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Coffee Break

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The buzzer goes off at half nine. He’s talking to Grace-Marie on Skype; she’s in a little models’ apartment somewhere in Italy, still has the thick dark makeup from her morning photoshoot circled around her eyes, and the resolution on the video is poor enough that it makes her look distressingly like the monster from a Japanese horror film. Her face squinches up in a laugh. “Pizza for breakfast?”

“It’s probably someone collecting for charity,” he says, after he tries and fails to figure out the French for ‘fundraiser’. Maria’s out-- Saturday mornings are her running group and her book club-- and Bill’s asleep, so it’s up to him to answer.

“Probably,” she agrees. “I can wait while you go see. But, if you take more than five minutes, I’m going to the shower,” she adds, pointing ruefully at her face. “This stuff is like clay.”

“Thanks.” Merci. His accent is terrible, he knows, because he’s been told, repeatedly. Something to do with the tone-deaf thing, he’s bad at inflection. Grace-Marie is sweet, she never mentions it, just waves her fingers and blows him a kiss as he scrambles up out of his chair.

He hurries from the computer desk over to the front door in his sock-feet-- not fast enough because the buzzer goes again. Fuck. He hopes it doesn’t wake Bill; the match had gone well last night, and the celebrations after even more so. Bill wasn’t cleared to play yet, but he was allowed to drink again, and from the stories the team had been cheerfully shouting to him when he’d gone to pick Bill up, he’d apparently done his best to match the entire team drink for drink. He’d only gotten Bill home and into bed at two.

He looks out the peephole and sees the top of a hat, which isn’t helpful, and a battered rucksack, which doesn’t really read as someone collecting donations, so he opens the door.


“Hullo!” the man under the hat gives him a beaming smile, the kind that’s usually reserved for people who know who the hell one another is, and Horatio says--

“...hello?” again without thinking and then nearly smacks himself for being an idiot.

“You must be William’s roommate.” The r rolls like thunder; a strangely dramatic sound for a little grey-haired man in a cardigan and old mack, at odds with his warm, familiar smile.

“I-- William?”

“William Bush,” the visitor enunciates, making the B surprisingly hard. “William King Bush.” There’s some sort of Scots accent there, maybe, he couldn’t tell you more than that. He always has trouble with accents, and he’s still distracted by the way the man seems to expect him to know who he is.

“Bill. Yes. His roommate. His other roommate.”

“Naturally. I know Miss Mason of old,” the stranger says, and chuckles. “Is he in?”

“Bill, he-- who are you?”

“Jonathan Bush. He should be expecting me.”

“Bush.” That slips a few more cogs in Horatio’s brain, and he’s just managing to ask “Are you related, or--” when there are sleepy uneven steps behind him, Bill staggering out of his room still in his sleep shorts, because he managed to get his leg on but it looks like trousers were beyond him. Half his hair is sticking up, and there are deep red sleep lines on him on the same side, and he looks so adorable it’s almost painful.

His face lights up in a glowing, sleepy smile. “Papa! I thought it sounded like you!”

“William, my dear!”

Horatio stares; Bill lumbers over and picks the visitor up in a crushing hug.

“Come in, I guess?” Horatio says awkwardly, and closes the door behind the bearhug.

“This is my father,” Bill explains, still holding the man a few inches above the ground, because while Bill is actually surprisingly short considering the amount of big muscular presence he conveys, Jonathan Bush is shorter by at least two inches and could probably pass for shorter still. “Papa, this is ‘Aitch.”

“Hullo,” says Bill’s father, which Horatio can’t help noting at least makes them even for redundant greetings, and attempts to tip his battered hat, not very successfully, until Bill sets him gently down.

No sooner have his feet touched the floor than Bill is demanding, “Papa, why didn’t you ring ahead? I’d have been up.”

“I rang,” the elder Bush objects, and then-- “Didn’t I? William, did I ring?”

“You didn’t ring, Papa.”

