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In the Company of Strangers

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St Andrews, Scotland
September 2019

Claire had known in a heartbeat that this place was haunted.

At first glance, in daylight, it was hard to believe. The September sun bathed the cathedral walls in whispering gold. Tourists wandered through the chancery and transept, chattering and taking photographs; students lay in the grass with their books; blue flowers bloomed out of cracks in the walls. Even the crumbled crags of the ruined towers seemed to smile warmly over the town that knelt at its feet.

In the eastern cemetery, though, decaying statues loomed over the pathway. The air was still; the breeze hissed over the boundary walls, but the grass did not stir, and every sound seemed deeper, older, nearer. Harrison's t-shirt clung chill to his skin, damp with the sweat from his run across West Sands. Here, the tales of the mutilated nun and the mysterious white lady were harder to dismiss. Besides, he thought, if he closed his eyes and listened, felt, there was something there, hiding under the roll of the sea and the breath of the wind...

He'd taken Claire's hand as they'd stood here fifteen years ago – more than half his lifetime. He'd felt the same thing then. Unnerved, alert, awake. She'd understood, and hadn't laughed. Claire had never laughed at him.

“It can't hurt us, whatever it is,” she'd said – then, eyes half-glazed, as though repeating a lesson breathed into her ear, “It's been asleep for a long, long time.”

He could feel that now, of course. At twelve years old, his gifts running as wild as his hormones, it had been harder to rationalise.

He'd avoided this place during his undergraduate years. Not because he'd been here with Claire; it was a small town, and they'd been almost everywhere. Even now, sometimes, he thought he saw her – laughing in the corner of a bar, or emerging from a shop doorway, pushing rose-gold waves off her face, smiling into the sun. He didn't mind. In a way it was comforting – like she was keeping him company from afar. But the cathedral was different. There was a strange liminality about it, like you could wander into the grounds on a sunny afternoon in the twenty-first century, and then emerge through the same gate ten minutes later, but three hundred years into the past. Claire felt near here. He half-expected her to reach across the divide of years and take his hand, then pull him close, and smile, and suggest they walk up to Jannettas for an ice cream.

You were damn right this place is haunted, he thought bitterly. Did you know, then? Were you already planning it?

But even as he thought it, guilt twisted inside him. He knew the answer. Claire had been full of joy and smiles on their trip. They'd played Scottish folk songs in the car as they'd driven up, singing loudly, his boyish treble on the verge of breaking into its adult baritone, Claire's contralto rich and sweet. She had taken a photo of them by the Fàilte gu Alba sign on the A1 as they crossed the border, both of them pulling a silly face, sun blazing in the sky behind them. (The same photograph now sat on his bookshelf at home.) It had been so last minute, unplanned and unexpected; the short pupillage she'd arranged for her Easter holiday had fallen through, and there wasn't time to arrange other work experience, so instead she'd booked into a bed and breakfast in St Andrews and invited Harrison to go with her. Not Lucy and Puneet, or any of her university friends - him, her younger cousin, who she could easily have dismissed as a nuisance and never had. They'd always been close, perhaps because of the secret they shared, but he couldn't imagine a world in which he wouldn't have loved her. It was no wonder Gitta and Jane had been enchanted, spoiling them both rotten through that glorious week in Spring.

As he drifted along the winding footpath with his memories, a fragment of a song floated up through his mind.

Passing bells and sculpted angels
Cold and monumental
Seem for you the wrong companions
You were warm and gentle.

He smiled to himself. Not always, he thought, remembering how fiercely passionate she could be, then shook himself. Enough. Get a grip. It had come to something if he was going to spend his free afternoon wandering through a graveyard humming mournful songs from The Phantom of the Opera, though last night had certainly been unsettling. He had liked Gitta and Jane's extended family immensely – far more than he usually liked anyone on a first meeting – and yet speaking about Claire to Sören, who had cared for her, perhaps loved her...

I wish she'd known.

Claire had only told Harrison a little about the mischievous, dark-haired medical student she'd met on her trip to Reykjavik, but even at twelve years old, it had been obvious to him what his older cousin was feeling. Unfairly, he wondered if things might have been different if Sören had kept in touch – though from what Gitta had told him, her nephew had had enough problems of his own to deal with, and had no doubt asked himself the same question many times over.

It wasn't his fault. You could just as easily say it was yours. Harrison had known Claire wasn't happy in London, and he'd said nothing, though Gitta and Jane had assured him over and over again through the years that he couldn't have known what she'd choose, and had done so again last night.

“She was ill,” Gitta had murmured to him in the kitchen as they stole a quiet moment together. “There was nothing you could have done, my darling.”

Alejandro, too, had clearly been moved by Sören's words, though he hadn't even known Claire; those strange grey eyes held a grief as deep as the sea. Then there was Kol, frighteningly beautiful, like fire made flesh. There was something about those two – and about the rest of them, to a greater or lesser extent – that brushed against those strange instincts he'd long ago learned to trust, like the prickle of lightning ahead of a storm.

He had meant to go straight home after his run, but the cathedral had called to him today in a way that it never normally did.

