When Hathaway received the call about a body, he dutifully called Lewis to relay the message. It was a shooting, no weapon at the scene, but there were shell casings. He could turn up plenty of clues and evidence before Lewis even arrived. As such, Hathaway assumed that this would be some cause for satisfaction, if not appreciation.
One phone call to Lewis, however, proved that this was not the case.
“Mmph, er, hullo,” was the crackly reply, punctuated by a thump and a grunt.
“We’ve got a body at—is everything alright on your end?”
“What?” Lewis half-shouted. “Oh!” There was a clatter on the other end. “Bother—the screws, eurgh!” A final loud groan came through, and then, “What body?”
“We have a shooting in the alley behind the Hatter, some Alice in Wonderland themed pub—are you sure you’re alright?”
“Huh? Yeah, fine, I’ll be there in twenty minutes. What’s the address?”
Hathaway looked for the signs of distress on Lewis that he’d heard over the phone. After all, the murder was beginning to look like an open-and-shut case. The victim was the owner, Terrance Lynd, and it looked like he’d been robbed prior to being shot. An abandoned copy of Through the Looking Glass lay beside him, and bank statements in the office revealed that he’d made a large withdrawal the day before and nothing was in the safe. Still, Lewis’s brow remained terminally furrowed and exasperation tinged all their exchanges.
Getting into the car together, Lewis planned to find the wife, to see what the money was for, while Hathaway was given the order to deal with the “technical-whatsit with his email”.
James had known Robbie Lewis for long enough to know not to push too hard, but he did notice bandaids across more than one finger as his hands rested on the steering wheel, and the seats were down in the back of the car. He didn’t have to wait long to find out what was grating his boss.
The irritation the traffic mixed with the preexisting frustration and combusted. "It’s supposed to be self-evident and fool-proof,” Lewis muttered darkly, while they were stopped behind a large truck.
“Email technically is, sir,” he deadpanned.
“What—no! The… furniture, the… Ikea,” the other amn said the last part as if the admission was a painful defeat.
There was a long silence, while James attempted to absorb this information. “Ikea,” he said slowly, as if carefully weighing each individual syllable before expelling it.
“Yeah, Ikea,” Lewis snapped. “I bought a new bedframe because part of the old one broke when I was trying to kill a bloody buzzing fly, swarming around the light fixture.”
“Were you jumping on the bed, sir?” Hathaway asked, unable to conceal the rush of delight at the new possibilities for mockery and teasing.
Lewis gave him a piercing look. “I’ve been struggling through the lousy assembly since I got the ruddy thing. Why is everyone going on about how good a shop it is when there are probably still Japanese soldiers stuck in there who don’t know the war’s over!”
This too provided Hathaway with a great deal to meditate on. To play with. He started by cheerfully asking, “Did you get lost in Ikea?”
“I’m sure everyone gets lost there!” Lewis snapped. “I’m surprised it isn’t responsible for most of England and Sweden’s missing person’s reports!”
“You could have asked for direc—”
“It’s turn right at the kitchen area and then go straight and you’ll find the stairs! Sure! Never mind that they say the kitchen area and what they mean is the model kitchens, not the cabinets. I went in circles for nearly an hour.”
“It’s a wonder you escaped at all, sir,” Hathaway said evenly.
“It is! And now that I’m out, the bloody furniture won’t assemble! I’m sure they don’t mean it to. You’re meant to get stuck in there and then it won’t matter whether or not you can construct the furniture.”
“Ikea certainly is a nefarious entity for a ready-to-assemble furniture shop. You wouldn’t think the Swedes so adept at marketing evil.”
“Oh, very funny!” Lewis fumed.
The case did turn out to be rather open-and-shut. Once Hathaway accessed the email account, it turned out that Lynd had been trying to buy some rare manuscript. Upon examining it, it turned out to be a fake and Lynd refused to pay. Accusations abounded, a fight broke out and the gun went off. They found the perpetrator with the money trying to leave Oxford by bus. No long nights, and home for supper. Or rather, home at a reasonable hour, though not happily in Lewis’s case.
“Now it’s me and that—that furniture,” Lewis grumbled to him. They were putting on their coats in their office, all but ready to leave. James shoulder bag was dangling from his hands.
Eyebrows reaching for his hairline, he mused, “You dread Ikea more than a murderer, sir?”
“A murderer I can handle. This is too much, man.”
Lewis’s frustration was palpable. His shoulders were tense and his jaw clenched. There would be more pity coming from Hathaway were the situation not so ridiculous. A man of Lewis’s stature, character and years of experience, undone by Ikea.
“Maybe it’s a two-man job,” he mused, unaware of what he was offering. It merely slipped out on some instinct that he had not been fully aware of possessing.
Lewis appraised him for a minute, uncertain, and then said, with new determination in his shoulders, “Right.”
