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taffy stuck and tongue tied; pull me out from inside

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Things are fine, no, good even, for a few weeks. Romeo gets used to actually making himself feel at home, actually organising his clothes in the wooden wardrobe instead of leaving them in his bag in fear of being thrown out again. His drugstore aftershave next to his father’s Tom Ford in the bathroom cabinet is almost comical but....it’s starting to feel like them. He no longer side eyes James 24/7, no longer thinks he’s only taken him in out of some weird reluctance and guilt complex.

There are still weird moments. Where Romeo takes too long in the bathroom in the morning, James repeatedly knocking against the door and claiming he can’t possibly have that much stubble to shave to warrant that time. Romeo only lets him hear the sound of his electronic razor in return. Other times, when he’s enjoying his dad’s Netflix access and binging A Series of Unfortunate Events, he’ll suddenly hear Vivaldi playing loudly from the neighbouring room over Count Olaf's antics. He knows James isn’t even necessarily doing it on purpose, but he still cracks a few jokes about his old man going deaf over dinner.

And it’s not like dinner is an occasion like out of the movies either, neither of them will probably be ever considered talented chefs. Though James can put together a decent stir fry and casserole and Romeo convinces him one rainy afternoon to dunk a cheese toastie into some tomato soup.

So things are good. They talk about books, movies, have some coffee together and Romeo is slowly getting used to the idea of no more financial struggles when James offers ordering takeout for the third time in less than a week.

But then there are the other moments. Those moments where James goes quiet, his shoulders hunch and something falls over his face that looks a lot like the heartbreak he’s read about in all his novels. The one he’s pretty sure he’s felt himself with Lily, no matter how dramatic others might call him for it, a seventeen year old teenager who knows he’s been through much worse, dingy moldy flats and a mother often too high to buy groceries, than a pretty girl playing him a fool but god...god had that hurt.

He doesn’t know all that much about his father’s love life, or lack thereof. Doesn’t know how or if he should approach the subject. It seems like something father and son would talk about eventually. But then again they’re not your typical two dudes having a proper first beer together and chatting about the women in town either. He doesn’t mind, prefers it actually. Still, he wishes he knew how to help.

When he first arrived in the village, of course he had heard all the rumours. About how heartless Nightingale had murdered and gotten rid of boyfriend Kyle in cold blood and was refusing to admit it, hopefully rotting away in prison for life. It’s hard, no, impossible, to fit that image to the man he’s living with now. The man who loves warming his hands on his coffee cup in the morning and hums while ironing his clothes in the living room.

He’s seen Kyle around a few times, a weasly looking guy always looking like he’s waiting aound in the shadows for some sort of opportunity to strike. Short buzzed hair and a smug grin seemingly always decorating his face. Eventhough Romeo doesn’t share his father’s sexuality, he can still appreciate a fit guy. Kyle isn’t one of those. He doesn’t know much else about him and James’ history. Doesn’t quite get why someone like his dad would fall for someone...like that. He’s quite sure though that James, despite being single right now, is more than happy he’s no longer in that relationship – or whatever it might have been.

And then...then there’s Harry. The young guy he photographed snogging his dad out in broad daylight while their affair thing was still going on. Printing out the snapshots and putting a dozen of them into little silver hearts to play wedding crasher. The blond haired young man he saw when he broke into his father’s flat, almost naked safe for his underwear, planning something romantic yet definitely not PG that made him bolt out the door as soon as possible.

There’s not much else he knows about him. Only that he’s just a few years older than himself apparently, and he guesses that should be weird but...somehow it really isn’t. Knows he got married to that Ste bloke who walks around with his too light tipped hair like a crown, probably feeling like some Gordon Ramsey when he sells his pies in his tracksuit paints. There’s something slimy about him and Romeo doesn’t like to judge anyone based on looks alone but...he’d rather have his lunch somewhere else entirely.

His dad has really only slipped up here and there. Romeo shaking his shoulder when he had taken a nap on the couch. It had stormed all day, the power eventually cutting off and leaving everything looking dark and blue with the curtains still open. He had woken him up, not knowing where James kept any of his candles after rummaging through several cupboards. James had opened his eyes drowsily, his lips forming a questioning, soft ‚Harry?’ before he could even stop himself. Romeo had felt almost guilty for waking him up out of whatever dream he was having.

And then last week, when he had taken out the milk from the fridge for his tea, James had smiled wrily and said. ‚I hope almond is alright. Sometimes I forget not everyone’s lactose intolerant. I used to go for soya but Harry kept mentioning it had a weird aftertaste so...’ He stood there a bit helplessly, gesticulating with his hand and then pessing his lips together as he realized what he had just said. ‚It’s fine.’, Romeo had answered. Dropping the topic as James’ face continued to look glum for the rest of the entire afternoon.

He thought it over for a few days and then decided it was more than time he returned the favour and gave his dad some missing happiness. Time to make a plan.

_______________________________________________________________________

 

'I’m heading out.’, Romeo says, slinging on his warm beige coat. The cold air from outside hitting his neck and face immediately as he opens the door just a split wide.

'Alright.’, James answers a bit absentmindely from where he’s sat on a bar stool infront of the kitchen island, typing something away on his laptop. 'Have you got your key?’ Romeo instinctively squeezes the small metal thing in his right hand, tucked away deep in the coat’s pocket. It felt special when James had handed it to him for the first time.

'Yep.’

'Good. I’ll be out later today, gotta pick up some court files. But I should be back home for dinner.’ James pauses quickly, his fingers hovering over the keyboard when he turns around halfway. 'Any requests?’

'Maybe we can order some of that orange chicken again? With some sticky rice and spicy broccoli?’

'Sounds good to me.’ A quick but genuine smile appears on his face and then he turns away again, eyes focused on the word document already seeming several pages long.

See, Romeo doesn’t actually know where Harry lives. He’s pretty sure he’s heard James mumble about his father Tony under his breath at one point or another. He thinks that guy owns the Hutch restaurant, considering the last name. He hasn’t seen Harry lingering around there though, is pretty sure he doesn’t even share that name either – something along the lines of Thompson had been written on the greeting cards he’d seen placed on the wedding tables.

