Actions

Work Header

little shop around the corner

Work Text:

 

 


 

 

Working in customer service isn’t for everyone. There are good days and there are bad days and then there are days such as this where Thomas is tempted to put his hand through the shredder before his coffee is even gone. It’s not even half past ten yet, the store has barely opened, but already a gaggle of schoolchildren have burst through the doors, followed closely by their harried chaperones.

It’s a Saturday, which may very well explain this phenomenon. Everything happens on a Saturday as students are released into the general populace to wreak havoc on unsuspecting retail employees. Also, there’s just something about the weekend that makes people more likely to spend money on things they don’t need; Thomas is often part of this demographic but he’s careful not to abuse his employee discount and only ever orders things from the online catalogue.

Eventually and mercifully, a good chunk of the children depart in a whirlwind right before the lunch hour, leaving Thomas with disheveled hair, crayon streaks running down his left pant leg and short one jacket button. He’s on his hands and knees trying to locate the missing item when a shadow looms over him, effectively blocking the light. He almost hits his head under a shelf of toys when he pivots his gaze and glances upwards in an all too-sudden movement that leaves him feeling dizzy for half a second. When his eyes begin to focus, a bland smile freezes in place, the same one he’s perfected in the last ten years when customers are being difficult.

It’s him. It’s the American.

As he smiles back, showing a crooked tooth, Thomas gives him a quick once-over: jeans, leather jacket, the kind that’s made to seem distressed and adorned with several zippers with no real purpose other than aesthetic, a pair of suede ankle boots, scuffed up at the heels, but otherwise seemingly brand new. His hair is worn the same as usual: untended and avalanching the rest of his face. His face is unshaved, his jawline covered in patches of stubble.

The American holds out his hand. It’s a big hand, thick and meaty. Thomas doesn’t take it, not out of disrespect but because his hand has just touched the floor moments earlier. He pulls himself up to his full height, tucking his tie back in place, planting his feet steadily on the ground, assuming the gait befitting his position, and holds his smile.   

“Hello,” he says, tilting his body forward, clasping his hands behind his back. A curl of hair springs forward above one eyebrow like a comma, but he fights the urge to blow it back in place even as his left eye starts to twitch in the attempt.

“Welcome to Harrods,” Thomas manages smoothly.

The American, he smiles even wider in response.

*

One of the many perks of the job, besides the employee discount, is people-watching, or seeing who comes up the till asking for this and that. Thomas has worked long enough in retail to recognize people’s spending habits, isolating the first-time shoppers from the many tourists, from those just browsing. He can often tell when someone is in need of assistance usually because they get that dazed look in their eyes before proceeding to turn around in a half-circle like a confused dog about to chase its own tail, a cue Thomas takes before swooping in to inquire about their needs. The regulars barely faze him, dressed in designer garb and surrounded by assistants hefting heavy bags.

Every so often they get people like the American, who Thomas is unable to categorize solely because he only ever seems to materialize at such random intervals, usually whenever it’s least convenient. He always just happens to be right there, in the periphery, absorbed in something completely mundane, like sampling perfume cards or examining the frescoed ceilings with his head tilted back. No one else seems bothered by his presence except for Thomas, who notices him because he notices everything. He doesn’t even know if the man shops at the store; he’s certainly never seen him actually leave with a shopping bag.

Still, it’s a little disconcerting.

They get all kinds here at Harrods, but the motto always stays: omnia omnibus ubique. All things for all people, everywhere. As long as you don’t walk in wearing flip flops. Or wander in with no purpose whatsoever.

Thomas tries to put the entire thing out of his mind, and succeeds only part of the way.

*

People assume all kinds of things about Thomas and half the time they’re almost always wrong. The other half of the time they get it right: they see his penchant for neatness and dressing nicely and assume he’s highly organized almost to an obsessive degree, that his record collection must be catalogued alphabetically, and that he goes to bed listening to a machine that replicates soothing whale noises. This is true. But it’s also true that he enjoys watching terrible television and eating out of a tin can and doesn’t completely mind pineapple on pizza. He doesn’t always remember to hang his suit jacket in the closet after every wear; sometimes he ends up leaving it on the sofa when he toes his shoes off after work and slips into his robe and comfortable slippers. When he’s not working, he likes to go antiquing, and it’s his dream to one day fill a modest shop with toys of all kinds, preferably of similar stock as Harrods. He doesn’t always love children, but his chest fills up with a kind of satisfied joy when he’s able to help them find what they’re looking for, the latest toy or usually a gadget of some kind.

Part of Thomas’ routine when he gets home is to spend an hour on the treadmill, shakily reading self-help books in attempt to calm his mind. He lives alone in a flat twenty minutes from Harrods on a good day without traffic, in a neighbourhood he can barely afford and whose tenants mostly work for the government in some capacity or another. His life may not be brimming with joy all the time, but objectively speaking, he has nothing to complain about. His job pays the bills. He has more than enough money saved up should he ever decide to go on holiday; he’s the epitome of good health barring the mild peptic ulcer developed from years of working in customer service. And he lives, quietly.

All that is upended when The American barrels into his life without warning. Well, he doesn’t do that so much as saunter vaguely in Thomas’ direction, poking at things on the shelves without really buying anything. By all accounts, he has no right to be at Harrods, but it’s not illegal to loiter so Thomas has no grounds on which to have him escorted out. The American isn’t being a nuisance exactly, but his presence rankles Thomas in some indefinable way. They’ve barely said two words to each other; there’s no logical reason for the blind hate. Sometimes when they cross paths, the man even smiles at Thomas in recognition; Thomas smiles back, often with lips closed, keeping up appearances.

Still: fuck that guy. Thomas is going to make him buy something if it’s the last thing he’ll do. A scarf, a pair of shoes. Hand cream. Something.   

Thomas runs into him one day in the cosmetics department during one of his daily floor walks. The cosmetics department is his second favourite department, after the children’s department, on account of how immaculately dressed everyone is, stationed at every corner with their hair carefully arranged and their make up tasteful as per regulation; everything gleaming with newness, surfaces reflecting spots of light.

Thomas, opening a frosted bottle of neck cream, and showing a customer how to apply it correctly to her neck — “Your wrinkles will start to show after twenty five, the key is swift upward strokes from the base of your throat,” — sees him at the end of the counter, spinning a lipstick carousel, opening sample jars and massaging lotion onto the back of his hands. Their eyes catch briefly in one of the angled mirrors lining the counters, and there’s that smile again that crinkles the corners of the American’s eyes. Today he’s wearing a beanie that flattens his longish hair against the sides of his face, an army green jacket with a fleece lining, a messenger bag slung over one shoulder. He has terrible posture, standing with his shoulders curled inwards, but his height may very well be a factor; tall people often hunched their shoulders. Thomas knows this because he’s learned to stop doing it, having to set an example for the rest of the staff.

When Thomas finishes up with his customer and sends them on their way, he approaches the American purposefully, hovering from a safe distance before offering help.

“Excuse me, might I be of assistance?”

The man wipes cream from the back of his hand. “Hi,” he says, then blinks.

“Yes, hello,” says Thomas, jumping into a well-worn spiel he could very well record as a soundbite on account of how rote it is at this point. “Are you shopping for a loved one? A girlfriend? Your wife?”

“Neither,” the man says with a shrug of one shoulder, glancing at Thomas through the mirror again, then away. “I’m just browsing,” he hums.

Thomas follows the man to the end of the counter where the man is handed a card sprayed with perfume that he waves in the air before taking a sniff of. He makes a face before glancing up at Thomas. When he catches Thomas’ eye, holding Thomas’ gaze for a beat too long, he starts to smile. Then he hands Thomas the perfumed card and Thomas takes it without thinking, crumpling the card before pocketing it.

“See anything you like?” Thomas inquires.

The man raises an eyebrow and looks at Thomas for what feels like the first time in weeks since they first became aware of each other’s existence, there by the lifts when Thomas was on his way to lunch, muttering a half-hearted apology after they’d bumped shoulders while heading separate directions. Surreal, really, almost dream-like: the man touching his arm and asking if he was okay before bending down to pick up Thomas’ clipboard from the ground. And then smiling, just as he is now, that smile that says it knows  a secret the recipient isn’t privy to, driving Thomas up the wall with the anxiety of not-knowing.

“Sure,” the man says and his eyes flick downwards to Thomas’ name tag. “Thomas.”

The way that voice licks up Thomas’ ear sends an unwarranted prickle across Thomas’ skin, and his heart hovers uncertainly in his chest for a moment before resuming its beating. Strange, that, Thomas thinks. He almost cups his chest. “That’s me,” he says, feeling like he’s lost his footing though he can’t put his finger on why, or how. “Yes,” he says.

The man introduces himself as Adam though he doesn’t thrust a hand out to shake. Not that Thomas makes it a habit of shaking customers’ hands without first making sure he has a bottle of hand sanitizer close by. Not that he particularly wants to touch Adam’s hand, either, big as it is, probably big enough to envelop his completely with those thick fingers. Who knows where that hand has been, who knows.

Thomas comes back to himself with a jerky nod, straightens his back. “Do you actually intend to buy anything?” A pause. “Sir?” There: back to business. He mentally congratulates himself for that one.

“I told you,” Adam says, starting to walk backwards now, stopping abruptly just inches shy of knocking over a cart of shimmering eye-gel. “I’m just browsing.”

“Right,” Thomas mutters. “Right, right. Enjoy your shopping then. Sir.”

“It’s Adam,” Adam corrects him, glancing at Thomas over his shoulder. “And I’m just browsing.”

Thomas nods, watching as Adam walks away. He pockets his hands, aborting the movement when the action brings his hand in contact with the crumpled card laced with perfume. He brings it to his nose with an absentminded sniff.

It smells like lilacs.

*

Thomas doesn’t really mind desk work but if it were up to him, he’d spend all his time on the shop floor, checking up on staff and personally seeing to customers.

Desk work makes his back pain flare up and also makes him jittery with the amount of coffee he tends to imbibe on a given day.

Before long, he’s looking for ways to expend all the excess energy but distracting himself often proves futile when his workspace is half the size of a closet and home to a stress ball in the shape of a kidney as well as a number of work accolades that crowd the lopsided shelf above his desk. He hardly has any room to move. The view outside his window is dismal and uninspiring: a concrete wall the colour of pond water. It’s one of those days when Thomas decides to just call it a day and shut off his monitor after deleting a comma only to type it again five-seconds later. He fully intends to get a refill of his coffee, nothing more, but finds himself wandering onto the shop floor instead, specifically the children’s department, empty mug in hand, jacket completely unbuttoned. He nods at Carlos manning the counter who yawns, before surveying the room.

It’s a little bit after peak hour so there’s hardly anyone around: just staff loitering in the corners, furtively texting on their phones, a few kids here and there with their bored-looking parents. There’s nothing new on display on the shelves, mostly leftover stuff from last Christmas: items on clearance that no one really wants anymore, off-season collectibles that most often than not end up getting binned or donated to charity during the turnover to Spring. There’s quite a few of them, actually; kids these days tend to lose interest once the initial hype of The Next Brand New Thing wears off.

Thomas watches a little girl in pigtails make a face at a Harrods teddy bear dressed as Santa in red and white felt. The bear is 50% off and the last of its kind in the shop, its left eye-socket bugging out to a pitiful droop, its brown coat looking a little worse for wear like it’s not the first time it’s been dug out of storage. Frankly, Thomas is a bit embarrassed by its appearance and doesn’t know why anyone even bothered keeping it on the shelf when it’s a clear insult to Harrods quality. The little girl prodding at the bear with a finger probably thinks so too. She gives it an experimental poke, then another, and another. On the fourth attempt, the bear finally lists sideways before toppling face-first onto the floor where she leaves it summarily after being summoned by her mother.

Thomas wants to call out to her, to expound on the importance of giving toys with shabby appearances a second chance, a home, maybe even give her mother a stern talking-to, but he keeps his mouth shut instead. It’s been quite a day. He really only wanted to get his coffee refilled, and his head is starting to hurt from the beginnings of a migraine. He walks over to the stuffed bear, picking it up from the floor by its stomach, before dusting it with quick passes of his hand and returning it to its perch on the shelf. He’s always had a soft spot for the Harrods bears though he isn’t certain why when they all looked alike and were a prime example of why mass production is not an unmixed blessing; the only way to tell the bears apart are the silly outfits the shop decides to stuff them into; there’s one for almost every occasion, including, more recently, Lent.

Tourists bought them in bulk to give away as gifts. Depending on the season, they sold out or collected dust on the shelf until clearance day.

Thomas gives the bear a gentle squeeze before going on his way. He turns so abruptly that he almost collides into the person in front of him.  The person in front of him who isn’t supposed to be here, whose presence in the last few days Thomas has been remarkably free of. Until today.

For a second, Thomas thinks he’s hallucinating because there’s no reason for Adam to suddenly make an appearance like this. Stupid as it sounds, he’s thrown off balance seeing him in the children’s department, of all places, where he’s never been before in the last few times Thomas has run into him. This is not part of the routine. Adam is supposed to keep his distance and remain in the background doing whatever the hell he thinks he’s doing while leeching air-conditioning from the building or riding up and down the escalators.

Thomas thinks of the perfume card sitting on his bedside table where he’d left it this morning after turning the pockets of his trousers inside out. Today had been laundry day; he’d worn a different suit to work, jacket and all. He should remember to throw the card out; he hates litter.

Thomas wills himself to relax even though Adam is standing far too close for it to be comfortable. He’s wearing a coat over a white t-shirt and jeans, and for once he’s clean-shaven, his hair falling across his face in shaggy waves. He pushes his hair back from the rest of his face and the movement jolts something within Thomas — something about the way Adam’s shirt pulls taut against his chest, outlining the shape of his ribs.

“Hey,” Adam says, with the kind of familiarity that makes Thomas’ nose twitch.

“Mr — Adam,” Thomas says, pushing out the words through a forced smile that hurts his jaw. But he’s done this before; he’s a professional. He’s had worse. “You’re here. Browsing again, I presume?”

“You’d think that but no.” Adam lifts a soggy paper bag to eye-level, damp in patches with grease, his large hand covering the corner of a familiar five-star restaurant’s logo. “I bought an overpriced waffle from that French place downstairs. Re-shoo, or whatever. Cost me a fucking fortune. This better have gold in it.”

Thomas elects to ignore the expletive. Frankly, he’s not surprised Adam has a potty mouth in addition to…well, everything, really. He corrects him because he can’t quite help himself but Adam just gives him a funny look and butchers it again, saying Re-shoe instead of Richoux, making Thomas cringe openly.

Thomas offers Adam a bland smile. In response, Adam shrugs and waves him off, wholly disinterested in learning how to properly form words with his mouth.

“Did you enjoy yourself at least?” Thomas asks, deciding to drop the subject.

Adam rubs a palm over his jaw, shrugging one shoulder.

“I recommend the shepherd’s pie,” Thomas tells him, only because that’s the only thing on the menu he’s tried besides the assortment of teas. When he was still manning the counter over eight years ago, still wet around the ears and so eager to please, he’d vowed to sample everything if only to develop a more refined palate but the novelty wore off over time and now he just can’t be bothered. He’s always preferred simple meals anyway, a hearty stew to a seven course dinner.

“Yeah?” Adam says, then his gaze lands somewhere behind Thomas. Thomas follows his line of sight. The Bear. Right. He almost huffs. “Why is there a Christmas-themed bear in here when it’s in the middle of March?”

“It’s on clearance,” Thomas explains, feeling oddly defensive, patting the bear’s ear and smoothing down its little red shirt. He straightens its lapels. “I don’t suppose you want to give it a home?”

“I’m not really big on toys. I mean look at me, I’m in my thirties. I’m too old for teddy bears.”

“No nieces or nephews? Children?” Thomas presses.

“Not big on kids,” Adam laughs, and this time it sounds more genuine. “I don’t think they like me very much. ”

Thomas can maybe see why but he tries not to pass judgment too soon. He sighs. “Well, fiddlesticks.”

Adam blinks at him, looking like he wants to laugh. “What did you just say?”

“Nothing,” Thomas says, alarmed. “What.”

“No, no you said something.” Adam points at him with the same hand holding the paper bag. “You said fiddlesticks.”

“What?” Thomas coughs out a nervous laugh. “No, I didn’t. Don’t be silly.” He waves a hand to illustrate how absurd that is which is very.

“Yes, yes you did. You said fiddlesticks,” Adam insists.

“No,” Thomas denies hotly, with emphasis on the last syllable even though the world has only one “I said fiddle—dicks?”

“Now that’s even worse. That’s not even a real word.”

Silence.

“I didn’t even think people said fiddlesticks, really,” Adam continues.

“Well,” Thomas says. Adam has a point. He smooths his tie over his shirt. “Now you do.”

“Now I do,” Adam agrees. And he smiles.

*

The rest of his shift passes by without incident. Thomas settles into a rhythm, jogging his jittery leg under the desk while he ticks all the boxes of his mental to-do list. He gets everything done before he’s due to go home and can’t help one final visit to the shop floor. There’s no harm to it, and he’s required to put in a minimum of eight hours per day anyway, he might as well see how everyone is doing. Business has slowed to a lull now that it’s almost closing, just a few stragglers doing some last minute shopping before heading home.

Carlos is in the storage room, arms buried in a box he’s dived into. He glances up at Thomas as he approaches, giving him a wry little two fingered salute. Thomas barely resists the urge to tell him at ease. Sometimes he likes to think of himself as captain of a ship, upon whose shoulders rests the very future of Harrods. It’s a tall fantasy, but one he’s often indulged in when boredom gets the best on him. 

“By the way, someone left a gift for you Mr McG,” Carlos tells him with a lopsided smile, untucking the pen dangling from the back of his ear. “I was just about to have it sent to your office.” He jerks his head to the direction of the counter just outside the door. “Here, let me get it for you.”

“A gift?” Thomas has never received anything out of perfunctory work gifts usually from his supervising manager who metes out the same courtesy for those under his purview anyway. This is entirely unexpected, strange and altogether perplexing.

When Carlos emerges from behind the door carrying the Harrods Christmas bear by the scruff, Thomas almost scoffs until Carlos informs him whom it’s from. Adam, because of course who else could it be? Still, expecting this does nothing to lessen the shock. Thomas takes the bear from Carlos, cradling it in both hands while keeping it at an arm’s length like it might come to life and attack him at any moment. “Right,” he mutters, giving it a squeeze. “Okay.”

