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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 - Chapter Four

Chapter One of Five including the header info
Chapter Two of Five
Chapter Three of Five


Robbie regards the contents of his freezer without undue enthusiasm. Yesterday evening, following that conversation with James the night before, he’d stopped off on impulse at the supermarket and had pretty successfully replicated that pasta dish for dinner. But he neither fancies two nights in a row of vegetarian eating nor can he be bothered doing all that again tonight so an indifferent microwave-heated shepherd’s pie for one had seemed the better plan. It’s not proving the most tempting prospect now either. But then Friday nights are generally made for a bite in the pub or a takeaway back here… He reaches for his phone which is letting him know he’s got an incoming text.

Had an idea about our burglar, his screen announces without preamble. Robbie feels his features lift into a grin at it. Much as his spirts suddenly experience a lift as well.

He shuts the freezer door and leans his shoulder against it. You back then? he jabs into his phone.

James’s replies generally seem to come while you’re still pressing send. Yes. Have you eaten?

===

When James leads him into his flat there’s an aroma coming from his kitchen area that’s enough to remind Robbie he does have an appetite after all.

“Lamb and red wine casserole,” his sergeant informs him. “Oh.” He’s looking half-apologetically at the six-pack of beer bottles in its cardboard carrier that Robbie had picked up on his way over. Robbie had assumed he was being asked over to order a takeaway and there’s a Belgian ale that he’s noticed James likes with most Asian dishes. But James nods at a bottle of wine that’s sitting open on his breakfast bar. “If you don’t mind, I think that’d go best—”

“Aye, you stick these in your fridge and enjoy them another time,” Robbie tells him.

James has a glass of the wine already on the go but once Robbie’s been supplied with one and has taken an appreciative taste, he guesses aloud that, “This wasn’t used in the casserole, was it?” It’s a pretty decent red.

“No, I just thought it’d go well with it,” James answers, crouching down and balancing his hands on his jean-clad thighs to peer through his glass oven door. “I went light on the rosemary in this, in case you’re not keen on that, and it’s rich enough overall so that it needs a more robust, fruitier red to complement it. And it’s done,” he says in satisfaction.

“But you never made that in the last half hour?” Robbie queries.

James is now manoeuvring a casserole dish out of the oven with pot holders. “It was a half day,” he explains. “I’ve been back a few hours already.”

Robbie settles at a high-backed stool at the breakfast bar and watches him as James rests the dish on a waiting trivet, removes the lid and then starts to ladle green beans from a saucepan on the hob onto two waiting plates. There are herby dumplings in that casserole dish, Robbie sees with appreciation. “You’ve made more than enough for two?” he observes, trying to work out at what stage this became something James had decided to share with him or whether Robbie really was just the casual afterthought he seems to be to his sergeant’s pleasurably domestic evening.

“I cook in bulk and freeze sometimes,” James tells him, bringing over their plates. His cheeks are suddenly flushed with the heat from the cooker, making him look endearingly overwarm in his hoodie and his jeans. Ah, he must like to cook to relax. Probably spent the afternoon getting back to himself after his unwanted week away, and it’s dead nice of him to invite Robbie over either way. Just the sort of meal Robbie most likes in the winter, too, especially on a frigid night like this. And he hasn’t had it homemade, as opposed to from the menu of a pub, in far too many years.

“Do you want to continue this interrogation of your dinner, sir, or perhaps try tasting it?” James suggests. He’s sat himself down opposite and is waiting, a smile playing around the corner of his lips.

Robbie shakes his head at him and picks up his fork. The generous chunks of meat are so tender that they’re almost falling apart. And overall—well, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that James can properly cook.

===

“I’d be over the limit,” Robbie says regretfully, after dinner, putting a hand out to cover his glass where it rests on the coffee table. Shame, really. It doesn’t look expensive but it is a very well-chosen wine.

James puts the bottle down and leans back again beside him, against the couch cushions. “You could stay here,” comes his voice, casually. “If you like.”

Robbie looks at him. James examines his television, which is showing a documentary tracking the coming of the monsoon rains to different countries across the world.

Then he slides his eyes sideways to meet Robbie’s silent study of him.

“I mean—you’re still not sleeping, are you? And I’ve been told before that I very specifically don’t have a boring voice that lulls people off, but apparently there’s something all the same about the information I impart…well, just if you wanted.” And he returns his attention to the screen.

And Robbie should put a stop to this. He should ask his sergeant what the hell they think they’re doing contemplating doing this again.

Except—except that James has asked him over and it wasn’t actually much of an idea he’d had about the case, which is still stymieing him just as much as Robbie. They haven’t even been talking about it much. So James mustn’t be feeling averse to a bit of company himself this evening either. Even if his boss is not the company James should be after, or having in his bed, for God’s sake, and Robbie surely shouldn’t be slipping further into taking up more of his time and—focus—like this when the job already consumes more than enough of both of those for James.

