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In 2018 he buys a plate.

There’s nothing particularly special about it, aside from the fact that it’s got a picture of the sunset printed across it in the world’s cheapest applique, the kind that Nick would never in a million years put in the microwave because there’s the odd drunk cigarette or ten and then there’s eating whatever lead-like chemicals are infused in that paint. It’s the worst thing he’s ever seen, that picture of the sunset emblazoned with the words think wild thoughts in a horrible garish font across the centre, and Nick’s got ten quid in his hand before he even registers that he’s stepped out of the flow of people in the market and up to the stall.

Henry’s looking at him like he’s lost it, but Henry is also wearing a shirt from his own fucking collection and has far too much flamingo print adorning his person, so his judgment is invalid.

They make it about ten steps once Nick’s got the plate wrapped up and safely in a carrier bag at his side before Henry bursts, “Did you just buy a decorative souvenir plate?”

Nick searches desperately for a witty and scathing response, one that makes adequate use of the numerous mockery options Henry has on display, from the flamingos to the hornshell glasses to the metallic Doc Martens.

Opens his mouth and says, “Yes.”

A beat. “O-kay.” Henry makes it into two words, and Nick forcibly restrains himself from rolling his eyes in the direction of the sky, seeking patience from some untold higher power. Twelve steps this time, before Henry stops them to ask, “Why did you buy a horrible souvenir plate?”

“Could you— I dunno, alright, it just, it reminded me of someone.” Henry’s eyebrows inform him that that was not a completed thought, and Nick twists his hair back into place over his forehead, doesn’t wait for him to ask who. Avoids his eyes when he says, “Pix.”

It’s mostly not a lie.

“Pixie? Like, Pepsi Pix?”

“How many Pixies do—”

“How could that plate have possibly reminded you—”

“Hens, enough about the plate. It’s a plate, I bought it, can we talk about literally anything else.”

Henry’s eyebrows are practically in his hairline, “We’ve spoken about this plate for what has honestly been less than a minute, but,” he raises his hands in supplication, which would have been appreciated if his eyes weren’t very obviously mocking Nick and all of his life choices, “fine by me. Touchy touchy, Nicholas.”

Soon enough though he’s talking about his plans for his next line, and the model who’d come in for a casting but then hadn’t wanted to walk or try on any of the clothes, and filling Nick in on Dave’s latest exploits, so Nick forgives him for the eyebrows.

He puts the plate in a box in his wardrobe when he gets home, one he’s stashed under the long hanging section, because he doesn’t actually own very many dresses and even in garment bags his suits don’t fall near to the ground. He looks at it for a while, this massive bankers box, empty aside from one plate that’s been hastily wrapped in that thin shitty newsprint-type paper and placed in the far left corner.

“Pixie’s wedding,” Henry had realised once they’d reached the car park and loaded their bags in the back of Nick’s Jeep. “You were obsessed with that song, you and—”

“Don’t,” Nick had said, snatching the keys out of Henry’s hands. “I just— it’s a good song.”

Nick shakes his head.

And then he shuts the box, pushes it to the very back, tells himself to stop being such an fucking idiot, and goes back to his life.

 

*

 

He starts adding things to it, every now and then. The box. A string of fairy lights, two vintage martini glasses that are very faintly tinted pink and have intricate gold leaf trim around the top, a white mug with I’ve got the moves like Jagger printed on the side in black typeface.

Stupid shit. Things he’s never going to use, that are obviously never going to fill his cupboards anywhere, never going to decorate any rooms.

It’s 2020 when he finds the picture he’d had Taylor sign at Biggest Weekend in Swansea two years prior, and he laughs for about twenty minutes straight. The tears in his eyes mean it isn’t easy to make out the To Nicholas, my very best friend, who I have never been savagely jealous of and wish all the best. (Just kidding here’s to hoping you trip and fall onstage and Frank Ocean openly mocks you for it on twitter) Kisses!!! xoxoxo TS, but he knows that it’s scrawled there all the same. He can practically still see the smirk on her face as he’d jokingly asked for an autograph in a horrible falsetto and she’d whipped out a sharpie from god knows where, blinked innocently and called his bluff with, “who should I make it out to?” He sort of loves a popstar who’s never heard the word de-escalate in her life.

Her face as she’d handed it back had made him respect her more—wry, and amused at her own expense—and the laugh he’d barked out when he’d first read the dedication had been real. It’s a good memory.

He has the picture professionally matted and framed, and into the box it goes.

 

*

 

By the time he arrives in Holmes Chapel, he decides that it definitely doesn't feel like over a decade has passed since the first time he came ‘round to Harry’s for the holidays.

He says as much to Anne as they’re chatting, and she smiles, shakes her head, offers, “Mad that it’s almost 2023,” sounding as baffled as Nick feels by the passage of time. Years go by more quickly as he gets older.

Their conversation hasn’t been especially coherent so far, switching from reminiscing about three Christmases ago to chatting about dessert and then moving on to sleeping arrangements, the two of them deciding that Nick will take the sofa bed instead of trying to drive back to Oldham tonight. He’s rehearsing his speech for when Harry inevitably offers to trade later—to let Nick take his twin bed upstairs and sleep on the sofa himself—and has Anne almost bent double with laughter imitating Harry’s endless complaints when he sleeps on anything but a ridiculously quiche mattress. “Honestly, as if he’s going to sleep on a sofa bed.” He does a dramatic sweep with his arm, and only avoids sloshing red wine everywhere because there’s less than a sip left in his glass. “We'd never hear the end of the tragedy that’s befallen his delicate popstar lower back.”

Anne’s eyes fall on the empty wine bottle as she’s dashing tears away, and she springs up suddenly, darting in the direction of the kitchen to presumably grab another with a hasty, “Oh there’s more where that came from!” thrown over her shoulder. Legend, Harry’s mum is.

He spends a good minute staring after her once she’s disappeared before it occurs to him that he should probably have just gone with her. Harry hasn’t come back from wherever he’d gone when his phone rang, and Nick’s ability to entertain himself has always capped off at about thirty seconds, so he gets up, ambles over in the direction Anne went.

It’s possible that he’d actually sat on the sofa by himself for longer than a minute though, because he catches Anne and Gemma’s voices spilling out through the kitchen doorway as he rounds the corner, clearly already mid-conversation. And obviously he doesn’t usually linger outside of doors, but something makes him pause, just far enough back that he’s still out of sight.

“I’m not sure what happened with her,” Anne is saying, “I really, I dunno. I thought he…meant it, this time.”

There’s a brief pause before Gemma chimes back in with, “Mum, I— I don’t mean this the way it’s going to sound, but— it’s Harry. He never means it.”

There’s a clink as if something’s been set down on the counter, before Anne’s soft, “He does.”

She sounds sad, almost. Wistful.

“Mum, when has he ever—” and then it’s quiet for a bit while Anne must gesture something, because suddenly Gemma huffs a laugh, says, “Okay, fair.”

