Oh shit fuck motherfucking fuckety cock-up Christ, is the first thing that Luke thinks when he opens his eyes and the sight of his bedroom slowly comes into focus.
He likes to think he’s not neurotic to the point of having panic be the first thing he experiences in the morning (well, not anymore, at least; for some time after Jo dumped him there had been only the empty sheets next to him and the roiling twist of his stomach and a feeling rather like a large, ugly hunting dog sitting on his chest), but: he’s in bed with fucking Evie. If there ever was a time for an unseemly display of anxiety, it is right here and right now.
He tries to establish whether there’s any way this isn’t as bad as he thinks. He knows the answer already, but it’s like knowing he was too heavy for the attic crawl space by the time he was 10; he clambered up there anyway and fell through to his waist, stuck there until his mum came home one hour and 45 minutes later and found him red-faced with tears, bits of plaster in his hair and no dignity to speak of. He knew better then and he knows better now, but he pulled his fat little body up there as a child and now he carefully lifts the corner of the duvet up, trying to see if—
Yes. She’s naked under there, as naked as she was last night when they—when they fucking went and fucking shagged, both drunk but not drunk enough to excuse it, oh god, if Phoebe was off-limits because she was dating Dylan then what the fuck is Evie, Evie who’s been in love with Dylan for four years and who’s had Dylan be in love back for the last year at least, what the fucking fuck was Luke thinking? He has no pretensions of adulthood, but this is some next-level shit: this is the K2 of fuck-ups; this is proposing to someone who doesn’t love you anymore and not having the presence of mind to wear “Marry Me?” pants, but painting the question on your forehead instead; this is, possibly, the worst thing Luke has ever done in his life, and he’s not proud of much but he used to be proud, at least, of not being the kind of enormously immoral wanker who sleeps with the woman his best friend loves. Who is his other best friend, and who could do so much better than Luke on her worst day: in one fell swoop he’s done something shit to Evie and Dylan both.
Evie opens her eyes.
Luke can see her go through a similar process: oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuckfuckfuck. He’s gratified to see her shift one shoulder upward in a stretch and smile—barely there, but despite the fact that Luke is now a war criminal he, too, has to admit that the sex was pretty fucking great—before some unnameable heavy thing (grief, loss, a large ugly hunting dog of her own?) settles into her eyes.
He rolls onto his back to give her what privacy he can, and after a few quiet breaths she moves so she’s also looking at the ceiling, and says, “I don’t feel guilty. You shouldn’t either.”
“Evie,” he says, careful because the last thing he wants is for her to think that he regrets her. He could never regret her; he just regrets everything else about this. “How could I possibly not feel guilty? I’ve gone and stuck my cock between my two best friends who love each other.”
Evie rolls her eyes, and her annoyance with him is familiar, but the fed-up, dull sigh that accompanies it is not.
“You’d think loving someone would be enough,” she says. “I certainly used to think so. But it’s not. You of all people should know that. You’ve tried your best, Luke, but Dylan and I can’t seem to make it work. And despite all the cock-ups and the fact that this is most likely going nowhere, I still found I couldn’t keep telling Mal we were going to build a life together when I don’t even know what kind of life I want for myself. And now I’ve gone and broken his heart over my doubts, and Dylan didn’t even come home from Abigail’s last night. The way things go between us I’ve probably called off my engagement just in time for him to announce his.”
Come now, Evie, Luke wants to say, but he finds he can’t make the words unstick in his throat. She’s right. She and Dylan are one missed opportunity away from a really frustrating Dr. Who episode: it’s all false starts and badly timed coincidences and even worse self-sacrificing decisions from them both.
Luke wants to say, Maybe you should call him. It’s been years since he self-identified as any sort of romantic, but he wants to imagine a world where Evie confesses that she’s still hoping, and Dylan says the same, and the two of them manage to make it happen despite all that has come before. Like the end of The Karate Kid, when Daniel-san basically has a broken foot but he manages to crane-kick the other guy in the face anyway.
Luke wants to believe that Dylan and Evie can kick life in the face.
The problem though—the problem is that for all Dylan falls in love every third Tuesday of the month, Luke’s never seen him the way he is with Abigail. He can’t even say he’s seen Dylan that way with Evie, because even if Dylan’s pined with the best of them over the last year, he and Evie have never been at the place where things finally begin to really, truly work: the place where you slip your hand into someone else’s and have that feeling like you might hold hands with them for the rest of your life.
“I want to tell you to call him,” he says, finally.
He can only see Evie from the corner of his eye, but he can tell she’s lying very, very still. He fidgets on the bed, hyper-aware of the slide of the sheets against his chest and his legs and his prick (motherfucker, he is naked under the same sheets as Evie; he keeps forgetting and then remembering in a dreadful rush).
He takes a breath. “I mean, you should call him. But…” he twists to face Evie, even though that puts him face-to-face with the way the sheet is tucked under her arms, perfectly outlining her—oh god, those are Evie’s tits, aren’t they?
He soldiers on. “The two of you need to talk. But not in a loud pub when he’s pretending to be happy for you and you’re pretending to be happy without him. Not because I’ve run in there and forced you into it thanks to my…. displaced feelings of grief about Phoebe.” (Christ, sometimes Luke hates that he goes to therapy. The shit that comes out of his mouth these days, honestly.) “You need to call him, and have him come to the house, and the two of you need to have a conversation like adults.”
Luke ignores the fact that he’s saying the words like adults while lying naked in bed with his best friend whom he inadvisably slept with after too many pints, like teenagers after their first school ball. He needs to piss, and he’d love nothing more than to go do that: fleeing for the toilet would have the added advantage of giving them both enough room to breathe without the knowledge that the other’s naked body is right there. But he needs to get the last bit out before he makes an escape for both their sakes, and so he says, “You need to talk like adults, Evie, because I feel… I feel he might love Abigail like an adult. I get a feeling this is love like adults feel.”
+ + +
In the middle of their last year of uni, Dylan met a quiet, serious girl named Sarah. She had truly enviable sleek brown hair that she wore in a flawless French plait. Luke manfully resisted the urge to stroke it when he met her; she came to collect Dylan at the house, and Luke put his hands in his trouser pockets so he couldn’t reach up to explore just how it was that each glorious strand stayed so perfectly in place.
“Where are you two going?” he asked, just as Evie wandered upstairs from the kitchen and gave Dylan the same look she’d been giving him since he moved in: mostly exasperated, with a wide streak of reluctant fondness.
“European Affairs Society meeting,” Dylan said. He probably didn’t even know what that was, but Luke would be willing to bet that sleek-haired Sarah was the society’s vice-president or something. Evie’s look slid all the way over to complete exasperation, sans fondness. “Networking drinks at the union.”
Luke nodded and tried to keep his eyes from rolling where Dylan could see him. Dylan went upstairs to fetch his jacket, and Luke asked Sarah a few polite questions. It turned out she was reading PPE, and she was about to take up a job in Parliament after spending the previous two summers interning at some EU office somewhere in Brussels.
Luke and Evie gave each other a quick look over Sarah’s shoulder. They’d spent the last two summers drinking and fucking about, mostly, and Luke’s sole memory of Brussels was from a lads’ trip that had ended with someone convincing him not to piss in the pissing baby fountain.
Dylan clattered back down the stairs, and Luke waved goodbye as the three of them made their way out the door: Dylan, Sarah, and Sarah’s excellent hair.
Luke remembers Sarah’s hair with what he will admit is almost disturbing clarity, but despite its perfection, the hair was really not the most salient part of the Sarah experience. That honour went to the fact that after Dylan left with Sarah, he returned to the house at about 2am—apparently the European Affairs Society networked with the best of them—and banged his way upstairs with someone, laughing and moaning and carrying on like theirs was a house of ill repute (Luke planned to call him on it just that way the next day: Witter, do you think this is a house of ill repute? Have some decency, sir).
Luke was looking forward to delivering this rebuke with a straight face (and to seeing Sarah’s hair) in the morning, but when he came down for breakfast he found Dylan and Evie sitting at the kitchen table with a man. A man with whom Dylan was holding hands.
“Hello,” said the man, after watching Luke stare at Dylan and Dylan stare at Luke and Evie stare between them for longer than was really acceptable. “I’m Marcus.”
“Luke,” said Luke, on autopilot, and then went to soft-boil an egg.
