There were plenty of things Oliver Duffy knew about Liam McIntyre. After ten years it was impossible not to have a good idea of who he was. The first four years had been friendship, slowly feeling out who this boy was, the one giggling in the back row and not paying attention, who would show up at school with dirt on his face or a rip in his school trousers, grin cheerfully like he hadn't noticed anything wrong, and then be sent to the office to tidy himself up.
Oliver had been that quiet boy sitting in the front row, hiding a smile whenever Liam would be scolded for not shutting up. The one who would look up when Liam would plonk himself down during study hall, drop his books on the table and ask Oliver if he had any fucking idea what this shit was about. Because Oliver was smart and that, yeah? He seemed to know what was going on. And Oliver would smile a little bashfully and slide over his notes. And Liam would smile back and lean over to listen while Oliver tried to explain about entropy.
Liam was the kid who, when he was sixteen, had been trying to do tricks on his bike and gone into a brick wall, sat up gushing blood from his forehead and looking a bit confused, unruly blonde hair hanging in his eyes and his cheeks pale. Oliver was the kid who called triple nine and sat with him until the ambulance got there. And Liam had started looking a little bit panicked because that was really a lot of blood, so Oliver had stayed with him while they'd patched him up, stayed with him again in the hospital while they'd waited for his parents to arrive.
The next day Liam had shown up to his house with most of a cake and said it was from his parents to say thanks, but that he'd eaten some on the way because it had been quite a long walk and he'd gotten hungry. But thanks anyway, you know. Not that he'd been scared or anything, but his parents had appreciated it.
So that was Liam.
Oliver supposed he was the sensible one. His parents had always said that, anyway. An only child, always a bit too serious. He looked the part too. Dark hair, blue eyes, tallish. Never the best looking kid, or the brightest, or the one with the most friends. Never the one who stood out, though his marks were solid. He liked the kinds of things you could do on your own, was more likely to be sat in bed reading a book while everyone else went to a party he hadn't been invited to. Not because nobody wanted him but because he was the one who wasn't thought of, who was happier listening to music on his own than dancing in a crowd, who liked the library better than the football pitch.
Liam was sunshine and mess and talking during the movie and sneaking out of the house at two in the morning with his other friend Finbar, who was a couple of years older and dating Liam's cousin, the two of them creeping over to Oliver's house and tossing pebbles at his window until he'd sleepily stick his head out and asked what they were playing at, he was trying to sleep.
Oliver thought he'd been in love with Liam from the moment they'd met. When asked, later, if he'd felt the same, Liam would say that Oliver was that weird kid who never spoke to anyone and needed to get his damn head out of a book.
Then he'd smile, kiss Oliver gently on the cheek, and say that of course he had.
Walking was difficult with Liam hanging off his arm, but somehow Oliver managed it anyway. It wasn't like Liam was a burden, never had been, even when he was a bit tipsy and giggling, stumbling down the footpath with Oliver's arm around his waist to stop him tripping.
“I fucking love you!” he announced. Oliver laughed, leaning down to kiss his temple, got a silly grin back.
“I love you more,” he replied, letting himself be pulled into a clumsy embrace against the side of a building. Fingers threaded through his hair, lips lifting for a gentle kiss that tasted of beer.
Liam wasn't that drunk, was just having a cheerfully good time, had had just enough to make him adorably sentimental. Oliver had just had the one, had agreed to be designated so Liam could have a few. They'd driven into Dublin, just expecting to have a meal and head home, but then they'd run into mates and it had turned into slightly more of an event than they'd intended.
“Hey,” Liam murmured. Oliver smiled back, caressing his cheek, fingers pushing blonde hair away from his ear. “You're beautiful.”
Oliver snorted, nuzzling into a slightly flushed cheek, feeling a kiss brush his jaw.
“No, I'm not, I'm...” Liam shook his head. “God, I'm so in love with you. You don't...”
“I do,” Oliver murmured, glancing at the engagement ring on his finger, the one that was reflecting neon lights, the gold coming up red. Lips brushed over it, blue eyes looking up fondly. He was tugged into a kiss a moment later. “I love you,” he murmured when they broke for air. “So much. I can't even...” He shook his head, not knowing how to express how much. “I'll always love you.”
“Good.” He got a cheeky grin. “I was planning on doing the same.” Liam lifted his own hand, glancing at the matching ring on his finger. They'd only been wearing them about two weeks but that was long enough to know that Oliver couldn't bear to be apart from Liam, not for the rest of his life. He hadn't meant to fall for Liam, not in the beginning. They'd been friends, and then one day highschool had been over and they were being all sentimental, talking about not losing contact and...
But being with Liam had always been so easy. His best friend. The person who got him. Who just saw exactly who and what he was and thought that was utterly perfect, who made everything about him work, who made him a little better and happier every single day.
They made it back to the car eventually, hands held between them the whole way and pausing occasionally for a bit of a snog. They weren't usually this bad, usually kept the public displays of affection to a minimum. Maybe it was the post-engagement excitement – Oliver had basically been fizzing for the last two weeks, ever since Liam had surprised him by taking a knee in front of Oliver's whole family on their last trip back to Cork.
And now he was nudging Liam into the car, telling him to put on his damn seatbelt and going around to the other side to slide into the driver's seat. He glanced up into the rearview mirror, laughing when he realised how messy his hair had gotten in the wind, squinting in the dim light and trying to make it look at least presentable, tucking dark strands behind his ears.
“Please.” Oliver nodded, watching Liam fiddle with the knob. It was still not too cold, but there was a definite chill starting to set into the air as August began to stagger into September. Rain was beginning to fall, fat drops spattering the windshield.
Liam began to fiddle with that too, settling on a soft rock station. He turned it up a little, glancing over at Oliver as they began to pull out of the parking lot.
“Bed when we get home?”
“Think so.” Oliver nodded. “I'm bloody knackered.”
“Getting old.” Liam's hand coming out to squeezed Oliver's thigh. Oliver rolled his eyes. “Too tired for a shag before bed?”
“Dunno.” Oliver smirked. “What kind of shag are we talking?”
“An excellent one. Obviously.” The wink he got was borderline lascivious. The hand snuck up a little.
“Cut it out. Driving.” Oliver slapped the hand away.
“No,” Oliver chuckled. The hand landed obediently on his shoulder instead. “Love you,” he said, trying to take the stung look off Liam's face.
“Love you too.”
“Do up your seatbelt.”
“Fine...” Liam sighed, yanking the belt over and clicking it shut. He was terrible for conveniently forgetting. “You're such a worrier.”
“No, I just want you to stay in one piece.” Liam's hand squeezed his shoulder again. “I'm not done with you yet.”
“I should hope not. There's still the shagging to do,” Liam agreed. Fingers gently stroked up his neck. He turned to kiss them, keeping one eye carefully on the road.
By the time they made it halfway up the motorway it was starting to rain harder, getting heavier as the seconds went past. Turning on the wipers didn't hurt much. He peered through the glass, trying to make out the road.
“Shit, it's bucketing.” It was coming down harder now, the white lines only just visible flashing past on the black asphalt. “I'm going to pull over. I can't see fucking anything.” He reached out to turn off the radio, wanting to concentrate a bit more, and began to pull over to the side.