It crashes into Nick then, what he’s doing, standing here listening to Harry’s family talk—presumably—about his love life, and he abruptly strides forwards, making as much noise as he reasonably can in his approach.

There’s a grin on his face as he swans into the kitchen, and his, “Right-o, mini Nigellas! What can I do to help?” sounds very cheerful, if he does say so himself.

In the end he manages to be more of a hindrance than a help, and Gemma has him fold napkins in an out-of-the-way corner while Harry’s phone call drags on for far longer than the five minutes, ten at most that he’d promised when he ducked out earlier.

He should just leave it be, Nick thinks later, once the food’s been cleared away and he’s got the chance to catch Harry alone, if he wants to. Eavesdroppers are always doomed to get themselves into trouble, or whatever the saying is, and that’s what he’d been doing, really, even if it had started as a bit of an accident.

He should leave it be, but suddenly he’s standing in the doorway of the kitchen again, though slumped on the doorframe this time and sipping mulled wine that Gemma’s spiked with far too much brandy to be socially acceptable. Harry’s standing by himself at the sink, washing some of the multitude of strangely shaped dishes that hadn’t fit in the dishwasher, and Nick should just leave well enough alone.

Instead he’s asking “How’re things with Abby, then?” before he even realizes he’s opened his mouth, and he shoots an accusing look at the mug in his hand.

Harry flicks the briefest of glances in his direction before he’s looking straight ahead again, and he kind of hums a bit in response, giving a shrug that probably would have passed for casual and absent-minded if Nick didn’t know him quite so well.

Nick somehow stills even though he wasn’t moving, realizes that for whatever reason he’d still been expecting a grin and an immediate retelling of the latest adventures of Harry and Abigail, paced strangely and emphasizing the wrong parts of the story and interspersed with laughter all throughout. He can’t see Harry’s face, of course, so there could still be a grin, but— he doesn’t think so, somehow.

Nick’s fingers tighten around the handle of his cup with what he tells himself is sympathy.

He really needs to leave this be now. Change the subject. Ask about Jeff’s kid or Xavier’s new movie. “Did something happen?”

Harry doesn’t turn around. “Why would something have happened?”

Nick makes a face, not that Harry’s looking the right direction to appreciate it. “Well I dunno, do I? Why are you slumming it in Holmes Chapel instead of living large in New York?” He pauses, but Harry doesn’t cut in, focusing intently on his task. Surely the gravy boat is clean by now. “We didn’t think you were coming this year, especially not alone.” Harry’s shoulders are tensing minutely.

“We?”

He should make a joke, laugh, say forget it, and ask about Jeff’s kid.

“Your mum and me,” he says instead, “when she texted to invite me for tonight.”

That seems to throw Harry slightly, going by his tone. “Wait, you were going to come without me here?” He sounds a bit bewildered. A bit pleased, suddenly, out of nowhere.

“Obviously I was going to come. Live for your mum’s holiday shortbread, don’t I. Plus, did you see? Anne’s got me a stocking, which admittedly she’s hung up after all the ones for the cats, but I’m choosing not to read too far into that, because extra prezzies—”

“She did not get you a stocking.” The grin starting in his voice matches the one hinted at on his face when he shoots another quick glance over his shoulder, and Nick’s next breath comes a bit easier.

“She did!” He’s making urgent hand motions in the direction of the living room that are being completely wasted on the back of Harry’s head. If he could just turn around. “Monogrammed and everything. Here, come on, I’ll show you.”

He’s thanking every higher power he can think of that the subject has changed even though he was apparently incapable of changing it himself when, of course, Harry turns around and dashes away the miracle. The smile that was on his face is visibly fading, he's not moving in the direction of the living room, and he’s licking his lips in that way he does when he’s bracing himself for something he really doesn’t want to say.

Nick wants to tell him to forget it, as if he wasn’t the one to bring it up.

“She knew, then. Must have.”

“What?”

Harry shakes his head slightly, but it doesn’t look like it’s directed at Nick. “Abby. Mum must have known— like, deep down, she,” he bites his lip, his eyes darting around the room like they can’t settle on anything. “She knew, that I wasn’t going to keep bringing her here.” He swallows, stays quiet for ages, and Nick, for once in his life, can think of literally nothing to say. He knows how Harry's mind works, can fill in the unspoken ‘there's no monogrammed ‘Abby’ stocking’ with ease. Harry goes on after a while, voice a bit scratchy. “It’s just, I think she wanted, like. The whole thing, you know? Abby did. House and kids and...”

Oh, god.

There’s a very applicable metaphor about curiosity and dead cats for moments like these.

Nick licks his lips. Decides worrying about his masochistic tendencies isn't the important thing right now. “What, and you don’t?” Harry still won’t meet his eyes. “Come on, Haz, you’ve wanted a mini-you for years. I thought—”

“So did I. I thought— I knew she wanted it, and I wouldn’t have— I thought I wanted it too, or I’d never—” He takes a deep breath. “She’s so— she’s so nice. She’s such a good person. She’s fun and she builds people up and she’s— real, you know? She’s real, and she wants to be a mom—” Harry breaks off, and Nick’s been listening, he’s truly been listening, and he’s also been doing his best to read between any and all of the lines. He still unfortunately has the brain power to register the mom instead of mum, swallows without meaning to before he shakes himself out of it.

“And you— don’t? Now?” His voice is careful, measured.

“No I— I do. I want the kids, and the house, and,” he blows out a breath, frustrated. “But I just…”

A beat passes. Then another.

“You just don’t want them with her,” Nick finally finishes.

Harry’s eyes fly to his, searchingly, though god only knows what he’s hoping to find. Nick certainly has no advice for him, has never been in a situation where all that’s been on offer, but for some reason it hasn’t felt quite right.

He almost opens his mouth to suggest that Harry spend some of his going-on-sixty-million pounds to just buy his own damn house, but realizes even as he’s thinking it that that’s not the point. Harry could buy houses all over the world, if he wanted to. Has done, in fact, at various stages of his career.

No, the point is that Harry wants a house with someone. He wants the dream, because for someone so nomadic and flighty, he’s a truly awful romantic. He doesn’t want to buy himself another house with glass walls and incredible views and inoffensive decor. Harry wants somewhere that finally feels like home.

And apparently he’s realized that it’s not going to be with Abby.

Nick wonders if he’ll even stay in New York. Harry’s always been the sort to cure heartbreak by taking flight. Hopefully wherever he lands this time will be warm, so Nick can at least get a tan during his inevitable visit.

“I’m really sorry, popstar,” he says eventually. Inadequately. Tries to make up for it by pulling Harry into a hug.

Harry melts into him, so Nick can’t have fucked this whole conversation up too badly. They stay like that for a while before Harry pulls back, eyes bright but calmer now than they’d been a minute ago. Less tragic. “Alright then, show me this fucking stocking. Can tell you’re still bursting with it.”

And, well. If there’s one thing Nick’s never been shy about, it’s showing off evidence that he’s wanted, proof that he’s loved.

Nick shows him the stocking, hanging there for all to see, with Nicholas written across the top in lettering as bright as his smile.