So maybe that’s one way him and his dad have been able to connect – shitty fathers.

He walks around the village a bit aimlessly, one benefit of such a tiny place being that the population is low and that the chance of bumping into whoever you’re looking for is thus relatively high.

He checks the Bean, thinking that a coffee shop would be the exact place a twenty something year old like Harry would hang out on a winter day, but as soon as he gets inside to scan the room he sees Ste chat to someone with a slightly badly gel-ed up quiff and immediately knows he won’t find what he came here for.

The frosty, crisp air clings to his nose and upper cheeks once he gets out again, stuffing his hands deeper into the fluffy inner lining of his pockets.

A woman at the Price Slice is filling up the stands of carrots and ice berg salads outside. Her dark hair blows in the cold breeze going around. Romeo is pretty sure she’s the owner and he tries to see through the shop windows if Harry is somewhere inside. A few customers are perusing the aisles and when the lady outside is finished artistically placing the vegetables on display, she looks back inside, sees someone standing at the counter and calls out that she’ll be with them in a second. He cranks his neck further left once more, biting his lip and squinting his eyes, just to make sure he’s not walking away with Harry right under his nose. But no, he’s not in there either.

Letting his sneakers drag across the pavement, he slowly makes his way towards the Dog. He comes across a bus stop, again hoping to find his target, but to no avail. The bench is empty. When he enters the establishment, tiny silver bell ringing with the door opening up with his step, he immediately notes that a few tables are occupied.

His eyes quickly scan the room, a woman with unnaturally red hair behind the bar calling out to him 'Pick a table, I’ll be with you in a bit, yeah?’ while scrubbing back and forth over the inside of a glass. Romeo is pretty sure her and her long nails are this close to actually breaking the thing into pieces.

There’s a group of teenagers his age, maybe one or two years younger, sat around a square wooden table. A bowl of nachos being shared in the middle, scoops of salsa and guacamole on their plates, some of them having missed the porcelain and landed elsewhere on the napkins or around them.

Two elderly couples on opposite ends of the room are nursing cups of steaming tea or coffe, their forks gliding through cake overflowing with cream. Romeo’s stomach grumbles hungrily. But that’s not what he’s here for.

He steps further into the restaurant, past a mom and her little babbling toddler in a highchair – green mush being guided into his giggling mouth, half of it almost immediately spilling out again and gathering on his chin and mouth, settling there with the pea-y mess from an earlier spoonful.

Romeo grimaces slightly, walking past them with a quicker step and then suddenly comes to a halt after walkig up the one step creating a second layer of the flooring.

There he is. Harry. Finally. He let’s out a silent sigh or relief as he takes him in. His shoulders are hunched over as he’s holding a book in one hand, playing with his straw in what looks like lemonade with the other one. Romeo can’t read the title but as Harry’s eyes fascinately glide down the page he assumes it can’t be too boring at least.

He’s had this conversation in his head, played it out a couple times. Now he just needs to make the first step...

He shuffles closer to Harry’s table and clears his throat.

The other boy looks up right away, his hand stilling on the straw. He looks confused, his mouth slightly gaping open, as if trying to form a question or greeting.

Hey Harry’, he starts out, slightly waving his hand up as a ‚hello’.

The other boy still looks a bit unsure of whatever he thinks this situation is right now but then minutely shakes his head, seemingly pulling himself together.

'Hey...Romeo, right?’, Harry asks as he closes the book, putting his finger between the pages he was currently on.

'Yeah, hi. Sorry for interrupting your reading session and everything but...I just saw you sitting there and had this idea suddenly pop up in my mind...’, he – hopefully more or less convincingly - tries to explain. Harry doesn’t look like he wants to chug his whole drink and bolt anymore, so he counts that as a good start for now.

Instead, the older boy gestures forwards with his hand, pointing to the pillowy chair across from him. 'You can sit down...if you want to. I don’t mind.’ The small smile he gives him does look very genuine too.

Romeo does just that, feeling a bit more at ease.

'Right, I just spotted you over here and thought I’d come over. See, I made this giant batch of chili yesterday. The recipe had those weird American measurements, right? And I tried to convert it but maths has never really been my strong suit and then...whoops, i had to switch over to the biggest pot in the kitchen. Because the one I was using was basically overflowing already. And now there’s enough chili in the house to feed the entire cast of Game of Thrones.’, he rambles out. Harry’s smile has turned into an amused grin during his explanation, white teeth peeking out against his lips. ‘And then I just put the whole thing in the fridge for now, left the place to go somwhere that doesn’t smell like beans like the whole living room does right now. And I’ve been thinking how I don’t really know anyone in the village, right? Except I sort of know you. I know we’re not best buds or anything but..felt safe enough to not feel too weird to ask if you might wanna come around for some leftover chili.’

Harry’s smile dims a little at that, eyes turning downwards to his lap. His fingers drum against the paper of the book pages.

‘I hope I don’t come across so intimidating every day. I don’t think I’ve ever heard some so stressed about trying to approach me.’, he teases eventually, making Romeo huff out a laugh.

To be honest, Harry looks a bit like a puppy. Big eyes and fluffy hair, wrapped up in a dark aubergine, almost black, cable knit sweater. But he gets a feeling that, very similar to himself and James, there’s something else, something…deeper and richer, lingering beneath the surface. He likes it a lot, thinks ‘oh.. that’s another reason my dad fell in love with him’ and 'we could be great friends'.

‘Nah, mate, you’re fine. It’s just my own awkwardness.’

‘Right.’; Harry laughs. Biting his lip as if to make himself focus again. He finally looks right back at Romeo. ‘And thank you, for the invite and the chili offer and everything but…I think I’m gonna have to decline there. I’m not…a huge fan of spicy stuff.’ He sounds genuinely sorry about telling him no, pressing his lips together like he’s almost frustrated with his own answer. You don’t have to be, Romeo thinks. Just say yes.

He doesn’t believe the spice excuse for a second.

‘Believe me, my proportions were all off. I used like a ton of meat and not nearly enough peppers, to be honest.’