But it’s been bloody tiresome and oddly stressful, the quietness of this week, and it hasn’t lent itself to sleeping well. And now they’ve just been enjoying a pleasantly teasing conversation over dinner, and hasn’t Robbie felt the lack of someone whose shared sense of humour can surprise him into a lift of his spirits like James’s dry wit does. Ever since that phone conversation, he’s been straight-out regretting agreeing to James being sent off like that when he so clearly hadn’t wanted it, regardless of what Innocent had implied about how it might do him good. And he’s also uncomfortably aware that his own guilt may have pushed him into pushing James into it and just—confused his sergeant like that.

But James has returned with a certain air of casual purposefulness about him, so maybe the time away from the other stresses of the job has done him some good, after all, Robbie hopes. They seem to have cleared the air over it, without need for any further mention, and Robbie’s relieved enough about that in itself that he’s not about to let any more awkwardness get shoved between them by refusing the olive branch that this evening seems to be. He’s fairly sure that James shouldn’t be the one feeling he has to offer olive branches either.

And Robbie’s just plain weary.

The thought of lying beside James in a warm bed now and having the comfort of his company again in what could otherwise be the most wakeful long hours of the night—

He reaches for the wine bottle to top up his glass.

James slouches down further beside him with a sigh.

===

This bed is comfy. James is obviously also someone who makes up their bed with fresh sheets to come back to before he heads away anywhere. Robbie’s getting an insight into his small but telling domestic routines this evening, the comforts he allows himself. He finds he’s very glad that his sergeant takes the time to do right by himself sometimes.

Robbie’s been drifting pleasantly. Earlier on, when James had gone out for his last late-night smoke, he’d stood just outside those sliding doors into the small garden with his head tilted at an angle that made his neck ridiculously long. Cued in by that, Robbie had joined him, nursing his mug of tea, staying sensibly inside, until he’d realised that James was a few steps ahead of him, working out the pointer stars that led to—“There,” he’d said in satisfaction, nodding upwards. “Sirius…” And then he’d teased out one by one all the other stars that made up the outline of the elusive big dog, with the glowing end of his cigarette as an odd sort of pointer in his long fingers. And the constellation had suddenly emerged clearly again from its own background of other distracting stars that led your eye astray if you focused on them too much when you were trying to make out the shape of it properly.

“Hiding in plain sight,” Robbie had said in wry acknowledgement, once he’d got it and it seemed suddenly obvious once more. As long as you didn’t take your eye off it for it too long. The warmth of James’s living space and the evening they’d just spent was comfortably around him but the cold air had been slowly encroaching as he’d stood in the doorway. He’d been drawn forward while investigating James’s gestures at the sky overhead. “Get back in here before we freeze, now.” James had just grinned at him and taken his time, lounging against the wall, finishing his smoke, his eyes glancing upwards from time to time, and his thoughts lingering on who-knew-what old legends that those stars touch off in his ancient mind.

But he’s gone back to far more down to earth topics now, Robbie thinks, amused in the darkness.

He’s filling Robbie in on a few dryly-told anecdotes about the fellow coppers he’d encountered on this course.

And Robbie’s been privately coming to the conclusion, reading between the lines, that his sergeant has found certain parts of the past week both interesting and useful. Although—lying in bed beside Robbie—this sure as hell can’t have been the sort of thing they were teaching him or condoning there. But that’s James for you. He sits in a week of lectures, he listens, he probably absorbs all the material and produces perfectly accurate assignments in fairly effortless fashion…and then the stubborn bugger just proceeds in his own sweet way as if none of it could possibly apply to him.

Robbie shakes his head ruefully on the pillow, but it turns into a movement of frustration as the headlights of a passing car sweep across the ceiling and down the wall and a band of light briefly glares right through his closed lids. That keeps happening, and it’s getting bloody annoying.

“Try moving over here,” James suggests, as Robbie mutters a curse in the wake of the latest oblivious driver, and then the mattress dips as James gets out of the bed. “It’s the headlights hitting the mirror at an angle, you’re better off moving over to my side.”

“An’ what about you?” Robbie enquires, shifting over nevertheless into the space left by James, and finding further warmth.

“I’m used to it. It doesn’t bother me. And I sleep on either side of my bed.” And he’s suiting his actions to his words, resettling himself with every appearance of relaxed ease where Robbie had just been lying.

Robbie can’t quite imagine that. He’s always slept on the right side of any bed because Val had slept on the left. It had been such a long-engrained unquestioned habit that it had simply remained even after—well, when there was no need for him to choose a side any more. And the night they’d done this in Robbie’s flat James had obviously known which side of the bed to take from the belongings on Robbie’s bedside table. But this—it’s fine, this new arrangement. And when another car goes by and the headlights make a vanishing path across the ceiling and down the wall, it avoids Robbie and doesn’t seem to bother James, judging by the way his voice continues on, undisturbed, although starting to slow now.

And Robbie’s head is now settling deeper into a pillow that smells acutely like James—James, who must have showered after his afternoon of cooking because there’s that leafy scent again. That’s it, Robbie thinks. Monsoon rains. Whatever James uses, it puts Robbie in mind of the sudden sharp scent you used to get back in the British Virgin Islands in the moment of stillness before the torrential rain of a tropical storm swept in. Like the leaves of all that greenery lifted in advance just waiting, and that was the scent that carried to you as the humid air lifted too, giving you pause whenever you happened to be outside at that one moment.