He’s not proud when he remembers, but he watched the water until it boiled, and then he carefully lowered the egg into it with a spoon and then he watched the egg boil in the water for another five and a half minutes exactly. All in all he stood with his back to Dylan and Evie and the man for about eleven minutes, making toast and tea and watching water boil like it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in his life. The conversation picked back up again behind him, which meant that he learned that Marcus was at Glasgow for a post-doctoral fellowship in Philosophy, that he was interested in going to school in Frankfurt (had gone to school in Frankfurt? Knew some people in school in Frankfurt? Something about Frankfurt and schools) and owned a cat named Cat, Mon.
“So,” Luke said, once he’d sat down with his egg and his toast, the other three pretending that he hadn’t just been acting like a massive knob for eleven minutes. “Why do you have a reggae cat?”
“I’m sorry?” Marcus asked. He had severe black-framed glasses perched in front of really rather striking blue eyes.
“Your cat,” said Luke, tapping the top of his egg with a spoon. “Cat, mon.”
Marcus looked perplexed for another instant, before bursting into what turned out to be very contagious laughter: it was mostly a normal laugh, but with intermittent child-like giggles which should have been strange at best and terrifying at worst, but actually ended up being mostly endearing.
“Cat Mon,” he said, once he stopped laughing. “The cat’s name is Cat-Mon. Like the Anglo-Saxon poet?”
“Oh, I see,” said Luke, not seeing fucking anything except that this wanker had had the gall to name his cat Cat, Mon (Catmon? Cad, Mon?) and then not even recognise what he’d done. He didn’t pursue it, though, because he could already tell this was about to devolve into an Only Fools and Horses-type situation, two hapless men bumbling about something that wouldn’t end up being clarified even after eighteen minutes of conversation. He’d Google it later. “Cat Mon. Of course.”
Dylan saw Marcus to the door after he finished his cereal, and Luke waited for him to come back down the stairs and sit down before he carefully dipped his last soldier in the egg yolk and said, again, “So.”
“So,” said Dylan. He shot a slightly uneasy glance at Evie, whose gaze, Luke noticed, had slid all the way over to fondness with no exasperation whatsoever.
“What happened to Sarah?” Luke asked.
“Oh, turns out we were meeting her boyfriend there,” Dylan said. “Read that one wrong, apparently.”
“Yeah,” said Luke, with somewhat of a meaningful look, because he rather felt like he’d read something wrong, too.
“I date men sometimes?” Dylan said, scratching the back of his head sheepishly like he was confessing to Luke that he’d broken a vase playing football inside the house, or something.
“Are you asking me?” Luke said, sort of enjoying it now that Dylan was blushing a solid red from the collar of his stupid band t-shirt to the roots of his hair.
Dylan and Evie exchanged another strange, speaking glance that Luke could not read at all, and Luke spared a moment to realise that sometime in the night they’d gone from being two people who had a friend in common and lived in the same house and were awkwardly trying to achieve closeness despite the fact that they’d slept together—and the fact that then Dylan had gone and inadvertently slept with Evie’s sister, which would never cease to be fucking hilarious—to two people who were close. Just like that, overnight.
“Yeah,” said Dylan, after a moment. He was less red now. “I suppose I am asking you, actually. Evie said she thought that maybe you—”
“Why, Evelyn!” said Luke, only sort of faking the outrage, because while in the aftermath of the Great Dumping from Jo he’d admitted to her that he was pleased that at least he hadn’t lost his virginity to her, but to his friend Nishant, instead, there was a difference between telling her about also liking men in the quiet closeness of his dark room and her saying the same thing to their newly arrived male housemate (who was so thoroughly not a morning person that at this point Luke had seen him stumbling naked to the bathroom no fewer than seven times).
Their newly arrived male housemate, Luke supposed, who it turned out also dated men, which did shift the parameters somewhat.
“The two of you don’t think it’s strange that you only talk to each other about women? Honestly,” said Evie. “If you two want to pretend we’re at boarding school and you can only touch a dick in the dark if you never mention it, go ahead, but it seems like a shit way to live, if you ask me. We can be friends like children—we can love each other like children—or we can love each other like adults.”
Her voice went wavery and thin at the end, and Luke remembered what she’d said to him right after her dad had died: that she’d hardly known him, that he’d been so busy treating her like his little girl that he’d died before he’d known her as a woman. That it was lonely not to be known fully by someone you loved so much.
“All right,” said Luke. “Fair enough. Dylan, please be informed that I like to touch dicks, sometimes in the dark, and sometimes with the lights on.”
Dylan laughed, that strange charming laugh he had where he looked down and glanced up through his eyelashes. He was not a bad looking man at all, and now Luke could say that to him without feeling slightly duplicitous for telling Dylan he had fine bone structure but not daring to tell him he was bi.
“Luke,” Dylan said. “While I had few opportunities to touch anyone’s dick in the dark when I was at school, since arriving at university I, too, sometimes like to touch people’s dicks. Last night I touched Marcus’ dick. It was very nice.”
Evie’s eyes still looked sad, but when she smiled at the two of them her pleasure was obvious.
“Thank you for that,” Luke said to her, and meant it. He raised his mug of tea in a toast. “To touching dicks!”
“To dicks,” said Evie, raising her coffee and glancing between the two of them in a way that suggested she might actually be calling them dicks.
“To dicks,” said Dylan. He looked over at Evie, and then said, “And to loving each other like adults.”
+ + +
“At the end of the day, the men I shag are my business,” says Evie. She turns to face Luke, propping her head on one hand and staring at him seriously. Bravely: with the exception of Dylan, Evie usually has the spine to look at most of her relationships head-on, unlike Luke. “And I wanted to have sex with you.”
Luke remembers. He’d wanted to have sex with her too, because she’s beautiful and he loves her, but also because after they’d gotten up from that park bench and made their way to a pub without Dylan, she’d looked fragile like he’d almost never seen her look, his fierce best mate suddenly turned unexpectedly, upsettingly brittle.
“In fact,” she says, raising herself up on one elbow and allowing the sheet to slip off the curves of her breasts and pool at her stomach like it’s the most natural thing in the world, “I think we should have sex again.”
I don’t know, Luke wants to say. But he looks at the almost-challenge in her eyes and he suddenly remembers: he remembers why he said yes last night, and he knows he’s going to say yes again.
Luke wishes more than anything that he could make the two people he loves most in the world happy, that he could wave a magic wand to make things all right like the fairy godmother in a pantomime. He can’t. But yesterday, after he and Evie had done their best to help Evie drink away her grief and guilt over Mal, when they’d gotten home and Evie had touched his hand and gone up on the tips of her toes to kiss him, he had taken in the open, vulnerable look on her face and seen a chance: a chance to give Evie something she wanted, even if it was nowhere near what she wanted most. It’s not a magic wand—it’s so far removed from it that it’s laughable—but for whatever reason, it’s something Evie wants, and Luke, who wouldn’t be who he is without her, will not deny her something that’s in his power to give.
It happens again.
Well, obviously it happens again. It happens again the morning after the first night, but then, once Luke has carefully kissed Evie and disentangled himself from her and gone off to the shower to give himself a stern talking-to and draw a firm line under the whole affair, it happens again. Luke comes home from work and Evie comes home shortly after, and they drink a bottle of wine and watch Don’t Tell The Bride on iPlayer, and when it goes half ten and it’s clear Dylan’s not coming home, Evie slides closer to Luke on the sofa, and then it happens again. Again, again.
It’s not utterly inexplicable. I mean, it’s not like Luke met Evie at uni during freshers’ week and thought: This one is going to be like a sister to me. He met Evie during freshers’ week and thought she was smoking hot; he didn’t hit on her because he had eyes for no one but Jo in those days, but he watched as a rugby lad tried his luck, and when Evie not only denied him, not only humiliated him, but razed him to the ground, Luke moseyed on over and said, “Hi, I’m Luke. Any woman who cuts someone that deep for the fun of it is a woman I want to be friends with.”
She looked at him, probably considering whether she wanted to do away with his pride and most of his sense of self as well (the rugby lad had left not only the general vicinity but the entire party, and Luke was convinced he was already back at halls crying in his room). Her eyes narrowed and she peered up at Luke with an incredibly threatening air for such a short person, and then she said, “I’m Evie. If you actually mean friends when you say ‘friends’, you can buy me a drink."
Luke was so attracted to her that it hurt. The more she said delightfully cruel things about everyone who walked in the bar the more he felt as if she might be the best thing ever, and at one point, Luke remembers, he had a moment of shocking, guilty clarity in which he thought: She’s perfect.
The sex would have been great then, if Luke could have brought himself to even consider sleeping with someone other than Jo; the sex would be perfect now, if Luke could bring himself to stop thinking about Dylan (or, more distantly but equally pressingly, contemplating the fact that somewhere along the line he’s apparently turned into the worst kind of shit).
