James tried not to remember a little girl's body lying broken in a heap like so much rubbish. He tried not to remember the way her glassy eyes had stared up at him in what felt like admonishment for not being fast enough, not being good enough or not caring enough to save her. He wanted so much to get those images from his mind while he waited for Lewis to return from the crime scene he'd been called to while James was in court.
Instead his mind turned to the way he'd exited the court room, expecting to see Lewis waiting for him, ready to tell him that everything would be alright and that at least justice would be served, somehow. He knew he had looked a right fool standing just outside the court room door, searching in vain for his Inspector like a lost boy before his phone buzzed silently in his pocket, telling him he had a new text message. The first message was Lewis' unmistakeable broken text telling him he'd been called to a scene then another, much better composed message (he suspected Dr. Hobson had nicked Lewis' phone to type it out) saying that he was almost done and to meet him back at the office.
And now he sat at his computer, staring into space while he waited for Lewis and tried not to think about Jenny or the way he had felt when he hadn't seen Lewis. He heard the Inspector approaching down the hall before he arrived and took the extra moments to compose himself. If he was honest, though, he was still in a funk as Lewis explained the case so far and his plan of attack. And since he didn't shy away from honesty, at least in his own mind, he was only listening with half an ear until Lewis mentioned Crevecoeur.
It took every ounce of self control he had not to shout to Lewis that he had to be wrong. It had to be any estate around Oxford, just not Crevecoeur. He had to search the very depths of his self control not to simply walk out of the room, then the building, then the whole of Oxfordshire when Lewis said James would be returning to Crevecoeur to follow up. But Lewis had no idea what Crevecoeur meant to him and it would be unfair to him to walk out now.
He had to stop once on the drive out as the silence of the car started to press in and the images of Jenny melted into the memories of Crevecoeur and he saw the faces of all the children he had known and the knowledge of what had been done to them. He was glad he hadn't eaten anything that day because it would have been lost on the side of the road. He was normally a private person and didn't like anyone to see him in such a state, but, at that moment, the thing he wanted most in the world was simply for Robbie to be here, to wrap an arm around his shoulders and tell him that this could wait and for James to turn the car around and say, "Home, James."
He shook himself out of the fantasy and took deep, cleansing breaths instead. When he felt he had a handle of himself, he turned the radio on some pop station and used the fast beats and the over the top lyrics to drown out the screams he usually only heard in his deepest nightmares.
Seeing his comrades and the chance to give them a bit of a history lesson was enough to put him back in the proper frame of mind to see the rest of the estate. He had been expecting to see Augustus Mortmaigne and had been preparing himself for the moment. He took a small victory in not flinching at the man's touch and just barely contained the shudder of revulsion when he realized that Mortmaigne was looking him up and down with that same contemplative eye, like he was judging how well one of his fishing lures had turned out now that it was out from under the magnifying glass.
As he left the room with Mortmaigne behind him, he could still feel the man leaning over him in the Summer Room, his breath tickling the back of James' neck as he urged James to play his scales one more time, that he was so close to getting it perfect and that he'd get a treat once he did. He couldn't stop the shudder that travelled through his body at that memory.
Returning to police work, searching for proof that their victim had been here was a relief. He hoped to God that Dr. Black had only been here as the bus passed through. Perhaps he'd never even disembarked. James was a realist, though. This place held a history of dark secrets, was haunted by the stains of misery, so it was with resignation that he discovered first the crossword, then the bag, then the murder weapon.
He knew, after he called Lewis, that it would take some time to get forensics out here and that he had a small window of time to himself before he started investigating the place he wished never to return to. He kneeled in the front pew of the chapel and prayed harder and with more sincerity than he had in a long time.
His confidence returned with Lewis at his side. He was even able to brush off his connection to Crevecoeur when asked about it. Lewis gave him that searching look like he didn’t entirely believe James' version, but let it go. He was reminded very suddenly about what had happened the last time he'd kept things from Robbie and nearly grabbed the other man to turn him around and spill everything. It was only the thought of the look of pity that he was sure would pass over Robbie's face when he knew that stopped him.
As they wrapped up the investigation for the first day, he dared to think that he might be able to get through this one without Robbie uncovering the secrets he kept of this place. He was tired as he made his way home but he managed. He even found the strength to brave food while he let the telly drone on in the background.
He woke with a shout just before four in the morning. The nightmares had returned with a vengeance. He spent the rest of the night sitting against the headboard, his legs tucked up against himself and stared into the darkness, waiting for dawn.
