In the final analysis, the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“You remember I'm taking some leave next week,” Robbie said on Thursday, as Hathaway grabbed his suit jacket off the back of his chair and headed for the door of the office after a mercifully uneventful shift.
“I do, yes,” Hathaway said, one corner of his mouth lifting, “since it's practically an historic occasion. Though it's not exactly what I'd call a proper holiday considering you're going to be working.”
“It's a different line of work, anyway.” Lyn and Dave had finally bought a house two months ago, not long after the baby was born, but it had been a DIY project from start to finish. Robbie had been spending every possible weekend up in Manchester helping with everything from painting to flooring to plumbing, but next week would be the end of the worst of it, they hoped. Or rather, his aching blooming back hoped, he thought ruefully. He shifted in his chair, trying to ignore the twinge that shot through it.
Something of his discomfort must have shown on his face, because James' gaze grew that little bit sharper. Before he could say anything, Robbie said, “What will you do without me while I'm away, eh? Spend your afternoons down the pub, celebrating?”
Hathaway's expression turned blank, even for him. “Actually, I'm booking the same days off. No sense my being here alone.”
“Oh? Any plans?”
“Yeah. Thought I might visit Manchester. ”
“Manchester,” Robbie repeated.
Hathaway clasped his hands behind his back and stared at the wall above Lewis' head. “Well, I've never been, so.” He paused, a small frown appearing between his brows. “Also, your daughter called me last week.”
Robbie stared at him. “She what?”
“I thought it was a bit odd too, but she said she was – erm. Worried about you. Said you'd been overdoing, and wanted me to know.”
“I'm not a sodding invalid,” Robbie snapped.
“No, but you do have back trouble, and you've been risking reinjury for months,” James shot back, meeting his gaze. “I've seen it in the way you hold yourself the first couple of days after you come back from up north.”
Robbie frowned at this revelation, which said more about Hathaway than it did about him. It wasn't as though five years of working with one another hadn't fostered a certain familiarity, but he never would have thought James was watching him that closely. “I'm still not sure how all this leads to you spending your hard-earned holiday in Manchester.”
“Yeah, well, she told me what was left to do, with the roofing and the garden, and I reckoned an extra pair of hands wouldn't go amiss, so I volunteered to help.”
“Wonderful,” Robbie muttered. “Me partner and me daughter are working behind my back to –“
“– to save your back,” Hathaway finished for him. The words may have been smart-arsed, but his expression was intent, devoid of that wry twist to his mouth.
Robbie glared at him, trying to work himself into a proper strop, but it was no use. The lad was hard to read sometimes, but he had a good heart, and Robbie knew he meant well. And if he cared to admit it, it was nice to have someone fussing over him. He’d nearly forgotten what it felt like.
Still, it wasn’t fair to James; Lyn shouldn’t have called him, and Robbie didn’t know why she had. She'd only met him the once, when Lyn had stopped off in Oxford after their Italian holiday. “Listen, I’ll call her, promise her I’ll take it easy. There’s no need for you to –”
“I’d – like to go,” James said quietly. There were a couple of spots of colour high on his cheeks. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not particularly – close – to my family –” Robbie nodded; he’d noticed “– but when Lyn called, it felt…good. Good that I was being – included.” He cleared his throat as Robbie continued to stare at him. “And I haven’t met your granddaughter yet.”
“Oh,” Robbie said, a little stupidly, when James stopped, mouth snapping shut, and stood at something approximating parade rest. “Well – as long as you realise you'll be in for it.”
James' mouth curved slightly – the equivalent of an all-out grin on most people. “I'm not afraid of a little hard work.”
“That, too, but I was thinking of our Lyn. She probably already has a couple of her single friends lined up to 'drop by' while you're there.”
Hathaway's cheeks pinkened further. “A matchmaker, is she?”
“Notorious, but successful. Four happy couples at last count, I think.”
“Well, everyone needs a hobby,” Hathaway said, dry as dust. He pointed toward the door. “I'll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Yeah,” Robbie said, smiling. “Tomorrow. I'll even let you pick the music for the car ride.”
James clutched at his heart.
“Oh, go on with you,” Robbie huffed, and this time James flashed a rare, blinding grin before heading out.
Whitefield was a quiet little community off the M60, close enough to Manchester to be handy to Lyn and Dave's work but far enough away that the house backed on farmland. It was a basic brick townhouse, built right after the war, and the original owner had just recently moved into a nursing home. It had needed quite a bit of updating, but the bones were solid, and it was far more spacious than the flat they'd been living in before the baby was born.
As he turned left onto the street, James said, “Nice neighbourhood.”
“Not bad,” Robbie said, nodding. “Not as many yobs around as where they were living before.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the bags of gifts Hathaway had insisted on bringing. “You know, you didn't have to buy all that for the baby. Lyn already likes you; she told me herself when I called to tell her I was bringing you with me.”
“I still need to get on Madeline's good side,” James said. “And I don't have a lot of experience with babies; thought I might as well skip straight to bribery.”
“Don't panic. No one's going to ask you to change a nappy,” Robbie said. When James' jaw twitched in response, he added, “You'll do fine, lad.”
James turned to look at him. Five years on, Robbie fancied himself something of an expert in reading his Sergeant's non-expressions, but this one mystified him. “I'm not really –” James began, then clamped his mouth shut and shook his head. Before Robbie could puzzle it out further, though, they reached Lyn's house.
Lyn greeted them at the kerb with a hug and a kiss for Robbie, which he was of course expecting, and the same for James, which he definitely was not. James was clearly surprised as well, for he stood there with his arms at his sides for a couple of stunned seconds before reciprocating awkwardly.
“Welcome, James,” Lyn said, hands still gripping Hathaway's biceps. “I'm so glad Dad's finally brought you to visit us.”
James opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Thank you. I – erm – it's very nice,” he said, nodding at the red brick townhouse.
Lyn chuckled. “It looked like a disco-era horror when we bought it, but thanks to Dad and Dave and I, there's not a scrap of avocado wallpaper left in the place.”
“Madeline's been a help, too,” Robbie added.
At Hathaway's inquisitive head tilt, Lyn said, “She's been good as gold through all the renos. Can sleep through the apocalypse. Speaking of which, Dave's inside putting her down for a nap, but she should be up again in an hour or two. I can't wait for you to meet her.”
Robbie frowned. While Lyn's enthusiasm for his partner's presence wasn't out of character – she was as warm and welcoming as her mum had been – there was something about it that seemed off. As he and James gathered their bags from the car, it niggled at him, like a piece of evidence that didn't fit.
Unlike most of his cases, the answer wasn't long in coming. Dave met them at the door with a huge smile and a hearty two-handed handshake for James, who was starting to look a bit shellshocked. He promptly whisked James off on a whirlwind tour of the house while Robbie climbed the stairs to the spare bedroom, Lyn following behind. When he turned to her after dropping his bag on the chair, he found she had Hathaway's duffel and guitar case in her hands.
“I'm up here, pet. James very kindly volunteered to take the lilo.”
“Oh, for heaven's sake, Dad,” Lyn huffed, sounding far too much like her old man, “I think we're past the point of pretending, don't you?”
Robbie watched her set James' bags down on the bed, and suddenly the oddly shaped puzzle piece slotted into place. Jesus Christ, he thought.
“I'm sorry,” Lyn said more gently, taking his hands in hers, “I know this is hard for you. I only wish you'd realised you could have told me. Did I ever make you think you couldn't? I mean, obviously you weren't going to mourn Mum forever. And you know I don't care that he's a man.”
“Lyn, love,” Robbie said slowly, “James and I –“ He took a deep breath, trying to clear his head. He knew he should nip this in the bud, but the detective in him was curious as to how she'd added two and two and reached sixty-five. “What made you think we're – well, together?”
Lyn smiled at him. “Maybe the fact that you've been talking about him for five years?” Robbie opened his mouth to counter that, but it was true. He did speak about James to her now and then, mainly because the lad was a funny sort of bridge between them: a man close to her own age who was as frightfully smart as she was, yet who'd chosen his line of work. And he supposed he'd wanted to let her know he wasn't entirely alone down in Oxford, though he hadn't told her anything about dating Laura back when they were seeing one another. “And when we were in Italy you called him every day.”
“Not every day,” Robbie protested. Hathaway had been to Italy three times and knew far more about churches and other historic places of interest than Robbie did; it had made sense to phone for advice.
“And then,” Lyn added, “you introduced me to him when we came back from the trip and I – well, I knew. You were both trying not to show it, but it was obvious. And suddenly it made sense – I mean, why you didn't want to take early retirement. Why you wanted to stay in Oxford instead of moving up here.”
Bloody hell. “Pet, look –”
“Oh, please, don't think I resent him at all for it. It's just –” Robbie was horrified to see his daughter's eyes fill with tears “– it's just the opposite; I'm grateful to him. I've been so worried about you, Dad, you have no idea – but now it's going to be fine, yeah?” She offered him a watery smile and nudged him gently with an elbow. “He's been good for you, I can tell. And as far as I'm concerned, he's part of the family, all right? So no more of this – hiding him away.”
Robbie opened his mouth to tell Lyn the truth, but to his surprise, no sound came out. What was he going to tell her? That she was wrong, that he was as alone as he'd ever been? That he'd called it off months ago with the only woman who'd come close to filling that void? And the truth was, Hathaway was good for him, in a way that people who weren't coppers could rarely understand. Trying to describe the way things were between an inspector and his sergeant usually meant resorting to words like “commitment” and “marriage”, and that could easily lead to the kinds of assumptions Lyn had made.
