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kilter chapter 2

divingforstones

A Journal of Lewis Fanfic - divingforstones


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kilter chapter 2
divingforstones

Fic: The Apparent Places of Fundamental Stars

Pairing: James Hathaway/Robbie Lewis
Rating: Teen
Wordcount: 40k

Summary:

"Robbie’s now thoroughly distracted by that brush of thigh against his own leg. It must be something to do with the way that they’re both wearing the thin cotton of pyjama bottoms. Because James’s thigh will often brush against Robbie’s as they sit on a bench for a lunchtime sandwich in summer, or on Robbie’s couch when James sprawls down a bit, and it’s comfortably, familiarly James, but it doesn’t normally cause quite that sort of a reaction when Robbie’s pulse quickens like that or—Christ, this is his sergeant that he’s—he must need a decent night’s kip even more than James does."

Lewis is confused, Hathaway is casually purposeful, Innocent is increasingly suspicious and there's a case fic going on in the background.

Starts shortly after Season 6. So becomes non canon-compliant.


Notes: A belated birthday fic for Lindenharp. And with very many thanks to wendymr for such thorough and efficient beta-services, encouragement and feedback on this. Divided into an extra chapter on LJ due to LJ's pernicketiness about long posts.


The Apparent Places of Fundamental Stars


Chapter One:

“Sir? Honestly, sir, you have to wake up now, we’re going to be late—”

There’s a hand on one of Robbie’s shoulders, moving it insistently back and forth against his will. And now that he’s becoming aware of it, his sergeant’s voice seems to have been chiding at him for the past indeterminate while. He’s growing increasingly impossible to ignore, that’s for sure. Despite Robbie’s best efforts. That obstinate tone is pulling him right up from under the weighty depths of his sleep and letting him know that any hope of a few more minutes’ peace is at a definite end.

It’s early daylight. An overharsh winter’s morning sun is low enough in the sky to strike his eyes from an entirely unaccustomed angle in this hotel room, as he turns, frustrated, onto his back and why James has felt the need to open the curtains already—

“Sir, c’mon,” comes that voice from above him and James has released his grasp now. “We’ve only got half an hour until we really have to be downstairs.” Robbie grimaces up at him from this odd vantage point, but automatically takes a mental check on him as they tend to do. James is fully dressed, fully alert and looking confusingly young, as he still tends to in more casual clothes. He’s also looking down at Robbie with something eating at him that he’s not voicing, and it’s all too bloody early for this. The whole combines to make an awareness chafe at Robbie that while his sergeant has been up and about, moving around the room and getting on with the day, he’s been lying here oblivious in such a confusedly deep sleep that James has had to shake him awake and now Robbie’s caught, wrongfooted—

“Why didn’t the alarm go off?” he demands, more of an accusation than he’d intended, as he casts a glare at the clock provided on the ornate table between their beds.

“Because I was awake before it and turned it off,” James defends it, still narrowing that frowning gaze right down at Robbie. But then he takes a step back and turns away to start flicking through the various brochures and hotel literature that are neatly fanned out on the table. Probably allowing Robbie a bit of space to get his head together.

Robbie scrubs the fingers and thumb of one hand below the corners of his eyes. Right. James had set that alarm for some ungodly hour of the morning last night, saying something about a decent-sized pool and his plan to go for an early swim. The conference is located in a pretty nice hotel, Robbie allows, although that might be part of what had raised the cost of it to a level that he privately thought a bit steep.

Innocent had seemed to share his view. Even if she’d been the one who’d pretty much dispatched them here when Peterson had had to drop out. She’d called them into her office on Monday and told them that one or the other of them would be required to take his place. Robbie had nearly seen it coming. These training updates were mandatory and came to everyone sooner or later. They just seemed to be delivered in larger groups, in more of an outsourced fashion and in further-flung venues every time they caught up with him. Peterson’s misfortune had simply hastened theirs.

“How d’you suppose Action Man landed up with an ankle boot over the weekend?” James had mused half an hour before, turning his head from where he stood in their office doorway, watching whatever mild stir appeared to be taking place out there centred on Peterson’s arrival in the incident room.

“I don’t know, Sergeant, probably fell out of a tree rescuing some unsuspecting cat,” Robbie had said shortly.

He’d badly needed a more restful weekend off than the one he’d just endured and the week ahead had seemed to be looming just then in dispiriting and almost unmanageable fashion. James had straightened his shoulders and turned back to his desk and the start of his own backlog of tasks that had piled up from their two recent back-to-back cases. And, reliably as you like, Robbie’s phone had started up before he’d made much of an inroad into his intray and they’d found themselves sitting in front of Innocent and hearing the details of her own particular plans for how they were to start the coming weekend. Bloody hell, it was only Monday. But he and James had been due to be off the on-call rota from Friday evening, so they were the all-too-obvious choice.

