Chapter Text

 

Cormoran’s flat seemed somehow smaller than ever. The air felt so thick with potential and energy it seemed to crackle every time they moved. Cormoran was starkly aware that there was no place to sit but the bed. They had been in here last night, but that had been different. They had been drunk, and none of it had seemed overly important or serious. Now the significance of what might happen was pressing in. He felt awkward, like a teenager, like he suddenly had too many hands and feet and didn’t know what to do with them. He couldn’t remember how to talk. Robin sat down next to him on the bed.

“Your hands are shaking,” she said.

“I’m nervous.”

She took his trembling hands in hers and held them tight. She brought them to her lips and kissed his knuckles.

“I’m nervous too,” she said.

“I want to do this right.”

“It’s you and me. It’s going to be right no matter what.” She smiled up at him. “Isn’t that what George said?”

“Mm. George was a wise man.”

“Still can’t get over that it’s my uncle’s name, though.”

Cormoran laughed, then they were laughing together, kissing and laughing into each other’s laughter.

Then they weren’t laughing anymore, and it was just learning each other’s rhythm and breath and pressure. They tasted and explored and experimented, teeth and tongue and lip. Cormoran couldn’t find an inch of Robin’s exposed skin that he didn’t want to kiss. Her nose, her eyelids, each fingertip. He worked his way from her ears down her collarbone, making her gasp and lean back, offering him more access. Her skin tasted salty and real. He rested his head on her shoulder, and Robin ran her hand through his hair.

“Hey,” she murmured. Cormoran smiled.

“Hey.”

“Come here, lie down with me.” She laid back on the bed and he laid down facing her. He took her hand and held it between them.

“I’ve wanted this for a long time,” he said.

“Me too. It’s a lot to wrap my head around.” A tremor of worry passed across her eyes.

“What’s making you nervous?” Cormoran asked. Robin huffed out half a laugh.

“Am I that transparent?” She asked. Then she sighed. “What if this goes south?” she asked, “What if we discover that we actually can’t stand each other, or we can’t make it work? If this goes tits up, it’s not just a relationship ending. It’s our jobs, our friendships. It's a lot bigger than just you and me.”

Cormoran ran his thumb over her knuckles.

“Ah, Robin…” He said her name in half a sigh that made her shiver. “No matter what happens, we will always be partners. I promise.”

Robin smiled.

“Partners,” she said. Cormoran pursed his lips thoughtfully.

“Look, I don’t have a ring hidden in my pocket or anything,” he said, “but… I don’t plan on going anywhere.”

“Me neither,” Robin said. Cormoran smiled.

“You say that now, but you haven’t seen how hairy my back is,” he said, “You might run away screaming.”

Robin laughed.

“I like how hairy you are,” she said, “You’re like a wild animal.”

Cormoran grinned and rolled on top of her, his elbows on either side of her head.

“Just how wild do you want?” he asked.

“Depends. How much can you handle?” Robin fire, fire in her eyes. Cormoran growled and bent down, biting her where her neck met her shoulder. Robin let out a soft whimper and pressed her body against him. He dragged his open mouth down the neckline of her sweater, teeth and tongue playing against her skin until she was writhing under him. He ran his hands up under her sweater and across her bare stomach.

“Can I…take your sweater off?” he asked. Robin smiled at his hesitancy, his determination to get her vocal consent.

“Yes,” she said. She sat up. “Here, I’ll turn out the light…” Cormoran touched her hand gently.

“Wait, could we… Leave it on? Please?” he asked. Robin shot him a questioning look, but lowered her arm.

“I suppose. Why?”

“I just… I want to see you. To look at you,” he said.

To his surprise and concern, Robin gave a little gasp and her eyes turned bright and wet.

“Oh God,” he said hurriedly, “No, we can turn it off. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she said, smiling, “Leave it on.” She looked up at the ceiling and blinked several times. “It’s… Matthew always insisted on the lights off. He said it was sexier... not seeing me.”

