The day Callie dies, Nick wakes up as normal, gets to work almost but not quite on time, meets a mega-famous film star, and shoehorns all that in before 8.15am. He asks the mega-famous film star what his favourite kind of cheese is, and if he's ever got up in the morning and just wished he was a bin man, and the mega-famous film star only looks a little bit like this is the worst interview he's ever had to sit through.
Nick does a time check at 8.45 whilst he's cueing up the new Mumford and Sons record, just missing the first line with a promo for Jessie J's Live Lounge later on. He's about to nip off for a quick brew and a bowl of porridge when the police arrive. The Mumford's single is just shifting into an old Rita Ora track from her first album when they sit him down and tell him there's been an accident.
Callie was Nick's best friend from university, and she ran a clothes shop in Hoxton, and two years ago she'd come to Nick and asked if he'd ever thought about fathering a child.
At the funeral, Nick refuses to let anyone else hold Ella, not even when he's carried her for so long his arms feel like lead, and definitely not when she falls asleep in his arms midway through the wake. Sleep is the only thing that stops her crying for her mum, who isn't coming back for her, and never will.
Two years later
"Fish finger sandwich, or boiled eggs and soldiers for tea?"
Ella stops pushing her stuffed panda around the living room on her little wheely scooter, and attempts to look mutinous. She clearly wants both.
"Yeah," Nick says. "I feel you, kid, but we have to pick one. Do you want soldiers you can dip in your egg, or a splodgy sandwich?" He's fairly sure that he should be offering her some kind of organic produce on homemade bread with a side order of home-grown vegetables, but just because he's a single parent doesn't mean he's any better at cooking than he was before Ella was born. They get by.
"Red sauce?" Ella wants ketchup on everything at the moment. Nick's not sure if he should be trying to wean her off that or not, but he's hoping it's just a phase that will pass on its own. According to his mum, he went through a phase of eating nothing but Philadelphia sandwiches when he was a kid, so at least Ella's not as bad as that.
"You can have red sauce on the fish finger sandwich, but not on the boiled eggs and soldiers." He knows which one she'll pick now, and he knows she'll want to help him cook, too. She always wants to help him cook. She's the only reason he can cook at all.
She—as he expects—picks the fish finger sandwich option, and then gathers up her panda, her robot, her hedgehog and her doll to take into the kitchen to help.
"Music," he says, and she darts across the kitchen to turn on the radio. He holds up his hand for a high five as she skips back over to him, hand already up. He squares his shoulders. "Fish fingers." He opens the freezer and pulls out the box of fish fingers from the top drawer. "Bread." He pushes the loaf nearer to the edge of the counter so that Ella can reach it and take it carefully over to the table. He switches the grill on, and gets a couple of plates down, handing Peppa Pig cutlery to Ella to put down on the table. She picks out two plastic cups for them as the fish fingers are grilling, and he fills them both half full with squash and lets her carry hers over to the table.
It's kind of ridiculous how his life has shrunk down to this one perfect little girl, and all the ways he can make her happy.
"How was playgroup today?" he asks, once he's got her sandwiches all cut up and a handful of cherry tomatoes halved on the side of her plate in the name of vegetables and vitamins. The ketchup probably negates all of that, but whatever. She's only allowed a little bit. "Did you have fun?"
"No," Ella says shortly, already stuffing a sandwich into her mouth. She has ketchup on her cheek. "I hate playgroup."
"You don't hate playgroup," Nick says, since he's spoken to the leaders at playgroup every single day for the past fortnight, just to make sure that Ella's not actually miserable. They swear to him that she has fun, and always joins in. He's even stayed behind when he's dropped her off, and watched from the office, just to see. She laughs and plays and runs around with the other kids. When he picks her up from the childminder's after lunch, he checks with her, too, but Nicole says the same as the playgroup leaders: Ella plays well with other children, and participates, and has fun. It's only when she gets home that she pretends she hates it. Nick can't get to the bottom of it.
"I do." Ella is tiny and dark haired and fierce, with Nick's wide mouth and Callie's bright eyes. She also needs a haircut, because her fringe is getting in her eyes. Callie always left getting her fringe cut until it was driving her mad.
