Genres: Hurt/Comfort, Relationship Formation
Warnings: None apply
“James turns his gaze to look at him. And then Robbie finds James’s head has suddenly returned to his shoulder, James’s face turned in so his expression is hidden from both of them. Ah, lad. He’s just in a right, silent state.”
Notes: Thanks to wendymr for giving such much-appreciated thought, encouragement and input to this fic. This was orignally posted as part of the 2014 Secret Santa Exchange on Lewis_Challenge LJ Comm.
This is set post-Season 8
The Surrender of James Hathaway
It’s an oddly familiar quiet knock that rouses them from the half-drowsy comfort of a late Friday evening. It resonates on some deeper level with Robbie, as Laura’s head comes up off his shoulder, listening too, a slight frown evident on her face, even in the reduced illumination of flickering firelight and television and the steadier soft light of the lamps.
Because as she gets up, her eyebrows still querying this odd bypassing of their doorbell, and Robbie reaches for the remote to turn down the volume, the knock comes again, and this time it stirs a memory from a couple of years ago. And Robbie rises to his feet, drops both hands gently on Laura’s shoulders to still her movement and heads for the door himself. Because that’s the knock that Robbie’s sergeant used to rhythm on the interior door of Robbie’s flat, a home or two back now. James, alerting Robbie to his presence of an evening, when he’d arrive over, filled with the energy of inspiration on a case, using his key to the exterior door of the block as he’d been told to and then his distinctive tap alerting Robbie in undemanding fashion to his waiting presence.
And it is James he finds standing motionless on the doorstep, looking soaked through, as the rain, visible only around him, patterns down within the inverted funnel Robbie has created by clicking on the harsh exterior light. There’s something up with his eyes. They don’t quite meet Robbie’s even as James seems to look straight at him. He looks quite stunned.
“James? What’s wrong? You’re—get in here.” But James doesn’t move, his gaze still hard to catch, as his eyes move about too rapidly.
“I know it’s late, I’m sorry,” he starts.
Robbie reaches out and pulls him gently through the door. James stumbles slightly over the threshold, so he keeps hold of his upper arm, wet wool and the firm feel of James beneath it, while he pushes the door shut with his free hand and a soft click. Then he draws him into the living room where Laura is standing, waiting. James is trying to apologise again. There’s a touch on Robbie’s other arm, Laura’s hand warm through his shirtsleeve. “I’ll make him tea,” she murmurs. James’s head turns briefly towards her as she disappears.
“James?” Robbie tries again, as they’re left alone.
“I was—” His voice is quite controlled. Quite neutral and quite wrong. “I was on the M40 and there was a collision, just ahead. So I was trying—before traffic and the paramedics got there—I was trying—but—” He can’t seem to get the words out. Then his shoulders drop and he summarises to some spot behind Robbie’s shoulder, for all the world as if he’s reporting the aftermath of an incident to Robbie as his inspector again. “Driver of the first vehicle: critical injuries, did not regain consciousness at the scene. Back seat passenger: minor injuries. Front seat passenger in second vehicle: severe injuries.”
“Ah, Christ. James.” Robbie, well able to read between the lines there, releases James’s arm only to pull him into a rough hug. Surprisingly—because they don’t do this—James just submits to it, dropping his head in one brief cut of a movement so that his forehead touches lightly on Robbie’s shoulder. Robbie becomes aware that the rain, carried in by James’s damp, chilled body, is soaking gently into his shirt. He raises one hand to rub gently against the wet wool of that coat, between James’s shoulder blades, unsure if the touch is penetrating either through the coat or James’s state of shock. James isn’t returning the clumsy embrace, but he’s slumped enough against Robbie so that Robbie can see over that blond head as Laura reappears.
There’s the gentle sound of a kettle roiling slowly to a boil in the brightly lit kitchen behind her. And he can see from her, the blue of her eyes deepening in sympathy, that she’s heard enough of James’s explanation to understand what’s happening. It’s a little startling to have James suddenly in the clasp of Robbie’s arm after that other, lighter, blonde head that had been resting against his shoulder only minutes before. Robbie suddenly becomes aware of standing there before Laura, holding James, which feels a little—no earthly reason why it should, and especially not under these circumstances—but a little discomfiting. Guilt-inducing, he’d have said if that wasn’t so obviously ridiculous.