“Oh no. you think that’s why your mother was so put out?”

“Probably, yeah,” Bill says gently.

“I meant to," his father says apologetically.

“Isn’t Aunt Dot here too? She usually reminds you.”

“Coming in tomorrow night; had some business in Liverpool. Lucie’s taking me to pick her up at the station.”

Horatio takes a small amount of pride in finally recognizing a name-- one of Bill’s sisters, one of this man’s daughters, and he’s caught up in the sudden surprise of Bill having a father again. He’s met Bill’s sisters, his mother, his maternal aunts and uncles, and had just accepted without question that a father wasn’t in the picture.

“Does Luce know that?” Bill asks, still gently, and H recognises his considerate voice. He’s heard it mid-way through a few humiliating wobblers himself, and he’s not sure if it’s a relief or not to know that Bill’s apparently used to using it even when he’s not calming down his shambles of a roommate.

“Yes, yes, of course, look-- I have a text message.” Mr. Bush fetches a mobile from his jacket pocket and holds it out at Bill, who takes it and checks the conversation carefully before returning it with a satisfied nod.

“Take your coat off, Papa. I’m going to go get some trousers, make yourself at home. ‘Aitch-- would you mind putting the kettle on?”

Horatio nods, still up against the front door, and squeezes by Mr. Bush while he’s wriggling out of his mack and finding a hook for his hat. He fills the kettle and plugs it in, and turns back to find Mr. Bush peering at him with a friendly, patient smile. He remembers Grace-Marie suddenly, and jerks his gaze to the clock above the microwave-- she’ll be gone and in the shower. He feels awful. That was horribly rude of him, but so is ignoring Bill’s father when he’s standing there waiting.

“So, ‘H’, was it,” Mr. Bush says politely. “What does that stand for?”

“Ah,” Horatio says, reaching for the closest tea tin. It’s one of Bill’s favourites; hopefully his father will like it too. “I really just prefer ‘Aitch.”

“Oh, there’s no need for that,” Mr Bush says, tutting reassuringly. “I’m sure you have a perfectly lovely name, it’s can’t be as bad as all that--” his phone buzzes in his hand and he glances down-- “but you know, H is one of my favourite letters, it’s so lovely to meet an H. H, where are you from?”

“He’s a city boooy,” Bill choruses teasingly, coming into the kitchen still pulling on a shirt. He flashes a quick look at Horatio’s face to make sure he understands it’s loving teasing. “Straight to us from London town, isn’t that right, ‘Aitch? Come to our thriving coastal metropolis for gainful employment.”

He taps his father on the shoulder, and Mr. Bush leans away in an easy movement so Bill can slip around him. It’s simple and nothing and adorable, and Horatio is right back there, neck-deep in the surprise of Bill having a father.

Horatio stands there like an idiot, and Bill takes the tea from him, shooing him out of the kitchen with a gentle hip bump. It’s comforting in its way, and Horatio is sure Bill knows that, because he smiles encouragingly when Horatio looks at him to make sure.

Mr. Bush follows Horatio out into the livingroom, as calm as Horatio isn’t. Horatio grasps wildly for something to say, gesturing at the overstuffed chair in the livingroom that only company tends to use and dropping down onto the settee. “What do you do, Mr. Bush?”

“Oh this and that,” Mr. Bush said, making himself comfortable in the chair. “Going wherever the winds takes me.”

“Papa’s a photographer,” Bill says from the kitchen. “He travels everywhere, finding trouble to get into. You two should get along.”

Horatio can feel his ears heat up, and it only gets worse when Bill adds, coming into the living room balancing two mugs of tea, “‘Aitch is our best programmer at work, Papa.”

He hands one of the mugs off to his father-- who’s busy looking suitably impressed by Horatio’s nonexistent credentials and accepts his tea with a “Thank you, my dear”-- then hands the second mug to Horatio while he sits down in his usual spot, beside him. Their legs bump, and Bill’s fingers touch the inside of Horatio’s wrist for a slow, reassuring second when he takes his mug back.