"Is it because I'm not there?" he asks. He doesn't want to ask, is it because you don't have a mummy? Because they talk about Callie a lot, and look at her pictures, and talk to her family, but it doesn't change the fact that Mummy isn't here anymore, and Ellie barely remembers her, no matter how hard Nick tries. "Because you know that I have to go to work, don't you? And that I'm at work when you're at playgroup, and when you go to Nicole's for lunch, and then I pick you up and we come home."
"I know," Ella says. "Don't work, Daddy."
Nick wishes he didn't have to. He'd given up the breakfast show after Callie had died, when he'd taken Ella home and had to try and create a home for her. Callie's family had wanted her with them, but Callie's will hadn't said that, it had said Nick—and anyway, Nick couldn't imagine wanting Ella to live anywhere that wasn't with him. He'd given up the breakfast show, even though they'd said he could keep it on, and then there had been a sabbatical, where he'd tried to figure out what the fuck he was supposed to do with his life when there was a small child in it twenty-four-seven, and then after that had come the morning show that Fearne and Jo Whiley used to do. He dropped Ella off at playgroup, did his show, had production meetings that tended to involve him trying to leave partway through to go pick Ella up, and then went home.
Three years ago, if you'd asked him if he could have given up all the nights out, and the partying, and the friends, and the drink, and the good times, he'd have said no straight off. Eighteen months ago, if you'd asked him if he could give up Harry turning up at all hours of the day and night with presents for them both, or if he could imagine facing endless hours awake with Ella in the middle of the night when she wouldn't sleep, without having Harry to phone up and talk away the hours with, he'd have said no.
Funny how things change.
"Hiya, Mum. She's right here." Nick leans down to kiss Ella's forehead, and holds the phone out for her to take. "Say goodnight to Nanna, Ella-Bella."
"Nanna," Ella says sleepily, curling under the covers. "I want a kitten." There's a pause. "No. Daddy says we need a garden."
Nick can't tell her he's too scared to get a pet in case it dies, and they have to deal with the fall-out. For now the garden excuse will do. "Say goodnight, Ella. We'll see Nanna next weekend."
She obediently says goodnight, already more than three-quarters asleep. Nick leans down to kiss her again, making sure she's all tucked in, with her panda and her soft toy dinosaur. Maybe they can go to the Natural History Museum again soon, and see the dinosaurs.
"Are you still there, Mum?" he asks, once he's back out on the landing.
"Still here," she says. "How's things?"
"Oh, you know, same old, same old."
"Are you getting out and seeing people?"
"I'm not pushing, Nicholas. I just worry about you, that's all. Both of you. Whatever happened to that young man of yours? Harry? I haven't heard you talk about him in a while. You used to be such good friends."
"He wasn't my young man, Mum." Nick goes into the living room and makes a cursory attempt at putting some of Ella's toys in the baskets by the wall, and gathering up their dishes and cups from the day. Harry really hadn't been his young man, although Nick wasn't stupid, and he'd known as well as Harry had that neither of them had actually ruled it out. They might even have been gearing up for some kind of ill-advised summer fling when Callie had died, and after that, one poor life choice excused, it had all kind of drifted away. Like everything and everyone else, kind of.
"I know," his mum says. "I didn't mean it like that. I know you were just friends. Whatever happened to him? Didn't he used to help you with Ella?"
"We just drifted," Nick lies. He'd done the drifting. It hadn't even been straight after Callie had died; it had been later. After the breakfast show and a disastrous birthday party all his friends had thrown for him, where he'd had a panic attack in the toilets at the thought of not getting home to Ella in one piece. He'd sort of lost contact with everyone after that.
It had been harder work than he'd anticipated, that.
"I know you're doing your very best for that little girl, Nicholas, but your dad and I worry about you. You will try and see your friends more, won't you? It's been a long time since we saw you happy."
