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kilter chapter 2

divingforstones

A Journal of Lewis Fanfic - divingforstones


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kilter chapter 2
divingforstones

Fic: In Flagrante Delicto

Title: In Flagrante Delicto
Pairing: James Hathaway/Robbie Lewis
Rating: Gen
Wordcount: 6,261

Summary:
"Dorset, Robbie?” she enquires, irritably. “Most people choose a climate that shows off one's finery to better effect."

Perhaps nude swimming was something he’d indulged in during his time in the British Virgin Islands. One never really knew with Lewis. Or Hathaway, come to that.

CS Innocent receives a Boxing Day call from Weymouth police, informing her that two of her officers are the subject of an indecent exposure complaint, and starts to piece certain things together.

Notes:
This is a sequel to a lovely fic by wendymr: Two Truths and No Lies: A Christmas Interlude (link is to Ao3).

As may be all-too-apparent from the summary, this sequel is crackfic.

Thank you to complexlight for beta'ing this in such patient, insightful and encouraging fashion. It has been tinkered with since so any errors are very much mine.





In Flagrante Delicto



“Chief Superintendent Innocent?” comes an unfamiliar voice down the line.

“Speaking,” Jean confirms with an inward sigh.

Yesterday had turned out to be a far cry from the Christmas Day she had hoped for. The sheer amount of incidents requiring the presence of her officers had frustratingly exceeded her own usual estimate. She’d had a pared-down workforce to draw from, after doing her level best to balance requests for leave with some measure of fairness and with a nod to those who had put in their time over previous years. And yet she’d also had certain officers to contend with who had obviously felt they’d drawn the short straw. And, contrary to what anyone might think, all her elevated rank seemed to mean on these occasions was that she’s never quite off-duty even when technically she had fulfilled her own scheduled hours and left the station by early afternoon.

The whole background of stress had followed her home and seemed to infiltrate each call she’d received as she’d tried to juggle various issues by telephone while also attempting not to leave Andrew to bear the brunt of socialising with her own relatives. Again.

Ultimately, she’d had to concede and go back in, just as the day should have been winding down towards the part she’d privately looked forward to most; Christmas night. Relatives gone, a rare time when Chris—who had arrived home late on Christmas Eve and all-too-promptly headed out to catch up with friends—would join his parents in relaxed mode in front of the television. It could almost have been like reprising Christmases of old, when she'd sometimes volunteered for an earlier shift herself just in order to reliably commit to getting home to her husband and son for the evening.

And part of her must have wanted that a damn sight more than she’d admitted to herself or she wouldn’t be feeling quite so dispirited this morning at having missed it. Despite her best attempts to get away she’d eventually returned home to a quiet house and a See you in the morning note, and she could hardly blame either of them at that hour, she’d supposed.

But today; today is meant to be relatively better. At least until now, when she’s been ambushed by yet another call when she’s just dressed and barely downstairs and hasn’t even made it as far as the kitchen to join Andrew, who’d been gone from the bed before she’d woken—

“This is PC Weare, Weymouth police, ma’am. I have here two of your officers who are the subject of a complaint regarding indecent exposure. Our own chief superintendent thought it best to refer the matter to you when I contacted him—”

I’ll just bet he did, Jean thinks grimly, comprehensively failing to appreciate this gesture of recognition towards her and her officers outside her own jurisdiction. So a management issue rather than straightforward policing. Or both rolled up into one nightmare package.

She knows full well why she’s getting this non-courtesy of a call. Her equivalent in Dorset has no desire this early on Boxing Day to deal with the potentially tricky matter of two officers of the law up on a complaint of—did he say indecent exposure?