“Left yours on the counter,” Bills says, his eyes twinkling. “Wasn’t sure if it would be lemon or two sugars this morning.”

Horatio hesitates, mouth stuck halfway open in an ever-lengthening “aah--”

“Oh ‘Aitch, I’m only taking the piss.” Bill’s eyes crinkle up, his whole face smiling, and Horatio’s heart bottoms out a little because god Bill is wonderful. “Go get your coffee, you have to be dying. Take the Mazda.”

“Coffee? In this town?” Mr. Bush asks, with an invested interest that’s not completely disguised by how casually he’s trying to speak. Horatio feels the first pang of true empathy with the man.

“Over at the garage,” Bill says. “Ben and Ozzy? They renovated. Got a little espresso stand. Oz makes the coffee, apparently it’s dreadful.”

“Awful,” Horatio agrees miserably, when Mr. Bush looks to him. “Not even from a machine. He makes the espresso in a carafe with boiling water. Gives it to you that way.”

“And yet you drink it?” Mr. Bush sounds bewildered.

Horatio shrugs, embarrassed, feeling his neck heat up and hating himself. It’s not something he’s proud of, the coffee thing, but he really just needs coffee. He just needs it. “Keeps me going.”

“Strong lad.” Mr. Bush, surprisingly, does not seem to be taking the piss at all. He seems to understand.

Horatio’s stomach clenches-- he hates compliments, and he’s fairly certain that was one, and Mr. Bush doesn’t even know him. It’s almost like lying. He gets to his feet, trying not to slop Bill’s tea. His cheeks are burning. “Well, it hasn’t killed me yet,” he jokes terribly. He should never joke, what was he thinking. That probably just made it worse. “Would you like anything while I’m out?”

“A cup of this infamous brew, if you don’t mind,” Mr. Bush says, and gets up as well, reaching for his wallet. “This sounds like something that must be experienced.”’

“No, no,” Horatio protests. “I mean, yes. Of course, I’ll get you a cup. But I’ll get it. Please.” He flaps his hands, trying to convey how awful it would be if Mr. Bush handed him a fiver.

Mr. Bush doesn’t fight him on it, thank goodness, just smiles and sits back down. “Thank you, H. A latte, with skimmed milk if that’s available?”

“We have some here, Papa,” Bill says. “It’s semi-skimmed, but Ozzy doesn’t always have any.”

“He only carries whole? I suppose it is in a garage, can’t expect the full service--”

“Doesn’t always have milk, I mean. You get it like a flat black.”

“William, darling... you said it was an espresso stand. Perhaps young Mr. Styles doesn’t know what that means?”

“I know,” Horatio sighs. He can’t believe he’s going to be feeding Ozzy’s coffee to Bill’s father. Also, he still can’t entirely believe Bill has a father. A father whom he actually calls ‘Papa’ and who seems to have lost all the memos about pet names for girl children versus boy children. Bill’s family has always seemed sort of bizarrely nice, and Bill has always seemed remarkably good-hearted for a sports-playing business type, but this puts the surreal icing on the cake.

“Said it was dreadful,” Bill says cheerfully. “Still want one?”

Mr. Bush nods, a bit grimmly, and Horatio hurries over to the desktop by the window, taps out a quick apology in reply to Grace-Marie’s flashing Now that I have turned the entire water supply black, errands to do. Bisou o3o, and closes Skype. Then it’s to his room and into his jacket and trainers, and then he’s out the door with a tight smile and a jerky wave to Bill and his father. At least they should be able to talk while he’s gone, catch up. He can go for a walk once he’s dropped Mr. Bush’s coffee off, maybe a swim, and be gone for the rest of the morning and out of their hair. It’s really a lovely day for it, he won’t mind a bit.

