"Have everything?" James hovered by driver's side door and cast a glance to the back seat of the car where his guitar case and their laptops were settled with a cooler of drinks for the drive.
"Yes," Robbie smiled his reply. James always kept a running mental checklist when he left the house, even if it was as simple as 'keys, wallet, phone' and not until they were well away from the flat would the fussing die down for a trip like this.
"Toothbrushes?" James was more reciting things out loud than he was asking, "Chargers!"
"Really, James I used to pack for a family of four. The chargers are in the bag," Robbie said plainly and finally opened the passenger door to sink into his seat. It was a wordless 'move it along' and James bandied about only a moment longer before he settled behind the wheel.
"In the bag with my vacation shirt," Robbie cast a sidelong glance and smirked.
James groaned, "You found it."
"You didn't hide it well enough. Not enough to foil me," Robbie chuckled triumphantly.
"You may make a half decent detective someday, young man," James said with a gruff smirk as he started the car.
Robbie's eyebrows bobbed as he played along, "You think I could make Inspector like you?"
James shook his head and cracked a window before he finally pulled the car out. He was quiet, likely still going over the last few items on his checklist. The moment he stopped thinking about it, the flat was no longer in sight and he seemed to relax. James cast Robbie a look, "Did you talk to Lyn?"
"Aye, lad," Robbie's exasperation came in a light sigh and as he laid his hand on James's knee he felt him relax further, "She actually called me. They are off to some thing for a friend out of town. Her inlaws have the bairn. Wasn't more than a minute chat, she was busy," Robbie shrugged. He knew that the real reason for James's anxiety wasn't as simple as leaving a phone charger behind and very much to do with what Robbie wasn't saying.
Very recently Robert Lewis had come to the conclusion that he knew very little about how relationships worked. He knew very well how to be married to Val and he had come as close as anyone could to understanding how Morse worked and being a good father was always a continuing process. He could, even now, tell you how to navigate around one of his wife's poor moods or tell you which spot on her neck had turned her to jelly. He could tell from a piece of music what Morse was feeling or how many drinks he'd had by the severity of his limp. He could change a nappy and bandage a knee and serve as a pillow for his entire family if necessary but Lewis had spent so much of his life curating the proper balance between home life and work life, extending his efforts and love with such specificity and care, that he didn't much know how to do it for anybody else. When he lost them both he had also lost a huge part of himself.
Meeting James had not only forced him to recognize this, but the young man seeped in and filled in a bit of that empty place inside him. He was whip smart and enigmatic and in some very eerie ways he was a bit like Morse. But James was kinder where Morse had been long jaded and had a whole life ahead of him, while Morse simply had stared back at his with regret. Robbie found he needed a partner, he needed that companionship and care, and very quickly he knew it was meant to be James. Robbie may have been rusty when it came to high maintenance men with lofty intellects, and they may have frequently butted heads, but things that mattered clicked immediately. James was, it turned out, a much more attentive partner than Morse had ever been.
Suddenly it was like he'd got one good foot on solid ground and with his work life finally stable Robbie felt himself moving forward. That longing for touch and closeness had been creeping back, that desire to have someone always there, to wake up with someone in his arms. Ever-present warmth. After avoiding any romantic attachments for too many years he'd finally took the plunge with Laura, trying to explore what had been tiptoed around since his return to Oxford. It was so long coming and so full of ups and downs, that Robbie was determined that this would be it.
But it wasn't easy, it wasn't smooth and it was hardly the sweeping surety of love that had so easily come to him in the past. Robbie took the advice of those around him, he bent when his gut told him to break, and by the time he was getting on a plane with her to New Zealand, he'd thrown it all on the line. Robbie was sure and confident all the way up to the last moment that this was exactly what he wanted.
And then he heard Hathaway say goodbye to him. He told him he'd miss him. He heard his voice break and his confidence began to crumble. Robbie got the sudden urge to hug him, grab him and hold him and not let go. It was new and unexpected and it surged through him entirely unsatisfied as his friend turned and disappeared into the crowd and that gaping space in Robbie cracked open anew.