Outside the walls of the ancient ruin, the weight inside him seemed to dissolve a little, and he paused by the gates to allow a gaggle of tourists to wander past. The town would soon be quiet again; term had begun, the golf season was almost over, and the tide of day trippers and sightseers would recede until Spring. He took a deep breath of the soft, salted air, and set off own South Street towards his cottage.

“Harrison!”

He turned at the sound of the smoky Icelandic voice, a little unnerved. What are the odds? Even so, he smiled, and instinctively buried his melancholy thoughts under a deep layer of mental white noise. “Hi.”

Sören's answering smile was open and warm. He had his arm slung around Frankie's shoulders; she grinned and stuck out her tongue as they approached, and jerked her thumb in Sören's direction.

“This daft cunt got us lost,” she informed him.

“Not lost,” Sören protested. “We took a wrong turn, that's all.”

Harrison couldn't help laughing at the wounded puppy expression on the other man's face. “Where were you trying to get to?”

“We were actually looking for you. Gitta said you'd be at the practice rooms -”

“I finished early; there's no teaching after eleven today, the sports teams all play this afternoon.” He gestured at his sports gear, aware that he was something of a sweaty mess, though neither Sören nor Frankie seemed like the kind of people who would mind. “I went for a run instead.”

Sören nodded. “It's a beautiful place for it.”

“Do you run?” Harrison asked curiously. Sören's physique was taut and sculpted, suggesting he did something to keep himself in shape – unless he was just incredibly lucky in his genetics – and as much as he liked the peace and quiet of his solitary routes along the coast, it might be nice to have company every so often...

“No. Asthma.” Sören pulled a face.

“Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't realise -”

“Not that it's ever stopped him decking twats and creeps when they ask for it,” Frankie put in.

Harrison laughed again. He could easily believe it.

Sören pushed back his curls, his smile now a little shy. “Jæja, it's happened.” Heat flickered in the sweet brown eyes. “I can't just watch if someone's hurting someone else, you know?”

Frankie's arms went around Sören's waist and she drew him close, pressing her cheek against his chest. “He's a proper white knight.”

“You've done the same for me.”

A sharp, hot lump formed in Harrison's throat at the sight of them – like siblings, maybe closer. He didn't need to try and listen to their thoughts; he knew what was in both their minds. I have your back. I'll protect you. He breathed in. Claire...

“We were going to ask if you wanted to have dinner with us tonight – we're taking Gitta and Jane out, to say thank you, and to give them a break.” Concern and anxiety pooled in Sören's dark eyes, though Harrison's face was still arranged into friendly neutrality. “But if you don't want to...”

“No.” He'd told Gitta and Jane he wanted to meet Sören and the rest of them, and he'd meant it. He'd known it wouldn't be easy. “No, I'd like that – as long as you don't mind me tagging along on a family outing?”

Sören's smile deepened into a grin. “Gitta and Jane consider you family. That's good enough for me.” And if things had gone differently, we might have been family in another way.

Harrison smothered his reaction to the unspoken addition, which rang in his head like fire through glass. He made plans to meet them all later at The Adamson, pointed Sören in the direction of some of the best views for sketching, and headed back to his cottage.

It was a sleepy little bolthole tucked away in a courtyard behind the bustle of South Street, a living area with a corner kitchen downstairs, a bedroom and en-suite upstairs. It didn't matter; he didn't need much room. The stone was warm and sandy and mottled, and a creeper plant, reddening in the lazy glory of autumn, snaked its way around the windows. The noise of the town was muffled here, and as he unlocked the door, Harrison breathed out and felt the tension leave his body.

Home.

There had been no question of moving back to Sheffield after university. His birth city was too intrinsically linked with the long, grey years of grief. St Andrews had its ghosts and memories too, but they were cheerful, for the most part. Then, of course, there was Gitta and Jane. He would never forget that morning in his first week as an undergraduate, when he'd left Theo sleeping in their room and followed his feet along Lade Braes, hung over, damp from the rain, looking for the rambling bed and breakfast he and Claire had stayed in years ago. He'd knocked on the door; Jane had opened it, and she'd beamed and greeted him by name before he'd even had chance to ask if they remembered him. The warmth and kindness had startled him, undone him; he'd broken down in great, shattering sobs, crying as he hadn't cried even when he first found out what Claire had done. Ten minutes later he'd found himself in their kitchen, pouring his heart out, being given tea and cake and lemon curd on crumpets, and by the end of the morning it was as though a poisoned wound had been lanced, or a cloud of bitter fumes dissolved to leave clean air behind.

He had visited at least once a week after that, usually more, sometimes taking Rosie or Theo with him – at least until that terrible night in second year, when he'd got the call from Byrdie. Theo had overdosed in the bathroom at Hope Street; they'd called an ambulance, but too late...

Shit. Harrison rubbed hands over his face as heat built in his eyes and throat. Get it together.

He glanced at his watch, wondering if Rosie might be online. It was still early in Florida, but depending on what she had happening in her lab, normal working hours were something of a luxury for her. He flipped open his laptop and settled himself at the dining table.

 

[11:29 AM] Harrison: Hey.