There’s a moment of pause here in Oxford now as James’s voice peters out beside Robbie, and then he shifts, a hand coming out suddenly to rest on Robbie’s arm as James yields to sleep.

===

James can hardly head off exercising this morning, Robbie decides, looking at his still-sleeping sergeant. Be odd to. Robbie’s been awake for a little while, lying here in the satisfying quiet of an early Saturday morning, but now, as if sensing his reflected scrutiny, James, stretched on his side but turned towards him, starts to stir vaguely.

Robbie, lying on his back without any need to turn his head, watches James’s eyes start to blink open in that fiendish mirror.

“Morning,” says James without moving.

“What the actual hell is it with you and this thing, anyway? Do I even want to know why you have that there?” enquires Robbie dubiously.

“There when I moved in here,” James says, on a yawn.

“So you say,” says Robbie in the tone of patent disbelief that he usually reserves for suspects he’s aiming to get a reaction out of in an interrogation room.

“It was,” James insists, coming upright suddenly and swinging his legs over to sit on the edge of the bed. Ah, hell, he’s getting up already? It’s barely light yet. “And you get used to it. It makes the room a lot brighter, even on a fairly dull morning—”

“Why on earth anyone would want to wake up to be confronted with themselves, first thing in the morning, large as life an’ twice as ugly…”

“Oh, stop fishing for compliments,” James advises him. “I’m particularly fond of your rugged natural good looks in the morning, sir, before you embark upon your painstaking grooming routine.”

“Painstaking—”

And a hand comes back to ruffle Robbie’s hair—ruffle his hair!—before the cheeky sod who is his sergeant propels himself energetically upwards off the bed and heads across to pull open his wardrobe and contemplate the contents.

“You get up like some criminal rolling out of the car in a high-speed chase,” Robbie complains to his backview.

“Done much of that in your time, have you, sir?” James asks, and then stretches luxuriously, his back still to Robbie, the muscles in his shoulders suddenly prominent through the thin fitted cotton of his t-shirt, and the t-shirt riding upwards to expose an inch of his bare lower back above those cotton pyjama trousers he wears that hang low on his narrow hips.

Then he stills, his expression curious as he looks into the mirror mounted inside the wardrobe door—Christ, the wardrobe must come with that included, James would hardly have purchased another bloody mirror—it’s angling James’s reflection over to the monstrosity on the wall and back to Robbie on the bed. And if Robbie can see James’s expression, then what James has seen in his mirror is Robbie’s expression as he’s been watching his sergeant’s backview…

“It’s like a fancy outfitters in here,” Robbie grumbles at him to cover his sudden confusion. It is, too. All these angling mirrors remind him of the changing room in the place he hires a formal suit from when needs must.

“Mmm,” James says, non-committal. Then he turns back to face Robbie, having selected the casual clothes he was after. “I’ll go and get breakfast provisions,” he tells Robbie. “As soon as I’ve had a quick shower. Did you sleep okay?”

“I did, James. Thanks. But no hurry, is there?”

James seems to disagree if the pace he’s moving at is anything to go by. Robbie’s starting to feel bad now that his presence must be stopping his sergeant from heading out for his proper morning run. “Fancy an omelette?” James asks over his shoulder, and he pads barefoot towards the door without waiting for a response. “My local supermarket isn’t bad for fresh vegetables. May as well do them properly. Get a couple of your five-a-day in early, sir.”

Robbie, bemused, realises that he would quite fancy an omelette, come to think of it. His reflection on the opposite wall shakes his head back at him, equally unable to work out the cheery, energetic bugger that is James Hathaway of an early morning.

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



Robbie rubs his eyes, the glare from his computer screen beginning to seem a bit much. It’s been a long day to start the week with. There’d certainly been barely a chance for James to catch up on himself this morning after his week away. Their case has not only resurrected itself but taken a sharp turn for the worse.

The victim this morning had made a panicked emergency call, saying only that there had been an intruder with a robber’s mask in his house before he’d rung off abruptly, and when a patrol car had reached the scene he’d been found collapsed. Neither the coppers on the scene nor the paramedics shortly afterwards had been able to revive him. There’d seemed no obvious signs that he’d been attacked, but they’re waiting for Laura’s verdict now. Innocent has pointed out to both Robbie and a set-jawed James that this might not even be one of theirs but Robbie can feel it and from what he saw of the scene—nothing ransacked, nothing too obvious missing, lock on the back door forced open—he’s found nothing to contradict that yet.

It just doesn’t make much sense to him that the bastard they’ve been chasing would suddenly escalate like this… What they need from Laura now is the cause of death so they know exactly what they’re dealing with in terms of their perpetrator’s motives from here on in. And Robbie’s never been much use at this waiting part.

It doesn’t help much when Innocent materialises in the doorway, having made time amongst everything else to check in with James about how his course went. James looks rather surprised by that, and initially just provides the brief courteous answers that he assumes are all she wants before he realises she’s seeking proper feedback.