As they interviewed Briony, he took the chance to really look at the girl. She'd shied away from physical contact since they'd arrived. Lewis, no doubt, had dismissed it as a young girl in shock at seeing her father dead by his own hand. James, however, saw it otherwise. It was only because he'd been watching her wrists as they moved to sit that James had caught the tell-tale redness under her sleeves, the way her hands moved as they talked, putting pressure on the wounds to keep her grounded. He had to hold his knees to keep his own hands from making the same movement, albeit over scars that had long since faded to small white lines that were barely raised above the rest of the flesh of his arms and easily overlooked.
He felt his anger spark when Lewis pulled Briony's sleeve up to reveal the full extent of the damage she'd done to herself. Judging by the number and the depth, James was sure that Lord Mortmaigne was still tormenting Briony. He had prayed that the bastard was too old now to let his urges destroy more young lives, but he was staring at the proof that he was not. When Robbie joined him outside, he expected to see outrage in his friend's face, to hear that they wouldn't let Augustus Mortmaigne get away with hurting anymore children Instead, the Inspector was resigned and concerned. James wanted so badly to scream at Lewis, to shake the man until he understood what he was seeing, but he didn't. In hindsight, mouthing off to Innocent was probably not the best way to lose his frustration, but it could definitely have been worse.
When Robbie later insisted he knew what was going on, James nearly cried. "If you knew," he wanted to insist, "then you would stop it. You would move heaven and earth to save the children of Crevecoeur from an evil man with sick desires and a certainty that this is his right as Lord of the estate." But he didn't.
James had never understood how people could allow an innocent person to take the blame for a crime they didn't commit. That is, he'd never understood it until now. With the death of Ralph Grahame and Lewis' attention brought to Briony's self harming, James knew that this had something to do with what happened at the Summer House. He pulled away from Lewis, pushed him toward the simple explanation. The wrong explanation.
When he saw Scarlett at the bookshop, all he could think was thank God there was someone from that God-forsaken place who had managed to remain unscathed. He took her to dinner more because he wanted to remember the few happy times they'd had, the children of the estate running around, oblivious to the world around them or the horrible things that were coming.
Even when Scarlett hinted that she might be involved in something, he told himself it had to be some other transgression. Scarlett could never be an accomplice to the horrors of Crevecoeur. Not Scarlett.
Following the clues with Lewis, he could almost forget the secrets Crevecoeur held as they dove into a centuries old mystery. He was convinced it would lead nowhere, but couldn't deny the way his chest tightened each time Robbie's face lit up after solving a clue.
But he knew it was too good a thing to last, especially with the secrets James kept bubbling just beneath the surface. Hearing the words, "You're on leave," was like a slap in the face. He'd only ever seen Lewis this mad at him one other time and that had required an attempt on his life for them to sort through. He knew keeping secrets was a bad idea, had felt it in his gut. As his partner stormed away, he was left staring at the Summer House. At that moment, if he'd had an accelerant in easy reach, he'd have set the place ablaze and damn the consequences.
Instead, he returned home, grateful that they'd brought two vehicles. The drive passed in a blur as he considered just how badly he'd screwed up. There had been something in Robbie's gaze just before they parted that told James he was losing his partner's trust. A dark part of his mind muttered that that was par for the course in James' life and he tried in vain to squash that voice.
As he threw the keys on the counter, he noted absently that he still had a few hours to himself before he needed to dress for the party and he briefly considered eating something, but the thought of food made him ill. If Lewis had been here, he would have told James to stop being a stubborn sod and take care of himself before he keeled over from starvation. Instead, he grabbed his guitar on the way to the couch and began morosely plucking at the strings while he thought about his future and how chances were getting smaller and smaller that Robert Lewis would be in it for much longer.
He noted absently that Lewis' car was gone when he returned to Crevecoeur. James wondered if Lewis had managed to solve the case but doubted it. Not only did he hope that he would at least get a courtesy call from Robbie, but he would expect to see the place swarming with police.
After irritating Scarlett with his refusal to be the kept man on the side, he found himself alone at a party he didn’t actually want to be at. It was all lies anyway and his very presence here felt like a betrayal of everything he'd worked so hard to achieve. As he circled the tent and drank far more champagne than was entirely wise considering he still had to drive home, his mind wandered inevitably back to the facts of the case.
When he finally noticed the place cards, he could have slapped himself for his inattentiveness. Scarlett had been hinting that she was somehow involved, but he'd never thought she could be in this deep. It was yet another betrayal of trust in a lifetime and, more than anything, he simply felt weary.