[11:30 AM] Rosie: Hi! Shouldn't you be working?

[11:30 AM] Harrison: Afternoon off.

[11:31 AM] Rosie: Is everything OK?

[11:32 AM] Harrison: Er. Define OK.

[11:32 AM] Rosie: Uh oh. Calling you now.

 

A few seconds later she flickered up on his screen. The image was a little pixelated and jerky, but even so, the sight of her was enough to make him smile. “Hey, you.”

“Hi yourself.” Despite her sunny tone, and even though the picture wasn't clear, he knew she had the familiar crinkle of concern in her forehead. “What's the matter?”

Straight to the point. He grinned. She hadn't changed. “Not much, really – or nothing new.”

“How's Jane?”

His stomach curled inward. “She stays upbeat, but...she gets tired easily now.”

“I can imagine,” she said softly. “What about Gitta? How's she doing?”

“Well, this is Gitta we're talking about. She'd make Vinnie Jones look soft.”

Rosie chuckled.

“Actually she's pretty good – she has visitors at the moment.”

“Isn't that the point of running a bed and breakfast?” Rosie teased.

“Family, I mean.” He leaned back in his chair. “You might know one of them, actually – or at least know of him, in a professional capacity. Dagnýr Sigurdsson?”

Her eyes widened, and the picture blurred as she bounced and squealed. “Oh my GOD! Dagnýr Sigurdsson is in St Andrews?”

“Jesus, Rosie.” He pretended to massage his ears, though he was smiling. “Lower the pitch a little.”

“Sorry. But...wow.” She gave a dreamy sigh. “I'm so jealous. Can you get me his autograph?”

“Bit of an awkward request over dinner.”

A disbelieving gasp. “You're having dinner with him?”

“And his husband, and his brother and sister, and their partners. And his cousin.” It was starting to sound like a litany from a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, he thought wryly. “And Gitta and Jane, of course; he's their nephew.”

She shook her head. “Why did I not know this?”

“They haven't really been in touch until recently. Long story.” He took a deep breath. “Actually there's a connection there for me too.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Dagnýr's brother Sören was...he knew Claire.”

“Oh, Harrison.” Rosie bit her lip. “Wow. That's...”

“Yeah.” He swallowed. “She met him in Iceland when they were both students. She never said, but I think – I know she wanted to be more than friends, and she thought he wasn't interested.”

Rosie sighed. “Does he remember her?”

“Yes. And the thing is –” He paused, thinking. “God, this is...I don't even know what the word is. He did like her.” He remembered what he had caught from Sören outside the cathedral, when their guards were down. “I think he might even have loved her.”

There was a short silence on the other end of the line. “I wish I could be there with you,” Rosie said eventually.

Harrison found himself wishing that too. “Sadly there's an ocean in the way.”

She laughed. “I know. How inconvenient.”

“Tell me about it.”

“So...” Carefully, gently. “Have you talked about it?”

“A bit. I only met them yesterday.” His mouth twisted into something that was only half a smile. “And even for that I needed a lot of alcohol.”

“If I know Gitta and Jane, that won't have been a problem.” She tilted her head, cat-like. “So what now?”

“I'm not sure. I like him. I like all of them, so far. In a way it'd be good to have someone else to talk to who knew Claire – you know my family won't – but Jesus, this is hard.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I get that. At least with the Theo thing, we had each other.”

“Thank God.” He laughed a little, though his voice shook. “I was thinking about him today as well.”

“It makes sense. Once you start stirring up memories...” She took an uneven breath. “Oh, you're setting me off now!”

“I'm sorry.”

“It's OK.” She swallowed, and smiled. “Idiot.”

“Me?”

“No! Theo.”

“Oh.” He shook his head, choosing to remember the laughing blue eyes, the appealing puppy-dog smile, the harebrained pranks and schemes, the gaming marathons, the long nights laughing in the Whey Pat. The good times. “Our idiot.”

“Too true.”

They talked for a while longer, chatting about Rosie's research, her deepening tan, and her new lab assistant (“He's cute – but he's two years younger than me, and he doesn't understand what causes a bootstrap current in a tokamak reactor!”), until Rosie's desktop alarm bleeped and she pulled a face.

“Go,” Harrison said, smiling properly now. “You've got things to do.”

She widened her eyes appealingly. “Will you at least get his picture for me?”

“Whose? Dagnýr's?”

“Oh my God, as if you're on first name terms...”

“He's Icelandic; their patronymics aren't the same as our surnames.”

“Oh.” She sighed. “Will you, though? Please?”

“If I can, without it looking seriously weird, then yes.” Actually he had a different plan; it had brewed in the back of his mind while they'd been talking, but he wasn't going to tell her about it. Not yet.

“Alright. Thanks.” She blew him a kiss and waved. “Look after yourself.”

“Yeah, you too. Don't blow anything up, or get abducted by aliens.”

She giggled. “Actually it's funny you should say that...” But she glanced at her watch and grimaced again. “Never mind. I'll send the link to your phone, otherwise I'll be late.”