Either way, he was up against it.
Before he could decide on a way to explain, Dave arrived with James, who was looking as though he'd been run over by a bus. “Well,” Dave said briskly, clapping his hands together, “and of course, this is your room – yours and Robbie's, of course, I mean, and – yeah, why don't we just leave you to it?”
After a last squeeze of Robbie's arm, Lyn followed her partner out of the room, shutting the door behind herself. James stood looking at the closed door for a moment, then spun round to face him. “I just had the oddest conversation.”
“So did I,” Robbie said darkly.
“Bet mine's odder.”
Robbie pinched the bridge of his nose. “You first.”
“Dave showed me the house, and in between discussing the kitchen cabinetry and the exact colour of the paint in the downstairs loo, he told me that his cousin Rory is gay, and he's a lovely bloke, and Dave has always liked him. And did he mention that he's gay?”
“Our Lyn just gave us her blessing,” Robbie said, figuring it was like ripping off a plaster and best done quickly.
Hathaway stared at him. “Oh, you win,” he said.
“You think so?” Robbie said, passing a hand over his face.
“What did you say to her?”
“I didn't have time to say anything,” Robbie said, which was at least partly the truth. “And considering she got it in her head I've been keeping you as me – secret toyboy – all this time, I'm not sure how I'm going to convince her otherwise. Anything I say will only sound like another denial, won't it?”
James' eyes widened comically, and then he let out an explosive laugh.
“Oi, shut it, you. This is serious.”
“I'm sorry, sir. It's just – toyboy?” Robbie shot him what he was sure was a murderous look, and James sobered. “Sorry,” he said again.
Robbie sighed. “I suppose it would be funny if she hadn't nearly burst into tears in front of me.” Hathaway frowned, and Robbie waved a hand. “Apparently she's been worried about me being alone; she was relieved I had someone again. And now I have to tell her – well.” He blew out a breath. “I reckon there's no time like the present.”
Robbie started when James' hand shot out, gripping his arm. “What if you didn't tell her?” he blurted. At Robbie's frown, he added, “I mean, what harm would it do?”
“You think I should lie to my own daughter?” Robbie asked, flabbergasted.
“So she doesn't have to go back to worrying about you when she's dealing with a newborn? Yes,” James answered flatly. He closed his eyes for a moment, then let go of Robbie's arm and took a step back. “Look, I'm not proposing you fabricate a story out of whole cloth, just – let her think what she likes. And then, when you meet someone, you can tell Lyn we decided to break it off, and at the same time you can reassure her that someone else has stepped in.”
“And in the meantime? She's going to want to see the two of us for Christmas.”
“I imagine you'll have found someone before that,” James said quietly. “And if you haven't – I can tell her that I'm working, or visiting my own family. It won't be a problem.”
Robbie sat down heavily on the bed. “I can't believe I'm even considering this.”
The mattress dipped as James sat beside him. “We wouldn't have to act any differently. She's obviously seeing what she wants to see in our relationship – we can simply continue on as we always do.”
Robbie snorted. “I think she might suspect the first time you call me 'sir'.”
Hathaway hesitated before speaking. “I could call you – Robbie.” Robbie turned to look at him, realising it was the first time James had called him by name. It was strange at first; he'd never used Morse's first name, though of course there had been a good reason for that. But he and James had been working together for five years now, and suddenly, maintaining that distance between them after everything they'd been through seemed silly.
As Robbie continued to stare at him, James stiffened. “Or not,” he said. “I don't have to call you anything at all, if you prefer.”
“No, no,” Robbie said hastily. “Robbie is fine.”
James' lips quirked. “So, we're doing this, then?”
Robbie felt his gut clench, then thought of the tears in Lyn's eyes. “Yeah. It's daft, but – yeah.”
“Not daft,” James said, leaning in slightly. “Kind.” He stood abruptly. “Come on, Robbie. Let's face the family.”
For a little while, it seemed as though James had been right; they didn't have to act any differently to what they normally did. Robbie sat at the kitchen table with him, making small talk with Dave and Lyn while they prepared dinner.
“I feel like a layabout,” James said, taking a sip of his wine. “Are you sure there's nothing I can do?”
“Don't worry. Our job's the washing up,” Robbie said, getting up to fetch himself another bitter from the fridge.
“Do you cook, James?” Dave asked.
“I do,” James admitted. “Standard fare, mind you.”
“That's all right,” Lyn said. “Dad doesn't exactly have what you'd call an adventurous palate.”
“Come on. I eat all sorts of things,” Robbie protested.
“Hardly,” James murmured, smile hidden by the rim of his glass.
“I like my curry hotter than yours, thank you,” Robbie countered.
“I think that counts as 'bloody-minded' rather than adventurous, s – Robbie.”
Lyn laughed. “He's got you there, Dad.”
“Give us a hand, Dave,” Robbie said. “I'm being overwhelmed by superior forces.”
Dave held up his hands. “Sorry, mate. I'm a neutral party.”
“Traitor,” Robbie said.
“He just knows what side his bread's buttered on,” Lyn said, giving Dave an affectionate kiss on the cheek. “Good lad.”
“Give him a biscuit, why don't you,” Robbie muttered, without heat. He looked up to see James watching him with a fond smile on his face, only to have him look away as soon as their gazes met.
“Oh, now,” Lyn said, walking over to Robbie and kissing him on the top of his head. “You've no one to blame but yourself, you know. You're the one who taught me to look for someone who treated me as well as you treated Mum.”
Robbie felt himself blush. “Give over.”
“He's a keeper,” Lyn said, squeezing Robbie's shoulder, and Robbie realised she was talking to James. “But then, I imagine you already knew that.”
This time, when Robbie looked at him, James didn't look away.
“Yeah,” James said softly. “Yeah, I knew.”
Robbie felt something twist inside him. He couldn't decide if the sensation was pleasant or unpleasant.
So perhaps they were acting a little differently, then.
Mercifully, Maddie's nap lasted through dinner; James and Robbie were nearly finished the washing up before they heard the first snuffling cries from the baby monitor.
“There she is,” Robbie said, as Dave rose to get her. He saw Lyn and James exchange a look. “What?”
“You had the soppiest expression on your face, that's all,” Lyn said, smiling.
“It's all right to love your grandchild, isn't it?” Robbie said, glaring at James as he passed him another plate.
James said nothing, merely ducked his head and applied the towel diligently, but Robbie could see the corner of his mouth twitch.
“And here's the star of the show,” Dave announced, bringing a fussing Maddie into the room.
Robbie took the towel James passed him and dried his hands, then reached for her. “Give her here,” he murmured, and Dave obediently passed her over. Maddie quieted almost instantly and gazed up at him with liquid blue eyes, her tiny hands waving toward his face.
Lowering his head, Robbie felt her hand batting at his nose, brushing his cheeks. “Hello, love,” he whispered. “Long time no see, eh?”
“I swear you have the magic touch with her,” Lyn sighed, clearly envious. “How do you do it?”
“Eons of experience,” Robbie drawled. Raising his head again, he nodded at James, who was hanging back, slouching against the counter. “Well, come on then. She won't bite.”
James stood there for a long moment, then suddenly shot forward, stepping close, standing just off Robbie's right elbow. Slowly, he raised his hand and stuck out his pinkie finger for Maddie to grip onto. She obliged him right away, her tiny fingers closing around his. James stared down at her, a gobsmacked expression on his face, and Robbie couldn't look away from him.
“Hello,” James murmured, as solemnly as though he were being introduced to the Queen herself. “Lovely to meet you.”
Feeling restless and agitated for no good reason, Robbie said, “Here,” and shifted Maddie so that he could pass her over. James flashed him a brief, panicked look, then took a deep breath and arranged his long arms into the correct position. Had he done this before, or was he a fast learner? Robbie was guessing the latter.
Whichever one it was, James gathered her up like he held children for a living, Maddie's wee head resting in the crook of his elbow. She stared up at him, wide-eyed and trusting.
“She's perfect,” James whispered.
Robbie was finding it hard to breathe, as though all the air in the room had suddenly decided to scarper. “I think,” he said, voice rough to his own ears, “I think I'll dig out some of those toys you brought for her, yeah?” And without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and headed for the living room. Maybe there was some oxygen left there.
Lyn caught him before he could escape with a gentle hand on his arm. Nodding toward James, she murmured, “Looks like you've got a keeper yourself.”
Robbie couldn't manage to form words, so he merely nodded. To his utter relief, she smiled and let him go, and a few moments later he was standing in the middle of the darkened living room, staring unseeing at the wall, breathing in great lungfuls of air and wondering what the bloody hell had just happened to him.
Growing old is like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven't committed.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
It was a testament to the kind of day it had been that Robbie hadn't even thought through the reality of their situation until they were back in Lyn's guest room and he was staring down at the bed. True, it was a double mattress, but right at the moment it seemed the size of a matchbox.
“D'you prefer the left or the right?” James said from behind him, making Robbie nearly jump out of his skin.
Robbie shook his head. “Doesn't matter,” he said, and meant it. The first couple of years after Val died, he'd stayed on the left, but he’d slowly gravitated toward the middle.
There was a pause, and then James snatched his duffel off the bed and began rooting around in it, pulling out a small shaving kit and a couple of articles of clothing. “Okay if I take the bathroom first?”
“Fine, yeah,” Robbie said, gaze still fixed on the bed, not even noticing when James let himself out.