He was relieved when Hooper answered Lewis' phone. James hadn't been looking forward to explaining things or muddling through an apology over the phone. Truthfully, he wasn't sure what he would say or if he was even ready to say it yet.
He felt better as he threw himself back into the role of detective and even took a not inconsiderate amount of pleasure in telling Augustus "no" for the first time in his life. His mind was racing as he marched Scarlett to the Summer House. She'd been genuinely confused when he asked why she wanted to meet him there so clearly it had been someone else attempting to set him up. He had a sinking suspicion about who it was but he couldn't for the life of him figure out why.
Seeing Robbie standing in front of Paul, clearly in some sort of pain while James' childhood friend held a gun at his side was easily the most terrifying thing he'd ever seen in his life. But the fact that Robbie was here at Crevecoeur talking to this crazy man meant he'd figured it out. From the snatches he could make out, it sounded like Robbie had figured out all of it. They still fell into their easy partnership when Lewis caught sight of their approach.
James wanted to say something to Paul, something to tell him that it would be alright, that Augustus Mortmaigne was the real culprit behind all of this and if he would just put the gun down, they could figure it all out. James spoke just as Paul raised the weapon and the sound of the first shot froze James to the spot and it was only the second shot ripping through his arm that pushed him into action as fire tore through the flesh and muscle.
The entire estate was chaos after the shooting and James only saw Lewis in passing over the next few hours. He still wasn't sure why Lewis had shown up, but he was happy he had. Now, as the sun peeked out over the horizon, he found a secluded corner and took a moment to begin processing everything. Augustus Mortmaigne was being arrested, as were Scarlett and Paul. Phillip was dead of his wounds. And Briony finally knew the truth about her mother, that she'd never left the estate and certainly never had an affair with a mysterious doctor.
His arm ached and his head was pounding and all he really wanted was to sleep for the next week and hug Robbie and tell him everything he'd kept hidden and for it all to be okay. But James knew he'd mucked this one up badly and he was sure that, despite the ease with which they'd fallen into step a few hours ago, the relationship was irreparable. Instead of putting them both through the awkwardness of attempting normality, he planned to hand in his papers as soon as they returned to the office.
He'd miss Robbie more than the job itself, he knew, but that was the price he had to pay for not trusting that Robbie was a good man and he'd always make sure justice was served. He was a little surprised when Robbie sought him out, but figured it was out of habit more than anything else.
Deciding to get it over with quickly, he jumped in before Lewis could give him some false platitude or worse, start dressing him down. "I'm gonna hand in my papers."
"Resign?" The genuine disbelief in Lewis' voice almost made him take it back, but he held firm.
"I compromised the investigation," he said, telling himself that this was the right thing to do.
"You made a mistake. You're human." Robbie, it seemed, was hell bent on changing his mind. While it was gratifying to hear Robbie's confidence in him, he continued on.
"Not good enough," he insisted.
"Why do you have to be better?" They shared a look that spoke volumes in a moment and Robbie sighed. "What happened here...you're not to blame for any of it. Not then, not now." James stayed quiet, wondering if Robbie would ask him to confirm what they both knew had happened. Instead, he changed the subject. "And as for handing in your papers—if it's all the same to you," he started. "Between us we make a not bad detective," he insisted, meeting James' gaze and willing him to understand what he was saying. James let himself believe that they could work through this and Robbie saw the acquiescence. "I'm the brains, obviously."
And like that, they were okay. They still needed to work through everything, but they'd agreed in their own cryptic way that they could. The pain in his arm eased and he found himself actually smiling, seeing the sunrise as a welcome metaphor on their partnership instead of the glare of reality he'd seen just moments before.
"Come on, then. Let's get you home. You look about near to passing out as it is."
"I can drive myself, sir."
"The hell you can." James smiled. He couldn't help it. The brusqueness was everything he'd come to know and love about Robbie. Robbie, for his part, glared at him all the more and held out a hand for James' keys.
He gave them up readily and waited patiently by Robbie's car as his partner drafted one of the constables into taking James' vehicle back to the office. He started to say that he'd be able to drive again after a bit of sleep, but Robbie's face brooked no argument so he chose the wiser course of action and simply shut his mouth and got in the passenger seat.
He had just managed to tuck himself comfortably in the seat when the radio came to life, a piano concerto drifting softly through the speakers. It may as well have been hate speech the way he jumped back up to change the station. He'd managed to suppress the automatic reaction to piano music as a teenager, had even come to enjoy it, but right now the memories were too fresh, too close to the surface.