The only surprising part had been that she’d given them the choice of whether they were both going to do the training now, or if one of them still wanted to wait until the next date. But then, Peterson’s new sergeant hadn’t been going with him. There seemed to be some teething problems there, from what Robbie had surmised, and Innocent must have made a strategic decision that now wasn’t the best time to send them off to be thrown together in more intensive fashion at a conference if she had any hopes of them shaking down into an effective partnership longterm. Obviously, that wasn’t a concern with him and James. He’d shot an enquiring look at James, received his silent confirmation that they were on the same page here and told Innocent that they’d both get it over with then, ma’am.

Why she’d grimaced back at him at that was anybody’s guess.

“Well—it’s on a Friday but you’d need to drive down the night before, Robbie.” And her tone had become half-apologetic. “As it’s in Lancaster, I’m afraid. So it’ll mean a two night stay for a one-day course.”

“I’m sure we can drive back on the Friday night—”

Innocent had pushed a brochure across her desk to him, open at the schedule for the training day. Christ, that looked long. “It starts early and there’s an after-dinner session too, Robbie,” she’d said in the face of his look. “General consensus seemed to be, the last time I was privy to a discussion on arrangements for mandatory training, that it would be more cost-effective to offer some of these updates confined within the one day. Cost-effective if your officers live more locally to the venue,” she’d murmured.

“Right.” Robbie frankly hadn’t fancied the thought of that at the moment, but it had still seemed unfair to send James alone. Not something he found he could really do in the face of the rueful, complicit half-smile his sergeant had just flickered at him.

“Okay, I’ll see if we can add a second participant as a last-minute booking,” Innocent had said, still sounding oddly torn about the whole thing, given that all of this was her doing. She’d pulled up something on her computer screen, and then her eyebrows had confirmed her displeasure at it. As it had turned out, that was at the cost of belatedly adding a second hotel room. She would’ve got an early-booking deal for Peterson’s place, no doubt. She’d grimaced at the price options and then informed them they’d be sharing what was advertised as a large ensuite twin room for the two nights and were there any issues with that?

Issues?” Robbie had queried in a tone that hadn’t tried overly much to hide his thoughts about her choice of words.

Innocent’s eyes had roved briefly over his expression. “Yes, Lewis,” she’d said, briefly, before her assessing gaze settled on James. “Hathaway?” she’d asked.

No, ma’am,” James had said, calmly as you like. You could practically hear the shrug in his voice beneath the more formal words.

Well, Robbie had supposed she probably had to check such things with every junior officer she put in that position these days, but it was a bit much being treated like Peterson and his man, as if they couldn’t cope with sharing a room without bother. Six years in a partnership and you have your own ways and means of dealing with things and with each other. Which is why Robbie, observing from the sidelines, privately holds out little hope for Peterson and Blake. You tend to fall into those easy habits early on for it to work, the way you adapt to the other person. Especially when the other person is James. He’s a right funny mixture of standoffishness and fiercely guarded privacy on the one hand, and then a sort of endearing lack of boundaries on the other, and you just have to know how to take him, that’s all.

And then he goes and gives you that half-hopeful, half-trusting look sideways and you inwardly sigh and concede defeat and acknowledge that you can’t let him down and take the way out that Innocent is sort of offering, you can’t just pull rank and send him off to endure this one alone despite the dire timing. You have your own shorthand and expectations of each other like that and your own rhythms that you sink into with a partner after years of familiarity and you don’t question them too deeply—well, there’s no bloody point questioning anything too deeply when it’s James, not like you’ll get any answers, Robbie had reflected, and the thought had summoned the first half-smile of the day to his face.

James, sitting there beside him, had shot him a quick head-tilt of a query, ready to be amused too, as Innocent had perused her screen again. He’d looked like he was taking all this hassle in his stride, at least.

Then he’d lain in the bed across from Robbie’s last night, in quite upbeat mood for him, talking lightly about all manner of things, in pleasantly entertaining fashion. Robbie remembers finding himself suddenly grinning in the dark, amused at an anecdote James was wryly relating about some recent gig he’d played with his band, before he’d lost track of what that murmuring voice was saying next and he must have drifted off.

Then there are hazy memories of the hum of the shower in the en suite, and of rolling over being tugged right back down into oblivion, with relief, but maybe also memories now of resisting the half-heard sounds of someone moving quietly around the room—

“I did have a go at waking you before I went down for breakfast,” James points out now, giving Robbie pause again. Had he? “But it seemed best just to let you be a while longer. You were more than a bit—resistant. Had a few choice mumbles to make at me on the subject too,” James mutters under his breath.

Hell. Bloody worse is that he’d dozed off in the car on the way down here too, when James was driving the second leg of the journey and, fair enough, it had been a long week, they’d tried to cram five days of work into four so they wouldn’t come back on Monday to too much of a backlog, and had landed up getting a later start from Oxford than they’d wanted. They’d hit the M40, with Robbie driving, at the worst possible time of the evening, and that had set everything back.