“What a high-strung young man,” Papa says, after the door’s shut and they can hear Horatio going down the steps. “Is that really his real name? Someone named a child that? In cold blood, with malice aforethought?”

“Yes. I know,” Bill grins ruefully. He’d sent a text when he heard them talking about it-- the words Horatio Hornblower had seemed like sufficient explanation for Aitch’s comfort with his initials and discomfort with the topic of conversation. Papa had apparently thought so too.

“I’m amazed he’s made it this far. Adopted the alphabet as protective camouflage-- I thought it was just an affectation in your emails. I suppose you’re glad we didn’t name you Bernard, you’d have to go by ‘B’.”

“Well, I’m already Bill,” Bill says dryly, and his father looks appalled.

“Goodness me, I never even thought of that. Bill Bush. At least William’s a sensible name, your mother and I were much kinder to you.”

“And don’t forget, we live with Maria Mason,” Bill adds, because watching his papa’s kind, generous face turn aghast is always worth it.

“Oh dear. I appear to have slipped and landed in a CBBC programme.”

“The Awful Alphabet House,” Bill says, their little joke. “Maria said she’d knit it on team jumpers for us for Christmas. ‘Where letters are friendly and sleep deprivation is fun’. She’s not knitting that bit, too long. I think we might all get our letter though.”

“I see. Work is treating you horribly, I take it?”

“It’s sort of--” Bill breaks off, because his father hates poor working conditions, first world or third, and he doesn’t want to upset him with stories of Sawyer’s petty misdeeds and iron fist and slow spiral into genuine mismanagement. “It’s difficult right now.”

“Yes, you don’t talk about it much in your emails. I assumed you were trying to spare my sensibilities.”

"I know you don't like my job," Bill starts, a little pleading, and his father tuts.

"No, I don't. I don't like the way corporations use people and cast them off. I don't like the expendability of workers or the culture of gain above all else. And I don't like violent sport and drinking."

Oh crap. He's definitely heard about him being in hospital.

"But I love you, William King Bush, and I'm proud of you," his father finishes, gentler. He reaches over from the chair and pats Bill’s hand. "And I can see that you're dreadfully hungover and I won't talk your ear off about the flaws of the capitalist system today."

Bill drops his eyes and grins sheepishly. "I'm still not allowed to play. Doctor says I need another check-up in a week."

"I should say. This is your third concussion-- you're only twenty-six, why couldn't you and your sisters have taken up peaceful games? Bowls. Cricket."

"Rugby's fun, Papa. Lacrosse isn't but Gemma must have her reasons."

"Oh dear," he sighs, and smiles instead of looking angry. Bill's never seen his father really angry-- not at him, anyway. When he was a child sometimes there would be phonecalls or someone would visit the house who shouldn't, and his father's friendly face would cloud over, his cheerful voice would turn fierce and hard, his r's rolling sharp and cutting like the tines of a combine harvester-- his father was a little scary, those times, but even during the divorce and the months before it that side of him never turned on Bill or his sisters or his mum.

Bill knows his father's a little disappointed about the drinking and the head injuries, but also knows he really means it about being proud. He's never doubted it.

"If it makes you feel better, Maria's already had a yell at me about it."

"Miss Mason remains a sensible young woman of sound judgement." His father nods. "And your H?"

"Didn't yell at me. But he disapproved, very strongly."

"Good." That puts a period on it. "...He treats you well, this H?"

"" Bill's brain stalls out. Because he loves his father, his caring, trustworthy father, and his father obviously assumes-- correctly-- that he is shagging ‘Aitch, and wants to talk about it, and can they never talk about sex or his sexuality ever, because that is his Papa. “He’s my best mate,” his mouth spits out, words like water from a clogged tap while his brain spins. “I do-- I mean, we do-- it’s not-- We’re not getting married. He’s my flatmate. He’s my best mate,” he repeats, desperately.

“Best mates deserve to be treated well too,” his father says gently. “They have no less obligation to be kind to one another than lovers.”