Evie is fucking brilliant in bed. She’s energetic and demanding—god; she’s so bossy, and it’s scorching—and she always looks like she’s absolutely, 100 per cent there, utterly present in the moment as she slides slowly up and down Luke’s cock as he watches, usually dumbfounded and with his hands gripping clumsily at her hips.
(Being present is another thing Luke thinks about thanks to therapy, and he wishes he could have zero thoughts about Cleo when he’s in bed, because whenever he thinks about his therapist he thinks about the fact that once upon a time she was the best sex he’d ever had, which leads him to the guilt-ridden reflection that sex with Evie is better, which makes him think about Dylan, which makes for some incredibly confusing moments where his stomach clenches with dread but every other part of his body is pushing up and closer to Evie, and then Evie will notice—she always notices—and she’ll pinch his side sharply and say, “Look at me,” and Luke will have no choice—no desire—but to do just that.)
Luke can barely look at himself in the mirror. He’s desperately happy that Dylan is spending as much time at Abigail’s flat as he is, because god knows even a man with Dylan’s depth of slightly gormless naiveté would realise his two best friends were shagging under his own roof if they were doing it as often as Luke and Evie now are.
“What is it that you feel so guilty about?” Evie asks him, over fish and chips from the filthy-but-delicious chippy they discovered when they were poor students who couldn’t afford better (but still patronise even though they’re both technically gainfully employed these days).
Luke looks up at her. He’s worried that she’ll seem insulted or angry or, worst of all, hurt, but she’s just looking back at him with a steady sort of curiosity. She’s putting a chip in her mouth and licking vinegar daintily from one finger, and Luke is horrified to realise he finds it incredibly hot.
He discovers he has to dig for the answer, and he draws his attention away from Evie’s mouth and tries to figure out what it is he wants to say. He feels the way he does when Cleo refuses to let him run away from what she’s asking him in therapy, which is interesting given that Evie is just sitting there eating her chips calmly and projecting an air of warm, undemanding patience.
He wants to say It’s Dylan, but it isn’t, not really: Evie’s right that whom she shags is her business, and while Luke knows that Dylan loves her, has been in love with her, is most likely still in love with her, Dylan also loves Abigail, is in love with Abigail, is practically living with Abigail at this point, and even if he weren’t, if Evie wants to keep sleeping with Luke then that’s really up to her. Up to them.
“I mean, I feel bad that we’re doing this and he doesn’t know it,” he says, finally. That’s the easy bit. He forces the rest of it out. “I think it’s… I feel like I’m the final nail in the coffin of what could have been a good thing. A great thing. You and Dylan were supposed to have babies, and I was supposed to be the uncle that bought them ludicrous toys at Christmas. And instead Dylan—” is probably going to have babies with Abigail, Luke thinks, but he won’t say it. Partly because it might not be true (Luke will give up hope for Evie and Dylan getting their happy ending the day that he’s cold and dead in the ground) and partly because if it is, it seems cruel to remind Evie. “Instead Dylan isn’t here, and I am, and Evie, you have to know I love being with you, but we also both know I’m the sub-par specimen here, in every way. I’ll have sex with you every day of the week if you like, and twice on Tuesdays, but you have to know you deserve a million times better than me. And I can’t wait until you find it.”
There’s a long silence during which Luke stares down fixedly at his chips, inexplicably anxious about what he’ll see if he looks up at Evie. After a moment Evie’s hand creeps forward into his line of sight. She runs her soft fingers over Luke’s knuckles and says, “Luke. Look at me.”
Their hands are greasy from the chips, but when she slots her fingers into Luke’s it feels nice anyway. Luke lifts his head.
“I’m in love with Dylan. I’ve been in love with him so long that I can’t remember what it’s like not to be in love with him, and at this point I’m resigning myself to the fact that I might always be in love with him.” Evie squeezes his hand. “And I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know whether I’ll meet someone tomorrow or if you will. I don’t know what our lives are going to look like in six months or six years. But whatever happens, Luke, I want you to know that as far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t hope for better than you. Not now, and not ever. Being with you—not the sex, I mean, just the fact that I get to have you in my life, even when you’re dreadful or I’m dreadful or we both are—makes me happier than I could ever be without you.”
Evie doesn’t really do serious. She does cutting and clever and cool, but from the very beginning Luke has known that her heart is bigger than she lets on. She’s letting it shine out of every bit of her face now, and Luke recognises what a gift that is, for Evie to let him see what she hides from everyone else. He smiles at her, and when she smiles back at him it transforms her face from its solemn almost-sadness into something beautiful and happy—so happy that Luke can’t help but believe her when she says he might be part of what makes her able to smile like that.
In the next instant she gives Luke a cheeky grin and pulls her hand back from his to eat another chip and lick more vinegar from her fingers—she’s doing it on purpose, Luke realises, and his cock hardens a little as soon as he thinks it—and says, “So.”
“So,” says Luke, following the slope of her neck with his eyes and watching the heave of her breasts where she’s breathing a little faster than she was a moment ago.
Luke’s lost count of what number of Again this is. They’ve always had sex in one of their bedrooms with the door shut, partly because while neither of them ever really says Dylan’s name Luke knows they both think of him, and their bedrooms are the one place in the house that isn’t Dylan’s, too.
Oh, what the hell, Luke thinks. Dylan won’t come home tonight, and Luke has always had a particular fondness for kitchen sex.
Today is not the day he stops feeling guilty about this, but he feels better about it than he did a few minutes ago. And it’s not like having sex in the kitchen is somehow going to make the fact that they’re having sex better or worse; if they’re going to have sex anyway, they might as well fuck fast and hard over the table, just the way Luke likes it and the way he suspects Evie might too.
I mean, all things being equal, Luke thinks, might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.
+ + +
Dylan has dated an almost mind-boggling number of objectionable people—people who, were Dylan not a bit of a guileless idiot who falls in love at the drop of a hat, might have turned out to be interesting characters rather than arseholes. As it is, though, Dylan gets too invested and clingy, and this tends to bring out the worst in people with even slight arsehole tendencies. Luke therefore actively dislikes quite a lot of people that he might otherwise have thought just weren’t great.
There have been a few people, however, whose inner arsehole didn’t need any help from Dylan. Case in point, Tobias, the management consultant that Dylan took up with after breaking up with Bethany and deciding he was “only dating casually” for a while.
(Bethany was one of Dylan’s worst breakups; for someone who is usually buying wedding rings while people are still attempting to commit his surname to memory, Dylan’s naiveté had conveniently functioned in precisely the opposite direction while Bethany was getting ready to move in with them. Luke wonders about that, sometimes, but even Before Evie, B.E., he was no sort of character to be calling Dylan on his shit when it came to not being accountable.)
Tobias was clearly terrible right from the get-go, though of course Dylan wouldn’t listen to reason. If Dylan had actually managed to keep it casual it might have been a dating history highlight—Tobias was tall and almost unbelievably good-looking, the way wankers often are. They were a picture: Tobias with his flawless skin and perfect suits and delicate, long-fingered hands, half a head taller than Dylan with his worn flannel shirts and his pigeon toes. Tobias’ mother was Ethiopian, and he had a delightful accent to show for it; he DJed in the few hours of spare time he had after working 100 hours a week at the consulting firm, where he apparently made a huge amount of dosh, and he had the gall to be quite good at it—he had a bit of a following in Glasgow, enough that clubs were more crowded than usual when he played.
In conclusion, Tobias was just the fucking worst.
It was therefore inevitable that Dylan would be in love with him two weeks after meeting him, drawn in, no doubt, by discussions about terrible bands instead of focusing on what was clearly Tobias' best feature—the large cock Evie claimed to have seen “by accident” while wandering past Dylan’s not-quite-shut door.
“I think there could be something here,” Dylan said, while Evie and Luke looked incredulously at each other on the sofa.
“Dylan…” Evie got as far as his name before stopping to look at Luke, and Luke tried to communicate Well, I’m not fucking doing it, mate with his eyes and his hands and the shoulders he had recently been focusing on at the gym.
So Evie petered off, the way she and Luke were going to do at least a dozen more times in the future when Dylan briefly found himself entangled with someone dreadful. (Part of it, Luke thinks, is that Dylan just won’t listen to reason when he’s like that, but part of it is also some kind of unwillingness to burst his bubble and hurt him, which usually blows up in their faces when the objectionable person hurts him worse.)
In Tobias’ case, the option to take the path of least resistance was taken from Luke’s hands on a night out clubbing, in which he sauntered over to the bar and found Tobias with his hand on some tiny, blond man’s arse and his tongue down the same man’s throat.