But Robbie seemed to have slept pretty much from the moment they’d got back in the car after their stop for dinner, and he’d had no intention of doing that. The car had been warm, James had been explaining in depth about something he’d read about this research study that’d featured at the end of the radio news, and that was the last Robbie recalled until an ad had blared and he’d heard a more peaceful murmur beside him of Let’s stick something else on, then, and a CD had clicked into the player. There’d been the sound of something lightly classical and nothing more until James had roused him when they reached the hotel, and he’d come to, feeling disorientated, groggy and with a stiff neck.

Much like he does now. “So you’ve gone back down and had breakfast?” he asks, trying to catch up on the events he’s missed. “Went out for a smoke, more likely, you mean, did you, before we get started?”

James shrugs, looking wary. Bugger, it’s not actually James’s fault Robbie feels like a bear with a sore head disturbed mid-hibernation. As he shoves back the covers and gets up, he registers that it is his head rather than his neck that’s aching rather dully. It’s going to be a long and trying enough day, and he’s fallen behind on it already. He might’ve known this would all catch up with him here in Lancaster.

“Seriously, sir, you won’t have time to eat, d’you want me to order you something from room service while you’re taking a shower? A Danish or something else that should arrive quickly.” James has picked up a slim leather folder and is examining its contents.

“No.” He doesn’t even feel hungry, he feels as if he’s been yanked from his sleep to a call out in the middle of the night. Minus the adrenaline that comes with that.

“Coffee then? They do a cafetiere,” James says, sounding interested. “It’s listed as coffee for two. Now that’d be better than that filter stuff they had downstairs…”

“Should’ve known you had ulterior motives,” Robbie says, making an effort to tease now but it must come out a lot gruffer and flatter than he means it to with his sleep-roughened voice because he gets no response back except for James drawing his brows at him unhappily, as Robbie make his way past him to the bathroom.

Maybe a hot shower will help clear his head. Ah, bugger. He can see why James suggested coffee, he looks almost as bad as he feels.



===



“Think I’ll head on up,” Robbie says with a certain relief, putting down his empty pint glass.

James glances at him in surprise. “Already?”

The last time they’d both been away together, they’d landed up nursing pints in a pretty similar hotel bar into the early hours, Robbie remembers. Then, as now, James had secured them decent seats beside a fire as Robbie got the drinks in after dinner. But the atmosphere of this old place, with its brass-and leather fenders and old polished wooden tables and an impressive bar set apart from the regular’s lounge and the main part of the hotel—it’s all rather lost on Robbie tonight. He could do with putting his head down for a bit. He could do with being back in Oxford and not having a long drive to face to get there tomorrow.

Oh, and of course last time they wouldn’t have been sharing a room but now...“Have you got your key?” Robbie asks.

James drains his pint and sets the glass down, rising to his feet. “I’ll come up,” he says.

“Ah. No, you stay and—“ He comes to a halt, having no real way to finish that sentence. He hadn’t meant to curtail James’s evening but, really, what does he expect his sergeant to do? Go and mingle with the crowd of coppers he can now hear getting slightly raucous in the function room that the hotel manager has rather optimistically allocated to them, across the lobby? They’ll be spreading in here soon to take over this bar too no doubt.

“I have a key,” James is telling him. “I’ll just—” And he gestures vaguely at the cold and rain-sodden January night outside. There must be a smoking shelter out there.

“All right,” Robbie agrees, not seeing much help for it.

He judges it best to affect not to see his sergeant’s silent scrutiny as Robbie leaves the bar, although in reality, the heat of James’s unapologetic gaze at you when he’s trying to work something out could fry an egg at fifty paces.

===

Oh, bloody hell, again? Robbie fumbles a hand on the table for his phone and hits the speed dial without further thought. “James?” he queries into it, hoarsely.

“Morning, sir,” comes a much too cheery response for this hour of the day—although somehow the way that the sun is spreading right around this room also far too cheerily for Robbie’s befuddled mood is cueing him in that it may be far later than he thinks.

“What time is it?” But his bleary gaze falls on the clock. He blinks at it in disbelief so that it takes a moment to process that a distinct silence has fallen on the other end of the phone.

“Did you honestly just wake up now?” James’s voice asks slowly. Robbie thinks that’s far too flaming obvious to need any answer. But the animation has vanished from James’s tone too. “I’ll come up,” he says shortly and then the call cuts off before Robbie can tell him to give him a while and barely a minute later there’s the click of a key card in the door, heralding James’s approach. He comes in and shuts the door, and then he just stops where he is, gazing at Robbie. There’s a shadow that’s drawn down deep within his eyes, stilling him. Robbie sits up abruptly, suddenly very effectively wide awake. “James?”

James crosses to the bed as if he’s made up his mind about something, and stands there looking down at him.

“Are you ill, sir?” he asks curtly.

“What? No.”

“Right,” James says flatly, focusing on the wall behind Robbie’s shoulder.

“James?” But his bearing is as warily tense as someone who’s expecting an undeserved blow—Robbie shifts over a bit to clear a space for him. “C’mere.”

