After the pub closes, it takes them twenty minutes to walk to their hotel, even though it's only a few streets away. It's not that they're so very drunk-well, maybe James is; Robbie isn't some green lad who can't hold his drink. He's walking, isn't he? Perhaps slowly, but it's a pleasant night to stroll. Nearly midnight, and the brutal heat of the day has dropped down to an agreeable 18 degrees.
They talk as they're strolling. Mostly, James talks. Robbie listens, amused, as the words flow over him. James, gob set to full speed with no brake or filter, is a very entertaining bloke.
When they get up to their room, they're both too tired to go to sleep immediately. James asks some questions about his governor's past, and Robbie finds himself telling some stories: life as a boy in Newcastle, early days in the police, some of the more peculiar cases he'd worked with Morse. James, sat on his bed, leans forward, elbows on knees and chin cradled in his hands.
Maybe James isn't the only one whose gob has no off switch tonight, because Robbie hears himself asking, "That poem you were reciting in Latin, what was it?"
James blinks. "Erm... it's by Catullus. Number 48. Hasn't got a title because they really didn't do that then. Mostly."
"Let's hear it, then."
James cocks his head to one side, staring across the room as if he's reading something written on the far wall.
"Mellitos oculos tuos, Roberte,
si quis me sinat usque basiare,
usque ad milia basiem trecenta
nec numquam videar satur futurus,
non si densior aridis aristis
sit nostrae seges osculationis."
"What's it mean?"
James frowns, concentrating deeply. "Erm.. this is just a rough translation...
"Juventius, if I were always allowed
to kiss your honey-sweet eyes,
I might kiss you three hundred
thousand times, and never be sated,
not even if my kisses were more numerous
than the harvest's ripe ears of wheat."
"Very romantic. Juventus? Like the football club? Was that his... lover?" Robbie steers away from 'girlfriend' at the last moment. Mustn't make assumptions.
"Juven-ti-us. One of his lovers, yeah. Catullus is most famous for his poems to a woman named Clodia, though he called her by a nickname because she was married to a Consul." At Robbie's lifted brows, James explains, "Very important Roman politician."
"Can't say I think much of your poet, having an affair with a married woman." Though it's not that unusual. He remembers James telling him that Shelley was sent down from Oxford for that very thing. And wasn't Byron notorious for his affairs? It's not just long ago people in history, either. Human nature hasn't changed over the centuries. He's read about similar scandals in the papers, like whatisface the novelist who ran off with the wife of a prominent MP.
"Oh, it gets worse," James assures him. "They had nasty rows in public. When he died of unknown causes, she was widely suspected of having poisoned him."
The copper in Robbie is curious about this suspicious death and wants to ask more, but something is nagging at his mind. Something about this situation reminds him of a suspect interview. Shouldn't have had that last pint... me brain's foggy. He looks at James. His sergeant is looking in his general direction, but not meeting his eyes, and there's a stiffness to his shoulders that wasn't there before. He's trying to distract me. Why?"And who was Juventius? Another married lady?"
For a split second, he can see James consider a lie, then reject it. "A young man. No one knows anything about him, but given Roman cultural mores of the time, he would probably have been a slave or freedman."
"Now I knowI don't like your poet. Got no use for a man who takes advantage of someone under his authority."
James winces, and Robbie wants to kick himself for being a thoughtless old sod. Christ, he's gone and reminded the lad of that nasty mess at Crevecoeur. Even if Mortmaigne never touched him, there's got to be some ugly memories there. Only James doesn't look sickened, he looks... sad. Wistful. Robbie's detective instincts kick into overdrive. "Tell me that poem again. In Latin."
James blinks, but obediently he begins to recite, "Mellitos oculos tuos, Iuventi—"
"No, that's not right."
James raises his brows. "I didn't know you'd enrolled in a Latin course, sir."
"None of your cheek. I don't need to know Latin for this," Robbie says with growing certainty. "What you said just now is not what you said the first time. That lad's name sounds very close to Juventus, the Italian football club. If you'd said it the first time round, I'd have noticed. You said some other name. What was it?" He waits. Old coppers know the value of patience with a reluctant witness. Often it's silence that makes them want to talk.