“Tobias!” Luke said, loudly, floundering around for the name before coming up with it at the last instant before he shouted, Hey, management consulting guy (he and Evie only ever called him that when they were complaining about him).
“Luke!” said Tobias, jovially, as if Luke couldn’t see the grip of his—Christ, those really were nice hands—on the blond man’s arse cheek.
“Dylan said you told him you were at a work dinner, man,” Luke said. “I think he might be waiting for you at home; he told me he couldn’t come out because you were coming ’round later.”
Tobias actually shrugged, the bastard, before saying, “You know Dylan.”
And the thing was, Luke did know Dylan. Dylan could be dreadful, clingy as fuck on his worst days, but only Luke and Evie had the right to say things like, “You know Dylan”; who did this management consultant fuckface think he was?
In the moment it took Luke to come up with an appropriate rejoinder Tobias downed the last of his drink and began to lead his waifish companion toward the door, one hand still down the back of his trousers. In the end all Luke was able to come up with was, “Seriously? Unbelievable.”
“Might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, Lukey-boy,” said Tobias, and Luke only resisted the urge to punch him in the face because he didn’t really know how to throw a punch anyway, and Tobias probably collected martial arts belts in the rest of his spare time.
After that, Luke obviously had to trudge home and find a way to tell Dylan, who did that thing that Dylan did and allowed a flash of clear-eyed Of course to cross his face (Dylan wasn’t an actual idiot, he could spot an arsehole when he met one) before getting weepy and slightly pathetic about it.
Luke tried to cheer him up by telling him they’d go out and meet some people ten times hotter than Tobias the next day (a lie, Tobias was so fucking hot), but when that didn’t work he pulled Dylan close on the sofa and said, “Hey. He didn’t deserve you,” and kissed him gently at the corner of his mouth.
Dylan smiled against Luke’s lips and said, “I should probably stop trying to make it work with terrible people” (spoiler: he didn’t), and then the two of them curled into the ratty sofa as best they could, and watched television until Evie came home.
When she walked in the door she looked at them and smiled fondly, and when her eyes moved to Dylan, who had fallen asleep against Luke’s chest with his mouth open, her smile turned fonder still, and Luke remembers thinking, for the first time: Huh.
+ + +
“Right there,” says Evie, moving Luke’s hand so he’s rubbing against her clit at a different angle.
Through the vague sadness Luke feels at the memory of Dylan and the moment when he first thought maybe Evie would be the person who finally broke him of his dating-arseholes habit, he finds her decisiveness as hot as he’s found it from the very first time.
Evie’s hands are cupping her own tits and she’s pinching a nipple between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. A little rivulet of sweat is running down from her neck and between where she’s pressing her tits together, and one day they’ll have sex where she’s not on top but today is not that day, because Luke could come just from watching her. They’ve been going for a while, and she’s so wet he can feel it at the base of his cock every time her hips slam into his, and he can barely think straight from how good it is.
He tries to shift his hips to get deeper, and she makes a punched-out little uh noise that’s somehow even hotter than the rest of it, and Luke screws his eyes shut against how beautiful she is, and opens them again when closing them makes him picture Dylan, and he keeps twisting his hips and just hangs on.
Luke falls in love with her.
He stares at himself in the bathroom mirror and says, “This isn’t happening; this isn’t happening; this isn’t happening,” but repeating it doesn’t make it true, and so he finishes shaving and goes downstairs for tea and toast and tries not to blurt the wrong thing out at the kitchen table.
“How do you feel about it?” Cleo asks him later that day when he has therapy, and Luke thinks he sees a judgey glint in her eye: she’s too professional for that, really, and Luke knows he’s just projecting, but that doesn’t make the feeling go away.
“It’s surprising,” he says.
He’s told Cleo before about how for months after Jo he felt actively hollow and tender inside, and how eventually the feeling faded into numbness, which was better than pain but not by much. How meeting Phoebe was the first thing that even felt like a spark, but how after they had those rather inadvisable kisses and Luke decided he couldn’t possibly date someone that Dylan was into, everything in his chest faded back into a familiar, anaesthetised ache.
Phoebe dumped Dylan there and then and Luke knows—he knows now, with the glaring certainty brought on by her death—that he could have perfectly plausibly asked Dylan if dating her would be okay. But he didn’t, because he was afraid and comfortable right where he was, and the next time he met someone really great (Tom, who was a doctor like Jo, and kind and exciting and for some inexplicable reason genuinely interested in more than sleeping with Luke) the spark was even briefer, and Luke even more decisive in making sure it didn’t catch.
“I didn’t know I could still feel this way,” he says, which is a kind of half-truth because he hasn’t wanted to feel this way for a long time.
Cleo looks at him patiently, the way she does when Luke’s feeding her something that’s half-bullshit, and Luke breathes out and says, “She’s good.”
“Good,” Cleo repeats. Luke’s not sure if it’s an invitation to say more or an affirmation; he chooses to take it as the former because now that he’s started he finds he wants to keep going—fucking therapy, Jesus Christ.
“It’s like… where the spark was, with Phoebe, with Tom, there’s now—it’s like being whole. Warm and whole and good. I’m not an idiot: this had disaster written all over it from day one. It’s not going anywhere. But… I don’t regret it. Even if my heart breaks—when my heart breaks—I won’t regret it. She and Dylan are the best things that have ever happened to me.”
They fucking are. Evie, who weathers storms and comes out bright-eyed and smiling and deeply herself on the other side. Who takes absolutely breath-taking pictures and also some rather awful ones, and just laughs the latter off because that’s life, and that’s how you create, she says. Evie, who allowed herself to love Dylan in raw, open, heart-rending ways for years, and who despite never getting what she wanted doesn’t resent him for an instant.
Evie who, he now knows, likes to have Luke curl his tongue flat against her clit and not move, because she likes to circle her hips down into him until she comes. Who always has pillow creases on her skin in the morning unless she’s slept with her head on Luke’s chest. Who still laughs with him and at him as much as ever, but who now sometimes does that half-sitting on his lap while they watch films.
Luke’s been broken for years and Evie has loved him without asking questions or ever demanding that he be a little less fucked up inside. It seems oddly appropriate that it should be her and Dylan who have put him back together again over the years, and it’s also… utterly unsurprising that Luke has gone and fallen in love with her, after she’s loved him unconditionally for years and he’s loved her back in the same way.
“I agree with you that this isn’t the easiest set-up for love,” Cleo says, and Luke focuses on what she’s telling him. She’s clever; so much more intelligent than he knew when he met her and thought she was shrewd and exciting and sharp. “But I don’t necessarily agree with you that there’s such a thing as something that has ‘disaster written all over it’. Some things are outside our control, yes. But we have more of an influence than we think on all the rest.”
“So you think I should say something to her,” Luke says.
Cleo smiles. “I didn’t say that.”
“But you were thinking it.”
“Actually, Luke,” she says, still smiling, “I think you were.”
As much as Luke pretends to hate going to therapy, the reality is that he would have no idea what to do right now if Cleo weren’t in his life.
Before Cleo, on the rare occasions that Luke wanted to actually speak about something instead of fucking about and pretending the important things didn’t matter, he’d normally speak to Dylan about it: Dylan not because he was a better listener than Evie, but because he had a tendency to be kinder. Evie is all tough love, and while Luke knows that when the time comes to hear hard truths it’s time to go to Evie, he usually tries to avoid that for at least a little while.
It’s the time for hard truths, but he can’t go to Evie. And it’d be a fine thing to have Dylan pet his hair and be kind to him, but Luke couldn’t possibly go to Dylan now. So instead he’s just grateful for Cleo—for her incisiveness and unwillingness to put up with his shit.
Luke walks home from her office the long way. He wanders over to the harbour and watches the sea. He buries his nose in his scarf and tells himself walking by the water when it’s negative two degrees outside makes perfect sense.
+ + +
The last time he was here, he was with Dylan.
Spring was just coming in and Dylan was three months into a course in fucking landscape gardening, of all things. It seems ridiculous to imagine Dylan doing anything else now, but at the time, when Dylan had come home and told Luke and Evie that a woman he’d met at Luke’s Tech Awards ceremony had told him he might want to try gardening as a profession, Luke will admit he’d thought Dylan would ‘fall in love’ with gardening the same way he fell in love with people: fast, furious, fleeting.
It didn’t help that when Dylan started the course he leased a code-violating, run-down, piece-of-shit work shed with his parents’ help (too sudden an investment, Luke thought) and hired a terribly pleasant carpenter named Ben to outfit it with shelves for his tools. And of course then Dylan went and fell in love with Ben too, because that was just what Dylan did.