James says nothing in reply, but he drops down to sit on the edge of the bed, his eyes aimed at Robbie’s now, but his gaze already blanketedAh, hell. Robbie really hadn’t meant to put that sort of look on him.

“James. Tell you if I was, all right?”

James frowns, his eyes searching Robbie’s face for the truth in this. It seems best to just return his gaze, and submit to his examination in silence. Just as the best way with James is often to let him get there himself when it comes to stuff that’s stirred him up. Give him a bit of time and—“Yeah?” he asks eventually.

“Yeah. I would.”

He only gets a nod in return but James’s whole posture seems to soften with relief.

“What’s been making you think that, anyway?” Robbie asks, all of those mercilessly assessing looks since they got here suddenly making more sense.

“You’re increasingly exhausted recently, you slept pretty heavily in the car and both mornings here, you seem to have little or no energy, you left the bar early last night, and—you’re just not looking right lately.”

Robbie could brush any or all of that off and pretend to be jokingly insulted at that last but James’s voice is achingly careful. And that also sounds like a list he might have been compiling and brooding about for a while… Bugger. It shouldn’t be that hard for him to ask Robbie this. He shouldn’t have had to ask at all, come to that, Robbie should just have said—“Haven’t been sleeping much the last while, that’s all.”

“Oh.”

“Aye. And then yesterday mornin’—reckon you woke me from the deepest sleep I’d had in a while,” he admits.

“Oh,” says James again, illumination dawning over his features. He looks like all the puzzle pieces have shifted to fall into place and he’s just solved a case single-handedly. “That’s why you’re so—”

“Why I’m so what, exactly, now, Sergeant?” Robbie enquires suspiciously as he comes to a halt.

“More quintessentially your own plain-speaking self, sir,” says his sergeant smoothly.

“You sayin’ I’m grumpier than usual?”

“No, I believe I very specifically did not say—”

“You’re sayin’ I’m grumpier than usual.”

“Well—your words, sir.” But he leans back now, both arms propping himself up as he makes himself comfortable, sitting here on the side of the mattress, right at Robbie’s hip. And he grins at him.

Robbie arches his eyebrows at him to keep that lighter look on his face for just a moment longer. “An’ what you’re saying now is, if the hat fits, put it on,” he translates. James quirks his eyebrows back at him silently.

Robbie had been too short with him, then. Even for James who’s well-used to Robbie’s rough edges, God knows. He should’ve just said sooner. But it’s making a fuss about something that makes you feel sodding old. He offers up the information that his granddad who’d lived with them for years had always had trouble sleeping after he’d retired and would be up at all hours of the night, hoping this’ll form some sort of gruff unspoken half-apology instead.

This displeases his sergeant no end.

“You’re not—it doesn’t have to have anything to do with age. You’ve had this problem before.” Trust him to remember. But his brows are drawing back together now as something in his overanalytical mind must be overtaking his relief—and what’s he doing anyway distressing himself so much and getting so relieved, over Robbie, the daft bloody sod. He’s making Robbie ache in rather restless fashion as James often does, wholly oblivious of the effect he has. “How come you slept so well last night then?” he asks slowly. “And Thursday night? And in the car…” He’s intent as a hawk, ready to swoop in on any flaw in Robbie’s reassurance, despite how much he obviously also wants to believe it.

“Reckon it was probably you talking,” Robbie realises, because, hell, he can’t remember the last time he’d slept that much two nights running. He’d thought that first night was just reaching a point of pure exhaustion in the way that this seems to go, but now that there’s last night to add to the tally. “You must have one of them soporific voices, lulling me off.”

Because James may have taken a vow of silence on his personal life, but he can fairly natter till the cows come home when he’s off on one of his favourite topics, and he’d landed up easing Robbie’s path into sleep pleasurably and effortlessly after he’d come up to join him last night.

“Are you saying I’m boring?” James demands, his voice climbing in indignation.

“No, I believe I very specifically did not say that, sergeant.” Robbie grins at him. “Nah, if it was that, I’d have been nodding off left, right and centre in those seminars then, wouldn’t I?”

James nods a rueful acknowledgement of this. “Not the most scintillating set of talks I’ve ever attended,” he owns.

“Seemed to put a spring in your step.”

“What?”

"Seemed to put a spring in your step.”

“What?”

“Well you’re up early each morning and off—swimming or whatever.” Robbie suppresses a sigh. He’s feeling less irritable about that than yesterday but, Christ, it still just brings your age home to you when you’re confronted at close quarters with your sergeant’s lithe and energetic form back from being driven to actually seek out exercise first bloody thing in the morning.

“I’m a morning person,” James explains. “Best part of the day.”

