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The Invitation

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The day after Ethan Croft’s murderers are arrested, Robbie gets to his desk and finds a small white envelope propped up against his keyboard. On the front, in a much neater version of James’s usual scratchy handwriting, is DI Lewis.

Robbie quirks an eyebrow as he looks across at his sergeant. “What’s this, then?”

James turns around slowly, and favours Robbie with an inscrutable look. “I don’t profess to be an expert in these matters, but I generally find opening envelopes to be a reliable means of determining the contents.”

Robbie picks up a discarded, half-scrunched post-it lying next to his phone; he scrunches it further and directs it at James’s head. “Yeah, and one of these days the envelope’ll have anthrax in it.”

James retrieves the post-it but – clearly deciding that revenge is not the most appropriate tactic with his boss – ostentatiously places it in the recycling bin. “I think I can assure you that this particular envelope does not contain anthrax, sir. I’m going for a smoke. Can I bring you back a coffee?”

He attempts to give James a two-pound coin for the coffee, but his sergeant ignores it and strides from the office, already reaching for his cigarettes.

Robbie rips the envelope open, finding inside a small, stiff white card, blank on the front. Inside, in very careful script – again, clearly James’s, but something that took time – is an invitation.

You are invited
To: Dinner and Entertainment
Where: Flat 2, Cornwall Close
When: Tonight, 7:30 pm
Dress: Informal

James’s flat. Robbie shakes his head, bemused. They normally have dinner together at least once a week, not including evenings when they share working dinners of takeaway or food snatched on the go. Their non-work meals are normally either pub food or takeaway at one or other of their flats. This, though, feels different.

“What’s this in aid of?” He waves the card at James twenty minutes later when the man himself comes back, coffees in hand.

“Can’t I invite my boss to dinner if I feel like it?” Ah, it’s like that. He’s being enigmatic.

“Might want to know what I’m letting meself in for, mightn’t I? Dinner and entertainment? Dress informal? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were up to something.”

James returns to his own desk. “I would hardly do that, sir, considering you and Dr Hobson are currently engaged in... something, would I?” He immediately picks up his phone, bringing conversation to an end.

Robbie stares at the invitation again, but after a few moments shakes himself and tries to turn his attention to the stack of reports on his desk. A few minutes later, though, he glances back at the invitation and then opens a new mail message.

To: James Hathaway
From: Robert Lewis
Subject: You didn’t say whether an RSVP is required

Unlike you not to cover all the angles. I’ll ignore your omission and RSVP anyway – yes.

A little later, James looks around again, a faint smile on his lips, and nods just once before turning back to his work.

____________________________________

Dress informal. What’s that supposed to mean, anyway? Robbie roots through his wardrobe, searching for inspiration. Suits are out, of course, but that’s three-quarters of the clothes he owns. He’s got the slacks and shirt he wore when they were undercover at the Gay Pride march a couple of years ago, but for obvious reasons that’s not a good idea.

Jeans? Val’d have his head if he wore jeans to go out to dinner – but this is dinner at James’s. It’s not the same as if he were taking Laura out. And James specified informal.

Jeans it is. And there’s that checked shirt Lyn sent him for Christmas that he’s never worn. She told him it would go well with his eyes, he remembers, and shakes his head. Since when has he been into coordinating his clothes with his eyes?

Ten minutes later, he’s ready to walk out the door, but abruptly detours to the kitchen and studies the few bottles on his wine-rack. He’s been invited to dinner, after all, and a good guest brings wine or flowers; that’s what Val always drilled into him, anyway. Not that he needed it; how many times did he sit in the car while Morse ran into a florist to pick up something for whatever woman he was seeing at the time?

Dismissing the wine in his kitchen as unlikely to find favour with James’s palate, he calculates which route will take him past an off-licence – and then promptly wonders why he’s planning to buy his sergeant wine. Yes, he’s been formally invited to dinner, but...

Robbie sighs. He really is hopelessly out of touch with whatever the rules are in social situations these days, between friends as much as lovers. Victoria Wine it is, and a decent bottle of something French.