Luke thinks that Dylan was slowly coming ’round to the realisation that you couldn’t ‘fall in love’ with people that way, even then: he's had a few half-hearted attempts at relationships since Ben, before Abigail, but mostly Ben was the beginning of the end. Since then it’s pretty much been trying to date a 38-year old who wanted children and a 21-year old who was still practically a child; pretending he wasn’t into a woman with a serious boyfriend while dating another one who wanted Dylan to be her serious boyfriend; and, all the while, falling in love with Evie degree by inevitable degree.
The thing about Ben, though, was that while Dylan was slowly growing up into what falling in love actually meant, Ben was there already when he met him, and two months and seventeen shelves later Dylan had come home from his course and said, “Oh, fuck.”
“Mmh?” Luke said, eating a sausage roll by the window and waving at the fit mum from across the street who went jogging with her pram (well, and presumably her child) every day, in a sports bra that was just not, if you asked Luke, supportive enough.
“I had to break up with Ben,” Dylan said, and Luke looked over with mild interest but got a lot more interested fast when he caught a glimpse of Dylan’s red-rimmed eyes.
“Have you been crying, mate?” he asked, injecting just enough mocking into it to hopefully push Dylan into feeling defensive rather than sad.
“No, fuck you,” said Dylan, but it was utterly unconvincing: he had the blooms of colour high on his cheeks that he always got when he ugly-cried, and the slight tremble to his voice that he never seemed to be able to get rid of for at least two hours after whatever it was that had happened.
He was, in short, showing all the signs of having engaged in the kind of soppy sobfest that only Dylan could.
After four years of knowing Dylan, Luke was quite confident he could probably pick out his post-crying face from a line-up of equally weepy men even if they were all standing a mile away.
“Come on, then,” he said, and he texted Evie to meet them at the harbour before leading Dylan out the door.
They walked along aimlessly for a while before Dylan took a deep breath and said, “It was fucking awful.”
“You’ve… broken up with people before,” said Luke, which was kind of an understatement given the number of people Dylan had dated, and also kind of a mistruth given how often Dylan got dumped, rather than doing the dumping.
“Yes,” said Dylan. “But in the rare instances that I’ve actually dumped someone before they chucked me—and we have to admit that they’ve been rare—it’s usually been someone like Bethany, who made me feel like an idiot for not wanting what she wanted, or Peter, who pretended that he’d never even wanted to date me seriously in the first place even though he’d just given me a fucking key, but did it so convincingly that I believed him.”
“I’m guessing Ben did not pretend he did not want to date you seriously.”
“No!” said Dylan, and Luke could tell it was a bad one because Dylan’s voice did the thing where it got all high-pitched with distress. “He just looked at me quietly and then he asked, ‘Are you sure?’ When I said yes he nodded once and picked up his tools and kissed me goodbye and left; it was like murdering a lamb with my bare hands!”
Luke wasn’t best equipped to deal with this kind of problem—maybe Evie, who had had to go through that terrible dumping of Angus right after he’d invited her on holiday, or even Jonesy, who loved men and always left them wanting more. Luke was just the guy who slept with people casually and every so often caused one of those people to feel extreme anger, not because they were in love with him but because that’s what happened sometimes when you stuck your dick in lots of places.
“Sorry, mate,” he said, eventually, putting an arm around Dylan and trying to project comfort. “He’s a very nice guy—” Dylan looked upset again, so Luke redirected— “And he’ll probably find someone else who does want to have babies with him in no time.”
“You think so?” Dylan asked.
“I do,” Luke said, before catching sight of Evie the next street over, and waving at her with slightly more enthusiasm than was probably warranted.
+ + +
They go out to dinner with Dylan and Abigail, to an Italian place that’s been one of their usual haunts as long as Luke can remember, and where none of them have ever, to his knowledge, taken a date.
Luke watches Evie carefully as they walk in, but she doesn’t seem as upset as he might have thought: Abigail and Dylan are tucked close together at a table in the back, and Luke puts his arm around Evie’s waist before he even registers what he’s doing. As soon as he realises he wants to take his arm back, but now Dylan and Abigail are looking at them and waving, and no one is staring at Luke like he’s doing something odd, so he just keeps walking with his other arm stiffly at his side like a badly programmed android, and tries to keep a smile on his face.
“Hello, you two,” says Abigail.
It should be awkward because she’s so cheerful most of the time, and because it’s really only been three months since she caught Luke with his hands down his trousers in a public place. But she’s so genuinely kind that she manages to make it feel like they’re just four people who really like each other out for dinner, instead of four people who have had reality-TV levels of personal drama in the short time she’s been back in their lives.
“I feel like I haven’t seen you two in ages,” says Dylan, pouring wine that’s already on the table into their glasses.
Evie gives a little laugh and says, “Yeah, it’s mad,” and Luke wonders if she’s thinking the same thing he is: that Dylan’s been spending most of his time at Abigail’s but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given the kind of shenanigans up to which Luke and Evie have been.
That they miss having his stupid face around every day.
It’s a long dinner—it runs long because they’re having a good time, and it seems longer because Luke feels like he’s going ’round the table and scrutinising everyone there like a very nervous detective: Abigail, who seems happy and settled where she’s leaning against Dylan’s shoulder; Dylan, who’s making space for her in the crook of his arm almost unconsciously, but who seems genuinely pleased to see Evie and Luke; and Evie, whom Luke is watching for signs of heartbreak but who mostly seems like she’s having a good time, her eyes shining when she looks at Dylan with something that seems good rather than bad.
They hug goodbye outside the restaurant, and Luke lets Dylan pull him tight and hugs him back with just as much enthusiasm.
When Evie and Luke make their way into the house half an hour later, Evie drops her keys into the plate under the mirror and turns to look at Luke, and Luke has a minute to think oh fuck before he just says, right into the silence, “I love you. I’m in love with you.”
She keeps looking at him. A car goes by outside and the headlights sweep over her face. She looks serious: not surprised, not angry. Maybe a little sad; Luke’s not expecting anything, but then she lowers her eyes before stepping closer and says, “Me too.”
Luke would be hard-pressed to describe what the moment feels like. He thinks they’re both happy—it feels like that’s in the air—but there’s also something heavy in the room when she says, “Fuck. I didn’t mean to.”
Luke’s not insulted. He knows exactly what she means.
He kisses her then, gently, because it feels right. Whatever else this is, it’s a good thing, too. She kisses him back, pushing up onto the tips of her toes, and Luke pulls her closer with a hand against the small of her back and opens his mouth against hers.
When she pulls back she leans against the side table and says, “I don’t think I’ve stopped being in love with him.”
“I understand,” Luke says.
It’s strange, because for a moment the most inexplicable thing had wanted to come out of his mouth: Me neither.
“We have to tell him,” Evie says.
Luke looks down at his hands so neither he nor Evie have to look at Dylan’s coats and scarves and shit littered all over the front room, and says, “I know.”
He thinks about Wednesday last week, when they didn’t realise Dylan was home and Luke stepped out of his room in the morning just in time to see a bleary-eyed Dylan stumbling toward the shower. He waved, thankful because Dylan was so terrible in the mornings that he wouldn’t stop to think how strange that was. Hoping that Dylan couldn’t hear the thump thump thump of his heart or somehow smell the acrid shock of adrenaline that had flooded every part of Luke’s body at the sight of him.
Luke hadn’t even bothered to pull the door shut, and Evie was sprawled on the bed behind him, totally visible if only Dylan had the wherewithal to look more closely in their direction, instead of walking zombie-like for the bathroom.
It’s been the closest they’ve come to being caught, and up until now Luke supposes he’s thought, We’ll stop doing this soon enough, and then we won’t have to worry about being caught at all.
But… but if it turns out they’re both in this—and it seems, the oh fucking fuck of it aside, that they both might be—Luke can’t keep relying on some half-baked notion that this is something that’s going to go away just as soon as he and Evie can bring themselves to stop. The way this is going they’re going to get caught instead, and if Luke’s going to be the cause of Dylan’s ugly-crying face he wants to make sure it’s at least done right.
It’s not that Dylan won’t understand. Luke rather suspects he will—that he’ll show them both the same patient, slightly sad generosity he’s shown the people who haven’t fallen in love back with him after he’s gone all in, and the rare people who have fallen in love with him when he hasn’t loved them back.
It’s not that Luke’s never broken a heart before (because even if Dylan says he’s fine, and even if he mostly is, even if Abigail has burrowed her way into all sorts of good spaces in Dylan’s life (as she should), Luke knows that there’s a part of their friendship that will probably die with this, and that’s heartbreak enough).