“We can't have that.” He returned the mimed kiss. “Go on; get moving. I'll talk to you soon.”

“You know where I am if you need anything.”

“I do. Thank you – and the same goes for you. Always.”

A few minutes after she logged off, his handset vibrated on the counter.

I've been looking into this as a side project. It's not as mad as it sounds! Xxx

Curious, he clicked on the YouTube clip Rosie had linked him to. Dagnýr stood on stage in a vast auditorium, at once visibly nervous and elated. The screen behind him showed the Pale Blue Dot photograph that Rosie had shown to Harrison on a number of occasions.

“Here we are.” Dagnýr's voice echoed from the speakers, thinner than in person, but his passion and belief rang clear and true. “All alone in the solar system. As far as we know, all alone in the galaxy. All alone in any galaxy.” A pause, deep and thoughtful and almost dangerous, like lifting one foot over the edge of a cliff. “But do we know that for a fact? Are we, in fact, alone?”

Harrison felt his eyebrows lift in scepticism – but Rosie was no daydreaming ditz, however the world might perceive her. He listened on.

“Future generations – with more information, better technology – still won't know everything, or even much more than we've learned to date...”

Harrison had spent enough time on stage to know a spellbound audience when he saw one. Dagnýr was a natural.

“It is only in breaking what we think is our reality, and go deeper...that the pieces fall together as they should. As they must, for our continued survival. Thank you.”

Again, he was reminded painfully, irresistibly of Claire. She, too, had insisted on the importance of pushing boundaries, of stretching the limits of what the world believed was possible. She had worked with him to practise channelling and controlling his powers, making sure he never hurt or exhausted himself, but also encouraging him to look further, deeper, beyond, to never say never...

Except you did. You left me. That bitter voice again. He breathed over and around the shudder of anger and grief that rocked him, and looked back at the man on the screen of his phone. Dagnýr was roughly of an age with Claire, and he smiled dazedly as the audience cheered. With an intuitive rush Harrison knew that, if Dagnýr and Claire had ever met, they would have been good friends.

He took a long, hot shower to clean up from his run, tried and failed to concentrate on a game of League of Legends, and eventually gave up. Not wanting to spend the afternoon moping, he gathered the things he'd need for the evening, changed into a floral shirt and smart jeans, and wandered back to Younger Hall. It was true that he didn't have any more lessons that day, but there was nothing to stop him from practising. It wasn't only there for the students, after all.

He chose one of the smaller rooms down the left hand corridor. It was quieter down here; the rooms on the other side of the building had recently been refurbished, and were sleeker, with newer stands and whiteboards on the wall. Harrison preferred the acoustics of the older rooms. High-ceilinged, sparsely furnished, music brought them to life.

The breathing and warm-up exercises he ran through were as familiar as his own heartbeat, as comforting as an arm around his waist or a head leaned against his shoulder. His muscles relaxed; his chest expanded. The echoes of the C major arpeggio flew through the room, and he grinned at the fierce, easy joy of it. Straight-backed, he settled on the piano stool, laid his fingers on the instrument, lightly stroked the chipped keys. Without thought he sounded the sustained opening chords of the song that had drifted across his mind in the eastern cemetery earlier that day. He hummed the melody, did not form the words, heard them in his mind anyway.

You were once my one companion
You were all that mattered...

Not quite true, he thought with a wry smile, but not far away. She had certainly been unique. He remembered visiting her in London. She'd taken him to see The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre, long before the film came out – even though he knew what West End tickets could cost, and that Claire had probably eaten tinned macaroni cheese for a month to be able to afford it.

As he approached the chorus, he gave in and sang the words out loud.

“Wishing you were somehow here again
Knowing I must say goodbye..."

The week before his father had taken him to Bramall Lane to watch the Blades play Wolves, hoping to instil in his son the same love of football he'd shared with his own father. Shame-faced, Harrison had confessed to Claire that he hadn't enjoyed it, that he'd much preferred the show.

“Who wouldn't?” she'd grinned. “There's no other show like Phantom. I'll lend you the book; it's brilliant.”

Grief was so often described as a knife, but the weight that struck his chest now was blunt, brutal, shattering, like a great fracking drill under his ribcage. Fifteen years, and fuck, it got no easier.

His baritone soared towards the climax of the song.

“Try to forgive – teach me to live
Give me the strength to try!”

His voice broke, and his hands froze on the keys. The chords whispered, dissonant, and faded into silence. He couldn't carry on.

After a couple of steadying breaths he realised he was not, in fact, alone.

“Forgive the intrusion.” The hairs on his arms lifted at the melodic tenor, the accent he wasn't entirely sure came from Brazil. Alejandro. “I'm sure you'd prefer to be alone, but I couldn't help stopping to listen.”

Harrison didn't know what to say. He faced the keyboard, blinking back tears.

“Gitta was right. You're very good.”

He attempted a smile. Alejandro wouldn't see it, of course, but he'd had enough stage training to know it would come through in his voice. “The acoustics are kind in here, that's all.”

“That is certainly not all – and believe me, I've been around for long enough to know.”

Harrison snorted, eyebrows raised in disbelief. “Come off it. You're only a few years older than me – what are you, thirty-five?”