They were on Clontarf Road, probably still about twenty minutes away. They'd only moved into the Bayside place about six months ago but it was starting to feel like home. The daily commute to work was nice, driving along the water's edge, and there was plenty of room for kids. Liam wanted some, Oliver was sort of hesitant about the idea but had to admit as time went by that it would be nice to have a couple of sprogs running around. They'd talked a little about a surrogate, but that was all still in the future. They were only twenty-eight. There was loads of time.
“Well... fuck.” It was slamming down now. He braked, leaving the head- and tail-lights on so they'd at least be visible to other motorists in case somebody else had the same idea. It was okay here, a bit sheltered from the wind beside a clutch of trees. Leaves were whipping across the windows. “Twenty minutes and we would have missed it.”
“Oh well.” Liam shrugged, glancing over at him. “Want to kill some time?” He got another wink, and the hand made its way back to his thigh.
“Getting a bit old to shag in the backseat?”
“Never too old,” Liam snorted. “Anyway...” He unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed across to straddle Oliver's lap. “It's sort of romantic.” Arms wrapped around his shoulders, Liam's bum dropping slightly to grind into his lap.
“You have a weird idea about romance.”
“You're here. It's dark. I love you. Instant romance.” Liam shrugged. Fingers played at his shirt buttons. “Come on. Old time's sake.”
Oliver snorted, remembering the old times. They'd been awkward and stupid and giggly but they'd certainly been fun. Making out in the back of Liam's parents old station wagon at the drive-in, snogging on a pile of lumpy blankets while the movie had played unheeded and their popcorn had gone cold on the front seat.
“Old times,” Oliver sighed. Liam whooped, already beginning to clamber back over, his arse bobbing between the seats while he wrestled his limbs through the gap. Oliver gave it a slap, heard a laughing yelp in response.
“Get yourself over here.” Liam settled on the backseat, arms crossed and looking expectant.
“On my way.” Oliver started to poke his head through. He got one shoulder between the seats, started to wrestle the other one over. Suddenly he was blinded by a bright light that filled the car, squinted into it. Liam looked back over his shoulder.
“Fucking hell. What... Shit!” He heard Liam gasp, then a grinding, metallic shriek. “Get out.” He yanked at the handle, wind and rain rushing in as it came open.
“What's...? Oliver tried to shield his eyes.
“Get the fuck out!” Liam barked, shoving the door again. The wind was buffeting it closed. Oliver grabbed for his own doorhandle. When he glanced up all he could see was the chrome vertical lines of a grill cutting through the light and the rain.
He thought he heard Liam shout, though it was hard to tell with the sound of rending metal. His ears popped as he went upside down, the noise so loud it was almost silence. He saw a hand flutter through the air, fingers grab the back of his seat, then it was dark and there were leaves in his face, the coppery tang of blood filling his mouth, his whole right side in sudden excruciating pain.
“Liam...” he managed to choke out. He could barely see. There was blood in his eyes, filling his nose. He coughed, tried to wipe it away but his right arm was trapped under something. “Babe...” He yanked, greying for a moment at the shock of agony when it came free. Liam's hand was on the ceiling, which wasn't right, because the ceiling was suddenly the floor, muddy and sinking into rising water and...
“Oliver.” There was a retching cough, wet and thick. “Are...”
“I'm here. I'm...” He slid a little closer, trying to see. His leg didn't want to work. He reached Liam's hand, grabbed it with his left, felt fingers squeeze weakly back. “You're okay?”
“I'm...” There was another cough. The fingers loosened. He slid himself a little closer through the muck, saw a pale face covered in blood, dazed eyes streaming with tears. The back of the car was a wreck, crumpled, glass everywhere, Liam's legs hidden in the shadows. The seats were between them, their tops against the roof of the car, pushed down by twisted metal. He reached out his left arm, managed to reach just far enough to touch a bloody cheek. There was a gash on Liam's forehead, steadily gushing down over his eye. “Fuck it hurts. Can't breathe.”
“Can you kick my phone over?” He pointed over to where he could see it near Liam's feet. It had been in the centre console and now it was next to the top of the back window.
“I don't think so. I can't...” Liam's face crumpled under a sudden wet gasp of pain. “Shit. Oh shit. Ah...” A fresh burst of tears spilled from dazed eyes. “I can't breathe. I...” He sucked in a shallow breath that gurgled in his throat. “Can't...” He coughed again, spitting blood out, then inhaled with obvious difficulty. Coughed. Oliver felt his heart drop. Liam was purple.
“You're fine. Just...”
Pale lips sucked in another breath, and Oliver heard it catch. A second later Liam's eyes rolled back, mouth parting. Blonde hair, orange with blood, dropped slowly into the brown puddle on the ceiling. Oliver grabbed his hand harder, shaking him. He twitched, whole body spasming, then went abrubtly still. Oliver wasn't sure which one was worse.
“Babe. Liam. Come on, just... just...” He swallowed, the pain stabbing his whole side like an afterthought. “Liam. Wake the fuck up. You're scaring me. Come on. I love you. Please...”
He was still shaking Liam five minutes later when the ambulance lights began to flicker over his fiancé's slack face, still calling his name to the beat of the rain slamming down and filling the car.
“I like green.”
Oliver rolled his eyes, glancing over to where Liam was perched on the edge of the bed, chin rested appraisingly in his hands and looking up from under a mop of messy blonde hair.
“Yeah. It's okay.” He glanced over at the wardrobe Oliver was busy rummaging through. “I always liked the blue one.”
“You've liked the blue one for three years. I can't always wear the blue one. It'll look weird. People will think I only have one shirt.”
“But I like the blue one.” Liam shrugged. “It matches your eyes.”
“Yeah, well, it fit a bit better when I bought it,” Oliver explained. “I've gotten fat. Not enough exercise.”
“You can't keep using that as an excuse.” Blue eyes rolled condescendingly, then flicked to the cane leaned against the bedside table. He'd graduated from the crutches about six months after the accident, his shattered right hip more able to take the weight after way too much physical therapy and so many pins, plates and screws that he was fairly certain he was becoming a Terminator or something. Liam reckoned Dalek, which was much less cool.
“You still fancy me?”
“I always fancy you.” Liam flopped back onto the bed. Oliver lay down too a minute later, gingerly settling so he didn't aggravate anything. There'd been a real risk of clotting and infection at first. It was a disaster in there. They'd seriously questioned whether he'd ever walk again, and he'd been almost tempted not to try, the pain too bad to even consider standing on it. He'd almost given up before Liam had come in, crossed his arms, and asked him if he was going to lay there all day like a whining bitch or get the fuck up.
The broken arm, dislocated shoulder, and pretty fantastic case of whiplash hadn't really helped things, but it had all healed, in time. Morphine was a hell of a drug and the payout from the lorry company had stretched out long enough that he'd been able to live reasonably comfortably without going back to work. He couldn't, anyway. He kept having flashbacks, wild screaming fits that would come out of nowhere, though he was getting a handle on it now. Not something you could really risk coming out when you were trying to teach a room full of teenagers algebra.
He'd been doing other things, though. Gone back to a rather ridiculous teenage hobby of writing songs. It sort of helped, getting everything down on paper, trying to work through some of the things he was still trying to make peace with. He didn't have the instrumental skills, but he'd gotten himself set up with some programs for mixing music, would spend long hours tinkering with beats and vocal effects, Liam encouraging him and tapping his foot to the beat when Oliver would play something he'd written.
“Where we going tonight?”
“Not sure. Some restaurant.” Oliver twisted the engagement ring on his left hand. It had turned into a weird habit after the accident. He'd woken up in the hospital without it on, when they'd removed it for surgery, and some part of him was always panicked it wasn't there. “Finbar's got plans, apparently.”