Lewis had never been much of an impulsive person. He was steady and methodical and even when a rash decision was needed he did his best to think things through. He was the safe bet and he'd spent his life making sure to keep everyone around him as protected as he could and now, so very suddenly, this all felt risky and foolish.
True or not, Robbie felt pushed into it. He had leaned into other people's advice with the assumption that they could see the forest for the trees when he could not. He became convinced that he had caved to pressure, his own and Laura's and, yes, even James. He wasn't ready for this. He wasn't feeling it. But Robbie was already sitting on a plane next to the woman he'd been seeing for quite some time and even in his confusion he wasn't a complete bastard. He loved Laura, yes, and he couldn't back out now. But this love, somehow, didn't feel like it was enough.
Their vacation had been pleasant, all things considered, and meeting her family had been lovely but pleasant wasn't what either of them had wanted. Laura was quick with a talk when they made their return to Oxford. Their relationship felt like a marriage that they'd entered midway through. There was no blissful honeymoon phase, only the methodical comfort and daily maintenance. The stomach tumbling excitement, the adoration, the nerve tingling romance - it simply wasn't there.
The talk turned into a defensive argument and Robbie, usually reserved enough, had let the dam break. His unhappiness and aimless resentment over some of the things she'd said (something about her comparing him to Morse still bit at him the wrong way) were probably unreasonable, but understanding that didn't erase the anxious edgy feeling that plagued too much of their quiet time together or reared and struck from him every time they had a small row. He hadn't expected any new relationship to be a cakewalk but he also hadn't expected this. They parted ways as friends, they'd known one another too long for that not to stick, but it was very obvious that certain things would never be fully reconciled. Laura deserved someone who could put the work in for her and Robert Lewis was not that man.
There had only been a brief phone call of warning before he showed up on James's doorstep with only a couple bags and the miserable weight of guilt on his shoulders. Seeing James again, still a tall drink of water with his shock of blonde hair, felt like a gasp of long held breath. He was fresh air. Robbie had been dangling off a precipice since that day at the airport and James finally in front of him again was the stability he craved. Robbie struggled with the overwhelming feeling of failure now that he'd left Laura but even if he wanted to talk he'd never found a way. James never pressed either, clearly wanting to respect his boundaries and keep his mind off it, and eventually the idea of talking simply went away. Time simply passed and life went back to normal and then the idea of bringing it up seemed irrelevant.
It took six months before Robbie figured out that he was in love with him. It took a week to convince himself that what he was feeling wasn't a rebound or misplaced affection. It was several months more before he'd worked out that if he made a move it may not be rejected. There was surprisingly little thought about them both being men and that he'd never fancied men before. It didn't feel especially strange. It wasn't about him being a man. It was about him being James.
They'd shared their first kiss on the sofa in front of the telly, both wearing ratty weekend clothes and enjoying beers after takeaway curry. It was as unremarkable a story as any Robbie could think of but it still made his fingers tingle and his insides flutter, and it stuck in his mind as about as perfect an evening as he'd ever had. The spark was there, the nervous excitement, and that thrill of something new. It was fire and life.
They were both stubborn and both new at this and while sharing feelings was often difficult, affection wasn't. James was still a clever clogs, still prone to the impulse to throw it all in at any moment, and Robbie was a still cranky old sod. Nothing with them was ever simple but this was a challenge they decided to tackle together. Each new discovery was a fresh joy and each difficulty became all the more satisfying when it was overcome.
Now they were sitting in the car about to leave for their first a holiday together that wasn't simply a long weekend. It would be their first real trip as a couple, now that they'd finally decided that they were one, and it was planned rather hastily.
As James fell silent and stared at the road, one very glaring detail hung over the whole affair, neither of them had told their family. Robbie wasn't afraid of being judged, he just hadn't found the right moment - or so he was telling himself. James, on the other hand, hadn't said it but seemed very concerned about being judged. Not by his sister or even at work, but Robbie was a father and a grandfather and even though they'd been close for years, an intimate relationship with a younger man was sure to undergo scrutiny. He was paranoid, not for himself, but for Robbie's comfort. Neither of them were ashamed, far from it, but a committed and public relationship with a man was an entirely new experience with a whole new mess of troubles and insecurities for two blokes who were, in the description of others who would remain nameless, emotionally stunted.