It’s funny the habits you still don’t know he has when you’re so used to him—he’s never seemed that lively of an early morning when he’s crashed on Robbie’s couch, but then that tends to happen when they’ve either been up dead late brainstorming together, so they’re in the thick of something active and need to get on with things pronto the next day. Or after a night when a case has ended badly and Robbie has gruffly manoeuvred him back to his to let a bit of drinking and the odd comment from one or the other of them do the debriefing for them. And chances are that after that James would’ve been feeling the joint effects of an alcohol and a case hangover the following morning.

One of the lecturers yesterday had been discussing the correlation between violent crime and the level of familiarity between a perpetrator and their victim and had made that crack about the person most likely to kill you being the first person you saw in the morning and the last person you saw at night. There had been a mild ripple of laughter at a joke most coppers had heard by now and that was probably more to do with the sudden relief at a shift in atmosphere that any attempt at humour would provide in this intense day of seminars.

James had taken the opportunity to mime startled suspicion, drawing upright and away in pretend horror, moving out of the lazily slouching posture he’d slid into some time during the past hour. Then he’d treated Robbie to a grin, propped his head against his hand again and returned to studying the lecturer as if he found him cheerily fascinating.

It’s a look Robbie has noticed his sergeant seems to cultivate when stuck in that sort of situation, and God only knows what goes on his brain behind it.

Robbie had taken his point, though, that James seemed to have assimilated some time ago. It’s true that somehow they’ve become the person in that role for each other.

Well, Robbie’s flat is essentially on James’s route to work, and it’s become easier to fall into the habit of his sergeant picking him up there and Robbie returning the favour some days, and who’s Robbie going to see in the run of a normal evening after bidding his sergeant good night anyway? It’s also become fairly natural that when James hasn’t got band practice or something else on—and James rarely seems to have something else on—that he’s up for diverting for an afterwork pint and he generally comes back for a takeaway and a bit of continued beer-drinking on a Friday evening.

And Robbie should maybe be doing something about that, the amount of time his sergeant amiably gives up to spend drinking pints with his boss on top of all the hours he spends in work. God knows he shouldn’t be the first and last familiar face James sees most days. But he hadn’t quite been able to miss that it just didn’t go down too well a few months back when he’d all out told the lad he needed someone properly in his life.

“You had your swim and your breakfast then?” he asks now, giving James a nod to shift himself off the bed. More than past time to get up.

“Mmm—well, just coffee and toast earlier, I’m hungry now, though,” James says, rising, looking thoughtful. “I could do brunch. Will I…”

“Aye, whatever looks good.”

Robbie leaves him examining the menu with interest. A plan which initially seems to have backfired when he returns freshly showered, shaved and dressed in Saturday clothes only to discover that the small table by the window not only has a white linen tablecloth and has been properly set, but that under the silver dome keeping his breakfast warm is—

Robbie stands beside his place and raises his eyebrows at his sergeant, who is lounging in one of the wooden chairs drawn up to the table in his own gravity-defying fashion, perusing the Saturday Guardian while he waits. James looks over the top of the broadsheet section at him. “It’s eggs benedict but with smoked salmon instead of bacon, a layer of avocado, dill butter and on a toasted open bagel instead of a muffin—”

Robbie considers it askance and then his sergeant. “Why?” he asks plaintively.

James shrugs and lowers the paper in half. “Omega-3 fatty acids help with sleep—”

Robbie casts a quelling don’t-you-start look at him. “Says he who orders the large cafetiere of caffeine.”

“You could have hot milk if you prefer,” James suggests. That quelling look used to work better in the early days with him.

“What’s wrong with a layer of good old-fashioned bacon in it? That’s the classic way to have it.”

“You like smoked salmon,” James tells him. “You like the seafood chowder on the menu in the White Horse.”

Fish for breakfast. Really not what Robbie was picturing. But it’s obviously too late to change their order. Better to try it while it’s still warm. Robbie pulls out the other chair and sits down opposite him. James straightens, folds the paper deftly and tosses it onto the wide, low windowsill. It is a nice day out there now. The sky is that particular sort of bright paler blue you get in winter if you get a bracing, crisp day. The drive back might be pleasant enough. They could always stop off for an early dinner if this brunch doesn’t work out…

“You need to get all the flavours together in a forkful,” James instructs him.

“Yes, thank you, Sergeant, I know how to eat. You’re a dab hand on giving people advice on how to do the ruddy obvious, aren’t you,” Robbie grumbles, doing as suggested nonetheless. Oh, now that’s good. It all goes together, with what must be the dill butter just giving a bit of piquancy.

The corners of James’s mouth quirk upwards in satisfaction as Robbie chews in silent appreciation. “I could make this,” James muses. “It’s more a question of assembly than cooking if there’s no need for the hollandaise. I mean—you could make this, sir.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, there. I can poach an egg. You can do that in the microwave these days, you know. Lyn doesn’t think much of me frying things, so she gave me a special poached-egg shaped plastic dish.”

James looks briefly appalled at the idea of marrying a microwave with eggs. Then again, he looks that way most of the time about Robbie’s purchases when Robbie has him stop off at the supermarket and James sees him purchasing a microwaveable ready-meal for the evening. “Well, I’ll be looking forward to next time I crash on your couch then,” he says gravely. “What with the delights that will await me in the morning.”