It’s that Luke has few certainties in life, but one of them had used to be that he would always be the best wall he could be between the heartbreaks of the world and the two people he loved most in it. That he might have become the cause of Dylan’s heartbreak, instead of the person who hears about it, makes him feel as if something inside him has curdled and gone bad.
He looks at Evie, who looks as if she’s thinking much the same thing, and repeats, “I know.”
When they finally do it, it’s so much worse than Luke could have imagined—and he’s been imagining some pretty heavy-duty Saving Private Ryan shit.
They have Dylan ’round for dinner (that’s so strange to think about; it’s not like it’s Luke and Evie’s house and Dylan has come for a visit, but as they’re sitting at the kitchen table that’s suddenly what it feels like, and Luke can tell from the way Evie’s gripping her fork that she feels it too).
They avoid the topic, to begin with. Luke thinks they’re both warming up to it, but what ends up happening is that they avoid it too long, and before he knows it the three of them are two bottles of wine in and Dylan is knee-deep in a story about ending up knee-deep in shit while helping the groundskeepers at the university with the winter upkeep of the cricket pitch.
“It’s kind of bizarre to think we were swigging vodka on the edges of that pitch a few years ago, and now you work for them sometimes,” Evie says. “You’re basically the guy in charge of chasing people like us away, these days.”
Luke laughs. He remembers that night: the three of them huddled in their coats in the dark passing the bottle between them, Evie telling them stories about her mum, and Luke talking about meeting Jo for the first time, and Dylan looking contentedly between them and slipping his hands into theirs.
“I really love you guys, you know,” Dylan says, suddenly, and Luke and Evie must do something strange, because there’s a thud of a pause and then Dylan asks, “What is it?”
Luke fights the urge to look at Evie. He knows what he’ll do if he does: he’ll beg her silently to be the one to do it, because she’s much braver than he will ever be. He takes two large swigs from his wine glass instead, and then he looks right at Dylan and says, “Evie and I are dating.”
“What?” Dylan asks again.
He’s smiling placidly at them—Luke knows what it’s like, hearing something that sounds simple but refuses to make sense. He doesn’t repeat it, because if he’s reading it right it will only be a moment before Dylan plays it over in his head and realises what Luke just said.
“Dating?” he says. There it is.
“Dylan,” Evie says.
Luke glances at her sharply. There’s something strange in her voice, and when Luke looks over she’s crying. This is basically the worst fucking thing that has ever happened to him already, and they’ve not even said any of the big things yet.
Evie’s mouth trembles, but she sets her jaw and then says, “I’m just going to say it all, okay? We’d planned—” Dylan starts at the we, and Luke can see Evie register it, too. Luke imagines that the impact he feels at the look on Dylan’s face is probably what getting shot feels like. “I think we’d planned to just say some of it, but I… I’m just going to say all of it.”
“All right,” says Dylan, quietly.
It feels as if Evie was actually waiting for him to agree, because she takes a deep breath and says, “I’ve been in love with you for four and a half years.”
Luke shuts his eyes against the sting of tears. It’s not hearing it that makes him sad—obviously not—but it’s the shared breath that Evie and Dylan take when she says it, like’s she’s confirming what they both know: that there was something real between them and they lost it.
“I’ve been in love with you for four and a half years, Dylan, and I can’t even count the number of reasons I came up with for not telling you. I tried. Sometimes not very well. I think… I think you fell in love with me too, and I think there were times when you wanted to say something and then there was a reason why you didn’t—just like there was for me—and it just kept going like that until it was too late.”
Luke has never had this feeling before; it’s not his conversation, but he doesn’t feel as if he’s intruding. This is about him, too—about watching them circle each other and about the way in which the three of them didn’t stop to question whether some of the things they were leaving unsaid really ought to have been spoken instead. God knows any of the three of them could have tried harder: Luke won’t pretend that he thought it through the day he ran into that pub and told Evie that Dylan was in love with her. If he’d wanted them to talk about it he could have done a million things to make that happen; instead he threw it out there when he was grieving Phoebe and hurting, partly because he didn’t want them to miss their chance but mostly because for a moment he’d wanted everyone else to hurt too. And now they’re here.
“The day I broke it off with Mal,” says Evie, “The day after Angus’ divorce party. I wanted to tell the two of you what had happened over a drink, but you needed to sort things out with Abigail. So Luke and I went to the pub on our own instead, and drank too much, and when we came home we slept together.”
At first Luke thinks it sounds wrong when she says it that way. It sounds like she’s saying she and Luke slept together because Dylan wasn’t there when they needed him, and that’s not the truth. And yet… it is the truth, in a way, because when the thing between Evie and Dylan finally changed them both—when it pushed Evie to call off her wedding to Mal, and Dylan to think about what it might mean to love Abigail for real—the easy, bone-deep friendship between the three of them changed, too. Luke and Evie have been happy for Dylan, happy for him in the fullest way, because they love him, but the fact is that Dylan hasn’t been here, in this house where the three of them have fucked up and cried and laughed and always come back to each other until they didn’t, because Dylan went and fell in love—really fell in love—for the first time. And that’s not anyone’s fault, but in the deeply strange aftermath of separation Evie and Luke have gone and fallen in love too, which seems like the plot for a bad American sitcom but has actually been excruciatingly painful and agonisingly great.
“This has been happening since the day after the divorce party?” Dylan asks, quietly.
“We didn’t mean to,” Luke says. He looks at Dylan. The three of them are all crying now; Luke supposes it can’t be helped. “Dyl, we didn’t mean to. And I didn’t expect it. But I can’t tell you I regret it.”
Dylan looks between him and Evie, and then he drags up a smile from somewhere, and he reaches across the table to take Evie’s and Luke’s hands and he says, “Of course you don’t. Why would you?”
Luke expected this—he expected Dylan to be generous, to be kind—but it still makes something inside him splinter.
“Hey,” Dylan says. “This is a good thing, right?”
“I don’t know,” says Evie. Her shoulders hitch. “Good things aren’t supposed to hurt this much.”
“All the best things hurt this way, Evie,” says Dylan. “I’ve been telling you two that for ages.” He shakes his head, laughing a little, and says, “I’m really happy for you.”
They sit there, crying and holding hands and dripping tears into their curry, until they get themselves together enough for Dylan to remember another story about the cricket pitch.
When they’re finished eating, they walk Dylan to the door by silent agreement. When Dylan gathers his coat and hat and calls the Uber to take him to Abigail’s there’s something strangely final about it, and Dylan confirms it when he says, “I might… I might stay with Abigail for a while, all right?”
Luke supposes he didn’t expect any different. It’s not as if Dylan hasn’t pretty much been living there anyway, he tells himself, to temper the sting of it as much as he can. He can tell from the slow way in which Evie’s shoulders turn in that she wasn’t expecting anything different, either, but that the same yawning pit has also opened in her stomach.
“I love you both,” Dylan says. He kisses first Evie, then Luke: his lips feel soft on Luke’s cheek. “I just need some time. I’m not used to there not being room for me here.”
“There’s always room for you here,” says Luke, with a conviction that he thinks surprises all three of them.
After a moment though, Evie nods, and Luke can tell she’s thinking the same thing he is. It’s not an empty reassurance that things will be okay going forward—it’s a kind of promise, Luke thinks. He doesn’t know what it would mean, but he knows that if Dylan wants to be here there will always be a place for him to fit, and he knows in his bones that Evie feels the same. They’ll twist themselves into whatever shape it takes to make sure there’s always a Dylan-shaped hole.
Dylan looks between the two of them. There’s something heavy in the air, something only half said. Luke’s about to chase it up—he may be a dreadful student, but Cleo is the best of teachers—when Dylan repeats, “I need some time.”
Luke and Evie nod, and let him pull his hat further down over his ears. Dylan is almost out the door when Luke feels a sharp urge to make sure he doesn’t walk away before saying, “Dylan. We mean it.”
Dylan looks at them, and his mouth opens almost as if he wants to ask them something, but then he just nods back at them once and says, “I know.”
A few weeks later Angus calls and invites them out to dinner. From the way he says it, Luke can tell that he knows about him and Evie. There’s something uncomfortable in the silence until good old Angus soldiers on and says, “It’ll be nice, won’t it? A double date.”
They could all stand to learn a little something from Angus, Luke thinks. Angus who broke up his marriage but went for what he wanted; Angus who lost Evie but didn’t let that stop him from staying their friend; Angus who is marrying the stripper who is having his baby and, despite the fact that it makes him sound like the set-up to a bad joke, doesn’t for a moment let that dim his happiness over his future—not a bit.