Robbie looked at him, concern on his features. He opened his mouth once and shut it before he finally asked, "You want to talk about it?"
James stared at nothing in particular. "No," he said, a bit curtly. "Just," he sighed, finally meeting Robbie's searching gaze. "Not yet. Not right now."
"Okay. But I'm here for you, James. To listen. When you are. Ready." It was Robbie's strange way of trying not to push and it was the best thing Robbie could have said in that moment.
"Thank you," he said, before settling further into the seat and closing his eyes. The gentle rocking of the car put him to sleep in seconds.
He woke when Robbie placed a gentle hand on his arm and called his name. The sun was bright in the sky and he had to blink at the sudden light. He turned groggily to Robbie, still not sure where they were.
"Come on, James. Let's get you inside."
He turned to the building and realized they were on the street outside his flat. He was home. "Right. Thank you for dropping me off, sir."
Robbie shook his head, snorting softly and came around the car to help him out of his curled up position without hurting his injured arm too badly. "You're not getting rid of me that easily. I want to make sure you're not going to set fire to the place because you forgot to turn the stove off or some such."
When he was finally able to stand, he nearly fell over as a wave of dizziness suddenly washed over him.
"Woah, easy there," warned Robbie as he wrapped an arm around James' middle and steadied him. "When was the last time you ate anything?"
James thought for a moment and couldn't remember. Had it been dinner with Scarlett? Surely he'd eaten since then. He was about to answer when his stomach growled loudly. Robbie hummed knowingly and started them toward the door.
Once they were inside, Robbie steered James for the couch and settled him with a glare that clearly told him "stay." James was content to watch Robbie putter around the kitchen, clucking under his breath at the distinct lack of food in either the pantry or fridge. He settled for beans on toast, though he didn't seem pleased with it.
Robbie helped him move to the table to eat and James couldn't help but smile when he noticed that his partner had even cut the toast into more manageable chunks. They ate in silence and James found himself floating on a wave of contentment.
"James," said Robbie, his voice soft.
James started and realized he'd begun to doze at the table. "Sorry," he mumbled, sitting up straighter and blinking owlishly at Robbie.
"S'alright. We should get you to bed. God knows how long you've been awake."
Robbie grabbed both plates and set them in the sink before returning to James' side and laying an encouraging hand on his shoulder. James took that as his cue to stand and he was immensely proud of himself when he didn't immediately fall on his face. Even more so when he didn't so much as wobble.
"I'm fine from here, sir. I know looking after me—" he stopped when Robbie squeezed his arm and shushed him.
"None of that, now. I know you haven't been taking care of yourself lately," he said with a pointed look at the kitchen. "And I know this case right after court upset you," he held up a hand when James opened his mouth to say something. "And that's fine. You can tell me about it when you're ready. Or not. It's up to you." He watched James' expression until James nodded his understanding. "But the last thing you need right now is to be on your own. So it's best to just accept it and move on."
James sighed but did so. As they approached his bedroom, he felt a blush creeping up his neck onto his cheeks and looked away. In his effort to get away from the nightmares the night before, he'd thrown all his covers onto the floor and it was very obvious from the way the pillows were bunched where he'd spent the last of the night.
Robbie, for his part, took this all in stride and simply asked if he could get himself changed by himself or if he needed help. In the end, Robbie took James' tie off and helped him remove the sling long enough to use the toilet and change. Robbie used the time to fluff his pillows back out and pull the covers back onto the bed. Thankfully, he'd left the sheets untucked. James wasn't sure he could explain why he didn't want to feel restrained even that minutely.
When James exited the loo in his shorts and a simple shirt, Robbie was just returning with a glass of water, his own tie loosened and his jacket left somewhere in the other room. The scene was so domestic, James wanted to weep. He'd never expected to have someone care for him in such a manner, to want for something more felt like he was being ungrateful.
"Now, where are those painkillers I know the medic gave you to take later when you refused them at the scene?"
James wasn't surprised Robbie had spoken to the medic who'd stitched him and insisted he take the little white pills as soon as he could. He wasn't even surprised she'd divulged as much, though she wasn't technically supposed to without his consent. He simply nodded at his coat pocket and Robbie fished them out and handed him two along with the glass.
He fell asleep surprisingly quickly. He'd long since invested in drapes heavy enough to block out even the noonday sun since they kept such unpredictable hours and the darkness of the room and the sounds of the telly coming from the other room were enough to lull him into unconsciousness. The pills were just gravy.