Alejandro chuckled. “A little older than that.”

Harrison wiped his eyes, hoping that, from behind, Alejandro would simply think he was brushing his hair off his face, and turned around. “Were you looking for a practise room?”

“I was. There are plenty free, but as I said, I heard you sing.” He half-started through the door, then paused. “May I -?”

Instinctively, Harrison wanted to say no, to send him away, but something in the lovely face stopped him – the strange, sad light in his eyes that he'd noticed the evening before. “Yes.” The speed of his answer surprised him. “Please do.”

The invitation seemed to surprise Alejandro too. He smiled, a warm blaze that lit his face like a silver flame. “Thank you.” He settled himself elegantly in the chair next to the piano. “I have to ask – did you ever think of singing professionally? Not as a teacher,” he added. “On the stage.”

Harrison traced the keys with gentle fingertips. “Yes,” he admitted. “A long time ago.”

“What happened?”

He tilted his head. “I thought you wanted to practise?”

“I would like to hear your story – if you're willing to tell me.”

Harrison exhaled, and played a soft, solemn progression of minor key chords. 'Close Every Door,' from Joseph. He raised a mental eyebrow at himself.

Quite the black mood you're in this afternoon.

Aloud, he said, “It's more a case of what didn't happen. There's no story, really; I always loved singing and acting at school, but I couldn't have made a career out of it.”

“Who told you that?”

He shot Alejandro a measured look. “I went to a comprehensive school in Sheffield. My grandparents were miners and steel workers. It was never going to happen.” He felt an ache of affection. “Besides, if I'd gone running off to drama school, I wouldn't have met Gitta and Jane again.”

Alejandro nodded slowly. “You wanted to come back to St Andrews.”

Startled, Harrison paused halfway through a melodic phrase. “Yes.” He knew he sounded guarded, even prickly. He didn't much care.

But Alejandro didn't seem deterred, though he leaned back and changed the subject. “I'm glad you're having dinner with us. I know it's important to Gitta and Jane – having all of their family together.” He didn't add at the end, but the shape of the words hung heavily in the air between them.

“I'm glad to be asked.” He breathed slowly outwards, relaxing his body. “I know last night wasn't easy for Sören.”

“It wasn't,” Alejandro agreed. “But he wanted to meet you; we both did.”

Harrison frowned. “You never knew Claire.” It was almost an accusation.

“No.” The response was swift – though was there a waver behind it? He didn't know Alejandro well enough to tell. “Although I've heard a lot about her. I – I feel as though I do know her. Did,” he amended. The dark brows contracted. “If that doesn't sound too presumptuous.”

“It's...” In a way it was touching, that Sören would have spoken to his partners about Claire so much. “It's kind of you to say.” He gave an awkward smile, and returned to fingering chords on the piano. “I'm sorry; I'm not doing a great job at finding words today.”

“It's hard for you too, I know,” said Alejandro softly. “More so than for us. You knew her better, and for longer.”

“I wonder how well I did know her,” Harrison said bitterly. “I never thought she'd...” The words died in his throat.

Alejandro looked away, shadows in his eyes. “I know.”

“How?” There was no challenge this time, only curiosity, and the stirrings of sympathy.

“My oldest brother took the same path. I would not have thought it of him, either.”

Harrison swallowed. “I'm so sorry.”

“It was a very long time ago.” And yet the grief sat under his voice like iron. “Perhaps it was losing the others that broke him; he was never the same afterwards.”

The others? Harrison bit back the words, wondering just what this man had been through.

As though in answer to the unspoken question, Alejandro looked back at him and smiled sadly. “There were seven of us. Seven brothers. The others died in – in an accident.”

Accident my arse. He'd have caught that hesitation half-asleep – but he didn't press it. “Seven?” he echoed instead. He'd grown up as an only child; he couldn't even imagine a troop of six brothers charging around the place.

Alejandro laughed, a beautiful, musical sound like the curl of a breaking wave. “I know.”

“An ex of mine had four younger siblings. That was pretty crazy.” Thinking of Luc brought another pang of regret. “They were Catholic – well, he didn't practise, but his family...” He inhaled, remembering the arguments, the tears, the decision to call it a day. “Let's just say they weren't very understanding about us.”

“It was like that where I came from too.”

His breath escaped around a sob. Jesus, what's wrong with you? “I'm sorry.”

“Please don't be.”

With an effort he pulled back control. “You must think I'm a right car crash.”

“Not at all.” Alejandro's voice was low and full of compassion. “It doesn't take much to bring difficult memories to the surface. And grief is odd.” A resigned half-smile. “It has a way of ambushing us when we least expect it.”

“I hadn't thought about Luc in years, before today.” Harrison hesitated, still not entirely trusting his voice. “And earlier, I was thinking about Claire, and then suddenly I was thinking about Theo too – a friend of mine, he died when I was nineteen – and Jane...”

Alejandro laid a hand on his arm – the right hand, the one with the terrible burns.

Harrison didn't flinch, though again he wondered briefly where in the world those wounds could have come from, and then he felt a soothing warmth like a lullaby, and his body relaxed again. “I'm sorry,” he repeated.