"I am happy, Mum." It's a lie, but he's hoping that at some point, people will start to believe it. Nobody wants a head case hanging around, and definitely not his friends, who have better—and more important—things to worry about than whether Ella is as happy and well-adjusted as she could be, or if he should be limiting her ketchup intake. He still sees Annie every now and again, and Aimee, and Gillian. It's been ages since he's seen Harry, although that hasn't been because Harry hasn't tried. Nick just doesn't have anything to say to anyone anymore, let alone Harry. There had been potential there, once. He fakes it for the airwaves and then comes home to his daughter, and gets quiet.
"Okay," she says. "I'll let you go, I know you're tired. We'll see you this weekend, then, if you're still coming up?"
"Yeah, we're still coming," Nick says, and when he's finished on the phone, he fits himself on the sofa in the only space that's free from Ella's toys, and scrolls down through his messages until he finds the last one from Harry. For a second, his thumb hovers over the delete button, but he's never been strong enough for that. He presses reply instead.
Hows things hazza
Good, comes the immediate response. How's Ella, did she like the parcel I sent? I have another one almost ready.
So the thing is, Harry sends Ella a letter or a parcel or a card every single week. He sends them religiously, without fail, with relentless enthusiasm and endless dedication. Every week, Nick sends a text to say thank you, with a picture of Ella smiling her thanks.
Harry's stopped asking if they can meet up. Nick hasn't said yes in a year, but he still notices the absence like a giant, gaping hole in his life where his best friend used to be.
What's the point, though? He can barely hold it together enough to get Ella to playschool and do his radio show. His life must be boring to someone like Harry, who's jetting all over the world and whose days are filled with people who are endlessly entertaining. All Nick does is never-ending washing and shopping and playing with Ella. There's only so much he can find to talk about anymore. He knows there's a hole in him where he used to be interesting.
He waits another minute before replying to Harry's text. She loved it. she always loves them.
Good. You ok?
Sure, Nick lies. You?
Harry doesn't reply to that, and after a while, Nick stands up and goes into the kitchen to load the dishwasher, and empty the bin, and all the rest of the stuff he has to do every day just to make sure that Ella's okay. He'll do it all and more, because he's the only thing she has, and she's all he has, too.
Nick holds his hands up. "Ella. Dinosaurs? Or the playground?" For once they're actually dressed and up and breakfast is cleared away and the place doesn't look that much like a bomb's hit it. Weekends are usually a chaotic mix of tripping over things, and Nick dressing up like a unicorn for Ella to clamber all over and laugh at. It's unusual for them to be ready this early in the day though, so Nick can't help but feel like they should make the most of it.
Ella rolls her eyes. She's just as sarcastic as Nick is, although she doesn't come close to Callie yet. Maybe she'll grow into her mother's levels of sarcasm as her vocabulary expands. He hopes so. He always loved that about Callie. "Dinosaurs, Daddy."
"Silly Daddy," Nick says. Ella's obsessed with dinosaurs. Like, obsessed. She gets that from him, the obsessive part of her character. It had never been Callie. "Come on then, pigeon. Let's go and see the dinosaurs." He's debating whether or not to take the pushchair. Ella's closer to four than three, and doesn't need it all that much anymore, but the Natural History Museum is the other side of London, and it's unlikely they'll make it back to the flat without one of them falling asleep on the tube. Nick hopes it's Ella and not him. She's too big to carry around all that much. She'll be starting school in another year. He hopes she likes it more than she's telling him she likes playschool.
Ella won't leave without her stuffed triceratops and a plastic snake. They compromise on a toy giraffe instead. There is literally nothing easy about trying to get a small child out of the house. It's partly why he doesn't see his friends anymore; it was always bad enough trying to get him to places on time, but when it's him, a hundred-weight of paraphernalia and a small child who'd cried approximately ninety-seven per cent of the time for the first year he'd had her—well, it's lucky he has any friends left. Even now, he's got a rucksack stuffed full of Ella's stuff, and he's bound to have forgotten something crucial. And the rucksack isn't exactly all that useful, seeing as it had come from the woman's section of Urban Outfitters and not from Mothercare, or anywhere that cared about ease of access.