“Finbar's plans are always boring,” Liam huffed. “Can I come?”
“I just assumed you would. You're like a bad smell. Can't get rid of you.”
“Nice to be invited, though,” Liam laughed. “It's fine. I'll just sit in the corner and not talk.”
“Don't sulk,” Oliver snorted. “You always sulk.”
“I never sulk.” A bottom lip thrust out in an exaggerated pout. “You should wear the blue shirt.”
“Fine.” Oliver heaved himself back up, glancing at his watch. He could take some more painkillers soon, if he wanted. He was trying to wean himself off them a bit, but he could definitely tell the difference when he didn't take them, the deep, throbbing pulse of pain in the metal-riddled ruin of his pelvis. It was starting to ache a bit now. Not hurt, just a constant stiff pressure.
He grabbed the blue shirt, tugged it on. It was a little tight but still looked okay. He slid a black leather jacket over it, tidying up his hair and wondering whether he should bother shaving so he didn't look so scraggly. Liam had always liked him with a bit of stubble and then he'd gotten carried away, but he'd tidied it up a bit the day before, just trimmed it so it was cropped closer to his face. Last time he hadn't bothered and Finbar had given him a concerned look like he was becoming some sort of crazy, housebound hermit.
“Nice.” Liam winked. Oliver rolled his eyes, reaching for his cane.
A hush fell over the group when Finbar stood up and tapped his glass. The table was packed, half the bloody restaurant booked out. Dinner was halfway in and Oliver had been methodically working his way through a bowl of gnocchi, listening to Liam bang on in his ear as usual. He was still going when the rest of the room went silent and Oliver looked away, trying to drop a hint that it was probably time he shut up and stop making Oliver look like he was being rude, not talking to anyone else and interrupting things.
“Hi, so...” Niamh stood up beside him, his arm sneaking around her waist. Liam waved brightly at her, pulling a stupid face. He and his cousin had always gotten on each other's nerves. “So we have an announcement.”
She flushed, clapping her hands together.
“We're pregnant again!”
The whole table cheered. Liam whooped beside him while Oliver clapped. He stood and hugged Finbar, who was already beginning to do the rounds of congratulations. Niamh was getting a hug from one of her friends further up the table.
“Thanks.” Finbar grinned, already moving on to the next person.
It was almost two hours later that they were getting the shoo-along from the hostess, the restaurant empty of other diners and chairs being meaningfully stacked on tables. Oliver grabbed his cane, feeling Finbar fall into step beside him as they headed back towards the car park. Oliver had called a taxi to meet him there.
“Hey. Barely got to talk to you.”
“It's cool. I'd say you were a bit preoccupied.” He got a happy grin in reply. “Congratulations, Fin. Really. I'm so happy for you.”
“Thanks.” Finbar touched him gently on the back, though Oliver got the feeling it was meant to be a friendly slap. His friends always seemed to treat him a bit like glass now. It was odd, thinking back on when the three of them had been teenagers together, wrestling and shoving and feeling invincible. Unbreakable. Now here he was, just shy of thirty-one and thinking it was about time to take another pain pill now that he had a full stomach. “How you doing?”
“You know.” Oliver shrugged. “It is what it is. Try me best, but...”
“Yeah?” Finbar nodded. “How long you had that shirt now?” He glanced down meaningfully. Oliver looked away, saw Liam roll his eyes.
“It was always Liam's favourite.”
“Yeah.” Finbar sighed. A hand touched his shoulder again. “Look, I don't want to be a prick but... have you thought about talking to someone maybe? I mean, it's been almost three years and...” Oliver shook his head, feeling a lump fill his throat. “We're here for you. You know that, right?”
“It's been two years, five months, and nineteen days,” Oliver said softly. Finbar nodded. “We were together almost ten years, Fin. He was the love of my life.”
“No. I know.” Fingers squeezed gently. Liam had disappeared. He did that sometimes, but he was always back. Oliver twisted the engagement ring on his finger, saw Finbar try not to look like he was watching. “I don't know. You don't leave the house much. I just want to make sure you're okay.”
“I'm not, really,” Oliver admitted. “But I'm as okay as I can be. All things considered. I just...” He looked away, feeling tears prick his eyes. “I lost him. He's gone but... he's always right here. You know? Like, I talk to him all the time and...”
“Still doing that?”
Oliver nodded. Finbar didn't know the half of it. Most people probably did that, talked to their dead loved ones, or said they still felt them around. Out of habit, maybe, or for a bit of comfort. They didn't sit on the sofa and have a twenty minute argument about who was going to win the All-Ireland this year.
“Niamh's friend was seeing this really great counsellor when her mam passed away and...”
“Thanks. But no.” Oliver twisted his engagement ring again. “I'm fine. I am. I mean, I'm in horrible screaming pain all the time and my fiancé died on the side of the motorway, but otherwise I'm pretty fucking fantastic.” He knew he was being unpleasant, but it wasn't like Liam was around to scold him for it. Finbar's cheeks went pink, his eyebrows knitting in.
“I miss him too, you know.”
“I know.” Oliver exhaled slowly, the sound of tears in Finbar's voice making him feel awful. More awful. It was getting hard to judge, these days, when everything was awful across the board, when it was either the slight haze of the pills or the sandpapery raw feeling of hate and rage and sorrow. “I'm sorry.”
“It's fine.” Finbar looked away. “Let me know if there's anything I can do, okay?” It sounded like a platitude, like Finbar was looking for an excuse to make an exit. Sure enough, a few seconds later he sped up, jogging up to walk alongside one of his work friends.
Liam appeared in front of him a second later, walking backwards and studying him.
“Behaving like a dick to our mates?”
Oliver shrugged, looking around at the small herd of people he was keeping pace with. There wasn't much to say.
He'd started seeing Liam about five weeks after the accident. The first two weeks were mostly a blur of surgery, morphine, and constant indescribable pain. They told him when he was lucid enough to ask where Liam was, and he lay there for hours, caught in a cage of traction and plaster and tubes plugged into his veins and cried helplessly, staring at the ceiling, not even able to sit up and grab a tissue while the pillow turned into a swamp beside his ears.
He tried to kill himself three weeks later.
It wasn't an easy thing to do, but he was finally able to sit up at that point, had been given a solid meal and was waiting on another round of surgery in a few days when he decided that there wasn't really much point any more. How could there be? If Liam had been there he'd be holding his hand, making jokes about hospital food and asking if there was anything he wanted for when he came out of theatre. But Liam wasn't there and his parents couldn't be with him all the time, though his mother had sat beside him until he'd woken from the blank drift he'd floated in for the first few days, lost on a gentle tide of nothingness and sure he was able to hear Liam laughing somewhere.
But she'd gone back to Cork, was coming up again in a few days to visit and he couldn't believe how hard everything was. Not able to find the point when he was upending everyone else's life and didn't even know how to live his own. Not now. Not knowing that all it had left was emptiness and pain.
So he waited until he was alone with a plate of peas and pudding, and jammed the fork into his wrist.
It had been okay, actually. He'd been on so many painkillers that it didn't really hurt as such, though the sudden flood of blood when he yanked it sideways made him want to gag a little bit. Then he just lay there quietly, trying to catch most of the blood in the sick bucket beside the bed, because it wasn't really fair on the nurses to have to mop all that up, not when they already had to wipe his arse.