Bill can’t help the dubious face he makes, and can’t help grinning after he does, because his father means that, too, earnestly and without a scrap of irony, and it’s sweet.

“Oh my poor dear,” his father says, and levers himself up from the chair, pulling Bill, still sitting, into a hug against his chest. He rubs his back soothingly. “Here it is, just gone ten, and I’m asking you to be an adult. Go shower, sweetheart, I’ll find something to fry up in your refrigerator.”


Bill’s busy stuffing a bacon sandwich in his face when Horatio comes back. His papa always makes the best bacon sandwiches, and there’s a plate of them waiting, because despite Papa’s opinions on many things, sometimes including bacon sandwiches, he loves Bill and wants him to be happy.

Horatio hesitates at the end of the entrance way-- Bill tries to smile around his mouthful, make him feel welcome. Horatio has his twitchy thing going in full force, is obviously miserable at the idea that he might be disturbing Bill and his papa, and is probably half a minute away from bolting to his beach.

“The coffee!” Papa says, swooping in with a plated bacon sandwich in one hand. “A fair trade, I think,” he says, offering the plate, and won’t let Horatio hand him the coffee without taking the sandwich. He adds milk from the fridge, peering dubiously down at his coffee, then at the milk bottle. “I’ve never seen coffee do that before,” he says, then before Bill can ask, “wish me luck,” and takes a slip.

His papa has always had a remarkable poker face when he’s wanted to, and a bit of a flair for the dramatic the rest of the time. Even so, Bill is pretty sure he isn’t making his one eye water like that on purpose.

“Mm,” Papa says, swallowing convulsively. He presses his lips together thoughtfully. “Rather thick, isn’t it?” he says conversationally, then shudders and fumbles out and grabs his tea, left on the counter from before and probably gone cold, and swallows it all down. “Good lord, that is dreadful. What does it he do it? The poor coffee.”

‘Aitch nods seriously. "It doesn't get any better after the first sip."

His father digests that warning, and then resolutely swallows the rest of the coffee with a familiar convulsive shudder-- Horatio’s shoulders do just that same thing, and then do a moment later when he bravely shotguns a drink himself.

“Gives you a new appreciation for life, doesn’t it?” Papa says, after he’s run his tongue around his teeth and stopped looking horrified.

“Lets you know you can survive anything,” ‘Aitch agrees bleakly, and takes another drink.

It must be foul stuff, absolutely dreadful, because Horatio complains about it almost every morning, and they go through what’s become their routine in the breakroom, but as terrible as it is, it does seem to work some sort of magic. At least on ‘Aitch. His papa’s just resolutely gargling tap water, but colour is coming into ‘Aitch’s cheeks, and some sparkle to those big dark eyes.

Papa spits his mouthful of water into the sink and rinses it away. “Blaah,” he says, glances at the plate Horatio’s still holding. “Eat, eat. I imagine the regular clientele must like it?”

“Um,” ‘Aitch says, and realises that Papa was talking about the coffee again about the same time Bill did. “Yes, I think so. I mean, I’ve seen other customers buy it.”

“It mostly goes to the dockyard,” Bill says.

“And I well remember your days of working there,” Papa says, nodding. “A tarry brew for a tarry crew, then.”

Bill sees Aitch’s curious look. “The summer before uni,” he says. “I needed a job. Go on, eat-- if you can’t, I will.”

Horatio smiles awkwardly, and Bill pats the settee cushion beside him; Horatio stumbles over and sinks down. They’ve all got their spots, and this is ‘Aitch’s; he seems to draw a little strength from it, because he puts his coffee and plate down on the coffee table then picks up half his sandwich, biting into it carefully.

“Mm--” he says, a little surprised. “Oh, that’s really good, Mr. Bush.”

“Yes, they are rather, aren’t they,” Papa says, pleased with himself. “I’ve always had a deft hand at bacon sandwiches. Very little else, mind you.”

