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Tokens of Affection

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It was warm in the pub and pleasantly stuffy in a way that Strike would loathe on any other occasion but a December day that had been plagued since dawn by a disheartening mix of sleet and snow. Robin joined him on the hour--he’d been early this time, making a snap decision to lunch in the pub--and they exchanged the expected holiday pleasantries while they waited for their drinks to arrive. Then they fell silent, but it was a good silence, Strike thought. Comfortable. For him anyway.

“What’s wrong?” Strike asked Robin after she’d been fiddling with the tassels on her scarf for a good five minutes. She was frowning into her glass of wine.

“It’s nothing.”

“Get off it,” he prompted gently, though he needn’t have bothered, as the words were hardly out of his mouth before she continued.

“It’s only, well, I didn’t think much of Matt’s Christmas present,” she admitted. “And he could tell, even though I tried to hide it, and we didn’t row exactly, but he’s walking about the flat being cool and painfully polite.”

Sulking, Strike thought automatically, but didn’t give voice to the thought. And knowing what he did of Robin’s husband, he was certain Matthew’s reaction to this holiday outing with Strike wouldn’t have been positive. “What did he get you?”

“A necklace. A diamond one. Quite expensive.” She’d switched from fiddling with her scarf to running a long, tapered finger around the rim of her glass. Her wedding ring glinted gold each time she made a revolution.

“Not to your taste?”

“It’s just-,” she bit her lower lip for an instant, as she always did when she was thinking of the best way to explain something, “it feels a little impersonal, doesn’t it? Something you would get for a person you were trying to impress but didn’t know very well.”

“I’m sure he didn’t intend it that way,” Strike said, but his tone wasn’t convincing to his own ears. He thought Robin’s husband was a tit, and the more he met him in person, the worse he was at hiding it.

“It’d be like someone who purported to love you buying you the most expensive tie available. Do you understand?”

Lucy--with whom Strike had exchanged holiday gifts during the weekend--had gotten him a tie. Dolce and Gabanna and made of silk so fine it felt unsubstantial in Strike’s large, rough fingers.

Bethany, by contrast--she the last in an increasingly complicated string of women Strike dated briefly from the same advertising firm--had given Strike a joke t-shirt. ‘I don’t need two legs to kick your arse’ it said in all capital Courier New letters.

“It’s just, you always seem like you don’t care about it,” she’d said when she saw Strike’s face.

Robin was still brooding. “What did you get the girl you’ve been seeing? Betty, was it?”

“We’re not seeing each other anymore.”

“Oh, Cormoran, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s for the best, and it’s one less gift I need to purchase anyway.”

“Right.” Robin shook back her bright hair with a smile that looked forced until it transformed into something genuine. “But enough about that.” She rummaged into her handbag and pulled out a small, gaily wrapped gift that she presented to Strike. “Happy Christmas.”

Strike’s gift to Robin--an umbrella patterned with jewel-colored dragonflies in teal, green, and pink--lay in the messenger bag at his feet, professionally wrapped in paper with gold and silver snowflakes. He’d first attempted to wrap it himself, but the end result had looked so clumsy, he’d returned to the store and asked the woman at the register if she would be so kind as to come to his rescue. He had her number somewhere in his coat pocket.

Robin’s umbrella had broken a couple of weeks before after an unnaturally strong gust of wind had pulled it inside out while she was on surveillance. “It’s for the best,” she’d told Strike, windblown and pink-cheeked, as she dropped the broken navy thing into the bin. “I’ve always preferred umbrellas of bright colors, anyway. Rainy days are somber enough, don’t you think? I like to carry something cheerful.”

Strike knew himself to have an excellent memory, one which he’d trained well over two careers. He remembered the conversation vividly. He also knew he wouldn’t forget the look on Robin’s face five minutes before when she explained the deficiencies inherent in her husband’s gift. Rather than reach into the messenger bag, he grimaced in apology.

“I’m sorry, I’ve got yours at the flat, but I haven’t found the time to wrap it.”

Her smile dipped a minuscule amount before returning. “It’s alright,” she said, and he knew she meant it. “I know you’ve been busy. You can give it to me later. Open yours now.” She pushed it into his hand and sat back with a pleased smile.

He opened it carefully, but the paper--a jolly Santa posing in a variety of scenes with gifts and elves and reindeer--tore anyway. Inside was a small box, and in the box was a large pair of butter-soft leather gloves lined for warmth.

“You really need a new pair of gloves,” Robin said after catching Strike blowing ineffectually onto his cupped hands to warm them for a third time. They were together this time, taking turns tailing their subject both because he seemed a little more aware and savvy than the majority of their marks and so that Robin had a chance to practice following someone in a team.

Strike grunted, eyes on the man they were following who had stopped at a cart for a cup of coffee. He thought about putting Robin on point for the next bit so he could do the same and use it to thaw his hands. “I have gloves.” He waved his hands around in demonstration.

“Yes, but they’re so full of holes they’re not doing you much good. I can see your skin in half a dozen places.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“And from what I can see it’s turning blue.”

“It’s hard to find gloves that fit. I haven’t had time to go scouting. These will see me through one more winter.”

Robin pulled that expression of disapproval he was certain she’d picked up from her mother. “I’ll go get you a cup of coffee to hold.” Their subject had just stepped away and was proceeding slowly down the pavement.

“Nah, I’ll get it,” he said. “You take this time, and I’ll catch up to you for the next handover.”

She grinned then, and he’d thanked providence once again that he’d stumbled across a partner with so much damn enthusiasm, even when the job entailed spending hours out of doors on a frigid November evening...

“Thank you,” he said when he realized he’d been silent longer than socially acceptable.

He didn’t know what his own expression was, but Robin’s smile suffused her entire face and lit up her eyes when she saw it. “I’m glad you like them.”

At that moment her phone sounded a tone, an aborted bugle call that Strike had quickly come to loathe.

“That’s Matt,” Robin said, glancing at the display. Her expression was apologetic. “We’re going to his boss’s house for dinner this evening, and he wants to leave early in case the weather gets worse.”

“Be safe,” Strike told her as she gathered her winter things, buckling herself into an emerald colored coat.

She wrapped a long scarf about her neck and pulled the hood of the coat up over her bright hair. “You too.” Unexpectedly, she leaned over to give Strike a peck on the cheek. “Happy Christmas. I’ll see you Monday.”

Then she was gone out the door into the gray December afternoon. Strike touched a hand to his cheek, the other on his new gloves, and cursed himself a fool.


[Christmas Coda]

Strike gave Robin the umbrella two days later, left it sitting welcoming on her desk just above the keyboard. She tore into the paper with enthusiasm--an impishly pleased expression on her face--and when she pulled the umbrella from its box, her eyes gleamed. Watching her, Strike recognized once again that he was out of his depth and swiftly sinking.

But when she beamed across their shared office at him, he couldn't bring himself to mind it.