“My apologies, PC Weare, if you wouldn’t mind just recapping the salient details there—”

“Yes, ma’am. Just under an hour ago we took a call from a member of the public, reporting that two men were—disportin’ themselves—naked on one of our more isolated beaches here; and when we dispatched a nearby patrol car, we discovered that the two gentlemen, who identify themselves as a DI Lew—”

“Do let me save you the trouble,” Jean breaks in. There’s an ominous feeling building behind her temples, an actual headache threatening as well as the metaphorical one. Like a facsimile of a Boxing Day hangover without her having had the chance to have engaged in any true revelry to have earned it. Wonderful. “Because, somehow, PC Weare, when I answer the phone early on Boxing Day to find that two of Oxford’s finest need me to vouch for them—I know which two.”  And I’d prefer to draw my own conclusions about why they’re naked on a beach in Dorset.

“I’ll put you on speaker phone, ma’am.”

Oh, they’re right there, are they?

She feels a sudden acute yearning for her first cup of coffee of the day. It’s a feeling that Lewis and Hathaway often give rise to and it turns out they can manage it even down a phone line. And she fears it’s going to be a while before that craving is fulfilled. She knows what Andrew’s doing in the kitchen. She’s given him a complicated coffeemaker for Christmas, a shiny Italian affair, and it’s the milk-steaming technique that had eluded him yesterday. He’d seemed to be in search of the perfect density of foam, channelling all his enthusiastic perfectionism into the task with the intrigued curiosity of a man who is thoroughly not at home with modern gadgetry.

She hadn’t even realised Lewis and Hathaway were going to Dorset. She could have sworn Lewis had said something about heading up to Manchester. Well—misdirection, perhaps. She does privately appreciate how discreet they are around the station. God knows she’s been drawing her own conclusions about the nature of what’s between them for long enough now, but they’ve never given her reason before to take any action. Nor such stark confirmation as this.

And it dawns on her that that’s going to be another matter for the New Year, if she’s now being forced to take official notice of a relationship she’s long-since suspected. Reassigning working partnerships. Which will create, in its turn, a whole new set of management issues. And really—what the hell do the two of them think they’re doing, skinny-dipping in this weather and getting caught? Are they quite, quite mad?

“Ma’am,” says Lewis’s voice into her ear, his tone a fairly matter-of-fact acknowledgement but the volume, now that the speakerphone has been activated, entirely too loud to her protesting ear. It seems every fibre of her being sincerely does not want to engage with them at their doubtlessly unquenchable best. It’s far too early for this.

"Dorset, Robbie?” she enquires, irritably. “Most people choose a climate that shows off one's finery to better effect."

Perhaps nude swimming was something he’d indulged in during his time in the British Virgin Islands. One never really knew with Lewis. Or Hathaway, come to that.

She’d always assumed, from the casual references they made, that their off-duty time took the shape of peaceable pints together. She’d pictured them spending companionable evenings bickering contentedly at Robbie’s flat, much as they often seem to be engaged in across their shared office. Much as they probably just continue to do even while striding around Oxford chasing down odd leads on even odder cases that would elude most of her more—normal-thinking—officers. They certainly act like they’ve segued into comfortable married couple status at some indefinable point; that part was resoundingly familiar to her once she'd identified it. And she’d just somehow, frustratingly, missed seeing the exact point when they’d finally given in to that, outside of their highly successful working partnership. But it could be that their private life together is far more adventurous than she’d ever imagined.

There’s an extended coughing fit in progress on the other end of the line. Lewis is apparently mildly appalled at the turn this conversation is taking. Well, really, what on earth did he expect?

Chris, surprising her, appears and makes his way past her, also dressed. Possibly having made arrangements with friends again before he heads back up to Glasgow tomorrow. She fully understands his need to apply to a station a decent distance from her jurisdiction, but having a son in the force also means that it’s unlikely he’ll have another decent stretch of leave at Christmas for another few years. Well, goodness knows it’s ridiculous to be getting maudlin about that; harkening back to the Christmases when he was younger. And just—around more.

“They’re claiming they were joining in a charity nude swim for Boxing Day, ma’am,” explains this altogether too comfortably cheery PC Weare.

“Well—is there one?” Jean asks, rather sharply. If there’s a way out of this that saves all concerned then why on earth has this become her problem?

