Sometimes, when he can’t sleep, Jason thinks about a different sort of life. A life he might have had if neither of them turned up to Nigel’s audition, if maybe he’d just bumped into Howard in one of the clubs they both danced in. He knows from the way he’d been drawn to Howard from that first day that the same would’ve happened if they’d met somewhere else. Inevitably, they would have blundered their way through a few pre-courtship years, probably filled with a bit of jealousy and pretending not to care as much as they did, because they are both so bloody good at denying the obvious.
And then, somehow, some way, they would’ve got it together properly. And in this alternate universe in Jason’s head, they aren’t famous, so it wouldn’t matter who they were dating, except maybe to their families and possibly that would be a bit rocky, with all the siblings they have between them both, but everything would work out in the end because it’s just a daydream and daydreams can be as happy as anything.
Eventually they’d settle down together, maybe adopt some kids and lead normal, unremarkable lives. It’s a little pathetic, actually, how much he wishes for a life like that some days.
Jason finds himself thinking about it a lot, once the tour ends and they all retreat to their individual lives. He’s not like the others, who all have side projects and families. He has yet to find anything to fill the breaks, and he outgrew his wanderlust somewhere in his thirties. He still enjoys travelling but some of the sheen has worn off, and travelling on his own doesn’t hold the same appeal it did when he was twenty-six and exhausted after years of never being left alone.
So it’s not a surprise to find himself at a loose end; he never feels more aimless than during the downtime between albums. It’s during these times that his sleep is the worst, when he lies awake for hours tormented by the thoughts running through his head, the what ifs and the somedays and the if onlys.
He’s not entirely sure how it happens, only that he goes to the shops because he’s out of milk and finds himself sitting in front of Howard’s house with no memory of the drive. Maybe he can blame sleep deprivation, and the magnetic pull he’s always felt towards Howard.
He’s not sure whether Howard is even home, but he supposes it doesn’t really matter. Howard’s never turned him away.
Howard isn’t crazy about surprises; he’s just not good at dealing with them. Grace and Lola are probably the only two surprises in his life that have panned out, and that’s mostly because they both have mums who knocked some sense into Howard in those early days.
Then again, Jason showing up on his doorstep out of the blue, looking lost and a little too thin, isn’t exactly a bad surprise. Jason has always managed to be the exception to Howard’s rules.
“The fuck are you doing here?” Howard asks even as he’s ushering Jay into the house.
“I don’t know.” Jason says, and he sounds so miserable that Howard feels it right in the middle of his own chest. He’s always been this way with Jay, felt his feelings as deeply as if they were his own, and if that’s not love, Howard doesn’t know what is.
“How ‘bout a cuppa? I think I’ve even got some of that awful stuff you like left.”
“Green tea isn’t awful,” Jason shoots back, the flicker of a smile on his face. It’s a start, at least, and Howard guides him to the kitchen at the back of the house. Jason drops into a chair, and Howard notes the dark smudges under his eyes and the way his shoulders droop with exhaustion.
“Not sleeping again?” He ventures, and Jason nods. Howard flicks on the kettle and rummages through the cupboards but he must have binned the green tea. Jason is probably too tired to mind anyway.
“I wasn’t sure you’d be here.” Jason says when Howard sits opposite him, sliding one mug across the table.
“Got back yesterday. No more gigs for a few weeks.”
“How’re the girls?” Jason asks.
“Gracie’s growin’ up fast,” Howard grins. “Dreading those teenage years.”
“She’s a good girl, she’ll be all right.”
“It’s not her I’m worried about, it’s all them boys.” Howard laughs. “I remember how we were, and I’m terrified.”
“We were a bunch of idiots,” Jason grins, like that’s supposed to reassure Howard. “But then, so are most teenage boys.”
“I’m thinking of locking her away until she’s thirty-five. That oughta do it, right?”
“There are plenty of idiots in their thirties too.”
“So you’re saying it’s a lost cause?”
“What about Gary’s Dan? Would Gaz and Dawn agree to an arranged marriage, you reckon?”
Jason snorts into his tea, his smile making his eyes crinkle in the corners, which has been Howard’s goal all along. People always go on about Mark’s smiles, but Howard’s always had a soft spot for Jay’s. Jason’s are more rare, and all the more precious (to Howard, anyway) because of it.