Alejandro shook his head. “When I lost my family, I didn't speak for over a year. Harrison, I understand.”

Harrison took a deep breath, pulling his diaphragm downwards and feeling his chest expand, once again falling into the breathing exercises his singing teacher had made him practise as a teenager.

Gently, Alejandro squeezed his arm. “Would you sing for me again?”

“If you like.” He straightened up, oddly shy all of a sudden.

“I'll play.” Alejandro rose and took Harrison's place at the piano. “I'll have a better idea of what you can do if you're standing up.”

Harrison startled himself by almost sniggering. Mind. Gutter. Out. “Is this a test?” he asked aloud, going to stand by the window. He wasn't sure if he was nervous or not.

Alejandro arched one sleek dark brow and shrugged. “If you like.”

Harrison narrowed his eyes, not missing the imitation.

“So.” Alejandro smiled at him, enigmatic again. “Pick a song.”

“Which ones do you know?”

“Most of them.”

Somehow that didn't surprise him. “Alright.” He thought for a moment. The mood had lightened and lifted, but even so, he wasn't sure about throwing himself into one of the big, emotional standards. He folded his arms and smiled a challenge. “How's your Gilbert and Sullivan?”

They ran through the Pirate King's aria, and then Alejandro insisted on trying him with the Major General's song, despite Harrison's protests that he couldn't do comedy; after that they switched back to Broadway, and Alejandro slid into the soft, swaying introduction to 'On the Street Where You Live.'

“Don't attack it,” he advised. “And don't feel too tied to what the piano's doing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Freddy's in love for the first time. He's dazed, and elated. Wander around a little – rhythmically speaking,” he added as Harrison lifted an eyebrow. “Tell the story. Be gentle. Keep the big notes for the end.”

Harrison considered. “Would you show me?”

Alejandro flashed him a grin, and he took a soft inward breath.

I have often walked down this street before
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before...

Harrison's jaw dropped – quite literally.

All at once am I
Several storeys high
Knowing I'm on the street where you live!

The man was phenomenal. He sang with a rich, deep tenor, soft-edged, but with a weight of feeling behind it that pierced Harrison through to his soul. In his mind's eye he saw Edwardian London, a pavement gleaming with rain, a wide-eyed young man in evening wear, cherry blossom on the trees, and felt the warm city air on his cheeks.

My God.

He shivered; Alejandro paused, as though remembering himself, and returned to the introductory chords. “Now you.”

He made a decent job of the song, though he knew it was nothing compared to Alejandro's unearthly talent. Finally they played through 'Luck Be A Lady', and Harrison found himself slipping easily into Sky's devil-may-care yet earnest persona, and grinning as his voice hit the climactic notes and soared around the practise room.

Alejandro's smile was like fire at the end. “Very nice.”

“Thank you.” Harrison felt heat in his cheeks, and pressed the back of his hands against the burning skin. “It's good to sing for an audience again – an audience that isn't Gitta and Jane,” he added affectionately. “They'd tell me I sounded good if I was squawking out that God-awful thing from Annie.

The silvery eyes widened. Alejandro's lovely mouth took on a mischievous curl.

Harrison folded his arms and glared. “No.

“You asked for it.”

“I definitely didn't,” he groaned.

Alejandro ignored him, played a triumphant major key fanfare, opened his mouth and sang.

THE sun'll come out
Tomorrow
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There'll be sun!

It was so ridiculous, so unlikely, this beautiful, melancholy man with a voice like molten crystal, belting out the infectiously perky number intended for a little girl no older than ten. Harrison stared for a moment, and then laughter shot through him, irresistible as the tide in the bay.

Alejandro continued, undeterred.

When I'm stuck with a day
That's grey
And lonely
I just stick out my chin
And grin
And say
OH!

“Good grief,” Harrison gasped. He took a deep breath, quelled his laughter, and joined in for the final chorus.

Tomorrow, tomorrow!
I love ya, tomorrow!
You're always a day away!

He sank onto the piano stool beside Alejandro, laughing again, the muscles in his cheeks aching from the grin that stretched across his face. “Thank you. That was...”

“Necessary.”

“Yeah, that's as good a word as any.” He wiped his eyes. “God, I'm glad my students weren't around to hear me.”

“I'm sure they'd have found it endearing.”

“No – I mean I'd be out of a job. No-one would take lessons from me with you around.” He tilted his head. “Aren't you professional? You're unbelievable – but I've never even heard of you...”

Alejandro flexed his burned hand. “That's a very long story.” The mask slipped into place again. “And we're in danger of being late for dinner.”

“It isn't far across to The Adamson.” But Harrison knew he wasn't going to get any more out of Alejandro – at least, not right then – and stood up. “We can cut through the courtyard by Holy Trinity; we'll be there in five minutes.”

The evening air was still warm, though the sun had dropped and the sky blushed pink. On the breeze, Harrison caught the gentle smoke of autumn – still absent by day, but creeping in now at dusk and dawn, heralding the year's turn.