 “He said to give it to you,” Carlos continues without prompting, scratching his pen against a corner of his chin. “Popped round here a few hours ago, said you might wanna give it a home. Do you want it gift wrapped, sir?”

Thomas gives Carlos a steady look. “No, that would be highly unnecessary, thank you.” A beat. “Did he say anything else?”

Carlos shrugs one shoulder, already having lost interest in the conversation as he starts doing inventory, navigating the teetering shelves, clipboard in hand. 

Thomas has half the mind to leave the bear in his office among the tumult of paperwork sitting next to the bonsai plant he keeps worrying will wilt and a framed photogram of himself from 2011 being awarded most outstanding employee by the company CEO. In the end, he brings the bear home with him, tucking it under his coat as he elbows his way through a crowd of commuters on the tube. He gets a few looks but otherwise no one says anything, even after he sits the bear in his lap on the rare opportunity he manages to snag a seat during rush hour.  

At home, he lets the bear sit on his sofa while he goes about his nightly routine: kicking off his shoes, sliding into his robe, hanging up his suit in the closet to get rid of the wrinkles, making tea in the kitchen that he forgets to drink and has to reheat in the microwave. He watches some telly, a Top Gear rerun, then half of a detective show on Channel Four where nothing really happens and scenes cut swiftly to aerial shots of Cardiff, all the while pretending to be unfazed by the bear’s unblinking gaze.

Finally, when the staring becomes too much, he huffs and turns to look at it, shutting the television off with a flick of the remote. 

“What,” he hisses, then rolls his eyes at himself when it hits him that he’s about to have a conversation with an inanimate bloody object. Silence. The bear continues to say nothing. Thomas cuffs it by the ear then feels stupid for doing so and pulls it upright again. He smooths its plush fur with his thumbs, straightening its felt coat. He’s running his fingers along the sides of its arms when he notices the jagged edge of a note sticking out from its left front pocket. Unfolding the note reveals a mobile number written in a barely legible scrawl. No name, or identification. It might as well have been a prank but Thomas knows for certain whose number it is because he isn’t an idiot.

At precisely eight fifteen, he has a jog on the treadmill, purposefully avoiding looking at the bear in the living room which is in his direct eyeline through the half-open door of the exercise room. It had been nothing more than a storage room when he’d first moved in, a corner room with a sloped ceiling that used to smell like mildew and damp, the walls covered in gaudy wallpaper. He re-purposed it to house his exercise equipment which the on site Harrods shrink said would help him manage his stress. Nowadays he uses it as  a sort of meditation room, half-filled with boxes of things he should probably already donate to charity while the other half is dominated mostly by the treadmill.

Thomas makes dinner which is to say he shoves a tray of day old chicken nuggets in the microwave while guzzling down a bottle of half-frozen gatorade as he waits for his pulse to settle. Sweat beads along his hairline, matting his shirt to his back. He still has some leftover adrenaline so he walks to the living room, then back to the kitchen, only to return five minutes later to the living room to grab the note folded on the coffee table. It should be innocuous, but he can’t help but feel like he’s about to do something wholly forbidden. He’s only texting Adam to thank him for the gift.

Really, it’s only the polite thing to do.

At the exact same moment he hems and haws, the microwaves lets out a sudden ding that makes him almost drop his phone in surprise. He eats standing up, poking at his nuggets with a pair of chopsticks before deciding to go barehanded and regretting it after he singes his fingertips. He’s still blowing on his fingers when he decides to just get it over and done with by sending Adam a perfunctory Thank you - Thomas McGregor / Harrods.

Five minutes later after he’s washed up in the sink and getting ready to pull his shirt over his head to shower, his phone buzzes on the counter, skittering a few feet before he manages to scoop it up mid-ring. He doesn’t have to check the screen to know who it is. He picks up the call without thinking, and regrets it almost immediately when Adam’s voice laps like smoke against his ear.  “Hey, you. I thought I’d never hear from you at all. Wow.” 

“Hi,” Thomas says.

“Hi,” Adam repeats.

There’s a beat of silence, and then the roar of a car driving past, followed by the blare of a car horn. Adam keeps cutting in and out, his background awash with a mix of noise: people, traffic, the occasional slap of rain on pavement. His voice is overlaid with static, garbled at times and hard to make out. “I just had the best fish and chips this side of, well.The best fish and chips ever, period,” he’s saying. “I never even had fish and chips before in my life and I’m probably just drunk right now but. Fuck. That shit was great. A friend took me to this place, I forget what it’s called but listen, you need to try their fish and chips, it’ll change your life. I’ll give you the address right now. Do you have a pen and paper?”

Thomas has a number of recommendations himself — Yelp users can thank him — but wisely keeps silent. He smiles in amusement when Adam rattles off the address, halfway interrupting himself as he launches into a story about how rehearsals had gone for the day. He’s acting in a play apparently which will be showing at the Playhouse Theater at the end of the month if all goes well. The play is called Henry And Mary Are Always Late and it’s about a married couple who keep making plans to go to Moscow but never do. It sounds ridiculous, the kind of play Adam is likely to be in. Roundabout in a charming way.

“Did you like the bear?” Adam asks after a moment. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted it gift-wrapped so I left it up to the guy, Carlos or whatever his name was. He said he was gonna ask you first.”

Thomas snorts, watching his reflection in the window. A light rain has started to fall outside, mist softening the light on the glass. “I didn’t need it gift-wrapped but the thought is appreciated. And he did ask me. I said no.”

“I figured,” Adam says. “You said it needed a home, and I’m only in town for a few months while I do this play, so. Who better than to adopt it, right? I mean, I saw you looking at it while that kid was being an utter asshole and didn’t even pick it up from the floor when it fell.”

“Kids are kids,” Thomas offers as an excuse. “They can’t — you can’t call them that.”

“Assholes are assholes,” Adam says, sticking to his guns. “But that kid is gonna go places, I can tell. I’m an asshole too.”

That startles a laugh out of Thomas. It sounds so foreign even to his own ears that he swallows and swallows again. “Yes, well,” he says.

“So you think I’m an asshole?”

“I beg your pardon? I didn’t say that.”

“Not explicitly. But you said: yes, well.”

“It’s an expression. It hardly means anything.”

A pause. “You’re so strange,” Adam says in such a way that Thomas wonders if he means anything by it. He’s been called a number of things before in his life,  not just because he works in customer service, and strange has never been one of them. This is certainly brand new.

“Mr — Adam, I don’t have time for this—”

“Also somehow way too abrasive to be working in customer service—”

“I’m off the clock. I can be as rude as I want to be. I mean — sorry. Right. Anyway, thank you for the gift. I’ll make sure to give the bear a good home and a name and all that.” Never mind the fact he has about half a dozen piled in his closet, in a number of different outfits, all in different sizes, that he should probably also name. Maybe he’ll name all of them Adam. The thought is simultaneously terrifying and amusing.

“Wait, don’t go,” Adam says. “Don’t hang up.”

“I wasn’t,” Thomas says, confused. Was he? Now he isn’t too sure.

“Oh. I assumed — anyway, you really need to try this fish and chips place…”

Thomas doesn’t realize how much time has passed until he breaks out into a yawn. Somehow, they’ve been talking about anything that Adam sets his attention to, though mostly he complains about the weather. Thomas checks the time on the microwave and it tells him that a full hour has already passed and he should probably be in bed by now, maybe finishing the last few chapters of the self-help book he’d purchased last week. Somehow, he’d let Adam talk his ear off without realizing, standing in the same corner by the fridge, still in his workout gear. His skin feels clammy, covered in a sheen of dried sweat. Adam lets him go after he tries to stifle another yawn behind a fist.

“Go to bed,” Adam laughs, the sound sending ripples of goosebumps across Thomas’ cheek and down the back of his neck.

When they say their goodbyes, he’s almost too tired to drag himself to the shower but forces himself to haul arse for the sake of not hating himself in the morning, doing everything with an almost zen-like detachment. He dries himself quickly with a towel before sleepily pulling on his clothes and mismatching the buttons on his pyjama shirt. He stumbles face first into the bed, then forgets to turn the sleeping machine on and is asleep within minutes of his head hitting the pillow. He doesn’t dream of anything.

*

After work the following Friday, the first thing Thomas does is swing by the supermarket to restock his cupboard. He covers the essentials first: parsley, bagel bites, several tins of soup, a huge handle of whiskey, and then the non-essentials next: eggs, milk, a block of cheese, a new pair of oven mitts. They say people can tell a lot about a man by looking at the contents of his shopping basket but those people can go bugger themselves. In all honesty, Thomas doesn’t care anymore. He’s off the clock, and it’s just been one of those days.

Nothing bad has happened at work, nothing significant to certainly inspire this maudlin mood, at least not that he can pinpoint off the bat. But all he really wants is just to go home right now, curl up in his bed and marathon the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice on DVD. He has no immediate plans for the weekend, he’s not frequently invited to superfluous events like game night or parties or anything that warranted him to actually keep a respectable schedule for the next two days. There’s always antiquing, but some days Thomas just isn’t in the mood and prefers to keep his own company. Sometimes he wishes he had a pet of some kind, maybe a cat or a lizard, to act as a sounding board for all his problems. It’d be nice to just have someone around to listen to him without judgment or without having to be paid by the hour.

He’s so busy feeling sorry for himself that he fails to notice that the man in front of him in the checkout queue is wearing a familiar looking jacket. Then the man actually turns and Thomas’ reflexes splutter, and it takes him a beat or two or three, and then four, to compose himself and calm the rabbit-quick jolt of his heart. The supermarket is full of rush hour shoppers getting everything done last minute. Adam is no different, his basket containing the ingredients of what looks like tonight’s dinner: two drumsticks, a full head of lettuce, and incongruously, half a dozen cans of red bull.

Adam smiles. “Hello,” he says.

“Mr —” Thomas starts, then the line shuffles forward and he’s buoyed by the crowd. “Adam.”

Adam turns his body to face him. “Are you off work? You’re still wearing your uniform.”

“What? Oh.” Thomas’ hand flies immediately to his name tag which he tugs self-consciously off the front of his jacket. He hadn’t even realized he’d left it on before leaving Harrods. He closes his fist around it before pocketing it. “I didn’t know you live around here,” he says, effectively dodging the opportunity to get out the conversation by offering the most customary response.

“I don’t,” Adam laughs. “But my director does and I thought I’d get some shopping done before heading home.” He eyes the contents of Thomas’ basket. “I guess you too huh? Though I didn’t peg you for a whiskey man.”

“Well,” Thomas says with a shrug. He’s not sure how to continue that line of thought so he leaves it hanging, effectively cutting off further exchanges.

Finally, it’s his turn at the till. After paying for all his stuff, he falls into step with Adam where he’s waiting by the doors, skimming through a magazine which he stuffs quickly back into the rack once Thomas is within earshot.

“It was er — lovely to see you,” Thomas says, the blandest pronouncement in all of the world.

“Likewise,” Adam smiles. He hesitates for a second, scanning Thomas’ face, his smile fading in the corners. “Well, I guess I’ll get going.” He points over his shoulder. Then they go their separate ways.

Thomas hasn’t made it very far before he feels a tap on his shoulder. When he turns, he wishes he were surprised to see Adam whose expression is only marred by the stupidly hopeful look in his face. It shouldn’t make Thomas equally giddy, but he chalks it up to the strange feeling pervading his day.

“Listen,” Adam says, holding up a hand that isn’t clutching his canvas shopping bag. “It’s Friday night and you’re probably not doing anything, I think we should grab a drink together. I know this place down the corner. Serves the shittiest beer, sure, and the food’s not all that great but we can share in the misery and complain about it like a couple of lunatics. I mean, a misery shared is a misery halved right?”

There are many contradictions to this statement but Thomas is a contradiction himself so he decides to just bugger it and accept the offer for what it is. Besides, what else has he got to lose? He’s got nowhere else to be tonight and Colin Firth’s curly sideburns can be kept waiting.

The pub is a fifteen minute walk from the supermarket, twenty if you factor in the amount of foot traffic. They dodge pedestrians, their dogs, wayward cyclists, a series of street lamps, keeping to the sidewalk and occasionally separating to let a throng of people headed the opposite direction through.

Adam is right about the food; Thomas has had better in worse pubs than The Handglove but it’s not as if he eats gourmet meals every night though he seems to give off the impression that he does, not without trying. He’s not even sure where the idea comes from but apparently the staff like to gossip about him during their spare time. A lot of things have been said about him behind his back in the past ten years since he’s started working at Harrods: the misconception that he comes from a posh background is not the most far-fetched.

Against all odds, Thomas has the most fun he’s had in years. The pub is in the corner street next to a 24-hour laundromat lit by glowing neon lights and a Chinese general store now boarded up with plywood. Nothing too special about it or particularly eye-catching with the generic facade typical of every pub in London.

Inside, everything that matters seems to be clean enough. The pub boasts an Irish theme, with miniature flags hoisted at every corner, the wall behind the counter covered in newspaper clippings of every possible headline relevant to an Irish person. It’s just the right amount of kitsch and charm. There’s even a framed painting of James Joyce in a corner.

Adam elbows Thomas in the ribs when they wend their way towards a newly vacated table, still crowded with baskets of leftover chips and half-empty bottles.

“Nice, right?” He grins, stacking the baskets to clear a corner. Under the gloomy light of the pub, his teeth flash white. 

When their food arrives, Thomas stops fiddling with the coaster, glad he has something else to do with his hands. Why is he nervous? He shouldn’t be. 

“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot,” Adam starts, wiping foam from the corner of his mouth. The action shouldn’t pull at a weird part of Thomas or cause him to blink, but it does that he has to blink again and again like he has some sort of eye infection.

“Do you always go out in your uniform?” Adam asks.

“This isn’t -- might I remind you, you accosted me in the supermarket.”

“I did,” Adam agrees, “Didn’t think I’d run into you or that you shopped for food like one of us mere mortals.”

“Is it really so jarring to see me outside the shop?" Thomas should ask the same of Adam though he knows what the answer is already. 

“I’m a person too,” Thomas tells him.

“Are you sure?” Adam asks. “Sometimes I’m not too sure.”

Thomas offers him a wry smile, his first genuine reaction all night. “You don’t know me. ”

“I’d like to though,” Adam says so casually it takes Thomas completely off guard because it’s not something he hears everyday. He’s well respected by the staff at Harrods because he puts in more work than anyone, but he knows that doesn’t necessarily equate to being liked. Sometimes it achieves the exact opposite though he’s never cared about popular opinion; keeping his eye on the prize helps. He’ll get that promotion even if it kills him. It’s what he’s been working towards in the last five years.

“You sure you can handle your liquor?” Adam asks, chewing his food with an open mouth. It should be disgusting, and it is, Thomas has to stop himself from slapping a hand over his mouth, but he doesn’t mind so much as long as Adam keeps the chewing to a less audible level.

“I have some Scottish in me,” Thomas snorts. “I’m fairly certain I can drink you under the table.”

“Can you, really,” Adam says. “I’m a lifelong drunk, I’ll have you know. I’m practically an alcoholic.”

On his second malt and his third shot of whiskey, neat, Thomas starts to feel the table tilt up to meet him. It’s a combination of a week’s exhaustion — he’s been on his feet all day — and the fact he’s been relearning social cues all night, laughing at all the appropriate intervals and starting to relax despite the casual touching Adam sends his way. He’s usually not this easy, but it’s all right, it’s not some test, where if he doesn’t measure up in some critical way he’ll be the laughing stock of his peers. He has to remind himself to pace himself but as the night wears on he just keeps getting thirstier and thirstier.

Adam starts to tell him a new story, though he’s been full of them all night: about New York and how he hates hipsters (he seems to have a strong opinion on that), about his acting career which he feels has taken off in the last few years though it put him in an entirely different trajectory than he’d anticipated, about the last movie he’d been in, a critical darling that bombed in the theaters and barely paid his rent.

Thomas responds with a few of his own, the kind usually prompted after a round of drinks or whenever he finds himself in a sullen mood. He never volunteers information freely but Adam is oddly easy to talk to despite the fact he has the tendency to interrupt Thomas by getting hung up on tangents and generally focusing on the wrong parts of the story.  Falling into conversation with him is like tumbling into old clothes, the more Thomas talks, the more relaxed he becomes. He can pick up where he left off without worrying about whether he’s being funny.

Knowing he’ll probably never see him again after this, whatever this is, probably helps. There’s a lot less pressure.  “I never knew my father.”

Adam snorts on his pint, wiping a hand across his shirt when a dribble escapes his lips. “Well,” he says after a moment.

“It makes it difficult for me to open up to people because I have a fear of abandonment,” Thomas continues matter of factly.  “I don’t mean to sound so maudlin. It’s not like I cry myself to sleep at night most of the time.”

“How do you sleep at night?” Adam asks, and even though it’s meant to be teasing, Thomas says, “I listen to a machine make soothing noises. You should try it. It’s really rather nice. Though it’s nothing we sell at Harrods, sadly.”

“Okay,” says Adam. He reaches out and pats Thomas’ hand consolingly. Thomas stares at Adam’s fingers spidering his wrist and thinks, big hands, big fingers. Big everything. Big, big, big. 

“We have that in common at least,” Thomas says eventually.

“Do we,” Adam says. He tips his glass to one side, watching the brown liquid slosh against the rim, and apparently that’s the end of that because he smiles and declares, “Let’s do shots!”

Halfway into his god knows how many pints he's had, Thomas starts to toe the line between inebriation and really fucking sloshed. He hasn’t gotten drunk in god knows how long, because, well, he's always been careful not too drink too much lest it impairs him in such a way that he’ll deeply regret when he’s sober.

He excuses himself from the table when the need to piss makes itself known, staggering towards the bathroom where he spends a long enough time trying to work the front of his trousers open that he actually falls asleep, leaning against the stall with his cheek squashed against the grimy wall. He’s jolted awake by someone knocking furiously on the door. It’s Adam, wanting to know if he’d passed out. Thomas blinks blearily down at his ankles; he got his trousers out of the way at least and he doesn’t seem to need to use the toilet anymore, the pressure in his bladder seems to have eased somewhat. He yanks his trousers up by the belt but only manages to zip it halfway with his grip all slippery and clumsy so he leaves the button undone.

“Fiddle— fuck fuck fuck!” he hisses. He stumbles out the door, tipping forward into gravity and swaying into Adam’s arms like dead weight. The last thing he remembers is Adam’s soft puff of laughter, followed by his arms seizing Thomas by the waist when Thomas attempts to shuffle forward and stumbles instead. After that: nothing.