“There is a nudist swim organised for Boxing Day, ma’am—”

“Good—”

“—on a completely different beach which is a permitted nudist area…”

“Ruddy satnav, ma’am,” puts in Lewis, who seems to have recovered himself much too speedily for her liking. As he tends to do. “Hathaway was navigating. Told him we’d be better off using a map—”

“Well, if a textile hadn’t seen and reported us—” Hathaway seems to be taking exception to this slur on his navigational skills, judging by his disgruntled tone.

“It was a woman walking her dog, mate,” PC Weare informs him with that note of slight confusion that Hathaway often seems to elicit from those faced with trying to bring him to task.

“In naturist parlance, a textile is any non-naturist—” starts Hathaway again. He’s in full lofty mode. Jean starts to press a finger against that spot directly above the bridge of her nose, in an effort to divert any neurons sending pain signals towards her head. It sometimes seems to help. She’d initially feared she’d leave a permanent fingerprint there in the early years of Lewis’s return to Oxford. Hathaway had been an altogether easier proposition to deal with before Lewis had materialised.

“One of ‘em seems to be well up on the lingo,” PC Weare confides into the phone. “And he keeps correcting anyone who uses the word ‘nudist’ too.”

“Yes,” says Jean, heavily. “You needn’t tell me which one has not been cured of his pedantry, despite the compromising position he’s been discovered in. But that’s not actually a sign that he makes a habit of this. He’d assume a position of well-researched authority on any activity you cared to pull him in for questioning on. Believe me.”

Chris seems to be taking an interest in the proceedings in the kitchen now. She can hear him and his father arguing in interested fashion about which pressure settings to use on the machine, above the hiss of steam which is hopefully producing a decent drinkable beverage this time. It occurs to her that they must have spent an evening together, talking, just the two of them, and she can’t quite recall the last time that that happened. Has Andrew noticed there was only one carton of milk left, though? She heads for the kitchen door to signal that to him, but is stopped in her tracks by something in Lewis’s explanation in her ear.

“Hathaway signed up for this Boxing Day charity swim down the local pub before I got here, but then he fell off a cliff—”

“He did what, Robbie?”

“I didn’t fall,” corrects James’s voice. Entirely as if the salient issue here is actually just the precise manner in which he’d been precipitated—over a cliff? Well, he can’t have suffered too many ill effects—he certainly still sounds exactly like his contrary self. Jean ignores him, for the moment, working this out. So Hathaway had gone down there first? He had been off the rota over the weekend. While she’d seen Robbie still in the station on Christmas Eve. Then Robbie had planned to go to his daughter in Manchester? And Hathaway had been spending Christmas in Dorset? But had met with some sort of accident which had changed Robbie’s plans?

She gives her head a slight shake and brings herself back to the matter in hand. Namely, damage control. Lewis and Hathaway have given her plenty of practice at that. “So when your colleagues discovered two of my officers, constable,” she offers, smoothly, “off-duty, simply enjoying a brisk Boxing Day dip in the water but merely, quite unfortunately, in the wrong area of the bay—”

“We police that quite strongly ma’am, given there are always objections to there bein’ a nudist beach here at all—”

“Understandably,” Jean agrees with a sigh.

“And so seein’ as Sergeant Hathaway here was already known to us—”

“I hardly dare ask,” says Jean, resigned. “Do tell me, sergeant, when did you reach Dorset?”

“Saturday evening, ma’am,” Hathaway informs her equably. “I signed up for the swim on Sunday night down at the local pub. It’s for a good cause and it seemed an initiative well worth supporting—”

“At the time,” murmurs Lewis, not half as quietly as he might like to think. “When you were half in your cups—”

“Then the day after that would’ve been when he fell over the cliff,” the ever-helpful PC Weare informs her.

She should be grateful to the man, really. He’s the one sitting in someone’s office down in Weymouth Police Station with Lewis and Hathaway in front of him to contend with, and neither of them particularly chastened by an experience that would have a chastening effect on most men. Robbie appears more annoyed than particularly chagrined, and Hathaway—Hathaway seems to be displaying his best affectedly nonchalant disposition, heaven help them all. And there’s something about his demeanour this morning that’s particularly unrepentant.