____________________________________

As he follows James into the flat, Robbie is greeted with the aromas of garlic, onions and herbs cooking. It all smells delicious, and his mouth’s already beginning to water. Music is playing in the background; nothing he recognises, but it’s pleasant. James himself is also wearing jeans, though less skinny than he’s favoured in the past, and instead of layered T-shirts with sleeves of varying lengths he’s got on a dark shirt – purple, he realises after a second glance, not black – that looks like it could be silk. A bit expensive-looking for dress informal, Robbie can’t help thinking.

“You didn’t need to bring this, sir.” James takes the wine from him and sets it on the counter. “But thank you.”

“You’re providing dinner. Seems like the least I can do.” Robbie glances around, noting the breakfast bar set for the meal, preparation dishes stacked near the sink, and the oven apparently in use. “Anything I can do?”

“Just make yourself comfortable.” James is already pouring wine, a bottle of a very decent red that’s clearly been opened earlier. “Your timing’s good – we’ll be eating in about ten minutes.”

“You still haven’t said what all this is about.” Robbie accepts his wine – in a glass that’s definitely not from Ikea – and dismisses James’s sofa in favour of the breakfast bar, since James is apparently still working.

James nods towards something behind Robbie, in the living-room. He turns to look, and his gaze falls on James’s guitar, leaning against what’s obviously a stand built for that purpose. “What? Your guitar?”

“I wouldn’t have it back if it weren’t for you, sir. You saw the price on eBay, but it’s worth far more than that to me. I wanted to thank you properly, however inadequate.”

Robbie shakes his head, a little embarrassed. “That was more Lyn than me. She’s the one found it.”

“But you’re the one who talked to her about it. You said there had to be a website where that sort of expensive item would be sold.” James leans against the opposite counter, gaze holding Robbie’s.

Robbie shrugs. “Surprised you hadn’t thought of it yourself, really.”

“Me too, to be honest. I think I was just too distraught.”

That’s true; the only time he’s seen James remotely that upset was in those miserable few days after Will Evans committed suicide. And in the almost five years he’s known James, he’s not seen the lad as attached to anything – or anyone – as much as that guitar.

“I’m just glad we got it back for you,” Robbie says. “You didn’t need to do this, but I’m gonna enjoy it anyway.”

____________________________________

Dinner - boeuf bourguignon, with rice and green beans – is very good indeed. Robbie had been vaguely aware that James could cook, but this is beyond what he’d assumed to be his sergeant’s kitchen skills. “You might regret this,” he comments as he scrapes up the last bits of food on his plate.

“Why is that?”

“Now I know you can cook like this, I’ll be invitin’ meself to dinner regularly.”

James raises an eyebrow. “Not that you’d not be very welcome, but I was under the impression that your free time these days would be Dr Hobson’s.”

Laura again. James does seem to be going on about her a lot lately. “Oi! We arranged one date, which we had to cancel because of that murder. Don’t make more of it than it is.”

James’s eyes widen. “Oh?”

“Oh, nothing. An’ just so you know, Sergeant, if Laura and I do decide to see more of each other, we’d prefer to do it without comments from the peanut gallery.”

James’s lips twitch. “I shall endeavour to resist the temptation, sir. Even though I assure you that any such comments would have been intended to encourage, not to mock.”

“Yeah, right.” Robbie declines second helpings, tempting though the idea is, and starts to clear the plates, only to have them taken out of his hands by James, together with an instruction to make himself comfortable in the living-room.

James joins him two minutes later with the rest of the wine, settling next to him on the sofa. For a while, there’s no conversation, which is one of the things he’s always liked about being with James. Somehow, at times they seem to be completely comfortable together without talking, while at other times there’s no shortage of topics – or opportunities for mockery.

Tonight feels different, though. Maybe it’s the formal invitation, or the fact that James has clearly gone to a lot of trouble with everything: the food, the utensils and dishes, the wine, even the way he’s dressed. But Robbie finds himself feeling as if he should make an effort.