Come on, give in. Come over.

‘I…actually already have dinner plans for today. And on top of that, I need to go get through like at least two more chapters of this.’ Harry continues, holding up the book.

Romeo finally gets to see what he’s actually reading. On the light blue cover it says ‘Fundamentals of Business Accounting’ in big white letters. Second edition, it states below it. Romeo can’t imagine studying an entire book on a topic like that. Let alone two.

‘Business accounting, huh? Seems like a real page turner.’, he jokes. Harry snorts.

‘Yeah, I know. But Ms. Loveday just gave me a job the other day. Doing the book keeping for the Price Slice. She’s pretty busy these days and said she could use some help. And since I did a couple of courses like that back in school and then while I was still in uni…I managed to convince her I was the perfect fit.’ He pauses for a moment, a mischievous smirk appearing from cheek to cheek. ‘What she doesn’t know of course is that back in sixth form I barely managed to get by with a C and that the few months I actually attended those uni classes, I only took them because I needed to add a third obligatory minor.’

‘Why do I get the feeling you’re just being modest? Like one of those kids who complains how hard the exam was and how they like, totally failed..just to get an A with only like one or two wrong answers then.’, Romeo teases easily. He likes that the tension has disappeared from their conversation again, happy that they seem to be getting along well. That Harry doesn’t hold a grudge about him coming into James’ life like this. That he doesn’t feel like Romeo stole his spot or only chance at happiness. That would make things a whole lot more complicated.

‘Nah, definitely not.’, he answers. Romeo stares at him for a moment, raising his eyebrows high until Harry gives in with a breathy laugh. ‘Alright, fine. Maybe with English. And History. But believe me, anything math related was not my brightest moment.’

Romeo suddenly gets an idea, perking up in his chair. Throwing the chili idea away for now.

‘Proper child genius, huh. Actually, you just reminded me that I’ve been meaning to go back to school or like, at least check out some courses in this place, you know. Maybe you could, and do tell me to fuck off if I’m being a nuisance, give me some lessons here and there.’ Okay, so he heasn’t been really considering going back to school yet, too distracted with everything and everyone new around the village but…it’s a good excuse as any to get Harry to spend time at James’ flat.

The older boy seems surprised at the idea, his brows furrowing and wrinkles forming between them as he considers Romeo’s suggestion for a few moments that feel like an eternity.

‘I’m really not sure if I’m the best guy to ask here but I can definitely recommend this girl who helped me out during my A levels. I’m pretty sure I still have her e-mail adress saved somewhere, she’s a linguistics teacher and everything.’ He sounds genuine enough as he says it, but the spark in his eyes has faded slightly, like trying to find ways not to get anywhere near James’ life is exhausting to him. Stop then, Romeo wants to say. You don’t have to do this. Why are you both so stubborn, he thinks.

But he knows to take a hint, alright. At least for now.

‘Right, yeah. I’d appreciate that. Just, leave your number in my phone and we’ll chat about it or something?’ He asks, pulling out his iphone out of his jeans and handing it over to Harry who, thankfully, takes it without any qualms and types in his digits without a protest. ‘Great, thanks.’ Whether for a fake tutoring plan or not, having his number will sure come in handy at some point or another..

‘No worries.’

Romeo clears his throat, accepting this temporary defeat in his matchmaking plan for today. ‘Right, I should get going. Let you get back to your drink. And your reading.’

Harry shoots him another smile. ‘I was glad for the distraction, mate. But yeah..I promised myself I’d get this paragraph done before I headed home.’

‘See you around then?’, Romeo asks with a nod of his head, hoping nothing he’s said or done today has turned Harry off of him and that the next time they’ll interact will be less anxiety inducing for him from the beginning.

‘Sure, yeah. Course.’ The older boy’s eyes are honest and he hasn’t treated him once like an annoying, inferior teenager that needs to be appeased or cut off during their conversation.

Romeo gives a small wave, turns around and puts his hands in his pockets again, bracing for the cold outside. He leaves the Dog with a much lighter feeling on his shoulders and in his stomach.

It’s two days later when he works out a new plan. After texting him, Harry has indeed given him the contact details of the tutor. Romeo almost feels guilty for lying to him and using his friendliness like that. But that also mean this particular plot is at an impasse and he can’t just willy nilly invite the older boy around for some English lessons.

James is preparing lunch, a coconut curry thing, when Romeo grabs the shoe box under his bed and plops it down loud and ceremoniously onto the floor in the living room.

It makes his dad’s shoulders jump slightly, the wooden spoon halting in the pan, before he turns his head in the direction of the noise. His eyebrows raise as he sees the object, an unimpressed expression gliding over his face at whatever he thinks Romeo is up to.

‘Can I help you?’; he asks conspicuously, squinting his eyes a bit as if trying to figure out his intentions before the words can even leave his mouth. Typical lawyer.

‘Oh I Just remembered that you said we could exchange those shoes some time. And look for ones I’ll actually want to wear, you know.’

‘Right.’, James answers, blinking perplexedly a couple times. Something in the pan starts bubbling, making him turn around again to turn down the heat and keep stirring. ‘We could do that tomorrow, if you want. But I hope you don’t feel obligated to pick out new ones. If you’d rather want something else..just let me know and we’ll get that instead, ok?’

‘Nah, some new shoes would be nice, trust me.’

So the next day they find themselves in a little independent shoe store in Chester, carrying Doc Martin’s and classic Vans that definitely seem a bit overpriced, but the black leather on them does look really nice and they seem to have some rarer pairs as well, dark burgundy ones that feel soft under his fingertips.

James is browsing along the shelves, occasionally pointing out a pair he thinks he might like. His choices aren’t horrible and Romeo reluctantly has to admit to himself that his dad does know a thing or two about color matching, even if their styles aren’t the same.

Now, what James doesn’t know of course, is that he’s texted Harry about some old grammar and essay books, pretending like he wants to do a bit of revision on his own before doing the tutoring then. Thankfully, that part of his little plot worked out perfectly. Harry said, sure, he had some training books he had used for his exam preparation still lying around somewhere and he could totally bring them over.