"Mellitos oculos tuos, Roberte," James whispers to the threadbare rug under his feet.
Roberte. Robert? Christ Almighty! Robbie knows that he ought to be appalled, not that James has feelings for another man, but that Sergeant Hathaway has feelings for his governor. You're mistaken. It's not what you think. He's sozzled—doesn't know what he's saying. Doesn't mean what he's saying.Except that Robbie's gut is telling him something very different. "Hathaway?"
His sergeant looks up from the rug, and his face tells Robbie everything he needs to know. Everything he doesn't want to know. Bugger."James..."
"Sir, please. You don't have to say or do anything—just listen."
"You can't want—"
"Don't tell me what I can or can not want," James snaps. His face reddens, but he doesn't apologise, doesn't take back his impudent words. "This is not ancient Rome. I'm not a slave or a servant or a child. I'm a grown man and I know exactly what I want. I bloody well know I can't have it, but that doesn't change how I feel."
"And just what is it that you want?" Robbie asks, proud of how steady his voice is.
"I want to kiss you." Five words. Five simple words, spoken with quiet dignity and just a hint of defiance.
Five words. How can they make his heart pound and his breath quicken like this? He's felt less nervous while facing down an armed murderer, and much more certain of the right thing to do. "You've had a lot to drink tonight."
"I have. That's undoubtedly what made me reckless enough to tell you the truth. In vino veritas, but what I'm feeling didn't come out of a bottle, and it didn't start tonight." James falls silent. He doesn't look away.
Robbie's head is spinning, and he can't blame the beer. What the sodding hell is he going to do? Well, that's not exactly the question, because of course he's not going to do anything. The idea is daft. The real question is: how is he going to survive the drive back to Oxford tomorrow? Four hours in a car. Four hours of sitting not two feet away from James, knowing what his bagman is thinking... what he's wanting. Can they work together after this?
Course we can, he answers himself. They've got through more awkward times than this. If the Will McEwan case didn't break their partnership—talk about nasty public rows!—a bit of drunken foolishness won't do it. But we cleared the air, in public, and later, in private. This'll just always be there, lurking in the background. He studies James. The lad is still looking at him. Waiting. They need to clear the air, to get past this, but how in God's name are they— Oh. Bugger.He tries to dismiss the thought, but it's persistent. Just like James.
I could let him kiss me.
He's daft—no, he's barking. This breaks every principle of common sense and half a dozen regulations, besides. And you've always been a by-the-book copper, have you?the inner voice mocks. And if it would clear the air, stop the lad from wanting and wondering... show him that there's no appeal in snogging an aging, out-of-condition inspector. "All right, then," he says, surprised at his own calmness, "let's give it a go."
James is staring at him, looking as gobsmacked as if Robbie had just announced his intention to dance a jig. Naked. On The Broad. While singing a Verdi aria. In Italian. "What?"
"Go ahead and kiss me."
Now James gives him another look entirely: the deep, searching gaze he reserves for suspects. "You're humouring me."
"And if I am? It's an honest offer. It's not a trick or a trap." And, he promises himself, he won't mock the lad about it tomorrow. Much. If he's completely silent on the subject, James will wonder if he's holding back annoyance, or worse yet, contempt. On impulse, he stands up, crosses the space between the beds in two short strides, and sits down beside James. They're not quite touching, but he can feel the other man's body heat along his right arm and thigh. "Kiss me," he repeats.
Robbie isn't sure what he expected. A slow, hesitant approach? A fast, demanding snog? James looks at him—looks intohim—and smiles. Robbie could compile an entire catalogue of James Hathaway's smiles, from a quiet curve of the lips to a self-satisfied smirk to a rare full-on grin. This one is... Robbie doesn't know what to call it.
James lifts his right hand and brushes it against the side of Robbie's cheek. His touch is gentle, almost reverent. He keeps the hand in place as he leans forward and presses his mouth against Robbie's.