He catches Anne watching him stare at it later, and pulls her into a hug tight enough that she’s suddenly the one at risk of spilling her wine.

Fuck it, though. It’s Christmas, and it’s almost 2023, and the years are going by faster as Nick gets older. If someone’s all but made his year with a spool of thread and an embroidery machine, then—

Well.

Then he’s damn well going to tell them so.

 

*

 

Nick buys a set of candles that are reduced to clear in the post-holiday sales, a few weeks after the Christmas of the following year. It’s incredible that he’s somehow managed to live his entire life up until the first weeks of 2024 without realizing that candle companies do this, have seasonal merchandise that they need to get rid of once Christmas is over. Must be that he’s been too attached to the few scents he always burns to even consider buying anything else, up until now.

These ones catch his eye though, because the glass is brightly coloured rather than clear, and the design painted on is not Christmassy at all, totally incongruous with the scents they purport to boast. Pine-ing for you, Pocket of Peppermint, Sugar and Spice, and Stocking Stuffer. Makes a change from Diptyque’s posh French names.

The corner of his mouth twitches at the first, and the next two seem expected enough, but— stocking stuffer? They couldn’t have meant that to be the actual scent description. It’s as if someone was filling out a spreadsheet with the names of what they were going to call their ‘stocking stuffer’ collection, had copied and pasted that heading into the next few cells, and then forgotten to change the last label over to its actual name.

No wonder they hadn’t sold through all these boxed sets.

He’ll probably never burn them, because it’s not as though he’s willing to actually change what his house smells like, but— he buys them nonetheless.

He gives Pine-ing for you to George, just for the look of exasperation on Pixie’s face, Sugar and Spice to Aimee because he figures it’s ironic, and Pocket of Peppermint to Tina, for no other reason than that she smiles really hugely when he meets her for a late lunch and declares that he’d thought it smelled posh and adult, and thus obviously she was the only one in his acquaintance who was qualified to own it.

The one allegedly scented with stocking stuffer gets tucked into the box in his wardrobe.

 

*

 

A few months later he’s out in Camden with Alexa, and he buys three white, square picture frames, doesn’t switch out the blank white backgrounds that are serving as stock photos for any actual pictures, and squirrels the lot of them away as well.

 

*

 

He doesn’t even consider himself entirely to blame for the clock purchase.

Admittedly he’d stopped to look at it, but that had only been because it was interesting looking, almost like a set of brass scales, with a pole in the middle and a clock-face dangling from either side. It even had little metal inserts to label both timezones, giving you the option of picking two out of Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Seoul, London, Paris, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Moscow. (According to the shop-keeper there had used to be ten— Nick remembers wondering which city’s plaque had been lost. Trying not to dwell on London and Los Angeles as two of the remaining, LA being newly relevant once again.)

He certainly hadn’t originally intended to buy it.

But then the shop must have had one of those CDs loaded with popular songs which were only about five or ten years out of date, because suddenly DJ Khaled and Rihanna were playing around him, and for a split second he wasn’t standing in a shop in London.

He was back in time years before, on a dance floor far past the wrong side of midnight, Harry glassy-eyed and drunk and laughing and dancing terribly, moonlight catching in his curls. Nick's heart was hammering in his chest and his hands were almost reaching out, and then the speakers were warning when I get like this I can't be around you.

And then he was standing in a shop in London, hearing that same line once again, and watching as two clock-faces ticked ever on, tied together yet forever just slightly out of sync.

He could have left without it, of course. Turned on his heel and ran.

He didn’t.

(He’s at least partially blaming the song.)

Instead he picked it up, handed over his debit card, got it home, and pushed the little London and Los Angeles plaques into place. And then spent a good five minutes winding the clock faces so that they both showed exactly the same time, pushed in the pins at precisely the same moment. Watched it for a bit. Decided he couldn’t watch it anymore.

It got the benefit of careful bubble-wrapping before it joined the others at the bottom of his wardrobe.

 

*

 

“Bit boring for a midlife crisis, if I’m being honest.”

Nick snorts. “You have to admit that this one is better than my last. No buzz cuts in sight this time round.”

Aimee doesn’t even try to restrain herself from rolling her eyes. “Alright alright, I’m all ears. Tell me more about the latest pipedream.”

“Not a pipedream. I’ve been to the bank.”

Aimee’s eyes cut back to him almost comically from where they were wandering around the cafe. If it were a movie she would have spat out her coffee. “You’ve— what? I thought you were having a Dickens fantasy, I’m going to buy a little house in the country as my own fortieth birthday gift. You’re actually going to buy a house in the country?”

“Jesus, could you be any louder? You’d think I’d told you I was buying real estate on Mars. But— yes. A very very small cottage, just outside of Brighton. There’s a coffee shop called The Docks that does a vegan vanilla slice that’s to die for. It’s just in town. You and little Ian and baby Sunday are forever welcome to come visit and frolic around on the beach pretending it's warm enough to be there.”

“She’s seven, not a baby anymore,” Aimee says faintly, reflexively, then continues louder, “Wait, what? You’ve been there already? What are you— Are you moving? To Brighton, of all places?”

“Obviously I’m not— what would I do in Brighton?” Aimee makes a face like what did you think I was asking. “It’s just, like, a cottage. A place we can go, on weekends or holiday or, y’know, whenever.”

“A place we— Is that what this is? What you’re trying to tell me? Are you and Jacques buying a cottage? Fuck, Grim, I— I didn’t mean that shit I said about him being boring and all that, like— well, I suppose I did, actually, but— If you’re serious about him, I am one hundred percent on board, please don’t hate me—”

Nick really shouldn’t be laughing. “God, don’t strain yourself. And also, no, we are most definitely not. Can you imagine Jacques in Brighton? He doesn’t even really like London, though I honestly think his only problem with it is that it’s not Paris,” her eyebrows have him trailing off. How do all his friends have such expressive and judgmental eyebrows? Is it some sort of subliminal criteria he has for best mates? Can you nonverbally call someone an idiot who makes bad choices, please tick Y/N?

He really doesn’t want to discuss Jacques though, and thankfully Aimee sees fit to let the subject drop. “I’m still not sure I—? Brighton.” Her voice is flat, yet somehow still a question.

“What about it?”

“Uh— what not about it? Most people buy holiday houses in like, Spain, or the south of France, or— Actually I’m going to let that go, because obviously I’ve seized upon the completely wrong part of this. Who did you— you said ‘we’, a minute ago.”

“What?”

“That’s why I asked about Jacques in the first place. You said a place we can go.”

Christ, he had.

Of course she would choose now to actually listen to him. “I meant you and me.”

“No, you didn’t.”

No, he didn’t.

He blinks innocently nonetheless. “What, you don’t want to run away with me and have a scandalous affair by the seaside?”

Which gets the snort he’s hoping for. “Right. So— you’re buying a cottage. By yourself. In Brighton.”