When he comes to, morning is blaring bright and cheerful through a floor to ceiling window he doesn’t recognize, his head feels like it’s been hit with a battering ram — repeatedly —  and the back of his mouth tastes a little bit like sick. Thomas clenches his eyes shut, rolling onto his side to bury his face in an equally unfamiliar pillow. It smells like laundry detergent, albeit laced with a hint of sweat but not entirely unpleasant.

It doesn’t occur to him later that he’s in someone else’s bedroom, in someone else’s flat, not until after he’s jarred awake the second time around by a slight pressure in his bladder. Thomas drags himself out of bed, squinting at the blinding view of mid-rises outside, before his attention is caught by his utter lack of shoes. In fact, that’s not at all that’s suspect: he’s wearing a shirt he doesn’t recognize along with a pair of beige track bottoms that seem to be hanging off him like a tent. At least he still has his own underwear on when he peers through the waistband and deigns to check. Nothing seems to be amiss. He clenches his arsecheeks. All good. No soreness.  

Thomas shambles out of the room, finding his way to the toilet through trial and error, washing his face in the sink which is crowded with a number of products, none of which he feels safe touching even though they seem harmless enough. He washes the acrid taste from his mouth with a bottle of Listerine sitting off to the side, spitting into the sink until his breath finally clears. Then he wipes his face on the bottom of his shirt before carefully feeling his way around the rest of his surroundings: the bedroom with its single bed and dark coverlet, a stuffed armchair next to it covered with a tumult of clothes. There’s a lamp with a bendable neck on the nightstand, a walk-in closet open to rows and rows of shirts and jeans hanging with no discernible order whatsoever.

Outside in the hall, there are boxes heaped on the floor, some just lying around half-open, most still covered in packaging tape like the person that owns this place is still in the midst of a move.Thomas finds Adam in the living room, passed out on his stomach on the sofa, a sheet covering his lower torso while his face is pushed uncomfortably into the cushions. He doesn’t have a shirt on and even from where Thomas is standing he can see his back flecked with moles. He lingers there for a second, hovering by the door before clearing his throat, once, twice.

 As if woken by some strange spell, Adam twitches and snorts, blinking rapidly a few times before setting his unsteady gaze on Thomas. When he sits up abruptly, the sheet slides further down to reveal the fact he’s wearing nothing but white briefs.

“Hey,” Adam says, voice scraped with sleep. He holds up a hand, cradling his face with the other one. “Just wait a second. Wait, wait, wait, wait.” He starts shaking his head in quick, jerky movements. “I’m up. You all right?”

He gives Thomas a once over, nothing too long or inappropriate, though it still makes Thomas’ hackles rise. Then Adam gets up, giving Thomas more reasons to feel horribly awkward as he tries to pivot his gaze elsewhere without being too obvious. Adam’s briefs leave little to the imagination and he’s got the kind of body that’s the exact opposite of Thomas’: wide-shoulders tapering to a trim waist, definition in his arms and thick strong thighs, whereas Thomas is lean like a beanpole and can still fit into some of his old clothes from university, his wrists slender like a girl’s, delicate. 

Adam smiles sheepishly, shouldering past Thomas, and Thomas hears the telltale flush of a toilet after a little bit of  shuffling, the faucet turning on,  a cabinet being slammed shut. Finally, Adam emerges wide-eyed from the bathroom, his face dripping in places, his hair shoved back from his face. His eyes are red with fatigue, his left cheek creased with pillow marks, but otherwise he seems mostly awake. There’s a rough patch of stubble across his jaw.

“Do you want a smoothie?” he asks Thomas.

“Not particularly,” Thomas replies.

“Okay, good,” Adam says, sounding almost relieved. “Because I wouldn’t know where to start making one.”

*

Thomas doesn’t know how he ends up making the two of them a full English breakfast or how he manages to cobble together the ingredients for one, let alone two full plates despite Adam’s fridge’s meager offerings but that’s exactly what happens. He takes his food with two aspirin and some tea which he’s surprised Adam even has in the cupboard though he strongly suspects the box had simply been left the previous tenant’s. It’s weak, with just one bag left, so he’s still feeling lethargic when he leans against the sink, trying to make sense of his geography and the events of the previous night.

A lot of things seem stupid now in the light of the morning though he can’t remember most of last night: just doing shots with Adam undercut by flashes of walking into people and walls.

He turns the water on in the sink and must have left it running for a while because Adam reaches in behind him to shut it off. His proximity makes Thomas hyper-aware of his smell. It’s a little musty, nothing bad, and thankfully he’s had the decency to put a shirt on and a pair of trousers though both are threadbare and riddled with holes. Still: small mercies.

Thomas turns to face him, the movement abrupt enough to send a wave of dizziness spiraling through him. “Did I do anything… weird last night?” he asks.

Adam crosses his arms, hums. “Depends on your definition of weird.”

“You know,” Thomas says. He makes a vague gesture with his hand. It’s not very descriptive. “Weird,” he repeats.

Adam gives him a long, probing look before smiling absently and setting his empty plate onto the counter. “You’re all right. Don’t worry about it. Although I will say this: you’re very spry.”

“What,” says Thomas.

Adam lets out a full-on laugh. “Relax, kid. I was joking. You threw up on yourself, said some things about your dad I will not repeat in broad daylight. Then you proceeded to fall asleep in your own vomit, so naturally I had to help you out of your clothes.”

“Oh god,” Thomas says.

“Nothing too unusual.”

“Oh god,” Thomas says again.

“You don’t go out often, do you?” Adam says. He sounds amused, his tone erring on the side of gentle teasing. Thomas tenses in response and straightens his shoulders and tries to look dignified though the effect is incongruous when his shirt keeps slipping off one shoulder and he’s still walking around in bare feet, shivering from the cold of the hardwood floor.

“I’m a busy man,” he deflects. “I have things to do and all that. People to see. A shop to run. Harrods will go up in flames without me.”

“I’m sure,” Adam says.  He leans back with his elbows on the counter, his shirt pulling up over his hip, showing a sliver of pale skin, not that Thomas notices terribly. “Well, thanks for breakfast anyhow. I’m sorry my place is such a shithole. I’m still too lazy to unpack because I keep telling myself it’s only temporary, what’s the point blah blah blah, so there’s all this crap lying around.” He sweeps his gaze around the room. “I really need to clean.”

Thomas nods, though the gesture hardly means anything. “It’s a… nice flat though,” he settles on.

And this is true: it’s bigger than Thomas’ with enough space to pace around in. He’d snooped around earlier on his way to the toilet and counted a guest room, a small office, though both seem largely untouched and pristine. Most of the seating matches the rugs; there’s natural light flooding into the open kitchen, big windows that peer out into actual views instead of concrete walls. The furniture seems like it was picked straight from a catalogue, under the heading “insomniac bachelor” and there are hardly any personal flourishes except for the occasional errant box, the DVDs stacked in front of the enormous television, everything from Stallone to Herzog. Thomas can probably afford the rent in this neighbourhood if he skipped lunch daily and didn’t spend all his money collecting rare vinyls, also if he sold his kidney in the black market.

Adam stares at him brazenly. Thomas is still getting used to it when Adam says, “I hate to be an asshole but I gotta get to work, which I know sounds like utter bullshit like I’m trying to get rid of you but my director is a slave driver. I gotta get to rehearsals before —” he glances at the clock, swears. “Fuck! I’m already late.”

“I should be leaving anyway,” Thomas agrees.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll see you out. I need to head out too anyway,” Adam says. “Don’t go yet. I’ll walk you.”

True to promise, Adam accompanies him down after stuffing himself into a jacket and some respectable outerwear, flattening a beanie over his uncombed hair. Thomas had been right about this neighbourhood, posh, very posh, which seems almost at odds with the rest of Adam’s … person. He doesn’t look like he belongs here, and must be a good enough actor if his job rakes in enough cash to afford him a flat in this postal code.

Adam walks Thomas all the way to the station where they awkwardly part ways at the bottom of the stairs, Thomas in his burgundy coat, borrowed New York Mets t-shirt and beige track bottoms, his own shoes but no socks, Adam bearing the air of an actual respectable human being barring the unkempt hair.

“Well, I’ll see you I suppose,” Thomas says, then pats Adam awkwardly on the shoulder before cuffing him lightly. “Right. Take care, then.”

“You’re so weird,” Adam says. But he doesn’t sound accusing.

If anything, he seems to — Thomas doesn’t know.

But it’s… something.

Adam takes the stairs up two at a time, hands shoved inside his pockets, then he’s gone.

It’s early enough that there are hardly any people in the back car and Thomas manages to snag a seat, hugging last night’s clothes to his chest which Adam had balled up in a clear plastic bag so onlookers can plainly make out the patches of sick on the dark fabric. He’s not the only character this morning, the underground certainly gets all sorts: teenagers staggering in from all-night benders, a man dressed in a dog costume, too early or late for Halloween, a woman in a biker jacket reading a book entitled Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality. Then there’s Thomas, feeling uncomfortable wearing shoes without any socks on, track bottoms he keeps having to tug high up over his waist.

He gets off at his station, then realizes it isn’t in fact his station, and takes a taxi the rest of the way home. He falls asleep a few times, and is barely awake when the taxi pulls up to the curb and he has to dig out his wallet from his coat pocket.

When he shambles into his flat, dropping his plastic bag of clothes on the counter, his keys somewhere on the floor, and kicking his shoes off arbitrarily, he doesn’t bother shrugging off his coat until he’s planted face-first on the bed, wriggling out of the arm holes and then falling asleep instantly. He has a strange dream that plays out like a half-forgotten memory and it goes like this: Thomas slumped in the backseat of a taxi with his head pillowed against Adam’s shoulder, the two of them stumbling into the lift, giggling like children. Taking the long staggering walk to Adam’s door, bumping into things, clutching at the walls, and then the scene cuts swiftly to Thomas crawling on his hands and knees on the floor, getting sick all over himself, blinking up at the harsh lights, his throat dry as paper.

Adam tends to him, laughing of course, because he’s a bastard, and sits Thomas down on the closed toilet seat before peeling off his clothes and then helping him dress. He puts Thomas to bed, easing him onto his back, flicking him on the forehead when Thomas attempts to crawl his way out of the covers wrapped around him like a lasso, keeping him in place. Adam leans over him, then, his hand pinning Thomas firmly onto his back. His eyes are liquid brown. Not black, brown. No, no, no, hazel. The most inscrutable eyes Thomas has ever seen, crinkling in the corners.

Adam says Thomas’ name, touches his hair gently. Then the dream ends and Thomas wakes up.

It’s late afternoon judging from the light outside, a soft hazy glow pervading the room the colour of Lapsang tea. Thomas is still wearing Adam’s clothes. They’d smelled like him the entire time, even on the tube, which means Thomas now smells like him too; hard to place, really, what the scent is, a little musty like something that had been sitting in a dark closet for quite some time, different, but not too bad. Distinct.

Thomas quickly locates his phone in the front pocket of his coat which he’d dropped unceremoniously on the floor next to the bed. Five messages from Harrods Customer: Adam.  He rubs at his eyes with the heel of his hand, breaking into a yawn.

The latest message reads: u left yr groceries at my place, i still have yr bottle of jack daniels. Sent, not too long ago.

Thomas snorts, stretching back on top of the covers. He runs a hand across his stomach, under his shirt, scratching idly at his belly button where there’s a faint buzz of hair. The lettering on Adam’s shirt has already faded, probably from the number of times it’s been in the wash, the cotton so worn it’s almost see-through.

Contrary to popular belief, and as much as Thomas loves a well-fitting pair of trousers and shirt, he actually prefers the comfort of old clothes. He still owns a number of clothing that ought to be retired but he can’t bring himself to bin them on account of how they remind him of being a kid, of his childhood and his mum who worked tirelessly to put him through school waiting tables only to walk out one day after foisting him onto his grandparents.

Thomas stares at Adam’s message, reading and re-reading it again and delays his reply.

*

Adam doesn’t show up to Harrods for a while. He’s busy with rehearsals for his play which takes up most of his time these days. The only reason Thomas knows this is because Adam texts him every day, offering inane commentary about everything from the weather to the current social issues plaguing middle America. Also, he seems to hate hipsters a lot even though he’d spent most of his adult life in Brooklyn and listens mostly to synth pop.

Thomas has tried not responding — Harrods has a strict policy on staff taking their phone to the floor though Thomas is technically exempt from this due to his supervisory position — though this often prompts a barrage of even more messages from Adam: wanting to know what Thomas is doing, showing him a funny picture of a cat falling all over itself, telling him about which books he’s reading (he’s been reading a lot Russian authors for his play) or otherwise making Thomas a sounding board for his pedestrian thoughts. Thomas has to keep his phone on silent, not vibrate, because it keeps jumping in his pocket every five minutes, taking him by surprise when he’s assisting a customer. When he’s on lunch break, and presumably when Adam is, he finds himself scrolling through his inbox re-reading their exchanges. He’s not one for texting; he prefers when people actually called.

There’s so much more nuance to texting that he feels out of sorts just trying to decipher the meaning behind something as innocuous as a smiling emoji. There are a thousand different ways to interpret this. And also, why are there fruit? Adam abuses emoji so much that Thomas has taken to using them too, if only so he doesn’t feel out of the loop like an old person, though he mostly uses the frowning one, the one with the raised eyebrow, and the shopping trolley in steady rotation, the latter meaning he’s on the clock and therefore should not be disturbed.

Thomas finishes up his lunch and returns to the children’s department whereby he sends Adam the shopping trolley emoji to put an end to their conversation. He gets a call from Adam not shortly after when he’s showing a customer how to operate Nuby the multi-coloured Octopus bath toy which happens to not only float on water but light up in the dark, a completely useless feature. The only reason he takes the call at all is because he’d forgotten to put his phone on silent, and now Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte starts blaring from his back pocket.

“Excuse me for a moment,” Thomas tells the customer. “What,” he hisses at Adam. “Did you not get the trolley emoji? I’m at work.”

Adam laughs, sounding completely unapologetic. “Quick question — you wanna watch a movie tomorrow night? It’s a little thing I was in. There’s this theater that’s still playing it apparently.”

“Did you really call me in the middle of work to ask me to watch a film with you?” Thomas pushes the words out through gritted teeth and then smiles winningly at the mother and son strolling past, nodding at them in welcome.

“Yes?” Adam says, “Yeah?”

Ridiculous, Thomas thinks, but instead he says, “Fine, all right,” just to get it over with. The harder he fights, the harder Adam will retaliate; he knows that much. Then he catches sight of his customer, already halfway out the shop. “Oh damn, my customer’s walking away. I’ll speak to you later.”

“Good,” Adam says.  “Talk to you then.”

“Right,” Thomas says.

“Take care,” Adam says. Then just to sweep the rug under Thomas’ feet: “Wear something cute.”

“What.” But apparently that’s the last of that because Thomas has other more pressing matters to attend to, namely attempting to resell someone on the benefits of purchasing Nuby the multi-coloured Octopus bath toy for £6.99 before they leave his sight completely and Adam’s already hung up the phone.

This comes back to bite him in the arse a few days later when he’s getting off shift and spots Adam headed in his direction. It’s late in the afternoon and he’s ready to go home and watch incredibly embarrassing television as a treat to himself. He’s got snacks and everything, a list of programs to marathon, a tube of lube close at hand should he start feeling well, Thomas is a person too and can only deny himself the temptation for so long.

Adam showing up out of nowhere completely throws his plans out of order. He must notice the confusion sliding into Thomas’ face because he throws his hands up in exasperation before letting out a loud huff. He’s right across the street  but because of the sheer volume of his voice, Thomas can hear him just fine.

“What are you doing here?” Thomas says.

“You told me all about the history of your stupid fucking shopping mall, in incredible detail might I add, so I don’t know why you look so surprised I know what time your shift ends,” Adam says. Then he seems to remember himself and jogs over to Thomas’ side, cutting across the street as soon as the traffic allows. “Come on, let me take you out. You made me breakfast after I got you so fucking drunk that one time — Scottish my ass, you were so wasted. I’ll make it up to you. My treat. What do you say?”

“Please keep your voice to a manageable volume — hello, welcome to Harrods,” Thomas shoots at a passing customer who gives him the oddest sort of look before smiling tightly.

“You never turn it off do you?” Adam says. He’s laughing again. Somehow even when he does it often enough, whether in real life or over the phone, Thomas is still not sure whether if it’s because he finds Thomas funny or not, or if he’s just the type to find humour in everything. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.

“Turn what off?” Thomas asks. At Adam’s stupid little smile, he repeats, a little more firmly, “What? Turn what off?”

Adam just shrugs one shoulder in reply, his gaze settling over Thomas’ chest. “I told you to wear something cute. This is your idea of cute?”

“I completely forgot we had plans, or that I agreed to your little…whatever it is,” Thomas says, clutching his bag more tightly in his arms, in front of his chest. He feels himself being undressed by Adam’s stare and it sends a frisson of heat crawling up the back of his neck.

“Wow, thank you. Way to completely invalidate my importance in your life. Take your top off.  I mean your shirt, sorry. Just take your jacket off.” As Adam says this, he maneuvers Thomas around despite his protests, easing his jacket from his shoulders and undoing his tie which he winds around one fist first before pocketing himself. Then he takes a step back, the corner of his mouth lifting in a faint smile. “Okay, good, great,” he announces. “Now you look less… well, like you work for Harrods.”

“Thank you,” Thomas says dryly.

They grab dinner at a gyro place a few streets from the theater Adam has been raving about. The film isn’t until 6:45PM so they have time enough to loiter in the lobby. A couple of people come up to Adam to ask for his autograph and take a picture but otherwise they just stand there, Thomas staring blankly at the row of backlit Coming Soon posters, wondering what’s become of his Friday night. He can still taste the cilantro in his breath. He’ll need a mint, candy of some sort, a drink to wash it all down. He chances a glance at Adam and sees Adam watching him with the same bald-faced open expression, like he’s been looking at Thomas all night, trying to figure him out. He’s wearing a hoodie, like he plans to disappear into it, the cotton taut across the chest, around his arms, his hair shading most of his face.

“Hey,” he says, softly, out of nowhere. “You look really nice, standing by the wall like that. I could take a picture.” Whatever he means by that, he doesn’t say, because he disappears a moment later to buy them popcorn and drinks.