But Laura’s gaze is purely focused on James.
“Back-seat passenger in first vehicle was a minor,” James says suddenly. And then Laura is right there too, her hand joining Robbie’s on James’s back. It’s her added touch that seems to put the finishing touch to James’s painfully tight composure, because he takes a series of deep, jagged, effortful breaths right against Robbie’s shoulder. Then he raises his head, straightening. But Laura doesn’t drop her hand in response, as Robbie does, she’s pressing it into the small of James’s back now, drawing his focus in the midst of his struggle, because he turns his gaze slowly towards her. Laura just gazes back at him.
“Kettle’s boiled, love,” she says and Robbie, taken aback, realises that that’s his cue to go, to leave James for some reason to Laura, who is, of course, better at this sort of thing but—well, this is James, isn’t it? He’s Robbie’s to sort out, if and when James will let him. But Laura is gently prompting James further into the living room, so—
Is he that bad that her doctor’s instincts are taking over? Robbie wonders, as he automatically goes about the routine of finding mugs and dropping teabags in, hearing murmurs that seem to be solely Laura’s inside in the living room. James seems shell-shocked in a way that—well, Robbie reasons, how long has he spent on the hard shoulder of the motorway before the first-response vehicles fought their way through the building, chaotic post-accident traffic in this freezing rain? Before anyone else who was trained to help had arrived, as opposed to willing but panicked bystanders. While the scene James could do little about played out with him right in the middle, his own desperate divided efforts between two sets of car occupants obviously achieving nothing he can take any comfort from just now. And dealing with a child in the back of one car.
Robbie returns to them, bearing three mugs balanced a little precariously. His own tea, visually indistinguishable from Laura’s equally-milked but less sugared one when he’s used identical mugs, is held in one hand and the handles of James’s contrasting black-tea-one-sugar and Laura’s tea are held in the other. James’s has a much more generous spoonful of sugar tonight than he’d normally accept. He’s sitting on the couch now, coat off, leaning forward. He’d been casually dressed under the coat, in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. And the coat hadn’t saved his clothes from getting damp either. But Laura’s hand has returned to his back as if she’s applying necessary pressure to a wound. And they’re sitting in silence now with the images on the TV cheerfully ceding one to the next, unattended to in its corner.
Robbie places the mugs on the coffee table, his own within reach of the chair that James normally slouches in, which Robbie will take instead tonight. But he catches Laura’s slight frown, directed at him as he straightens. Her eyes glance to show him where to sit. Oh. And when Robbie drops down on the other side of James, James turns his gaze to look at him. And then Robbie finds James’s head has suddenly returned to his shoulder, James’s face turned in so his expression is hidden from both of them. Ah, lad. He’s in a right, silent state. It seems best to just join him in his silence for a while. Laura must feel the same, because she says nothing for a bit too, just looks at Robbie, pure rueful compassion, until James gives a deep sigh, rousing her.
“You’re still soaked, James, come on. Hot shower and Robbie will look out something of his for you.”
James sits up again abruptly, suddenly resolute. “No. Thank you. Sorry. It’s all right. You’ve both been—”
“James. Come on,” Laura says softly.
“I should be getting home…” He’s retreating firmly back into his normal, far more controlled mode.
And Laura just overrides it. “But you're not going anywhere tonight,” she says in absolute certainty.
James’s slightly startled eyes meet Robbie’s. Robbie grins at him. “You're on your own, lad, if you want to try arguing with her,” he informs James cheerfully.
He means it, though.
Laura’s looking thoughtful. Robbie comes back downstairs to find her curled on the couch with the television off now, nursing her tea and contemplating a fire which is currently dampened down, stoked with fresh logs that are lying, smouldering gently at the rapidly-blackening tips, waiting for the flames to take proper hold. She rouses herself as he settles back down beside her. “Is the heater in that spare room turned on?”