By the time he's finally ready, it's time for elevenses, so they sit on the floor in the living room with a glass of Ribena each and a digestive biscuit and six grapes, and Ella tells him about how she's going to grow up to be king. He doesn't want to disabuse her of the notion that she can grow up to be royalty, so he listens very patiently, and asks what he can be if she's in charge.
"You can be my daddy," Ella tells him, as the doorbell rings.
"Nice," Nick says, reaching over to the coffee table to put their drinks out of spilling reach. He kisses the top of her head as he goes for the door, and Ella—like always—clambers to her feet and follows him out into the hall.
When he opens the door, Harry's on the doorstep, and he's carrying flowers. It's been a year, and a hundred texts, but even just seeing him is enough to make Nick's breath catch in his throat. He looks—well, Nick might not have seen him in a year, but he can't avoid the newspapers. He knows how Harry looks. He still has the curly hair, the wide grin, the bright eyes. He looks a bit older though. And tireder. More tired?
Nick can't think. He doesn't say anything, mostly because he's not sure he can.
"Hi," Ella says, because if there's one thing she's inherited from her parents, it's the social butterfly gene. She just does it from the safe position of clinging to Nick's leg. "I'm Ella."
"I know who you are," Harry says, bending down on one knee. He glances up at Nick for a second, looking kind of awkward, and then focuses his attention on Ella. "Do you remember me? I'm Harry."
"Harry sends you the parcels," Nick says, sliding his hand around Ella's shoulders, so that Harry can't see that his hand is shaking. "He sends you all the letters with the stickers. You love those. We used to see Harry a lot."
"I remember." Ella very solemnly holds her fist out for Harry to bump. Nick wonders if teaching her that fist bumps are the correct way to greet people was a good idea or not. He's leaning towards yes. "Do you want to see my dinosaurs?"
"Yes," Harry says, shooting a glance at Nick again. His expression is unreadable, but that's okay because Nick's heart is beating fit to burst, and he's lost the ability to read faces anyway. What the hell is Harry doing here? On his doorstep? With flowers. "These are for you, Ella," he says, holding out the daffodils.
"Flowers," Ella says, in wonder.
"Daffodils," Harry agrees. "Shall we put them in some water? Do you have a vase?"
"I have a pint glass," Nick says. There's probably a vase somewhere. There were a lot of flowers, after Callie died. They must have put them somewhere. He doesn't remember much of that period of his life, apart from being terrified of fucking something up for Ella and being furious with Callie for dying when they were supposed to be bringing Ella up together. He's not sure he's over being angry yet. "What are you doing here?"
Ella has slipped her hand into Harry's, and is pulling him towards the kitchen. She's seen pictures of Harry every week for ages, and has posed for a hundred excited photos after the arrival of each parcel. She's met him on numerous occasions, although it's been a while, but Nick can't actually trust her to properly remember people she hasn't seen in over a year.
"Wanted to see you," Harry says, letting himself be dragged towards the kitchen. "If I'd have asked you, you'd have just pretended you were busy. Again. Or ignored me."
That feels sharp, like a knife point pressing against his skin. "I am busy," he says, because it's always the truth.
"Always too busy for me," Harry says lightly.
"Don't," Harry says. "I know I probably shouldn't have come. Thought I might see if there's something I've done to make you hate me so much."
Ella's tugging on his hand. "Harry, Harry."
Nick opens his mouth to say something, but he can't—he has nothing. There's nothing. "Harry—"
"I won't stay," Harry says. "The flowers were stupid. I shouldn't have come, I know you don't want me here, I just—I was stupid, okay. I was hungover, and in the area, and I missed you."
"We're going to see the dinosaurs," Nick says abruptly. "Do you want to come?"
"I don't hate you," Nick says, because he doesn't. The opposite, really, but the truth is that Nick has no energy for anything other than his daughter, and when Callie had asked him if he wanted to have a child, he hadn't anticipated it being a full time job, and him having to be everything that their daughter needed. That's what Callie was for; being better than him. Before Ella, Nick had never been responsible for anything. He'd barely been responsible for himself. The idea of a tiny human who relied on him for everything—he's still terrified of fucking up. He couldn't have his old life and give Ella everything she needed.