And then Romeo thought how it might be better to have these two lovesick fools interact somwhere outside the apartment for the first time again, perhaps some place that doesn’t bring back all the memories Romeo doesn’t even wanna know about and that won’t make Harry feel like fidgeting and running out the door right away.

So he had tentavively messaged Harry that he would be about in town and if he’d like to join him to hang out or if it would be too much of a hassle to stop by and drop off the books as he’d be out of Hollyoaks for a couple days after that, visiting a very distant and very much made up aunt.

Harry had agreed easily enough, said it would be good to get out of the Loveday’s space for a bit anyway.

And now, even as he’s trying on another pair of sneakers, crouching down on a plush ottoman and tying the laces, he keeps looking at the door and back at his dad, waiting for him to make his entrance.

It takes a couple more minutes, Romeo now more towards the back of the store and checking out some black Nike’s when it happens.

Harry comes in, Romeo’s head immediately snapping up at the sound of footsteps. He looks good, his cheeks a bit flushed from outside, a small backpack slung lazily over one shoulder. Romeo knows James will like what he sees.

When the older boy spots him, he gives him a smile and steps further towards him. Then his gaze drifts a bit further to the right..where James is standing, looking a bit bored.

His face does a funny thing. His mouth opens and closes twice, looking shell-shocked, eyebrows furrowing and then settling up again. Romeo sees his eyes flickering down and up James’ frame, taking him in, before his cheeks turn even more rosy. And then James turns around as well, as if he’s feeling his presence.

His expressions are similar, lips falling open and he looks like he’s holding his breath for a few seconds. God, so dramatic, the both of them.

Romeo decides to step in.

‘Harry, hey! So glad you could make it.’

The older boy still seems a bit distracted, him and his dad looking like they’re having some kid of intense staring contest. There’s something else there, too and Romeo really doesn’t want to think of it as what he would call ‘eye fucking’ but…if the shoe fits. Pun intended.

Eventually Harry pulls himself ouf of his daze, shaking his head, tightly pressing his lips together and forcing a smile as he walks towards him.

‘Romeo, hi. I...brought the books you asked for.’ He looks like he’s trying very hard not to let his eyes wander back to the right. He lets his backpack glide down to his elbow, opening the zipper and getting out two heavy looking books.

‘Cheers, mate.’ Romeo grabs the books and yes, his initial thoughts were right –  he doesn't envy any student who ever had to spend their spare them reading all of that. Thank god he doesn’t actually plan on going through them.

‘Yeah, no problem.’ He pauses for a moment, shoulders stiffening a bit and Romeo can see James come closer to them out of the corner of his eye. ‘I..thought you’d be out on your own so..I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to like, interrupt your bonding time or whatever.’ For a brief second he wonders if Harry is actually pissed at him for roping him into this. He really doesn’t feel like taking one step forward and two speps back with his plan.

And then he feels James slide up next to him, staring right at Harry, trying to catch his eyes.

‘You’re not interrupting.’, he says. And Romeo is pleasantly surprised, thought he’d have to drag his father over here to get him to communicate instead of moping and pining. He can sense that despite their tension and heartbreak, James doesn’t want Harry to feel like he’s doing anything wrong, like he’s a burden or imposing himself on anyone.

It relaxes the younger man again, his posture looking more chilled.

‘Right.’, Harry says, clearing his throat a bit. ‘You looking for new shoes then?’

Romeo jumps at the opportunity to get him involved in conversation, get him to stay a bit longer.

‘Yeah, I mean this one over here missed out like sixteen birthdays of mine or whatever and we’ve established it’s not a big deal but..I still thought ‘hey, I can get a pair of trainers out of this’, you know?’

Harry huffs out a soft laugh as James lets out an indignant, fake offended, squawk.

‘Smart, to be honest. But you should be careful, you’re shopping trainers with someone who irons his socks and color coordinates his tie collection.’,

Romeo breaks out into a grin, enjoying Harry’s surprising teasing.

‘Oh, well if we’re playing that game..Romeo, you’re currently talking to someone who thinks owning the same pair of boxers in black, grey and blue is the epitome of variety.’, James suddenly jokes next to him. Harry’s eyes widen almost instantly and he looks speechless for a moment before he bursts out into laughter, biting down on his lip to make himself stop and lowering his head to hide the pink embarrassment on his face.

Romeo looks back and forth between them, sees his father’s cheekbones have also dusted with a tinge of red and a shy smile is playing on his lips as he looks down at his leather brogues.

‘Maybe I should just ask the saleswoman instead then.’, Romeo considers to break the slight tension. Both of them look up at from their feet again.

James still looks a bit sheepish about his comment, gazing at Harry to try and decipher his reaction. The younger man continues to look a mixture of amused and fidgety, peeking up at James under his eyelashes, definitely not seeming offended at the least.

‘That might be the best option.’, Harry says. ‘I should..probably leave you to that then.’ He gestures back to the exit with his thumb, ready to turn around and go.

‘You don’t have to.’, Romeo quickly blurts out. ‘You could stick around a bit. Now that you no longer have the books to carry.’ Please stay, he thinks. Please, say yes.

Harry halts, looking at Romeo and then back up at James. Their eyes lock again, and Romeo watches his father’s face closely. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t give anything away really, like he’s trying to mask all his inner most desire of wanting to grab Harry and make him tag along on their shopping trip.

It’s almost like Harry releases a disappointed sigh at his non-reaction before gathering himself and faking a bit of a sad looking smile as what Romeo knows is a bye for now.

‘I should head back, really. I promised Zack I’d help him pick out some booze for this little get together he’s throwing this weekend.’ His body is turned halfway to the door already and Romeo can see James’ hand clenching in his periphery, like he’s stopping himself from reaching out to him. He sighs internally. Neither of them will crack right now. Fine.

‘If you’re sure. Now I’m even more intrigued by what fashion advice would come pouring out of you, though.’, Romeo teases, poking his tongue out between his front teeth. ‘Maybe next time, then.’