When he came to it was three days later, his wrist was bandaged heavily, and he was in a sparse white room that appeared to have no sharp corners.
And Liam was there.
“Hey,” Liam said. He was leaned against the wall beside the bed, looking effortlessly casual in his favourite brown jacket and old jeans. Oliver wasn't sure if he was surprised or not. “Try to kill yourself?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled, feeling his cheeks flush in response to the look on Liam's face, the fond little smirk that suggested Oliver was maybe sort of a bit of an idiot.
“How's that working out?”
“Bit of a failure, apparently,” Oliver sighed. “It's good to see you.”
“It generally is.” Liam smirked. “Pretty sure they've got you on suicide watch. This room is fucking depressing.”
“I missed you.”
“I missed you too.” He got an affectionate smile, looked up as Liam moved closer and leaned over to brush fingers down his cheek. For a second he thought he could feel them, that little touch that was just so Liam. They were gone a second later, Liam sitting down on the side of the bed, the mattress not sinking under his weight. “This is fucked, right?”
“It's pretty fucked,” Oliver agreed. Liam's laugh was like bells. “Fuck, it hurts.”
“You'll be okay.”
“No. I mean it.” He got a sympathetic grimace. “I'll be pissed off if you're not.”
“You're pissed off at me?”
“You tried to kill yourself.”
“Yeah, well, you're actually dead,” Oliver retorted, covering his mouth with trembling fingers when he realised what he'd said. He looked away, not wanting to look into blue eyes that weren't there. “You're dead. You're not coming back.” His lips hurt forming the words. “You bastard.”
“I didn't do it on purpose.”
“No. I know.” Oliver swallowed hard, struggling back the tears. Liam tilted his head. “I love you. I know I said it, but you knew, right?”
“Course I did.” The cocky grin, the sparkling eyes. It was just so fucking Liam. Jesus.
“I love you.”
“I can't do this without you.”
“Course you can.” Liam leaned over, lips brushing Oliver's forehead. “You're a bit brilliant.”
“No, it's probably you,” Liam admitted. Oliver smiled ruefully back. “You know I'm not here, right? Like, I'm in a box in the dirt. You couldn't even come to my funeral because you were in bed. Maybe that's what this is. Maybe you feel guilty or something and you're trying to figure out if I'd be annoyed.”
“You wouldn't be.”
“No. I probably wouldn't,” Liam chuckled. “Come visit me when you get out, okay? Better late than never.”
“Okay.” He looked up as the door to his room opened. A nurse stood there in her uniform, a clipboard in her arms. Oliver nodded, got a professional smile back.
“Hello,” she said. “Who were you talking to?”
The beach was almost deserted at this time of the morning. He'd taken to doing small laps, just to stop himself getting too lazy and weak, and it was nice doing it early, especially at this time of the year, still dark and the pebbly sand hard and compact as the tide continued out. The cold played havoc on his hip, of course, but the solitude was nice. And nobody could say he wasn't getting out of the house. He'd seen a few joggers, and there was a man walking a dog, pausing every now and then to let it nose around at shells and clumps of seaweed.
“You should get a dog.”
“You keep saying that,” Oliver sighed. “We've had this conversation.”
“And you should get a dog.”
“Liam...” He adjusted his hand a little bit and began to move slower, feeling his hip seize. He'd thought about it. He and Liam had been planning on getting one once they were properly settled into the house. Well, he was definitely settled. It had basically become his cocoon.
He liked dogs. His family had always had them growing up. He didn't know what he was supposed to do with one. It wasn't like he could chase it around the park or take it on brisk walks. He'd almost adopted one a few months back, when he'd gone past the pet store and seen a litter of Yorkies in the window. They were small, wouldn't need that much, and had adorable excited faces. Not very manly, but friendly and manageable.
Then that night he'd had one of his episodes. Had a total freakout and ended up curled on the dining room floor, shrieking into the balled up table cloth so the neighbours wouldn't hear, the smell of blood and muddy water thick in his nose.
“You like dogs.”
“What kind of dog, then?”
“Dunno. Something friendly.” He looked up at Liam, about to reply, then realised he wasn't there. Looked over to his other side, catching blue eyes a second later. “Hey.”
“I hate when you do that.”
“Disappear and pop up again. Just stay in one place.”
“Hey, this is your delusion, not mine,” Liam retorted. Oliver grimaced, knowing he was right. Another jogger went past, going right through Liam as though he wasn't there. Fingers touched his shoulder a second later. “This is getting sad. You know that, yeah?”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“Something. Anything,” Liam sighed. The sun was just starting to come up over the water, the sky turning pink and gold, water going glassy green. There was a guy a bit further down, tossing a frisbee to his dog. Oliver couldn't see him properly, not silhouetted against the dawn light, but the dog was having a great time, charging through the edge of the water, great splashes exploding around his feet. A largish dog, maybe a Labrador or Golden Retriever, though he couldn't tell from this distance. “Maybe if you talk to a dog, you won't have to talk to me.”
“I like talking to you.”
“You did. Now you just do it to avoid talking to anyone else.”
“I don't need you to analyse me.”
“You're analysing yourself. Even your subconscious thinks you're crazy.”
“I'm not crazy,” Oliver mumbled. Then realised he was walking down a beach by himself, mumbling that he wasn't crazy. He blinked away angry tears. “You died.”
“I died two and a half years ago,” Liam sighed. Oliver shook his head. “It doesn't all go away just because you admit it. I loved you. You loved me. You're thirty. You really want to spend the next sixty years talking to me?”
“I was going to do that anyway.”
“I know.” Liam pursed his lips. He was suddenly in front of Oliver, walking backwards. “You want to go get a hot chocolate or something? It's fucking freezing and your hip hurts like hell.”
“How do you know?”
Liam rolled his eyes.
By the time he made it up the beach Liam was more or less silent. He did that, drifted in and out. Like he was on call for whenever Oliver needed a bit of a chat. He never really went away, though. Sometimes he wouldn't talk to Liam for a couple of days, but he'd still see him, reflected in shop windows, or leaned against the hood of a car, and Oliver would go to say something and realise it was just some short blonde lad who didn't even look much like him. That the seat next to him at the cinema was empty, even though he'd had his hand on the armrest the whole time, sure he could feel fingers threading into his.
The lad with the Labrador was still there, mucking about at the edge of the surf. It was a friendly looking dog, pale yellow to the point of almost white, black jaws hung open to reveal a pink tongue lolling down his chin. Oliver felt himself smile as he passed them, saw the dog snatch the frisbee out of the air and charge back to his owner, drool streaking out the sides of his mouth.
“You got it? Come on, boy!” the man encouraged. He was a little shorter than Oliver, fit and slender, though a little lumpy in his jacket, scarf, and backpack, with short blonde hair and a pouting smile. A nose that looked like it had been broken at some point but been set well. “Give.” He tugged on it lightly. The dog let go. “Good boy! Sit.” The dog did, looking totally excited about this turn of events. “Ready? Go!” He let the frisbee fly again. It floated out over the surf, landing a few metres out. The dog charged in after it, splashing wildly, tail like a propeller as he stumbled through the cold water. Oliver found himself laughing softly, blushed when blue eyes looked up at him.
“Morning,” he replied, hand gripping a little tighter to his cane. “Cute dog.”