But it’s become evident to Robbie, as James gets drawn into what he’s saying in response to Innocent’s musingly-casual questions, which are actually shrewdly aimed at the material James would have covered—and James becomes rather animated, despite himself, telling her all about some new research study—that Robbie has been right in thinking that his sergeant has gained a fair bit out of this course in terms of his training. If James will accept that. Innocent has certainly grasped it too; she’s looking rather satisfied. Robbie sits, arrested in his own work, watching them both from behind his computer, knowing fine well what she’s thinking and finding it bloody hard to disagree with her. James would make a damn good Inspector. Much as that does tug at Robbie in ways that—it just shouldn’t. James would also make the sort of inspector who would be keenly aware, underneath it all, of every nuance of these ethical issues, and add to that his own personal moral code… and Robbie’s hand slides sideways off the computer mouse, unnoticed by either his chief super or his sergeant.

James would make the sort of inspector who would never agree to what Robbie had on Friday night, whatever his junior officer had suggested. Friday night in James’s own home had been different to Lincolnshire, when they’d sort of stumbled into things with James in that uncomfortable bed needing his sleep, or the time when James had had that headache. Friday night was James doing that for Robbie. And James may merrily dismiss any of these boundary issues applying to him and being there for his protection, whenever it doesn’t suit his purposes as sergeant, but if James was the one in the senior position, then Robbie knows, with the full force of an undeniable truth hitting home, James would never take advantage of a more junior officer offering something like that.

James would only have suggested that Robbie come into his bed like that if he were truly okay with it, though, wouldn’t he? Despite the way he’d then seemed uncomfortably rushed like that about waking up with Robbie the next morning. Whatever about his softhearted concern for his governor, he surely wouldn’t have let his quiet loyalty towards Robbie, and the way he almost seems to cleave towards him sometimes, sway him into putting Robbie’s needs above his own…

Innocent’s footsteps are receding down the corridor.

“D’you ever feel I’m taking advantage, like?” Robbie blurts out.

“Of what?” James asks, without looking up, having returned to rifling away at the case file, searching for something.

“Of—being your guv’nor, I suppose.” It sounds bloody daft, put that way, really. There’s nothing like voicing something aloud to see that how little truth there actually is in it, Robbie realises.

“Constantly,” James tells the file, scowling at it, displeased at the contents. And he draws another open file towards him instead.

“What?”

He glances up. “We’re sitting here, drinking very nice coffees fetched from the coffee place by me, as per usual despite the pouring rain—”

“Ah, have a word with yourself,” says Robbie, relieved. “That’s barely a drizzle. An’ you wanted your smoke.” Robbie had paid for the coffees, too; he’d reached for his wallet as they’d wound to a natural, if frustrated, end to their debate on their latest competing theories on their burglar now, and James had reached reflexively for his own pocket in response, checking for his cigarettes.

“I bow to your superior, if purely academic, knowledge of what the weather is doing, seeing as I’m the one sent out to brave the elements,” says James, leaning back and gesturing at Robbie with his pen now. “But to shed further light on your kind enquiry, sir, I’m also sitting here trying to extract some sense from these dull-as-ditchwater witness reports you delegated to me—and that was your actual description of them when you piled them into my unprotesting hands. And ‘witness’ is a misnomer, incidentally, when no-one has seen or heard anything of any apparent use.”

Robbie’s tasked him with going through all the interviews from the different burglaries now to see if there are any commonalities in what people who were in the vicinity at the time had noticed, that could provide a clue. And frankly, that’s because he reckons that if there’s anything there to find, then his analytical cleverclogs sergeant will be the one to find it. But James has never has taken too kindly to the more tedious tasks Robbie passes down to him, it’s true.

And,” James continues, animated. Christ, he’s got a fair few grievances at his fingertips, hasn’t he, Robbie reflects, fascinated by this opening of the floodgates. Then again, if Morse had ever asked Robbie the same question… “I was the designated driver for yesterday evening’s supposed pint. So it was a metaphorical pint instead of an actual one for me, yet you still mocked my particular choice of non-alcoholic beverage—”

“That was you paying daft money for a bottle of cold herbal tea with fizz added that I still can’t believe they sell in a proper pub—”

“That was a herbal vitamin drink. And thus you added insult to injury, while I was hampered by my lowly rank in mocking you back with the level of wit and creativity I would truly like to unleash on you. And I’ve been suppressing the urge all day to tell you that you just can’t wear that tie with that suit—seriously, sir. There’s a slight check pattern in the blue thread in the weave of the tie and there’s a pinstripe in your suit, you just—you can’t. But I can’t enlighten you about any of that and I have to suffer in silence due to your elevated rank, meaning I can’t express my opinions on any of these matters.”

“Must be very hard for you,” Robbie agrees, squinting down at his tie, slightly bemused.

“The suit you had on Monday and then the grey shirt with the blue undertone—that’s what would work with that tie,” James informs him, as an aside. And he returns his focus to those reports that he must be finding some commonalities in, judging from the notes he’s scrawled so far.

“I—right.” Monday? Which suit was he wearing on Monday, for God’s sake? And Robbie’s pretty sure his shirts don’t have any such things as undertones. He wouldn’t allow that.