“Mmm,” he hums. “I’m weirdly excited about it? Like, obviously it’s mad, but— I’m going to fix it up. It’s not falling down or anything, but. I’m going to knock out a wall, repaint, decorate with all the shit I've got that doesn’t fit with the things in my house.”

“Christ, you really are having a midlife crisis. Least you’re less likely to die in a house than on a motorbike.”

“It’ll be good, I think. Repaint the stucco on the outside so it’s white instead of vaguely grey, put up shutters. It’ll be a thing, something to do that isn’t— this.” He gestures vaguely at the decor surrounding them, the chandeliers and eight pound fifty slice of victoria sponge on the table. “Something more tangible, more real.”

He means it. Whatever else this house might be shaping itself into in the back recesses of his mind, Nick’s always liked a project. Doesn’t do well without too many tasks loaded onto his plate.

This, well. This will be a project.

“Something more real,” Aimee echoes. “It’s like Dr. Phil over here. Did you just use the word tangible?

“Piss off, Mrs. Married-with-a-baby.”

A reflexive, “She’s seven.”

Nick laughs, gets one in return.

“It’ll be good, I think,” he says after a bit, sounding more serious than he means to. He tries to come up with a better explanation, but all he’s got is, “I want to do this, and I think it’ll be good.”

Aimee nods slowly, her stare turning more thoughtful than bemused. “Yeah,” she offers eventually, eyes warming as she lifts her mocha and takes a sip, licks excess milk froth off her upper lip. “Yeah, Grim, maybe it will be.”

 

*

 

It’s April of the next year by the time he gets what is essentially a vat of white ‘high quality exterior paint guaranteed to last’ and a bunch of those roller things he’s always watching montages of people using on Homes Under the Hammer.

He paints a quarter of the front wall—the bottom corner, no ladder required yet—and very quickly realizes he’s underestimated the task. That even having given himself the whole weekend, he’ll need to call in the cavalry.

Henry, Gellz, Aimee, and the lot of them arrive in a flurry of complaints, especially once it becomes obvious that he has absolutely no furniture and they’re all going to have to lie on the floor or the grass if they want a break, but— he looks around at one point, realizes that he’s somehow managed to live his life such that eight different people are willing to drop their Saturday plans and take the train to Brighton to help paint the outside of his stupid little house.

He orders ten giant gourmet pizzas in a fit of mawkishness, and then suddenly they’re all sitting in a circle singing campfire songs, a strange combination of sea saltiness and paint fumes and cheese in the air. Something swells even further in his chest, and he thinks: I’ve done well.

Even if he’s the only person to ever spend any length of time here, he’s done well.

(He puts in an order for four sets of royal blue window shutters all the same.)

 

*

 

Buying the bed is a bit of a mindfuck.

Not inherently, because it’s getting to be ridiculous that he can’t stay overnight. He thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to find oneself standing in DFS whilst furnishing a house, trying to decide between the seventeen thousand mattresses that all look exactly the same, and—if going off the little information tags—have remarkably indistinguishable features aside from their relative ‘firmness ranking’.

Completely reasonable to be looking at giant fuck-off king size mattresses, too. He’s a friendly person. He has guests. He’s absolutely going to end up sharing this bed at some point, if his track-record with bed sharing is anything to go by. It’s considerate to have space. Friendly.

Which gets him as far as the size, but there’s still so many.

He’s wandering, looking at the little signs, when it twigs that he’s gotten loads of compliments over the years on the memory-foam pillow top that he’s stretched over his mattress at home. Gellz had once gone so far as to declare it the best bed she’d ever slept in, and the fact that she’d single-handedly consumed the better part of two bottles of wine that night has done nothing to take away from that accolade in Nick’s mind. All the girls have said similar things over the years. Some of the boys, too, if they felt like breaking the mutual vow of disinterested-hook-up-silence.

There’s a notable exception to this love of his cloud-like paradise, of course. A pout that always surfaces, an I just don’t understand why you like to sleep in what’s essentially a hammock, don’t you lie down feeling like— like an uncooked spaghetti. And then wake up feeling like you’ve been cooked and are drooping in the middle? Except with more, like, sentience and ability to experience pain than a noodle? (Shockingly, not a sentiment with which Nick is familiar.)

But it’s just the one exception, one no versus a tidal wave of yesses, so he’s meandered into the section that has those multiple inch-thick foam tops permanently attached to the mattresses, and the sales associate approaching him has a smile on her face that says she’s on commission and is about to be very, very nice to him.

“Are you finding everything okay here? These are some of our most popular models, and you’re more than welcome to test them out if you’d like. That one in particular is a personal favourite,” she gestures. “It feels like heaven.”

It’d better, considering the four digit price tag sitting innocently under the medium-soft descriptor.

The reasonable thing to do then would be to hop on, sink into the foam, fall in love with it, and hand over his card. He could be done with this whole expedition, get rid of the faint itch that’s been creeping under his skin since he decided that this was how he was going to spend his Saturday. Could lure Miquita and everyone else who hasn’t seen the cottage yet down South with the promise of half a bed that even the shop attendant has confirmed feels like heaven. He just needs to try this one out, buy it, and be done with the whole thing.

His feet stay firmly on the floor.

It’s only—

Medium-soft is a bit specific.

If, say, he were ordering a steak, and he wanted to make sure that the largest sample size of people liked the way it was cooked, he wouldn’t go for medium-rare. He’d go for medium. Plain, full stop medium. The middle. An average, by definition.

He licks his lips, “Yeah, looks lush, honestly. Super comfy. The only, um— only, do you have anything— a little firmer? Than medium-soft?”

The shop lady’s eyes somehow light up even further, and her gaze shifts to the section labelled Specialty.

Naturally he leaves an hour later with his account two thousand pounds lighter, and a receipt for a custom extra-firm orthopedic mattress stuffed hastily into his coat pocket, not even folded into quarters to fit properly. Just— shoved in, definitely crinkling into a messy ball that’s going to be incredibly embarrassing to flatten and present as proof of purchase when the mattress is delivered.

Whatever. It’s fitting, somehow, that the receipt should be in tatters. It’ll match the state of his confidence in the explanation he’s scraped together in case anyone ever comments on his choice. The: it just made sense, yeah? No one ever hurts their back by sleeping on a mattress that’s too firm, but the same doesn’t hold in reverse. Soz, but, he’ll shrug, can’t help it if I’m a humanitarian.

Nick is simultaneously and contradictorily hoping both that no one ever mentions it, and that questions are the first thing out of his friends’ mouths. Because on the one hand, god. But on the other, there’s really very little that he’s better at than responding to moments of panic with overcompensation, and by the end of explaining it to Pix or someone, he’d almost certainly have convinced himself of his reasoning.

Hell, he’s already settling more and more deeply into his ex post facto logic. The choice was reasonable. He was being rational. A humanitarian. Versatility was absolutely what had been running through his head the hour before.

(Still, newfound convictions aside— bit of a mindfuck.)

 

*

 

It’s the same humanitarian urge that has him picking out blackout curtains. Whoever ends up staying there, they won’t want to be woken by the sun at arse o’clock in the morning.