“What’s keeping you awake this time?” Howard asks when they’ve finished their tea and moved from the kitchen to the back garden. It’s a lovely sunny day, although not very warm.
“You like to start with the impossible questions, you do.”
“Don’t mean to. How long has it been, then, since you’ve slept?”
“Got an hour or so last night.”
“Properly, I mean.”
“1989.” Jason shoots Howard a wry smirk. Howard’s not an idiot, he knows Jason is being deliberately evasive and he’s willing to let it slide for now. “How’s your Katie?”
“We split up a while ago.” Howard admits.
“You never said.”
Howard shrugs. “It was time. I think she figured out I’m a bit too old for her. And it’s all a bit much to take on. I’m all over the place with my girls and the band and DJing, and it got to be I was asking more than she could give.”
“No super injunctions this time, I hope.”
“Nah. It was all very civilised and grown-up.”
“First for you then,” Jason teases and Howard grins easily.
There are other reasons he and Katie didn’t work, but he doesn’t think Jason is ready to hear them. His relationship with Jay has always felt just a little bit precarious. He has to edge around the outside of it until he finds a gap in Jay’s defences that lets him in a little closer. He knows there are countless reasons why the other man is so deeply guarded, and Howard gets a rush of triumph every time he breaks through one of Jay’s walls.
“You’ll stay tonight?” Howard asks, half-expecting Jason to say no. He adds, “Don’t think I want you driving on an hour of sleep.”
“Yeah.” Jason nods.
The rain starts in a downpour that’s just loud enough to startle Jason. It’s half-two in the morning, and he already knows attempting to sleep is an exercise in futility tonight. He had every intention of sleeping (but then, he always does). He brushed his teeth, changed out of his jeans and jumper into the t-shirt and trackies Howard lent to him, crawled beneath the duvet of the guest bed and just…lay awake.
The rain is making him thirsty, so he rolls out of bed and walks quietly down the hall to the bathroom, bringing his empty mug with him. He tries to make as little noise as possible, but it’s and old house and he’s not sure which floorboards creak.
“Jay?” Howard asks on Jason’s way back to the guest room. He stops in front of Howard’s half-open door.
“Have you slept at all?” Howard asks.
It’s probably a bad idea, but the second Howard says it, Jason is stepping over the threshold into the room, setting his mug down on the bedside table and slipping into the spot next to Howard. He rolls onto his side to face Howard, so they’re almost nose-to-nose in the dark.
For a long time, Howard doesn’t say anything. Then he asks, “What do you do when you don’t sleep?”
“Lately, what would’ve happened if there never was a Take That.”
“We probably wouldn’t’ve met.”
“Dunno,” Jason shrugs. “What if I saw you doing backflips in a club and made you teach me?”
Howard grins, his teeth a flash of white in the dark room. “You were already famous then. My backflips would have to be something special for you to notice.”
“I would’ve noticed.”
“Okay. So I teach you how to backflip. Then what happens?”
“We live totally normal lives.”
“Sounds nice. Not sure I know what that is anymore, though.” Howard yawns.
“You should go back to sleep.”
Surprisingly, Jason drifts off for an hour or two, but he still wakes up before Howard, who has burrowed himself tightly against Jason’s side, his face tucked against Jason’s neck and his arm heavy and warm around Jason’s waist.
It almost doesn’t feel real; he’s imagined it so many times, just like this. He’s always been perfectly happy on his own (a complaint countless girlfriends have levelled at him), except, it seems, where Howard is concerned. He thinks he’d probably give up anything (everything) for Howard, and it scares him. In twenty-odd years, he’s never been sure exactly where they stand, always just toeing the line between just friends and something more.
Howard is stirring next to him, his beard tickling Jason’s neck, and it’s intimate in a way Jason would never have known how to imagine. For one irrational moment he wants to bolt, because he’s always been better at running from this than facing it head-on. Even half-asleep, Howard knows Jason too well, because his arm tightens around Jason’s middle and he grumbles something unintelligible.
Jason forces himself to relax despite his second of panic, to enjoy this moment because it will be over far too soon.
Howard expected to wake up alone. He’d assumed Jason would slip away while he slept, either back to the guest room or even back to his own house. Finding exactly the opposite is something of a surprise.
“Have you slept?” Howard asks, pulling back far enough to see Jason’s face.
Jason shrugs. “Couple hours, maybe.”