“Where did you learn to cook like that, anyway? It’s hardly student fare.”

James stretches his legs out, leaning his head back. “I like cooking. Don’t get to do it much – work gets in the way, and it doesn’t really make sense to go to a lot of trouble just for me, either. So, quite apart from wanting to thank you, it was nice to have a reason this evening.”

As he suspected, James doesn’t have anyone in his life, and more than likely hasn’t since Fiona McKendrick. Robbie had been fairly sure of that, but then he’d been pretty sure James wasn’t seeing anyone a year ago, and then discovered that he and McKendrick had been together.

It’s not good for the lad to be alone. It’s as much his fault as anything else, of course. If he didn’t take up so much of James’s time, what with work as well as invitations for a pint, or just assuming James will stay when he comes over to the flat with updates on a current case. Maybe he needs to stop some of those invitations, and at the same time encourage James to get more of a social life.

Not tonight, though. He takes a sip of the extremely good Burgundy, then tilts his head and looks at James. “Hang on, you said entertainment, didn’t you?”

James looks self-conscious for a moment, and then he glances away. “I thought... but I don’t know if you’d be interested.”

“In what?”

James turns his gaze to his guitar. “I thought I might play for you. If it’s something you’d like, of course. I’d understand if you didn’t.”

Robbie stills, unable to take his eyes off James. He feels as if he’s just been offered something intensely personal. Yes, he’s heard James play his guitar before, sort of – on his iPod, playing with the band. But he’s never seen him play live, and now that feels like a significant omission. James is his sergeant – his friend – and he’s never once gone to see him play.

He waits for James to face him again, and smiles at the bloke. “I’d like that. A lot.”

____________________________________

An hour later, it’s getting dark in the flat and Robbie’s still mesmerised by James’s talent. He knew his friend could play, and that his skills were highly unlikely to be limited to the kind of amateurish strumming that friends of his had practised in their youth when a gang of them had aspired to be a rock band.

But this... this is outstanding. He’s pretty sure that, had James pursued playing professionally, he could have been famous. Well, if he’d got the right breaks.

Over the past hour, James has jumped from classical pieces Robbie vaguely recognised but couldn’t quite name, though he thinks one might be Bach, to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix numbers, and even a few minutes of flamenco, with fingers flying across the strings so rapidly that Robbie’s eyes couldn’t follow their movement. It’s been an intense experience, both listening and watching, and it’s also been probably one of the greatest privileges he’s ever been granted.

James looks up and catches him watching. Just for a moment, he smiles, a genuine, happy smile of joy, and he sets the guitar down. “I was hoping I hadn’t put you to sleep.”

Robbie just shakes his head, unable to look away from James.

“What?” James is coming back to the sofa, and he’s frowning at Robbie.

“Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. Never is when you look at me like that, sir.”

“I’m just...” Robbie grimaces. “I’m useless when it comes to... What I mean is, that was just smashing. I’d no idea you could play so well. I’d pay good money to hear someone with your talent.”

James turns pink and he looks down at his fingers, twisting them a little in his lap. “Thank you.”

“Maybe you’d play for me again some time?” As he says it, Robbie remembers his promise to himself that he’d stop monopolising so much of James’s time. Damn it anyway.

“I’d love to, sir.” Again, that fleeting, genuine smile that’s so rare. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“I did. Very much.” He notices that James is stretching and massaging his fingers. “You didn’t overdo it, did you?”

A bit sheepishly, James says, “It’s been a while since I’ve played that much. And... it’s possible that I might have been... erm... showing off a bit with a couple of those pieces.”

“Idiot.” But Robbie’s tone and expression are fond. Without thinking what he’s doing, he reaches across and takes James’s hands between his and starts to massage the long fingers. After a few moments, he realises that James is staring at him, eyes wide and arrested, and with an expression that causes the kind of stirring in Robbie’s gut that he hasn’t felt in more years than he cares to remember.

The kind of stirring that... oh, bloody hell, he’s attracted to James? And James, it’s very clear, is attracted to him.