It’s putting her in mind of his attitude when she’d had to speak to them after that complaint of facetiousness. After he and Lewis had apparently just merrily taken it into their heads to abscond from Laura Hobson’s party purely to insert their own brand of mayhem into what had initially seemed a perfectly ordinary callout. They’d been meant to be safely off-duty then too. Thinking that she’s safe from their antics just because they’re not actually in work—it really is being lulled into a false sense of security. And Hathaway had still been enjoying his complicity with Robbie entirely too much, come that Monday morning, to be at all affected by any words of retribution that she'd had to deliver.

He seems to have a similar source of private—buoyancy—about him this morning, somehow.

She can feel a band of tension starting to firm in her neck and reaches back a hand, massaging it. “So this inspiration to bring peace and goodwill to your fellow man by stripping off on a beach in the perishing cold—it occurred to you before you fell over this cliff, did it, Hathaway?”

“Yes. The reason why I then couldn’t take part is that I sprained my ankle.”

“I was just wondering how hard you’d hit your head. That might have explained this.” Although that, as so many things tend to do, would still fail to explain Lewis.

PC Weare seems inspired to intervene on Hathaway’s behalf. “He did stop a known mugger, though, ma’am, in fairness; caught him in the act, before he went over the edge himself in the scuffle, that’s how he came to our attention—”

“Do remind me never to go on holiday with you, Hathaway.”

“Ma’am,” James agrees.

Lewis makes a noise of impatience, seemingly deciding to get this over and done with. “Aye, so then, late last night when he remembers about this swim, he’s sending glances at me and sayin’—Don’t suppose you’d take my place, sir?

“It was the principle at stake, ma’am—I’d signed up for this, and people in the pub had donated in good faith, so when I couldn’t fulfil my commitment, I persuaded Inspector Lewis…”

She’d prefer he called him Robbie in these circumstances, somehow. “And the reason why you were also in the state that nature intended but chief superintendents so fervently wish you would not indulge in, Hathaway?”

“I said I wasn’t stripping down to the nip unless he at least joined in an’ went for a paddle,” Robbie interjects firmly.

“Of course you did,” says Jean with a sigh.

“Aye. Well—I said Hathaway’d have to provide moral support by getting fully into the spirt of things—in spirit and in practice, mind—”

“The doctor did say to refrain from any more strenuous physical activity than that, due to my suspected concussion,” Hathaway says, with a tinge of regret. She doesn’t know if that’s faux-regret, as used on Robbie about his inability to take part, or actual regret that he’s currently unable to engage in behaviour that could have meant both of them were actually caught in flagrante delicto—she’s taking no chances.

“Let me stop you right there, sergeant.”

Somehow they’ve talked her into a corner so she’s the one calling a halt to what should be her interrogation. How do they do that?

She leans her head gently against the wall of her hallway. She seems to lack the energy to proceed much further this morning. The movement allows her to catch sight of Andrew as he appears in her field of vision. He’ll have figured out by now that this isn’t something that’s about to take her in to the station. He’s finally bearing a steaming cup with a very welcome aroma. It makes her gratefully anticipate the prospect of a smooth hot coffee; soothing hot milk, foamed or not, she privately doesn’t care at this point, but mellow and bearing within it in palatable form that dark kick of caffeine. She straightens up and he hands her—a plain black coffee. She most assuredly does not take her coffee black. She raises her eyebrows at him. To her surprise she gets an apologetic kiss in response, carefully and quietly delivered against her cheek, as he moves away.

Andrew is not a man given to spontaneous demonstrations of affection while she’s standing in the hallway, on a work-related phonecall. She looks after him, slightly bemused, and then tunes in again, with suddenly renewed purpose, to the happenings on the other end of the phone. There are certain questions she wants answered, now, hampered though she is by the interested presence of this PC  Weare.

“I would have personally paid good money to avoid this situation arising in the first place, gentlemen,” she says, pointedly.