James gives him a one-shouldered shrug, glancing up again, thoughtful. “I can provide some further examples to help you decide if you’ve been abusing your power over me—”

“You’re all right there,” Robbie says ruefully, and then reaches for his phone as a text alert goes off. “Laura’s got preliminary findings,” he tells his sergeant, getting to his feet.

And I’m ordered about with no regard whatsoever as to whether I’ve finished what I was previously instructed to do…” says his sergeant in response. Robbie is rapidly realising he may come to regret ever starting this line of enquiry. Although he also notices that James has risen the moment Robbie made a move to do so and is pulling on his coat already despite the continued running commentary. “And I doubt it’ll be up to me to decide whether or not I want to drive…” Oh, Christ.

It’s going to be a long journey over to the Radcliffe.

===

When Laura had said preliminary, it’s now become very apparent that she meant preliminary, based on initial examination and her access to Mr Acton’s medical records, and she’s not about to be swayed from that stance, regardless of Robbie’s best instincts just chafing at the bit, wanting proper confirmation now.

“I’m not prepared to confirm anything before the post-mortem, and you know full well you don’t really want me to, Robbie. I can tell you that natural causes may have been involved to some extent—he had medication for heart failure, there are signs that it had progressed further than had been suspected at his last cardio consultation, and the stress of the intruder…”

“Anything else?” Robbie asks, thoughtful, frowning out the window of the small pathology office, as he takes in the implications of this.

There’s a telling silence. When he focuses on her again, Laura is leaning back against the desk. She’s pretty unimpressed at this lack of recognition that she’s already given them information well ahead of what she certainly considers is her very reasonable timeframe. “Yes,” she says briefly. “That tie does not go with that suit.”

There’s a noise of surprised delight from James.

“You texted her and put her up to that,” Robbie accuses him suspiciously. Although, despite the smirk now breaking out on James’s features as he irritatingly says nothing to confirm or deny that, for all of his smartarsery earlier he’s not really been in a likely mood after today’s events for it to occur to him to collude with Laura. What’s with everyone and the sudden fashion advice? The combination can’t be that bad…

“You’re the one who gave me that tie,” Robbie protests, in injured tones. “Said it’d match me eyes.” Laura had, too, at Christmas.

James, making a long arm past Robbie to pick up Laura’s summary from where it lies on the surface of the desk beside her, misjudges things and drops it, letting it flutter to the floor. Robbie frowns at him as he bends to pick it up.

“I really didn’t mean for you to abuse it by putting it in that sort of setting,” Laura tells him. “You’ll be getting socks from me next year now.”

“Can’t go too far wrong with those,” James says smoothly to her, straightening up. Robbie glances at him. But James has dropped his head to examine the report.

Laura raises her eyebrows at Robbie in a measuring look that feels curiously like some sort of a prompt.

===

“She used to do that to Morse, you know,” Robbie says, setting down his pint glass. “Insult his choice of clothes when he annoyed her. Which was more often than not. Or his haircut.”

James looks on the verge of saying something at that, eyeing Robbie sideways.

“Go on, then,” Robbie tells him, “I don’t bite. And no, Laura’s not annoyed with me. But we did call a halt to—well, I told her what I told you. About being stuck in the past. Got to thinking about it and it didn’t seem quite fair for me to be reacting like that over her Franco showing up if I wasn’t ready myself to—anyway, I told her that and she saw what I was getting at. An’ she told me that last time round they only broke up when he took a job back in Germany when he was offered a very good opportunity—anyway, I wouldn’t be too surprised, from something else she’s said more recently, if things weren’t developing pretty well again now on that front—he’s properly back in Oxford now.”

James has just been gazing at him throughout this. Fair enough, he hadn’t actually asked and Robbie’s sudden need to explain all that to James, to make it clear how things finally stand with Laura—it’s heating him under the collar now. It’s all true but the way that James is contemplating him in silence is making him feel much as he had when he’d awkwardly got through saying things to Laura. She hadn’t really looked surprised, more rueful if anything. She’d also, after initially turning her attention to focusing on her wine glass, looked up at him again, regarding him rather hard. “Okay, Robbie,” she’d said, not unkindly. “Understood.” And there had been a certain amount of relief to having it said, but the way she’d then continued to contemplate him across the pub table had also made him feel uncomfortable. Like she’d thought he somehow wasn’t telling her the whole truth.

And it’s ruddy impossible to know now what James is thinking of all this, but his look at Robbie is putting him in mind of that slightly annoyed discomfort again. He waits for James to say that he was only going to ask if you were ready for another, sir.

James takes a draw from his pint, his eyes not leaving Robbie’s face. Then he sets his glass down with a grimace. “D’you mean all of that was for nothing?” he enquires.

“Eh?”

“I think what you’ve always failed to take into account, sir, is that it completely spoilt my dinner that night, the ethical dilemma of what to do after I’d spotted them. I can’t cogitate on the moral and philosophical issues of the day and digest at the same time. And I’d really been looking forward to that lamb passanda.”

Robbie is surprised into a relieved enjoyment of this. “That’s why you’re so skinny, eh? Cause you think too much?”

“That’s it,” James agrees. “All those thorny theological dilemmas I had to wrestle with in the seminary nearly finished me off, I’ll have you know. That’s why I had to leave in the end.”