“Fuck me, that man is certifiable,” Cormoran breathed. He took her face in is hands. “Robin Ellacott.” She tried to look away, but he held her fast until she finally looked him in the eye. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”

“You really are going to make me cry,” she said, beaming. Cormoran leaned in and pressed tiny kisses her on her cheeks. He wanted to kiss away every tear that had ever been there, that would ever be there. Hundreds of kisses, one for each day he hadn’t been with her. Then Robin found his mouth with hers, open-mouthed and wet and hot, biting his bottom lip as Cormoran unbuttoned her sweater and slid it off her shoulders. He sucked in his breath. She wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath, just lacy black bra, sheer almost to the point of invisibility except for two delicate flowers, conveniently placed. He liked how it contrasted to her pale, freckled skin. He ran his fingers over the curved edge, barely touching her, watching the way her skin trembled. He could see the outline of her nipples under the lace flowers and ran his thumb over them, listening to her breath catch.

“Can I take this off too?” he asked. Robin reached behind her and unbuckled the bra, sliding it off onto her lap. Cormoran leaned forward, resting his forehead on hers, and tried to catch his breath. He stared down between them at her bare chest. He ran his hands over her shoulders and down her arms.

“You can… touch me, you know,” Robin said. That was all it took, and Cormoran’s rough warm hands were cupping her breasts, his mouth sucking hard on one nipple, then the other. Robin let out a little squeak of pleasure and buried her hands in his hair. She wrapped her legs around his waist and pulled him back down on top of her.

Robin wanted his skin. She wanted to be close to him, to be connected, to feel him against her. She wrestled with his shirt buttons until she gave up, laughing, and let him take his shirt off on his own.

She ran her hands down over his chest, experimenting with the texture under her fingers. He was very hairy, dark fur spreading in a line down to his stomach. She decided that she liked it. Cormoran was looking at her with something like trepidation, and she smiled up at him.

“You’re soft,” she said, “It’s nice.”

She traced his hair from his chest down his stomach, then lower, down where it disappeared into his waistband. Cormoran gasped and twitched as she traced the hard warm outline of his cock through his jeans, her eyes wide and serious. Then she pulled him in and kissed him hard, running her tongue along his teeth.

It was all Cormoran could do to keep from grinding her down into the mattress with all his weight. He was painfully hard, hungry and desperate for her. His hips bucked against her involuntarily and he tried to pull back, not wanting to push her too fast, but she pressed herself closer to him, rubbing against him. He kissed her hard on the mouth, tongue touching tongue.

“Can I take your-” he started. Robin giggled.

“For the sake of timeliness just take it all off,” she said. He peeled off her skirt, then her leggings, then her panties, removing each item with deep and almost somber reverence. Then he laid her back on the bed and drank in the sight of her. This was Robin. Robin. In his bed, naked, lain out for him. She really wanted him. Him! He shook his head in disbelief.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” he said. He ran his hand from her shoulder down to her belly, like he couldn’t believe that she was really there. He buried his nose in her shoulder and breathed in deep, her warm sand smell. “God, now I’m the one that’s going to start crying,” he said. Robin ran her fingernails over the back of his head.

“That might be the most wonderful thing anyone has ever said to me,” she said.

“There’s so many things I want to do to you,” he rumbled.

“Do it all,” Robin said, “do everything. But first...” Cormoran looked up at her, his chin resting on her shoulder. “First, take off your fucking trousers.”

Cormoran grinned, then jumped up and fumbled with his belt and his zipper. He couldn’t remember ever taking off his leg so fast. Robin admired him from where she laid spread out on the bed. She could feel her heart in her throat, and nothing but pure want pulsing through her veins. He was beautiful, his body both muscular and soft, and Robin stared freely. He reached into a small bedside drawer and Robin’s stomach flipped to see him pulling out a jar of lotion. Then he crawled back on top of her and kissed her like a man dying of thirst. He ran his open mouth from her neck, down between her breasts, and over her stomach, hot and wet, with a hint of teeth that made Robin moan.

He caressed her thighs, then gently, gently eased her knees apart.

He stared down at her in open wonder. Robin couldn’t remember ever being looked at that way before, certainly not by Matthew.

“God, Robin, I just want to study you,” he murmured.

“I hope you learn by doing,” Robin said. Cormoran grinned.

“Oh believe me, I am a very hands-on learner.” He dipped his fingers into the jar of lotion, then slid them up her slit, spreading her open. Robin gasped a bit at the sensation, and he paused.

“Keep going,” she said, “Please.”

He let out a contented little sigh at the sight of her, the smell of her.

“Fuck, you’re beautiful.”