As they shuffle towards their seats in the middle of the theater, because Adam had been the one to choose them, Thomas digs into his bag for his glasses. His eyesight has been getting progressively worse in the last few years and it’s only his sheer stubbornness preventing him from getting prescription contacts or wearing glasses to work, pretending everything is fine. He needs the glasses though from time to time especially when he’s doing admin work; luckily no one has ever seen him in glasses, until, well today.

“Why do you have reading glasses on, you look like you’re about to do your taxes,” Adam says.

Thomas throws him a look. “The glasses help with the glare, believe it or not. Now do you want to watch the film or do you have more to say about the glasses?”

“Yeah sure, I’m ready for you to roast me,” Adam snorts. He hands Thomas the massive bag of popcorn — just the one — before hoisting his feet up on the seat in front of him.

“Don’t be rude, put your feet down.”

“Thomas, we’re the only two people in the fucking theater.”

Thomas holds his stare. “Still.”

For the first time ever, Adam is the one to relent. “Okay, fine,” he says, tamping out a little huff of laughter. He shakes his head. “Whatever.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Then what was that little huff about?”

“What huff?”

“You know what huff. The huff you just — oh bollocks, the trailers are starting.” Thomas pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose as the lights dim around them. If Adam buts his shoulder against his at some point after the opening credits, leaving it there, pressed snugly against Thomas’, Thomas doesn’t comment. He scoops popcorn by the handful and licks butters off his fingers, the warmth of Adam’s arm strangely comforting in the dark.

*

They emerge two hours later, Thomas blinking at everything like a baby bird, Adam stretching his arms over his head, popping the crick in his neck. The lobby is empty like it had been two hours earlier; this shouldn’t be a surprise. They should’ve just gone and seen the rabbit movie, even if Thomas has a strange feeling about that ginger actor he keeps seeing everywhere in the last few years. Adam says he finds him pretty hot but his opinion holds no merit. He looks a bit weaselly to Thomas, with a too-big head and a wonky mouth. Also, animated rabbits terrify him.

Thomas hasn’t been to the cinema in almost a year, mostly because he hates the weekend crowds. The film had been set in space, with Adam’s character dying halfway into it after getting infected by some sort of space-borne virus purely out of dumb luck. Thomas had nodded off shortly afterwards, already losing interest. In the film, Adam’s hair had been bleached blond and he didn’t look like himself. If held at gunpoint and asked about the plot, Thomas would probably draw comparisons to about half a dozen others all with a similar premise. It’s nothing he hasn’t already seen, and yet.

“Well?” Adam asks, peering cautiously into Thomas’ face. “What do you think?”

“Do you want my honest opinion?” Thomas says. “Or do you want me to be nice?”

Adam laughs, a full body cackle that has him throwing his head back. It’s actually rather charming. Thomas hates himself a little for thinking this, but finds himself smiling along, infected maybe with the same manic glee.

“Do your worst,” Adam says, knocking his shoulder into Thomas’ as they fall into step with each other. “Kill me.”

They talk all night, grabbing coffee at the nearest deli, and then walking to the tube after the lights start to flick off in a mostly courteous way of telling people it’s almost closing time. Thomas doesn’t even realize how late it is if not for the fact there are only a few people in the back car, evenly spaced and in various corners, minding their own business. Adam elects to stand, despite the fact there’s enough seating, because apparently everywhere else that’s free is across Thomas or several feet away from him.

They talk, still, Adam gesturing wildly with one hand, trapping Thomas where he’s seated by standing right in front of him, hanging onto the straps, swaying now and again as he’s jolted by gravity. Not that Thomas minds though he has to peer up at him and squint occasionally. The sides of their shoes brush now and again and Thomas’ knee keeps bumping Adam’s shin. 

Eventually, it’s nearing Thomas’ stop and as he rises from his seat to get to the door, Adam leans into him rather actively, not budging to give him enough room to leave but actually stepping forward to crowd him further. When Thomas looks up to tell him to move, he’s completely taken aback by the colour of Adam’s eyes, which are a deeper hazel up close and the fact that his breath is scented with coffee. He only realizes he still has his glasses on because they’re almost knocked off by the sheer size of Adam’s nose, his face so close they’re breathing the same air.

Adam flits a jerky glance at Thomas’ face, before his eyes land visibly and linger on Thomas’ lips. He still hasn’t moved to let Thomas through, and Thomas’ chest does this strange jittery thing. He shoves at Adam a little. 

“What are you doing?” Thomas says, his heart slamming to a stop the same time the doors hiss open with a pneumatic hiss.

Now it’s Adam’s turn to blink, listing back on his feet, upright again. “What?”

“Were you trying to give me a kiss?” Thomas says.

What,” Adam laughs, just as twin spots of colour appear in his cheeks. “No, no, I wasn’t. Why would you think — I wasn’t. What,” he says again.

“You were just — I thought.” Thomas makes a vague gesture, indicating the whole of Adam’s person, his total disregard for personal space. He flushes when he realizes he’s being a complete knobhead. Stupid. He shakes his head. He flushes harder, starting to feel rattled. “Never mind,” he says, then walks out the door without saying goodbye.

“Hey,” Adam says, catching his elbow on the way. “Take care of yourself, all right? Thanks for tonight. It was great. Really fun.”

He meets Thomas’ eyes and Thomas thinks he sees a flash of white, the ghost of a smile, right before the doors close. Thomas gives a halfhearted little wave but the train has already sped off so really he’s just making an idiot out of himself. He climbs up the stairs and as he stands at the top of the steps, breathing in the night air that’s soft with mist, his heart starts to race from delayed adrenaline rush, his body thrumming with no idea what to do with the excess energy. He clenches and unclenches his hand and is only knocked out of his daze when a passerby barrels into him on the way down the stairs.

“Sorry, mate,” the man mumbles. Thomas waves him off.

As he joins the late night pedestrians on the sidewalk, Thomas can’t help but feel like he’s walking into another dimension though everything is the same and nothing has changed. People’s voices are loud and garish as they trickle out from the nearby pubs, the headlights of passing taxis luridly yellow.

When he steps into his flat, the first thing Thomas does is turn on the lights. He blinks, his eyes adjusting to the sudden brightness, then he shuts the door behind him, leaning against it for a solid minute or two, forcing himself to calm as he closes his eyes.

*

Because Adam is Adam, he gets into a fight. He gets into a few of them, actually, he says, though lately he’s getting better at curbing his temper.

It’s not his fault he’s easily provoked.

Adam shows up at the shop one day when Thomas is just getting off work. They’re not supposed to meet until the end of the week to try that fish and chips place he’s been going on about and it’s only Wednesday so Thomas really isn’t expecting him, leaning against a lamppost looking like a sodding pickpocket in ratty jeans and a hoodie. The first thing Thomas notices about him is the discolored eye, the second being the fact that his head looks slightly uneven which means there’s probably a bit of swelling on his scalp. He looks terrible, his hair lanky with grease, his eyes unfocused. And still he makes Thomas feel like he’d just stepped off a cliff though he chalks the feeling off to something more akin to shock than anything dangerous: Adam looks like shit.

“What happened to you?” Thomas says, and then at Adam’s wounded look, backtracks and says, “Are you all right? You look a bit…” he trails off, having already filled his quota for the day of positively scripted words in line with customer service.

“I have a concussion,” Adam says too mildly for someone who has one. “I took a taxi from the hospital. Can I crash at your place?”

Thomas can’t say no, can he. They take a taxi to Thomas’ flat which means they spend a good half hour stuck in traffic that’s just starting to bottleneck during rush hour. Thomas tries not to berate Adam whose head keeps nodding forward every five minutes so that Thomas has to snap his finger in front of his face to keep him awake.

He’s just vacuumed this morning so the living room is immaculate when they arrive, everything right where it should be, tucked in their corners, impeccably neat. He helps Adam onto the sofa when Adam starts to sway, the first time they’ve ever touched outside of the occasional awkward collision often caused by Adam’s lack of personal boundaries. They bump into each other a lot, shoulders and elbows and knees and every possible appendage, as if they’re both teenagers again and drawn to each other like magnets.

Adam drops his bag on the floor while Thomas leaves him to google all about concussions, scrolling through his iPad which sits in a dock on the counter. He makes tea in the kitchen after browsing quickly through an article, and when he returns he isn’t wholly surprised to find Adam squeezed against the sofa cushions, his long legs hanging off the armrest. He’s staring blankly at the ceiling and starts to lean up on his elbows when Thomas tromps back into the room; his reaction time laggy and even his blinking is slow.

Thomas watches him for a while, feeling sorry for him that he kneels next to Adam on the floor and pats his head awkwardly like he would a dog. This turns out to be a bad idea because then his palm comes away feeling greasy like he’d just put it in a vat of butter.

If it’s really a concussion, Thomas will need to wake him every two hours to make sure he doesn’t slip into a coma. This close, he can see a small cut bisecting Adam’s lower lip and has to stop himself from reaching over and running his thumb over the pout of Adam’s mouth.

“It’s just a black eye, I’ll be fine,” Adam says to him, as if he can read Thomas’ thoughts and how they circle dizzily around wanting to help him. It’s practically ingrained, having been raised by his grandparents for a good chunk of his formative years, very good people who won’t hesitate helping a neighbour, and working at Harrods where it’s often Thomas’ job to deal with people even when they’re being difficult. He likes to help. He can’t help helping. Sometimes he helps so much and so often that he forgets what the problem actually is. But it distracts him from his own, and that’s a normally good thing until it all comes crashing down spectacularly like this, like Adam.

Thomas snorts when Adam starts to fall asleep. “You have an enormous bump on your head you incorrigible child,” he snorts, poking Adam on the shoulder to wake him. “And you smell awful. You’re getting your stink all over my sofa, I hope you do realize.”

“What is this, shit on Adam day? Fuck off.

Thomas stares at him coolly. “This is my flat, I’ll do what I want. Get up. I’m drawing you a bath.” He tugs Adam upright and Adam must be really out of it to go so willingly, stumbling after him and into the direction of the bathroom where he stands obediently in the corner watching Thomas fill up the tub before dumping about half a bottle of scented bath oil into the water, then the other half just for good measure. The air steams the room with the heady scent of flowers.

Thomas steps in front of Adam, clicking his fingers in front of his face.

“Adam, can you take your shirt off for me?” Thomas says.

“This is how most of my fantasies begin,” Adam says muggily. “With that precise question.” Nonetheless, he attempts to doff his shirt but has trouble getting his arms through the sleeves holes and manages to get his head caught halfway through the exercise. Thomas sighs and tugs his shirt off all the way, hanging it on the nearby towel rail, resolutely trying not to stare at the smattering of moles dotting Adam’s broad chest. He’s broad everywhere; this shouldn’t come as a surprise. What does is the complete lack of self-consciousness even when Adam’s nipples start to peak from the temperature in the room.

Well.

Next come Adam’s trousers. Thomas undoes his belt buckle first and Adam catches his hand halfway, stopping him weakly.

“Thomas,” he says. He grins but it’s only an imitation of one, the expression too off, his eyes half-lidded.

“Not another word or I’m kicking you out,” Thomas tells him, shaking off Adam’s hand, unbuttoning his trousers.

Adam makes a zipping motion over his mouth though the effect is ruined when he staggers from foot to foot, trying to keep his balance. Thomas turns and gives him his privacy so he can step out of his underwear. When he hears a splash behind him, he glances over his shoulder, only to make sure Adam hasn’t hurt himself, and rolls his eyes when he sees that Adam is sitting in the water in his briefs.

“Christ,” Thomas swears. He shakes his head. “Please don’t forget to wash your hair,” he reminds Adam.

“Huh?” Adam says dumbly.

A reservoir of saliva has caught in Adam’s mouth. He leans over the tub and spits on the tile. Thomas almost slaps him for that but remembers he already has a concussion and it won’t do to exacerbate it.

Adam just sort of sits there in the water, staring off into space for a while, hair hanging in damp strings in front of his face, not moving, not doing anything at all. Thomas says his name a couple of times and on the third time, Adam blinks and tilts his head at him. “What?” he says.

Thomas takes it upon himself to wash his hair just to get it over with, folding his sleeves up to his elbows just so he doesn’t get them wet. He leaves his Harrods cufflinks on the sink. Best to get them out of the way so the gold plating doesn’t fade.

The entire thing is weird, down to Thomas scrubbing Adam’s hair with light touches, holding the shower head above him, the activity not unlike washing a particularly disobedient dog. Still: Thomas is used to weird, having helped a customer pick out a lingerie set for their granddaughter, once, and helped them change their tire.

Adam moans, tucking his chin into his chest when Thomas rinses his hair, parting it in sections and rubbing his scalp. It’s almost soothing, meditative. At least until Adam opens his big mouth.

“You have very pretty hands,” he tells Thomas, apropos of nothing, his words slow and slurred. He catches Thomas wrist, or attempts to anyway, and only manages to cuff his fingers around Thomas’ forearm. “You should be in a hand commercial,” he continues. “They’re really beautiful.”

“Right,” Thomas says faintly, and if he blushes a little, he blames it on the heat. His upper lip has started to bead with sweat from the steam. He shrugs out of Adam’s tenuous grip before handing him the shower head, then rises to his feet to stretch out the cramp in his calves. He’s been on his knees for a fair bit of time and his trousers are soaked where he’s knelt on the tile. It also hits him that he’s suddenly very hungry. This is usually around the time he gets dinner, after an hour-long jog on the treadmill, sometimes a leisurely wank. On a good day, one after the other.

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” he says to Adam. “I’m sure you’ll be all right. Try not to drown. I’d hate to have to call an ambulance.”

He gives Adam a meaningful look and Adam shoots him a lopsided grin. Thomas leaves the door ajar in case anything happens to him in there and he has to barrel in. He changes out of his clothes, hanging his uniform to dry, stepping into a pair of worn track bottoms and pulling a cotton jumper over a raggedy t-shirt that has no right being called a shirt anymore with how see-through the fabric is. He raps on the bathroom door a few times to announce his presence.

“Still alive,” Adam calls from inside. He sounds like he usually does at least, nothing amiss.

“Good.” Thomas leaves a bundle of clothing on top of the closed toilet lid, the Mets t-shirt he keeps meaning to return, and Adam’s beige track bottoms as well, both recently washed. Thomas might have worn them a few more after the first — only because they were so comfortable and happen to be on top of the laundry pile each time. Adam will have to fend off for himself in the underwear department, even if Thomas has an unopened multi-pack lying around as it would’ve been a bit much to lend him a pair.

When he finally surfaces a few minutes later after Thomas has phoned for takeaway, shambling in none too gracefully into the living room, with a towel covering his head, all Thomas can think is: ridiculous. He looks utterly ridiculous. Thomas doesn’t even think about the fact he isn’t wearing any underwear, or that his balls are hanging freely, unconfined. He grabs the towel from Adam’s head and starts patting his hair dry so the ends don’t drip on the shoulders of his t-shirt. He hates it when that happens to him; he can only imagine how long it takes for Adam to dry his hair with how thick and long it is, longer than Thomas’.

After that’s done, Adam gurgles in contentment, his hair sticking up every which way with static.

“You forgot your cufflinks in there,” Adam tells Thomas from under the towel, and then wobbles towards the sofa where he lays on his side, most of his face still hidden in the towel. Thomas puts the television on just as Adam reaches over for the remote and browses through his Recently Watched list before Thomas can stop him. Most of it is embarrassing. Actually, no, that’s not true at all. All of it is embarrassing. He wants to maybe throw himself in the path of a speeding car.

“Colin Firth huh,” Adam says after a moment.

“I have no idea what you mean.”

Adam hums. “Let’s see: Mamma Mia and Bridget Jones. And Kingsman 1 and 2,” He peers up at Thomas through the towel. “I’m sensing a trend.”

Thomas doesn’t even deny it.He loves Colin Firth. Something about those side burns, those eyes. He likes his men with dark hair. The thought makes him look at Adam for a second, frown, and then look away.

“So are you going to tell me how you got a concussion?” he asks, seating himself in the chair opposite and watching Adam go through his Netflix account before losing interest entirely. Adam yawns, stretches, his shirt pulling up his ribs.

“Ran into someone’s fist,” Adam mumbles with his eyes closed. “Someone was being an ass to me at work, the usual thing. I couldn’t get the accent right, I have to do an accent for the play did you know, and the guy called me a two-bit actor.”

“That’s it?”

“I really hate the guy. He was one of those stuck up assholes who went to RADA or whatever and thinks anyone that lacks his educational pedigree is beneath him. He sounded a bit like you, with the, you know, posh accent and everything.”

“I’m not posh,” Thomas says, the first true thing he’s confessed about himself in years.

Adam stares at him, though his expression is slightly dazed. “What?”

“I’m not posh.” It’s probably why he likes Colin Firth, anyway. He wasn’t posh either, didn’t even go to Eton or Oxbridge, though he sounded like he did whenever he opened his mouth. “I’m from Birmingham — shit place, really, don’t even think about visiting — but you can’t tell can you? I learned the accent, taught myself as a kid.” He rolls his eyes at himself, picking at a thread sticking out of his jumper. “Lots of BBC,” he explains with a self-deprecating laugh. And it’s true: he was hated for it too, in school, because he sounded different from everyone else — stuck up, prissy, and a number of hurtful names were hurled at him daily like shrapnel. He ignored these; they weren’t important. He put himself through night school, scraping up the money from odd jobs here and there before finally moving to London so he can shed his identity and become anyone. 

People often mistook him for someone who came from money. It was the accent, the manner of dress. He worked hard to get himself out of Birmingham where his grandparents still live. Now that he thinks about it, he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t working. He’d been with Harrods for almost ten years, working from the ladder up, which was saying something as he had literally no connections. He was a self-made man, a term he’d donned to protect himself from the honest truth: that he grew up poor and knew a lot of things on a variety of different topics only because he read a lot, that the real reason he moved to the city was that he hoped in some capacity that he would run into his mum, that he was constantly terrified to wake up and find himself left with nothing, all his hard work burnt to the ground, alone. He’s doing a remarkable job of the last one at least. But nowadays he doesn’t feel so singular in his loneliness. 

“That’s a lot of information,” Adam says, looking at him and not blinking. “I’m going to close my eyes now.”

“I’ll wake you up in two hours,” Thomas tells him. He fetches an afghan from the closet and throws it over Adam who barely moves . Thomas takes the towel from his face and he still doesn’t budge.

“It’s so strange seeing you out of your suit,” Adam breathes, right when Thomas thinks he’s fallen asleep, his voice taking Thomas off guard as he folds the towel over one arm. “I like it though. It makes you look…soft.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Thomas asks.