Robbie nods at him, musing. “Thought I heard something about a fish pie, all right,” he says. “It’s all coming together now.”

James rewards him with a half-smile for remembering, and then focuses on his almost-empty glass, turning it around slowly in half circles on the table. On his beermat, off his beermat. Soft thuds pausing rhythmically against the wood.  “Are things all right now, then?” he asks diffidently, stopping himself before Robbie can reach to touch a halt to that new level of fidgeting. “For you and for Dr Hobson?”

“Aye, they’re fine,” Robbie says truthfully. “We’ve been friends too many years to let any of that get in the way long-term. No hard feelings.”

James looks reflective. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” he says. “She did give you that tie—no, honestly, sir, it’ll work well worn with something else.”

Robbie rolls his eyes at him, getting that bit of a smile again in response. “An’ you reckon I owe you one lamb passanda then, is that what you’re sayin’?”

“And a chicken vindaloo. With extra spices. Plus they generally throw in a free cucumber raita…”

They seem to be heading back to Robbie’s. Robbie drains his glass, anticipating a takeaway, a couple more beers, getting their teeth into this case a bit more, because he just knows it’s getting to his sergeant underneath all this just as much as it is to him, and then James’s welcome company as he grows more relaxed into the late evening—and then he’s taken aback to realise, as he watches James, sitting there on the pub bench, contorting to draw on his coat, that what Robbie’s really picturing is a decent night’s sleep lying comfortably in bed with the relief of someone next to him in the dark again. And then when Robbie stirs in the night hearing the sound of James breathing quietly beside him. That’s what he wants—

“Sir?”

—Well, he’ll just have to make sure that James goes home at the end of the night, then. Unless he can find an excuse to make sure they go to James’s instead so Robbie’s the one who doesn’t stay.

Because they just can’t do this bed-sharing as a regular thing. Surely.

“Are we—” James has moved forward to the edge of the seat and he gestures at Robbie’s glass, querying if they’re staying for another.

Are we? Christ, Robbie has no idea how to complete that question. Never mind the answer.  

===

James pauses in his frustrated rereading of the witness statements in one of those files spread across his desk and points his pen over at Robbie. Robbie stops what he’s doing, effectively put on hold. He’s glad enough of the break at this stage of the day.

Yesterday evening hadn’t been quite as relaxed as he’d anticipated, very decent takeaway notwithstanding.

There’d been that half-uncomfortable awareness that when it got to a certain stage of the night he’d have to kick James out.

Not that he hasn’t sent him on his way before without James seeming to turn a hair but—just feels different doing that now after Friday, that’s probably what it was. And the need that that’s created to re-establish proper boundaries, to put it in sodding seminar-speak. Probably that’s what had created that discomfort for Robbie when he’d teasingly told his sergeant to head off home now or he’d meet himself coming back—and it’d felt like James had given him an odd sort of a look.

And then, true to form, Robbie hadn’t slept well.

“Fair weather friends, James says, leaning back in his seat, his eyes unfocused, but aimed over Robbie’s shoulder. Robbie gives him his full attention now and waits. James slowly focuses his gaze back on him. “When they were at the crime scene for Mr Acton yesterday afternoon, Truong spotted a window-cleaner who was working in the area and she went to take a statement from him—you know, what he might’ve seen that might turn out to matter…”

“Aye, he could’ve had a bird’s eye view of the comings and goings,” Robbie acknowledges.

“Well—yes. But that’s not it. He said that any clients on Mr Acton’s street are only fair weather customers, so he wouldn’t have been over there on a February morning.”

“And?”

James turns his pen over and over on his desk, thinking.

“But that’s not what it means—that’s not how you describe people who don’t use your services in winter. That’s just taking it far too literally. If you’re a fair weather customer you’d only employ someone at times when things are going well for you—”

“Aye, I’m familiar with fair weather fans jumpin’ on and off the bandwagon what with the fluctuating fortunes of Newcastle over recent years,” Robbie says dryly, “but don’t get too distracted by getting yourself wound up by that now.”

No, I mean—I don’t think it’s Truong,” says James frowning at his files. “Although she seems to have adopted Hooper’s overinclusive note-taking technique down to a T,” he mutters. “I think all these misused idioms—it’s something to do with this case. Remember the woman next door to the Travises’ and ‘good neighbours make good fences’?”

“That seems a bit—clutchin’ at straws, sergeant,” Robbie tells him, not quite willing to entertain this. “Things have come to a pretty pass if you find yourself tackling cases through policing folk’s grammar. Even in Oxford…”

James doesn’t rise to the bait. “Okay. But.” And he drops the pen and sits forward, suddenly energised, his fingers briefly flying across the keyboard. “Well, he’s given a false address,” he says after a moment, “the window-cleaner. It doesn’t exist—the house numbers on the street he claims to live on stop at twenty-two and he’s given twenty-four.”