There’s also the less humanitarian part of him that’s progressed — or ‘regressed’, he doesn’t think, ‘admitted’ — to imagining someone lying next to him, having what by their collective standards is a lie-in, snuggling into Nick’s side and pressing cold toes against his calves, both ignoring the other’s morning breath as they trade sleepy kisses.

Somehow the whole fantasy has gotten very tied up in his choice of window coverings, which is how he finds himself looking, overwhelmed, at the sheer number of design options available for curtains.

Jacques’ favourite colour is red.

It’s as good a starting point as any, except for how it isn’t, and he stares at the swatches of warm coloured fabrics for ages, running his fingers over them all, indecisive.

He’s at the store for over two hours before he’s finally nodding at the extremely patient sales associate, handing over his card and signing on the bottom of the order form.

The call that they’ve been delivered to the shop to be picked up at his convenience comes in about two weeks later, and he goes south that weekend. Leaves the little shop with a couple of massive shopping bags that might be the heaviest things he’s carried in his life to date.

He finally gets them hung up after fighting with the curtain rod for the better part of ten minutes. Who would have thought that threading a straight rod through hoops three times its circumference could pose any difficulty whatsoever, and yet here he is.

It takes him another fifteen minutes to get the stud-finder working and screw the hooks into the wall, operating a power drill while balancing precariously on a ladder and vaguely watching his life flash before his eyes.

It means he’s proud though, once they’re up. Feels a real sense of accomplishment dragging them open and then back shut a few times. He gets them into the perfect position on either side of the window and then steps back to take a picture for his friends’ whatsapp group, smiles faintly at the result on his phone.

The pale turquoise looks incredible against the view.

 

*

 

“I think maybe I’m going to call this.”

His tone’s too mild, too calm, for Nick to properly register what his words mean at first. “What?”

“This. You and me.” Even while shaking his head slightly, trying to catch up with a conversation that’s obviously left him behind, Nick notices that Jacques doesn’t say the word us.

“Call this, like—?”

Jacques still looks impossibly unruffled, a bit matter-of-fact, “Just, maybe it’s time. Not like either of us thought we were going to ride off into the sunset.”

Which is, admittedly, true, at least on Nick’s part, but he can still feel himself blinking too frequently, opening and closing his mouth like some sort of baffled fish. “Are you— I know I haven’t been, like, around much, these past couple weeks, but.” He sounds like he’s in a bad daytime soap, but he still can’t seem to bring himself to quit while he’s— well. Ahead would be pushing it. “It’s just been— Haz was in town, so it was all a bit—” he waves his hand in a way he hopes expresses an accurate combination of mad and a whirlwind and like stepping back in time.

“No, I— that’s not. Well, actually.” Jacques stops, laughs a little self-deprecatingly. “Thing is, I’d almost like to be jealous? Be fun to fly into a rage, smash a plate or something. But— really, the whole time I was just— I’ve been thinking that maybe,” he smirks a bit ruefully, “maybe I want that. Someday. Unironically want it, to have someone look at me the way you were,” he waves his hand in a mimicry of Nick a few seconds before, and Nick’s heart rate kicks up. “My teenage self would be so ashamed, but,” his smirk has faded into a wry smile, small but, astonishingly, given the circumstances, real. “There it is. So— thank you, I guess. For letting me see that it’s possible, even for people like us.”

Nick swallows. Picks the safest part of that to focus on. “People like us?”

“You know, owners of too many facemasks and a million anti-aging creams, somehow still with egos the size of continents. Tragically gay, wishing we were still twenty-five. That sort of thing.”

The laugh that tears out of Nick takes him somewhat by surprise. “Feel a bit like I’ve just been quite profoundly insulted.”

Jacques grins a little, raises an eyebrow—again with the eyebrows—and pulls Nick into a hug that’s surprisingly warm, all things considered. “I’m going to go have a drink or three before I come back for my things. All two-shirts-and-a-toothbrush of them.”

The side of Nick’s mouth quirks up involuntarily and he nods, tries to feel a bit more upset, to muster the level of sadness that Jacques deserves. “I’m sorry,” he tells Jacques’ back, quietly, as he walks towards the door.

It seems like the sort of thing you say, at moments like this.

“Nah,” Jacques waves him off as he gets his shoes on, reaches for his coat. “We both knew what this was. I’m not going to pretend otherwise, even for the promise of a melodramatic screaming match.”

He’s already mostly out the door when he pauses, pivots slightly.

“Grim?” Nick’s eyes fly up from where they’ve been distractedly resting on the back of Jacques’ shoes as he walks away. There’s a slightly conflicted expression on his face before he shakes his head, meets Nick’s eyes. “For what it’s worth, you weren't the only one having to hastily avert your eyes.”

And then he’s gone, first for a few hours and then for good.

And—

Well.

It’s not that Nick doesn’t miss Jacques, on occasion, but—

As it happens, it’s worth a lot.

 

*

 

He decides to be dead hipster about his sofas and tables and the like. Gets them all second-hand, and then has the all foam for the sofa cushions replaced and the fabric covers professionally washed. Gets the surface of his end tables sealed and refinished.

His friends can’t figure out why he bothers, doesn’t just walk into Darlings of Chelsea and buy something new that’s to his taste. Why he’s been furnishing this place bit by bit for literal years at this point.

It matters, though, somehow.

The hunt, the effort he takes in choosing, only settling on a piece when it’s got the perfect character, slots in effortlessly with the feeling he’s trying to create in the room. This building of something, slowly, with such care, so that when it all finally comes together, it’ll be right.

It matters, that he isn’t settling for pieces that are shiny and new. Things that are convenient. There’s a magic to the non-generic, to old vinyl records and vintage shop furniture and souvenir mugs from the MTV Team Building Retreat 2006. A magic that he hadn’t really considered until he was almost thirty and had already collected a flat full of things that you’d never be able to pick up all in one go in the home section of Marks and Spencer.

Even then, it had taken a teenager muttering sleepily into his shoulder how much he preferred Nick’s flat to crisp white hotel sheets and pretty but forgettable art prints to get him to really think it through. Nick’s eyes had already been watching whatever horrible daytime antiquing program they’d had playing at the time, but truthfully his head had been a million miles away until Harry had got all weird and intense and Harry-like. Started murmuring about how all the things they were watching being auctioned off had lived through love and grief and war and were still standing tall.

And then suddenly the next time he was in East London all the old crap things in shop windows had looked less like useless junk and more like chances to add his legacy onto artifacts strong enough to withstand the test of time. Fucking Harry.

It’s never really gone away, either, that once-newfound respect for things with stories. Has clearly lasted past his thirties, if the sofa he’s currently considering for the front room of the cottage is anything to go by.

It’s horrible and garish and his grandmother probably would have ardently approved, and it’s the memory of antique show marathon days that has him seeking a second opinion in the form of a hastily snapped picture captioned ‘what do you think of this?? i like but also it's so much like your suits that you might sit down and be urban camouflaged, could be dangerous’.