James returned a few minutes later, clad in worn tracksuit bottoms that clung to his narrow hips and a t-shirt with a faded design on it that Robbie only glimpsed before fleeing. Once he was safely locked in the bathroom, Robbie splashed cold water on his face and looked at himself in the mirror, every line appearing magnified in the harsh light. By contrast, James looked even younger than usual, like one of the students who filled the streets of Oxford. No matter what Lyn thought she saw, none of this was real. Neither of them was – that way, and certainly not about each other.
“Now quit being such a daft old sod,” he growled at the man in the mirror.
He supposed it was too much to hope for that James was already asleep. Instead, he was sitting up in bed, a book in his hands and a pair of glasses perched on his nose.
James looked up at him, his expression perfectly neutral.
“You're wearing – ” Robbie pointed at his own eyes “– glasses.”
“Well spotted,” James said dryly. “I wear contact lenses during the day, but I can't wear the thirty-day ones – the unfortunate shape of my eyeballs.”
“Right,” Robbie said, feeling even more ridiculous than he had earlier in the kitchen. “It's only that I've never seen them on you before.”
“You've never gone to bed with me before,” James said, and sodding, sodding, sodding hell, Robbie was blushing. He was too old to blush; what were age and maturity for if not to give you some semblance of dignity, damn it?
James' gaze flickered over Robbie's face – he wasn't a detective for nothing – and then returned his attention to his book, but there was a slight curl to his mouth that hadn't been there before. Deciding it would be best to keep his own mouth shut from now on, Robbie got into the bed and rolled onto his side, away from Hathaway. He fumbled for the bedside light and flicked it off.
“Would you like me to turn off mine?” James asked.
“No,” Robbie said, punching his pillow to plump it up. “'S'fine.”
There was the sound of a page turning; Robbie tried to relax, but his body was wound tight as a spring.
“I like your family,” James murmured after a minute. “They're lovely.”
“They like you, too,” Robbie answered. He heard Lyn's voice in his head: he's a keeper.
There was a weighty pause. “They think I'm more than I am.”
Robbie opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. Telling James exactly how important he was to Robbie when they were both lying in the same bed, tired and strained from an evening of playing pretend, seemed exceedingly dangerous. But he couldn't just let it alone; the lad was always too hard on himself, and Robbie hated it, hated that he never gave himself anything near the credit he deserved.
Before he could think of what to say, however, there was a quiet click and the room was plunged in darkness. “Good night, sir.”
Robbie's jaw clenched around the words he wanted to say. “G'night,” he said, as James settled beneath the covers and lay still.
Robbie awoke with a start when a shadow crossed his vision, blocking out the light pouring in the window. It was odd, he supposed, to be awakened by the absence of light, but he'd always been sensitive to changes.
The first thing he saw was Hathaway bending to place his wallet on the bedside table. Robbie frowned. “You been out already?” he asked, and this time it was James' turn to start.
“Didn't mean to wake you, sorry,” James murmured, straightening. “Yeah, I've just got back.”
“What time is it?” Robbie squinted at the clock. “Seven fifteen? Buggering hell, we're on holiday.”
“Yeah, I was a bit – well, I was up,” James said, shrugging.
Grunting, Robbie passed a hand over his face, gratified there seemed to be no obvious streaks of drool, and shoved himself to a sitting position. “Went out for a smoke?”
James blinked at him. “Didn't bring any with me, actually.”
“You didn't, did you?” Robbie said, astonished at his poor detective work. “I didn't see you sneaking out once yesterday.”
James pushed up the sleeve of his t-shirt, revealing a nicotine patch stuck to his upper arm. “Even brought the gum and some of those ridiculous inhalers in case I miss the oral sensation.”
Robbie told himself he couldn't help that the words 'oral sensation' forced his gaze to drift from James' eyes to his mouth; it was the power of suggestion, basic psychology. He'd never actually spent any amount of time considering his Sergeant's lips before, but now that he did, he could say that – objectively, mind – they were well-formed, the lower one full and soft-looking, and oh, hell, he was staring at James' mouth.
“Are you, erm,” Robbie said, clearing his throat, “trying to quit again, then?”
“I've not had much success with that,” James admitted, grimacing, “though I suppose if that's a side benefit I won't complain. No, I just didn't want to reek of cigarette smoke when I was around Maddie. I didn't imagine it would be good for her.”
That odd sensation in Robbie's gut from yesterday returned with a vengeance. “Oh,” he murmured. “Well, that's –”
Luckily, he was saved again from another awkward moment by his granddaughter, who decided to announce to the household that she was most definitely awake. James turned his head toward the door, distracted, and Robbie allowed the thought to remain unexpressed.
“I was going to go down and offer to cook breakfast, to thank them for supper last night,” James said, turning back to Robbie. “Think they'll let me?”
“I suspect Lyn will tell you you don't have to, but she'll give in if you make a nuisance of yourself,” Robbie said. “Lucky thing you know how to do that.” James rolled his eyes, but his mouth curved slightly. Robbie smiled back, relieved to have put them back on familiar ground.
And then James' gaze flickered over him, eyes soft, and Christ, it felt like a caress. “See you down there in a bit?” he asked. His voice seemed to be about half an octave lower than his normal rumble; doubtless the effect of the early morning exercise.
Robbie nodded, not trusting his own voice, and after another moment James turned and left the room. Letting out a long breath and a couple of muttered expletives, Robbie shut his eyes briefly before rolling his decrepit arse out of bed.
Two hours later, Robbie was sweating in the warm June sunshine as it beat down on the roof under his feet. He pried off another shingle with his crowbar, then another, surprised at how easily the rhythm of it was coming back to him.
After finishing another course, he looked up to see James watching him from the other side of the roof. He had a bandana tied around his head to keep the sweat out of his eyes, making him look rather like a pirate, if an extremely pale one. “What's the matter?”
James shook his head. “Nothing. You're just – shockingly good at this.”
Dave chuckled. “He's a ringer. Didn't he tell you? Spent his summers as a lad working for a roofing company.”
James' eyebrows shot up in frank interest. “Really?”
“I used to be skinny and fit once, too,” Robbie muttered.
Dave laughed, and James' eyes widened. “I didn't mean it like that,” James protested. “It's just – something I never knew about you.”
“Yeah, well, it's not all that interesting. And I haven't been on a roof in nearly forty years.” Since before you were born, he didn't add; he was confident James could work that out for himself.
James was still watching him with that same intensity, and Robbie wondered what the hell he was looking at. “Like riding a bicycle, I expect,” James said. “As for me, I'll just be happy if I don't fall off.”
“Which is why there needs to be less chatter and more concentration on the job at hand,” Robbie huffed, bending down to brush away the last of the loose debris around his feet.
“Yes, sir,” Dave drawled. James said nothing, but Robbie swore he could feel that gaze boring into him for a while longer as he attacked the next course of cracked and peeling shingles with a vengeance.
Despite Lyn's and James' insistence that he take frequent breaks during the day, Robbie was still knackered when they finally finished just before sunset. Good thing the roof wasn't that large, but there had been a couple of rotten sections of sheathing that had needed replacing, and with a storm predicted for tomorrow, the whole job had to be done that day, and done properly.
For all that he worked in an office, Dave was an outdoorsy lad, and he'd helped a couple of friends with their roofs before, so he'd done just fine with minimal direction. James had proven – no surprise there – a quick study, and despite his long, gangly limbs and his lack of experience, he'd managed to keep from falling and cracking his skull. And although Robbie had told himself he found the tag-team mother-henning annoying, he was grateful for it when his back was only a little sore, rather than trying to divorce itself from his body.
It was just past nine when they turned in, both of them exhausted. When Robbie returned from the loo, he found James face-down on the bed, on top of the covers.
“Oi, you still alive?” Robbie asked.
James made a small groaning noise. “I don't think so.”
Robbie chuckled. “Come on, let's get you tucked in.”
“Can't move,” James grunted.
“Oh, go on with you,” Robbie said, sitting down on the bed and giving James' shoulder a little shove. “Here, roll to your left and I'll pull –” He trailed off as he saw the livid red skin of the back of James' neck. “What the – what'd you do to yourself, man?”
“Hmph,” was James' only response. Robbie's gaze drifted over the side of his face and saw the pink flush highlighting his cheekbones and the tip of his nose.
“You're medium rare on the front, but you're done to a turn on the back,” Robbie said. “Didn't you keep reapplying that gunk Lyn gave you?”
“And you with your massive brain,” Robbie huffed, rising to his feet and heading off to the loo. As he suspected, Lyn had some burn ointment in the cabinet – nurses and mums, always prepared. When he returned, he sat back down on the bed and popped the cap on the tube.
James jerked at the first touch of the cool ointment. “What –” He opened his eyes and twisted his head round to look at Robbie.
“Hush. Lie still,” Robbie ordered. James stared at him for another moment, then lay back down. Robbie brushed his fingers over James' neck, spreading the stuff to liberally coat the burn. Used to do this with the kids, he thought, remembering the time they'd gone on holiday to Brighton and Lyn and Mark had played on the beach all day. That waterproof sunscreen they'd bought at the hotel gift shop hadn't been properly waterproof at all, and –
And then Robbie felt James shudder under his fingertips and he stopped dead, suddenly aware of exactly what he was doing and how it would look to anyone walking in on them. James might be young, but he wasn’t a child to be soothed, and this was crossing a line that would have seemed obvious to him yesterday.
Withdrawing his hand, Robbie murmured, “Well, that should do you.” When there was no response, he looked at James’ face to see that his eyes were closed. Robbie wondered briefly if he was only pretending, then told himself it didn’t matter.