“No,” Adam laughs softly, blinking only one eye open. “No, it’s good. Very good.” He smiles, just as soft. Then he goes to sleep.

*

Thomas wakes Adam precisely on the dot, two hours later. They eat Chinese takeaway in front of the television, watching Mamma Mia, Adam snorting every five minutes but humming along to the songs anyway, chewing loudly. When Thomas thinks he can be left alone, after getting into an argument with him about which Colin Firth film to watch next, he pours Adam a glass of water, dragging a blanket from the closet and a pillow he no longer uses. Adam can hardly fit in the sofa, but it’s going to have to do. It isn’t like Thomas has a guest room, anyway, and he’s not about to give up the bed when he still has work tomorrow. He’s got a bad back.

He leaves the light on in the hallway open, bids Adam goodnight. Adam waves at him from the sofa, turning over as much as he can which is not a lot, before starting to snore. Thomas leaves him be and absolutely doesn’t stand there for a few minutes, watching him, one hand on the wall before going to bed.

*

A few hours later, Thomas is woken by a creak at the door. After the initial alarm passes, he blinks his eyes open, slowly taking stock of the rest of the room and his surrounding environs. It’s still dark, the room a mixture of streetlamp and shadow. Nothing in the room moves for a while.

“Hey,” Adam says, standing in a corner of the room like an absolute nightmare.

Christ!” Thomas almost leaps out of his skin in shock. He rubs furiously at his eyes and blinks again. Adam steps into the light. His hair hangs over his face like a shroud. Thomas’ heart is still hammering in his chest when Adam sits on the bed, the mattress dipping under his weight, his hand splayed on the covers, almost touching Thomas’ foot where it peeks out from a corner of the covers, bright and pale even in the dark. He pulls it back before Adam can make a grab at it. Or something.

“Sorry.” Adam sounds sheepish at least, lifting his gaze from Thomas’ disappearing foot. “I couldn’t sleep. Your couch is shit.”

“Thank you,” Thomas says dryly.

“Can I use the bed?”

“Use the —” Thomas repeats, still a bit drowsy and wool-headed, and then it hits him what that must mean. He stares at Adam’s profile, noting the slope of his nose and how most of his face is cast in shadow. Adam doesn’t seem to be blinking at all, waiting, it seems, for Thomas to respond. His lips are parted, and they look too soft, like this, broken only by a sliver of teeth.

Thomas sighs. It’s late, judging by the light outside, just hours before dawn. He has work later; they shouldn’t even be having this conversation. He rolls onto his side, facing the opposite wall, hoping this is answer enough.

“Do what you want, just don’t wake me,” he says over his shoulder, kneading his pillow into submission before preparing to sleep.

“Thanks,” Adam says. And then: “This doesn’t have to mean anything.”

“Okay,” Thomas says, and is wholly unprepared for Adam lifting the end of the covers and sliding underneath only to roll towards Thomas’ side and spoon him.  Spoon him — of all the ridiculous things! He’s a heavy weight against Thomas’ back but it’s not completely uncomfortable which is mainly the problem. He smells a bit like orange chicken, but his hair is laced with shampoo, clean. He moulds himself to Thomas’ back, and Thomas feels the cold tip of his nose brushing the side of his neck, the way Adam’s breathing settles in rhythm to his — the shape of his fingers under Thomas’ ribs, finding the gaps and settling, there under his jumper but over the thin cotton of his shirt, boldly, without permission, which speaks of the kind of person he is: he takes what he can, whenever he can.

Thomas tries to breathe normally.

In and out, in an out.  In and —

“Are you asleep?” Adam mumbles into Thomas’ shoulder, the tone of his voice same as ever, as if this nothing out of the ordinary. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe this will all be forgotten in the morning; they will sweep it under the rug and go about their lives, falling into a familiar pattern and routine. Thomas will give as good as he gets.

“Yes,” he replies without thinking. Thomas’ eyes are still closed so it counts.

“Good.” Adam sighs and wraps himself around Thomas more firmly. Then he lets out a big yawn that Thomas feels tug inside his own chest, unspooling the tension in his body like a thread. “Me too,” he says.

*

Thomas is hit with a strange wave of depression often whenever his birthday rolls around. It’s nothing about the passage of time and how he’s getting older and older with no foreseeable future outside of his career except possibly death; it’s more to do with the fact his birthday makes him think of his mum, and how she used to bake him a strawberry shortcake to the best of her abilities, every year until he was about nine before leaving for good.

The feeling comes and goes. This downswing in mood is normal to him so he rides it out the best he can, usually by working more hours than is strictly necessary and then taking an entire handle of whiskey to bed. Last year, he’d opted to go on leave for a change, taking the train all the way north to Leeds where he spent two hours walking around the Royal Armouries Museum. Other than that, he had an absolutely shit time, and spent the remainder of the day sitting in a Costa, trying every sandwich on the menu and practicing origami except with paper napkins.

It’s why he elects not to celebrate it at all. Nothing good ever comes out of making an occasion out of his birthday. Case in point: that time in Leeds.

He goes to work, does his share of admin work, before strolling into the children’s department to chat with staff and customers. All in all a normal day. That is, until Carlos accosts him after work when he’s about to head home.

“Sir,” Carlos says urgently. “Natalie just had an aneurysm.”

“What!” Thomas’ messenger bag almost hits him in the face with how quickly he spins to face Carlos. “Well, have you called an ambulance? Where is she? I keep telling her to stop snacking on those donuts, one is fine but thirty is too many —”

Carlos tugs Thomas along to the storage room. It’s dark in there and eerily quiet, and he gives Thomas a gentle shove that makes him stumble forward into enveloping darkness, clutching his bag to his chest.

“Carlos,” Thomas warns, just as the lights flicker back on and a chorus of voices start singing happy birthday. And there Natalie is, healthy and hale, holding a princess cake the colour of Harrods green, her face lit by the lone white candle sitting in the middle of the cake. “Happy Birthday sir,” she grins.

“I thought you had an aneurysm,” Thomas says, still reeling from the mood whiplash.

“What?”

“Thank you,” Thomas says, flushing with pleased embarrassment when his heart rate finally settles and Carlos claps him on the back. “All of you. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have a speech prepared.”

“You don’t have to make a speech, sir,” Carlos tells him.

“Yeah, just blow the bloody candle so we can all go home!” someone says from the back. It sounds suspiciously like Mandeep.

“Ignore him,” Carlos sighs. He faces Thomas again. “Happy birthday, Mr McGregor.”

It comes as no surprise that drinks are on him that night. He doesn’t make it a habit to drink with his staff, mostly because he wants to keep their interactions strictly professional even outside of work. But they don’t often make it a habit to surprise him with a birthday cake either so it’s reason enough to break tradition. They find a pub a few blocks away from Harrods, at Carlos’ recommendation, where the pour is generous and the tapas are served cold.

Natalie places a party hat on Thomas’ head and for some reason Thomas ends up wearing a bright blue sash that says Cheers to 21 Years even though today he is, in fact, 34 years old. Natalie says that’s all they had at the shop. The blue looks good on him though so Thomas decides to keep it on.

When Adam arrives without having been summoned, Natalie slides off the stool next to Thomas to give him some room.

“Hey gang,” Adam says, lifting his hand in a wave as he spills into the seat next to Thomas, giving his knee a nudge under the table. He yanks the beanie off his head and shakes his hair free.

All five occupants of the table wave back at him in a suspiciously friendly fashion, some raising their glass, like they’ve seen him a number of times already and have spoken to him before today. Carlos even gives him a high-five, reaching across the table and exchanging a knowing look.

“What did I miss?” Adam grins, before directing his gaze at Thomas who continues to stare at him like he’s grown another head. Adam pokes at the birthday hat hard enough that it slumps a little to the side and Thomas has to right it back again with a firm tug. “You look nice,” he comments. “Just turned twenty one?”

Thomas chooses to ignore that last jab. “What are you doing here?” he says instead, smoothing a hand over the blue sash self-consciously. Not that he’s protesting Adam’s presence — just that he’s surprised Adam is here at all, materializing out of nowhere. On his birthday. The last time he’d seen Adam had been a week ago when Thomas had left him in his flat to sleep off his head injury. He’d woken up overheated some time in the night with Adam slumped on top of him, drooling a pool on his chest, his hair a thick avalanche covering his face. He’d wanted to shove him off but found he couldn’t bring himself to do it, tentatively slipping an arm around Adam’s waist instead and then tumbling back to sleep. He was still sleeping when Thomas left to go to work.

When he returned that afternoon, Thomas was mildly disappointed to find Adam already gone, a note left on the fridge thanking him for the previous night, a bowl of half-eaten cereal in the sink along with a glass still faint with reddish dregs of cranberry juice. The bed was unmade, the sheets pushed to one side, the covers dented with Adam’s shape.

Thomas’ umbrella had also been missing from the stand by the door as was a bag of salt and vinegar Chipsticks. The note Adam had left hadn’t indicated that he’d nicked either of these, just that he was going to be at rehearsals for the better part of the week and would probably need to cancel their Saturday brunch. They have a routine now, which Thomas still wonders how he let happen: Friday night they grab dinner after work, or sometimes they do Saturday brunch. Thomas has yet to take Adam antiquing but it’s only a matter of time. It would have happened sooner too, if only he stopped hemming and hawing. If only he’d manage to pull himself from this precipice that he keeps standing on top of over and over, never completely allowing himself to fall free.

Adam grabs a nacho chip off a nearby plate, chewing with an open mouth. “What, you think I was gonna miss this?” he says,“Carlos invited me. We’re friends now. Aren’t we Carlos?” He winks at Carlos just to prove a point. “I didn’t even know it was your birthday. You could have told me. I could have gotten you something, like a present.”

“I didn’t think it mattered.” Thomas shrugs, and this is true enough: he doesn’t see the point in celebrating his birthday when all it does is make him feel unmoored.

“Of course it matters,” Adam tells him. “It matters to me. Chin up, birthday boy. Don’t look so glum.” He taps Thomas’ chin. “There we go. Now smile.”

Thomas stares at him dubiously. Then he grimaces, which only proceeds to make Adam laugh. “Good enough,” he says and feeds Thomas a nacho chip that Thomas takes without thinking.

No one at the table says anything about it.

Mandeep, looking bored in a corner with his chin resting against a fist, takes a languorous sip of his pint.

*

Most of them start trickling away after the third round of drinks. After paying the tab, Thomas decides to call it a night, stepping out into the unseasonably warm evening with Adam in tow. It’s only Thursday which means he still has a shift tomorrow. He wonders if he can just call in sick. He’s already thinking about his bed, and how he would just like to disappear under the covers and sleep until late afternoon like a lazy cat under a patch of sunshine. At least he isn’t smashed though; at least he can still walk a straight line after restricting himself to just half a pint and a shot of tequila. He doesn’t want a repeat of his night with Adam; one embarrassment is enough.

“I wish you’d told me it was your birthday today,” Adam says, elbowing him in the ribs.

“You would have found out eventually,” Thomas dismisses.

“Yeah, like months from now, or never, knowing you.” Adam shakes his head and snorts. “Carlos had to call me. I told him which birthday cake to get you. I said: get him a green one, the one that matches his tie. He’ll go nuts for that. And you did, I saw the video — yeah, there was a video. Did you like the cake? You said you were allergic to blueberries. It had strawberries, I think.”

Thomas stops walking to give Adam a probing look. He’d pocketed his beanie which means his hair is falling every which way around his face. Thomas wants to ask Adam why, what’s the point, why do they keep dancing around in circles like this, what does he think he’s doing barging into Thomas’ life like an unwarranted visitor, why is he looking at Thomas like that, now.

Instead he says, “How do you know him anyway?” Because it’s safe, and it’s expected. He feigns exasperation, picking up his pace again so that Adam has to jog to catch up.

“I’ve been hanging around longer than you think,” Adam grins. “He’s a fan of a few of the things I’ve been in. The TV stuff mostly. I was on a sci-fi show once that was a blatant ripoff of Doctor Who. I didn’t think it would take off, but for some reason it has a cult following. You should see the reddit threads. Anyway, Carlos recognized me from the show the one time I was in the store. We hung out a couple of times after that. Mostly I asked about you.”

When Adam speaks, his voice swims with languidness and the warmth in the air that’s making the hair at the back of Thomas’ neck stand on end.

“I’ve never met anyone like you,” Thomas says after a long moment because if it has to be said during some point or another, better now lest he forgets. And he’s tipsy and feeling heady and strange and it doesn’t help at all that he keeps staring at Adam’s mouth and the way he moves it when he forms words. He wants to go home. He wants to —

Adam smiles at him, doing a half-turn in Thomas’ direction, his profile backlit by the light of street lamps gleaming overhead. Thomas stays where he is, several feet away, still with his little hat on which is drooping sadly to one side.

“Of course you haven’t met anyone like me,” Adam says grandly with a wink, “I’m fucking one of a kind.”

*

Notable moments in Thomas’ life are often overshadowed by the most mundane details. Right now is no exception. Thomas turns the lights on in his living room, tosses his things onto the sofa, then leaves Adam to fetch a bottle of water from the fridge. When he turns Adam is right there behind him, standing quietly by the counter, watching him with an unreadable look.

Adam steps forward and Thomas, for the first time, does nothing, doesn’t even take a step back. He hands Adam the water bottle which Adam accepts and takes a tiny sip of before setting aside on the sink. Then he touches Thomas’ hair, and Thomas realizes it’s so he can slide the hat off, setting that aside too next to the water bottle. Thomas looks at Adam’s face, peers into it for the first time ever, and is distracted by the pale shell of his ear peeking from behind his hair. He needs a haircut soon, Thomas thinks absently. The length is starting to border on messy.

Adam takes another step forward, crowding Thomas until they’re standing nose to nose. 

“I’m going to kiss you now,” he announces, like it’s the most natural thing in the world though his voice is soft and tinged with something shaky. “Just so you know. I’m telling you this ahead of time so you don’t move out of range or turn into a pumpkin or any number of things I know you’re capable of doing. Also please don’t hit me.”

“That’s now how the fairytale goes, no one turns into a pumpkin,” Thomas interrupts him though he knows that’s not the point. The point is, Adam is about to kiss him and he’s still being a complete knobhead about it. He wonders again about Adam’s ear, stares at it, then at the rest of Adam’s face: the curve of his nose, that little divot under his bottom lip. He has moles on his brow bone, two, a few others on his cheek, near his nose.

So: this is how it’s happening, in his kitchen, next to the sink while he’s wearing an awful sash around his shoulders that declares him to be twenty-one. Still, it could be worse. Adam takes another step that brings him even closer and then he’s cupping the back of Thomas’ neck, breathing in the same air before surging forward to kiss him. He tastes like fresh beer and kisses more softly than Thomas could have ever imagined.

Adam who up until a few weeks ago, Thomas had chalked off as a minor nuisance in his life — he still is — who drinks too much and laughs too hard and touches Thomas as casually as if he’s known him his entire life, and he kisses like no one else. The idea is preposterous. Thomas thinks of the black and white movies he’d seen as a kid, the ones he caught on television whenever his mum left him home all day: the grand way people kissed in all of them, always lit so beautifully after making some bold pronouncement of love.

Then there’s this: Adam kissing him, slow, tremulous, his teeth snagging on Thomas’ bottom lip when he pulls away to breathe.

Thomas can still taste him on his tongue. His lips had been parted the entire time, his breath unmoving. He blinks and finds his hands fisted in Adam’s shirt. He has no idea how that happened, no idea either how Adam’s hand had traveled all the way from his face down to his hip.

“I like you, Thomas McGregor,” Adam says, looking serious for the first time, so much so that Thomas has no choice but to return his stare. “And my affection for you cannot be repressed.”

Thomas wants to laugh in his face. Don’t be absurd, he wants to say but he keeps it to himself. Instead Thomas breathes along with him, saying nothing, waiting for some sort of cue to direct him on what to do next.

When Adam kisses him again, this time Thomas knows to kiss back. His eyelashes brush Adam’s cheek, and he slides his hands along Adam’s shoulders to haul him close by the back of his neck.

“This doesn’t have to mean anything,” Thomas asks in between kisses. “Does it?”

“It’s your birthday,” Adam says with a wry sort of look. “Consider this your get-out-of-jail-free card.”

*

As soon as Thomas steps out of the shower, dressed in pyjamas and a ratty jumper, he realizes how daft it is that he’s even bothered at all. He’ll take them off anyway, and he’ll have to fold them afterwards so really there’s no point.  Thomas towel-dries his hair one last time, just so he has something to do with his hands, leaving his hair standing in electric tufts around his head. He combs it down with his fingers. His hands are shaking; he can’t pinpoint whether it’s from nerves or excitement.

Adam is sitting on the bed, facing away from him, the curve of his spine pale under the soft light that seeps in from the window. He turns and shoots Thomas a pleased look when he sees him standing there in a corner, holding a towel in one hand he has no idea what to do with. Adam had the foresight to keep his shirt off at least, affording Thomas a view of his wide back, the taper of his waist.

“Hi,” Adam says, then pats the empty space next to him. “Come over here.”

Thomas leaves the towel on the nightstand and kneels on the bed. He’s on all fours and halfway up the mattress when Adam leans forward to kiss him, once, twice, doing it in measured increments that draw a tiny involuntary noise from Thomas each time. His hands curl around Thomas’ forearms, kneading reflexively. On the fourth kiss, Thomas is the first to pull away, licking his bottom lip as Adam maneuvers them both on the bed, seating Thomas on his lap so that Thomas’ knees straddle his thighs. They’re thick thighs, and Thomas has to stop himself from bearing down and rubbing up against them, looping his arms around Adam’s shoulders instead.

Adam lifts his hands from where they’re curved around Thomas’ hips. He brings them up to cup the back of Thomas’ neck, running the knuckles of one hand down the side of Thomas’ throat, making him shiver down to his tailbone, his toes.

“You ever heard of that saying,” Adam says, speaking the words as he kisses Thomas, licking into his mouth. “That you’re always in the right place at exactly the right time, and you always have been?”

“No,” Thomas says, wondering where Adam is going with this. He kisses back, surges forward, their teeth knocking together awkwardly, painful if it didn’t feel so good. He lets out a soft moan. He’s starting to get hard; he’s starting to like the feeling of Adam’s naked back under his fingertips, already damp with a thin sheen of sweat.

“Well,” Adam whispers with a self-deprecating huff, nosing at Thomas’ throat. “I feel it now, anyway. I’m in the exact place I want to be.”