He came screaming awake some time later, visions of Augustus Mortmaigne in the Summer House while Scarlett looked on in pity and Jenny's lifeless eyes stared at him from behind Scarlett in accusation staying with him even as his room and Robbie came into view.
"James! Wake up, James!" called Robbie from his side, trying to shake him awake but wary in case he came to punching.
"No!" yelled James as the last of the dream finally started to fade with Augustus leaning closer to him, ready to whisper something into his ear.
He'd sat straight up in the initial waking and now backed himself up to the headboard so hard that he knocked his spine and sent shivers down across nerve pathways. The pain was enough to force him back to the present and he turned pleading eyes to his partner, needing something from him but he was damned if he knew what.
"Are you with me, James?"
James gasped and nodded, turning back to inspect the room again to make sure the images were truly gone. Robbie placed a hand carefully on his back and James near to collapsed against his chest. Robbie immediately wrapped the arm completely around James and sat on the bed, pulling James into a proper embrace.
"I'm sorry," said James, rocking slightly into the comfort.
"For what? Being human? No need to apologize for that."
James continued to breathe harshly into Robbie's chest, still trying to catch his breath and rid his mind's eye of the images. They sat like that for several long minutes until James finally got his breathing under control.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" asked Robbie, his voice almost a whisper. It was a simple question and James knew he could say no and Robbie would drop the matter and not hold it against him. But he found he wanted to tell him. He'd kept these secrets for so long, they were eating into him so deeply and he needed someone to know and understand.
He started talking. He told Robbie about the dream where he was back in that hated room with Augustus and he'd felt just as small and betrayed now as when he was eight and Augustus had first touched him. Robbie listened as James continued the story and told him first haltingly between broken sobs about that first time. His narrative became faster as the sobs became open tears and he described the way Augustus continued to groom him as he aged, moving from touching to worse things.
He kept talking about how, when he'd finally gotten away from the place, the pain had followed him and he started cutting himself just as Briony had done. When he held his arms out, Robbie took them and tucked them back around himself so that he was in a full body embrace. But instead of feeling like Robbie was hiding the scars from sight, it felt like he was accepting this as part of James' life and holding onto James so he never felt like he had to do it again.
Still he talked. He talked about how, when Will had told him he was gay, he thought that meant he'd had the same experience but liked it and he laughed because the only other thing he could think to do was cry. He told Robbie that he'd started having desires for older men and his adolescent mind had reasoned that meant that he'd liked what Augustus did on some twisted level and it meant he would eventually become the tormenter one day, that he'd make some other boy or girl feel this way about themselves and he nearly took his life in that moment.
Robbie pulled him even tighter to himself and he realized that the moisture he felt gathering at the nape of his neck wasn't sweat, but Robbie's own tears. But the way Robbie had James wrapped in his embrace, he knew they weren't tears of pity or revulsion, but tears of sorrow that he'd had to endure so much on his own, with no one to tell him that none of it was his fault and what he was feeling wasn't the beginning of perversion, but just natural teenage hormones and discovering what he was attracted to.
He talked about how he'd gone into the priesthood in an attempt to atone for what felt like countless sins and to find the nurturing arms of God but had seen instead the close mindedness of man and a dangerous complacency.
His words finally tapered off and he realized he was exhausted. His tears had long since dried and come again and dried again and he and Robbie had moved so that they were both lying in the bed on their sides, Robbie still holding him from behind.
"Just promise me you know that none of this was your fault," said Robbie, one hand moving to squeeze James' own hand. "Promise me you understand that now."
James nodded. "It doesn't mean it doesn't still feel like it was sometimes."
"Oh, James," started Robbie, but stopped when James squeezed the same hand back.
"I know it in my head, but the boy inside still isn't so sure."
Robbie had nothing to say to that and they lay in silence. James had started to drift back to sleep, the exhaustion weighing heavily on his eyelids. Robbie leaned his head against James' shoulder and sighed.
"My awkward sod," he whispered. James wasn't sure what that meant, but smiled slightly anyway. "And, God help me, I love you for it," he continued, his whisper lower. James knew Robbie thought him asleep and he considered letting it go and allowing himself to go to sleep. But he needed Robbie to know it all.
"I love you, too," he sighed.
Robbie stiffened slightly but didn't say anything. James fell asleep in his arms, content that Robbie would keep the ghosts at bay for now and confident that, even if their relationship didn't change for now or even ever, at least Robbie knew.
He slept soundly for the first time since he'd found Jenny.