So he'd done the hardest thing he'd ever done, and left it all behind.
"You act like you do," Harry says. Ella is running around them both, showing Harry her hedgehog and her doll and her Duplo car and her drawings on the fridge. Harry makes the right kind of appreciative noises at each new demonstration, and Nick appreciates that, at least. Ella really should be the most important person on the planet. She is to him. She's never slept all that well, and she's wary of strangers when Nick isn't around, and it's not fair on her to dump her on babysitters so he can live the kind of life he lived before she was his.
"We're going to the Natural History Museum. Then the playground, if this one hasn't tired herself out."
"I'm not tired," Ella says stoutly, attempting to climb Nick like a ladder. He tugs her up until she's in his arms, cheek pressed to his shoulder.
"I know, bean. But you might be later."
She shakes her head, hiding her face in his neck.
"Come with us?" Nick asks, because he's asked nothing of Harry in a year that hasn't been stay away, and he's missed him so much that it's been a physical ache in his chest every time he saw him in the papers.
"Do you want me to?"
"Wouldn't have asked you if I didn't," Nick says. He kisses Ella's hair. "Come on, let's get you in the pushchair."
"I've got the car."
"We're going to get the tube," Nick says. "Walk to Chalk Farm. Ella loves the tube, don't you?"
Ella makes a sound like a steam train to demonstrate her appreciation of the underground.
"That okay with you?"
"It's fine by me," Harry says. "You got a hat I could borrow?"
"Same place they always were," Nick says, and he very deliberately doesn't watch as Harry takes the stairs two at a time to go and find a hat in Nick's bedroom. He puts Ella in the buggy and straps her in, getting his coat on and his rucksack with all of Ella's things in.
He stands in the hall and waits for Harry to come back downstairs again.
It's a long wait.
"Harry?" he calls, after a minute. "You okay?"
"You kept them," Harry says, coming to the top of the steps with a full-to-bursting Converse shoebox of all of the letters and cards Harry's send Ella since Callie died. It had been on Nick's bedside table.
He waits a beat. "Course I did. They'll be worth a flippin' fortune, one day."
"No, but, you kept them all. You lose everything."
Including you, Nick thinks. "Not everything."
"The flowers were for you," Harry says abruptly.
Nick blinks a lot and looks down at his shoes. Ella's singing her disapproval of being trapped in the buggy and not actually going anywhere. He can sympathise. "Let's go."
They walk to the tube station without saying very much. Ella's singing to herself, clutching her toy giraffe, and Harry spends most of the walk just staring at her.
"She hasn't got two heads," Nick says finally.
"She didn't used to be so big. Or look so much like you."
"She looks like Callie."
"And you." Harry glances at him, then back down at the pushchair. "Can I push for a bit?"
Nick nods, and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jacket as Harry takes over pushing.
"I thought you hated me," Harry says, when Chalk Farm tube's in sight.
"No," Nick says. "I just—if anything happens to me, Ella hasn't got anyone at all. I can't go out and everything, not like before. I'm not leaving her with babysitters just so I can see my mates."
"Doesn't explain why you've pretended I haven't existed for a year. You got any idea how much that hurts?"
"A bit," Nick says. Approximately as much as cutting yourself off from everyone, perhaps.
"I thought I'd done something. I went over and over it in my head."
Nick shakes his head. "I just thought it would be better."
"Not for me," Harry says, and then they're at the tube station, and Harry doesn't have a ticket, so he has to queue up to get an Oyster. Nick crouches in front of the buggy and makes Ella laugh, ducking in to lick the tip of her nose so that she squeals. His daughter is far and away the most important person in his life, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know what it's like to be in love with someone he can't have. The opposite, really. It just means that no matter how much it hurts, you should do it if it's the right thing.
The tube is busy, and they end up standing by the doors, Nick behind the buggy, Harry in front. When the train starts to move, Harry crouches down and talks to Ella, holding his hands out in fists for her to bump. Nick can't hear what they're saying to each other, but his chest aches.
When they change lines at King's Cross, Harry lifts the buggy out of the carriage and onto the platform, and knocks elbows with Nick.