“He's a good lad.” The dog came back with the frisbee clamped in his jaws and dropped it, shaking himself furiously. The man yelped as droplets splattered all over him, Oliver recoiling slightly when he caught some of the spray. It was ice-cold, like needles where it flicked his hands and face. “Shit, Dempsey.” The man wiped water out of his eyes. “We've had this conversation.” He glanced over at Oliver. “Sorry. Did he get you?”
“Only a little bit.” Oliver wiped his stinging hands on his jacket, then tucked them into the sleeves, trying to warm up. “It's fine.”
“I'm sorry.” He got an apologetic smile. “He gets a bit enthusiastic.”
“It's okay. Really.” Oliver glanced down at the cheerful face of the Labrador, found himself smiling back. “Dempsey?”
“Jack Dempsey. The boxer?”
“Ah.” Oliver nodded. It wasn't really his thing. Been more of a tennis person, had played almost every week until...
Well, running up and down a court wasn't exactly in his repertoire any more.
“Sorry. Hi. Adam.”
“Hi.” Oliver reached out, got a handshake. Adam's hand was warm. Warmer than his, at any rate. He tucked it back into his sleeve. “Oliver.”
“Hey.” Adam grinned. Oliver smiled back, not sure what else to say now that the pleasantries were over. “Bit cold today.” The weather. Of course. Well, he'd overstayed his welcome, apparently. “You want a hot chocolate or something? I have a thermos.”
“Oh...” Oliver hesitated, not having expected that at all. Still, his hip was killing him and there was a bench quite nearby. It couldn't hurt to have a bit of a rest and a warm up. “Okay. Yeah. Thank you.”
“No problem.” Adam slung his backpack off and pulled out a silver cylinder. He twisted the lid off, poured into it and handed it to Oliver. It was warm in his hands, not exactly steaming any more but nice enough. He took a sip, feeling settling heat flood through his bones. “Still warm?”
“It is. Yeah. Thanks.” Oliver drained the cup and handed it back, then began to move over to the bench, sinking down gratefully and watching Adam return everything to the backpack. “Sorry. That was probably your breakfast.”
“It's hot chocolate. I can get more.” Adam winked. Oliver tried to settle, wincing as he moved.
He hadn't had breakfast yet, couldn't take anything until he did, and was sort of wishing he'd thought to bring a piece of fruit or something, just to line his stomach. He shifted again, putting his hand on his hip.
“Yeah. Just the cold. It plays up.”
“Oh.” Adam nodded. “You want some more hot chocolate?”
“I'm okay. Thank you, though.” The dog started to sniff in his direction, the frisbee still sitting on the sand. He reached out a hand, felt a cold nose press to his fingers, warm breaths puffing over his hand. “Hey, Dempsey.” He got another sniff, then a tentative lick, and reached back to scratch floppy ears.
“He likes you.”
“He's got good taste,” Oliver joked. Adam laughed.
“Generally does, yeah. Admittedly he seems to like me, so I wouldn't say he's a hundred percent.”
“Yeah, but if someone fed me, walked me, and let me run around the park I'd probably like them too.”
“Should put that in the personals. Man seeks same. Twenty-nine, can throw frisbee and pour biscuits in bowl.”
“They'll come running.”
“I know, right? You've just solved all my problems.” Adam snorted. He sank down next to Oliver, giving Dempsey a pat on the flank as he did. “Though if I included the part about the collar and leash I'd probably get responses from the wrong sort.”
“Yeah, maybe leave that bit out,” Oliver snorted. “Well, I suppose there's worse ways of finding a fella.”
“True,” Adam chuckled, glanced down at his watch. The sun was up now, the water rippling silver and blue. It had to be after eight in the morning. “Shit, I'm sorry. I have to get going.”
“It's fine.” Oliver watched Adam dig the leash out of his pocket. “Sorry. I kept you.”
“Not at all.” Adam paused, looking at him. “You need a ride back to your car or anything? I can drop you off if...”
“I'm okay.” He was starting to feel a little better, would probably just grab some breakfast at one of the cafes and then start the walk back. It wasn't that far, not really, just felt that way when he was going a snail's pace and every step was a challenge. “Thanks, though. I appreciate it.”
“Of course. Yeah.” Adam hooked the leash back on, hefted his backpack. “I erm... Do you walk here most mornings?” Oliver nodded, shrugging. “Cool. I just moved into the area, so I'm still trying to sort of figure out the best spots and that. This seems okay.” He smiled, looking a little shy. “Might come back tomorrow.”
“I'll probably see you round then,” Oliver hedged. Adam tugged lightly on the leash, got a happy bark in return. “Thanks for the hot chocolate.”
“You're welcome. I'll see you round.” Adam gave him a last smile, adjusted his backpack, and began to jog up the hill, Dempsey keeping pace. When Oliver looked back out at the water Liam was sitting beside him, staring out at the waves. He'd been excited about learning to surf, had started taking lessons when they'd moved in. He had just managed to stand up, when...
“You know he was flirting with you, right?”
“Fuck off,” Oliver snorted, hand flexing on the handle of his cane. It was a fairly uncool one. He hadn't wanted to get the sterile silver one, felt too much like he was in the hospital, but felt a bit naff getting something with a lion's head carved into the handle or something ridiculous like that. Just a boring black fold-up one with a comfortable rubber grip. “Why would he be interested in me? I'm a mess.”
“Pretty sure he was. Can't blame him, really.”
“Yeah,” Liam chuckled. “I'm the crazy one.”
“I um...” Oliver took a deep breath, trying to take a moment to decide if this was a monumentally stupid idea. It definitely was, but at least it was a monumentally stupid idea that he wouldn't have to face the consequences of in a few days. The summer holidays had been lovely, but he was off to school in a couple of days, headed up to Dublin for a bit of an adventure. Living in a hall, going to classes, getting to just live. To figure out who the hell he was going to be. It sounded bloody terrifying.
This was worse.
“I'll miss you,” he managed. Liam smiled, pulling him into a friendly hug. Oliver hugged back. His stuff was all packed and he was doing last rounds, saying goodbye to everyone and making empty promises to stay in touch. Finbar was talking about moving to Dublin himself once he'd finished his Business Certificate and Oliver had told him to come visit when he was in town. He didn't know if that was going to actually happen, but he'd said his goodbyes to everyone now.
“Come visit, okay?” Liam urged. They were stood in his back garden on a beautiful summer's day, the sky clear and blue. “I'll come visit you, too. You can show me Dublin.”
“Yeah.” He nodded, hugged his friend a little tighter, felt hands squeeze on his back. “Liam... can... can I tell you something?”
“Course.” Liam pulled away slightly, though his hand still held tight to Oliver's upper arm. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Um.” He took another deep breath. When he breathed out all the words came with it. That he was gay, that he'd wanted to say something for a really long time but been too scared and he thought Liam probably should know, you know, because...
“Because I'm in love with you,” he finished quietly. “And I just...” He bit his lip. “Sorry. This was a fucking stupid idea.”
“Oh.” Liam bit his lip too, eyes going wide. The hand on his arm loosened. “You're in love with me?” Oliver nodded, feeling his face burn. “Shit. That's um...” His laugh sounded brittle. “Wow, that's erm... that's sort of inconvenient.”
“Fuck.” Oliver covered his face. “I'm really sorry.”
“No. It's fine. It's just.” Liam gulped in a deep breath. “If you'd told me like two years ago we could have had more time together instead of you fucking off to Dublin.” Oliver peeked through his fingers, confused. “You fucking plonker. Now I have to come all the way up to Dublin to take you to the cinema.”
“What?” Oliver hedged. Liam laughed, his face going slightly red.