When they sit down at the restaurant Angus immediately starts talking about mortgages (Luke knows Angus can’t afford a mortgage easily at all, but he and Holly are going to do it anyway, probably because that’s what you do when you’re about to become responsible for another human being) and the flats he and Holly have been ’round to see (not even in a bad part of the city; Christ, Luke is behind on being an adult).
Angus tires himself out talking about banks and finally takes a breath, and then Evie says, “You should look to see if there’s something near Abigail’s. Near the rail station but not far from that lovely park with the hedges Dylan loves. Isn’t that in a good catchment area? Your little boy could end up there with Dylan and Abigail’s children, someday.”
There’s the slightest edge of sadness in her voice, but Luke knows it’s not because Dylan and Abigail might have children; it’s not about Dylan’s happiness. It’s because of the sense of loss that won’t quite go away for either of them, even though Luke supposes it’s getting ever so slightly better every day.
Holly and Angus exchange a strange look. Angus shakes his head in what he probably thinks is a subtle way, but Holly looks up at Luke and Evie and says, “Dylan and Abigail broke up.”
“Pardon me; what?” says Evie.
“He’s come to stay in the spare room,” Angus says. “Well, the nursery, I suppose. The room that's going to be the nursery.” He grins idiotically, and Luke can't even hate him for it.
“Since when?” he asks, trying to get them back to the business at hand but aware from the uncomfortably high pitch of his voice that both he and Evie sound slightly mad.
“Two weeks?” says Holly, looking at Angus for confirmation.
He gives Evie and Luke an anxious look—so fucking should he; Luke is going to murder him as soon as he has a moment—and then he says, “I think that’s right. Yeah.”
+ + +
The last time Luke felt this way, it was during the strange period after Evie’s engagement announcement came in the post and after the night when Dylan almost slept with Jonesy.
Luke had known that Dylan would take it badly, but he thought it would be in a way that he could predict. Then Dylan went and met Henry William Charles Boyd-Bennett (“Harry, please”), the poshest man Luke had ever met outside regattas he’d attended mostly as a drunken joke or the Monty Python Upperclass Twit of the Year sketch.
Harry was the kind of man that Luke, Evie and Dylan had spent hours mocking in the past. It wasn’t like any of them were working class, exactly—Evie probably came closest, but Dylan had the kind of childhood where his parents could afford to pay for his awful ukulele lessons, and Luke, despite being at his public school on a field hockey scholarship… well, he supposed he’d had the kind of childhood where he’d been able to learn to play field hockey that well in the first place. But their middle-class existences were a far cry from most of the arseholes Luke had gone to school with, and the fact was that he, Evie and Dylan were intimidated by people with four names and really posh accents—though Luke knew how to fake one—and so they spent a lot of time making fun of them.
When Dylan introduced Luke to Harry at a pub Luke was certain it was a, ‘We’re going to laugh about this later’ situation, but then Harry said, “Do you want another drink, babe?” and kissed Dylan on the cheek before going to fetch them another round.
“What. The. Fuck,” Luke said, pointing at Harry with his entire arm outstretched, just in case Dylan didn’t understand what it was he was what-the-fucking about.
Dylan just shrugged, and then he said, “I like him,” and normally Luke would have never let it go in a million years, but when he looked more closely Dylan’s usual slouch all of a sudden looked an awful lot like slumped shoulders.
Luke let it go. He still wasn’t done mocking Angus, anyway, for breaking up his marriage after sleeping with a stripper. (Not even the kind of stripper that would make for a good story, either: some kind of maths geek who had slept with Angus on her first night of stripping and had subsequently gotten fired. Maybe it was best for her, Luke supposed; he didn’t know how committed she’d been to giving stripping a go when she’d met Angus and apparently fallen instantly in love with him over an awkward lap dance, of all things.) He could give Dylan a pass.
Luke was doing a fair job of pretending to tolerate Harry until his and Dylan’s one-month anniversary rolled around and Harry took Dylan shopping at Pink.
When Dylan walked into the house Luke briefly thought he was about to become the victim of a very smartly dressed intruder: a strange man walked into their sitting room, and it took Luke a moment to realise it was Dylan, wearing a shirt that was not only not plaid but also required cufflinks.
Luke gathered air in his lungs for a lecture about why there had to be limits to the concessions of the self one was willing to make in a relationship (he was even prepared to bring out how he’d panted like a puppy over fucking Jo; he meant serious fucking business).
He was just about to get going when Dylan said, “I know, I know. I’m breaking up with him, all right?”
“All right,” Luke said, letting Dylan slouch up the stairs and pretending that the weight on his shoulders wasn’t half familiar, terrible posture and half desperate heartbreak over Evie, from which Henry William Charles Boyd-Bennett had apparently been distracting him.
Luke sat on their sofa for a while, wondering what he’d have done if Dylan had refused to listen. He imagined what it would have been like if Dylan had kept dating Harry until he knew what forks to use at what point of a seven-course dinner—until he stopped considering rolled-up ham from the corner shop a respectable starter. He allowed himself to entertain a fantasy where Bizarro Dylan ran off with Harry like Tom Cruise taking up with the cougar in Cocktail, but without ever coming to his senses: a terrible fantasy where the utter certainty with which Luke knows Dylan disappeared.
+ + +
“Luke? Are you all right?” Angus is looking anxiously between him and Evie, who is also silent, and Luke wants to reassure him, but he’s too busy thinking to answer.
He’s thinking about that fucker Harry, and thinking that while he’s been busy assuming Dylan was happy with Abigail, certain that he still knows Dylan as well as he ever has, despite everything that’s happened, Bizarro Dylan has apparently been living in Angus’ nursery, not saying a thing to Evie or Luke about it when he comes ’round for dinner.
He’s thinking about every moment in the last four months when he’s thought of Dylan and felt not only guilt or sadness or uncertainty but longing. Fucking longing, deep in his gut, longing that had somehow gone unrecognised until this precise moment.
He’s thinking about every time he’s pulled Dylan close and smelled his stupid eucalyptus hipster shampoo, and how the scent is really only bearable when the two of them and Evie are all piled in the same place together, and her warm smell—a little like honey, but mostly like washing powder—is wafting up comfortingly around them.
“I have to go,” he says, and when Evie reaches up to take his hand and gives him a look that clearly says, Are you sure? he nods and leans down to kiss her quickly before saying, “I’ll see you at home later.”
Then he asks Angus for his keys, and calls an Uber to take him to Angus’ flat.
When he gets there the house is dark. Luke spares a moment to hope that Dylan isn't out before he’s hit with a crystal-clear image of Dylan pathetically sprawled on the floor of Angus' future nursery with the lights off, listening to sad music on his phone. He suddenly knows with absolute certainty that Dylan is home and doing exactly that.
It’s not quite that bad—Dylan is sitting on the bed with his back against the wall—but it’s pretty fucking close, because at the end of the day Luke knows Dylan too well to lose sight of who he is, even at moments when it feels as if Dylan’s slipping through his fingers.
“Hey,” Luke says, and Dylan starts a little.
“Hey,” he says.
“So… you and Abigail broke up.” Dylan doesn’t say anything, and Luke shrugs and adds, “Angus said.”
“Yeah,” says Dylan. “Turns out women don’t like it when you try to be honest with them about how the woman you told them was definitely not in love with you is apparently so fucked up over you dating someone else that she’s taken up with a total wanker.”
“Fuck you,” Luke says, good-naturedly. “You wish you were half the catch I am.”
“Yeah,” Dylan says. He smiles in the dark of the half-painted nursery. Luke thinks he’s going to say, I do, but instead he says, “You are a catch, man. Anyway, turns out women also don’t like it when they ask you, ‘But how do you feel about them?’ and you can’t answer. Even a woman as brilliant as Abigail: it turns out silence is not the tack you want to take when faced with that question.”
Luke walks over to sit next to him on the bed, carefully. Dylan makes space for him, and they sit in silence, listening to the barely-there sound of music coming from Dylan’s headphones, before Luke says, “I wish I knew what to say to you.”
“Mmh?” says Dylan. It sounds like a question.
“I wish I could say, ‘Come home already’, but the truth is that… I don’t know how we’re going to make this work. I just know that you coming home is the right thing, but that doesn’t feel like enough when I’ve already fucked up our lives this badly.”
“Get over yourself, Luke,” says Dylan. There’s a smile in his voice: Luke can’t count the times he’s had to tell Dylan the same thing, when he’s been pitifully mooning after some new but totally unsuitable person. “It took all three of us to fuck up this badly.”
“Maybe if you come home we can unfuck it,” Luke says. As soon as he says it he knows it’s the right thing. He doesn’t know how they’re going to go about it, but despite the swooping fear of it he somehow knows that they have a real chance, if they try. He knows. “I think it’s at least worth a try.”