“That could’ve been written down wrong,” Robbie says after a moment. James is looking at him though. “All right, Hooper’s witness was the first one then, go and talk to him, and to Truong, about  this window-cleaner who seems to share this terrible habit of misusing sayings and take another look at them, then—”

James is already on his feet. Robbie stays put and watches from his desk through the half-tilted blinds as his sergeant goes straight to Hooper’s desk and Hooper leans back slowly in his seat, listening. Robbie experiences a sudden qualm born of Hooper not really being the person he’d generally direct James to share his wilder theories with, although—well, up to James how much he wants to tell him, he reasons, and he may just ask for a physical description of both witnesses from Hooper and Truong rather than confide in Hooper—but, Robbie is surprised to see, James seems to have simply shared the whole idea because Hooper is getting up, looking distinctly interested, and they’re beckoning Truong over to consult her now.

When James comes back into the office a moment later he raises his eyebrows over at Robbie. Robbie suppresses an eyeroll at him, suddenly amused by this. “Aye, go on,” he says. Hooper is already approaching the office door, pulling on his coat.

It’s unfortunate that the pair of them only make it a few steps along the corridor before they encounter Innocent appearing around the corner. Robbie, catching sight of their sudden convergence hastily decides it may be prudent to join that particular gathering in the corridor.

It’s even more unfortunate that James feels the need to interrupt Robbie’s very brief explanation by elaborating on his misuse of idioms theory before it’s been properly explored. Innocent’s eyebrows climb towards her hairline, her expression an odd mixture of impressed and resigned. She looks even more quietly bemused to see James and Hooper backing each other up, arguing their case for this with enthusiasm. Hooper seems well taken with James’s idea and quite willing to acknowledge that there was “something a bit off” about the bloke he’d first interviewed. Innocent’s eyes seek and meet Robbie's discreetly, and she signals curious amusement at him.

Until Hooper says, as if suddenly struck by a thought, “Told you, it’s best not to summarise the information you get from witnesses too much, ma’am.”

Innocent blinks rapidly as she seems to be valiantly trying to suppress her thoughts on how all her efforts to get Hooper to take statements less like a singularly-minded court reporter have just received quite a blow. She looks much as James tends to when striving not to correct someone’s grammar, Robbie thinks, amused.

“Yes, well, a separate issue we can return to, Constable Hooper. For now, I believe you and Sergeant Hathaway here have a suspect to investigate further.”

It’s not long before Robbie gets a text that they’re bringing him in.

James and Hooper have found the bloke—one Gordon Harris—at home at the address where Hooper had first questioned him about whether he’d heard anything during that break-in in his neighbour’s flat. Back at the nick, Truong soon identifies him as their window-cleaner, too. Although it turns out to be all sorts of odd-job services that this bastard touts.

And in the way that these things tend to happen, now that that ruddy implausible clue has emerged, the rest of the puzzle starts to fall into place.

Each of the little misuses of sayings that had so irked his sergeant throughout this case are traceable back to the one bloke. Even the good neighbours making their good fences; Harris was the one who’d put up that fence next door to the Travises after persuading their neighbour in those terms into having it done—or pressuring her, Robbie now suspects from Harris’s hectoring style—and that was presumably how he’d also come in fateful contact with Mrs Travis, who must have turned down his services in a way that had pushed his hair-trigger sensitive buttons.

Because it turns out he’d had no more contact with his victims than them refusing his offered odd-job service in a way that had made him feel he was being talked down to. He flies into a cold seething fury at any supposed slight to his intelligence. Which is making things quite stressful for  Robbie’s sergeant in this interrogation, since James’s own barely-suppressed fury, now that they have this self-righteous deluded bastard in front of them, usually translates into cutting comments in these situations. But he’s having to rein that in under Robbie’s warning gaze, so they can get as much sense out of Harris as possible.

It’s proving bloody hard going.

No wonder they hadn’t been able to spot a pattern in these robberies. Harris would barely have registered on his victims’ radars when he’d showed up at their door in a brief interaction. Some of them probably wouldn’t be able to pick his face out of a line-up. The only pattern here is the bloody bizarre set of rules in this bloke’s head about when he feels slighted and his flashes of ugly vindication in taking vengeance.

Just as well for Morse he’d never met this bloke, Robbie reflects. Given Harris’s extreme reaction to being patronised.

He’s also hard to contain, answering questions in long and unnecessary detail, seemingly getting a kick out of letting the police into the supposed secrets of his methods. He’s bizarrely insisting on speaking slowly so they can “take further notes.”

He wouldn’t want to see the notes James is scrawling on the notepad resting on his thigh under the table.

Harris’s long and winding speeches are peppered with his use of phrases he’s clearly adopted in grandiose fashion without paying overly much attention to the meaning. He loftily informs them that he knows he’s overexclusive. As if it’s a form of snobbery, instead of polite shorthand for being bloody longwinded and liking the sound of his own voice. Inclusive, James writes on his notepad and underlines it, and his own frustration, heavily three times. Robbie just nods at him. But it’s one of the most bloody tiresome interviews Robbie has ever been privy to, too. And there are going to be problems ahead about Harris insisting he didn’t want a lawyer for all of this; it’ll be all too easy to argue he was of unsound mind when making his confessions after reading what he’s said.