“It’s warm in there,” Robbie reassures her. He’s got something else on his mind. “Why d’you think he’s so—I mean, not that that wouldn’t be bad to deal with but James—he’s coped with far worse.” Although partly what he’s really wondering is how bad this had to have hit James for him to land on their doorstep, almost seeking help. It’s occurred to Robbie that their house is far closer to the M40 than James’s flat and, while that shouldn’t be the only reason, and James should, of course, just come here to them—Robbie has to reluctantly admit to himself that it’s a surprise that he did.
Laura turns a little further to face him, one arm up on the back of the couch. “He was off-duty, though, Robbie. This hour of the night, out there by himself. He may have gone into automatic, efficient mode, doing everything he should, as soon as he came across the scene. But his coping skills didn’t catch up in time. His defences were down. It happens. It happens to doctors sometimes when they’re ambushed by a medical emergency when they’re just not in professional mode. He had no time to prepare himself at all.”
Robbie grimaces, unsure, considering this, recalling the various times over the years when a situation had called upon him to act in his official capacity when he wasn’t expecting it.
“You may not have experienced it that way, Robbie. You’re a copper through and through. It sits easily with who you are. But James—he has to put up more of his defences to do his job. He does it well, I know. But it takes more out of him than you, partly for that reason. You know that.” He does. With the recognition of something he wouldn’t have voiced but now that he hears it, it’s with the undeniably clear ring of truth. “Must be exhausting for him, sometimes,” Laura adds. He knows that too.
“That why you took over?”
“I know. I wasn’t thinking about it, really,” she says, frowning. “Just seemed important that I did. It’s good he felt he could come here. I don’t want him feeling he can’t because of me.”
So she knows that James very easily might not have, too. “He knows he’s welcome here,” Robbie asserts, although which one of them he’s trying to convince, he’s not sure.
“He knows it, yes. Do you think he believes it? He never seeks it himself. Even though he relaxes into our company when he is here. But he never initiates it, all the same. And he used to, with you, didn’t he? When you lived alone?”
“Well, he’d generally have had something to share on a case then—” James had generally had some pretext, even if it was just an odd idea that had seemingly taken him. And he’d walk on in, past Robbie when he opened the door, talking about his latest theory, feeling no apparent need to stand on ceremony with an actual greeting, nabbing a beer from the fridge if he wasn’t casually bearing some himself, and dropping down on Robbie’s couch, arguing away.
It used to amuse Robbie, those sudden arrivals, James continuing on a conversation they’d been having a couple of hours previously as if they’d never paused. Had that been James’s way of getting past any awkwardness about showing up on Robbie’s doorstep? He’d never needed a reason as far as Robbie was concerned—it had felt natural to have him around again after their day, easing into the evening as their conversation wandered away from the case in hand. James settling, and any minor conflicts from earlier fading companionably into perspective as he’d slouch down beside Robbie and turn his mind to poking fun at the likes of Robbie’s television-watching choices instead. And he’d turn a grin or a full-blown smirk on Robbie, as he shifted comfortably next to him, mocking Robbie with easy familiarity.
There’s the distant reassuring hum of the shower upstairs and it’s Laura who shifts beside him on the couch now, setting her mug down on the coffee table, and angling herself to face him again. “I think he must miss that. Being your sergeant and belonging to you like that. Far more than he’d ever be willing to acknowledge.”
“Maybe,” Robbie owns, watching as the smaller, brightest flames start to lick the base of the neat pyramid structure Laura has built, logs tilted against each other. Because when he looks at things that plainly, he has to admit that that is different now.
Laura glances at him. “Or than you’re willing to acknowledge either, come to that,” she says rather pointedly. “He was used to taking care of you. Just in little ways, Robbie. But they may have meant a fair bit to him. And then we got together and now he can’t. And he missed the whole transition of that happening, he avoided it one way or another, through being away.”