“You’ll be having your toast and whatever cereal you normally find when you go rummaging in me cupboards, or fried eggs and bacon if it’s a Saturday, and you’ll count yourself lucky,” says Robbie equably. “Morse never made me breakfast. Looked at me like I had two heads once when I just asked him if he had any butter making meself a sandwich in his house.”

James grins across at him. He generally pokes around in the cupboard for cornflakes if that’s what he’s after on mornings when he arrives before Robbie is ready. He never seems in much of a hurry even when he turns up early. He also pointedly and determinedly ignores the jar of instant coffee as if it’s personally insulted him, and messes around with the whole palaver with the cafetiere instead, handing Robbie a perfectly made cup when Robbie comes to join him, it has to be said. Although not said aloud. Robbie’s taken to using the cafetiere at weekends himself, but he’s not about to tell his sergeant that. No need to encourage him in his ways.

There’s freshly squeezed orange juice as well as the coffee with this breakfast. Although why the hotel kitchen has felt the need to put it in champagne flutes is anyone’s guess.

“Bucks fizz minus the fizz, unfortunately, sir,” James tells him, breezily, catching Robbie’s dubious look at his glass. “Seeing as we’re both driving. This was like a—breakfast package deal.”

Ah. Well, at least Robbie’s feeling more than halfway human now, enough to take his fair share of the driving. A hot shower and a good late breakfast can do wonders for the spirits. Never mind an amiable companion across the table who’s a ruddy daft sod getting himself so wound up about Robbie for no good reason, but—well, that’s also just James, isn’t it.

Wouldn’t really have him any other way.


================================================================



“What’s up with you?”

The muttering that James is engaging in across their office is becoming increasingly irate, and it’s starting to distract Robbie from his own quick perusal of what’s piled up in his inbox over the weekend. It’d been a quiet enough few days last week, after they’d returned from the conference, giving them a chance to catch up on themselves again. But for some reason that’s beyond Robbie, every bugger seems to send an email last thing on a Friday afternoon to await his attention first thing on a Monday morning. And he needs to get through anything genuinely requiring a response so he can focus on what’s just been landed on them now. James has been deputed to make a head start in the meantime.

James scowls across at him now. “It’s Hooper’s literal notetaking combined with his colloquialisms. If he insists on writing down practically every word each interviewee says, then there’s no need to introduce crimes against the English language while he’s at it.”

“S'pose we have enough actual crimes to deal with,” Robbie acknowledges.

There’s been a house burglary late yesterday evening and Innocent, strongly suspecting a link to a previous incident a fortnight before, has seen fit to pass it to their team this morning for particular attention. Robbie can see why—Peterson’s team had taken the first one and he’s off active duty for now. And there’s something disturbing about these. An elderly woman had been surprised by a sturdily-built intruder dressed all in black, right down to his balaclava, who had loomed over her in her armchair, in complete silence, rummaged briefly to take the small amount of cash she had in her flat, picked up a couple of personal items of hers that very obviously weren’t worth much to anyone else and left without a word. It all seems like a pointless waste of trouble forcing an entry to such a modest flat at all, when the only lasting effect was surely to destroy the householder’s peace of mind in her own home. Which almost sounds like it’s the whole point. Because the fact that the previous incident had been carried out for similar lack of personal gain is bothering Robbie.

It’s a depressing state of affairs to come in and start the week with. Presumably, James’s demeanour has more to do with that than anything Hooper has actually written in those statements he’d taken from the victim’s neighbours last night. Although Robbie privately doesn’t envy his sergeant his task. “He gets all the details, though, you have to give him that.” He’s just painstaking in including every single one of them. And speaking of the devil…

“You get all them statements then, Sarge?” asks the man himself, stopping in their office doorway on his way to his desk in the incident room, his overcoat still on.

“Yes,” James says as pleasantly as he can manage perhaps. “Thanks.”

“That one—he’d talk the hind leg off a donkey,” Hooper says with a nod at the one James is holding.

“Yes,” says James, glancing at it, barely suppressing a sigh. It does look long. Then his gaze narrows on something near the bottom of the page. Robbie watches him fight a losing battle with himself.

“Of,” James mutters to himself. Ah, hell.

“What’s that, now?” Hooper enquires.

“Of,” says James, rather helplessly, as if he’s trying and failing to stop himself. It’s like a flaming uncontrollable reflex with him, correcting people’s English. Especially when he’s in a mood. “The phrase is ‘the tip of the iceberg,’ not off.”