‘Trust me, I don’t think you’re missing out on much but..yeah, alright.’, Harry concedes. His pupils flick back over to James once more before he turns around completely with a brief ‘See you around. Have fun!’

His hand is already one the short knob of the door when James calls out to him. ‘Take yourself on the weekend then, yeah? Don’t drink too much.’ A statement like that could sound condescending, but the worry in James’ voice is so clearly obvious that even Romeo feels it wash over him like a safety blanket.

Harry stills for a moment, hand pressing down, before he turns his head to stare back at James. Something unspoken happens between them and he’s once again caught off guard with the deep connection these two seem to share.

'Thanks. Don’t worry, I won’t’, Harry breathes out eventually before finally exiting the store.

The rest of their little shopping adventure turns out quiet, Romeo taking home a pair of dark forest green vans that he knows will accompany him great through winter and then into spring.

On the way back in the car and even back home, James is solemn. Like he’s somehow more withdrawn back into himself again. Romeo is used to his quiet phases, ones where he just needs to be for himself a bit and quiet out the world around. He can definitely relate.

But this feels slightly different, like he’s thinking something over. And over and over.

They have a quick dinner, James taking a shower afterwards and telling him to go pick out something on the tv.

He chooses to continue with the season of The Terror he had started earlier this week, something he knows James will not totally hate but maybe keep him bored enough at certain parts so he’ll start talking.

It works out. His dad comes back after thirty minutes, smelling like green apples and mint and settles down on the sofa with him.

The ice monster is making it’s second appearance of the night when he finally cracks. ‘So..I didn’t know you and Harry were talking.’

Romeo keeps his eyes trained on the screen, not wanting to make this any more tense than it needs to be or even give his game play away by accident.

‘Oh, yeah. That. I ran into him the other day and we just..got into conversation. Talked about some books that I wanted to check out.’

‘Right.’ There’s a longer pause before he continues. ‘I don’t want you to think that I want to tell you who you can or can’t hang out with, I just didn’t know you and Harry had even properly met or anything.’

We hadn’t and I was bricking it before I actually went up to your sort-of ex, definitely love of your life. He thinks, but of course doesn’t say.

‘It just sort of happened randomly, really. Seems like a cool guy, to be honest. But look, if you really don’t want me to hang out with him because it makes things awkward or weird or whatever then-‘

He wants to say it, no matter how much it would actually annoy him to scratch his matchmaking agenda. But if his dad genuinely thought keeping Harry out of his life was for the better..he would stay away and let things unfold naturally. But he doesn’t even get to finish the thought.

‘No, no. There’s no need for that. It’s fine. We’re fine.’

Romeo looks away from the tv for a moment, sees James resolutely avoiding his gaze though.

‘What’s the deal with you and him anyway? I don’t think I ever got the story of what happened after that dreadful wedding thing.’

James lets out a self-deprecating laugh and minutely shakes his head back and forth.

‘Trust me, you’d be better off reading Shakespeare than hearing about my tragic love story.’

Love. He said love. And he doesn’t even look like he’s noticed it, like it’s impossible for him to think and talk about Harry in any other way.

‘But I’ve already read Shakespeare…’, he says – hoping his dad will catch on and just spill. He raises his eyebrows, staring intently at James in the hopes he’ll feel his eye bore into him. He does, turning his neck with his arms crossed a bit petulantly over his chest.

‘Fine.’, James breathes out, laughing a bit incredulously. ‘If you really want to know, I’ll tell you. After the wedding, Harry left town. Or as I came to find out just recently, more or less got hunted out of it by the methaphorical and hypocritical pitchforks of one Tony Hutchinson and one Ste Hay, whom you may refer to as Dumb and Dumber in this househould. You have my full permission granted. Anyway, he left and then came back out of the blue the other week. We..talked and he convinced me he wanted to be with me properly this time around.’ His smile turns sweet at that, as if the recent memory is playing in his head. ‘But then I realized what I needed to do.’

He looks at Romeo, a warmth coming over his face. Romeo can’t help but smile back.

‘I need to stop putting myself first and take care of you, be the father you deserve.’, James finishes off.

And Romeo…well, Romeo is a bit stunned. He feels grateful that his dad is putting in all this work with him and genuinely wants to make this work but…he’s also an idiot.

‘You’re an idiot.’, he tells him.

‘Excuse me?’,  James sputters.

‘No offense but…the guy you love comes back for you, to be with you, right? Be your boyfriend and everything? And you choose that time to reject him because you think you need to coddle me like I’m seven instead of 17?’

James opens his mouth, gaping like a fish out of water, and Romeo hopes he’s not taking this wrong way but he needs to get this out once.

‘Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed spending time with you and living here with you. It’s been genuinely amazing. Better than I could have ever hoped for, if I'm being honest. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up Harry.’

James looks away at that, like he doesn’t want to hear it. Damn it.

‘Look, Romeo, I appreciate you trying up be grown up about this but…’

‘Hey, I’m not trying to be anything! Don’t be a condescending dickwad. I’m telling you to go for what you want, follow your heart and all of that.’

His father sighs, looking back at him. ‘I apologize. Either way, I have everything I want already here. Nice flat, spending the evening with my son, watching a show about…something together.’

Not everything, Romeo thinks. You miss him. You need him.

‘I just think you deserve to be happy.’, is what he goes for instead.

‘I am.’, James answers, his smile honest but not quite reaching his eyes as he turns back to the screen. ‘You didn’t tell me there’d be this much gore in this this, by the way.’

Part three on his agenda happens more incidentally a few days later. Him and James are heading into Chester, James wanting to pick up a suit he got re-tailored and dry cleaned and him feeling bored and tagging along.

They’re on the way to the car when Romeo spots Harry standing at the bus stop, glued to his phone.

He calls out to him before either of the other two have even noticed anything. ‘Harry. Hey!’

The older boy jumps slightly at his name being called, then looks up fast in his direction, schooling his expression from confusion to surprise and then into a wary but still welcoming smile.

‘Romeo…and James, hi. How are you.?’

Romeo peeks at his dad out of ther corner of his left eye, sees how he’s halted and then how he walks over to Harry even before Romeo himself feels like he needs to convince him to do so. A little bit like magnets.