“Better than nothing.”
Howard sits up, leaning back against the headboard. Jason looks skinnier than normal in Howard’s too-big t-shirt, and there are still dark smudges beneath his eyes. Howard would never describe Jason as fragile, because he is strong and stubborn and determined, but today he looks as close to fragile as Jason can.
“What do you usually do, when this happens?” Howard asks. Jason’s said before it’s something inside himself that keeps him awake, not anything Howard can fix, although that doesn’t mean Howard won’t try.
Jason runs a hand over his face. “Wait it out. It comes and goes. Eventually I pass out from sheer exhaustion.”
“Surely there’s a better solution than that.”
Jason sighs. “None that’ve worked.”
Howard doesn’t know what to say to that, so instead he offers, “Breakfast?”
“Okay.” Jason agrees, looking relieved Howard’s giving up on the solve-Jay’s-insomnia track.
Howard scrambles eggs while Jason drops bread into the toaster and fixes a pot of coffee. There’s an art to cooking together, something they haven’t quite managed to achieve. They keep bumping into each other, reaching for the same drawer or moving towards the fridge at the same time.
“Your organisation system is totally illogical.” Jason frowns.
“That’s because I don’t have one.” Howard grins and opens the cupboard next to the one Jason is scowling at, where his somewhat meagre collection of mugs sits.
Jason shakes his head and takes two, stirring milk into his coffee and sugar into Howard’s.
They eat standing up at the counter, because Howard’s kitchen table is more of a catchall than a place to sit down and eat. He clears it off when either of the girls is with him and spends the following weeks trying to remember where he put his mail or his extra headphones or his German phone charger or his favourite jumper.
“D’you have to head back today?” Howard asks.
Jason shrugs. “I haven’t got plans.”
“You’re welcome here as long as you like.”
“Careful,” Jason flashes him a quick smile, “or you might never get rid of me.”
Howard wants to ask if that’s a promise.
Jason knows he probably shouldn’t take Howard up on his offer. It’s…risky, staying here, letting himself believe he can have things that he really can’t. But as the day slips away, he stays in his borrowed t-shirt and trackies and makes no attempt to start the drive home. By dinnertime, it’s obvious he’s staying another night, so they order takeaway and eat it on the sitting room floor with the telly on in the background, although neither of them is actually watching.
Eventually Howard switches the TV off and they sit talking, and Jason thinks he could probably talk to Howard for decades without running out of words. When Howard starts yawning Jason realises it’s half-one and he hauls Howard to his feet, ushering him towards the stairs.
He fully intends to attempt sleeping in the guest room again, but Howard clearly has other ideas, his hand closing around Jason’s wrist at the top of the stairs.
“You did manage to sleep some in my room.” As excuses go, it’s fairly flimsy, but Jason doesn’t protest, just follows Howard into his bedroom.
They start out curled up on opposite sides, backs to each other and decidedly not touching, which is so incredibly strange for them – Jason just isn’t used to awkwardness with Howard and this is definitely awkward. He isn’t remotely comfortable, and when he glances over his shoulder he can see from the rigid set of Howard’s spine that the other man isn’t either.
“This is stupid,” Jason huffs, turning over to face the middle of the bed. Howard does the same, laughing a little.
Howard shrugs a little, “Didn’t want to crowd you. You’re used to sleeping alone.”
“Doesn’t mean I like it,” Jason says, his tone more bitter than he actually feels. He doesn’t resent being single (really he enjoys the freedom) except maybe where Howard is concerned.
Wisely, Howard doesn’t press him about it, just wraps his arm around Jason’s waist and pulls him close enough that they’re sharing the same pillow.
“Sleep.” He instructs, and Jason closes his eyes obediently, although he doesn’t expect a different result from last night.
Howard wakes to an empty bed and through the gap in the curtains he can see the sky outside is still pitch black. The clock tells him it’s just three, which means it’s only been about an hour since he actually fell asleep. He knows better than to be disappointed, slipping away unnoticed has always been more Jay’s style than any kind of grand exit. Still, he won’t deny it stings a bit, and he can’t resist sliding out of bed and going off on a search in hopes Jay’s actually just lurking downstairs somewhere.
They collide on the stairs, Jason on his way up and Howard on his way down.