Thomas looks at him. “Are you,” he hedges.

Adam shrugs, rolling them over so he’s pinning Thomas to the bed, one meaty leg thrown over his hip, pressing down. “How about I’ll show you a good time and you just lie back and think of England, hm?”

His hands are high up on Thomas’ ribs now, his thumbs just under Thomas’ nipples, the jumper hiked up to Thomas’ armpits. Thomas has always had a — thing about his nipples, overly sensitive in the cold or when they rub up against his shirts. And he wonders if Adam senses that somehow when he leans forward to ghost his breath across his chest, making his nipples pebble and harden.

“This is cute,” Adam comments. “Take it off.” He means the jumper. Thomas loses it immediately, Adam tossing it over the side of the bed where Thomas’ track bottoms end up too eventually. And then there it is, all of him, revealed: the lackluster lines of him, the soft fuzz of hair below his belly button, trailing down to the waist of his underwear, all of it pale like the inside of a fish.

When he’s down to nothing more than his underwear, Thomas starts to pant and can’t deny that any of this isn’t affecting him. Adam is in a similar state too, hard in his jeans which he’d left unbuttoned, halfway zipped so Thomas can see the waistband of his boxers, the bulge tenting the seam of his jeans.

Thomas cups a hand over him tentatively — he’s big and hard, and oh bollocks — but Adam grabs his wrist, stilling the movement. “Later,” he says, and then his mouth is closing over Thomas’ cotton underwear, his breath steaming and his tongue squirming against Thomas’ cloth-covered cock. His hair tickles Thomas’ thighs when he parts them with his hands, sucking kisses everywhere his mouth can reach. Thomas pushes up, up, up against his face, letting out an embarrassing series of noises, feeling like he might die.

When Adam tugs at his underwear, leaving it dangling around one ankle, Thomas is completely unprepared for Adam’s tongue on his rim, the tip flicking out in wet passes, his big nose pressing against the hang of Thomas’ balls. Thomas’ knees jolt apart when Adam starts to spread him with his thumbs and lick into him, really lick into him, groaning hungrily like eating Thomas’ arse was something he couldn’t get enough of.

Oh,” Thomas breathes because he can hardly say anything else, hooking his leg over Adam’s shoulder and wanting to grab at his long hair. Adam is really good at it, and he tries not to think about what this means, or where Adam had learned his technique. It seemed rude to ask anyhow, and when he feels the slippery glob of spit Adam pushes inside his arse, he forgets all about it quickly, his skin electric and shivery, his nipples suddenly too tight. His cock keeps bobbing up against his stomach each time he sways into Adam’s face, fucking down, practically smothering him with his thighs. 

“Yeah,” Adam groans, nonsensically. “Yeah, baby. You gonna let me finger you? Please say yes, fuck. Please say yes.”

Thomas says, well, yes. Adam locates the tube of lubricant in the bedside drawer, squeezing the last dredges onto his fingers before tossing it onto the covers. Adam eases one finger inside Thomas, and then two once Thomas relaxes long enough not to clench against the intrusion, breathing in deep each time he’s breached, head lolling forward against Adam’s shoulder.

Thomas feels a little bit drunk from pleasure, even with his cock remaining largely untouched, pressed between his stomach and Adam’s. Then Adam fucks him with his fingers, using the last of the lube to slick his free hand so he can wrap it around Thomas’ length, fucking and fingering him at the same time, his rhythm shifting now and again, steady one moment and then frantic the next.

Thomas cries out, smacking Adam’s head with the side of his foot, again and again. He tugs at his own hair, arching his body, desperate for something he can’t even give voice to. “You — fucking —” he never manages to finish the thought, his cock dribbling runnels of precome, his hole a tender give around Adam’s questing fingers.

Adam shimmies out of his jeans, and then he’s completely, gloriously naked too, his body dwarfing Thomas’ completely, built like a ship, covered here in there with a number of moles. Everything about him is overwhelming even if he’s just sat there, leaning back on his haunches, waiting for Thomas to look his fill. He must know how he looks in comparison to Thomas. Thomas has never seen anything as arresting in his life.

He almost resists for a second with his hands on Adam’s shoulders, and he almost succeeds in shoving him away too before he realizes that he doesn’t want to shove him away, that having Adam on top of him, his hands all over Thomas’ body, his presence in Thomas’ bed, was something to fight for, not against.

And his dick is enormous, making Thomas simultaneously salivate and fear for the structural integrity of his arse. He can’t — he wants to, of course he does, but he can’t or he’ll end up having to be hospitalized on his bloody birthday.

Adam must senses his distress because he hitches a small laugh and kisses Thomas long enough to get the miserable look off his face. “I’m not gonna put it in, just, fuck, Thomas, let me —”

And it feels good, Adam’s big dick so close, rubbing against his opening, hot and wet. It makes Thomas feel easy, dirty, but in a good way, the closest he’ll get to Adam actually fucking him in the meantime. He pumps his cock along with the friction, leaking in weak little spurts, watching Adam watch him back, his body jolting when the head of Adam’s dick catches against his rim.

It only takes a minute, and then he’s shooting off, his tongue in Adam’s mouth, Adam’s hard cock jerking against his arse, that big hand covering his thinner one to wring him dry until his actual dick feels oversensitive and raw.

When Adam comes, it’s with a loud groan, and it’s all over Thomas’ balls and arse, messy everywhere. He topples on top of Thomas like a landslide, never mind the drying come on his chest, breathing onto his neck and rubbing Thomas’ arm with his thumb while he collects himself. Then he angles his face upward, nudging Thomas with his nose a few times to get Thomas to look at him.

The kiss is awkward and slow, barely a kiss at all, just the glancing brush of lips.

“Happy birthday kid,” Adam says coolly.

Thomas just looks at him and nips his bottom lip. He’s thirty-four years old.

*

Morning dawns bright and early in Thomas’ room, sunlight leaking in through the slats in the curtains and hitting the wall opposite. Once the initial annoyance of being awake has passed, Thomas rubs at his eyes with the heel of his hand. He begins to stretch, moaning as the covers move against his naked body, a foreign but not altogether unpleasant sensation. When he sits up slowly in bed, he’s surprised to find Adam already awake, sitting in front of him cross-legged and clutching a mug of coffee in his right hand. He’s in boxers, no shirt on. He’s grinning from ear to ear.

Thomas wonders how long he’s been sitting there, watching.

“Hey,” Adam says.

Thomas tries to tamp down the feeling of wanting to retreat back under the covers. That won’t do at all. He’s an adult, and besides, he has to leave the bed eventually because he still has to go to work. He groans and returns Adam’s stare. “Hello,” he says, and sniffs. He glances at the clock on the bedside table just as Adam leans forward on his knuckles, setting his mug aside, and presses a coffee-scented kiss to the corner of Thomas’ mouth. The kiss morphs, and is deep and long within seconds, Adam straddling Thomas’ hips and spanning the side of his neck with a broad palm.

“Stay in,” Adam grins, his thumb rubbing along the shape of Thomas’ mouth until it gives away. “Come on. With me.”

Thomas doesn’t say anything but his breathing slows a bit and when Adam pushes his hands into his hair, Thomas closes his eyes. “Okay,” he says, breath shaky. “Okay.” He tells himself he hadn’t wanted to come in today anyway, and that he deserves it for having not called in sick for years. This is mostly true, but it’s also true that Adam is persuasive, that he has a very deft tongue he knows how to use to make Thomas shout.

Thomas makes them breakfast because apparently Adam is a shit cook who can burn even the simplest things including toast. Adam doesn’t wear a shirt the entire time, choosing to remain half-naked in his boxers, and they eat standing up, elbows on the counter, drinking from one mug of coffee. Thomas elects to wear last night’s jumper and pyjamas again because he isn’t a barbarian. Breakfast isn’t a full-English because he lacks the ingredients for one, just some eggs, bacon and waffles from a mix.

Thomas sets out to do the laundry but Adam accosts him by the dryer, leaning him against the machine and sliding his hands down the back of Thomas’ trousers. It’s almost surprisingly easy, with the drawstring waist and all, and Thomas is hard within seconds when Adams starts to squeeze and knead his ass. He flashes back to the previous night when he’d spread his legs and boxed them around Adam’s ears, wanting to get more of his tongue in him, wanting to get fucked. Apparently, Adam has the same idea too, rubbing his dry thumb over Thomas’ rim, but then reality kicks in and Thomas jumps from the pain.

“I don’t have any more lube,” he hisses.

“What?”

“Lube,” Thomas repeats, pressing his forehead to Adam’s shoulder, clenching his teeth. He doesn’t expound on how that’s happened. He’s just a man, too. “Last night was all that I have left.”

Adam looks at him in disbelief, like he’s not sure whether to laugh or kiss Thomas again. “If I run out and buy some, do you promise not to freak out and change your mind about this?”

“What?” Thomas snorts. “Why would I freak out and change my mind about this?”

Adam looks at him for a long time.

“All right,” Thomas relents. “I promise.”

It’s easier said than done. While Adam legs it to the pharmacy, Thomas comes up with about two dozen reasons why this had all been a bad idea. He starts pacing the length of his living room, makes himself a cup of tea he forgets to drink, then sits on the floor trying to meditate in order to avoid a full-on panic attack. He’s about to turn on his sleeping machine when Adam buzzes the doorbell, stopping him from doing so.

“I’m back,” he says. He seems to be sweating and panting. He walks Thomas backward into the living room as soon as the door is shut behind him and Thomas promptly forgets all about reasons, with Adam’s hands on him, rubbing his back underneath his jumper, skimming up his spine, nothing even overtly sexual and yet Thomas’ body already thrums in response anyway.

Adam pours the contents of his shopping bag onto the sofa where they sit facing each other: several boxes of condoms, a month’s worth of lube, some gum and paracetamol.

“You’re a monster,” Thomas points out.

“Yeah,” Adam agrees. He doesn’t even sound vaguely embarrassed.

In bed, with their clothes off, is not entirely a different story. It takes an awful long time to prep Thomas, having required Adam to use both his mouth and his hands, then another go after that, before he’s able to even seat Thomas fully on his dick, and even then the stretch is still overwhelming, Thomas’ thighs over-slick with lube. He’s on top, because, of course he is, his arms circling Adam’s shoulders, his thighs trembling from the strain of keeping himself in the same position, reluctant to bear down.

Adam is shaking too, sweating from keeping himself from slamming up into Thomas, hard, his grip tight on Thomas’ hip, sure to leave a finger-shaped bruise.

“Baby,” he grunts. “Tom.”

No one’s ever called him that before, not since he moved to London. Thomas is shocked enough that he almost loses his balance, making the mistake of putting all of his weight on his tailbone. He moans, but not all of it is from pleasure.

Adam grazes his teeth over his throat, running his lips across the dip of Thomas’ collarbones. “Shh,” he breathes. “I’ll take care of you. Take it easy.”

Eventually they find a rhythm, Adam thrusting into him with choppy rolls of his hips, Thomas meeting him halfway, taking his cock in slow, steady strokes. It’s good, really good; Thomas hasn’t had a cock up in his arse in a really long time, much less anything the size of Adam’s dick. Even when he masturbated, he wouldn’t put more than two fingers inside himself, always terrified to jar something he may never be able to undo. But this, this is perfect: he’s barely able to breathe from how stretched he feels, impaled up to the throat. Even the preparation itself had made Thomas come, aching and already so hot for Adam’s dick from just Adam’s fingers and then his mouth, that he was practically panting, his thighs wet and slippery with lube.

Adam touches Thomas, and Thomas is the first one to come, riding Adam hard to sweeten his orgasm as he paints Adam’s chest in hot stripes. Afterwards, he lets Adam fuck him on all fours, too drowsy from the aftermath of his own orgasm to complain about the discomfort, his cheek pressed to the covers, whining each time Adam pummels him deep enough to displace him on the bed, so weak and boneless he can only just lie there on his stomach and take it, Adam’s balls slapping his arse hard, each thrust beginning from the head of his cock and ending at the root.

They order takeaway for lunch, pizza with arugula and prosciutto, a basket of chicken wings, which they eat in front of the television.

It turns out that Adam likes to kiss a lot, a fact Thomas verifies during various points in the day when Adam kisses him first by the sink while he’s doing the washing up, then later in bed following the first round of sex, then on the sofa again in the middle of running lines for Adam’s play, after which he kisses Thomas in the shower before drawing the shower curtain closed around them both. He kisses Thomas to shut him up. Most of the time, he kisses Thomas without prompting, quick kisses that last only as long as an afterthought, or lazy ones that end up with the two of them grinding together against the sofa cushions, panting open-mouthed.

They fuck two more times before the day is over: on the sofa with the television on in the background to a pleasant hum, three fingers needed to prep Thomas before Adam is turning him around to face the sofa, fucking him rough and dirty, his mouth pressed to Thomas’ ear. Thankfully, Thomas doesn’t come all over the cushions — there would have been hell to pay — as Adam carries him to bed where he stretches Thomas out on his back before fucking him again, pinning his knees back so he was practically folded in half, his sock-covered feet bobbing in the air with every thrust.

Later in the shower, Thomas’ feels his knees start to bruise on the hard porcelain when he sucks Adam off, spitting what he can’t swallow even when Adam tells him it’s fucking rude. He thinks he hurts his throat. But he does it again a couple more times, in the kitchen, and in the doorway to his room, Adam’s boxers puddled around his feet.

At half past eight, full of left-over pizza and chicken wings and freshly showered for the second time around, Thomas decides to call it a day. He’s sore and achy and thirty-four years old and his jaw keeps making a weird clicking noise whenever he yawns. He brushes his teeth after taking his tea, standing in the kitchen, listening to Adam finish up a phone call in the living room. He still hasn’t left.

Three hours later, and he’s still here, in Thomas’ bed, worming his way under the covers, rubbing his palms up and down Thomas’ flanks, a hulking shape in the dark.

“Happy birthday,” Adam hums, face pressed to the soft roll below Thomas’ stomach. It’s not that Thomas lacks exercise. He’s just naturally soft in places and hates doing crunches.

Thomas peers at Adam in the dark, shirt pushed high up his ribs, a warm fog of sleepy arousal enveloping his whole body, heightening every sensation. “It’s not even my birthday anymore you dick,” he snorts.

Adam shrugs, his breath stirring the hair below Thomas’ belly button. “I know,” he murmurs. “Consider today a belated birthday present.”

Thomas is so tired. He lets out a soft laugh and forgets to say thank you. He falls asleep with his hand trailing Adam’s hair.

*

Often, when one aspect of Thomas’ life goes well, another has the tendency to become completely pear-shaped.

On Monday, in the middle of his shift, he gets called in by the general manager.

One thought immediately springs to mind. It’s about the promotion which he hadn’t anticipated will happen until the middle of the year. He has a speech planned and everything, and a few drafts on how to skyrocket their sales by focusing on small-scale marketing. He knows he has it in a bag, with no other contenders with a performance review like his. He’s a little rattled, frankly, that this is happening too soon and even though he’s terrible at improvising, well, he’s sure he’ll figure something out. Put in more hours than needed to adjust to his new role, maybe take up an online management course.

Thomas takes the lift to the manager’s office, a bounce in his every step, shooting a grin at everyone he passes.

But it’s not about the promotion. The GM folds her hands across the table, and as soon as the words “bad news” leave her lips, Thomas gets a sinking feeling in his stomach. But he elects to ignore it and keeps a straight face, only his jaw starts to twitch the longer he has to keep the facade. The next few minutes pass in a blur: his great uncle had just died, he’s to go on bereavement, and Nigel Bannerman had already been promoted as assistant general manager. Bannerman, that absolute tit, who can’t tell his arse from his elbow, and once tried eating yogurt with a pen lid. Bannerman who doesn’t even come in five days a week, and when he does always reeks of patchouli and lager. But of course he gets the promotion, he’s the managing director’s nephew and nepotism doesn’t take into account a person’s tenure or his skill set or the years of his life he’s wasted and devoted to a company. 

Thomas doesn’t get upset. It’s been that way all his life. He gets aggressively calculating and coolly angry. That’s why it doesn’t make any sense that he taps Bannerman on the shoulder and smashes his fist in his face as soon as he turns around. Bannerman had just offered his condolences, in the least sincere way possible, by smacking him on the arse and gloating about his promotion — of course he deserves to be punched in the face, the man is just asking for it. That’s going on record when Bannerman files a complaint to HR.

“Mr McGregor!” someone gasps. It’s Natalie, her hands covering her face in shock.

When Thomas looks down, he sees Nigel Bannerman on the ground, writhing and with blood spurting out of his nose.

Thomas walks out of the shop, feeling strangely detached from it all, his knuckles stinging where the skin has split, the muscle still throbbing. He curls and uncurls his hand at his side. He’s never hit someone before, even as kid when his classmates had kicked the shit out of him for sounding different, for thinking he was better than all of them, he didn’t retaliate. He eyes all of it: the immaculate shelving, the four tier miniature dollhouse, the Harrods bears sitting in a neat little row all dressed in various outfits, everything quaint and pristine. Ten years, Thomas thinks. Then he loses the plot quite a bit.

*

They escort him out. The GM even takes his name tag, tells him to get a hobby, some perspective, dirt under his fingernails whatever that means. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Thomas has worked longer than she has for Harrods. She had been an external hire three years ago; she doesn’t have his history. She’s never cleaned a toilet before, or been shouted at by an entitled customer. Wisely, he keeps all that to himself.

Thomas takes the tube home, carrying nearly everything he’s amassed in his last ten years at Harrods in a small box in his lap. He’ll have to go back some time to clear out the rest of his desk. He’d only managed to grab two of his Employee of the Month trophies before security wrestled him out the door.

It’s only lunch time, which means he has no idea what to do with the rest of the day. He microwaves some leftover dinner, eats it in living room while listening to sad arias, which he feels is rather dramatic but he keeps it on anyway, taking the giant handle of whiskey from his liquor cabinet and pouring himself shot after shot.

By his fourth shot, he goes on his treadmill, still in his robe and jumper, which is really not a good idea when drunk, or wearing a robe, because he almost slips a few times. He’s meditating in the living room, which means to say staring blankly at the wall and hugging a pillow, wondering what to do with the rest of his life when the door buzzes. He ignores it, rolling onto his stomach and yelling at whoever it is to go away. He doesn’t have a lot of friends; the only family he still has lives in Birmingham, and he hasn’t ordered anything online. But then his phone buzzes on the coffee table and as he glances at the blinking screen he sees that it’s Adam. Adam, who also happens to be at the door, knocking hard enough to dent the wood.