He gets back ‘would be really tragic if you sat on me’ and manages to choke on air, but is thankfully saved from replying by the immediate follow-up of ‘wait is this for your living room? Because it’s great but it really won’t match your sex posters’.

At which point he’s quite proud of himself for the steady hands that type out ‘excuse you everything matches my sex posters’.

Proud because he’s managed coherence in the face of two threats to his continued composure, remained calm despite both that first text and a reminder that somehow, bafflingly, (intentionally), news of the Brighton cottage still hasn’t made it across the Atlantic in anything but the vaguest of thinking-of-maybe-getting-a-place-near-the-sea terms.

He buys the sofa.

Tells himself that it’s not an excuse to type ‘getting in the car talk soon xx’ all the more quickly.

And it isn’t, really. Because he gets it down South, cushions restuffed, and it’s perfect. It looks exactly like he wanted it to, the print matches the walls and the floors beautifully, and there’s that something that comes along with thinking about the people who came before, whose stories this sofa has seen unfold.

He thinks it’s that something that he’s chasing, the antithesis of crisp white hotel sheets. That that’s the test he’s using to decide what makes the cut for cottage furnishings.

It’s just—

It would be a good test, because it matters to him.

It means something, that these pieces have a history.

 

*

 

The stacks of dinner plates are a bit worrying. The rest of it— fine. Would be mad to have a cottage without a bed. He’s staying there, overnight sometimes, now that he’s got the bedroom painted. Would have been ridiculous to keep having nowhere set up to sleep. Same with the couches: his friends need places to sit, to crash if it’s Saturday and the night gets too late.

The rest of the things he’s collected are just nonsense, really. Knick-knacks. Loads of people keep memory boxes in their closets or attics, piled high with scraps of paper their toddlers have scrawled maybe-forests-maybe-alien-invasions on. His mum kept a whole box filled with schoolwork for each of him and Andy and Jane, and that’s not mental. Or, well, it is, but it’s relatable enough that nobody dares pass any judgment. The rest of the stuff is just— like that.

And maybe it’s not like that at all, given that his are things he’s been actively buying for the sole purpose of stashing them away like some sort of dangerously sentimental chipmunk, but. It’s close enough.

The plates, though. The set of eight white ceramic plates in his cart, they speak to a sort of utility. One beyond that of the bed, somehow. Communicate more of an intention, more of a maybe I’ll cook here, have people over here semi-regularly, actually live part of my life here vibe.

It’s the element of replacement, maybe. That he already has a single plate and bowl and cup and a set of cutlery at the cottage, and he’s replacing them with these.

Too much permanence. Too difficult to rationalize away.

Or maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe the worrying part isn’t the set of eight white plates, but the honesty with which he’s choosing the rest of the kitchenware, even if it’s just in his own head.

Because he’s got the plain white dinner plates, but he’s decided he wants patterned salad ones to sit on top, and placemats to match. And he’s standing in a shop called Modern Times looking at the different designs, has it narrowed down to two options almost immediately. There’s a set in a variety of shades of pastels, each plate emblazoned with a different day of the week— amazing both because of the weirdness of having the days of the week on a set of plates, of all things, and because he’d have to double up on one day to make a set of eight, and he could buy two Sundays, tell little Sunday it’s because she’s the greatest of them all. And then there’s a set with palm leaves painted all over them in various shades of green, looking almost like the print of a Hawaiian shirt but somehow—and truly, props to the graphic designer—more visually interesting than tacky.

It takes him less than thirty seconds to have the leaf-adorned ones in his cart.

And maybe that’s not the worrying part either, could be explained by the theme he’s got going with the decor, a kind of coastal, flowy chic.

The worrying part, he figures, is that he doesn’t even entertain the notion of rationalizing the palm trees as oh, they’ll match the beach.

 

*

 

He has two reasons for buying a matching pair of rocking chairs to put out on the front landing the following spring.

The first being that he’s well and truly lost the plot, and the second being more of a feeling than anything else. A sense memory, almost, of being really young and going to see his gran, finding her and his grandfather sitting together in silence, reading two separate novels and sipping their tea. Thinking: that looks like contentment, even if he was too young then to use those words.

The stack of books that he keeps filling his Christmas lists with and then never cracking the spines on suggest that he probably won’t be sitting around as a ninety year old reading, but— listening to music, maybe. Or the radio. Complaining loudly about whatever young tosser they’ve got doing Breakfast.

Nick can’t wait to get ancient and start grouching at everyone, society mandating that his audience just nod along with his rants. If only he could skip the middle bit. Could’ve stayed frozen at thirty until he turned eight-five, and then just suddenly started hobbling around with a cane and grumbling about kids these days. Or sitting contentedly on a rocking chair. Whichever.

Point being, though, the sense memory does play some role in the purchase of the chairs. The idea of not-books and tea and a sea breeze is appealing.

Having said that, it’s mostly the lunacy that makes him do it. Must be.

Because he’s bought two.

He’s bought two, and when he’s imagining himself all shrivelled, sitting out here listening to music and slagging off the radio, he’s not imagining himself alone.

And honestly, who’s ever heard of anything as ridiculous as all that.

 

*

 

There’s a really terrifying moment when he’s painting the railings for the front steps.

He’s decided to just replace the posts altogether, because one of them had snapped and he’s taken that as a sign that the whole railing could do with a refresh. So he’s taken them down, has new railings lying on a sheet in the grass while he waits for the paint on them to dry, and it’s only a few steps up to the door, not enough that he’d normally even think about it.

He’s got some of the family down for the weekend though—Jane and Liv and Andy—and they’ve brought Rose, and Nick knows she’s closer to double digits than to a toddler now, he knows, but—

She’s small. She’s small and fearless and she nearly flies entirely off the steps as she somehow takes a running leap to the side while skidding down to get whatever it is she’s forgotten in the car. And of course she’s fine, was never more than three feet off the ground anyways, and she predictably rights herself with plenty of time before she would have gotten hurt. His hand is stretched out to catch her, and there’s an aborted yell slightly stuck in his throat, but—it’s not a big thing. That’s not the terrifying moment.

The terrifying moment, when he stops to think about it, is probably actually a culmination of little instances scattered throughout the weekend. His subconscious’ response to lithe footsteps running across the cottage floorboards, to his family all crowding onto sofas and into sleeping bags and bickering all the while, to the array of different sized sandals sitting in a row by the back door, ordered biggest to smallest. To Rose’s little voice singing along to the top 40s pop he thought he’d left behind. The whole situation has clearly pervaded his brain, ushered his thoughts in directions better left unexplored.

Because the terrifying moment isn’t Rose’s not-fall, but rather the immediate aftermath, when Nick’s brain innocently offers up: clearly new railings were the right call, no baby of mine will be falling to their death into a flower patch, and that one hundred percent absolutely will be my business.

At which point he freezes in place, blindsided, with something like ice in his veins.

Because—

Had he just…

That—

That will be his business?

What the actual fucking—

What?