He could – should – drop James’s hands and break this mood. Excuse himself to go to the loo, and then say his goodnights. Except that he’s still rubbing James’s fingers and still looking straight at James, and James is moving closer and he’s not moving away, and James is dipping his head and bringing their lips together.

And he’s kissing James back, freeing one hand to wrap it around the back of James’s head to bring the lad closer. James tastes of garlic and rich red wine and nicotine, and he can’t get enough of it.

They have to come up for air, and James leans his forehead against Robbie’s for a moment before pulling back, eyes still wide. “Is this...? Sir?”

The sir should be pulling him back to sanity, but all Robbie can think of is that he wants to kiss James again, to find out whether this was just a fluke. “I don’t know, but if you’re gonna snog me like that you’d best call me Robbie.”

“I’d like nothing better, but–” James’s brow creases in concern. “I know you made clear that your relationship with Dr Hobson is none of my business, but I honestly don’t want to come between the two of you if she’s what you want.”

Laura. He never even considered... After a moment, he shakes his head. “Told you nothing’s happened. We’ve not – done anything like that.” He won’t tell James, but as much as he’s very fond of Laura he’s not even been tempted to.

Is he really doing this? With a bloke – with James? But there’s absolutely no doubt in his mind that he wants to. The only doubts have to do with their respective ages, and the fact that he’s James’s boss – and, while they’re both reasons that a sensible person should take as grounds to call a halt, he’s not feeling very sensible right now. Besides, age has never really been an issue between them, despite his occasional mocking of the lad for being so young, and work – well, work can sod it if there’s a problem. He’s not all that far from retirement, and James is getting close to being ready for promotion.

He’s wondering what he should do next when James reaches up and takes his face between his palms, fingers sliding into his hair, then leans in for another kiss, long and slow. Robbie wraps both arms around James, holding him tight as he returns the kiss.

“Robbie.” The name’s mumbled against his lips, and Robbie suddenly wants to hear it said properly.

He pulls back and looks at James. “Say that again.”

James’s eyes are hooded and his lips are bruised. “Robbie.” He reaches up and runs a finger down the side of Robbie’s face. “Robbie.” This time, the name’s little more than a whisper. And James’s eyes...

Abruptly, Robbie realises what he should have seen earlier. Earlier this evening, when James played for him: the intensity and sheer beauty of the music. The meal James went to such trouble over. The clearly expensive shirt he’s wearing, which is very flattering on his slim frame. And so many other clues: fleeting glances and smiles over the years, the way James frequently stands so close, and touches him, and his protectiveness in so many ways. The things he does for Robbie without being asked, and many times without acknowledgement.

This isn’t a passing fancy for James.

Which means it better bloody not be a passing fancy for Robbie either.

He reaches up and strokes his fingertips along James’s jawline. It’s not, is it? More than four years of knowing and growing ever more fond of this man. Spending more time with him than anyone else, and feeling more comfortable with him than with anyone since Val. And all the standing close and touching – well, it’s not been all James, has it?

It hasn’t been, and it isn’t.

“James.” He’s never said the man’s name like that before, as if its owner is precious to him, and James’s eyes widen again. Robbie pulls him closer and reaches up for another kiss.

____________________________________

Later, James raises his head from where it’s resting on Robbie’s shoulder and he looks up with a grin. “If I’d known playing my guitar for you would elicit this reaction, I’d have done it long ago.”

Robbie reaches for James’s hand and strokes his long fingers again. “Might not be your playing. Maybe you put something in the casserole.”

“Maybe I did.” James reaches up to kiss him again. “Or maybe you’ve really fancied me all along.”

“Yeah, I looked for your guitar because I was secretly in love with you,” Robbie retorts dryly. “How could I have missed it?”

“Just shows that you need me,” James points out. “You did once say that together we make a halfway-decent detective.”

“Oi.” But the protest’s half-hearted. “Just for that, you’re making breakfast in the morning.”

James looks at him, blinks, and then as Robbie’s meaning sinks in, smiles. “It will be my pleasure.”