James was in Lewis’s flat, holding a beer with more speed or hospitality than he figured Lewis was capable of in his somewhat addled state. His boss’s mood had improved at work, after he’d been distracted by the case. The closer they got to Lewis’s apartment, however, to the state of disorder that was his bedroom, the more irritable the man had become.
It was, indeed, a mess. A half-assembled bedframe lay in the middle of an encirclement of opened and discarded cardboard boxes, and a tool box, with its contents scattered haphazardly around it. Smaller plastic containers, the kind Lewis would put his lunch in, were also filled with screws and other bits. The mattress and box spring leaned against the wall, hiding the window, and making the room look smaller than Hathaway was sure it actually was. It looked like a hurricane had tried to disassemble a perfectly good bedframe right in Lewis’s bedroom.
“It’s impossible,” Lewis declared, exasperated.
“Where are the instructions?”
“The instruction manual it came with?”
“Oh!” Lewis began to look around. At first, James assumed that it would take him a while to find it in the mess, but then Lewis went straight to one of the ripped up cardboard boxes, and yanked it out.
“Are you—it’s still got its plastic wrapping on it,” Hathaway choked out in disbelief.
“Wouldn’t have been any good at any rate.”
“Well, not if you never open it!” James was gobsmacked. “Okay, the MALM bedframe,” he began to read, rifling through. “You have all the bits?”
Lewis bent down and picked up the plastic lunch container and shook it at him.
“Right, you screwed the little wooden dowel in, that’s good… have you got the little rectangular table like pieces in the bottom of the frame?”
“The little, rectangular bits that look like small tables.”
Lewis stared at him. “Do I have the…” he sorted through the container and then yanked it out. “Yeah, got it!”
“Now we… put them in the bottom of the side frames.”
“Um…” Hathaway flipped a little further into the booklet and then back again. “Dunno, it doesn’t say… Er, try just sticking it in?”
“It won’t go in.”
“Try fiddling it. Wiggling it in, I mean.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do!”
“You’re just pushing at it. Let me,” Hathaway insisted, tossing aside the manual and shouldering Lewis out of the way.
“I’m getting a hammer,” Lewis muttered darkly.
“Don’t get the hammer, it just needs a little finesse,” Hathaway muttered, on all fours, wiggling nail-like ends. He couldn’t get it either.
Lewis did get the hammer and they progressed from there.
Hathaway rather got the impression that he was an archeologist, attempting to interpret ancient hieroglyphics, to discover the meaning of some ancient ritual or just discern how the civilization in question purified their water. Lewis on the other hand, preferred a more direct, often frustrated approach of moderate brute force. It was hard to say who was right more often, who was more confused, and who was angrier with Ikea.
The beers were drunk quickly, resupplied, and drunk again. The mutterings and frustrated swearing grew more frequent, and Lewis, on more than one occasion, declared he’d rather get a futon.
“Where from? Ikea? We’d have to put that together too!” Hathaway all but howled.
They realized Lewis had screwed their anchors into the headboard when they should have screwed them into the sideboards and had to take a part an entire section of the bed. They used the short screws when they should have used the long ones and they spent an inordinate amount of time staring at and arguing about the circular discs that resembled yo-yos more than screws before they figured them out. Lewis bemoaned Cambridge as an educational institution, filling people’s heads with the impractical, and Hathaway retorted that Lewis merely lacked the basic and practical sense to open an instruction book. While connecting the side beams to the bed’s legs Lewis’s hand slipped and the heavy board collided with the tips of Hathaway’s usually nimble fingers.
James let out a low grunt and a long, anguished, “Christ.”
Lewis let out a profuse stream of swearwords Hathaway hadn’t known were in him before that moment. “I am so sorry, man! Shit!”
They paused, while Lewis fetched the first aid kit. Hathaway opted out of aspirin, in favour of another beer, while Lewis applied ice cubes in a sock to his sore fingers. They sat on the ground amidst their mess, as if they were in the cease-fire of some dreadful battle, enjoying quiet moments of reprieve before the chaos redoubled.
“I’m really sorry about all of this,” Robbie Lewis muttered to him again.
“Mm.” Hathaway sipped his beer with his uninjured hand, enjoying the attention and the icing.
“It’s really good of you. Y’know, to help me and all.”
“Are you getting all sappy on me, Robbie?” Hathaway asked with a grin. He didn’t realize he’d switched to first names until after he’d done it. His stomach twisted with apprehension.
Lewis chuckled. Blushing, he murmured, “It’s good to appreciate the people you have in your life, James. When you can.”
“When you’re drunk,” he quipped. It was a knee-jerk reaction to ease the agitation, the growing intimacy.
“That too.” Robbie looked up at him and grinned.
It took James another minute to realize Robbie was holding his hand. Almost as soon as he did notice, he realized he liked it. It was nice. Soft. For a copper, he had soft hands, James mused to himself, regardless of the bandages.