“You’re still here.” Howard might be embarrassed at how relieved he sounds, except this is Jason who knows him far too well for Howard to ever bother being embarrassed around him.
“I kept hearing something.” Jason admits, and holds up his mobile. “Turns out it was this bloody thing. It was beeping. Needs to be charged.”
“Do you have the charger with you?” Jason levels him with a what do you think sort of look and Howard laughs. “Right, stupid question. Mystery solved, now come back to bed.”
It’s not until they’re curled up comfortably again that Jason speaks.
“I wouldn’t do a runner on you.” He says quietly. “Can’t promise how long I’ll stay, but I won’t leave without saying goodbye.”
Howard can’t help wondering if Jason is talking just about this particular visit or in general. He wants to ask but the confession alone is more than he’d normally get out of Jason, and he hates what happens when he pushes too hard. He’s done it before and it always ends the same way, with Jason drifting back into his comfort zone, far away from Howard. Whenever he comes back (because he always has done, so far) Howard always feels like they’re starting from scratch. Occasionally it’s what they need, but mostly it’s just a pain in the arse to fight his way back inside all of Jason’s carefully constructed walls.
“I’ll be here. Sleep,” Jason whispers and Howard nods, letting his eyes drift closed.
It only takes a couple days for them to fall into a routine, and Jason feels his skin start to itch with the need to break the habit. He doesn’t know why he resists so hard when, theoretically, this is exactly what he wants. So he goes home, because he’s no good at thinking things through with Howard in any kind of close proximity.
After a week at Howard’s, his flat feels cold and empty and not home. Then again, it’s never felt like home; it’s why he can never stay there very long. Of course, the flat in Manchester isn’t any better, and technically Manchester is home. But his definition of home has changed over the years anyway. Home is a state of being, not a place.
He wonders if that’s why he never sleeps properly. He’s never reached the state of being that says sleep now you’re home safe and sound and he wonders if he hasn’t found it yet if he ever will.
He doesn’t phone Howard but he wants to, wants to press the phone tight to his ear every night when he crawls pointlessly into bed and pretend Howard’s sleepy voice is in the same room, not in that bedroom miles away where Jason, against all odds, did manage to sleep for a grand total of fourteen hours over six nights.
He knows that it will be down to him to bridge the distance between friendship and more. Howard has always been cautious with him, and maybe he thinks Jason doesn’t know, but he does. Jason doesn’t blame him, either. Any of the times they’ve come close, Jason has skittered away, putting distance between them again. He is afraid. It sounds so simple, with such an easy solution, but fear is never really simple, it’s irrational and complicated and frustrating.
He doesn’t know what scares him more, the idea of being with Howard, or the idea of being with Howard and fucking it up and losing what they have now, although he’s leaning towards the latter. For one thing, the band couldn’t survive another major rift, plus Jason feels physically ill at the thought of a life that doesn’t include Howard in some capacity.
He imagines having this conversation with Howard and knows the other man would probably sigh and shake his head and tell Jason to slow down and take things one step at a time, rather than thinking himself in circles and talking himself out of things. Which, if Jason were actually capable of that, he might even be able to sleep on a semi-regular basis.
The most frustrating thing, Jason thinks, is that for once the timing isn’t totally shit. After his own hang ups, timing has probably been one of their biggest obstacles, but now it’s actually good, or as close to good as they’re going to get. For once, they’re both single, in the same country, not packed into a studio with the rest of the boys, they aren’t about to set off on a tour and have people staring at them for thirty-five nights, and nobody’s pregnant.
Jason remembers Howard’s arms around him and the tickling scratch of his beard on Jason’s neck and thinks that, most importantly, the timing finally feels right, which is the most terrifying part of all.
Howard feels Jay’s absence like it’s a physical ache, which is new. His house is too quiet, his bed too big, and when Grace comes to stay she tells him he looks sad. After a week with Grace he flies to Germany to see Lola and he wishes, not for the first time, that he had his daughters with him all the time.
After Germany he’s back in his too-quiet house and he can’t help it. He dials Jason’s number, listens to the phone ring out and for Jay’s voicemail to kick in. He never programmed it to anything other than the default setting, so an automated voice tells Howard the person he’s calling can’t be reached and to leave a message after the beep.
“I miss you.” Howard tells Jason’s voicemail. “Come home soon. Please.”