His first reaction is surprise. It ought to feel strange, kissing a man. Peculiar. Alien. Maybe it would feel that way if it were someone else, some random bloke in a pub... but this is James. Robbie knows every line and plane of that long, bony face, every lift of the brows, every blink and twitch, and every breath. And though he's never thought or wondered about kissing James, when their lips meet, it feels wonderfully familiar.
James tastes of faintly of scotch and smoke. His lips part slowly—an invitation? A challenge? A plea? Robbie leans into the kiss, wrapping his arms around James's back. He can feel the warmth of the other man's body melt into his own. A shiver runs through them, and someone's heart is thumping wildly. It's confusing and exhilarating and just bloody wonderful.
They pull away at the same time, breathless and blinking. "That was..." Robbie flounders for a word, then finishes with a helpless waggle of his widespread hands.
"Quite," James agrees. He looks slightly dazed.
Robbie feels as though someone's dropped the Radcliffe Camera on his head. The rational part of him is screaming that this was a stupid mistake and he shouldn't do anything to make it worse. The other part of him, the part that feels and reacts and only cares about the present moment, wants to do it again. Wants to do more. (The Honourable Member for Lower Robbie is rising to second the notion.)
James moves in for another go round. Robbie scrambles backwards, then stands and retreats to his own bed. It's a few feet between them; it's a thousand miles.
"But you liked it," James protests. "I know you liked it."
"I did. Won't deny that. But what I like isn't enough to justify—we can't—damn it, I'm your governor!"
James looks amused. "It was my idea," he points out. "Are you going to report me to Innocent for conduct unbecoming? Are you afraid that I'll report you?"
"Course not! Don't be ridiculous."
James leans forward. He looks very unlike his workday self: jacket and tie off, shirt unbuttoned far enough to expose the upper chest with its sparse dusting of pale golden hair. His face is flushed, and his forehead damp. "What are your specific concerns, sir?" he drawls, and there's just a hint of insolence in the last word. "Do you think that I plan to seduce you into giving me a better performance review? Or that you will misuse your authority to have your wicked way with me?"
"I could do."
"You also could take that hideous brass lamp and bash me over the head with it. One is as likely as the other."
Robbie bites back a protest that he's not gay or bisexual. It doesn't matter. The only label that matters is this: he is a man who wants to kiss James Hathaway. He knows that there are a dozen more reasons why he shouldn't; valid, logical reasons. He just can't think of any at the moment. He repeats his earlier question: "What do you want?"
"Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you." James ducks his head and runs restless fingers through his short hair.
It sounds like bloody Shakespeare. Probably is. "I can't—not tonight."
James raises his head He looks like he's on the verge of saying something that both of them will regret.
"I didn't say never," Robbie tells him gently. "Just not tonight. I do want you. Only I've got to sort out some things in me mind. You've been thinking about this for a while, you said?" James nods. "I've had less than an hour to get used to the notion. On top o' that, we've both had too much to drink and I'm tired." He looks his sergeant over, spotting the familiar tells of fatigue. "And so are you, even if you don't want to admit it." James's jaw tightens in a way that is also far too familiar. "Stay up all night, if you'd rather—it's your head that will be throbbing like a drum tomorrow. I'm going to bed."
He gets up, removes his pyjamas from beneath his pillow, and heads into the ensuite as usual. Right now he's glad that his habits are a bit old-fashioned. He doesn't think he could strip in front of James tonight. When he returns to the bedroom, James is on the bed, lying on top of the duvet, reading a paperback copy of The God of Small Things. He's wearing exactly what he wore the previous night: a pair of light blue cotton sleep shorts and no top. Why does he seem so much more... exposed tonight?
"You going to sleep or staying up?" Robbie asks. "I don't mind the light being on if you want to read for a bit."
"Let's have a goodnight kiss first?" James suggests, giving Robbie another one of thosesmiles.
The breath catches in Robbie's throat. "If I do that, we're neither of us going to get any sleep tonight," he says lightly."Maybe I'll wake you with one."