“I did offer to match the amount Hathaway’d been given so he could return the sponsorship money with a clear conscience,” Lewis tells her, thoughtfully. “But he didn’t reckon he knew how to get hold of most of the folk that’d already donated— an’ it was a fair amount, ma’am, quite impressive, really—”

“There was a hen party at the table next to me,” Hathaway explains, “when I was being persuaded to participate. They seemed excessively keen for me to ‘get my kit off’ as they so succinctly put it. Actually,” he confides in lower tones to Robbie, leaving her to try and digest the mental image of Hathaway, going for a quiet pint and somehow becoming involved in that sort of scenario— “they appeared to think that it was going to happen then and there. I think they wanted me to be part of their entertainment. So they were rather disappointed when they finally accepted it was for the Boxing Day swim. They were rather the worse for wear, though—”

“Aye. An’ they weren’t the only ones, were they?” Robbie mutters at him.

That seems to inspire Hathaway to retreat into dignified silence. Which unluckily allows PC Weare to resume his own tale.

“The sergeant here is claiming he signed up under a different name, which is complicating things a bit proving his story, ma’am. Seeing as there’ll be no James Hathaway registered when we can get hold of the sign-up sheet.”

“I told you, I put my name down as Henry David,” says Hathaway.

“Henry David,” mutters Jean to herself, “Henry David…Thoreau, Hathaway?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hathaway agrees, sounding nothing but pleased that his homage has been recognised. “A transcendentalist philosopher,” he starts enthusiastically, as an aside, possibly to PC Weare. And then he trails off, almost certainly at a particular quelling look from Lewis. “I was thinking—the simplicity of the whole experience—Walden Pond?”

“I’m askin’ again—how much had you had?” It’s another mutter from Lewis. He really doesn’t seem to appreciate how the amplification provided by this over-enthusiastic speaker phone is clarifying their mumbles to each other. She can hear them in far clearer fashion this morning than when they’re both standing in front of her desk in Oxford communicating, as they do then, in bloody annoying fashion through some sort of shorthand comprised of indecipherable sidelong murmurs and eyebrow movements.

It’s also a good question—how on earth had Hathaway, hardly the most social of souls, come to sign up for a group event that involved stripping off? Even if it was far from Oxford and had involved adopting a nom du naturalist? She gets a sudden poignant vision of him in rather morose solitude in a pub, the night before Christmas Eve, musing on philosophers and isolation and somehow or other getting startled out of his brooding into being inveigled into signing up for something that completely flew in the face of that—and why hadn’t he and Robbie been together?  Well, come to that—how come either of them have agreed to this deeply regrettable idea of her being the one asked to vouch for them? She’s not deluding herself that she’d be their first port of call in these particular circumstances…

“And they had their warrant cards on them, constable, when they were—discovered?”

“They’d nothing on them, ma’am,” says PC Weare, surprised.

Jean closes her eyes briefly and then finds it’s actually preferable to keep them open, what with the mental images his words are summoning of two of her officers—“No. Constable—I mean—they volunteered ID to show that they represent—that they belong to the police force here in Oxford—”

“Ah, no. No, they were quite keen to avoid us callin’ you at all.”

“Bloody hell,” mutters Lewis.

“It was all Chief Superintendent Matthew’s instruction when I contacted him—after we’d recognised Sergeant Hathaway—”

“Chief Superintendent Matthews—I know CS Matthews.”

“Do you, ma’am?” asks PC Weare, and his tone has suddenly shifted into a neutrality that would make Hathaway, on a particularly inscrutable day, envious. She can fully appreciate why. Matthews would not be a pleasant chief superintendent to work under. And that’s based purely on her limited interaction with him at conferences. She’d forgotten that he was based in Dorset. No wonder Weare is enjoying this interlude quite so much. That must be a fairly depressing nick to be working in. And, Lord, Matthews is who she’ll have to ring and endure his undoubtedly ultra-moralistic stance on how he obviously, especially shouldn’t permit any suggestion of strings being pulled for officers of the law. Even though it transpires that it’s wholly and entirely his suggestion that she vouch for them—how do Lewis and Hathaway get her into these situations requiring full-on diplomatic finesse quite so bloody often?