Robin’s giggle turned into a sudden whimper as he bent down and licked a long stripe up her center. Her fingers tightened on his sheets. He found her clit and sucked, gently, then harder until she let out a high moan and moved her hands into his hair. One foot rose gracefully into the air, giving him more. He took the invitation to sink one slippery pinky finger into her. Her groan turned low and breathless, emanating from deep inside of her. He started a rhythm. His eyes followed her, watching for what she liked, seeing what placed and pressures made her jerk or moan. He tried licking her higher up, then low, zigzagging his way over her, testing her response. Then he sped up, flicking her clit with his tongue, faster than Robin could handle. Heat built inside her, rising like a tsunami, and she gripped his hair so tight she thought she might tear it out, pulling him in, thrusting against his face. Then it hit like an electric current. Her voice rose in a long wordless cry of pleasure and she jerked and shook under his ministrations, her eyes rolled back.

He guided her through it, pushing her to the limit but slowing as she slowed. Finally she fell limp.

He wiped his mouth and crawled up to sit next to her, leaning against the headboard. He brushed the hair out of her eyes.

“Hey,” he said. Robin smiled, her eyes still shut.

“Hey.”

“You okay?”

“Mm-hmmm.”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. Then, with shocking speed, she darted out a hand and grabbed the jar of lotion. She sat up and coated her fingers in it until they were dripping.

“I’m just getting started,” she said.

She kissed him heavy, drinking him in. Then she eased her tight wet fist down over his cock. Cormoran let out a high gasp of breath. The lotion was cool at first, but warmed up quickly under her hand as she pumped up and down, alternating between fast and slow. She added another hand, twisting them back and forth.

“Robin- Robin, wait,” Cormoran gasped. She paused and looked up at him. “Slow down or I’ll come from a hand job.”

She smiled wolfishly.

“And that’s a problem?”

“Well- if you were okay with it, I was thinking…” He was having trouble catching his breath. He fumbled with the bedside drawer again and pulled out a foil-wrapped condom. Robin grinned slow.

“I’d like that too,” she said, grabbing the wrapper and tearing it open. She looked down at his cock, momentary concern flashing over her face. He was a bit longer than Matthew, and thicker across. “It’s been a while,” she said, “I might have to take it slow.” Cormoran took her face in his hands.

“As slow as you like,” he said, “You have total control.” Then he swallowed hard, because her hand was back on him, sliding the condom down to the base. She took his hands in hers and slowly lowered herself down, inch by inch.

Her eyes were closed and she took deep, shuddering breaths as he eased into her. It was almost too much, toeing the line between pleasure and pain, but not going too far. Just enough, Robin decided. He was just enough. She leaned forward, both of them whimpering in pleasure as he shifted deeper. He moved his hands to her back, gripping her tightly.

“Fuck, Robin…”

Then she was moving, slowly, feeling every ridge of his cock inside of her. He leaned in and buried his face in her breasts, his hands sliding down to cup her ass. Robin reached between them to touch herself. She sped up, feeling the friction on his skin on hers, gasping at the ceiling. She was still sensitive from his previous ministrations and it only took a moment before she was tightening around him. She cried out and dug her fingernails into his shoulder, hard, as she came. She was all around him, all of Cormoran’s senses were filled with her. Her tightening around him was the final straw, and Cormoran threw his head back, his face creased and tight.

“God, Robin! Fuck!”

His movements were out of his control now, and he jolted and bucked against her. She gripped the back of his head, pulling him close as he came in a hot rush inside of her.

Cormoran slumped back. His face was wet and he wasn’t sure how it had gotten that way. Robin kissed him, long on the mouth, then on both cheeks, his forehead, his neck. She laughed a bit, wiping her eyes. Cormoran caught his breath, his chest heaving. They both groaned a bit as he pulled out. He expertly removed and tied the condom, then tossed in into the bin next to his bed.

He laid back and Robin rested her cheek on his chest. She could hear his heartbeat slowing as he relaxed. She stretched her leg across his, and he rubbed a gentle pattern on her thigh with his thumb.

“Have I ever told you what a nice person you are?” Cormoran said. Robin laughed.

“You may have mentioned it once or twice.”

They laid somewhere between waking and sleep until time went blurry; drifting on the sounds of their hearts and lungs mingling with the drumming of rain on the roof and the static of the city. The world beyond the flat was enormous and a bit frightening, but they were safe and small in their warm little room. Outside the rainy grey sky went on infinitely above them, the honking cabbies and clouds of black umbrellas stretched out in every direction, but Robin and Cormoran were secluded away in their tiny attic, with yellow light and the gentle in and out of their breathing.