“I ehm...” He leaned in. Oliver was frozen with surprise, still unable to move when lips touched gently to his, testing. He tested back, felt a warm, soft mouth part against his, a hand curl tentatively into his hair. “So yeah,” Liam said when they broke apart. “That's that, then.”
“Oh.” Oliver giggled. Liam started to laugh as well.
“Olly.” He looked up, saw Liam grin. Then Liam glanced over his shoulder, and when he looked back at Oliver his eye was full of blood, mouth opening on a gasp. There was mud in his hair. It was dark, suddenly, clouds blotting out the sky. “Get out,” he barked, reaching for the doorhandle, the skeletal frame of the car black and gnarled against a sickly purple sky, rain soaking them to the bone in an instant. Then Liam was choking and they were upside down, and he was reaching, but he couldn't get through the gnarled teeth of the seats, even when fingers stretched out to reach his, the crumpled back of the car dragging Liam into a gaping throat.
“Liam...” He snatched at disappearing fingers, and the car was flooded with sudden blinding light, nothing left but the chrome grill of a truck.
When he woke his throat was raw from screaming and he was just about strangling himself in the tangle of the blankets, tears flooding his cheeks and tasting of mud, drowning in the dark.
He lay still for a long time, the echoes of his own shrieks still seeming to fill the room. Liam's last caught, choked breaths whispering in his ears. Fingers stroked gently through his hair.
“You should probably see a therapist or something.”
“No thank you,” Oliver murmured back.
“The nightmares are getting worse.”
“I know.” He wiped his eyes, kicking the blankets away. Liam sighed. When Oliver looked over his fiancé was laying down next to him. “What if they... what if they put me on drugs or something and I can't hear you any more? Or... maybe the nightmares stop but you're gone too? I can't...”
“So you're not getting better because you're afraid you'll get better?”
“Fuck off,” Oliver sighed, rolling onto his back. He heard Liam huff out a frustrated breath, turned his head to look into concerned blue eyes. “I'm okay.”
“You spent two hours rocking back and forth in the bath last night,” Liam pointed out. “That's not supposed to happen.”
“You're supposed to be alive.”
“And I'm not. So you have to stop acting like I'm coming back.”
“How can you come back if you never left?”
“How can you move on if you never let me go?”
“I'm not having this argument.”
“Of course you are,” Liam laughed. “Is it because that guy was flirting with you?”
“No,” Oliver sighed. Though it was, a little bit. The guy had been cute. Oliver had noticed. He hadn't wanted to notice. Had felt like he was cheating on Liam. Had almost not wanted to talk to him last night in case his fiancé could somehow sense his guilt. The cheeky wink he'd gotten when he'd sunk into the bath had been enough though. Enough to make him fall apart a little bit, lost in his own thoughts until he was shivering in the ice-cold water, his fingernails bitten to the quick. “I don't want to talk about this.”
“Then why are you? I mean, it really is up to you. Talk about controlling a conversation.”
“I love you.”
“Good.” Liam nodded. “But a nice boy let you pat his dog and gave you some hot chocolate. It's not the end of the world.”
“What do you know about the end of the world?” Oliver retorted. His fingers found the red scars still etched into his wrist, four deep furrows. Liam watched, reaching out to cover them with one hand. Oliver closed his eyes and tried to ignore the fact that he could still see them through Liam's hand, like he was there and not there at the same time. A kiss brushed his cheek.
“By the way,” Liam said quietly in his ear. “You should probably check the clock. You're supposed to be meeting Finbar at two.”
The cafe was warm and bright. Finbar had had an early finish from work and had called a couple of days before to see if Oliver wanted to meet up for a cuppa and a bit of afternoon tea, then not taken no for an answer when Oliver had started to waffle on about how maybe he might come, but maybe he was coming down with something so he might just see how he was feeling, and...
“You look well.”
“Thanks,” Oliver snorted. He felt wretched. Tired. The scars on his face always came up brighter when he was feeling off, a spiderweb tangle against his pale skin, crawling down from his temple to his jaw. They weren't disfiguring but a fair bit of glass had been picked out of them from the shattered back window when he'd been in that first round of surgery. He touched them self-consciously. If Finbar noticed he didn't comment. “How's Niamh?”
“Good. Baby's due in September, so...” He smiled. “I can't believe I have to wait six months.”
“God, yeah.” Finbar's smile turned into a grin as he stabbed at the piece of carrot cake he'd ordered. Oliver had a slice of banoffee pie that he was sort of picking at, though he was on about his fifth cup of tea. “Maggie keeps telling everyone she's to have a little brother. She keeps asking me if the baby's ready yet, like it's a microwave dinner or something.”
“Cute,” Oliver smiled. He'd always had an enormous soft-spot for Finbar's daughter. They'd asked him if he wanted to babysit a few times but he hadn't ever trusted himself enough to say yes, though he desperately wanted to. She was gorgeous, precocious as hell for a three-year-old. Liam had been her godfather. “She's excited then?”
“Yeah. I mean, we'll wait and see if she gets a bit jealous when it comes, but I think she'll take it in stride. She's pretty cool like that. She'll like having someone to boss around, anyway.”
“Apart from you?”
“It's not bossing if I'd do anything for her anyway.” Finbar winked. “Niamh wants you to come round for dinner.”
Oliver sighed. Things were a bit strained with Niamh, had been since the accident. She had Liam had always been partners in crime, since right back when they'd been at highschool together, pissing each other off and getting in trouble together. She always wanted to talk about him, though. Oliver didn't. Didn't want to have long-winded conversations that described Liam in the past tense when he'd just finished having a conversation with him that morning about how he should probably get a man in about clearing the gutters.
“We don't have to talk about...” Finbar was attempting an encouraging smile, brown eyes so kind Oliver hated him a little bit. “We can just have a meal, watch a movie. She wants to see you.”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “I'm sorry. I'm being a rude shit, aren't I?”
“Yeah, but you always were,” Finbar teased. Oliver snorted, not able to get his smile to touch his eyes even though he tried. A hand reached out across the table. “We love you.”
“I shouldn't have to be your problem.”
“You're not. You're our friend.” He hesitated, hand squeezing Oliver's wrist. “You thought about, like... maybe dating anyone? Seeing if...?”
“Please don't,” Oliver said quietly. Finbar nodded.
“No. Okay.” He stabbed at his carrot cake again. “Do you want another cup of tea?”
He did. They finished their food and headed back to the car, Oliver folding up his cane and tossing it under the front seat. He turned on the radio, found a station playing soft rock as they wove through the streets towards Maggie's daycare. They were doing a quick pick-up and then taking her to the park before Finbar dropped Oliver back off home. Oliver got out to stretch his legs once they pulled into the parking lot, looking up at a bright blue and yellow building and trying to rub the stiffness out of his hip.
Finbar wandered inside, leaving Oliver stood against the side of the car. It was a bit overcast, but not too windy. He tugged his jacket a little tighter against the crisp January air, blowing into his hands to warm them.
Another car pulled in and he stepped back as it drew up into the space beside him and braked. A small blue hatchback that screamed 'dad', especially with the Leeds bumper sticker and the two bulky child seats in the back. He went to climb back into Finbar's car, wanting to get out of the way.
The door opened. He was already halfway back in, trying to wrestle his stubborn right leg through the door, when he heard his name.
He looked up. Adam grinned at him, lifting a hand in a wave.