“Hey,” Adam says, “It’s me. Open up. Come on. You’re not picking up your phone.”

Thomas throws the door open. He’s barefoot, still a little headachy from the whiskey. He crosses his arms in front of his chest. He’s angry, but all that flies out the window — or at least some of it ebbs — when he locks gazes with Adam and holds his stare like it’s a contest on who doesn’t blink first.

“What,” Thomas eventually hisses.

“I heard what happened,” Adam opens by way of greeting, already sounding remorseful. He looks the way he always does: his eyes soft, his mouth even softer. And it makes something in Thomas’ chest pull tight. “From Carlos,” Adam explains. “He told me.”

Thomas scoffs. “Carlos,” he repeats. He stumbles back to the sofa where he makes himself horizontal right away, staring at the shot glass on the coffee table and how it refracts the afternoon light. He doesn’t even know what time it is or if he left dishes in the sink or remembered to shower. His socks are the some ones he wore to work this morning, matching the colour of his Harrods tie. He hears the front door shut but doesn’t look up. It’s only Adam.

“Sorry you got sacked,” says Adam, throwing his bag across the room, kneeling on the floor in front of Thomas’, overtaking his view of the geometric coffee table.

“Sorry?” Thomas huffs. “You’re sorry?”

“I mean.” Adam shrugs one shoulder, tracing a half circle with his thumb below Thomas’ cheekbone. Thomas moves out of the way and Adam’s hand falls limply at his side.

Adam frowns. “I’m just asking for a normal amount of perspective, I guess.”

“You want to talk to me about perspective?”

Now it’s Adam’s turn to huff. “You’re behaving as if this is the end of your life.”

“It is, it is the end of my life!” Thomas all but screams. “It’s the only thing I care about! Do you understand, you daft prick? I’ve wanted this promotion my whole life. I’ve waited ten years for this and now I’ve lost the opportunity; I was fired. This is going on my permanent record; I hit a man at work. Granted that knobhead Bannerman deserved it but — don’t you see? It’s over for me. I’m nothing.” He falters at the last word. Nothing. The thought hurts worse than not getting the promotion. He should’ve seen it coming. Maybe he could’ve prevented it and wonders what could have happened if he hadn’t called in sick two days ago right after his birthday just so he could fuck around with Adam; if he were more focused on the sales targets, if he’d started sucking up to the right people instead of just working hard.

“You failed,” Adam agrees, “And it sucks but that’s life, kid. People lose their jobs all the time; they get over it and find another one. Tomorrow, this isn’t gonna matter. We’ll laugh about it, we’ll get drunk. You’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna be fine. You know, you’re a lot more resilient than you think. Cheer up.”

Thomas doesn’t blink. Cheer up, he says. Cheer fucking up. “I can’t believe you’re that stupid,” he practically spits. He waves a hand in Adam’s direction, dismissing him, but he’s drunk so his elbow almost knocks him in the face, and Adam grabs at it, pulling him upright when Thomas starts to list.

“I don’t want you here,” Thomas states out loud, shrugging out of his grip. “Leave, please.”

Adam has the gall to look shocked. “What?”

“I said leave!” Thomas intones, louder than he means to, and when Adam continues to look at him like a kicked puppy, he holds his ground and says nothing. He plants his feet and tilts his chin.

“Was it something I —”

“Leave!” Thomas says again. This time, he meets Adam’s gaze coldly even if every part of him wants to lean into the hull of his shoulders and have a violent cry. He hasn’t cried in years. When his mum had left, he’d accepted it as fact. He didn’t cry when he realized she wasn’t coming back for him, and he didn’t cry when the bigger kids started pushing him around in school. He kept his eyes forward. He told himself none of it would matter in a few years because he was going to make something of himself; he was going to get out of bloody Birmingham. And now here is, with nowhere else to go, no future in sight.

Adam swallows visibly. “All right,” he relents. “Goodbye, I guess.”  He picks his bag up from the floor, flitting Thomas a furtive glance over his shoulder. “This isn’t — goodbye,” he says. He shuts the door on the way out. Thomas watches him go, letting him walk away. Thinking: good riddance. Thinking, too: well, that’s that. At least he dodged a bullet there. At least he won’t have to see Adam’s bastard face again until well, he decides to show up again and maybe then Thomas will have him leave again.

The door buzzes half an hour later when Thomas is staring into space, nursing his sixth shot of whiskey. He shoves a hand through his hair and finds that his eyes are damp with tears. Strange, as he doesn’t remember crying. Maybe it’s the whiskey. He scrambles to the door, almost tripping onto his hands and feet.

“Adam, look, I’m — ” But it’s not Adam. It’s a deliveryman in a uniform. “Yes, hello,” Thomas says automatically.

“Delivery for Mr. McGregor?” The man hands Thomas a clipboard.

Thomas is still reeling from his argument with Adam that he almost misses the pen he’s being handed by five feet. “Sign here please,” the man instructs, raising his eyebrows at Thomas with a funny look. Then he peers into Thomas’ face and accepts the pen.“You all right mate?”

“I’m fine,” Thomas assures him, accepting the parcel. He says it enough times maybe it’ll actually be true.

*

Thomas never knew his great uncle. And yet he inherits his house. Now what. The property is all the way in Windermere. Shit place, really, but then what part of the country isn’t. He books a roundtrip ticket to Windermere after going through all the paperwork, sitting in his living room, running his thumb over the groove of the brass key that came with the deed, fiddling with it over and over as if it might magically give him answers. It takes him a full week to drag himself out of his slump, showering for the first time in days and actually shaving. He grabs a bite to eat on the way to the train station, cramming half a bagel into his mouth on the train and going over his great uncle’s will. He’d nicked a handful of brochures on the way over. None of them really sold him on life in the country.

It’s all shit. Shit shit shit.

Thomas takes a taxi from the station, hating everything he sees: the road a long flickering stretch with the sun beaming down overhead, painting the sky in pale pastel hues. Everywhere you looked, a farm animal, a tree, rolling waves of bottle-green hills, or a tractor. His great uncle lived an hour’s drive away from the station, his estate more elaborate than the farmhouses that rimmed the road, with a deep terrace of mellow Yorkshire stone at least according to the photographs.

Thomas falls asleep on the way there against the leather-and-tobacco-scented backseat of the taxi and dreams that he’s running: past places and people he knows. And then he’s just running. When he snorts awake, it’s because the driver says they’re almost there, nosing up a narrow road where Thomas can glimpse just on the far side of the river, a farm house with a low roof, the spire of a church, and then the path that led to his great uncle’s house, green and leggy with growth.

Thomas is only there to appraise the property. Nothing more. He says as much to the driver who slows the car to a crumbling halt. Thomas pays, tells her to wait a moment and then begins the short walk to the front door. To the left of the house is a garden, though Thomas can hardly see it in the fog that’s started to cotton the ground. He thinks he hears movement in the bushes but chalks it off to exhaustion. It’s been a long day after all; it’s been a long week.

He turns the key in the lock, then flicks the lights on, holding his breath for —

He’s not sure what he’s expecting.

The house is, of course, just as his great uncle had left it: untouched, still, blankets over some of the chairs. There’s a worn quilt thrown over the back of a hunter green sofa, cobwebs furring the lighting fixtures, a portrait of his great uncle and aunt hanging above the mantel, slightly crooked. His uncle died of a heart attack, said the lawyer, and left everything to his next of kin. To Thomas. The neighbour found him in the garden.

It seems absurd to leave everything you’ve ever owned in your life to a stranger you don’t even know but Thomas isn’t complaining. He can use the money as an investment. He’d always wanted a toy shop of his own. Maybe this had been a blessing in disguise.

The furniture is beautiful, cosy and homely, some of it antique, but the empty space is more than a little lonely.

When Thomas goes to retrieve his things, there’s no sign of the taxi. The driver had left his duffel bag on the front step.

*

Thomas goes running the next morning. He can’t sleep. And he resolutely doesn’t think of Adam. Instead he puts a pair of trainers on that he’d brought along with him and leaves before dawn has a chance to break, the sky a hazy dark blue overhead, the early morning wind prickling his bare arms. He stops once he hits his first circuit, walking all the way back once it begins to lighten, enjoying the ache in his calves.

After breakfast, he finally goes poking around the place, starting with the garden outside. The vegetable plot is in need of repair, the greenhouse shuttered, some of the glass broken and showing toothy gaps. But there are tomatoes growing among the warm leaves, small yellow ones, more plants in small pots on the ground, lining the garden walls and growing against the gate. He goes inside when the sun starts beating down, dizzy from the heat. He finds an old box of memorabilia in one of the rooms upstairs: photographs mostly of his great aunt, a locket, bits of old crockery, a musty wedding dress.

His great uncle and aunt never had children; they met after the war, in a hotel lobby in Marseille. His aunt was just sixteen and not the one his uncle’s family intended him to marry.

Thomas reads all of this in her diary, which stops just after 1953. It’s late when he comes back to himself, his legs cramping from sitting on his knees for hours. He goes downstairs to make himself dinner. He’d gone into town early in the day for some supplies after powering on and cleaning the fridge. He’ll probably do that for the next few days until he’s due to leave for London. Some of the curtains have never been changed, moth-eaten and covered in dust.

Thomas doesn’t mean to call Adam. He can’t quite remember doing it; one second waiting for his tea to steep and then the next staring at his phone which for some reason is flashing Adam’s name. Before Thomas can hang up and pretend this had all been an accident, Adam picks up on the fifth ring. He sounds like he’s at a party. Thomas can hardly hear him through the din in the background.

“Hello?” Adam says, when Thomas says nothing for a while. His voice is tinny, warped with static due the bad reception in this area. “Sorry about the noise, I’m kind of at a thing right now.”

A thing, Thomas thinks, just as Adam’s laughter fill his ear, a response to something funny someone says to him because he seems to be distracted, holding multiple conversations all at once.

Thomas rubs at his ear, then the back of his neck where the skin prickles with warmth.

“It’s stupid, but anyway. How are you?” Adam asks stiffly. Thomas wishes he knew. He thinks he can see rabbits in the garden from where he’s standing in the kitchen; he should probably set traps tomorrow but he hasn’t got the faintest clue where to start laying them.

“I’m doing all right,” Thomas says blandly which is not completely a lie.

“Okay,” Adam says. “You weren’t at your place when I swung by the other day.”

“I’m in the country. My great uncle died and left me with — property.”

“Right, right. I heard,” Adam says. There’s a beat of silence which Thomas thinks always sounds longer on the phone than in real life. He’d wanted to call Adam a few days earlier, but had waited for him to make the first move and now so much time has passed that it had become too awkward. He’s never been good with feelings, better at thinking about them than actually having them.

“I probably have to go soon,” Adam admits. He pauses again. “You should go see my play. It opens this week, I could get you tickets or whatever. I’m fucking nervous as hell.” He laughs, and Thomas thinks he does sound nervous. He gets this look on his face whenever he’s nervous, that wide-eyed little stare that precedes him biting his lip. He’d done that when they had kissed the first time, despite the bravado overlaying his words. Meanwhile Thomas was fucking terrified.

Thomas wonders if he’s doing it right now then stops thinking of him and his lips at all.

“Good luck,” he says to Adam. He hates how trite that sounds, Christ. He wants to hit himself. “I mean, if you want it.”

“Of course I do,” Adam says. “Thanks.” And then: “Look, Thomas—”

Thomas says goodbye before Adam can say anything else.

*

Sometimes Thomas wishes his life were a movie; there would be a seamless transition of one scene to the next instead of real life which just goes on and on. Also movie characters almost always seem to reach some sort of catharsis. Most of the time he doesn’t know what he’s doing and his few days in the country exacerbate that feeling.

His neighbour Bea is sweet, though she seems to be obsessed with the rabbits terrorizing Thomas’ garden, painting them in little jackets, anthropomorphizing them which is more than a little bit concerning. She’s pretty, in an unobtrusive sort of way, and Thomas can almost see himself falling in love with her in another life where he hasn’t been ignoring Adam’s texts or wondering what he’s doing every hour of the day, if he’s seeing someone else or had gotten bored of him already. Adam wants Thomas to see his play. It opened to mix reviews, not that Thomas has been keeping tabs on it.

Still: Thomas keeps delaying a reply. He hardly knows what to say to him.

Thomas likes Bea in part because she’s easy to talk to. She spends most of her time at home painting, while Thomas washes the windows and weeds the flowerbeds and sometimes crosses the lot that separates their properties to ask her how she keeps her garden so lush. She has peonies and an apple tree and things growing that Thomas hardly knows the name of that smell fragrant in the sunshine, rows of cabbages and turnips mysteriously free of slugs, broken pottery and coloured glass lining her garden beds.

Some plants have certain properties, she says, that toe the line between medicine and magic. Thomas just sort of looks at her before helping her mend her fence.

One day she invites him over to her house, cooks him a big dinner that isn’t half-awful and they sit afterwards on her terrace in the comforting darkness of the evening, sipping sangria and listening to the sound of evening birds, sounds that used to frighten him but now are familiar to him: a chorus of frogs in the swaying grass, the rustle of small animals that call the woods their home.

Thomas can see a sagging line draped with blankets hanging perilously low in the garden through the glass wall of the terrace. He tells Bea about Harrods after his second glass of sangria. About losing his job. About growing up in Birmingham where everyday he dreamed of getting out, not that there was anything wrong with being a Brummie, just that he knew he was destined for something better, something different though it didn’t hit him until recently that different doesn’t always mean good. He tells her about his revenge plot of starting his own toy shop so that Harrods could witness their own downfall. Then he tells her about Adam, how he showed up one day at the shop and upended his life. He tells her about how he’s never met anyone like him before, no one as ridiculous or as infuriating or as charming in equal measure.

The red wine in the sangria has hit him pretty hard; he can’t stop himself from talking.

Thomas expects Bea to laugh, or give him a mystified look. Strangers often do that as he had a tendency to overshare without prompting: baristas mostly, or taxi drivers, once even the repairman who came to fix the cupboard doors.

“Do you miss it?” Bea asks, taking Thomas by surprise. She sounds earnest, her eyes glittering in the dark. She reminds him a little bit of his mum, down to the wavy brown hair and the dainty skirts, the busy hands.

“Miss what?” Thomas says.

“Birmingham?” Bea repeats. “Your old job. Your boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Thomas snorts, and tries not to remember Adam’s thigh and how it felt under his hands the thousand times he’d touched it, pushing himself off the sofa, slapping it sometimes when he laughed, laying his head on his lap that afternoon they stayed in and did nothing but fuck and eat and watch terrible television. He seemed to fit against Thomas in a way no one else did, sidling up to him, knowing where to put his hands and knees. This wasn’t always true for the girls Thomas dated before, and the one boy in university who kept bruising his shin whenever they attempted to spoon.

“You talk about him like he is,” Bea says matter-of-factly. “You sound like you like him a lot at least.”

Thomas stares out into the darkness. He doesn’t even know if that’s true. Well: that’s a big fat lie. Of course it’s true. He can deny it all he likes but it’s never going to change the fact that he thinks about him still, that he has been ever since he met Adam. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” he says.

“Of course it does,” Bea tells him.

Thomas shrugs. She has no idea. “Tell me about yourself,” he says, once he realizes he’d overshared again. It was easy with strangers, less so than people he worked with because he knew how certain information can be used against him. And there’s something about Bea, some quality that made Thomas feel at ease. Maybe her eyes; they were so kind. “What are you doing out here in sodding Windermere?”

“I was lonely,” Bea hums. “And I quit my job to focus on my art. Fat lot of good that did me. Now I’m always broke. Do you know how much these go for on Etsy?” She gestures at her paintings. Some of them are interesting, propped on easels or otherwise hanging on the wall, but most of them look like shit to put it nicely. Though the ones of the rabbits — vermin that they are — are beautiful, water colour paintings that capture their likeness, except that she has them standing on two feet and wearing…jackets.

“Er,” says Thomas.

“Not very much, let me tell you,” Bea says in a stage whisper. She laughs at herself, already tipsy. “Look at us, a couple of… there’s no word for it even, is there?”

“Losers?”

“Oi!”

“Failures?”

Bea pokes him in the shoulder. “No! No, no, no! We’re a work in progress you and I,” she tells him, with another rough poke. “We aren’t quite finished yet.” She takes one last pull of her drink, belches with her head thrown back before blinking and then glancing around the room. “You should go to him, your charming man.”

“Right now?”

“Not right now, don’t be daft, it’s half past nine and you’re drunk off your arse! But when you’re ready you should call him and say: you miss him and that you’re sorry for yelling at him but that he should also be sorry for saying those things because he doesn’t understand that your career is important to you too. Anyway, other than that, he sounds like an utter dream.”

“I don’t miss him,” Thomas says after a pause. “And he’s an absolute nightmare.”

“Is he,” Bea says, but she sounds like she doesn’t believe him at all.

*

Thomas leaves for London by the end of the week. He’s almost sad to be going so soon but Windermere is still shit and he needs to get things started if he plans on selling the property. Bea drives him to the train station, and they share a perfunctory hug before he boards the train. She waves at him from the platform, wearing a floppy straw hat with a flower pinned to the brim. He feels like he’s going to war as he waves back at her and settles against his seat, closing his eyes against the afternoon sunshine hollering through the window. He wakes up with sunburn, his nose itching, and his eyelids crusty, which is just as well. And still he finds a way to blame it all on the country.

It’s late when he makes it back to his flat with traffic choking into motion at half past six. When he pushes the front door open he finds an unmarked white envelope on the floor next to his shoe. Thomas inspects it gingerly, flicks it up to the light before opening it, the rest of his mail tucked under his armpit.

Two tickets to Henry and Mary Are Always Late. Front row. He leaves them on the coffee table and tries not to think about Adam sliding the envelope under his door or the messages Thomas has left unanswered on his phone. Adam had stopped texting which Thomas isn’t sure he can mark as a success.

There’s nothing in the fridge: just fizzy water and some crackers when Thomas goes to check. He eats the crackers in the living room while reading his mail, has a go at the treadmill for half an hour and then makes a cup of tea, emptying his bag filled solely with laundry while waiting for his tea to steep. He sorts out the towels still sitting in the washer, folding them in neat stacks that somehow still end up in the exact same size. Thomas likes folding laundry even if it’s tedious and repetitive. Especially because it is tedious and repetitive.