“More than Aunt Dot can say,” Bill says, watching ‘Aitch nervously nibble at his half. He’s got a stomach as delicate as fine china; Bill’s surprised he’s managed more than two bites, with Papa watching him. “She was making curry once, out of a packet, nothing fancy-- burnt the rice black to the pot. My god it stank, the whole house just reeked for days, and in the middle of winter so it was freezing cold with the windows all open. We got pizza out of it though, that was all right.”

Papa’s mobile starts to buzz and jangle, and he goes chasing after it on the counter. “Hullo? Hullo?”

Bill tips his chin at the rest of ‘Aitch’s sandwich, says quietly: “You going to finish that?”

“But you’ve got your own.”

“Haven’t started those yet-- they keep better all together, and I still need grease,” he says, and ‘Aitch hands over the half-sandwich gratefully.

“It is really good,” he says, awkwardly. “I’m just not really hungry.”

Bill waves a hand, smiling reassuringly around the sandwich. “More for me,” he says, then, “drink your coffee.”

“That was your mother,” Papa says, loud enough that Bill starts paying attention to him again, instead of blocking out the mumbled phone conversation. “She’s ready for me now. You’re both coming for supper? I hate to come and go-- no, no, don’t get up.”

“Yeah,” Bill says, then looks at Horatio questioningly. “Yeah?” Horatio jerks his head. “Yes, we’ll be there. Should we bring Maria? Maybe you and ‘Aitch and the girls can play cards after, ‘Aitch is brilliant at poker.”

“Miss Mason is of course welcome,” Papa says, fetching his jacket and rucksack. “Cards sounds lovely, but don’t bring money, you know how your mother feels about that, and if Dot gets wind she missed a chance for winnings, we won’t hear the end of it.” He plops his hat on his head. “Pleasure to have met you, H. William, sweetheart. See you both at half five.”

He shuts the door and is gone-- a bit of a hurricane, but he always was, sweeping in and out of the house, the country, their daily lives. He never missed the important things, though, and Bill’s whole heart swells up like it had when he’d woken to the sound of Papa’s voice. He knows he’s smiling and probably looks daft, but he can’t help it and doesn’t really care.

“That was your father,” Horatio says, staring at the door. “You have a father-- I’d have thought I imagined it, but the sandwiches are still here.”

“Of course I have a father,” Bill laughs. “Everyone does. That one’s mine. Bit short-- passed that on, mind you, the girls all got Mum’s height-- but not bad luck all together, no.”

“You’ve never mentioned him. I never really thought about it. I guess I figured he was just--not there.”

Bill shrugs, taking a bite of sandwich. “He and Mum split when I was a kid. He was gone a lot-- still is. All over the world. We keep in touch though, when he’s not somewhere where there’s no phone or internet service. He usually stays with Aunt Dot or Aunt Mel when he’s not travelling, but he’ll always visit for a week or however long Mum will put up with guests.”

Aitch considers this, looking confused, but not the way people are usually confused by Bill’s dad, not the disapproving way his school coaches had looked on a father who thought his son needed hugs and nurturing and wouldn’t suffer from being called cutesy names, or the suspicious way other people take him because he must be a deadbeat, to have abandoned his family, even though that’s not how it happened at all. No, Aitch’s confusion is somewhere else entirely, several steps before that.

“Oh,” he finally says. “I wasn’t expecting him.”

“Nobody does,” Bill says sagely.

“I don’t have a father around either,” Aitch frowns. “I mean, I do; obviously I do, biologically, but he wasn’t very interested in parenthood and Mum wasn’t interested in marrying him anyway, and I never… really think about him. It was all Mum and Aunt Sharon. The odd… temporary, you know, but they were ‘Mum’s friends’ and they didn’t try to be parents. Friendly. But not parents.” He shakes his head. “Aunt Dot and Mel are your father’s sisters?”

“Aunt Mel, yes; Aunt Dot’s just an old friend.”