And luckily Rose shrieks just then, some spider crawling towards her that she needs him to kill, because somehow she still hasn’t quite figured out that he is the last person on earth that should be called upon in a bug-related crisis. It’s a good thing though, because she pulls him out of a stress-related-stroke in the making, and he’s all for avoiding ‘patient’s brain made a wildly alarming song lyric joke without his permission or consent, rest in peace’ recorded as his cause of death.

It’s the spider story he tells later, as if that had been the moment that had locked up every muscle in his body, the terror he remembers facing that weekend.

Which is accurate, technically, when he thinks about it. He killed the spider, faced that fear and crushed it under his shoe.

The other paralyzing moment? Not faced. So completely, dramatically, and entirely unfaced that it’s almost as if he’d never had the thought at all, shoved deep to the back of his mind below even considerations of turquoise curtains and ultra-firm mattresses. Locked up, with the mental key as a perfect crown jewel to metaphorically top off the rest of the medley that’s stashed in a box in his wardrobe.

Safe, and contained, with a lid on top to keep things out of sight, out of mind.

Not discarded, not eviscerated, not gone. Just— postponed. Delayed, at least a bit, so that ‘baby of mine’ can float around in the back recesses of his mind without any close examination. Can join the timezone clock sitting in the box. Waiting.

For what, he’s not exactly sure, but—

Waiting, until somehow the lock is turned, and his little thoughts are unpacked right alongside the candles and the white square frames and the rainbow coloured pill organizer that he’d bought in the senior’s section of Boots four years ago, solely because it was enthusiastically embossed to encourage the owner to ☆ TAKE YOUR MEDICINE! ☆.

Waiting for the moment when maybe these dreams would be welcome. Welcome, or appreciated, or exciting, or, if that’s too much to hope for, then—

Waiting, even, for the moment when any of these musings might seem the slightest bit less terrifying.

 

*

 

He finishes the cottage on a Sunday.

It’s harder than it should be, to take the final step. To put the impossibly heavy bankers box on the floor just past the entry way, take a deep breath, and resign himself to going the way of Pandora.

This was the plan, the one that’s been solidifying all along. To build this place exactly as he has, to construct this fever dream out of playing cards, marvel that it’s here, that it’s standing, that it’s finished.

And then watch as it wobbles in the breeze, tumbles gracelessly down.

To fold all the cards back up, tuck them safely away, and know that he’d got to see it.

The plan was to see this fantasy in vivid technicolour. To get to look at this house, this fairy tale, to just— look. To see what it would look like, even just for a second, before reality brought the cards down. To see the dream, before he wakes up and this place is just a cottage filled with things, a place where he can sit around a fire with Pixie and Alexa and Emily and Aimee and everyone. Where Sunday can splash around in the sea. That’ll be incredible, that’ll be enough, but— the dream was to see it with all the glory of possibility, just once.

That’s the problem with Nick’s dreams though. They tend to come true.

And then what?

He revels in them, obviously, but. There’s an after, to a dream.

It finishes, and you move on.

He’s not sure he’s ready, quite yet, to finish this one. To unpack the last box, put the final piece in the puzzle, to finish this dream and then wake up in reality.

There’s something stopping him, some hesitation that’s outweighing his tenacity in a way that it never does, that means he’s maybe not quite ready yet. To put the Jagger mug in the cupboard and hang the awful sunset plate on the wall.

Something worse than even the mattress, the palm tree plates, the make believe pitter-pattering of children’s feet running across his floors.

He doesn’t open the box.

He’d like to say it’s because he doesn’t like endings. It’s true enough, as a statement. He bloody hates endings.

That’s not the reason, though.

Because this whole thing, everything he’s just thought, it’s nonsense. All of it.

It isn’t some debilitating hesitation that’s stopping him. This whole exercise in futile introspection, it’s a bit funny, because here he is honestly thinking that anything as banal as the desire to cling to the status quo might outweigh his tenacity. As if he isn’t gluttonous when it comes to dreams, doesn’t know with one hundred percent certainty that he’s the type of person to snatch any and every opportunity to make a dream come true that’s thrown his way. To do so with grasping hands and his eyes wide open, fuck the consequences.

Fear of the after didn’t stop him from clawing his way into the Breakfast chair, isn’t what’s stopping him now. It would maybe be easier to deal with if it was, because summoning up an air of reckless disregard has never been his problem.

But no, it’s worse than that. More boring, somehow even more of a cliché.

The problem, really, is that he’s always been a bit of a slave to his self-preservation instincts.

And there’s a realisation hiding in the bottom of that box that he’s not sure he wants to unpack, right at this moment.

A realisation he knows he’ll have when he gets to the bottom and it’s all done, empty, everything in the box unwrapped and hung up and put away. The realisation that the dream’s not done, that he’s not in the after yet, because the dream’s changed, somewhere down the line.

Become less about wanting to build this fantasy so that he could see it, and more about wanting to build it so that he could live in it.

Changed somewhere around the crockery isle of Modern Times, or maybe in a second hand shop on Brick Lane, or putting in an order at the hardware store for royal blue window shutters. Maybe whilst buying two matching rocking chairs. Or maybe eighteen years ago backstage at the X-Factor, recording an interview that had never even aired, laughing with a curly-haired teenager he’d met three minutes before like they’d been best friends since childhood. Maybe the dream’s never changed at all, and he’s just had it wrong from the get-go.

He’s always been a master at self-deception. Goes nicely with the self-preservation, so long as he can keep the con going.

So long as he doesn’t open the box.

Because maybe this had been the dream after all, to build this place, and look at it, and then just keep on looking at it in exactly the same way for weekend visits and holidays stretching over the next however many years.

It’s that realisation that he knows will set in once he’s staring at the bottom of an empty box.

And how fucking terrifying is that?

How much worse, to want to actually serve salad on the palm tree plates, instead of dreaming about how they’ll look as part of a full place-setting arranged to showroom perfection. How stomach-plummeting, to be picturing tiny flip-flops tracking wet sand all through the house for him to grumblingly sweep up later, instead of shoes arranged in a neat, idyllic row by the back door.

In the myth, the box doesn’t quite empty out. Hope is left behind as some sort of punishment doled out to Pandora, which Nick’s always thought of as a ridiculous fable. As if hope being confined is a horror, something to be warned about. The Greeks had it wrong, there. Hope is the single greatest thing to fear.

Nick’s hope won’t be like Pandora’s. He can tell, even now, standing frozen in the entrance way, eyes locked on the grandfather clock he’s stood up against the far wall. Nick’s hope is going to explode outwards as soon as he so much as moves. It’s going to suffuse the walls, seep into the floors, take up residence in every single mismatched throw pillow he’s strewn artfully on the sofas. It’s going to ravage this place like a bomb, shrapnel tearing through everything he’s so carefully and methodically built.

It’s going to fly up the second he twitches the lid on that box, and fuck, he’s not fearless enough for this, doesn’t have the dauntless death-or-glory courage that someone like Harry has running through his veins in place of anything as mundane as blood.