Dylan doesn’t answer for the longest time, and Luke lets his eyes drift over whatever it is that Angus was trying to paint on the wall. He thinks it’s supposed to be a hippopotamus, but it could be a frighteningly disfigured clown.
“I’ll think about it,” Dylan says, finally. “I promise.”
“All right,” Luke answers.
And it does feel that way: like it’s going to be all right.
Dylan doesn’t come ’round for dinner that week, and then he stops coming ’round at all. All of a sudden Luke’s strange certainty that everything was going to be all right feels like a fever dream brought on by Angus’ terrible nursery art. It feels like stupidity, and like naiveté, and—Jesus fuck, at some point Luke turned into Dylan without realising it.
He tells himself the worst thing in the world would be to push. One day he comes home to Evie wiping her eyes in front of the hall mirror and before he even asks she says, “He’s dating some guy named Dev. He’s a paediatrician, apparently. Just came back from doing Doctors Without Borders. Dylan told me about it when we met for lunch today, and then Holly showed me a picture on Instagram of him and Dylan volunteering at a pet shelter. He’s probably the best-looking man Dylan’s ever dated. Even consultant arsehole pales in comparison.”
She breathes out hard, looking up at the ceiling, and then says, “They looked happy in the picture, Luke.”
“Sure,” he answers, swallowing past the knot that instantly forms in his throat but trying not to show it. “But eventually Dylan will probably get tired of the toilet getting clogged with all the diamonds this guy shits, right?”
“Probably,” says Evie, and she laughs a little.
It’s not hugely convincing, but Luke appreciates the effort.
She looks back at him, questioning, and he tries to sound as light-hearted as he can when he says, “Hey. Let’s give him a few weeks before we pay someone to hit the doctor with a rubbish lorry while he’s out for his morning run, all right?”
Evie pulls him up the stairs and they end up fucking in Luke’s bedroom (their bedroom now, he supposes), hard and fast at first because they’re still both angry with the knowledge that they weren’t watching Dylan carefully enough to know—not about the dog-rescuing paediatrician, obviously, but about Abigail. They hadn’t said it, but Luke thinks after the awful conversation in the kitchen they’d silently promised each other that they’d make sure Dylan was okay, and then as soon as he wasn’t they’d had to find out about it from Angus.
Luke’s got Evie’s hips in his hands and he’s fucking into her as hard as they both like it; she’s on her hands and knees and she’s got her face tucked down into her chest when she asks, “Do you think he’s really thinking about it?”
When Luke came home from Angus’ horror-film nursery he told Evie what Dylan had said, and that he’d seemed to mean it. They haven’t spoken about it since, and now that Evie’s finally dared to ask what they’re both thinking her voice sounds raw and uncertain, the way whatever it is that’s clawing at Luke’s chest feels.
Luke slows down and pulls out, and he palms Evie’s thigh and pushes gently to encourage her to turn around. Once she’s on her back, wide eyes looking up at him, he brackets her between his arms and pushes back into her slowly, kissing the surprised little huff of breath from her lips.
Luke smiles against her mouth, allowing himself to press into her with all the sincerity he hasn’t let himself feel since he broke up with Jo and told himself no one would catch him earnestly fucking anyone in the missionary position ever again.
"Yeah," he says, looking her in the eye even though they're much too close. "I do."
They’re in the kitchen making dinner a few days later—between the two of them they can cook about three things, but now that all their friends are adults by circumstance, if not by achievement, the two of them have agreed they had better try to make a more serious go of it—when they hear the familiar rasp of a key in the lock.
There’s the sound of Dylan kicking the snow off his boots. It has to be Dylan; when Angus moved out Luke changed the locks (mostly from habit; unlike some of the housemates that Luke has enraged enough that they end up wanting to rob him in the night, Angus would probably just keep their key safe for them in a drawer in case they ever got locked out). Only Dylan, Evie, and Luke have the new set.
Then Dylan says, “Fuck, fuck,” quietly, and a second later there’s the satisfying screech of something being dragged across the floorboards—it sounds suspiciously like Dylan’s horrid hipster trunk, which he keeps full of horrid hipster t-shirts and records made by bands whose names Luke would rather not think about for fear of dying of second-hand embarrassment.
Evie moves the stir-fry off the fire and turns the hob down, folding a paper towel carefully before slowly placing the wooden spoon she’s been using down on it. It looks almost as if she’s holding her breath.
“You don’t think…?” she says.
Luke hears Dylan swear again, and a second later there’s the dissonant twang of Dylan’s ukulele (his fucking ukulele; what was Luke thinking telling this idiot to come home) being put down a little more forcefully than Dylan probably intended.
“You know,” Luke says, looking at Evie and allowing his eyes to smize like Tyra Banks taught him, though he doesn’t let his hope curve his lips into a grin just yet— “You know, I do.”
+ + +
They go up to the North Coast for Hogmanay, which is a terrible fucking cliché, but Luke is going to apologise to no one, because if anyone deserves to ring in the New Year watching the snow come down while lounging about in bed in a luxury bed and breakfast, it’s the fucking three of them.
(Well, Dev the handsome dog-rescuing paediatriacian probably does, as well, but Luke’s not talking so much about deserving things for being a morally upstanding person as he’s talking about deserving things because goddamn it, this year has been long.)
Luke makes sure all the lamps in the room are on before he gets around to touching Dylan’s dick (not for the first time since Dylan and his hipster trunk came back to live with them, but for the first time in this bed and breakfast), and when he leans down to kiss Dylan’s grinning face he can tell Dylan is remembering, too.
They spend an awful lot of time fucking—again, Luke will make zero apologies for the way they find themselves carrying on—but even more time talking. In the restaurant, in the garden, in bed. It’s excruciating, but all Luke has to do when his resolve is flagging is picture Cleo’s disapproving face, and then he’s usually ready to keep saying awful things like, “Thanks for coming home, you fucking bastard” as his and Dylan’s mouths meet over the lush, beautiful spread of Evie’s tits.
“I’m happy I came home,” Dylan says, “Even if you didn’t know what the fuck you were asking when you told me to.”
“At the very worst you could have come home to be with Evie, whom you’ve loved for ages, and given me a chance to finish falling in love with you, even if you decided you couldn’t love me back,” says Luke. “But I think there’s a good chance you will love me back: you know all the worst parts of me and haven’t left yet, and now we’re touching dicks in a non-darkness situation, so I don’t see how far from being in love with me you can really be.”
“I like that you think there’s any distance left at all between Dylan and falling in love with you, Luke,” says Evie. “Dylan, who will probably fall in love with a piece of furniture in this room if we leave him to it long enough.”
She’s teasing, but there’s a little thread of uncertainty in her voice: Luke feels it thrumming in his chest, too.
“I don’t fall in love like that anymore,” says Dylan, smiling. “Not since I fell in love with you.”
He’s soppy and earnest and so fucking shameless about it that it would almost be admirable if it weren't so embarrassing, and he’s… looking at Luke.
“Pardon?” Luke says.
“Not since I fell in love with you,” Dylan repeats. “First I fell in love with Evie, and then I let her go because I wanted her to be happy more than I wanted anything else. Then I fell in love with Abigail, because falling in love with Evie that way taught me what falling in love meant. And then I fell in love with you, because it turned out that I could love Evie and I could love you and all three of us could be happy, which wasn’t a thing I knew I could want until you showed me I could. And now that that’s happened, I’ve decided to leave my days of falling in love with furniture behind.”
Luke swallows hard and grips Evie’s hand tight, and she squeezes back. He remembers her telling him about having a conversation with Dylan a few months ago in which she’d told him maybe the three of them should have got married instead of falling in love with anyone else—a joke, then, but suddenly it doesn’t feel that way, though Luke’s not about to say it.
He’s getting better at feelings in general, but he’s not bloody Dylan, after all.
He kisses them. First Evie, then Dylan, then Evie again. Desperate and sloppy but oh so good, kind of like he feels inside. Kind of like the brilliant fucking blowjobs Dylan can give with that mouth of his.
Dylan grins at him, and Luke can tell he doesn’t have to say there’s no finish falling in love with you left about it; Luke loves them both, and judging from the way they’re smiling, they know.
He’s about to dive back in (there are dicks to be touched with the lights on, and the dips in Evie’s hips left to stroke), but then—well, he’s apparently closer to becoming Dylan that he’d like, or maybe Cleo has finally trained him into some kind of functioning human, because before he bends to kiss them again he can’t help but say, “I hear loving people like adults is better, anyway.”
“Yeah,” says Evie. “That’s right.”