Robbie feels a frown stiffen his face. “Well, he’d left the force, you know what happened there, he needed that break, and off he went—” It’s not, in the general scheme of things, that long since James had reached a point where he’d been unable to keep going with the job. Which makes the state he’s in now all the more anxiety-provoking.
“Yes. And being burnt-out wasn’t the only reason for that. You let him know that you were seriously thinking of leaving your partnership. You tried to move him on from it, to sort him out, with urging him to go for promotion, he resisted that, and then, when something happened that he struggled to cope with, he left. Instead of finding a way to go on, maybe at personal cost to himself, like he always had before. I’m not saying that his taking a break was a bad idea. Just that you’re far more implicated in his choice than you’re willing to allow.”
James, on a bench beside Robbie, looking out over a green college lawn, his frown of concern as he waited to work out what had disturbed Robbie and prompted this talk. His instant sympathy over Jack’s hospitalisation. And then his momentary stilling beside Robbie as Robbie had said that that was it. For him and the job. That he was changing his priorities. And James had offered no resistance, just kind reassurance that he was sure Laura would let Robbie put her first. Until Robbie had turned his focus to the opportunity that this should offer James—and instead he’d been met with It just wouldn’t feel right if you went, for me to stay. Could he have delivered more of a blow to James than he’d thought there? Wouldn’t he have noticed? And what had Robbie told him in response—You're ready to go and do this on your own—so go and do it.
“Worked out all right for him with his promotion in the end,” Robbie says, uncomfortable at being confronted with all this. Because there’s that restless doubt rising up again that had assailed Robbie during those months when James was away, mainly about whether James would come back at all or just keep—well, walking, as it turned out. Walking away. Robbie’s not about to relive those anxieties, offering them up to Laura’s sharp scrutiny. “And he’s come back and settled down again.”
“Well, he came back, yes, and we had set up home together. And there wasn’t—that place for him any more.”
“Now, hold on—”
“I don’t mean it like that, Robbie. I know full well you try to give him what you’ve always tried to. But he lost his place looking out for you and protecting you. Which used to ground him. And gave him something more than you realise.”
He’s not quite sure how their discussion has fallen into her stirring up these deeper concerns but seeing James in this state has stirred something in her too and she’s intent on discussing it, in a way that she hadn’t been while James was gone. She’s making it difficult for Robbie to put those worries back to rest as he’s managed to do since James’s return. Since Robbie’s own return to working with James.
“Robbie, think about what he did for you for years. I know how things were for you when you first came back from overseas. And he just went ahead and attached himself to you and supported you almost from the off—like he was just drawn silently to you and guarded you, that was what it looked like from the outside.”
She doesn’t know the half of it, really. She knows what James had done with Monkford. She doesn’t know about the hours in Oswald Cooper’s basement when James had seemed unable to leave, joining Robbie in a futile, pointless search as the worst desperation of Robbie’s grief rose up and took hold of him again. She doesn’t know about James’s immediate, furious protection whenever someone like Ursula Van Tessel came near to probing at Robbie’s loss. Nor about the night that James had spent trying to put back together the pieces of an old case in his own way, seemingly wanting to do anything to help, once he’d learnt about what had happened to Robbie during that case at St Matilda’s—which, come to think of it, James had only found out about as Laura had cued him in on that.
James isn’t the only one who’d kept watch. They’d conspired more than Robbie had realised until he’d really come out of the end of that long tunnel.
And Robbie, feeling Laura’s gaze resting on him silently now, as he himself watches the play of the flames starting to consume the logs properly, becomes vaguely aware that that distant hum of the shower must have ceased at some point, unnoticed. James, upstairs. Probably still in that state that’s not unlike how he could get in the aftermath of certain cases, really. When some aspect of what had happened used to touch something off within him that all Robbie’s gruff teasing at him couldn’t quite reach. But he’d known it used to soothe James in some ways, underneath it all, sorted him out a bit, just keeping him close by.
One log, not as steadily set against the others, tumbles sideways into the waiting flames. And Laura moves her head a little sideways, considering Robbie in a way that he knows means she has something to say that she’ll watch his reaction to. “Do you know what he said to Jean when the two of us got together?” she asks.