“Like. ‘Mum’s friends’ friends?”

“I don’t think so.” His mind rebels. No. No no no and thank you, Aunt Dot doesn’t have sex either. “I don’t know. More colleagues, I think. She looks after him. Knows useful things. She taught me how to hotwire a car when I was sixteen, in case I ever lost my keys.”

People sometimes look shocked when he tells them that, but Horatio just nods, clearly still thinking. His eyebrows have pulled down so low they’ve created a little wrinkle over his nose. It happens like that sometimes when he’s coding, concentrating really hard, mouth set, beautiful fingers flying across the keyboard. Long, beautiful fingers that are currently tying themselves in knots while he’s thinking, so Bill gently takes his hands-- asks with a quick glance if it’s okay-- and holds his fingers still between his palms.

“Who’s Aunt Sharon,” he asks, to keep ‘Aitch distracted. “Your mum’s sister?”

“No,” ‘Aitch says, “no, a friend.”

“One of “Mum’s friends”?” Bill asks, mostly because he’s curious and ‘Aitch doesn’t talk about his family or his childhood, and okay, a little bit because if ‘Aitch can traumatise him, he can traumatise ‘Aitch. Except ‘Aitch is absurdly well-adjusted when it comes to sex, and just frowns a little.

“Yes, but-- special. The others were only for a little while, you know, they’d be there for a few months, a year. She was always there. She didn’t always live with us, but she did sometimes. When we lived in Spain she could only visit, but that was only a year and a half, and Mum let me go visit her for a month. We stayed with her when we first moved to London, and she helped me do my bed like a rocketship. Mum thought it was a coffin, that was awful, until we put the fins on. She was just. She was Aunt Sharon.” He laughs, a little shy. “For years I thought everyone had an Aunt Sharon. She picked me up at school when I got really sick and Mum was at work. She was at my graduation; she taught me to ride my bike and to drive.”

“Ah,” says Bill, which is very mild, because he doesn’t want to put ‘Aitch on the spot by exclaiming “Eureka!”.

He’s such a neurotic sweetheart of a man. Since the beginning, Bill’s tried and failed to understand why the one thing Horatio isn’t nervous or upset about at all is sex, and how exactly relationships work for him-- he’s slept with half the rugby team and most of the gay-bi-or-curious men in town and is casually friends with all of them and not dating any of them and somehow this hasn’t caused any bad feelings. He sleeps with Bill more and he loves Bill wholeheartedly but they aren’t, as he tried to explain to his Papa, A Thing. Apparently this is all hereditary. A social custom from the Land of Hornblower.

He pictures a future where he’s Horatio’s Best Friend and not always living with him but always in touch, building rocketship beds with hypothetical children, fucking Horatio sometimes and loving him all the time and going his own way when that’s the way he goes. It’s actually astonishingly comforting. He imagines being called Uncle Bill.

“What?” Horatio asks, confused, probably because Bill’s beaming like a lunatic.

“Just. Ah.” He slips his fingers through Horatio’s, linking their hands. “I really like you. Do you know that?” Horatio looks miserable, and Bill uses their joined hands to knock on ‘Aitch’s nose. “No, I mean it, you’re my best mate.”

“Thank you,” Horatio says immediately. It’s his defense against anything resembling a compliment.

Bill tugs on their hands, and ‘Aitch lets him pull him into his arms, slumping back, ‘Aitch’s face smushed up against his shoulders. “Where’s Aunt Sharon now?”

“Kent. With Mum. They’ve got a place down there.” Horatio wiggles until he’s in a more comfortable position, until he’s sitting sideways across the settee and Bill’s lap. It feels fantastic, and is remarkably distracting, but no. They’re talking about their parents, and Parents and Sex With ‘Aitch are not topics Bill needs coming anywhere near each other, ever.

“No more big city life?”

‘Aitch shrugs. “They take trips. Prague, Florence. I went with them to Rhodes my first summer in uni. God, the coffee there was so good. Aunt Sharon and I drank it until I got sick.”