Abruptly deciding he was too restless to sleep, he turned off the light, then went downstairs and flipped through some of Lyn’s coffee table books for an hour, not really paying much attention to what was in them. Instead, his mind kept drifting to thoughts of the astonishing softness of James’ sun-heated skin, his fingers itching in memory. Vulnerable places, necks. How many victims had they found garrotted with wire, strangled with bare hands, slashed with knives? There was an intimacy about touching someone there, a level of trust implied. But had James really given his permission? And if he had, what did it mean?
When he returned to the bedroom, he found James under the covers, turned on his side toward the window. He murmured and twitched in his sleep when Robbie climbed in, the words an incoherent mumble. Robbie's hand reached out toward James to still him, stopping just in time.
Bugger, Robbie thought, lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling. Sleep was a long time coming.
As predicted, the next day was grey and rainy, and so they passed a quiet, lazy Sunday indoors. Robbie found that spending time with Maddie was an easy way to avoid thinking about what was happening between him and James. He fell more in love with his granddaughter every time he saw her, and it was a treat to watch his Lyn be the wonderful mother he'd known she would be.
He came downstairs from lunch after bathing Maddie to find James and Lyn sitting on the sofa, heads bent together over something in Lyn's lap. When he came into the room, Dave looked up from his electronic gadget – James had told him it was called a tablet – and said, “Oi, it's the police. Now you're for it.”
“What are you up to?” Robbie demanded, shifting Maddie in his arms. As he drew nearer, he could see the object of fascination was one of his mother's old photo albums, passed down to Lyn when her grandmother had died.
“Why are you torturing James with a lot of old family snaps?”
“I thought he might like to see you back when you were a juvenile delinquent,” Lyn said, beaming up at him and Maddie.
“I was never any such thing, Little Miss Cheeky. I was a good lad.” Tickling Maddie's chin, he said, “Don't listen to your mother's awful lies.”
“Oh, I'm sorry, you only looked like a juvenile delinquent.” Lyn held up the album for him to see and pointed at one of the pictures. In it, the much younger version of himself stood defiantly in front of the camera, arms crossed over his chest. He was wearing a tight white t-shirt and jeans with the cuffs rolled up, hair just this side of too long. He looked like a complete git.
Robbie glanced at James to see he was watching him with a definite twinkle in his eye. “Don't even think about opening your mouth,” Robbie said.
“He's only had complimentary things to say,” Lyn said. “He refuses to mock you even though I've given him ample opportunity.”
“If you've shown him any of my bare-arsed baby photos...” Robbie warned.
“It's not as though he hasn't seen it before,” Lyn said, her eyes dancing with suppressed mirth.
“Lyn!” Robbie exclaimed. Maddie screeched in his ear as if she sympathised with his outrage.
“All right, I can see Terry Pratchett is going to have to wait another day,” Dave said, laying down his tablet and rising to his feet. “James, I just bet you would love for me to show you the design we've worked out for the garden, wouldn't you? I have the plans in the kitchen.”
“God, yes please,” James breathed, practically vaulting off the couch. He avoided Robbie's gaze, the pink cast to his face caused by more than just sun exposure.
Dave nodded at Robbie. “Here, let me take her off your hands for a bit,” he said, lifting Maddie from his arms with ease and gathering her close. “Come on, love, let’s go look at some pretty drawings.”
Lyn covered her mouth with her hands after Dave and James left the room. “I'm so sorry, Dad. I honestly didn't mean to make him feel uncomfortable.”
“I know, pet,” Robbie said. “I daresay he'll get over it. He's just a little...old-fashioned.”
“Another reason you're perfect for one another,” Lyn said, grinning.
Robbie sighed. “You just can't quit, can you?”
“I'm sorry!” Lyn said, holding up her hands. “It's only because I'm happy for you. You're obviously well suited. And he's so besotted with you, it's really sweet.”
Robbie looked away, feeling the guilt gnaw at him. This was getting out of hand; he couldn't keep up this charade. “Lyn, I –”
“I know, I know, I'll stop. But you should have seen the look in his eyes when he saw this photo for the first time,” she said, pointing at the one she'd singled out earlier.
“That's called amusement,” Robbie said.
“He wasn't the least bit amused,” Lyn insisted. “And when I told him I'd be happy to give it to him to take home with him, he looked as though I'd handed him a fistful of diamonds.”
Robbie frowned. “You –”
“Lyn!” Dave called from the kitchen. “Somebody's getting hungry.”
“Oh dear, the milk lorry is in demand,” Lyn sighed. Patting Robbie's knee, she said, “I promise I'll try not to embarrass you – either of you – any more. But I am glad to see how much he cares for you. You deserve that, Dad.” And before Robbie had an answer to that, she had risen to her feet and headed off to the kitchen.
James popped out a few moments later, wearing a hunted look. “Apparently Lyn thinks I'm some fragile flower who requires an apology,” he said. “And a hug.”
“You're still blushing, so I'd say you're a little fragile,” Robbie snorted, as James flopped down beside him on the couch.
“That's the sunburn,” James muttered.
“If you say so.”
There was silence for a minute, and then James murmured, “Did you tell her, then?”
Robbie turned toward him, surprised. “I was thinking about it, yeah. I don't like lying to her.”
James had no answer to that, and Robbie heard himself say, “At any rate, you need to tone down the playacting a little. She got the wrong end of the stick from your little trip down memory lane and now she's convinced you're madly in love with me.”
James' gaze met his, and Robbie sucked in a breath. For a split second, the look that Lyn had been talking about was there on James' face for all to see. Only this wasn't some panto mask put on to fool the audience; there was no audience here but Robbie. As quickly as it had appeared, though, it was gone, and Robbie was left wondering if he’d imagined it. “Right, yeah,” James murmured, looking at his hands, “I'll remember in future. It won't happen again.”
Robbie opened his mouth, then shut it again as James plucked the remote control off the coffee table and flicked on the telly.
“Oh, look. Newcastle are playing,” James said. Robbie glanced at the screen, then turned back to James to study the tense line of his jaw. When James showed no sign of tearing his gaze from the match, Robbie decided this was a conversation best left for a better time.
Not that he had any idea when that time might come, or what the hell he would say when it did.
“Are you sure?” Lyn asked, her eyes filled with concern. “I don’t want you to feel you have to –”
“Spend time with me grandchild? That’s one of the most important reasons I’m here,” Robbie said. “And you haven’t been out once with your friends since the baby was born.”
Lyn whipped her head round to confront Dave, who was wincing. “You told him that.”
Robbie laid his hand on Lyn’s shoulder. “Yes, he did, and it’s not a sodding crime. Now get yourselves down to the pub and have a lovely time.”
Lyn sighed. “Well, as long as you’re sure,” she said, and Dave punched the air with his fist. “Let me show you where the nappies are–”
“Dave’s already told us,” James interjected.
“And the medication in case she –”
“There’s nothing wrong with her,” Dave said, exasperated.
“And you have our mobile numbers – Dave, is yours charged? Mine’s only at half power, maybe less.”
“Don't take this the wrong way, pet, but would you please bugger off and go have a good time with your mates?” Robbie said. Grinning, Dave took Lyn’s arm, tugging her gently toward the door.
“Oh, wait, my purse!” Lyn cried, pointing to a hook on the wall. James deftly snatched it up and tossed it to Dave, who caught it and handed it to Lyn.
“And don’t come back until at least eleven!” Robbie called, as the door shut behind them. Chuckling, he turned to James, who was also smiling.
“I hope you don’t expect me to do anything useful,” James said, smile still frozen in place. “I don’t have the first clue of what to do with a baby.”
“Don’t worry,” Robbie said, “she only went down half an hour ago, and if she wakes up, you have a practised dad at the helm.”
“Aye-aye, skipper,” James said.
Robbie snagged a takeaway menu out of the organiser stuck to the wall and pressed it to James’ chest. “Oh, shut up and order us a curry, will you?”
James laid his hand over Robbie’s, ostensibly to take hold of the menu, but the touch was enough to make Robbie remember that he’d just volunteered to be alone in the house with James for the evening, with no chance of a reprieve. As predicted, the rain outside was torrential, and James wasn’t even smoking.
Robbie slid his hand out from under James’ as quickly as he could without making it look like he was trying to get away. They stared at one another for a moment until James took a step back, clutching the menu to his chest as though it was a piece of protective armour.
“Lamb madras?” James blurted.
“Yeah,” Robbie said, as James turned to look for a phone, “and don't forget the poppadoms.”
Of course, Maddie woke halfway through dinner, wailing at the top of her lungs.
“Don't look now, skipper, but the ship is in danger of foundering,” James said primly.
“Stay there and finish your dinner,” Robbie ordered, when James made to follow him.
James shook his head. “Oh, no. I want to watch how a practised dad does it.”
Robbie shot a glare at him over his shoulder as he climbed the stairs. “You come with me, you might be doing a lot more than watching, my lad.”
When they reached the room, Robbie quickly confirmed that a nappy change was definitely in order. “Come along m'love, oh no, don't fret, we'll get you sorted double-quick,” he soothed as he lifted her from the crib and carried her to the changing table with James close at his side.
As soon as Robbie had the nappy off, James took a step back. “Wow,” he breathed. “That's – an impressive pong.”
“I didn't mean to give you flashbacks to the lake of crap,” Robbie said, efficiently removing the nappy and binning it, then lifting Maddie's legs in one hand and wiping her bottom with the other.
“No, that's all right – here, let me get you a fresh one.”
“Powder first,” Robbie instructed, and James complied, slapping the powder into his outstretched hand as though he was a surgeon asking for a scalpel. In under a minute, Maddie was clean, dry and trussed up in a fresh nappy. She was still sniffling a bit, but Robbie took her in his arms and cooed nonsense to her until she quieted.