He showers afterwards, pulling on a pair of pyjamas and crawling under the covers where he goes through a stack of old photographs he’d found bundled in twine in his great uncle’s attic. They’re mostly pictures of him and his wife when they were much younger, around Thomas’ age. The garden had been small in the beginning, hardly the marvel it is now.

At around midnight when he can’t stop yawning or rubbing his eyes, he decides to call it a night. Light from the hallway outside seeps from under the door. He takes off his glasses and puts them on the bedside table next to his cup of tea. He turns the bedside lamp off, yanks the covers up his chest, closes his eyes and listens to his own breathing, to the sound of his flat breathing along with him: the sleeping machine replicating the sound of rushing water, and outside the white noise of traffic, someone walking their dog at bloody one in the morning. His sheets smell like laundry detergent; the mattress squeaks when he rolls onto his side.

He’s home.

*

Thomas can’t help himself, is the thing, which is why he goes to see Henry And Mary Are Always Late that Friday night. He’s been telling himself it’s going to be bad, but when he steps into the lounge of the Playhouse Theater, it’s actually much worse. His hands won’t stop shaking and he feels underdressed in jeans and a maroon jumper. He joins the throng milling about the doors, grabbing a playbill, wishing he was elsewhere or had gone in a little bit later. It had rained on the way here and the shoulders of his coat were soaked through and now he couldn’t help but feel a little crabby.

“Thomas.”

Thomas almost keels over in shock. He turns and there he is — Adam in dark trousers and a white undershirt, his hair neatened, his face strangely luminous with makeup. He’s got a paper cup in one hand and it looks far too small clutched in his enormous palm.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you,” Adam says. He doesn’t blink.  Neither does Thomas.

“Same, I mean,” Thomas falters. What is he even doing here, he thinks, and then says instead: “Hello.”

“Hi.” Adam swallows, then swallows again visibly. “Listen,” he begins, just as someone taps him on the shoulder— someone important looking with an earpiece and a clipboard. Adam gives the guy a few jerky nods before turning to Thomas again. “I want you to stay after the show,” he says firmly. “If you could — wait. There’s something I’d like to say to you.”

“You could say it now.”

“Thomas,” Adam says, then releases a snort. “Now isn’t the —”

“Adam!” says the earpiece-and-clipboard guy.

Thomas almost tells the guy to go away, don’t even think about it, leave now, until he remembers where he is which is not at the shop, not anymore. “Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” Adam says to the guy who disappears round a corner. He lobs Thomas a look over his shoulder before following after. “Enjoy the show,” he says. “Thomas.”

Thomas, not for the first time, watches him leave.

*

Adam is a surprisingly good actor. Thomas is able to judge him objectively as such but it still doesn’t change the fact that he’s terrified out of his mind the whole time he’s watching him onstage. Already his mind races through half a dozen scenarios of how their conversation will play out before the final intermission is over. When a lounge hostess taps Thomas on the shoulder after the show, he springs to his feet in surprised panic and follows her backstage, still in a panic, his hands sweating in his pockets. It’s ridiculous, really. How can one person make him feel this way, he wonders.

Thomas trails after the lounge hostess through the shotgun hallway crowded with actors still in costume congratulating each other, a myriad of stage pieces leaned against the wall. He’s told to wait in an empty dressing room which is what he does because he has no other choice. The room is small, probably Adam’s and another actor’s. He can see a familiar bag in a corner, and an even more familiar beanie crumpled on the table next to a water bottle and a bouquet of flowers. Now he wishes he’d brought Adam flowers, and hadn’t showed up empty-handed. But does Adam even like flowers? Thomas doesn’t know. He touches his beanie, running his thumb across the worn cotton, over and over.

The plastic thermos on the table is still warm, and has the words ADAM’S DO NOT STEAL written in black marker across it. Everywhere Thomas looks there are traces of him: a dog-eared copy of The Brothers Karamazov with a receipt acting as a bookmark, his leather jacket hanging from the back of a foldable chair. And of all things: a comb, one that Thomas has already seen make several appearances before in his presence.

Thomas waits, and waits, and ten minutes pass, then fifteen, and he decides that’s enough time before walking out the door. He passes the actors again in the hallway — none of them are Adam — and almost barrels into the same earpiece-and-clipboard guy from earlier. He takes a taxi home where the first thing he does is take his shirt off and his trousers and worm his way under the covers. He leaves all the lights off so that the only illumination is from the street lamp outside, spilling in through the slats in the curtains, diffusing the darkness. Then he sleeps.

When he wakes, it’s almost morning again and his phone is buzzing on the bedside table. It’s Adam, wanting to know where the fuck he is. His last message reads i’m at yr door and Thomas races out the hall without thinking, throwing the door open in just his boxers. He’s breathing hard, his hair everywhere.

And there’s Adam, caught in the act of knocking again. He got rid of the make-up at least though there are still smudges of eyeliner smearing his cheeks in wings. Thomas wonders if he’s still dreaming.

“You didn’t wait for me,” Adam points out, and Thomas can’t help but feel guilty. He shivers, realizing his state of undress.

“I didn’t want to—” Thomas doesn’t even know how to continue that thought. Adam overwhelms him constantly, is the thing, and being near him is like free falling into gravity without a parachute. Half the time Thomas fears he isn’t good for his health, while the other half — the other half just wants to surrender to the tidal wave of tenderness that washes over him whenever Adam is within his vicinity. Thomas cares about people; it’s not true that he’s immune to emotion. But Adam is a different thing entirely; often he leaves Thomas feeling unmoored and sometimes that’s dangerous.

“I’m kind of in love with you,” Adam blurts out, without warning, because of course he does.“I just thought you’d know. Get it out of the way and all that.”

Thomas doesn’t ask him to repeat himself; he’s heard every word. Still it sends his mind reeling, his heart pounding like a fist inside his chest, on and on. But he affects a calm he doesn’t feel and meets Adam’s gaze squarely. He tilts his chin. “Every time you open your mouth I have absolutely no idea what you’re going to say.”

“I just want so badly to know if you like me, I guess,” Adam says, “And I know how asinine that sounds, and if you want me to leave you alone, I will, but sometimes... you ever heard of that that saying?” He sounds almost angry. “‘You’re always in the right place at exactly the right time, and you always have been’?” Adam smiles crookedly, just one side of his mouth when Thomas doesn’t respond. “Because I’m right here and I’m looking at you and I’m exactly where I want to be right now.”

Thomas stares at him. Not probingly or imploringly. Just stares at him. As far as speeches go, it’s a great one. He wonders if Adam rehearsed it on the way, if he’d written it himself or stolen it from one of his films. But does it matter, Thomas thinks. Adam seems earnest enough and standing there at two in the morning in nothing but his bloody underwear, Thomas takes it for what it is, and widens the berth of the door. He’ll probably regret this, but he’s done a lot of regretting these last few days and is tired of wallowing.

“Would you like to come in?” he asks.

Adam lets out a nervous laugh, but mostly he sounds relieved. “Yes,” he breathes. It’s the best thing Thomas has ever heard in his life, that breathy yes. Something he can get used to. Thomas wouldn’t mind.

“Yeah, abso-fucking-lutely,” Adam says.

When Adam shuts the door behind him, Thomas grabs him by the face and kisses him immediately, knocking their teeth together, open-mouthed and desperate. “You’re a bloody idiot,” he hisses between punching kisses with his lips. Adam returns every volley, tonguing his lips open, moaning loudly in his throat.

“I know,” Adam cuts in, turning Thomas around and pressing him against the door, his warm hands on Thomas’ cold skin.

Thomas shivers. “I’m a bloody idiot too,” he confesses. He pulls away, and then they’re just standing there, the two of them breathing hard, their faces flushed. Thomas thinks he tastes blood from where Adam nicked his bottom lip.

“I’m sorry I behaved badly,” Thomas says into the ensuing silence that seems to drag on and on. “I was freaking out and being stupid and I was mean to you. Sometimes I get confused and can’t see out of my own arsehole.”

“I know,” Adam agrees. “You were kind of a jerk.”

“Thanks,” says Thomas dryly.

“I’m sorry about the — job,” Adam says, then presses his thumb over Thomas’ cheekbone in slow, tender swipes. He leans their foreheads together, his nose touching Thomas’ cheek. “I wouldn’t know what I’d do if I lost mine, frankly. Probably I’ll still be a fucking hipster in Brooklyn. Or homeless.”

“You hate hipsters,” Thomas points out.

Adam laughs, the sound pressed so closed to Thomas’ ear sending goosebumps down his spine. “I know,” he says. “I do. Fucking hipsters.”

Thomas kisses him again.

*

Living out in the country is not for the weak of heart which is why Thomas divides his time between Windermere and London. The house isn’t up for sale yet; there are many things that need seeing to before putting it on the market, a never ending list that keeps growing and growing when Thomas isn’t paying attention: the plumbing needs some work, as does the central heating. There are windows upstairs that need replacing, boarded up now with plywood, and the entire floor of the attic has gone to rot. But the garden is in full bloom: filled with lush greenery, the apple tree already heavy with fruit.

Thomas has been teaching himself how to garden, reading books on the subject. He’s learned how to tell soil acidity and plant marigolds in the potato patch to discourage parasites; he makes jam from windfalls and the few berries he isn’t allergic to; he lines the perimeter of the garden with traps to keep the wildlife out, casting a net over seedlings to prevent birds from pulling at them.

It’s a lot of work than anticipated. Adam helps him sometimes on the weekends, and they restore the greenhouse to its former glory after a bit of righting and mending, hauling planks of rotting wood, and installing new panels for the windows. Everything else they bin: pieces of old carpet, water-spotted books with half the pages missing, a pair of old rubber boots. Adam finds a straw hat lying around that he takes to wearing when he’s out in the garden, weeding, knelt on the soft dirt while Thomas perfumes the air with organic bug spray and tries not to blind himself.

Adam catches him round the waist on the rare occasion he does manage to nearly blind himself and blows warm air over Thomas’ watery eye, parting the corner of his eyelids with his fingers before bursting out laughing because of course this is funny to him and not a life-or-death situation, of course Thomas is, again, being ludicrous.

They snack on slabs of fruit cake and thick bacon and egg sandwiches while drinking strong sweet tea in the afternoons, watching the sun slant across the hills and listening to birds trilling overhead, singing their song and shitting on everything.

Thomas is bored most of the time — they don’t get Netflix over here and the reception is terrible — but Adam brings him a stack of DVDs one day and they all happen to be a mix of Colin Firth films and the things Adam has been in himself, with baffling titles like: Cobalt Sextant, American Flower and Irish Rose (a romance apparently), Midnight Oil and a 4- season TV series called Dudez. Yes, with a Z, that takes exactly five days to marathon. But Thomas watches all of it with a straight face, most of the time, because some of it isn’t shit and actually makes for good entertainment.

Most of it though, most of it is shit but Adam makes it worth his while, throwing himself into his role that Thomas often forgets it’s him that he’s watching. He laughs openly, weeps, and is terrified for Adam’s characters. In between films, Adam sucks him off depending on his reaction: positive ones get him a fingering if Adam is so inclined, negative ones earn him a sullen pout.

One day, Adam takes down the photograph of Thomas’ great uncle where it hangs just above the headboard because he feels weird sleeping with him watching over them, even more so when they fuck. He swears those eyes are judging him in the dark for sullying the McGregor boy, he says. Not that Thomas needs sullying anymore as he’s already done that to himself, wanting it all the time, everywhere except in the garden.

This is mostly true, the wanting does come in waves, but because Thomas has to save face, he pinches Adam in the nipple for the comment. They don’t have sex in the garden mostly because it’s in the direct eyeline of Bea’s garden, and he still hasn’t caught those bloody rabbits — one day though, one day — and Thomas doesn’t want either of them to bear witness to his most intimate moments, when he’s got his ankles clutched in both hands while Adam is bent forward on the ground and eating him out, running his tongue down the inside of Thomas’ thighs and slobbering all over his hole, when he isn’t afraid to make noise, being as loud as he wants to be.

Life in the country is still shit for the most part but Adam makes it all the more bearable whenever he’s around. He’s good for errands, for housework, for back massages when Thomas’ old man pains besiege him, for fixing the antenna on the roof and repairing the washing line in the backyard, though he complains a fair amount for it to be almost annoying, except even that too Thomas is getting used to.

Today Thomas has made a pitcher of sangria using Bea’s recipe and is feeling pleasantly buzzed from his second glass as he sits in the shade with his face caked with sun creme. It’s a hot day, the sun a white cap, the insects singing in the curling grass in a low melodic drone.

Adam’s back is turned as he leans over a patch of loganberries with pruning shears in one hand, his shirt already divested moments earlier. There are tan lines around his arms where he wears his shirtsleeves and the sun is sweating on his back, making it shine in patches as his muscles flex and flex with each movement. When he stretches his arms over his head, popping a crick in his neck, a bead of perspiration rolls down his spine, dripping all the way down to his naked waist.

Thomas leans back in his seat and enjoys the view, sipping on his drink with a languid pull, adjusting the brim of his floppy straw hat that smells a bit like Adam’s shampoo. And it’s the strangest thing in the world but for the first time in a long time there it is; he feels it course through him like a current, pouring in through his bones:

bliss.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

MONTHS EARLIER

 

Thomas takes the employee exit round the back which spits him out into the narrow alley between Harrods and its neighbouring building, crowded with dumpsters and rich with the stink of wet pavement and garbage. Quitting smoking had been a vague resolution and he’s stuck to it for the most part except on days like this where he’s close to wringing someone’s neck for their incompetence. He lights himself a cigarette, inhales, then blows smoke rings that lasso in the air, his head tipped back. The tobacco hits and immediately he feels a strange peace envelop him like a blanket.

When he’s calmed down somewhat to notice that it’s started drizzling, he shakes his umbrella open while continuing to smoke with one hand.

Of course, that’s when a breeze works its way towards him, snapping his umbrella from his tenuous grip. Thomas watches his umbrella cartwheel down the alley, hitting a passerby who has no right to be standing in the middle of a sidewalk like a tourist. The man gawks at Thomas’ errant umbrella which had collided against his legs like a piece of tumbleweed before picking it up by the handle from the ground in one fluid movement. He glances up at Thomas striding over to meet him halfway, cigarette bobbing from his lips.

“This yours?” American. Because of course. Lopsided mouth, dark wavy hair. Probably a few years younger than Thomas if the rest of his clothing is any indication though he asserts himself as a fair bit taller.

“Yes, sorry about that,” Thomas says, only slightly embarrassed. He takes the umbrella from the man, tugging on the handle twice when the man doesn’t relinquish his grip at first, his hand closing around Thomas’ with a cheeky grin.

Then the man eyes the Harrods storefront, putting two and two together when he sees the colour of Thomas’ tie as well as the rest of his uniform under his burgundy coat. “You work here?”

“Yes,” Thomas affirms in monotone because this is not the first time he’s been asked that by a stranger. He situates the umbrella overhead, takes another drag of his cigarette, blowing smoke from the corner of his lips. “Welcome to Harrods, we've got all things for all people, everywhere. Omnia omnibus ubique and all that.”

“You sound too much like a robot to be working in customer service,” The man points out.

“Yes, well,” Thomas mutters, pursing his lips in a frown. “I’m on break. I can turn it on and off when I want.” He flits the man a look and then hops around in surprise when his cigarette tumbles free from his lips and fizzles on the ground. The two of them stare at it for a moment, Thomas with a disappointed moue, the man seemingly bewildered by his visceral reaction, staring brazenly.

“Oh bollocks — and I promised myself I was going to treat myself to just the one.”

“Right,” says the man, huffing out a short laugh. Thomas’ scowl deepens so much so that he feels his jaw starting to twitch.

“Anyway, you wanna tell me how I can get to the Playhouse Theater from here?”

Thomas casts the man a wary look. He seems harmless enough, if a little bit of an arsehole — but that’s to be expected from American tourists —  with crinkling eyes and a big nose and hair that falls in dark waves around his face. Thomas is tempted to just leave him be, his break is almost over, but the part of him that loves working for Harrods can’t help but want to, well, help. He sighs as he takes out a pen from his breast pocket and starts scribbling notes on the back of a receipt also produced from his breast pocket, using the man’s forearm as a makeshift desk. He smells rather nice up close, despite appearances, clean sweat and a hint of citrus-scented cologne.

“I’ll draw you a map,” Thomas explains, ignoring the man’s complaints about how it actually hurts, ow, ow, ow, that's my arm. “Follow these directions precisely — don’t dawdle or deviate — and you’ll find yourself there before half past two.”

“Crazy, but okay, sure.” The man stares at the receipt, turning it every which way before folding it in two and then slipping it into the front pocket of his hoodie. He nods at Thomas, once. “Well, thanks for the help, I guess.” His eyes flick down to Thomas’ name tag. “Thomas.”

Thomas is almost caught off-guard by the offhand mention of his name until he realizes he still has his name tag on. For some reason this embarrasses him more so than the out of control umbrella and he pulls his coat tighter around himself, hugging his chest with one arm, jutting his chin. He tips his umbrella forward when the rain starts to pick up, the breeze whipping into stronger gusts, sending his hair flapping around his face like wings. He blinks against it, again and again. He thinks he hears the man laugh again before pushing Thomas’ hair out of his face with his massive hand.

Thomas blinks at him. 

“I guess I’ll see you around,” the man says, though he’s made no move to walk away just yet, his hand falling limply at his side. A smile blooms slowly on his face. It’s a little strange but Thomas finds himself smiling back out of reflex even if he’s confused as to why he’s doing it in the first place as if he’d been infected by some sort of smiling-virus. But he holds the man’s stare until the man glances away again, adjusting the hood around his face and studiously glancing about before squinting up at the sky.

Rain is falling a little harder now, in sparkling lines that slap the ground like glass. Thomas shivers, inching closer under the pinch of shade, and lifts his right foot and then his left, shaking off rainwater. He wishes his socks don’t get soaked through. That would be the worst when he still has four hours left of his shift.

“Good luck on the way,” Thomas bids the man out of a lack of a better thing to say. “If you need it.”

“Of course I need it,” The man tells him, giving him a funny look. “It's my first day in London.”

Just then the man turns and then dives under the rain, joining the throng of pedestrians headed the opposite direction, head ducked down, arms covering his head like a shield. He skids on the pavement when he reaches the corner, kicking up puddles, out of sight, and Thomas stands there on the sidewalk for a good few minutes long after he’s gone before walking back into the alley to resume his smoke break.

Two cigarettes won’t hurt, he thinks, and decides to put the interloper out of his mind entirely.