"You remember the last time we saw each other?"
How can he forget? A few glasses of wine, a birthday cake, a panic attack, and one ill-advised, poorly thought out attempt at a kiss on Nick's part. He's used to embarrassment, but downright stupidity is less familiar. Hopefully. "Kind of," he lies.
"I broke up with Sophie the day after your birthday," Harry says. "Why didn't you answer your phone?"
"Because I did a stupid thing that wasn't in Ella's best interest, and I didn't want to go over it and look like an idiot."
"So you ignored me for a year instead, and pretended you hated me. You kissed me, Nick."
"Shush," Nick says, because whilst they're not exactly surrounded by people, there are people around. People who recognise them. "It wasn't my greatest move, okay. And I shouldn't have done it, and I thought you'd get that it was better for us not to see each other for a while."
The Piccadilly line is too busy for them to talk on, and Harry leans against the doors and stares at him the whole way, even though Nick's doing his best to ignore him looking. It's hard when the entire carriage is staring at them both.
When they get off at South Kensington, Harry waits until they get to the stairs up to the escalators before leaning in and saying, "The flowers really were for you, Nick," as he picks up Ella's buggy to help Nick up the steps. For a busy, child-friendly area like Exhibition Road, South Kensington is startlingly inaccessible for buggies.
Nick swallows, and doesn't answer, focusing on getting Ella to the museum.
In the end, they see the dinosaurs and wander up to the top floor to stand by Alfred Russel Wallace's insects, where there isn't anyone around to overhear them. Harry runs his fingertips over the glass covering the butterfly specimens.
"I always wanted a butterfly tattoo," Harry says, as Nick makes sure his sleeping daughter is all wrapped up and not in danger of losing her giraffe. "You think I should get one?"
"If you want one," Nick says. He stands up straight, and rolls his shoulders. He should say thank you to Harry for coming with them even after everything, and for buying Ella a sticker book from the museum shop. For indulging them today. "I missed you."
It's not what he meant to say.
Harry looks at him for a moment. "Pretty shit way of showing it, ignoring every single message I sent you, asking to meet up."
"I know. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing with Ella. You think I'm screwing it up?"
"Does your mum?"
"She thinks I'm sad."
"Well," Harry says. "You are."
Nick tries to smile at that, but it's hard. It's been hard for a while. "I don't remember not feeling like this."
"I know," Harry says. "I know I'm going to sound like a total American here, but have you ever thought about talking to anyone about any of this?"
Nick shakes his head. "No?" he says. "Who's going to want to listen to me going on about how my life is so hard, when I've got fucking everything? Ella's the one without a mum."
Harry swallows, and looks away. Nick watches his throat work, and doesn't let himself think about running his fingertips over Harry's skin.
"You want to see something?" Harry says, after a minute.
Nick nods, and Harry hooks his finger in his belt loop and pulls his jeans down, just enough that Nick can see the pale skin of Harry's hip.
"It's a primrose," Harry says, pulling his jumper back down. "Did you know you can eat primroses in salads?"
"Do you know what else primrose means? Other than Primrose Hill, obviously."
Harry doesn't look away. "It means, I can't live without you."
Nick bends down to check on Ella. His breath feels tight in his throat. He blinks away tears, and covers his eyes with his hand. It's been so hard for so long. It's just been him and Ella. He's tried to do the right thing by her, and he's never managed it. It's always been wrong. He can't do this. How is he supposed to bring her up right, when he can't even look after himself?
Harry crouches down next to him, and wraps an arm around his shoulders. It's been so long since he's been touched. He chokes back a sob. He can't cry in the Natural History Museum. He can't. "It's okay," Harry says, mouth pressed to Nick's ear. "It's all going to be okay."
"I missed you so much," Nick finds himself admitting. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes to stop himself from crying. "I'm so sorry."
Harry tucks his hand into the curve of Nick's elbow. "We're going to get this all sorted, okay? I promise."
Nick doesn't say anything to that, because there's nothing to say. He wants to go to bed and sleep for a year.
"Let's go back to yours," Harry says. "We'll get a taxi."