The others were waiting for them outside the restaurant – Dagnýr, Matt, Ari, Frankie, Margrét, Kol, Gitta, Jane, Sören and Dooku. Gitta and Jane looked pleased to see Harrison with Alejandro; they both hugged him, though Jane whispered scoldingly in his ear, “You've been moping.”

“I haven't!” he objected, then smiled guiltily. “Well, not much.”

She squeezed his shoulders and kissed his cheek.

Kol gave him a warm smile. Something flared for an instant behind the bronze eyes that reminded Harrison of Alejandro – and yet the two of them were different, somehow – and then Kol turned away to speak to Sören, and Dooku embraced Alejandro, and Ari grinned and said something to Dagnýr that made Dagnýr roll his eyes, and they made their way into the restaurant, chattering and teasing and laughing.

At first Harrison found himself sitting on an end, near Jane and Gitta. Frankie, however, spotted this, and shouted down the table.

“Oi! Harrison! Get up here!”

A couple of diners raised their heads at her blunt language and loud cockney accent, but Harrison grinned, and looked at Gitta and Jane.

Go on. Gitta's eyes flashed a smile.

Sören's husband Dooku laughed as he pulled out a chair for Jane. “It's no use arguing with her.”

“I rather got that impression.” Jane gave Harrison a wink as he made his way down the table, and settled himself between Ari and Kol.

Teasing banter flowed as swiftly as the wine and beer. Harrison smiled as he watched Margrét feeding Frankie bites of sourdough swiped through whipped butter; on his right, Kol watched them with a gentle, loving expression in his bronze eyes; to his left, Dagnýr and Sören pretended to squabble while Matt made indecisive noises.

“I'm torn between the lemon sole and the lobster salad...”

Sören whipped around in his seat, dark eyes dancing. “Hi, torn between -”

“SÖREN!” chorused at least three voices, with varying degrees of menace.

Sören widened his eyes into an innocent stare that fooled no-one.

Ari leaned towards Harrison and smiled sympathetically. “We're a lot when we're all together, I know.”

“It's...” Words failed him, as they had earlier with Alejandro. “It's nice.” More than that, he thought; adrenaline surged through him as he realised that, to some degree, with all of these people, he felt like he'd set foot on the pathway to home.

Don't be an idiot. They're practically strangers.

Ari's forehead creased, and he seemed about to say something more – and then the waiter came to take their orders, and the moment passed.

The food, as ever, was excellent. At Harrison's recommendation, Ari had ordered a sirloin steak, medium-rare; Harrison caught himself watching, making sure Ari was enjoying himself, that he hadn't given him dud advice.

As though sensing his concern, Ari turned and smiled at him. “This is crazy good.”

Relieved, Harrison smiled back. “I love it here. It opened when I was still an undergraduate – not that we could afford to eat here often, then. But I used to bring Rosie, for birthdays and things.”

“Rosie?”

“My best friend.”

Stories of their student antics easily filled the next hour; Ari laughed out loud at the story of the greenkeepers chasing them off the Old Course at three o'clock in the morning, and he said nothing when Harrison's voice wavered at the mention of Theo getting stuck on a roof during the giddy carnage of Raisin Sunday, simply passing him a glass of water and changing the subject.

After dinner they moved on to The Saint, the cocktail bar across the road. Sören outraged Alejandro by ordering a bright pink drink with an umbrella and a cherry; meanwhile, Harrison managed to sit himself next to Dagnýr, and he drew out the journal article he'd brought with him. It was Rosie's latest publication credit, and she was incredibly proud of it.

“I know this is a bit cheeky,” he began, “but my friend is a big admirer of yours; she wrote this, and you'd probably send her dancing round the moon with happiness if you'd sign it for her.”

Dagnýr took the periodical from his hands, scanned it, and grinned. “Hey, I read this when it was printed!”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I was impressed, this is really good stuff, her research is fascinating...” He looked up. “So Dr. Addenbrooke is a friend of yours?”

Harrison grinned. “She's Rosie to me. We were students here together.”

Across the table, Jane was teaching Kol and Ari the finer points of whisky tasting.

“Swirl it – don't just sniff.” She demonstrated. “Your sense of smell reveals much more about your dram than your palate does; your mouth only confirms what your nose already told you.”

Ari caught his eye and winked. As he put the signed article away, Harrison felt his breath catch in his throat.

Suddenly the lights dropped, and the music grew louder, its beat deepening and speeding up. Billy Idol. Frankie gave a yell of delight and turned to Dooku with pleading eyes; Dagnýr towed Matt onto the dance floor; Sören grinned and tugged Alejandro to his feet, then turned to Harrison.

“Want to dance?”

Harrison hesitated, then smiled and shook his head. “I'm OK here. But thank you.”

He watched as the little family group swayed and danced together, three happy pairs, although Dooku seemed somewhat reluctant, and Harrison was willing to bet he'd sit down after this song. But he wouldn't disappoint Frankie; it was clear he looked on the pretty red head as a daughter...