James promptly closes his book and sets it on the nightstand. "Good night, sir."
"Considering you've recited love poems to me and then snogged me senseless, I think you ought to call me Robbie."
"Good night, James." Robbie reaches over for the lamp switch and clicks it off, plunging the room into darkness. He closes his eyes, but his mind is churning with so many conflicting thoughts and desires that it's a long time before he finally falls asleep.
Robbie awakens at half eight; quite late for him, but it was a late night, after all. Sitting up, he sees that James is still out like a light. The other man is curled on his side, one hand tucked beneath his pillow. In sleep he looks even younger than he is. Like an old friend who feels no need to knock, guilt marches in and settles in Robbie's soul. I should tell him no. He can't really want me... shouldn't get himself mixed up with a tired old man. I should put a stop to this for his own good. And then James's voice echoes in his mind: "I'm a grown man and I know exactly what I want."
And God help him, Robbie knows what he wants, too. He studies James. Lean and fit, with an athlete's build—not like a rugby player, but more like a runner or gymnast. Or like one of those Greek statues in the Ashmolean, all long limbs and distant, thoughtful gazes.
What is he going to do? He remembers some books Mark used to read when he was young. 'Choose Your Adventure' or somesuch. If you follow the pirates, turn to page 115. If you run away, turn to page 27. The wrong decision would get you killed, but you could always start again and choose differently the next time. Pity the real world doesn't work like that.
Moving quietly, he brushes his teeth, then dresses in khaki trousers and a faded blue polo shirt. There's no need for a sodding suit and tie today. He packs his pyjamas and personal stuff in his battered old black duffel. What am I going to do? Only, that's the wrong question, isn't it? It should be what are we going to do? He's not the only one who needs to make decisions. If they go forward with this, if they start... something, it's James taking the greatest risk. He's got a long, successful career ahead of him. We've got to talk. The thought of having that conversation while driving home on the M6 makes his heart sink. The thought of waiting until they get back to Oxford is even worse.
An idea stirs in the back of his mind. It could work, though he'll need to make a phone call first. He needs to go out, any road. The hotel coffee is vile stuff, and James is going to want something for his headache. There's a Boots just down the street and a cafe around the corner. Having a plan of action eases some of his tension.
He returns from his errands feeling pleased with himself. So far, so good. He unlocks the door of their room, pushing it open with his elbow, since his other hand is holding James's coffee. If the lad isn't up by now, Robbie will have to wake him.
James is awake—mostly. He's sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed in jeans and a Glastonbury Festival t-shirt, and staring down at his bare feet as if he's not quite sure what he's supposed to do with them. The wrinkles in his forehead are probably from the 'morning after' headache, but the droop of his shoulders hints at something other than a hangover. He looks up sharply as Robbie enters. "Sir! You're back!"
"Robbie," Lewis reminds him. "Call me Robbie. Yeah, I'm back." What the hell is going on? Even if James woke the instant Robbie left the room, he wasn't gone long enough to make his partner worry. Twenty minutes, if that. Is he having second thoughts? A second glance at his partner, and Robbie dismisses the idea. That's not reluctance or embarrassment he sees in those wide blue eyes—it's fear, approaching panic, if he's any judge. He thinks I'm the one having second thoughts, an' now he's waiting for the consequences. Probably worried that I was avoiding him. Bugger.
"Morning, Sleeping Beauty," he says matter-of-factly. Without waiting for a response, he sets the coffee down on the nightstand. "Brought this for you. And this." He places a packet of paracetamol beside the coffee.
"Thank you," James mumbles, making no move to take either.
"I believe I promised to wake you with a kiss," Robbie continues in the same business-as-usual tone of voice. "That's been scuppered, so I reckon we'll have to go to Plan B."
"Plan B?" James echoes.
"Kiss you for no particular reason. Other than wanting to, I mean."
James stares at him, gobsmacked. "You want to kiss me?"