“Here, turn off the overhead light, would you?” Robbie murmured, moving to sit in the rocking chair under the window.
James did as he was asked, leaving the warm glow of the small lamp on the dresser, then paused in the doorway. “D'you want me to – ” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder.
“Stay if you like,” Robbie said, and to his surprise, James took him up on the invitation. Since the rocker was the only chair in the room, he plunked down cross-legged on the woven rug at Robbie's feet.
“You weren't lying,” James murmured, as Robbie began to rock. “You do know what you're doing.”
“Been a while, but I'm getting back into the old habits.”
James hesitated before speaking again. “Did you have a lot of time with your own when they were young?”
“Some. Not as much as I would have liked.”
James nodded, and silence reigned for a while longer.
“You'll be doing this yourself someday,” Robbie murmured.
James' eyes widened. “I don't think I could deal with the worry. Too many things can go wrong.”
“I know what you mean,” Robbie said. “But lots of coppers have kids.”
James looked up at him, his expression shuttered. “I felt that way long before I became a copper.”
They'd never talked about it – about what might or might not have happened at Crevecoeur when James was a boy. It occurred to Robbie once that it would have strengthened their case for James to give testimony, but James would have known that as well as anyone. If he had been abused like the others, Robbie believed James would have come forward.
The alternative – the thought that James had experienced something as a child that not even his integrity and courage could defeat – was too horrible to contemplate.
“Anyway,” James said, reaching out to run the tip of his finger along the back of Maddie’s hand, “I think I prefer being a grandfather.” He glanced up at Robbie, then away. “I mean, an honourary grandfather.”
Robbie hesitated for no more than a second or two, the mad urge to cover James' hand with his own nearly overwhelming, but by the time he'd made up his mind to do it, James had pulled away and was unfolding himself from the floor. “I'd, erm, better bung that curry in the fridge,” he said.
It was obvious he was eager for an excuse to escape, and Robbie was nearly as eager to give it to him. “Why don't you finish your supper, and throw what's left in the fridge for me,” he said. “I have a feeling she'll be restless for a while.”
“Okay,” James said, nodding. His voice, Robbie thought, was an odd mixture of gratitude and resentment. And then he was gone, and Robbie was left alone with a sleeping Maddie, who wouldn't wake up now if a herd of elephants stampeded through the house.
“Well, how about it, lass?” Robbie murmured, still rocking gently. “What am I going to do with my awkward sod, eh?”
Maddie's response was to snuffle in her sleep and kick her tiny foot against his chest.
“Yeah, I agree,” Robbie whispered, turning his head to press his nose to her downy hair.
The next day dawned bright and clear, and the four of them were soon hard at work in the back garden, taking up the worn and cracked bricks that formed the old patio, digging into long-neglected earth to tear out old roots and loosen hard-packed soil. Everyone pitched in, with Maddie supervising happily from her shaded pram.
Robbie had woken alone again this morning, after a night of fitful sleep and a dream that had shaken him to his core. He couldn't remember all the details, but the sensations were as vivid as if they had actually happened: the feeling of being pinned under a warm, undulating body, of soft, soft skin under his hands, of a hot tongue tracing his jugular. It had been years since he'd awoken panting and aroused, and after he'd realised he was by himself, it had been all he could do to keep from shoving his hand down his pyjama bottoms like a teenager just discovering what his prick was for. Only the further realisation that James could walk in at any moment had stopped him. Instead, he willed his inconvenient erection away and plunged himself into an early morning shower, where he decidedly did not think about the fact that the body he'd imagined pressing him into the mattress had been slim and fit and undeniably male.
Unfortunately, he was now consigned to spending an unusually hot and humid June day with a slim, fit, male body on display. James was not usually given to showing a great deal of skin, but the heat must have pushed him past the limits of his God-given prudishness, because he was wearing denim shorts that reached just above his knees and an old t-shirt worn thin with age. Within an hour, the latter was damp with sweat and had molded itself to every curve and plane of his chest. At one point, James lifted the hem of it to dry his face, a futile gesture if ever there was one, and Robbie had to look away from the taut stretch of belly that was revealed, the skin so pale as to be nearly translucent.
And of course, since Lyn was eyeing him like a hawk to make sure he didn't overexert himself, he turned to find her watching him. When their gazes met, she offered him a knowing smile, and he could feel himself flushing.
“Think I'll take a break,” Robbie said, wiping his brow. “Bring out some water for everyone.”
“You read my mind,” Lyn said, still smiling.
Inside, Robbie braced his hands against the kitchen counter and bowed his head, trying not to panic. Fifty-six was far past the age to be having a sexual identity crisis, but here he was, apparently. All right, so he'd found blokes objectively attractive before, but he'd never had sufficient interest in them to pursue it any further than that. When he'd been a lad growing up in Tyneside, girls were the best option, if you were lucky enough to have the choice, and then there had been Val, and that had been it for him. After her death, it had been a long time before he'd even thought about dating again, and women were what he knew. Certainty had been an elusive commodity, and Robbie had latched onto it wherever he could.
And now? Now he was considering walking off a cliff into thin air, with no certainty in sight. He wasn't certain how he felt, how James felt, or what the hell they would do if it turned out they did feel the same way. He was certain of one thing, however: that it was a ridiculous bloody idea. James was young enough to be his son, for Christ's sake, and Robbie was no prize by any stretch of the imagination. Why a good-looking bloke like Hathaway would fancy a broken-down old copper above anyone else was a complete mystery.
Robbie started when a hand tentatively touched the small of his back. “Sir?”
Robbie raised his head and spun round. James was standing there, his hand still raised in mid-air, his expression full of concern. “What did I tell you about calling me that?”
The impassive mask slid down over James' face. “We're alone,” he said. “They can't hear. Now, what's wrong? Did you hurt yourself?”
“No, I didn't,” Robbie answered, a little more sharply than he'd intended, “I only came in here to follow your advice and take a rest every now and then. Satisfied?”
James blinked at him. “Yeah. Sorry.”
Robbie rubbed the back of his neck with a hand. “Don't be,” he said, sighing. “It's fine.”
“Well, you'll be glad to know I'm taking your advice, too.” James brandished a tube of sunblock.”Picked it up this morning at the Boots down the road. I think it's SPF 5,000.”
“You need it. You're so blooming pale it's not funny.”
“We can't all be swarthy Northerners,” James countered, his tone light. Suddenly, Robbie realised they were standing very close, James looking down at him. His eyes were usually pale, but in this light they looked as dark as the depths of the sea, and Robbie found himself staring into them, unable to look away.
His gaze fixed on Robbie, James leaned forward. Robbie tensed, anticipation making his gut churn. What was he doing? He tilted his face up as James drew nearer, his breath coming shorter –
And then James reached into the cupboard behind Robbie's head and retrieved a glass, his arm brushing Robbie's shoulder as he did. “Sorry,” James mumbled, taking a step back. He filled it quickly with water from the tap, then downed the contents in a series of long gulps, his Adam's apple bobbing.
“Well, I'd better get back to it,” James said, setting down the glass. “See you out there in a bit.”
“Yeah. See you,” Robbie managed to rasp. As soon as James left the kitchen, he sagged back against the countertop, his knees wobbly.
“Fuck,” he muttered, passing a hand over his face. “I'm too old for this.”
Incredibly, both Robbie's back and his sanity survived four more days of gruelling garden work and four more nights of mounting sexual confusion and frustration. Although he slept better than he had the first night thanks to sheer physical exhaustion, the dreams persisted. On Friday morning, he gave up on principles entirely and wanked in the shower to phantom memories of James on his knees, looking up at him with his lovely mouth wrapped around Robbie's cock.
As soon as it was over – rather spectacularly, he might add – Robbie felt guilt wash over him. Even though James would never know, it somehow felt like an abuse of his trust, of their friendship. Robbie was behaving like some horny old goat lusting after the sweet young thing, and it wouldn't do. He had to stop this.
Of course, he'd told himself that every morning this week, and it hadn't worked yet.
The garden was coming together beautifully: the old detritus had been cleared away, the new flagstone patio and walkway had been laid, the fence freshly painted and the garden soil amended with compost. The only task that remained today was to get the plants Lyn and Dave had selected at the garden centre yesterday in the ground. The day was overcast with a chance of showers and not too hot, perfect for the job, and Robbie worked alongside Lyn on the flowers and smaller plants while the lads wrestled with the trees and shrubs.
It was just gone noon, with the last of the plants nearly in the ground, when the sky suddenly opened up, soaking them all within seconds. Lyn rushed inside with a squealing Maddie while the rest of them scrambled to finish. When they were done, James laughed and stripped off his t-shirt, beating his smooth chest and howling at the rain. Dave followed suit, hands on his hips, surveying the garden like a conquering hero.
Still grinning, James bounded up to Robbie. “Your turn,” he murmured, reaching for the hem of his shirt.
“Go away with you,” Robbie said, batting at James' hands. The sod was persistent, though, and took hold of the material, fingers sliding against the rain-slicked skin of Robbie's sides before Robbie could catch and hold onto them.
Time seemed to grind to a halt as the two of them stood there, their fingers entwined, hands coming to rest at Robbie's waist. Robbie looked up at James, heart pounding as though he'd run a mile, as James stared back at him with everything in his eyes – fear, hope, and what Robbie only dimly recalled to be longing.
“Are we running a nudist colony, then?” Lyn called out, laughing, from the patio door. Robbie and James broke apart, hands separating as Dave ran to seize her around the middle and drag her, screaming with a mixture of delight and mock outrage, into the garden with him.