"You called your sister?" Robbie rejoined the conversation once they'd gotten on the motorway.
James cut his eyes to him and his mouth pressed into a hard line that tightened in a seam along his jaw before he answered, "She wasn't happy I was going away with dad how he is. So, no. I didn't really get a moment to say, 'Remember DI Lewis? Yes my old boss. Yes my work partner. Well we're buggering.'"
"She does know I live there at least?" Robbie hadn't actually ever left James's flat. The mutual company had been preferable at first and while Robbie didn't truly want to lose it he'd begun looking for his own place after about a month. James had stoically supported him at first but begun sporting a kicked puppy look midway through his real estate hunt. One day, as if he couldn't hold it anymore he'd snapped and only upon coaxing it out of him asked Robbie to stay. It was actually rather adorably awkward as he presented the idea as a well thought out business proposal. He had a veritable dissertation on the many points of convenience for the both of them. Robbie had laughed at the formality but was charmed by the effort. He'd agreed to stay quickly, not in the least bit for what he thought was misguided hope and his growing feelings for the lad, but also for fear that James would produce a powerpoint presentation on their combined incomes and sensible budgeting along with the long term health benefits.
"Anyway, you looked after your dad when she went away a few weeks ago," Robbie was doing his best not to feel too prickly when it came to this topic. He was a hypocrite and knew it, but at least his Lyn knew they shared a flat.
"You know we aren't the sharing types. No one asks questions and… I don't know. We never volunteer anything beyond what's necessary to move ourselves along." James, the more he talked, sounded more and more sorry for it. "I haven't even been to her place. I don't know if she has anyone or even a pet.."
He blinked blue eyes at Lewis in his clear attempt to lighten the mood, "She seems like a cat person." James coaxed now with a sad smile for bait, "I miss Monty."
"Monty was a right old pain in the ass."
"You loved him," James teased.
"You're a right pain in the ass too."
"And you love me too."
"That I do," Robbie was very familiar with the blonde's particular brand of quiet melancholy and it had a tendency to strike at the oddest times, so he accepted shelving the topic for the sake of smooth travel. James was already so steeped in Catholic guilt that you could practically see it dripping off of him. There was no reason to make it worse on the way to holiday.
Robbie squeezed James's knee where his hand always settled and realized that the disappointing pluck that came from the current secrecy of their relationship must have been far worse for his young man. He and his family didn't really communicate and had a tough go of it. His dad was fading and the rift with his sister was a work in progress. Robbie, on the other hand, talked to Lyn all the time. The topic not coming up, slipping his mind, or not seeming like the right time began to sound more and more like poor and obvious avoidance.
"Y'aren't in a life debt over your dad. You're doing your best. Don't feel guilty for taking some time for yourself," Robbie reinforced carefully.
"I know," James gave him a smile, a quick and grateful glance away from the road to the man beside him and then back. He plucked a cigarette from behind his ear and adopted a more genial tone, "Put something on. I know you've been secretly working the app by yourself for months."
Robbie straightened with a quick twitch of guilt but a smile worked over his face, "I won't ask how you know.." Was a cyber footprint a thing? "But I think I can manage."
They'd taken to listening to audiobooks in the car and a lot of the free ones were classics that had long since fallen under public domain. It was interesting to revisit the old stories and some neither of them had ever been given a chance to read before. The narrator identities also always stirred up conversation about old movies which made it onto their ever growing 'To Watch' list.
"H.P. Lovecraft," James glanced a moment, "I queued up Shadow Over Innsmouth. He's a horrific racist, fair warning, but a genuinely spooky story. You just have to press play."
Robbie scrolled the phone in his free hand and rested his head back against the seat. After reading the description he chuckled and pressed play, "This is what you pick for our holiday to the seaside? Elder Gods and fish cults in quaint seaside villages?"
"Don't worry, sir," Long held habit couldn't be erased but Robbie rather liked 'Sir' in place of more sappy nicknames. Somehow it worked for them, "The Deep Ones prefer New England."
Robbie snorted as he closed his eyes. The drive would be long, "You're certainly enough of a deep one for me, lad."