Eventually Cormoran shifted and reached for the little drawer again.

“Baby I don’t care what else is in your naughty drawer, I can’t go again, I’m spent.”

Cormoran pulled out two Snickers bars.

“Not even a snack?” he asked. Robin laughed and grabbed one of the candy bars

“Jesus, what all is in there?”

“Just the basics. Anything I need in the night when I don’t feel like crutching about.” He unwrapped his chocolate and took a bite. “You’re the only woman I’ve had up in my room, you know,” he said.

“Really!”

Cormoran nodded solemnly.

“Usually I insist on going over to their place. I rely heavily of the naughty drawers of others.”

“Well I feel very honored with the privilege of seeing yours,” Robin said.

“So… do you have one?”

“I do. Maybe someday I’ll even show it to you.”

They ate their chocolate sitting naked on the bed, with a strangely casual picnic feeling. They couldn’t stop staring, laughing a bit when they caught each other’s wandering eyes. Eventually they finished and leaned back against the headboard.

“You’re very good at pleasuring a woman,” Robin said, “Although I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve seen the way you devour peaches.”

Cormoran laughed out loud.

“Is that why you called me a peach eating bastard in your sleep?”

“Did I? It figures. You drove me to distraction.”

“You’re like a peach,” he said. A sheen of sweat ran from her collarbone down between her breasts, and he traced it with a finger. “Like you, peaches are delicious, and pink, and light up a room.” He traced her round hip with the back of his hand. “Like you, they fill me with great joy. And... I love them.”

He looked her in the eye, smiling a bit shyly, giving her the chance to ignore his meaning.

Robin smiled. She understood.

Chapter Text

Cormoran woke up the next morning feeling more comfortable than he ever had in his life. He was being held tight, Robin’s arms around his arms, her naked body warm against his back, her gentle breathing on his ear. He stretched out his legs with a contented yawn. Robin stirred, smacking her lips and mumbling sleepily into his hair. Cormoran brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles.

“Hey, you,” Robin said, her voice cracking a bit.

“I’m not usually the little spoon,” Cormoran said.

“I was almost always the big spoon with Matthew,” Robin said, “He would get too turned on as the big spoon and grind on me in his sleep. Not very restful for either of us.”

“If I wiggle my ass, does it turn you on?” Cormoran asked. He wiggled his bum around, making Robin laugh.

“Your ass is at about knee level on me,” she said, “So no.” He wiggled again.

“Am I making your knees hard?”

“Ah, yes, knee boners. Is that why your knee is twice its normal size?” Robin asked.

“According to some of the letters in the nutter drawer, my amputated stump can be used as a sexual organ.”

They giggled until their stomachs hurt, then took a moment to breathe. When Cormoran spoke again his voice was thoughtful and serious.

“You know what I’m feeling?” he asked.

“What?”

“I’m excited.”

Robin smiled.

“Yeah?”

“For most of my life, whenever I put too much stake in something, I ended up being disappointed,” Cormoran said, “My mum would say that we were getting a cat, or that I’d have a great birthday party with a giant chocolate cake, or even that we’d have a place to sleep the next night, and I’d get so excited, and I’d tell Lucy, and we’d be looking forward to it, and then…” He stretched out his hands to mimic an explosion. “Then Leda would happen, and it would all go to shit.”

Robin ran her hands through his hair, listening intently.

“So I’ve been in a lifelong habit of expecting the worst,” Cormoran went on, “Even things I’m looking forward to, I tell myself that they’ll probably be awful. Potential client? They won’t pay well. Nick and Ilsa adopting? It won’t happen, and if it does the kid will be a monster and they’ll become so preoccupied with parenting, we’ll never see each other again. New relationship? It will fail horribly. Everything I do, it’s like all I can see is it dying.”

He rolled over to face Robin.

“But this. This.” His eyes were bright with childlike anticipation. “God, Robin, I’m so excited. I’m excited for the first time since I was a kid. I can’t wait to see what happens. Even the bad times. God I just can’t wait to have bad times with you.”

Robin kissed him, then kissed him again, and again. Warm smiling kisses, holding something deeper.

“Do you have any idea how much I adore you?” she murmured. Cormoran grinned against her mouth.

“I’m beginning to get a picture.”

Robin pulled away, her hands still in his hair.

“So where do we go from here?” she asked.

Cormoran pulled her close.

“Everywhere,” he said.