“Shouldn’t take too long to verify their story, ma’am—it’s just that the actual nudist area at Ringstead Bay is not that easy to reach. Even when there’s not snow on the cliff path. The sergeant here would never have managed it anyway with his injured ankle. Not even his principles would’ve been enough to get him there.”

“Oh, for— ” puts in Lewis, sotto voce as he takes in that all this could have been averted.

“But one of our constables is headed there now and he’ll hopefully get a sign-up sheet with the signature of a Henry David on it. Be easier if the sergeant here had ID to match that, o’ course. Be easier if the sergeant here had taken the organisers’ details so we could just give ‘em a call, I’d have to say too—”

“I don’t seem to have entered the number entirely correctly in my phone that night,” Hathaway says, with as much dignity as he can probably muster in the circumstances.

There’s a snort from Lewis.

Jean ignores them both, heading into her front room and settling herself on one of the armchairs, her sadly lactose-free coffee placed carefully on a slate coaster on the end table beside her.

Out of the corner of her eye she watches hopefully as Chris appears, carrying an open milk carton. He upends it above her cup. They both watch as the last trickle of milk makes its way out of the plastic spout and spirals down into the cup. It doesn’t make much of an impression on the dark liquid. Chris raises his eyes and grimaces ruefully at her. It’s entirely too like his father’s expression in the hallway minutes before. A chuckle escapes her despite herself.

“Excuse me, ma’am, I see my colleague has come back from his trip to the beach—”

“Don’t know why they had to call her,” Lewis grumbles quietly once Weare has presumably retreated. She’s not about to let them know how audible they are.

“It seems to be what they do around here. Go up the chain of command. They called you without even telling me.” That’s some sort of remembered injustice judging by the indignation stirring Hathaway’s tone.

“Aye. Worked out all right, that, though, didn’t it?” asks Lewis, a curious softness in his tone. Jean frowns into the phone, working this out.

“Ma’am?” enquires PC Weare’s returning voice. “One of the organisers of the swim has confirmed that they remember a Henry David from the pub as tall, blond, morose and pretty sozzled—”

“Charming,” mutters Hathaway to the accompaniment of a soft noise of amusement presumably from Lewis.

“Which does seem to fit the sergeant here—”

“Yes,” agrees Jean.

Robbie apparently decides to give matters a steer on the back of that good news. “So with that cleared up, and your kindly puttin’ a word in for us, ma’am, now, if you would, we should both be out of here sharpish an’ back in work tomorrow mornin’,” he says firmly.

They are both due back on duty tomorrow, she recalls, with a feeling of foreboding. Hathaway’s ankle presumably is going to confine him to the station too for a couple days of desk duty. She really doesn’t feel—ready—for them just now. Although she’s thought of a way to avoid exchanging seasonal greetings with Matthews, at least.

“I’ll email your Chief Superintendent and vouch for the inspector and his sergeant, constable, would you like to check if that would be acceptable? I wouldn’t like to disturb his Boxing Day any further,” she offers, employing a tone that makes an apparent suggestion into something more like formal advice, and tends to work pretty effectively with most of her own officers. Well—leaving at least two honourable exceptions out of the equation.

“I’ll check, ma’am,” says Constable Weare with a barely-suppressed sigh.

Jean waits, watching abstractedly as Andrew goes by the doorway now, carrying her own walking boots. He must have been rummaging in the far reaches of her wardrobe. Proper walking is something that’s gone by the wayside as a recreational activity in recent years, but a family walk on Boxing Day used to be a tradition… Chris doesn’t have to head off until this evening, strictly speaking. And he really doesn’t seem to be going anywhere just now. The three of them could head out for a decent walk. Find a coffee shop that’s open later so Andrew can quiz some poor unsuspecting barista on their techniques. And pick up more milk...

“The Chief Super wanted me to pass on that the normal course of action—” comes a voice in her ear.