‘Good, yeah. And you?’, Romeo asks, knowing James is still in his ‘gazing upon Harry’ phase of the moment.

‘Yeah, fine. What are you two up to today?’

‘Heading into town, Mr. Tuxedo over here needs something from the tailor.’

Harry giggles and Romeo can see James fake glare at him from where he’s standing next to him. He probably deserves that.

‘Well, I’d say have fun but I’m not quite sure how much fun one can have with that.’

‘Where are you off to then?’, Romeo asks, silently begging him to not turn around just yet.

‘Oh, just visiting a friend up north.’, he says – pointing back to the bus stop with his thumb.

The idea pops into his head as soon as Harry finishes his sentence.

‘Maybe we could offer you a ride for a bit? Drop you off somewhere or whatever. So you don’t have to wait out here in the cold and then get onto an overheated and probably sweaty bus.’

‘What friend are you seeing?’, James suddenly asks, making both Romeo and Harry look at him weirdly. That’s ..not quite the reaction he’d hoped or expected to his suggestion to be honest.

‘Um.’, Harry shuffles his feet over the pavement. ‘Just..you know, old mate from boarding school. Nick, not sure if I’ve ever mentioned him.’

‘I don’t think you have, no.’ James answers, forehead crinkling like he’s going through memories, searching for the name somewhere. Harry keeps looking at him with furrowed brows, completely confused. Romeo can’t blame him.

’Yeah, no I probably wouldn’t have. We really just got in touch again in December when I needed a place to crash and everything’

‘Right.’, James says, tongue seemingly stuck to the roof of his mouth, like he’s trying to stop himself from saying more.

Romeo looks back and forth between them like a ping pong ball, the tension practically palpable and charged. And then he notices James clenching his left by his side and it becomes clear. Oh. His dad is jealous. Jealous of Harry even mentioning another guy and the thought of him making the effort of taking a bus trip to visit him. But also knowing he’s not allowed to be jealous, not really. He’s rejected Harry. Harry is single.

‘Right.’, Harry echoes back, licking his lower lip and opening his mouth like he wants to add something, like he wants to reassure James somehow even if he doesn’t know why the older man is acting like this in the first place.

Their current unspoken love kinda makes Romeo feel a bit lightheaded.

‘So, about that ride…You up for it? It’s not a problem, right James?’ He doesn’t think his dad would actually deny giving Harry a lift somwhere but he’d rather avoid the awkwardness of Harry agreeing and James finding an excuse.

James fumbles with the car keys in his hand for a moment before replying ‘Yeah, no. Absolutely. I’ll…We’ll gladly drop you off somewhere.’

‘That’s really sweet but, not necessary. Honestly, I don’t mind taking the bus. Gives me some time to nap and put my headphones in. Besides, I already bought the ticket, so..’

‘You sure?’, Romeo decides to give it one more try. ‘I could use a backseat buddy to moan about him putting on his Mozart playlist again.’

Harry snorts out a little laugh at that. ‘You’re fine as long as it’s only Mozart. Chopin on the other hand is where it gets really annoying.’

‘Interesting. Because I have quite the fond memory of the last time I heard Spring Waltz.’, James chimes in, giving Harry a look and making him blush and duck his head. His father’s expression turns more confident, slightly mischievous as his grin dimples up his cheeks and makes his eyes light up, amused crinkles forming beside them.

Romeo is pretty sure he doesn’t want to know any details about whatever they’re both thinking of right now.

‘I suppose he’s decent for certain occasions here and there.’, Harry quips back, lips turning upwards into a coy and coquettish smile.

While he’s glad his plan is somehow working out right now, at least a tiny bit, he’d rather not think of all the implications and innuendos here. He’s loved getting to know his dad better,would certainly like to become closer to Harry…but he’s totally fine with staying in the shadows on some topics.

He wonders how their little not-flirting flirting schpiel will continue when he hears the sound of a vehicle coming closer down the main street.

Harry turns his head towards the noise as well, seeing his bus approaching.

‘Oh,’, he lets out. Romeo is pretty sure he’s not imagining the disappointment in his tone. ‘I guess I better make sure I don’t miss that one.’

‘Sure, yeah. Have fun with your mate then.’; Romeo says, getting the desired effect of mentioning said mate again when James’ shoulders minutely but visibly tense next to his.

‘Will do.’, the older boy says, unaware of it, waving his goodbye

Rome and James call out their ‘bye’s' as well, continuing their walk to the car. He has his eyes on a few small pebbles and leafs on the ground when he looks up again and notices James has his neck slightly turned, his gaze focused on Harry as the bus driver opens the door for him. And Harry is staring directly back at him.

Over the following days, he tries to get them together a few times more in different ways. After spending some time with Juliet, he spots Harry helping out with the stock at the Price Slice, At home, he asks James if he can pick up some of that mint chocolate chip ice cream later. James looks a bit confused, thinking they still have about half a tub in the freezer – but Romeo shoveled it down after lunch as part of his master plan. He really, really didn’t mind. At all. When James comes back from the store later into the day, he looks a bit flustered and like he’s daydreaming on cloud nine and Romeo knows he must have at least run into Harry.

He’s fallen into a random google deep dive hole at 3 am on his laptop when he reads something about sense memory and a lightbulb goes off in his head. the next morning he generously rubs on some of James’ aftershave after texting Harry, heads over to the Lovedays’ to hand back one of the books the other boy has given him. When he leaves, he lingers a bit in the door way, before quickly going in for a semi-hug – patting the older boy on the back. He angles his head a bit to the side, making space for Harry’s nose to hopefully end up somewhere near his neck and chin.

He literally feels and hears Harry take in a deeper breath after a second before he pulls back a bit to quickly, almost like he's pulling himself out of a memory and like he's a bit embarrassed. Romeo is already grinning to himself when he notices Harry’s are a bit glazed over and he keeps trying to avoid eye contact with him as he slowly ushers Romeo out. Back on the doorstep, Rome breathes out a victorious laugh into the winter air. These love-struck fools.