Lyn and Dave insisted on taking James and Robbie out to a restaurant that night to thank them. When they returned, stuffed full of a truly exceptional Italian dinner, Robbie took Lyn aside while Dave paid the child minder.
“I think we'll be heading home in the morning, love,” he said as she bustled about the kitchen making tea. “I'll need a couple of nights on my good mattress before I have to get back to work – ”
“– and the two of you haven't had much of a holiday,” Lyn finished for him.
“That's not it at all,” he protested, though he couldn't exactly tell her the truth: that he wanted a day or two to try to find out what was going on with him and James before the job interfered. “I've enjoyed being able to help.”
“You've been that, both of you,” Lyn said, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek. “More than I can say. Thanks, Dad.”
“That's what dads are for,” Robbie said, smiling.
“And thank you for bringing James and letting us get to know him. He's such a lovely person.”
Robbie nodded, not sure what to say in response.
“You know, he told me something the other day you never bothered to mention,” Lyn said, putting the kettle on.
“What's that?” Robbie asked, suddenly wary.
Lyn leaned back against the counter, watching him. “You ran into a burning building to save him.”
Robbie made a face. “That's not so much.”
“Not so much?” Lyn echoed, shocked. “Dad, that's incredible!”
Robbie shrugged. “Nothing else to be done at the time. Besides, he's saved me once or twice, too. That's what you do – ”
“– when you love someone?”
“I was going to say when another copper's in trouble,” Robbie said, frowning.
Lyn smiled, walked over to him and took him by the shoulders. “All right, no more of the mushy stuff, I promise,” she said, shaking him gently. “Now go on and ask your James to bring down his guitar, would you? He hasn't had it out at all, and I'd like to hear him play before he goes.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Robbie said. Lyn stuck out her tongue at him, then hugged him, squeezing tight. Robbie squeezed back, pressing a kiss to her temple.
“Love you, Dad.”
“Love you too, pet,” Robbie murmured, holding on. “More than the world.”
“Are you sure it won't bother her?” James asked, casting a nervous glance toward the ceiling as he tuned his guitar.
Lyn shook her head. “Sleeps through the apocalypse, remember? And I'm sure your music will be much lovelier than that.”
James' mouth quirked. “Thanks.” He strummed a couple of chords. “What would you like to hear?”
“How about something you like to play?” Lyn asked. “Jazz-rock-mediaeval, Dad said?”
James blinked. “Well, I'd need the whole group for that, it's a little – how about something you like instead?”
“Lyn loves the Seekers, Mamas and the Papas, all that old folk music,” Dave said.
Lyn looked at James. “Oh, I don't imagine you –”
To Robbie's surprise, James smiled and immediately began plucking out the introduction to Georgy Girl. “You'll have to sing the melody,” he said, nodding to Lyn. “It's a little out of my range.”
Lyn blushed. “I don't know if I can. I'm not a professional.”
Dave elbowed her gently. “Go on, you have a lovely voice. Don't worry, it's just family, eh?”
Robbie glanced at James, but he seemed to be concentrating on his chords, head bowed. “Yeah, all right,” Lyn said finally, and James nodded and started from the beginning again.
It had been – God, years – since Robbie had heard Lyn sing, and her voice was just as beautiful as always, untrained but still clear and sweet. Val hadn't been a singer, but she'd loved all this music, and had passed on that love to her daughter. Robbie had seen the records up in the spare room cupboard, still carefully preserved in their plastic covers. As he listened to James join in on the harmony, watched Dave looking upon Lyn with a fond expression on his face, he felt a strange sense of peace descend on him.
I wish this was really who we were to each other, Robbie thought, sucking in a startled breath as the realisation slammed into him. God knew the two of them could strike sparks off one another at times, but in a way that always left them stronger afterward, closer. Over the last few years, James had come to fit into his life in a way that seemed to defy logic; somehow it made a daft sort of sense that they'd fit like this, too. Robbie sat back and watched James' long fingers curve around the neck of the guitar, watched him trade smiles with his daughter as they sang, and finally admitted to himself that he might be more than a little besotted.
After that, James and Lyn moved effortlessly through song after song – Scarborough Fair and The Shores of Avalon and California Dreamin', Puff the Magic Dragon and Blowin' in the Wind and Barbara Allen. And then Lyn asked James, “Do you know any Joni Mitchell?”
“A bit, yeah,” James said, strumming a couple of chords experimentally. “Have you heard of Chelsea Morning? I've always been partial to that one.”
Robbie stiffened and locked gazes with Lyn. “Yes, I've heard of it,” she said, wary.
“What's wrong?” James asked.
Robbie shook his head, still looking at his daughter. “Nothing's wrong. Sing it for us, pet.”
Lyn swallowed visibly and nodded, and they were off once again. Robbie closed his eyes, ignoring the pricking sensation at the corners, and let himself fall into the music, into another time, another place.
Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning
And the first thing that I saw
Was the sun through yellow curtains
And a rainbow on the wall
Blue, red, green and gold to welcome you
Crimson crystal beads to beckon
He remembered it as clearly as if it were yesterday: the two of them dancing to it in the kitchen on a lazy spring Sunday, with Lyn in Robbie's arms and Mark just starting to make his presence known in the curve of Val's belly. She'd bought one of those glass suncatchers for the window, and the light filtered through it, casting bold colours as they orbited one another. Here a spot of orange on her cheek, there a flash of bright pink on Lyn's chubby arm as she clapped her hands in glee.
Blinking rapidly, he glanced over at Lyn and saw that her eyes were brimming. James' gaze was flickering back and forth between them as he played, searching for clues. There was a tiny crease between his eyes, and Robbie wanted to smooth it away with his thumb. He was surprised when that didn't feel like disloyalty.
Oh, won't you stay
We'll put on the day
And we'll talk in present tenses
When the song was over, Robbie wiped at his eyes, unashamed. Lyn rose to her feet and leaned down to kiss James on the cheek. “Thank you. That was Mum's favourite song.”
James visibly blanched; Robbie would have thought that was impossible. “I – I didn't know,” he said. “I'm sorry.”
“Don't you dare be sorry,” Lyn said, wiping at his cheek with her thumb to remove the trace of lipstick. “It was beautiful. And it means a lot that you like it, too.”
James swallowed, bit his lip and nodded, but the crease didn't disappear, even when Robbie caught his eye and smiled his own silent thanks.
Robbie woke near midnight to find himself alone in the bed. After listening for a few moments and finding the house completely quiet, he rose and walked over to the window, which looked out on the back garden. There in the darkness, he spotted the faint orange glow of a cigarette tip flaring and then disappearing.
As quietly as possible, he put on his robe and descended the stairs. When he saw Robbie approach, James stubbed out the cigarette on the ground, then picked it up and held the mangled remains between his fingers. “I'm sorry,” he said, blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth.
“Eh, don't worry. You lasted most of the week.”
“No,” James said, looking down at the ground. “I mean, I'm sorry for all of this. I shouldn't have – insinuated myself into your family.”
Robbie shook his head. “Don't be so hard on yourself. You're making it sound like you had some sinister motive.”
James raised his head. “Not sinister, no. But selfish.” He took a deep breath. “I'm an only child, you know. My mum died when I was twelve; that's why we left Crevecoeur. They told me it was an aneurysm. Dad and I – we didn't get on, and not long after I went away to Cambridge, he took a job in the States, working in a vineyard on the Pacific coast. He remarried, has a second family. I don't see him.”
That was more than James had told Robbie about his family in over five years. James continued. “I'm not telling you this to garner sympathy; I just needed to explain why I'm not entirely – socialised.”
“For heaven's sake, man, you're not a cocker spaniel to be trained not to bark at strangers,” Robbie huffed. “You're all right.” You're more than all right, he wanted to say, but James' words had planted a thought in his mind, and he held his tongue while he considered it. What if those looks Robbie had seen, or thought he'd seen, had meant nothing more than a yearning for a family? If so, it was pretty bloody obvious that Robbie would be cast in the role of father, not lover.
It seemed he'd been right all along. He was a daft old idiot.
“Still,” James insisted, “it was wrong of me. I should have thought more about the consequences.”
“James, listen,” Robbie began, not sure how he meant to finish the sentence, but knowing he needed to try.
James shoved his hands in his pockets, rocked on the balls of his feet. “If you don't mind, sir, I'd like to just – be on my own for a bit,” he murmured.
Robbie opened his mouth, closed it. “Yeah, sure,” he managed. Hesitating for a moment, he risked a brief grip of James' arm and noted with disappointment the way the muscle stiffened under his touch. “We'll head out bright and early, yeah?”
“Yeah,” James said. When Robbie cast one last glance over his shoulder before going back inside, he saw that James had already lit another cigarette.
Three weeks later, they had settled back into a routine that seemed familiar enough on the surface; not even Innocent, who seemed to be able to sense whenever they so much as looked at one another askance, had noticed anything. And in truth, that was because there was nothing to see. They worked together as seamlessly as they always had, and there was no tension of any kind.
And of course, that was exactly what was missing.
Robbie hadn't realised how much he'd enjoyed that spark, that friction between them; the way they traded off taking the piss, butted heads about procedure or a hundred other things, from the existence of God to the proper seasoning for curried chip gravy. The prospect of sparring with James, he knew now, was one of the things that got him up in the morning, because now that it was gone, it was becoming more and more difficult to drag his arse out of bed and off to work.