Robbie stares at her. He can’t actually conceive of James saying anything to Innocent about Robbie and Laura. To Innocent? “There’s no way that James—”
“In the White Horse. When he came back from Kosovo. And they saw us,” Laura clarifies. Oh. “He said I turn my back for five minutes…”
“That would’ve been a joke—”
“Yes, that’s what Jean took it as. She thought it was funny. I don’t.”
Robbie moves restlessly, seeking another focus for his gaze in the flames, unsure what to do with this. He remembers Laura in the loose circle of his embrace in the pub that evening, after they’d broken apart, her eyes roving over Innocent and barely stopping, to look at James instead, disconcerted.
“Well—took him aback a bit, probably.”
“Yes. And if I’d known he was there—” Laura’s voice says slowly. But when his head turns back towards her, she’s the one focusing on the fire now. “I would’ve broken it to him a lot more gently than that. I mean—I would have if I were you. And I still wish we had.”
“What—exactly—are you saying?” Robbie asks warily.
But Laura is reaching her hand to his arm, stopping him, listening. There’s the telltale creak of that step, third from the top of the stairs, as James approaches, and then Laura is straightening to smile over the back of the couch at him as he reappears.
“You do look like you could do with something stronger than tea, James,” she says. “Robbie—”
“Aye.” And Robbie, thoroughly distracted, gets up to search out both the whiskey bottle and a proper cut-crystal glass for it from the drinks cabinet.
“Medicinal,” he hears Laura persuading James who is murmuring some demurral about whatever wine they have open being fine. “Good for shock, James.”
That suddenly sounds like a good idea to Robbie, then. “Think I’ll keep you company in one,” he says, turning his head to James. But it’s Laura who catches his eye, intercepting this effort at distracting himself with a look that just stops short of an eye roll. A look that’s telling him that he may need more than the whiskey to buffer him against the rest of what she’s got to say.
It’s going to be one of those nights. It’s only partly the urge for a nicotine fix that has driven James out into the back garden barely a restless half-hour after Laura had bid him goodnight at the top of the stairs, and checked he had everything he needed, while Robbie locked up. They’d all pretty much given up on the evening shortly after he’d shared that nightcap with Robbie.
And grateful as James had been for the burn of the whiskey and the warmth of the borrowed clothes, he’d been relieved too, already finding a certain agitation starting to overtake him. But it had failed to settle as he’d achieved solitude and the shelter of darkness and he’d found himself lying restless, the prospect of sleep receding into a distant, impossible goal.
He may as well be here as in his own flat. Except that there, at least, he can put on music or channel some of his nervous energy into his guitar. But he finds it’s not so bad in this garden. The rain has cleared and torn clouds, a darker navy than the dark blue of the sky, pass restlessly overhead, mirroring the rapid pace of his thoughts.
He shoves one hand down into the pocket of his still-damp coat, avoiding the mental images of the hard shoulder of that motorway in the relentless rain and the dark, and the memory of that helpless confusion of being the only one there who could do anything for what had seemed like an age… He propels the wooden chair he’s slouched in up and down with the movement of one foot against the planks of the decking, and gazes up through the beams of the pergola that neatly bisects his view of the sky into differently-patterned squares, each interspersed with the twigs of the climber and the shadows of the leaves that remain. It’s the first weekend in November.
It’s the return of the rain, cold hard drops on his upturned face, startling him, that sends him hastily to his feet and heading back to the house. But as he passes under the ivy-framed window of Robbie and Laura’s bedroom, a window that’s obviously shut, and cloaked behind closed curtains, he catches the sound of their voices and his feet stutter to a halt, as he frowns upwards at the source of this conundrum. There’s a vent, half-hidden by the ivy, which must be set in the outer wall of their bedroom. And the odd acoustics of this old house mean that, as he stands directly under it, Robbie’s voice drifts down as clearly as if he’s right beside James in the darkened garden. He’s in full stubborn-assertion mode.