Robbie is thankful for the message that Hooper has taken into evidence personal effects from each of the victims from Harris’s flat. Apart from the money, which Harris insists as referring to as ill-begotten gains, making a small muscle clench in James’s jaw, he’s kept each of the items taken as some sort of personal vengeance trophy. Ill-gotten, James scrawls in the corner of Robbie’s vision. Robbie puts a hand briefly on his arm to stop him without removing his gaze from Harris.

It should be a mildly diverting light relief, feeling James beside him itching to correct each misused term as it emerges from Harris’s mouth in his pedantic, condescending delivery. Robbie was briefly tempted to say aloud at one point: For the benefit of the tape, Sergeant Hathaway is now muttering indecipherable things under his breath and makin’ a heroic effort to suppress all his natural instincts cause he doesn’t want to land up having to clarify his utterances on the record later.

But Harris seems unmoved by the fact that he’s likely hastened Mr Acton’s death—just goes off into a rant about some slight he’d felt was contained in Mr Acton’s innocent refusal of his window-cleaning service.

Robbie knows full well why his sergeant is so wound up this time. He’s right with him on this one.

“One for the psychiatrists, perhaps, Robbie,” Innocent says in sympathetic ruefulness when he and James finally emerge, making Robbie wonder how long she’s been watching them. She’s always good about managing to put other things aside and hanging about, however late it is, when something like this comes to a head. “Laura Hobson stopped by while you were both in there. She has official confirmation that it was natural causes for Mr Acton’s death.”

“Right,” Robbie says, this coming as no real surprise to him.

“She also had a few words to say,” Innocent tells him, with her eyebrows at considering half-mast, “about how she wouldn’t have been yielding to pressure to push through on getting those results for you today, if she’d known the two of you were currently occupied in obtaining such a very full and frank confession?”

“Right,” Robbie agrees, not much chastened. They owe her a drink, he mentally translates Laura’s message she’s left for him there.

Innocent rolls her eyes at him. “But she was muttering in an interested way about personality disorders and she did mention that misuse of language constructions is one sign of a deterioration in mental health.”

“Aye. I think we got that one, ma’am.” The bloke is off his rocker. Robbie just doesn’t reckon he’s so off his rocker that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’d been out to cause fear and distress to bolster his own sense of importance, and that’s what he’d done. James doesn’t look much better than Robbie feels. He’s leaning his shoulder against the wall, looking fairly dispirited, too. As if the wall’s all that’s keeping him upright.

“Intents and purposes,” he says suddenly, making Robbie turn properly to look at him.

“Hathaway?” Innocent enquires.

“It’s to all intents and purposes,” mutters James to no-one in particular. “Not to all intensive purposes.”

Innocent permits a smile to lighten her expression. “Indeed, Sergeant,” she says soothingly. Then her glance flits over to Robbie. “Take him home, would you, Lewis? And get some sleep. Nothing for the two of you to do now that won’t keep until tomorrow.”

===

Robbie sincerely doubts that his chief superintendent meant him to interpret her instruction to take his sergeant home quite like this.

But when he’d approached the turn that would have put them undoubtedly on the way to James’s flat, James had straightened a little in the passenger seat, suddenly watchful.

Robbie had shot him a glance. “Nightcap?” he’d asked.

James had made a noise of casual assent, but he’d relaxed again.

And the nightcap had done it, funnily enough. Although not the actual drink. Robbie had pulled out the bottle of whiskey that he tends to keep for occasions and largely manages to resist the urge to dip into when it’s—well, just a rough night.

“You deserve that,” he’d told James’s surprised look, setting a glass in front of him. “Cracking a case based on your pernicketiness about other folk’s use of English…”

James had tried to suppress a smile. Then he’d stood there in Robbie’s kitchen, holding the glass cupped on the palm of his hand, contemplating the amber depths. “If I drink this…” he’d said. Robbie had poured him a good measure.

“You can kip here if you want,” Robbie had said, pouring his own glass, not feeling the need to look at his sergeant.

And then—well, it’d have seemed an odd sort of artificial boundary to put in place now, wouldn’t it, to banish him to the couch again. It wouldn’t—solve anything—doing that, somehow.

And really, what’s the harm? Robbie asks himself now, shifting his head more towards James’s voice in the darkness. Then he hastily quells that thought before a voice in his head that sounds remarkably like Innocent’s or some stray ruddy course facilitator can furnish a few immediate and eloquent answers. And what would Robbie’s defence be? I’m just soothing me sergeant the best way I know how after he’s had to listen to the English language being misused in ways that seemed to pain his ears, by an utter bastard I couldn’t let him release his true opinions on...

No harm, Robbie tells himself, firmly, as his sergeant shifts slightly beside him in response to Robbie’s movement, and then continues on with what he’s saying, with that deep voice segueing from one topic to the next one it touches off.

He seems to have his guards down now. He’s slowly coming down off the case. And he’s drifting into mumbling about things fairly unfiltered, in the way he does, giving an insight into the amount of stuff that dances around his head. He genuinely seems to enjoy having free rein to natter on about whatever takes his fancy. Like one of those late-night radio DJs sending his thoughts out into the night, but with an intimate, teasing midnight voice that makes you feel like he’s there right beside you, talking only to you in the dark…which, of course, James is…

No harm at all, Robbie thinks helplessly.

Continue to Chapter Five of Five