And then suddenly the room tilted, dissolved, reformed; Harrison almost cried out, but invisible fingers had plucked out his voice. He was still sitting in The Saint, but the light was different – a late spring day, not a night in early autumn. A different song on the speakers – Elbow, not Billy Idol. 'One Day Like This.' Around their table sat a gaggle of children, ranging in age from two to about ten. Ari sat with them, patiently guiding one little fat fist as it scribbled on a napkin, smiling and praising the resulting artwork. He looked up, smiled at Harrison, winked as he had done only moments ago.

On the dance floor Alejandro still held Sören, rocking him, his cheek pressed against the unruly dark curls. Dagnýr, bizarrely, was dancing with Rosie, one hand on her tautly swollen belly. Dooku was still there too, but instead of Frankie he was holding...

Claire.

She was older, perhaps in her thirties, though her hair was the same bright rose gold he remembered, and her grey eyes glowed, beaming up at Dooku like a daughter looking upon a beloved father.

Harrison started to his feet – but the vision wavered, and the room darkened. He heard Ari's voice behind him.

“Are you alright?”

“I need some air.”

He stumbled for the door, gasped the cool breath of night into his lungs. The West Port arch was lit; cars rumbled beneath it, golf tourists returning to their hotels. He leaned against the stonework, trembling.

“Harrison?”

Gitta. He opened his eyes and gave her a weak smile. “Hey.”

“You look like you've seen a ghost.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “I think I've seen several – if that doesn't sound too mad.”

“Ah.” She slid an arm around his waist, and he relaxed against her, drawing her close. “Would you tell me about it?”

Slowly, he explained what had happened. Gitta listened carefully, not interrupting, nodding as though he were relating something as matter of fact as the weather forecast.

“I've never seen – experienced – anything like it.” He shook his head slowly, unable to quite clear the vision from his mind. “You know I used to...to see Claire around the town from time to time. And Theo too, after he died. But it wasn't like that, it wasn't a glimpse, or an illusion; it was like looking at a different reality...” A thin cold prickle raced down his spine as he remembered the questions from Dagnýr's TED talk.

Are we in a universe, singular, or a multiverse, plural?

And, like a challenge, or a call to arms:

Why fly when you can just walk through a door?

He looked at Gitta. “What do you think? Does that sound so crazy, with...everything else we know?” He and Gitta had been aware of each others' powers for years, but of course they had to be careful how they referred to it in public, if they spoke of it at all.

“Darling boy.” She smiled gently at him. “You don't need me to tell you that there is more to this world than most people see – even people like us.”

“So you think she might be alive somewhere?”

“Perhaps.”

He ached, wondering what she'd be like now, whether she'd still fold her arms around him when he needed comfort, and tease him like the little brother she'd never had.

“But your life is here, Harrison. I know there are parts of it that you would not have chosen, but the same is true for all of us.” She kissed his cheek. “Now, Jane and I are going home.”

Harrison felt a pang of guilt; here he was, wallowing in grief over the cousin he'd lost when he was just a child, when Gitta would soon lose her wife, her soulmate, the woman she had left her family for.

Sharply, Gitta tapped the back of his hand, though her eyes were good-humoured. “None of that, now.”

“I didn't say anything!” he protested.

“You don't have to. Not to me.”

It was true. Gitta and Jane had always known how to read him, however well controlled he may seem to others. “Would you like me to walk back with you?”

“Don't be silly. Stay and enjoy yourself.”

Back in the bar, Dooku, Ari, Alejandro and Jane were still gathered around their table. Alejandro gave him a smile as he sat back down; there was a shadow in his eyes, and Harrison wondered if the other man had caught or sensed something of what Harrison had seen.

At this point, I wouldn't say much is impossible.

The others were still dancing – though they broke off to come and say their goodnights to Jane and Gitta, and promised they wouldn't make too much noise when they got back to the bed and breakfast. Harrison hugged both of his surrogate mothers one last time, feeling the warmth of their love pour off them, and he tucked it against his heart as they left, then turned his attention back to the rest of their family.

Margrét was pressed close against Kol, the two of them swaying in time to the music; she gave Harrison a knowing smile over her partner's shoulder, and winked a long-lashed eye. Yes, she seemed to say. I know he's beautiful.

Frankie, meanwhile, was dancing with Sören, who was talking loudly over the music about wanting to try deep fried chocolate bars. Alejandro, overhearing, rolled his eyes.

“I have not had nearly enough alcohol for that,” he muttered.

Dooku chuckled and put an arm around him. “Don't say that where Sören can hear you.”

Harrison laughed too – then he caught a light, clean, masculine scent in the air behind him, and Ari clapped his shoulder and spoke into his ear. “Drink?”

He smiled at the deep, soft Icelandic voice. Ari's accent was stronger than Gitta's but gentler than Sören's, and soothing to listen to. Harrison felt a familiar flutter of heat in his chest.

...Oh. The heat rose into his cheeks. Well, this wasn't in the script.

Aloud, he said. “Why not? Thank you.”

Ari's eyes crinkled as he smiled in return. “Whisky, yes?”

“Please.”

“Do you have a particular favourite?”

Harrison considered, then shook his head, his smile deepening into a grin. “I'll follow your lead.”