“No.” Hooper is implacable and quite sure. “I wrote down exactly what he said. Always do. He said he heard nothin’ and it was bad enough living on the ninth floor of those flats when the lift is forever breaking an’ if the soundproofing was so bad that he could hear what was goin’ on in a flat below him and one over that’d make him tip off the iceberg. Though I reckon he meant more that it’d be the last straw, y’know the straw that broke the camel’s back, the drop that makes the teacup overflow, the tipping point—like in a coin pusher machine when you drop the coin in that makes your winnings fall off the platform…”

“All right,” James interrupts hastily. There’s a flush mounting under his collar. “Sorry.”

Hooper allows himself a quick grin. “S’all right, Sarge, we can’t none of us get them all right all of the time. Not even those of us with a posh university education—”

“Thank you, Constable,” Robbie intervenes mildly. James just doesn’t quite grasp that Hooper is the type of bloke who’ll persist with something as a continued joke even now that that bit of rancour has gone out of it for him. Robbie reckons Hooper’s persistence now is almost his clumsy way of trying to make amends with James for earlier days.

“He knows more idioms even than you,” James grumbles into Robbie’s tactful silence as Hooper departs, looking rather cheerful at this unexpected victory for his over-inclusive note-taking technique.

“Away with you and your idioms. That’s just homespun wisdom—”

“…that you learnt at your grandmother’s knee,” James completes, with a sigh. “Yes, I know. It’s too early for this.”

“I used to love those penny pusher machines in the arcade on the pier,” says Robbie thoughtfully. “I won big once, the year we went to Skegness—me dad wouldn’t let me put the coins back in for another go, though, so I bought an ice-cream cornet instead.”

“A much more prudent long-term investment, obviously, sir,” says James. He’s still a bit bent out of shape.

“You just get more pernickety about other folk’s use of English the worse form you’re in,” Robbie tells him. It’s like a barometer for James’s mood. Morse, on the other hand, had been low-scale irritable in familiar fashion so much of the ruddy time that it would’ve been hard to tell if his fussiness with Robbie’s grammar had varied with his humour.

Robbie doesn’t feel too bad himself this Monday morning, all things considered. Getting that unexpected rest in Lancashire seems to have knocked his sleep back into shape again last week. And that’s been more of a relief than he could have anticipated. It had made this a fairly relaxed weekend, if a quiet one. Newcastle had even had a win. He’d thought of asking James over to watch the match with him, but decided his sergeant could probably do with the weekend to himself, the lure of a good book apparently winning out over football, or so he’d recently been told. James doesn’t seem much-restored, though; maybe his own time off hadn’t been the best. He’d been in better humour after spending half last weekend at a conference than he is this morning. He’s grimacing at that witness statement now. And he’ll make no progress with it till he’s cleared his head a bit.

Robbie feels in his back pocket for his wallet. “Go and get us a couple of coffees, would you?”

James looks up, surprised. “It’s pretty early.”

“Well, you can always make do with the canteen coffee instead if you don’t fancy one from the coffee place…”

“No, no,” demurs James hastily. “Far be it from me ever to dispute the instruction of a senior officer, sir.” And he rises, reaching for his coat flashing a sudden smile across the office that’s a pretty good version of his usual smirk, in response to Robbie’s look of complete disbelief.


================================================================



Robbie sighs and slows the car to take another blind bend cautiously in the darkness. It’s probably time to concede defeat. The best route back that James can find for them on that route-planning thing on his phone is still going to take them largely on the rural and local roads they’d seen more than enough of getting here. Robbie’s begun to suspect that there isn’t one motorway in the whole county of Lincolnshire, anyway. Finding themselves still here at this late stage in the day was not exactly part of the plan. They’d hoped to be back within reaching distance of Oxford at this stage. But once Innocent had finally cleared this trip, and their taking the time away from the other minor cases that have risen up in the last fortnight, Robbie, who’d pushed for a chance to follow this lead, had stopped off at James’s flat to wait while his sergeant had packed an overnight bag, just in case, before driving them to his where he’d done the same.

They’d had a stroke of luck discovering a common acquaintance to both victims of those break and entries, who’d moved up here with what seemed highly coincidental timing last week. And you never knew where a lead, sorely lacking on this case so far, might take you.

This one has taken them absolutely ruddy nowhere, in terms of the case and their current location. They’re both exhausted and hungry and pushing on further on unfamiliar, unlit winding roads that are probably best described as scenic on a good day—and when the radio is warning in foreboding tones of clear skies, low temperatures and ice Robbie does not consider that a good day—it’s not a resoundingly clever idea. “Check and see where the nearest place with some sort of accommodation is, would you?”  he asks, resigned.

A short interlude of swiping at his phone later and James is directing them to a Bed and Breakfast that he says can’t be that far away now, it’s located just a few miles from the last blink-and-you-miss-it lit-up one-street village they’ve passed through. Although they seem to be winding their way into deeper and darker countryside by the minute, now.

“You sure about this?” Robbie enquires dubiously, peering ahead as far as the headlights allow on a one-track road they’ve turned down.

“It has an average of approximately four out of five on Trip Advisor,” James tells him. “And their own website is currently advertising vacancies.”