“Hey!” Oliver replied, sounding far too enthusiastic to be remotely cool. He climbed out of the car again, smiled at the blonde man leaning against his own car, looking relaxed in a red hoodie and tight jeans, sunglasses propped up on his hair. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Adam chuckled. “What are you doing here?”
“My friend's just picking his daughter up from daycare,” Oliver explained, tucking his hands in his pockets. It really was bloody cold. “We're going to go to the park, so...” He shifted awkwardly, not sure where to turn the conversation from there. “You?”
“Oh, um... picking up the sprogs.”
“Oh.” Oliver nodded, not sure why he'd just felt his heart sink a little. “Married?”
“Separated.” Adam looked down at his car keys. Oliver wasn't sure if they were about to do something so he looked at them too. There was an awkward laugh. “It's my weekend so I...” He shrugged. “Well.”
“Yeah.” Oliver nodded. “How old?”
“Erm... nine months. Twin boys. Claire went back to work last month, so they spend a bit of time in daycare. More than I'd like, to be honest, but...” He grimaced. “That's life, isn't it?”
“I guess. I don't know,” Oliver admitted. “Sorry, I'm probably keeping you...”
“It's fine.” Adam smiled. It was a nice smile. “Hey, look I'm... I'm gonna walk Dempsey tomorrow morning around eight. Take the kids down the beach sort of thing. I might run into you?”
“Maybe.” Oliver nodded. “I'll keep an eye out.”
“Cool. Well...” Adam pressed the fob on his keys. The headlights blinked to the beat of the car locking. “Anyway. I'll see you round.”
Oliver nodded, climbing back into the car as Adam made his way across the parking lot, keys dangling from one hand. Finbar came out as he went in, Maggie walking alongside him and talking a mile a minute, a watercolour painting held carefully in one hand. She was in a second later, babbling away while Finbar buckled her into the car seat.
“Unca Oliver I paint a pitcha!” she announced, holding it out. Oliver reached carefully through the seats to take it, laughing at the look of pride on her face.
“That's brilliant, Maggie!” He held it up. “What is it?”
“It's mammy, and daddy...” She pointed desperately at the blobs of colour. “And a moo-cow, and a taterpillar and an aeroplay!”
“All in the one place?”
“Yes.” She stuffed her fingers in her mouth. “CnI've it back? S'mine. I made it.”
“Course you can. It's beautiful.” She snatched it back, holding it protectively to her chest. Finbar began to reverse, his face split in a fond grin. Oliver snorted, looking out the window.
Adam was just coming out, a small boy held in each arm, both of them clad in denim dungarees and different coloured t-shirts. The one in green had his arms around his father's neck, sucking furiously on a sodden teddy bear. The one in red was giggling. Oliver found himself smiling, watching out the window until they were out of sight.
Liam had been stood in the hallway when he walked in, tired from the park but feeling okay. Maggie had made about twelve new friends around the slide and Finbar had spent the whole time explaining why they couldn't invite all these kids back to their place for snakes and ladders. She'd looked supremely put out at that, then had gotten distracted when Finbar had produced a large pink ball and started a clumsy game of catch with her. She'd missed almost every catch, but seemed to be having fun, and had fallen asleep in the car on the way back to Oliver's.
“She's exhausting. You're sure you want two of those?”
“Definitely,” Finbar said, glancing at her in the rearview mirror. Her thumb was stuffed in her mouth. “More, if Niamh will let me.”
“Maybe don't ask her again until after she's forgotten the pain.”
“Why do you think we waited three years this time around?” Finbar laughed. Oliver grinned, stepping out of the car.
Now he was hanging his keys on the usual hook, trying to figure out what he wanted for dinner while Liam nagged at him.
“He's definitely flirting with you.”
“Fuck off, Liam,” Oliver sighed.
“You going to go for a walk tomorrow morning?”
“I usually do, don't I? You were the one who told me to. You said it wasn't helping my hip sitting inside all day. That I was getting weird and sad.”
“You are weird and sad.”
“No bother.” Liam was already sitting on the kitchen counter when Oliver leaned in to look into the fridge. “You should eat that ravioli before it turns.”
“Are you my boyfriend or my mother?”
“Neither.” Liam shrugged. Oliver sighed, looking at him. Got a lopsided smile back, the corner of Liam's mouth quirking up sympathetically. He reached through to grab the saucepan behind him. There was a voice behind him a second later. “He's cute. You know he's cute.”
“He's got a wife. Kids.”
“He's separated. He's nice. He likes you, for some reason.” Oliver shook his head, beginning to fill the saucepan from the tap. He turned on the stove, settling the saucepan atop it and heading back to the fridge for the ravioli. Liam was right. He didn't want to go wasting good food. “I get it. You're a nice lad.”
“I'm a disaster. I have screaming panic attacks, I'm covered in fucking scars, and I do this creepy thing where I talk to my de...” He swallowed. “Dead fiancé.” He looked down into water that was beginning to steam, staring at his reflection in the muddled water. Not good. He looked old and tired, badly needed a haircut, though he'd taken to just doing it with electric clippers in the bathroom mirror, cutting his hair close to his head to avoid having to think too much about it. When he turned back around Liam was gone. He waited for the water to boil, plonked in the pasta, then got a sauce going with some of the herbs he had in the fridge, needing to use them too before they went off as well.
He drained everything off, tipped it all in a bowl and settled down on the couch a minute later with a beer. Just one. He wasn't allowed much more, not on his medication, probably shouldn't be drinking the one. But then who was going to tell him no?
“You supposed to be having alcohol?”
“No,” Oliver retorted, taking a sip anyway. Liam sighed, settling in silently while Oliver watched TV.
He tried on three different shirts before heading off on his walk that morning. Which was fucking stupid because he pulled a coat over his choice anyway and buttoned it tight to keep out the cold. It was a nice enough morning, streaks of white cloud catching the first rays of the rising sun, the wind heading out to sea and broken by the buildings on the other side of the road. A jogger dashed past him, her runners kicking up small clouds of sand.
It took him almost half an hour to find Adam, but when he did it was in the same spot as last time, in front of the same bench, Dempsey charging back and forth along the sand. The dog saw him first, dashing over and barking, jumping to put sandy paws on his chest.
“Dempsey! Down!” Adam shouted. The dog complied, dropping back to all fours and panting excitedly. “Hey!” He waved. Oliver waved back, beginning to close the last fifty or so metres while Dempsey bounced happily across his path.
He sank down on the bench, got a grin. He was bloody knackered. He usually walked along the wet sand, the harder surface a bit easier, but the few steps up the dry were hard, his feet sliding and not giving his hip any support.
The kids were sat on a towel, both in tiny parkas and little beanies with strands of blonde hair poking out from underneath. The one in the green beanie was grabbing handfuls of sand, staring in amazement as the grains spilled through his fingers, while the one in the red beanie giggled. Adam knelt down on the towel next to them, carefully stopping the one in red from shoving a handful of sand into his mouth.
“S'okay.” Oliver shifted. His hip bloody hurt. “You been out here long?”
“Half an hour? The kids like the boats, so...” He put his hand on their backs of their heads, touching first one, then the other. “Sorry, introductions. Alby...” He pointed to the green beanie. “Rowan.” The one in red. “Just remember, R is for red and Rowan.”
“They always colour coded?”
“Yeah. I mean, I know the difference, but it makes it easier. They're getting to that point where they're learning names and understanding words and I don't want them getting confused when they're called the wrong name.”