“Just because you can make the facts fit a theory doesn’t mean it’s accurate.”
And then there’s Laura. “Okay. On an intuitive level then. Are you honestly telling me that you don’t recognise the truth of this? Deep down, Robbie. You know I’m right.”
There’s a silence and James recollects himself, heading rapidly for the door to the kitchen. Do they discuss cases in bed? he wonders, properly distracted at last as he locks the door and makes his way silently back to their spare room. It’s only once he’s settled in bed himself that he realises that he can hear them still. Not their words but the timbre and cadence and tone, coming through the shared wall between this room and theirs.
Robbie’s voice is a low rumble. It sounds from the pattern of their voices like he’s the one asking questions now. Almost in interview mode. James knows that particular tone from long years of familiarity, learning beside his guv’nor. I don’t believe you but I’ll entertain your theories for now to see what information I can get from you. Why he’s using that on Laura, James can’t even hazard a guess. Her tone is more measured, considered, persuasive.
And suddenly Robbie’s voice is in full indignant, what in God’s name mode, gaining in volume, the way it does when he’s being faced with a theory that’s gathering evidence but he’s still refusing to take it on board.
Then there must be an intervention, unheard, from Laura because his voice suddenly drops again but continues on at a lower setting, undeterred. James feels a slight smile on his face, despite it all, and rolls over, finding his limbs growing reassuringly heavier, his body slowly stilling in the warm comfort of this bed, in this dark and quiet room, in their house with those voices murmuring away through a wall and almost next to him. It’s like the soothing background music he’d been craving.
It must be even more soothing than he realises. Because the next thing he knows sunlight is streaming through the curtains and he’s becoming aware that his head is as muzzy and his thoughts as slowed as if he’s far more hungover than that one glass last night could account for.
He stretches, taking in properly now those few but well-placed touches that make this room so welcoming. He’d only had a vague, unexamined impression of the calm comfort of it last night.
Although he also suspects that the comfort that he’d found almost waiting for him in this house had had little to do with the room.
There’s an enticing scent of something frying floating up from downstairs, suggesting he may well be the last one to surface. Probably time to get up.
When he makes his way down, Robbie is standing looking out one of the living-room windows, holding a mug that shows no signs of heat. “There you are,” he says, his face creasing into a smile when he registers James’s appearance. When he gestures James to precede him into the kitchen, Laura is in there, busy in front of the hob.
“Do you feel up to a full breakfast, James?”
And James remembers—Laura usually does a fry-up on a Saturday. Robbie, beside him at the window table of a café, on James’s first murder case. James had been a bit snippy that morning in response. “Trouble in paradise?” he’d enquired. He feels rather ashamed now, seeing Laura standing there, at the centre of this further snapshot of that happy domesticity that Robbie has finally regained after all his years alone. And the table in their kitchen set for three this morning.
He generally manages to be better than that about Robbie’s happiness with Laura.
It isn’t something he likes to recall, those early days as a newly-fledged inspector. And Robbie turning up, witnessing him struggle like that, giving no creed to James’s demeanour, but not quite letting up either, and just being so bloody typically Robbie that it had proved impossible not to yield to him as the case went on. Just as it’s been impossible not to fall back into step with him the last few months. Or to be so relieved deep down that he has. Because Robbie’s gruff, easy care may be sometimes almost painful, but it also continues to hits James as a welcome relief. And it’s certainly ever constant.
“Course he wants a proper breakfast,” Robbie says, easily, now.
Laura ignores that, focusing on James. “Don’t feel you have to have this. I can make you something else,” she offers.
But James, his original plan about stopping to eat somewhere off the motorway last night having gone by the wayside—which might partly explain why the whiskey had hit him so hard—is suddenly properly hungry and smiles at her instead.
He settles at the table, sunlight making its way gently through the window. It’s calm and bright this morning, but there are isolated flames of leaves scattered around the back lawn, attesting to James having slept through further storms that have blown clear now. They’ve done for the last of the trees’ cover for this season. From what he can see of that creeper that climbs across the pergola, it’s completely bared to the elements now.