The smile comes back, big and daft, but Bill can’t help it, just peers up at ‘Aitch so he can have the full brunt of it because it’s all for ‘Aitch, anyway. If he ever becomes Uncle Bill, he’s going to take the hypothetical children somewhere with roller coasters.

“What is it?” ‘Aitch asks again, uncertain.

“Just a good morning. Papa liked you. He’ll want to get to know you better tonight. If he starts asking too many questions, ask him about the time he met the penguins. That should keep him busy for an hour.” And if ‘Aitch doesn’t ask, he just might himself, because it’s really one of Papa’s favourite stories, and listening to him tell is it half the fun. Papa has the best stories.

Horatio looks a bit confused, and a bit concerned. He often does.

“Don’t worry about it, really,” Bill says, although, come to think of it, that’s probably not the most comforting thing to say. “Papa’s-- he’s great. He’s really fantastic. He’s kind.”

Something about that makes ‘Aitch smile, that sweet shy one that always seems like it catches him by surprise, and Bill just has to tug him down and kiss him.

‘Aitch comes willingly, still smiling. “Yeah?” he says, when they’ve slowed to a stop, his mouth still moving against Bill’s.

“Yeah,” Bill says, and kisses him some more. It really is a good morning, just fantastic. His papa’s visiting, they won the match last night, he’s not even feeling that hungover anymore, and here’s ‘Aitch in his lap doing that chewing thing on his bottom lip that makes him wild.

They get roughly three seconds warning before Maria comes through the front door, her trainers pounding up the stairs outside, so his hand is out from the back of ‘Aitch’s pants when she reaches the living room, even if ‘Aitch is still sliding off his lap.

“Oh hell, not on the settee, I have to sit there too,” she says, by way of greeting. Then, sniffing: “Bacon?”

“Sandwiches,” Bill says. He jerks his chin at the pair on the coffee table. “Help yourself. Papa just got in. You’re invited to supper.”

“Cheers,” she says, and inhales a sandwich in about ten seconds. Her hair’s coming out of its tail, frizzy curls all about her head like a halo in an old painting, and her face is bright red. She tosses her bag over by her bedroom door, and collapses onto the far side of the settee.

“You stink,” Bill tells her.

“You too,” she says, cheerfully. “Did you sleep in the beer keg, or just bathe in it?”

“We won the match,” he says equally cheerfully. “15-9.”

“Why is it still ‘we’ when you weren’t playing?” she asks, then, harder, “and you weren’t playing, were you?”

“I wasn’t playing!” Bill says quickly. “Just the lads! I was just there to lend my support.”

“Good,” she says. “And you shouldn’t be playing for the rest of the season, if you ask me. You’re too soft in the head to do yourself another mischief, Bill Bush. Do you want the shower first or second?”

“Go ahead,” he says magnimoniously, and she pushes herself to her feet, ruffling Horatio’s hair on her way past. “Good morning, Horry, love. You’re more than this pillock deserves.”

“‘Morning, Maria,” Aitch mumbles. He’s blushing, almost as red as she is without as much cardio to excuse him. It’s adorable. And sort of sexy. Bill can feel that stupid smile coming back, and leans over to smack his lips loudly against ‘Aitch’s cheek. He’s had lots of mates, before. Still does. But he’s never had a best mate quite like ‘Aitch. It’s not the shagging at all, it’s a big gooey feeling he’s got about him.

No, they won’t ever be the type who settle down with two point five spoiled cats and adopt a child, not that kind of family, but he sort of imagines they’ll always be family all the same. Some shape of family between Bill’s and Aitch’s and family all the same.

“Not on the settee!” Maria shouts from the bathroom, and there’s the screechy sound of the water coming on before Bill can answer.

“I don’t think you’re a pillock,” Aitch says, seriously.

“You’re pretty all right yourself,” says Bill, and means ‘I think I love you.’