"You do remember last night? Recited poetry, then snogged me good and proper." Improper, more like. "Any of this ring a bell, Hathaway? You weren't thatdrunk." He pauses a beat. "Or are you dumping me?"
"Am I what?"
Good. He's got the lad's attention. It's not enough to be honest about their emotions; they've got to think. There's too much potential for disaster here to just blunder ahead like a pair of hormone-ridden teenagers.
He settles himself on the bed next to James, within reach but not crowding him. "I want you. I hope I made that clear last night, but I'll say it again. I want you. I think I've been wanting you for a good long while without me realising it." He takes a deep breath. "Whatever happens next, it's got to be your decision. Do you understand that?" He'd rather not spell it out. He's the senior officer. If they start a relationship and it's discovered, it will be considered abuse of authority no matter who made the first move, but for his own peace of mind, he needs to know that James is choosing him freely.
James gives him a steady, solemn gaze. "If you truly want me, if you're willing to take the risks... I haven't changed my mind. I won'tchange my mind." He says it like an oath—no, like a fact. Like a maths equation that will always come out to the same sum.
Robbie's heart is thumping twice as fast as normal. "Then I reckon the next step is to seal the deal with a kiss." He waits.
The hangover has not affected his partner's skill, nor his enthusiasm. James pounces on him—really, there's no other word—and seizes his mouth with a kiss so intense that Robbie wonders it doesn't set off the fire detector. When he finally gets his breath back, he shakes his head in amazement. "Umm... that'll do for a start."
"I'm sure I can improve with practice," James says, and those dangerously clever lips twitch at the corners. "And with your help and encouragement, of course."
"Smartarse," Robbie grumbles. "Right. We need to clear out of here by ten. Swallow those—" He points at the packet of paracetamol. "Then take your coffee and your bloody cigarettes outside." He's tolerant of his sergeant's habit, but he draws the line at sharing a smoking room. "When you come back, we'll head out. Unless you're wanting breakfast?" James shakes his head. "Didn't think so. We'll stop somewhere for an early lunch." Robbie glances down. "And don't forget your shoes, man."
James leans back in the passenger seat, eyes closed. The paracetamol helped, he says, but it's clear from his grimaces that the headache isn't completely gone. Within five minutes, he's in a light doze that lasts until shortly after Robbie exits the M6 at junction 30.
"Sir—Robbie, I believe you took the wrong turn-off. You want to stay on the M6 to return to Oxford."
"Nope. I'm exactly where I want to be." Robbie can see James thinking, calculating where the M61 leads.
"You're taking a detour to see your daughter in Manchester?"
"Though I'd love you to meet her, not this time, no."
"I don't understand."
"We're taking a bit of a side-trip. If you change your mind about having me up on charges, you can add kidnapping to the list," Robbie says cheerfully.
"Sir?" There no alarm in James's voice, only a great deal of confusion.
"We need to talk, man. Whatever comes of last night... we've got to talk it over, now that we're awake and sober."
"According to Herodotus, the ancient Persians were in the habit of discussing important matters while they were drunk. If they still agreed the next day when they were sober, they went ahead with the plan."
"Sounds like a sensible bunch. Only I don't expect that Oxford is the place to be having that particular conversation, do you?"
"I suppose not, but where are we going?"
"It's a surprise." Robbie is oddly pleased to have flustered the usually imperturbable Sergeant Hathaway. "You won the pub quiz for us, didn't you? Think of this as your secret star prize." He grins. "I can promise that it won't be Dusty Bin." His smile falters for a moment when he realises that James would have been all of ten years old when the quiz show '3-2-1' was last on the telly. What in God's name is he thinking of, taking up with someone so young? Robbie can't help thinking that heis Dusty Bin, the booby prize no one wants to take home.
"I shall endeavour to compose my soul in patience," James says in a familiar dry tone that is far more comforting than his actual words. "Besides, I already know the most important thing about our destination."
"Eh? What's that?"
"You'll be there." James's smile is a bright and glorious thing. Robbie realises that whatever else this journey may bring, in this moment, heis a grand prize winner.
- THE END -