“No, are you sure you’re sendin’ us in the right direction—” But the lights of a large house have appeared round a bend in the lane.

It’s sharply cold when they get out of the heated car in what appears to be a large cobble-stoned farmyard in front of the house, bordered with old stone outbuildings. The forecast had had that one right. And it’s a clear night with no cloud cover. James pauses with his hand on the boot, gazing upwards.

“Sergeant. If you want your dinner this side of Christmas…”

“It’s February,” James informs him.

Robbie heaves a sigh. He’s hungry. “Get a move on,” he clarifies.

A minute later and he’s wishing he could say the same to the woman behind the small reception desk in the roomy old hallway of this big modernised farmhouse.

“Two rooms,” she repeats slowly. “Oh. But we’ve let out most of our rooms to a group of hikers who’d booked in advance—so there’s only the one room left.”

Robbie’s surprised by a feeling of almost-relief. He’s been having trouble getting over to sleep again at night recently. The mood of resignation that had settled down on him at the prospect of getting a restless night of bad sleep in a strange bed, restricted in someone else’s house, suddenly alters and shifts. He casts a look at his sergeant, who is nodding, seemingly taking this wholly in his stride. Good.

 And the idea of sharing a room segues neatly into the welcome prospect of having James natter away again as he did in the hotel a few weeks back.

“We’ll take that,” he confirms, prompting the woman along as she hesitates doubtfully.

James had said there was a promising-looking pub in that last village, they could get a late bite to eat there once they’ve freshened up a bit.

But their hostess is looking a little uncertain. “I’d have to say—well. This is a family—” And she stops, mired in indecisiveness.

Oh, bloody hell. And Robbie, taken aback on a couple of counts here, is monumentally irked in the circumstances to discover a certain feeling of heat rising on his own face that he hopes to God is not translating into an actual flush as this woman looks from one to the other of them, frowning unhappily.

“Excuse me?” James cuts in, in an entirely courteous and enquiring tone, which also has an ascending note to it that tells Robbie that if this woman is about to start any hedging about letting two blokes stay in the same room together in her establishment, James will be coldly, irrefutably and oh-so-politely letting her know exactly where she doesn’t stand on any ground to do so. Robbie—who wants his dinner, a pint and a night’s sleep in that order and will be ensuring they are securing that room, suddenly decides his sergeant has this matter well in hand, and eyes him with a certain fascination as James draws himself up to his full height, and focuses his intent, querying gaze right down at her. And that’ll be just for starters. She continues to frown, oblivious, utterly absorbed by her own concerns here.

“It’s a family room,” she says, taking the icy breeze right out of James’s sails in one fell swoop.

“Oh. But—it’s got two adult-sized beds, though?”

“Yes. I suppose—oh, it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“I’m sure it doesn’t,” James tells her with proper courtesy now, but his eyes slide sideways to meet Robbie’s, telegraphing a look of impatient bafflement, as she turns to reach for the one key left on the key-shaped wooden board mounted on the wall behind her.

It all becomes a bit clearer after they follow her directions up the stairs to the top of the house where she’s assured them a large converted en suite attic room awaits them.

“I’m not sleeping in that bed,” says James, flatly, coming to a halt right inside the door he’s just unlocked.

Robbie puts a palm on the small of his back to prompt him a couple of steps further in, and then shuts the door behind him before he takes a proper look at the offending article that has stopped his sergeant in his tracks. Ah. He maintains a straight face.

“That single bed, sergeant? Nor am I,” he says equably. And he drops his coat on the double bed just to make sure he’s firmly staked his claim.

James is still staring at it. “But this—it’s a family room, that’s what she meant, that’s the child’s bed—”

“It’s a decent-sized full-length single, though, your toes won’t poke out the end, if that’s what you’re worried about,” says Robbie seriously. It has neatly-pressed clean bedlinen, too, and it’s quite comfortable-looking, it’s only got the one sticking point—

“I am not sleeping under a Thomas the Tank Engine duvet cover,” James says, enunciating each word in far clearer fashion than is strictly necessary.

“Our Jack would love that.”

“I’m sure he’ll love hearing all about how his Grandpa slept in a Thomas bed when you tell him, then.”

“Senior officer here, Hathaway. It’s not often I pull rank, but I don’t reckon that bed befits the position of a CID Inspector—”

James glares at him. Then he yanks the duvet up and turns it over, resettling it, in silent vehemence. Or as vehemently as he can, considering that the bed is in a bit under the slope of the eaves. But he gets enough energy into it to relieve his feelings, all the same. Although—his effort seems to have been in vain.

“Oh, look,” says Robbie, in interested tones, “it’s reversible. That red train—he’s your namesake isn’t he? Wonder if your pillowcases are reversible too…”

There’s a mutter at him from his sergeant as he goes to investigate the wardrobe for a spare blanket to cover the cause of this affront to his dignity, that, seeing as Robbie actually is the senior officer here, it’s probably best to affect not to hear…

Continue to Chapter Two of Five.