When he does the washing the next day, he finds a sweatshirt in the laundry basket which sleeves are way too short to belong to James. He now knows Harry had almost moved in here and gathers it must belong to him. He lays it over the back of the couch next to where James is sitting, the motion making him turn around. His eyes zero in on the article and his mouth drops open a bit as he looks back up at him.

‘You should give this back to Harry. Would be a bit weird if I did that, right?’ He heads to the fridge without another word, getting out one of the pepsi cans and grinning into his first sip. He doesn’t actually know when and how his dad returns the sweater, but the next day he sees Harry out and about with his mate, Zack, he thinks, and he can spy the blue of the material under his coat. Harry is chatting grinningly and gesticulatively about something and Zack catches his eye from across the street, glaring at him like he knows exactly what he’s done. Romeo only pops up his eyebrows before going on his merry way.

The next day James is playing with the tie from his new suit, loosening and rearranging it infront of the mirror in the living room. After a while he sighs loudly.

‘What do you think then? Presentable enough for the self-proclaimed high society of lawyers in Liverpool?’ Romeo thinks it’s funny that he’s apparently this worried about his outfit that he’s – albeit relucantly – resorted to asking him for his opinion. He very quickly snaps a pic of James’ reflection and his dark grey and green combo, shooting it as a text to Harry with the simple caption ‘thoughts?

‘You look perfectly snobby, don’t worry – you’ll fit right in there.’ James only gives him an unimpressed look in return, now working on his pocket square. That’s when his phone pings and he excitedly opens up Harry’s answer. ‘he knows he’s a hot shot lawyer’ Romeo thinks there might be an inside joke there, but he smiles at the answer anyway, knowing it will cheer James up instantly.

‘Harry thinks so too, by the way.’, he calls out, making James’ fingers halt and turn halfway around to him.

‘What?’, he asks a bit dumbly.

‘Yep’, he says while enunciating the ‘p’. ‘Told me so himself.’ And he holds out the phone for James to see the text, his father coming closer to read it properly. It’s probably the first time he sees James properly blush.

James clears his throat after staring at the small screen just a few seconds too long. ‘That’s good to know then. Always nice to have a second opinion and all that.’

‘Mhm, sure. Especially if it’s an opinion you value that much….’, is all Romeo adds teasingly. James ignores him, or at least pretends to, but finally stops fiddling with his suit to pour himself a glass of Chardonnay.

______________________________________________________________________

Things all come together about a week later.

He’s arriving home from a day spent with Juliet, helping her finish off some homework, trying not to act too much like a proud older brother with how well she’s actually doing and having her roll her eyes at him about it. He bought her a cup of hot chocolate at the Bean and then a slice of Black Forest gateau too – might as well spoil someone from the pocket money he’s getting now.

He said goodbye with her on a bit of a sugar rush, rambling on about how P.E. class was totally unnecessary and how the gym hall definitely wasn’t heated,

When he closes the door behind him now, he’s glad to be inside again. Some sort of arctic breeze has made its way to the UK and his face feels a bit like it’s frozen.

Pulling off his shoes and jacket, he goes to make himself a cup of tea – when he hears a noise.

It sounds like a wooden thump, something getting knocked over or against something.

‘James?’, he calls out questioningly. He should be at work still. Romeo may not know his schedule in and out but it’s still light out and his dad is definitely a man of habit in the way he roughly comes home around the same time each day.

‘James?’, he tries again – a bit louder.There’s a noise again, slightly different, more muffled, like rustling or something fabricy being shuffled around hastily.

He thinks about ringing his dad, getting an uneasy feeling in his stomach. He knows from first hand experience just how easy it is to break into this apartment. And he’s been in the village lone enough to gather that James has made a handful of enemies.

Instead, he grabs one of the bigger knives from the wooden block in the kitchen and slowly heads into the direction of the noise. He’s not quite sure how he’ll actually react with the knife if he’s confronted with a burglar..but he does feel more secure holding its black grip tightly in his hand.

He sees that a couple books and a lamp on the sideboard in the hallway have been knocked over and wonders what exactly the possible intruder is looking for. James not doubt has a lot of objects lying around that could be worth a good amount of money.

There’s another thump and Romeo is pretty sure he can make out a voice as well, though what is being said is still unintelligible. One step, two steps..and then..is that a second person speaking there? It sounds like it.

It makes him stop for a second. He’s a tall, lanky guy and he’s been involved in a fist fight or two but taking on two robbers who might be armed? That doesn’t sound like a walk in the park.

He looks back down at the silver glint of the knife and thinks ‘screw it’ before storming over the last couple meters, the noise leading him to James’ bedroom.

He throws open the door with the side of his elbow, holding out the knife in a way he hopes looks threatening.

‘Hey! I don’t want to hurt you but I will I have to!’, he yells out. Though after only a word or two his own scream gets overshadowed by a shriek. From Harry.

Harry who is currently laid out on James’ bed. With this top off, hair in complete disarrey, lips redder than usual and his forehead looking slightly sweaty. Might have something to with the fact that James is hovering on top of him, shirtless as well. Thankfully both their pants are still on..James’ eyes blown wide as they stare back at him now. Romeo thinks it must be a combination of whatever he’s been doing with Harry and the surprise of him bursting in.

‘Romeo!’, James calls out as Harry scrambles with the bedsheets, pulling one on top of him to cover his chest. ‘Romeo, it’s alright, just…put down the knife, yeah?’

He keeps staring at both of them with his mouth flopping open and closed, searching for something to say as his eyes absentmindely drift over the room where their shirts are thrown across the floor and their shoes and socks are somewhere off to different sides like they were discared as quickly as possible.

‘I-‘, he starts, mouth feeling horribly dry and like he has too much saliva to work with at once. ‘I’m sorry.’, he chooses to stay, lowering the knife.

‘It’s..fine’, James continues, forcing a smile in his direction before quickly looking back down at Harry. The poor guy looks slightly less flushed and he’s no longer clutching the sheet up to his chin like his life depends on it. He’s pretty sure him and Harry share the same bewildered looks on their faces still though.