It didn't help that work had been anything but distracting. There had been one case since they'd returned from Manchester, a contract killing that was turned over to the organised crime unit. In the ensuing downtime, James had organised their files and gone on a seminar on new electronic evidence procedures in Birmingham. Robbie had cleaned up his desk and traveled with Innocent to London for some boring conference at New Scotland Yard about interjurisdictional cooperation. He had no idea why she kept insisting he go on these things, with him four years from retirement at most. However, he gritted his teeth and went along, because the alternative was standing over James as he sat hunched over an old sheaf of papers and staring at the nape of his neck.
Robbie had tried not to think about it, he honestly had. He'd tried not to let his mind wander to picturing James as he'd been that week: in the kitchen, juggling pans full of frying bacon and eggs, making Lyn and Dave laugh with his barefooted dance from hob to toaster to table; in the garden, drenched and lovely, howling like a banshee; in bed, glasses perched on his nose, looking like something Robbie had a right to touch, to have. He'd tried to tell himself it had all been an illusion, but then he'd remember James' fingers tangled with his, the look in his eyes as they stood close to one another, and he'd wonder if he'd been wrong. Just as with a murder, though, he needed conclusive evidence, and there was none to be had.
And then they were tasked with an open and shut case, a man killing his ex-lover. There had been no history of abuse, and according to family and friends, no indication the victim had felt threatened; psychological evaluations of the suspect declared him to be fit to stand trial. At the interview, the man collapsed in tears, saying he was sorry over and over again until he was led away to his cell. Robbie tried to get angry about it; he wanted an explanation, dammit, something that told him why this had happened, and what could have been done to prevent it, but after days of interviews and research, there was nothing, not even vague theories or wild conjecture.
He tried to engage James in the topic after work down the pub, but James wasn't having any. “Sometimes people just – snap,” he said, shrugging. “And the society at large reinforces the message that women are the possessions of men, to do with as they please. It's not necessary for him to have had first-hand indoctrination through an abusive home life.”
“And that doesn't bother you?” Robbie countered, surprised at the vehemence in his own voice. He was spoiling for a fight, he realised, wanted one. He wanted something other than this bloodless netherworld they'd inhabited for weeks.
Hathaway treated him to the blank look that told him he wasn't getting what he wanted. “Most religions don't even give God responsibility for mending the ills of society,” he said, taking a sip of his pint.
“Is that a bloody answer?”
James' head snapped up, and Robbie held his breath as their gazes locked for a long moment. “It's not, no,” he admitted quietly. “Sometimes there isn't an answer.” He looked away. “Or at least, not from me.”
Bugger, Robbie thought. This wasn't the scrap he'd been aiming for, not at all. “James – ”
But James was already pulling a fiver out of his wallet and laying it on the bar. “I think I'd better call it a day, sir. I'm a bit tired.” His gaze flicked to Robbie's face – waiting for permission to be dismissed by a superior officer, Christ – and Robbie gave it with a tight nod.
And then he was gone, and Robbie was left alone with a half-finished pint and a churning gut.
“You really are a stupid bloody chippy copper, aren't you,” Robbie murmured under his breath.
James' door swung open, and Robbie was grateful for the fact that his face was too shadowed for Robbie to see his reaction.
“There's a new curry shop opened up around the corner,” he said by way of introduction, “thought you might like to give it a try.” When James didn't answer immediately, he added, “Unless you've already eaten.”
Another pause. “I haven't,” James said finally, stepping to the side. “Come in.” They’d both changed out of their work clothes, but James was the more casual of the two of them in dark jeans and a t-shirt with Beastie Boys written on it, whoever the hell they were.
When he was safely inside, Robbie deposited the bag on the counter and turned to face him. “I reckon you've worked out this is a backhanded apology, but I'm going to say it anyway. I was out of line, and I'm sorry.”
James took a deep breath. “Thanks, but you don't have to. I know I've been – off.”
Robbie shook his head. “You haven't been off. We've been off. And I'm sorry for that, too. I want you to know I'm going to tell Lyn the truth, but even after I do, I know she's still going to consider you part of the family. And so will I.”
James' eyes widened. “That's – I –” He cleared his throat, stared down at his feet before looking up again. “That's very generous of you. Thank you.” His tone was sincere, but it had a flat edge to it that Robbie knew meant he was trying to be polite.
Robbie frowned; that wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting. He pointed down the hall. “Mind if I wash me hands?”
James shook his head. “I'll unpack dinner.”
Once he was behind a closed door, Robbie stared at himself in the mirror for a few moments, trying to fit the pieces together in a way that made sense. He'd hoped that offering James a chance to be included without lies would mend whatever was broken between them, but it clearly hadn't. So James hadn't yearned for that belonging after all, or at least not in the way Robbie had thought he did. Perhaps it was simpler than that: perhaps the lad was still a little embarrassed by having revealed so much about his own desires, and was rejecting what he saw as an offer motivated by pity. If only he knew how far it was from the truth.
Robbie's reflection frowned back at him as another possibility occurred to him: what if he did know? What if Robbie had tipped his hand at some point along the way and James knew that Robbie's feelings for him were less than paternal? In that case, he may just have made things immeasurably worse, and simultaneously scuppered their working relationship besides.
“Marvelous,” Robbie told his reflection. “You get top marks tonight.”
When he emerged from the bathroom, he was actually dreading facing James again, and perhaps that was what made his gaze wander and his steps slower as he headed back down the hall. On the way, he passed the open door of James' bedroom, and while he was not usually one to pry into his Sergeant's life, he couldn't help glancing in as he walked by.
And then he stopped dead, took a step back, and looked again.
There was only a bedside light on, a brushed metal gooseneck lamp that appeared to be older than James, and under it was a small framed photograph that seemed oddly familiar. Casting a furtive glance down the hall, Robbie stepped over the threshold for a closer look.
He identified it from a few feet away, but he still had to pick it up, as though he needed to feel the solid weight of it in his hands to know that it was real. When he did, he released a long, shaking breath.
Himself the summer he turned eighteen, arms crossed, wearing a tight white t-shirt and jeans with the cuffs turned up. He'd worked on roofs every day, and he was bronzed and as well-built as he'd ever be, and he'd ruined it with that ridiculous hair and those bloody rolled-up trousers. Proof there was no accounting for taste, even with Cambridge graduates.
Conclusive evidence, Robbie thought, heart pounding with a combination of exhilaration and terror, fingers gripping the frame so tightly he was afraid the damned wood might crack.
When he returned to the kitchen, James was fetching utensils from a drawer. The curry containers were all neatly arranged in the middle of the dining table, and there were two beers sitting open in front of clean white plates. Robbie closed his eyes for a moment, imagining this every day, James in his kitchen, in their kitchen, rooting in drawers and cooking bacon and eggs in his bare feet.
Don't get ahead of yourself, he warned. There's still a six foot hurdle in front of you.
James turned when Robbie drew near with a small smile on his face that faded quickly when he saw the photo in Robbie's hand.
“The frame suits it,” Robbie said softly, as though calming a wild creature, “but I still think I look like a right berk.”
James clenched his jaw. “Congratulations,” he said, voice dripping ice. “You've solved another mystery. Wasn't much of one, though, was it?”
Robbie bit his tongue to keep from smiling. This was a James he knew; he could work with this. “You don't give yourself enough credit; you were a hard nut to crack. I wasn't sure until I saw this.”
“I'll talk to Innocent in the morning,” James snapped. “Give her my notice.”
“Don't be daft,” Robbie said gently. “Why would you do that?”
James' hard expression faltered for a moment, revealing a brief flash of devastation that cut Robbie to the heart. “Because I'm not going to play the fool for anyone, not even you.”
Laying the picture down, Robbie took a step forward, and suppressed a cheer when James didn't move away. “What if we both played the fool, then?” he murmured. “Would that be all right?”
James frowned, then shook his head slowly. “No,” he whispered.
“No?” Robbie echoed, closing the remaining distance between them. “That's a shame, because I've been feeling pretty damned foolish these past few weeks and I fancied some company.”
Robbie spared a moment to be grateful he was still wearing his shoes while James was in stocking feet; it made them almost of a height, made it easier to press his mouth to James' while the lad was still staring at him in shock. He needn't have given it a thought, though, because it was no more than a second before he felt James groan against his lips and surge forward, nearly staggering Robbie backward with the force of it. James seized Robbie's shoulders, long fingers clutching desperately, and Robbie took James' face in both hands and kissed him back messily, nipping at that sinful lower lip he'd thought about for far too long, soothing the small hurt with his tongue, tasting him, tasting James, God.
“Robbie,” James gasped, breaking away to bury his face in Robbie's neck, “Robbie, Robbie.”
“Christ, you're perfect,” Robbie breathed, felt James' low chuckle against the skin covering his collarbone.
“Hardly,” James murmured. His hands glided down Robbie's back to his waist, and Robbie reached down to tangle their fingers together. James raised his head and looked at him, eyes wide.
“You didn't see it then?” Robbie asked, smiling. “Some blooming detective you are.”
“I saw it,” James admitted, voice softer now. “I didn't believe it.”
“James,” Robbie sighed, leaning in so that their foreheads touched.
“Nothing,” Robbie said. “Just James.” James huffed out a laugh, then slipped his hands free of Robbie's and reached up to touch his face, his hair, his neck, his chest, as though he was trying to prove to himself this was real.
“I'm here,” Robbie whispered, kissing him softly. “Shhh, I'm here.”
James ducked his head, caught, and Robbie's heart hammered in his chest, near to bursting from sheer fondness. “Eh, whatever do you want with me, lad?”
James looked up. “I want everything with you,” he growled, and Robbie felt arousal punch him squarely in the gut.