The moment stretched out, until Robbie cleared his throat. “You should head home. I shouldn’t keep you here…”
“I can stay to the end. We’ve made it this far.” James squeezed Robbie’s hand and felt a thrill straight into the depth of his stomach when Robbie squeezed back.
They stood back up, swaying slightly. Robbie leaned forward to steady him, this this time giving his arm a squeeze.
Laughing, the went back to the bedframe.
“Ruddy Ikea,” Robbie said, hands on his hips, appraising the bedframe.
“Ruddy Ikea,” James echoed, appraising Robbie Lewis.
The skeleton of the frame was completed, the headboard in place and no longer precariously balanced. They merely needed to screw in the metal pieces in the centre in order to put the slats on and then they could place the mattress and boxspring and never bother with Ikea ever again. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, on the floor in the middle of their construction, they pressed metal beams to frames, hands twisting over each other’s hands. James hoped Robbie couldn’t see the heat rising across his cheeks or on the back of his neck, with each incautious and imprecise touch.
His movements were clumsier. He told Robbie it was because of the alcohol and not the injury, but really it was the prolonged closeness to the other man. His warmth, his piney scent that was tinged with beer. Sitting close to him, James could watch the squint of his eyes as he concentrated on screws and hear the rhythm of his breath.
It was a new intimacy that Hathaway hadn’t felt with anyone for a long time. He was drunk on the longing, rather than the beers. He found himself dreading the completion of their project as that would bookend the experience. He would have to go home.
He slowed his movements down, trying to expand this intimacy with Robbie. Still, they were banging the slats across the metal substructure in almost no time. He reluctantly helped Robbie flip the boxspring and mattress onto the frame. Then, Robbie flung himself onto the bed, sprawling across his stomach, emitting a long, deep groan. James, before he could think better of it leapt down next to him. Feeling the bounce, Lewis laughed thickly.
“I’m not putting sheets on. I’m not getting up.”
James laughed. “It’ll protect the mattress.”
“It’ll be fine for one night.”
“Mm,” he answered.
They fell to silence and James enjoyed the moment’s expansion. They were sharing a bed, even if they weren’t touching. He prayed Robbie wouldn’t notice, or say anything, but… it took several minutes to dawn on him that Robbie had stopped drinking after his injury and had gotten water for them both when he got the ice for James's hand. Robbie wasn’t that drunk. Languid and exhausted, perhaps, Robbie Lewis had probably been sobering up for the last hour. This was a sober man.
Testing the comfortable silence, James asked, “What are we doing?” His voice was low, deep. He wondered if Robbie could hear the gentle ache, his anticipation and fear at what the answer would be.
“We’re taking a breather,” Robbie said, lightly, face still in the mattress.
A short silence. Just the noise of traffic outside, somewhere far away and unimportant.
“What do you want?” Robbie asked, his voice quiet. He pulled himself up onto his elbows, turning to look at his partner.
James opened his mouth, hesitating slightly, taking a brief moment to consider before he jumped and said, “You.”
More silence. Robbie looked down at the space between them and nodded. “I’m your boss.” His voice was hoarse and James swore that Robbie could feel it too.
“That’s how I know we work well together. That I trust you.” James lay on his back, his head turned to his side, to stare at Robbie, while Robbie avoided his eyes.
“You don’t trust many people, do you?”
“Do you?” he countered.
“I asked you first."
“It doesn’t come easily, no.”
Robbie nodded. “But you trust me.”
“And you trust me.”
“You can understand why I’m so hesitant about this then… I don’t—we have such a good relationship and we work so well together, I don’t want to ruin this. Make it messy.”
“Maybe because we have such a good relationship together, that’s a sign that this could work,” James argued. He had the feeling that Robbie hadn’t been intimate with anyone since Val. He wondered if that was the fear. Getting close to another person who would leave you. He wondered how Robbie coped with that somber realization. Every person you let in, after all, is someone who can walk right back out. Or worse.
“That’s what everyone who has ever gone from friends to lovers has said,” Lewis muttered.
“Doesn’t mean they were wrong. Not all of them. Robbie?”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I asked you first, man!”
They both chuckled and it felt good, comfortable, even if there was an underlying tension. Blushing, Robbie shook his head. “Do you?” he asked, his voice hoarse, hesitant. It’s been so long since he’d been vulnerable with another person like this. James felt a twinge in his stomach. This was a new depth to Robbie’s trust. He was seeing something so few people got to see. It made him feel good, and a little possessive. Like he wanted to keep it all to himself.
Leaning forward, James slid his fingers across Robbie’s jaw and then slipped his lips onto his. It was a slow, almost exploratory kiss, one where they both got the feel for the other’s lips. A whetting of appetites.
“No,” Hathaway said, “I don’t want to leave.”