After briefly squeezing Harry’s shoulder, James gets up and pulls on his sweatshirt and oh…pulls up his zipper. He’s glad he didn’t come in thirty seconds later. That could have been five times more awkward.

‘I didn’t know you were home.’, is what he finally babbles out. ‘I..I thought you were a burglar or something. I didn’t mean to interrupt.’

James raises a single eyebrow at him. ‘You thought there was a burglar in here and decided to come in crashing with a kitchen knife?’

‘Two, actually.’

‘What?’

‘I thought you were two burglars.’

‘Right.’, James says, continuing to look at him with a look that is still a bit out of it. ‘We really gotta talk about home safety and what to do next time you think someone has broken into the flat while I’m not here. I’ll give you a hint in advance: The right answer is not confronting multiple potential intruders with a weapon that hasn’t been sharpened in forever.’

Romeo can’t help but laugh. It just bubbles out of him and he can’t stop. This entire situation is so absurd and ridiculous. He just walked in on his dad making out with the guys he’s been pining over ever since Romeo has come to the village and now he’s being lectured about breaking and entering. What else can he do but laugh?

‘I’m sorry’, he says, clutching an arm over his stomach as he keeps cackling. ‘All of this is just.. a lot.’ For a moment James and Harry stare at him like he’s gone insane but then Harry presses his lips together before cracking too and snorting out a laugh, dissolving into giggles that make his body shake.

Laughter fills the spaces between them and James' eyes keep travelling back and forth between them until he shakes his head and also breaks out into a small grin. ‘What on earth did I do to be stuck with the two of you in my life?’, he asks jokingly.

‘Oi, don’t pretend you don’t love it.’ Harry adds from the bed, challengingly raising his eyebrows at the older man, his expression turning mischievous.

James swallows, his face turning soft and almost bashful, lowering his eyes before holding Harry’s gaze in a way that looks unbearably honest and vulnerable. ‘I do.’

Romeo feels like ‘awwing’ out loud but doesn’t want to ruin the moment.

‘Are you then?’, he asks, pointing his chin at Harry. He looks confused at the question.

‘Am I what?’

‘Back in his life?’, he continues, eyes darting over to James.

‘Oh.’, Harry lets out. Looking at him before he turns to face the older man. ‘Wouldn’t wanna be anywhere else, if I’m honest.’ He beams as he says it, and James teeth start peeking out between his lips, smile brightening even more. Romeo thinks he’s neven seen him smile quite like this. It looks good on him.

After all his efforts these two have finally- wait a minute.

‘Wait..when did this even happen?’, he suddenly asks, gesticulating outwards to them with his hands - a bit too loud for the quietness of the moment.

‘You wanna specify what exactly you mean by ‘this?’, James questions, shuffling his hands into his pockets, looking much more relaxed now.

‘Actually, don’t. Don’t specify anything about..this.’, Harry interrupts, finger circling back and forth in the air to point out the situation they’ve found themselves in.

‘That’s not what I meant.’; Romeo laughs. ‘Believe me, the less I know the better if we don’t want awkward dinner conversations for the next month or two. What I was getting at was, when did you two get back together?’

‘About a week ago now.’, Harry answers.

And that’s just..unacceptable.

‘A whole week ago? An entire seven days? I’ve been trying to get you to get your act your together all this time and then when it happens..I don’t even find out until a week later? Come on guys.’ He knows he sounds ridiculous and his voice ends up a bit whiny at the end there, making Harry snicker, but he feels like he’s been denied the fairy tale ending to his scheme. That feeling only intensifies when he remembers…

‘Wait..a week ago was when you had your Liverpool thing.’, he says and animatedly points his finger at his dad. ‘I was still busy playing matchmaker at that point.’

James clears his throat. ‘Yes, well…the next day I met Harry in the streets and I thought I’d very graciously thank him for giving me his opinion on the suit.’ He peeks over at Harry who has something glinting in his eyes that looks very much appropriate for the room they’re in and very much inappropriate for Romeo to still be standing here. ‘We got talking and well, one thing lead to another and here we are.’

He feels like he’s getting a very abridged version of events but the way his dad’s eyes travel from Harry’s eyes down to his lips and then don't really stop , as if recalling recent moments of the last week, he’s probably lucky.

He looks back at Harry, wondering if he’ll add more details. He is a sucker for big romantic reunions after all, and would love to know a bit more about how his agenda worked out so perfectly in the end.

But the older boy only shrugs his shoulders. ‘I had to take him up on his Wagner offer at some point, didn’t I?’ Romeo doesn’t understand, but he probably doesn’t need to. ‘By the way, you really weren’t being very sly with your whole parent trap thing.’

That surprises him a bit. He thought he was putting on a very good act.

‘Really?’

Harry snorts. ‘Mate, you asked to borrow an essay book. I gave you one on eighth grade basic physics instead. I had a hunch at that point you weren’t really asking for any revision tips. And I was proven right when you brought it back acting it had been exactly what you’d asked for.’

Oops. Maybe he should haven taken an actual closer look (or two or three).

Off to the side James clears his throat. 'Do I even want to ask what the whole parent trap thing is?’

Both him and Harry turn their heads towards the older man simultaneously, staring at him with deadpan faces.

‘Are you serious?’, Romeo asks after a second of waiting for his dad to clarify that he’s obviously just kidding.

‘Oh, he’s totally serious.’, Harry clarifies.

Romeo can’t help but grin at the idea of him and the older boy teasing James about Disney movies from the late 90's and early two thousands.

‘I’m not sure how much I like the two of you ganging up on me.’, James concludes faux-seriously, eyebrows gently furrowed as he tries to decipher both their looks.

‘Doesn’t really matter.’; Romeo says, opening the door behind him again and angling his body through the open space. ‘All you really need to know is that I’m definitely taking full credit for the two of you getting back together.’

And then he’s heading to the living room, hearing their yelps and ‘heys’, knowing they’ll definitely try to pick up on this discussion later. Both of them proud and stubborn idiots pretending like they weren’t acting like disasters just a few days ago.

He smirks. He thinks he fits in rather well with his new little family.