There’s no taking it back now and he doesn’t think he would if he could. Patience can only get him so far, and as much as he respects Jason’s need for space and time, it’s no secret that Jay can get stuck in his own head and Howard knows him well enough to know sometimes he needs a little bit of a push. He just hopes he hasn’t pushed too hard.
Jason remembers in vivid detail Howard teaching him how to backflip, remembers watching Howard for hours, attempting to memorise the technique, simultaneously terrified and thrilled by the prospect. He’d expected it to come easily, the way dancing always had done. He’d been wrong; the fear had paralysed him, and regardless of momentum, he couldn’t get it right.
Howard’s voicemail does the same thing. The force of the words hits Jason square in the chest, taking the breath out of him. It is the clearest message Howard could possibly send him, and therefore the one that scares him the most. He doesn’t even want to run anymore, but he doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Relax. Breathe. It’s down to guts, not technique, Howard had told him over and over again until finally it clicked. Jason thinks he should’ve realised sooner that rule doesn’t apply to just backflips, and maybe that’s the lesson he should have learned twenty-odd years ago.
So he breathes, and he gathers as much courage as he can muster and he pulls on his favourite jumper and finds his car keys and he keeps breathing and he drives.
On the bright side, Jason looks more rested than the last time he turned up on Howard’s doorstep. He also looks totally wrecked, drowning in a threadbare jumper and worrying his bottom lip between this teeth and picking nervously at a frayed patch on his jeans. Howard wants to gather Jay up in his arms and never let him go but instead he ushers him into the kitchen and makes tea because it’s familiar and comforting and mindless.
Jason wraps his hands around the mug Howard gives him with a grateful smile. He breathes in and out slowly and says, “I love you.”
“Yeah,” Howard manages, his voice sounding dazed and a little strangled, and Jason presses his lips together like he’s trying not to laugh. “I mean. I love you too.”
“I know.” Jason nods.
“Yeah.” Howard says again and Jason does laugh this time, breaking the heavy tension between them. Howard grins and sits next to Jason on the couch. It seems so easy to wrap his arm around Jason’s shoulders so he does, and for a moment Jason is tense like he’s ready to bolt, but then he relaxes, melting against Howard’s side.
Jason leans forward and sets his mug down on the coffee table, twisting to look at Howard.
“Did you mean it?” He asks. “That message?”
“Yes.” He fidgets nervously, turning his mug round in circles in his hands. “Is that okay with you?”
Jason grins, and Howard’s heart starts beating a tattoo on the inside of his ribcage. “Yeah. It is.”
“Are you sure?” Howard can’t help asking. It feels impossible that they’re finally crossing this divide after so many years of missed opportunities and false starts.
Jason nods. “I am. Doesn’t mean I’m not fucking terrified though.”
“Me too,” Howard agrees because he really can’t think of anything scarier than finally getting what he’s wanted for so long. “But that’s okay.”
The corners of Jason’s mouth twitch up into a half-smile, “I know. I’ve only just worked that out. Figures you’d get there first.”
Howard laughs and sets his mug next to Jason’s on the table before turning to close the distance between them. He hesitates at the last second and Jason huffs out a little frustrated sigh before pressing his lips to Howard’s, hard and hungry, nothing cautious or tentative about it, not like any of the other times they’ve kissed over the years. They’d only been teasing each other then, just testing the boundaries of their relationship. They’ve stepped outside the boundary lines into foreign territory now, and Howard is certain he never wants to go back.
Jason is comfortable and content and almost asleep listening to the familiar patter of rain on the windowpane. Howard breathes steadily next to him, his arm thrown across Jason’s chest, warm and protective and possessive all at once, and he doesn’t even mind the last much, because he belongs here with Howard in a way that he’s never really belonged anywhere else.
It isn’t perfect, exactly, not like the life Jason used to imagine for them, but their relationship is enough without having to aspire towards perfection too. Jason still has itchy wandering days and Howard still sometimes tiptoes around him because old habits die hard for both of them. They get better at cooking together and worse at sleeping apart and they squabble over the poorly organised kitchen cupboards and Howard’s endless stacks of unopened mail and Jason’s books left everywhere. These are the details Jason never really thought to imagine, all the little things that make up a home together.
“Go to sleep,” Howard murmurs, apparently more awake than Jason thought. Jason smiles and presses a kiss to Howard’s forehead before letting his eyes drift closed.