But it’s warm in the kitchen and Robbie is settling opposite, although his gaze is landing and lingering unapologetically on James, in silence, just the way it had last night, come to think of it. As they’d sipped at the whiskey and Laura had taken most of the brunt of trying to make conversation with both of them. It’s the way that Robbie gazes at him when he’s trying to work something out about him.
He’s probably, understandably, wondering why James, a supposedly seasoned copper, had such trouble handling the aftermath of that accident last night.
“Did you sleep all right?” he asks suddenly.
“Yes,” James says, a habitual prevarication, as he comes to. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your whole evening like that,” he starts. A half-explanation.
“James,” Laura sets a plate down in front of him and looks straight at him in that slightly-disconcerting way she has. “We’re glad you did.”
He’s not really sure how to handle the honesty of her gaze in combination with her words, so he tries a smile back and focuses on one of the questions that has belatedly arisen as his head starts to clear a bit. “Whose pyjamas was I wearing?” They’d fitted James’s thin frame quite closely and been long enough in the leg to make him wonder too.
“Mark left them here,” Laura enlightens him. “It wasn’t worth the postage to send them to Australia.” Of course. James thinks that that's one of the nicest things Laura could possibly have done for Robbie, how she had prompted him to change those vague Be good to see you sometime gruff comments that James used to hear Robbie offer a few times over the years, at the close of one of Mark’s unexpected, infrequent calls, into an actual definite invitation to come back to Oxford for a fortnight in the summer. At least, from what James has worked out, that seems to have been how it had happened.
Robbie’s still giving him assessing glances. Maybe it’s more like there’s something new about James this morning that he’s trying to work out.
“I haven’t had a haircut since last week, you know.”
“Nothing there to cut,” Robbie says absently. “Be like trying to mow centre court at Wimbledon. Mid-tournament.”
Whatever they were debating last night, they seem happy enough this morning. Despite Robbie’s state of distraction, Laura seems perfectly at ease, sitting down beside Robbie now, looking amused as her gaze travels up to James’s shorn head.
And James can see why Robbie had been a bit morose about missing this weekly breakfast, he reflects with an inward grin. It is good. And it’s relaxing here. Worlds better than a café. He applies himself to eating for a while, enjoying the amiable silence.
It’s Robbie who eventually rouses himself, as he finishes his own breakfast, frowning over at James. “Where were you headed last night, anyway? You have the weekend off, don’t you?”
“A music festival.” And it suddenly hits James that—God. He really hadn’t been thinking straight at all last night. “I have my overnight stuff—it’s in the car.” He’d even had a toothbrush, still in its packet, handed to him by Laura, along with what he’d been given to wear. Like they keep back-up supplies for unexpected guests landing in on them like this. And Robbie had given him his own shower stuff.
“James—” Robbie is trying to interject, but James is still taken aback by this evidence of his own lack of rational thought.
“Sorry, I mean, I have sleepwear.”
“We don’t operate a dress code in this house—”
“But I needn’t have put you out—”
“James, sod your pyjamas—”
“I’m sure they’re very nice pyjamas,” says Laura seriously, telegraphing a mock-reproving glare at Robbie before she turns back to James. “You’ll have to model them for us some other time, James. What he's trying to do, though, is ask you to dinner tomorrow. You’ll come back, won’t you?”
James, convinced he’s perfectly well recovered now, is not about to concern them further or break into their weekend any more than he already has. “Honestly, I’m fine,” he assures them both, earning himself an impatient grimace from Robbie. And he may as well be saving his breath as far as Laura is concerned.
“Glad to hear it,” she says, cheerfully. “And you’ll come back for dinner tomorrow? Unless you were thinking of heading to your festival?”
“Oh, good. That’s sorted, then.”
Robbie meets James’s slightly helpless look with a shrug and a grin before rising, triggering James to start to get up himself to help clear. But he finds Robbie’s hand is on his arm and he’s shaking his head gently at James. “She cooks, I clear. Works the other way around, too.”