“Rowan. Alby.” Oliver pointed between the two of them. Got a grin. “Cool. They're identical?”
“Not really. I mean, they look it but they're... thing. Fraternal.”
“Oh.” Oliver leaned forward slightly, trying to see the difference. There wasn't one, as far as he could tell. They were all big eyes, pale skin, and stubby arms. “They look like you.”
“They look like Claire more,” Adam sighed, climbing up and sinking down on the bench next to Oliver. He dug in his backpack, pulled out a familiar thermos. “Hot chocolate?”
“Sure. Thanks.” The lid was pressed into his hand a second later, full of steaming liquid. He took a sip, smiled. “Biscuit?” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a bag of biscuits he'd found in the back of the cupboard. They were still good. He'd eaten three last night - just to check.
“Brilliant.” Adam took two. They were a bit broken, but still okay. Oliver ate one, reaching back into his pocket for his painkillers. His hip was starting to scream.
“You mind if...?”
“Go ahead.” Adam nodded. “They for your thing, or...?”
“Yeah. Just can't have them on an empty stomach. And if I eat before I walk I just cramp up, so...” He found himself blushing, realised he was rambling. “Anyway.” He washed two down with the hot chocolate. “Thanks for the drink.”
“Sure.” He let Adam fill it again, watched the other man reach into the backpack for a styrofoam cup, which he filled for himself and lifted to his lips. “Can the kids have...” He gestured at the biscuits.
“They can. Yeah.” Adam took a broken piece of biscuit, broke it in half again, and handed the pieces to the boys. Alby began to suck on his instantly. Rowan licked his, looked disinterested, then dropped it on the sand. Adam snorted a laugh. “Well, one out of two ain't bad. They're teething a bit at the moment so it's sort of hit and miss.” He glanced at Oliver again. “Can I be really rude and ask about the stick?”
“Car accident,” Oliver said simply. He was used to this line of questioning but didn't much like it. Probably one of the reasons he hadn't really made any new friends in the last couple of years. There was too much explaining to do. “Shattered my hip.”
“Shit,” Adam breathed. “That's rough.”
“Yeah. It wasn't great.” Oliver took a deep breath, trying to calm down his suddenly racing heart. He looked around for Liam, but couldn't see him. Not with so much going on. “Dislocated shoulder, broken arm...” He shrugged. “I spent a lot of time in surgery.”
“I can imagine. I'm sorry.” Fingers touched his knee lightly. “Anybody else hurt?”
“I...” Oliver shook his head. The lorry driver had had a massive stroke behind the wheel, been dead before he'd even hit them. “I don't want to talk about it.”
“No. That's fine. Sorry.” Adam's cheeks turned a little pink. “Shit.” Awkward silence descended for a long moment. Alby continued to suck on the biscuit, drool flooding down his chin, his mouth a gaping smile with just two teeth in top and two in bottom, like a rabbit. “More hot chocolate?”
“Okay.” Oliver held out the lid. “Biscuit?”
“Sure.” Adam took one. “Rowan?” The toddler looked over, head wobbling around on chubby neck. “Don't eat sand, mate.” He sank to his knees to sort it out, tugging the corner of his shirt out through the bottom of his hoodie and wiping grit off the kid's face. “I swear, don't want a nice biscuit, but you'll eat half the beach. Look...” He pointed out at the water. “See the boat?” Rowan laughed and clapped his hands, looking distracted from the culinary delights of sand. “Look at the boat!”
“That's a quality boat.”
“It is,” Adam smirked, sitting on the sand and leaning back against the bench so he could keep a better eye on them. “As far as boats go.” He looked up at Oliver. “Look, thanks for... I don't know. Coming the same way you would have come, anyway, I suppose.” He laughed bashfully. “I don't have many friends in the area, and since me and Claire broke up it's been a bit awkward with our old ones. Ditching your wife because you're probably gay isn't exactly endearing.”
“Is that what happened?”
“Yeah. Except I'm definitely gay,” Adam sighed. “Which we sort of knew a while ago, I guess. We were going to split up anyway, and then we got a bit drunk and had a shag. You know, last ditch go to see if we could make it work, and then I move out and two months later I get a call saying...” He looked down at the boys. “Not that I wish they hadn't happened. Not for a second, but...” He shook his head. “It's all a bit complicated. Funny thing is, we were trying for ages, and then when we weren't...”
“Yeah.” Blue eyes turned on him. “Sorry. You don't want to hear this.”
“It's fine.” Oliver smiled. “So how's being gay treating you?”
“Same as it ever did, really,” Adam laughed. “I don't know. I had a couple of fumbles while I was still married. Felt horrible about it, obviously, but it was the sort of thing where we'd been together since I was seventeen and by the time I started to grow up and realise those feelings weren't going to go away, actually, we were engaged and my mam was excited and...” He shrugged. “I don't know. It all felt a bit inevitable. I shagged one of my groomsmen on the stag night.”
“Whoops. Did she find out?”
“Not until later.” Adam looked up. “I sound like an arsehole.”
“No. I mean, I guess I'm sort of lucky. I've sort of known since I was younger, got it all out of way when I was around eighteen or so. It was terrifying at the time.”
“So you are gay.” Adam's eyes sparkled slightly. “I thought so, but I didn't want to ask.”
“I am,” Oliver confirmed.
“You've had way more experience than me, then.”
“No, not really.” He twisted the engagement ring automatically, saw Adam's eyes lock onto it in surprise.
“You're in a relationship.” He almost looked disappointed. Oliver wasn't sure how to feel about that. It was sort of nice to see someone disappointed that he was apparently off the market. “Sorry. I think I've been, y'know, flirting with you a bit. I feel like an idiot now.”
“No. It's...” He shoved his hand back in his pocket. “I'm not. He's...” He swallowed hard, felt tears touch his eyes. “Shit. I'm sorry.” He wiped them, saw Adam bite his lip, concerned, then reach into his backpack.
“Here.” He held out some tissues. They had the penguins from Happy Feet on them. “Sorry. You okay?”
“Yeah. No.” He breathed in deep, trying to drag in a shuddering gasp of air. He wasn't crying, but his vision was getting hazy. “He was... when I was in the car accident...”
“Oh, Jesus.” Adam covered his mouth, eyes widening in realisation. “God, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean. Fuck.” He pulled himself up onto the bench, and a hand touched Oliver's shoulder, warm through his coat. Oliver stared out at the water to try to get himself under control, fixing his eyes on the boat drifting towards the horizon. “Are you okay?”
“I'm okay.” His voice sounded thick. He swallowed hard. “Sorry.”
“Shit.” They sat there in silence for a long time. Oliver thought about leaving. His face was blazing with embarrassment but he knew he couldn't move fast enough to escape and Adam's hand was still on his shoulder.
Adam dropped him off. Insisted, actually, the two boys burbling behind them in the car seats, giggling and babbling something that might have been 'da', Dempsey curled up patiently, squashed between them.
“I'll see you tomorrow morning?” Adam urged quietly. Oliver hesitated, not sure. A hand touched his, reaching out across the centre console. “I'll bring hot chocolate again.”
“Okay,” Oliver said finally. Managed a nod. “Yeah.”
“Cool.” Adam nodded.
He let himself in, collapsed back into bed almost immediately, yanking the blankets tightly around him, warmth clasped to his back. Liam's hands tightened on his stomach.
“It's okay if you want to cry for a bit,” he whispered.
Oliver did as he was told, the pillow growing damp under his cheek.