It's a minute before Nick can respond. He nods, turning away. He knows his face must be red, and when he stands up, he ducks his head. "Okay."
Four months later
"You're late," Harry says, although it doesn't look like he minds too much. He and Ella are cross legged on the floor, each brushing the mane of a My Little Pony with a tiny pink hairbrush.
"Counselling ran over," Nick says. He ducks down to kiss Ella's forehead, and stroke her pony's mane. "Hey, duck."
"Not a duck," Ella says, still brushing her pony's hair.
"I think you are," Nick says. "You quack like a duck. Quack."
"Daddy," Ella says. "I don't."
"I can only hear quacking," he says, looking around. "Harry, can you hear quacking?"
"Daddy's being silly, isn't he?" Harry says, holding out his pony for Ella to inspect. "What do we do to silly daddies?"
"Tickle them," Ella says, with a positively wicked cackle. That is all Callie. She had a wicked laugh. He always points it out when he and Ella watch videos of her mum.
"No!" Nick protests, but the two of them are more than enough to overpower him, and he ends up with Harry sitting on his feet and Ella on his chest, both tickling. They're trouble.
In the end, Ella curls up in his lap and goes back to her ponies while Nick tries to catch his breath. Harry sits against the sofa and grins at him.
"Heard the show this morning," he says.
"Yeah, yeah," Nick says. It's been four months. He's fairly sure he's starting to enjoy himself again. It's been a while since he's been able to say that.
"How many times did you mention me?"
"None at all," Nick lies, shifting Ella into a more comfortable position in his lap.
"It's like 2012 all over again," Harry says. He half-heartedly adds a few Lego bricks to what Nick sort of assumes is some kind of My Little Pony stable. It doesn't look that much like a stable, but then, My Little Ponies don't look all that much like real horses, so he can't exactly bring himself to highlight the inadequacies in Harry's architecture.
"You staying for your tea?"
Harry shrugs. "If you'll have me," he says.
"We're having hoops," Nick says. "Spaghetti hoops on toast."
"Well, if you're having hoops," Harry says. "No one can say no to hoops."
Ella jumps to her feet to run over to the TV, up-ending the toy box there all over the carpet. She sits down in the middle of it all, ignoring them both.
"She seems pretty happy to me," Harry says.
Nick nods. Ella being happy and settled is his number one wish in life. "Yeah," he says, shooting Harry a look. "I think she finally is."
"And you? How was this afternoon?"
It's been four months of awkward counselling sessions and slowly calling some of his old friends. There have been barbecues and coffee afternoons and a general sense of thankfulness that barely any of his friends work traditional 9-5 jobs. It's only a start. "Apparently I should be asking for things that I need," he says. He still doesn't really hold with having a counsellor, but Bet is pretty cool, and has green hair, so he at least feels like they have something out there in common. An appreciation of her awesomeness and excellent hair colour choices, for a start.
"I don't know," Nick says. He shrugs. "Like dates, I think."
"Oh," Harry says, glancing at him. "Anyone in particular?"
"I think so."
Harry picks at the carpet. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. So, uh. You up for it?"
"I dunno," Harry says. "You going to break my heart again?"
"I'll try not to."
Harry smiles at the carpet. "Good enough. Where are you taking me?"
"No idea. Chip van and then a cheeky blow job?" He drops his voice for the last part, but Ella is definitely paying more attention to CBeebies than she is to them.
Harry rolls his eyes. "How could anyone resist?"
"Well," Nick says. "That's the idea."
Harry glances over towards Ella, and then darts in to press a kiss to the corner of Nick's mouth. "All right, then."
Nick tries not to flush bright red. He turns the volume up on the TV remote instead, and pretends to be interested in old repeats of Charlie and Lola. "Who's your primrose tattoo for, anyway?" he asks, after a minute. "I never asked."
Harry looks at him like he's stupid. "You, you idiot. And Ella."
"Oh," Nick says, and looks down at the floor.
Harry slides his hand into Nick's.
Nick looks down at their joined hands, then over to his daughter, who's playing with her dinosaurs in front of the telly.
He stays holding on.