“Yes,” says Laura ruefully, “I somehow get the worse end of the deal there. There’s a lot more clearing to do after someone gets—experimental—in a kitchen.”
Robbie, casting a look at her, starts to attend to a cafetiere that’s been emitting an aroma that’s making part of James’s mind focus purely on the welcome prospect of a decent, strong coffee. The cafetiere itself he’s suddenly surprised to recognise as an ulterior-motive gift he’d presented to Robbie back in his early sergeant days, along with his most guileless expression, when he really couldn’t face the thought of starting the day on one more cup of instant, after a night on Robbie’s couch. But it’s a long time since Robbie made him coffee in the morning. James had thought those days were over, that Robbie and Laura taking to inviting him over so easily to dinner as often as they do since he came back was the level that things were at now. Which is great, of course. But yet—here’s Robbie automatically making one of the coffees to James’s exact preference, this morning, even as he continues to defend his cooking animatedly to Laura.
“There’s a difference between adventurous cooking and experimental,” he reminds her now, with dignity.
“Yes,” agrees Laura in relief. “And James and I are very happy to hear you acknowledge that. At last.” James chuckles. “Come through and have your coffee in the living room, James.”
As he follows her through to the living room, James realises what he’d failed to take in when he came downstairs. The wooden-boxed digital radio that they often have on, tuned to a local station as soft background noise, is murmuring away on an end-table. Laura reaches for it, en route to the couch, and casually clicks it off. Then she sees he’s noticed. “They’re saying critical but stable now this morning, James,” she says gently. He nods. She drops down on the couch and gestures at him to sit beside her.
“It’s all your fault I thought it was a good idea to encourage him to cook, you know,” she says in accusing tones, pulling him back again from those images of last night.
“The first time he cooked for me,” Laura elaborates. “That roast dinner. He called it his signature dish. I didn’t know then that by signature he meant something unique. As in sole. Not until he started to tackle other dishes. And then I find you’d secretly coached him through the roast. And then you disappear off to Spain and leave him,” she says, shaking her head. “And leave me to find out the hard way that he was only beginning his voyages of discovery…”
“He is like Columbus,” James says gravely, balancing his cup with care, as he slouches down more comfortably. “Setting out to reach Asia, but discovering a whole new world. The way that he starts off creating something from one cuisine and then elements of others he’s recently discovered just—find their way in there instead.”
“Fusion cooking,” says Laura in surprised recognition.
“Yes. Except that tends to be more—planned.”
The noise of running water stops. “I can hear every word you’re sayin’,” comes an indignant call from the kitchen.
“Yes, love,” Laura calls back agreeably, making eyes at James over the rim of her cup and causing him to choke slightly on his own coffee. “But it’s my turn to cook tomorrow,” she reassures him. “You’d be quite safe.”
“You’ll bring yourself and nothing else. And—” She quirks her mouth, considering saying something more, he thinks. “Look—try and have an easy day of it, okay? Don’t head into the office and start catching up on case notes just because you didn’t get away for the weekend—”
The unanticipated weekend in Oxford suddenly stretches in front of James, a little empty, but, he pictures with pleasure, Sunday dinner back here at the end of it. And while it is generally tempting to head back into work for a few hours at the weekend just to tackle a few things in his never-ending workload, purely, he assures himself, to give them proper attention, there is also the thought that— “There is an exhibition at the Ashmolean that I’d meant to catch before it ended,” he realises, “So I might head home soon and go for a run first after I catch up on things around the flat.”
He gets a smile from her. “Some of us, on the other hand, have no choice today,” she says after a moment. “Will you drop me into work on your way? Robbie’s picking me up later.”
Half an hour later, as James follows her out to the hallway, goodbyes having been said, the memory of being firmly drawn in here last night, out of the miserable cold and the dark and straight into the warm, solid comfort of Robbie, rises up suddenly to meet him and he turns to find Robbie right behind him.
Robbie's eyes are soft, his abstraction this morning dissipating, as his gaze meets James's properly this time. "No, it's like she said, lad. We're right glad you thought to come to us."