She breaks into this dutiful recital of Matthews’ little lecture that Weare hardly desires to deliver any more than she wishes to hear it. “Oh, let me assure you, constable, my two do not observe the little niceties of normal protocol. They manage to remain oddly untroubled by such strictures—tend to see protocol more as a matter of tiresome and unnecessary restriction upon their actions than as an actual guiding reference.”

Neither Lewis nor Hathaway seem to feel any need to dispute this. Lewis, frustratingly, probably cheerfully accepts that as a compliment in his book, come to think of it.

“Yes, ma’am,” Weare agrees, presumably having grasped that already from the circumstances that have led them all here. “And then he concluded by sayin’ that an email would be acceptable and should secure their release.”

“Well, thank for your kind assistance, constable, in clearing up this little—regrettable misunderstanding. Most appreciated. And if I could just have a word with my officers…”

“Yes, ma’am,” agrees Weare, amusement in his voice. He’d certainly seemed to enjoy his role as a conduit for her ire.

She waits until he must be safely out of earshot.

“Robbie?”

“Ma’am?” comes Lewis’s voice.

“The complete and utter lack of other participants on this beach—that didn’t perhaps cue you in that something was amiss?”

“Aye, it did,” he confirms. “But Hathaway reckoned that if we both stripped and I went in the sea, we’d have fulfilled the obligation anyway—done what he’d agreed to do.”

“It really was the principle of the thing, ma’am, I couldn’t in good conscience have proceeded to donate the money that people had given me otherwise—and nor could I return it…”

So they bloody well had known they were on the wrong beach when they’d decided to go ahead anyway. Hathaway and his principles.

“Tell me, sergeant, seeing as you and Lewis have now conducted an experiment in situ, so to speak— do one’s principles serve to keep you warm in that particular situation?”

“I really couldn’t say, ma’am. I was distracted by admiring the scenery—”

“Hathaway—”

“—it’s been a white Christmas here, ma’am. Very picturesque,” he concludes smoothly.

“Give over,” comes a mutter from Lewis to the accompaniment of a satisfied chuckle from Hathaway.

Frankly, anything that will hold them both in Dorset and out of her station for another couple of days would be a welcome relief to the soul just now. Arranging cover for them seems like the more peaceful option.

“I’m fairly sure I know a doctor who could have you both certified as having sufficiently taken leave of your senses that you could be sectioned in Weymouth for assessment purposes,” she tells them testily.

“You know a psychiatrist, ma’am,” starts Lewis, with long-suffering scepticism, “who’d be willing to—”

“Pathologist. The pathologist in question was recently confiding to me over a very decent bottle of Chablis that she’s hoping her boyfriend—also a police officer—would have New Year’s Eve off, seeing as she’s safely secured leave herself, for once, and she hopes to see the year in properly this time. I’m sure something could be agreed.”

“Peterson’s her boyfriend now?” Hathaway asks, in a low astonished murmur. “How fast have things moved since yesterday?”

Is that news to them? Surely Laura would have told Robbie?

“Christmas seems to be a good time for starting things up for some folk,” says Robbie’s voice, matter-of-factly, apparently pacifying Hathaway into silence. But there’s a warm tone completely belying the apparent casualness of his words.

Well, Laura hadn’t called Alan Peterson her boyfriend, in fairness, although if things were progressing to the extent that she hoped to spend New Year’s Eve with him on top of Christmas Day… But what was that undertone of pure warmth in Lewis’s voice and the silence from Hathaway in response… Good Lord. If Lewis had only followed Hathaway down there belatedly because of this accident, then—had he and Hathaway only finally got their act together just now over Christmas? After Lewis had given up his own Christmas plans to go straight to Hathaway when he’d been injured? And then they’d found themselves spending Christmas together in snow-covered Dorset and—

Oh, heavens, that is sweet. That is just—unutterably sweet. She only wishes she had Lewis in front of her so she could genuinely tell him that to his face and watch his expression. That would be fair retribution for this little interlude, so bright and bloody early on Boxing Day morning.