“That wasn't what I meant and you know it,” he said, trying to be stern and only partially succeeding.
“I'm sorry, I haven't got time to feed your insecurities,” James said, mouth brushing Robbie's. “I've enough of my own that need tending.”
James nosed at Robbie's ear, making him shiver. “I still feel guilty.”
“Of course you do,” Robbie said. “You wouldn't be you without a little guilt. Get it off your chest, then.”
James hid his face in Robbie's neck again, spoke the words there, a rushed and breathless confession. “When you told me what Lyn thought, I gave in to temptation,” he murmured. “I knew it was wrong, but I wanted to pretend it was true. Told myself I was being pathetic, that you'd never–” a kiss landed on Robbie's Adam's apple, followed by a giddy chuckle “ –you'd never –”
Robbie carded a hand in James' hair, the revelation making him a little weak at the knees. “You wanted this. Before.”
James stiffened slightly in Robbie's arms. “Off and on,” he admitted. “I had myself mostly convinced I didn't any longer.”
How long? Robbie wanted to ask, but it was too soon, and he suspected the answer might shame him. He should have figured it out sooner; moments he'd chalked up to a good working partnership suddenly acquired new meaning, new weight. It was upsetting to think of the lad alone in this for any amount of time.
And then James raised his head, that small crease between his brows, uncertainty written plain as day. Robbie gave in to his own brand of temptation and smoothed it away with his thumb.
“Why don't you bung that curry in the fridge, and we'll finish it later?” he murmured.
James searched his face for another moment, then broke into a pure, happy grin that took Robbie's breath away. Giving him one last, hard kiss, he broke away to do Robbie's bidding.
He dropped two cartons in his haste to get them to the fridge, and by the time he caught Robbie's hand to tug him toward the bedroom, they were both laughing.
Robbie's laughter faded when they reached the bed, the backs of his knees bumping against the mattress making him suddenly aware of the reality of it. As usual, James sensed his mood, pulling away immediately.
“We don't have to –”
His own frustration with himself making him bold, Robbie grabbed hold of James' hips before he could withdraw completely and brought them together. James shut his eyes and dropped his head to Robbie's shoulder, hissing out a breath.
“What was that?” Robbie asked, turning his head to press his lips to James’ ear.
“Nothing,” James said, voice muffled against Robbie’s shirt. “I didn’t say a thing.”
Grinning, Robbie reached for the hem of James’ t-shirt, tugging it upward. James sucked in a breath when Robbie’s fingers grazed the skin of his stomach, then pulled back a bit to help. And then he was standing there, bare-chested and pale, his arms hanging awkwardly at his sides as though he were being judged in some bizarre competition.
Oh, Robbie thought, right. Without allowing himself to hesitate, he glided his hands up James’ belly to his ribs, surprised at the utter smoothness of his skin, only a few pale hairs curling over his fingertips as they moved. When he looked up, James was staring down at his own chest, watching Robbie touch him. Christ, Robbie thought; clearly, arousal wouldn’t be a problem tonight.
Experimentally, Robbie brushed his fingers over a nipple, and was rewarded with a groan. “You like that,” Robbie breathed. Leaning forward, he replaced his fingers with his tongue.
“Fuck, God,” James gusted, hands flying to Robbie’s shoulders as though he needed something solid to keep him upright. He ducked down to capture Robbie’s mouth in a kiss that rapidly turned filthy, and when it was over they were both gasping. Robbie’s hands, he noted distractedly, had somehow found their way to James’ arse; rather than being shocked at himself, though, he reckoned it seemed a fine place for them.
James’ hands were engaged in unbuttoning Robbie’s short-sleeved shirt; Robbie experienced a brief moment of panic as he imagined the disappointment on James’ face, but it wasn’t as though the lad didn’t have some idea of what he was getting. When the shirt was gone, though, there was no disappointment to be found, only something fond and more than a little hungry, and when James kissed him again Robbie forgot to be anxious.
The kissing went on for a while – not that Robbie objected, mind, but he was beginning to wonder what was holding up the works when he realised James was waiting for him. Still kissing him, Robbie let his hands trail down to James’ jeans, enjoying the flutter of the lad’s taut stomach as he slid his fingers under the waistband. He eased out of the kiss and met James’ gaze; he was flushed, panting, beautiful.
“Please,” James whispered, and Robbie nodded solemnly and popped one button, then another. The backs of his fingers brushed against a hard bulge, and James groaned and tried to lower his head again.
“No,” Robbie said, gently but firmly. “No more hiding, James. Look at me.”
James obeyed him, eyes wide, and together they made short work of James’ trousers and pants. When he was naked, Robbie whispered, “Lie down, lad,” and James followed that order, too, splaying himself over the bed like an offering, like a gift Robbie never would have expected.
Slowly, Robbie took care of his own trousers and boxers while James watched, heavy-lidded. He wasn’t used to being on display like this, but he suspected James wasn’t either, and that made it easier. It was pretty bloody obvious that James liked looking at him, and the last thing Robbie wanted now was to deny him anything.
He kneed his way onto the bed and lay down on his side, head propped on an elbow; James rolled to face him, mirroring the pose. They smiled at one another dopily until Robbie chuckled.
“What's so funny?” James asked, still smiling.
“Us. We're a bit of an odd couple.”
“In some ways,” James murmured, reaching out to touch his fingers to Robbie's collar bone, “not in others. Sometimes I feel...”
James shook his head. “You'll think I'm ridiculous.”
Robbie covered James' hand with his own. “No, I won't. Please tell me.”
James bit his lip, huffed out a breath; the words emerged in a rush. “I've never felt like I – fit anywhere. Not for long, anyway. But I fit with you.” He lifted his chin. “Sometimes – sometimes I feel as though I was made for you.”
Robbie stared at him as James flushed under his gaze. He tried to withdraw his hand, but Robbie tightened his grip, holding on. “James.” He tugged James' hand up to his mouth and kissed it. James gasped, eyes widening in shock.
Robbie didn't know which one of them reached for the other first, but it hardly mattered. They tangled together on the bed, rolling until Robbie was lying in the cradle of James' hips, their erections hot and straining against one another. Robbie wasn't experienced at this sort of thing, and he was rusty as hell at sex in general, but his body remembered the rhythm. He built the pace slowly, James' urgent hands and heated kisses and breathless sighs spurring him on.
When Robbie was nearly at the edge, he rose up on one hand and reached the other between them, fumbling a bit at first before curling it around James' cock. James clutched at him and flung his head back, and Robbie bit and sucked at the long, graceful curve of his neck as James shuddered to pieces beneath him.
As carefully as he could, Robbie moved off James to keep from crushing him, then collapsed onto the mattress. James gasped up at the ceiling for a few moments, then rolled to face him, drawing him into a liquid, langourous kiss. When he pulled back, he looked down the length of Robbie's body.
“Oh,” he breathed, trailing his hand over Robbie's stomach, fingertips tracing the outline of Robbie's erection. “You didn't –”
Robbie groaned as James' touch grew more confident. “Not yet.”
James grinned wickedly at him, then climbed between his legs and began kissing his way down Robbie's chest, over the swell of his belly. “Good,” he said, his voice a baritone growl.
“James...” Robbie warned, burying his hand in James' hair. James continued undeterred, grasping Robbie's cock firmly and delivering a long lick to the underside. Robbie's toes curled and his hips jerked involuntarily.
“Jesus! Be careful, I'm an old man with a weak heart.”
James looked up at him, his eyes blazing with that intensity that had fascinated Robbie from the start.
“There's nothing wrong with your heart,” James murmured, “nothing at all,” and then his mouth descended and Robbie decided to let James win an argument for a change.
We are one, after all, you and I, together we suffer, together exist and forever will recreate each other.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“So I suppose we're the fifth, then,” James murmured, mouth brushing Robbie's shoulder.
Robbie sifted his fingers through James' blond hair. “The fifth what?”
“Your daughter the matchmaker.” James lifted his head. “We're her fifth success.”
“Not that she'll ever know,” Robbie said. His palm was molded to James' skull as though it had decided it liked the shape of it.
“Too bad,” James said, leaning in to touch his lips, feather-light, to Robbie's. “I'd like to send her a thank-you gift.”
“I'm the one who should be thankful. It's clear I got the better end of this bargain.”
“Not to me,” James growled, shifting atop him and kissing him with an edge of aggression that had Robbie fisting both hands in James' hair. Christ, he was getting hard again, which at his age was practically a miracle.
Blasphemous, he thought, smiling to himself.
James reached back to lift Robbie's leg, encouraging it to hook around the backs of his thighs. Robbie complied, groaning as the move made him more aware of their positions, of the way James' big body was covering him, pinning him down. It should have made him anxious, but it only ratcheted up his arousal, made him harder.
“What are you doing to me?” Robbie murmured wonderingly, as much to himself as to anyone.
James bit down gently on Robbie's left nipple, then soothed it with a sweep of his tongue. “If you don't know, I'm not doing it right.”
“Cheeky,” Robbie said.
James raised his head, gaze piercing. “Happy,” he corrected.
Robbie took James' head in his hands, shook it gently. “You great soft thing,” he murmured.
“I’m your soft thing,” James said, gaze flickering over Robbie’s face. “If you want me.”
Robbie let his thumb stray over James’ full lower lip, and this time kicked the nagging doubts to the kerb. “I do, yeah.”
“Robbie,” James whispered, leaning in close, touching their foreheads together, “Robbie, Robbie, Robbie,” and Robbie had to kiss him then, kiss his own name from James' lips until there was no more need for words.