Only—

He’s standing here.

He’s standing in this almost-ready dream, one that he’s built from scratch, with his hands tense and poised to grasp, wide eyes taking it all in.

The clock ticks out five more beats, then hits three o’clock and chimes once.

Twice.

Again.

He’s standing in this puzzle that’s one piece away from completion, and who is he fucking kidding, because his hope is already imbued in every fork, spoon, floorboard, coat of paint, and picture hanging on the wall in this place. Has been from the moment he first crossed the threshold three years ago. Maybe before that. Maybe his hope’s been spilling out since he spent ten quid on a plate that dared him to think wild thoughts.

The clock ticks on, steady, unencumbered by emotional tidal waves or the questionable wisdom of greek mythology.

He’s standing here, and— this realisation that he’s so scared of?

Well.

Turns out he had it a long time ago.


He was never building this place to look.


Nick takes a deep breath, drops to his knees in front of it, and opens the box.

 

*

 

“Do you remember, ages ago, when we were on the radio?”

“Yes.” Harry’s eyes are glued to the blue shutters on either side of the front windows, like somehow they’re the most important part of this insanity, of the two of them parked outside this house by the sea. Maybe they are. “Which time?” He asks, after the silence has stretched for a while.

“What?”

Nick should probably be keeping better track of the conversation, but he’s busy staring blindly ahead in a doomed effort to keep his eyes from skidding all over the place. He feels like a deer in the headlights, which is ridiculous, because he’s the one who’s brought them here.

“Which time am I meant to be remembering, from the radio?”

Nick’s heart is beating far too quickly. “Oh, I don’t— One of the ones from 2017. Dunno, you were on loads that year. But we were talking about movies, and you were,” he has to stop to take a breath, “you were trying to tell the nation that you didn’t like The Notebook that much, because you are liar who lies. And to think, people look up to you, you are a role model—”

“And I said I was Rachel McAdams.” Harry’s voice is coming out strangely all of the sudden, a bit garbled like his throat’s gone tight. If Nick were a braver person he’d look over to see the expression on his face. “I remember.”

He keeps his eyes fixed firmly ahead, having finally settled on the flowerbeds to the right of the front door. They wouldn’t last much longer in Oldham this time of year, but maybe they’ll bloom year round, this far south. There for him, whenever he has the chance to come down from London. Probably not, but— it’s a nice image, somehow.

“Yeah, you— I said that you mouthed along to Ryan Gosling, and you said I play Rachel McAdams, and we laughed. It was dead funny. You’re— people don’t give you enough credit for being funny, Hazza. Right laugh.” He sounds a bit off himself, dazed, like he’s hearing the words from somewhere far away. It’s like he’s in a film. Nick didn’t think this could happen to people in real life, that you could get honest-to-god tunnel vision and have the edges of your senses blur and start to hear your heartbeat echo in your ears. Belated kudos to all those directors he’d thought were hacks who’d actually been perfectly capturing reality.

“Go in.”

“What?” Nick’s almost positive he hasn’t zoned out deeply enough to have missed Harry saying anything, that that really was just a complete non sequitur.

It’s not difficult to believe. This is Harry, after all.

“The house,” Harry’s voice is unmistakably shaking, and nevermind an echoing heartbeat, Nick’s suddenly finding it a bit hard to even breathe. “Go in the house, and— there’s no terrace, which was, like, a terrible oversight, you should be ashamed, but. You can look out the window, there.” He’s pointing, Nick can see it from his peripheral vision. “And I’ll get my holdall out of the back and,” his breath is catching, and fuck if he starts crying Nick’s not going to be able to stop himself from following right along, “and I’ll shrug, like it was all inevitable.”

Nick tries to take a deep breath. Doesn’t especially succeed. He tries to come up with something clever to say, but what eventually comes out is, “Was it, do you think? Inevitable?”

There’s a pause. Nick can practically sense Harry licking his lips, hears him take a few trembling breaths. “Probably not. Didn’t have to be though, did it?” He swallows audibly, wraps his hand around Nick’s wrist where it’s resting on the console between them. “What’s fate compared to Nick Grimshaw deciding that he’s going to get what he wants.”

The hand Nick still has against the steering wheel is shaking. He thinks absently about trying to still it. Doesn’t. “Is he?” His own voice is as tremulous as he’s ever heard it, coming out soft and wavering, and he flips his arm in Harry’s grip, slides it back until they’re clutching each other’s hands tight enough to hurt. “Going to get what he wants?”

Good to know this has spiraled far enough that he’s now referring to himself in the third person.

Harry sniffs, “Depends, I guess. You want the kind of love that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more?”

Nick’s whole body feels like it’s quaking, like it’s thrumming from the inside out.

Maybe this is it.

Maybe he’s going to die at 43 years old of cardiac arrest, sitting at a curbside in Brighton and grasping Harry’s hand. Wouldn’t be so bad, really. “That’s a pretty good line, Harold. Should put that in a song.”

Their collective breathing is far too loud, but at least it means Nick’s not alone in being utterly overcome.

“Can’t,” Harry chokes, “I stole it from a movie.”

God.

Nick inhales for four counts, tries not to notice how it hitches.

“Yeah,” he breathes on the exhale.

“Yeah?”

Nick looks at him then, catches Harry’s wide eyes, brimming with unshed tears and a terrible, wonderous sort of hope, and Nick— he falls off a cliff, exactly as he’d known he would. Goes into freefall in the way his body wouldn’t allow him to until right at that precise moment.

He can feel himself nodding—doesn’t even care what Harry’s asking—and then he’s tracking the tear that Harry makes no move to wipe away as it breaks free and falls down his cheek. “Yeah.”

Watching the resulting smile slowly break out across Harry’s face feels a bit like staring into the sun. It’s almost too much, seeing him bright eyed and teary with dimples pressing so deeply into his cheeks. “Go inside, Nicholas.”

And really, who is Nick, who is anyone, to turn down an request like that.

Nick goes inside.

He watches from the window as Harry shrugs at him from the pavement, like it was all inevitable, because he was a horrible dramatic teenager and an even worse twenty-something and somehow at thirty-three he’s still the most breathtaking thing Nick has ever seen. Because they’ve ended up here. Magically, miraculously, impossibly, they’ve ended up here, recreating this scene from what Harry insists is one of the greatest love stories ever told.

And the two of them, they weren’t inevitable. Can’t have been, not really.

They didn’t meet at a carnival.

They’re not in a film, or a novel.

Real life doesn’t have inevitable happy endings.

But Nick’s hung fairy lights, and he’s got two pink martini glasses that he fully intends to use for wine instead of vodka on the counter inside, and there’s an autographed greyscale picture of Harry and Taylor Swift walking in Central Park hanging over the fireplace, lit by the light of the neon enjoy sign that’s propped on the mantle, and—

And the boy on his walkway is still making him think the wildest fucking thoughts, even after all these years.

So—

It probably wasn’t inevitable, but somehow that doesn’t make them any less of a good story.