But there’s a warmth beginning to overtake her, despite herself, that isn’t solely to do with the coffee. Not bad coffee either, if she has to take it black. Quite a mellow tone to it.

And, she realises with a welcome relief, that if this is honestly that much of a new relationship for the two of them, then the need for her to take any official notice of it just yet has also effectively been removed…

She gets up to wander over to the window and take a properly assessing look outside.

There’s frost on the ground here. It glitters enticingly and peaceably, lit by the low winter sun. The world looks a lot more hopeful, under this veneer, than it had yesterday night when she’d driven home so late, in chill and icy conditions, to a silent house.

There’s also the sound of those two voices in the kitchen and an unmistakeable scent of frying bacon now, that suddenly tells her she could well have an appetite for a traditional Boxing Day breakfast. Just as they always used to have before heading out for that walk together, come to think of it.

And it finally dawns on Jean that the two men in her life are, in their own fashion, putting together a family Boxing Day. To make up for her missing out on last night.

“Thank you for your assistance, ma’am,” Lewis is saying. “We’re only sorry they disturbed your Boxing Day.” They will be.

“Yes, ma’am,” Hathaway chimes in, still too bloody cheerily by half. Although she can rather understand what underlies his happiness this morning now.

“Not so fast, Lewis,” she says, thoughtfully. She’s not letting them go without making a decent attempt to make damn sure her New Year’s Eve remains safe from their own peculiar notions of what constitutes recreational activity. Right under her nose, actually, that’s where she needs to have them.

“Ma’am?”

“Seeing as you’re both working normal office hours on New Year’s Eve…there’s a little social gathering at my house that night that you’re now both invited to attend. It’s more of a meet and mingle event, really, largely academics, and I‘m in need of representatives from amongst my officers. Strangely enough, despite my casual enquiries around the station if anyone would be free—there was a remarkable lack of enthusiasm.”

There’s a moment of silence in Dorset that tells her they’ve grasped she’s extracting her pound of flesh.

“Ah, I’m sure that everyone else has just made their New Year’s plans well in advance, ma’am,” Lewis says chivalrously. “So it just wouldn’t be right if me and Hathaway—”

“Yes, it could still be perceived as favouritism, ma’am,” Hathaway chimes in. “If Inspector Lewis and I were the only ones attending—”

“Well, I’m sure my attitude towards you both in January, after this little Boxing Day escapade, will soon put paid to any thoughts of that,” she says comfortingly.

There’s a sigh which she guesses originates from the depths of Lewis’s soul. “Wouldn’t it be askin’ for trouble, ma’am,” he tries, “havin’ me and Hathaway mingling—”

“Speak for yourself,” mutters Hathaway, indignant. Always his own worst enemy.

“Possibly, Robbie, possibly. Then again, I’m a firm believer that networking can, in fact, ease the way. Forming those frameworks of social connections—it could help to prevent those little contretemps that seem to result every time you and Hathaway run across the academic elite of this city on a case —as you so invariably seem to do— from becoming bigger headaches for me.”

“Right,” says Lewis, utterly unconvinced.

“Oh, you’ll enjoy it, Robbie. We have various traditional party games planned.”

“Dear God,” mutters Lewis.

“Think she’s got a swing in her garden?” Hathaway muses, in one of his more impenetrable utterances that still produces the sound of a chuckle of enjoyment from Robbie. For reasons completely beyond her comprehension that’s somehow served to restore Lewis’s spirits already.

“Black-tie by the way, gentlemen,” she advises them as a parting shot.

Just as she reaches a fingertip to end the call she hears an unmistakeably unrepentant murmur from James. “I still think this turned out to be a pretty good Christmas, sir. All things considered.”

Underneath that put-upon grumpy demeanour, that she’s learnt full well to disregard, she suspects that Lewis is in agreement with that.

And as Jean, back in Oxford, leans against the kitchen doorframe and regards her husband and son, who are now engaged in serving up what looks like a rather decent breakfast, she finds she can’t argue with Hathaway there, for once.

It’s really not turned out so badly, after all.