They were exhausted from the drive by the time they'd arrived at the hotel. It was a charming building with a Victorian facade that overlooked the ocean, painted in the cheerful pastels that were so common in seaside resorts. There was intense relief at their arrival, and though they were starving, both men settled on the idea of a quick kip before trying to make any use of themselves. There was a small thrill at checking into their shared room together. It was childish maybe but freeing to know that they were here, alone, without threat of some acquaintance spotting them or a friend being run into. It also meant no chance in hell they would be called in for a case.
James and Robbie weren't shy about casual contact but the pair of men had an ingrained routine from their years working together. The impulse to touch and hold, kiss or embrace while out in public was a new dynamic for them and something they were slowly becoming accustomed to. Though they had already been thoroughly enjoying their private intimacies, old habits certainly died hard - shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, fingers brushing and hands rested on shoulders and backs, touching but not. Even now it wasn't until James dropped the bags carelessly to the floor of their hotel room and tossed himself onto the bed that he was reaching greedily for Robbie's touch. Relief oozed bonelessly from every bit of him and after rolling across the mattress several times he looked over at the older man expectantly.
"Robbie," His long fingers waggled a come-hither, "We're finally here."
Robbie couldn't help a smile at the sight of James's playful enjoyment of the large bed and quickly folded down into those waiting arms. They kissed long and languid as their bodies fit and tangled together. There was no lack in chemistry between them and the intensity of the desire was a part of Robbie's life he'd thought long gone until James.
When they broke apart Robbie settled on his back and James tucked against his side and propped his head on his hand to watch him.
Lewis met the keen stare with his own, "What is it?"
"You'd tell me if you didn't want to be here?" James had a look of concern and vulnerability that most people never saw. Robbie knew he was second guessing, not the trip, but Robbie himself. He didn't have to be a genius to figure out that James remembered the last vacation Lewis took with a significant other and what happened following.
"Yes," Robbie was emphatic. He didn't know how to say it to instill confidence but this relationship was not like others he'd had. There was no comparison to be made with anything in his past. This was something else, solely for him and James. It was new and invigorating and maybe a bit selfish but they both deserved that, didn't they? His hand came up to cup the blonde's cheek to kiss him again. "It's a damn relief actually."
James flashed that fast smile of his and his face smoothed once his worries had been allayed. He rested his head on the older man's chest and yawned. Slender fingers plucked Robbie's shirt buttons open just enough to spread his hand across his heart and against the warm skin of his chest.
Robbie rested his own on top of it, "We deserve to have something to ourselves and it's about damn time we took it."
James's head tilted to watch his lover's face. He was, for all his smart arsed commentary, a rather quiet person. More prone to contemplation than anything. He probably would have made a fine priest. He'd also have made a fine academic. Instead Robbie got him as a damn fine copper and he was much more pleased with that.
"I think this trip'll be a good chance for us to really get our bearings," Robbie glanced at him with an earnest gaze. After that first kiss on the sofa it came to light that this was a first for both of them. Robbie had assumed wrongly James's experience with men. James, in his own words, had simply 'never had the bollocks'. Robbie liked to think they were doing pretty well figuring it out but there were still awkward moments and stumbling verbiage.
"Take this relationship for a spin, eh?" Talking about it still made him feel a bit tongue tied, as if he'd get something wrong or step on toes, and too much humor made him worry he was making light of things.
"And we needed a vacation," James supplied helpfully, not at all taking offense in Robbie's stumbling delivery. It already felt different being out of Oxford. They were just a couple on vacation. He'd never wanted or needed to be very overt in his affections with people in the past but with Robbie, now, he didn't want to feel uneasy or restricted. With Robbie he wanted all the things he couldn't have with anyone else.
James yawned, "So let's grab a quick nap. Then dinner and maybe we finally take a stroll? There's an abbey here that has phenomenal stained glass apparently."
Robbie's own yawn echoed his lover's and he closed an arm around the other man's back. His eyes were already closed, "Let's leave the pilgrimages or tomorrow, hm? There's a pier. We can go play some games. I'll win you a bear."
"I'll," James rubbed his nose into Robbie's shirt sleepily, "win my own bear, thanks."
Robbie laughed softly but he was mostly asleep, "Well hell, now I want a bear too."