Harry stood at the bar of The Hutch and took a moment to observe the modest crowd of friends and family before him. He'd spent so little time with some of them lately, his family especially, that he felt like a fraud and wondered why they'd even bothered to show up.
He'd just attended his graduation ceremony, at which his father had issued a surprise invitation to a party in Harry's honour. "Nothing fancy," Tony had said, beaming. "Just a small gathering to show people how proud I am of my son."
James had reached for Harry's hand. "We'd love to, wouldn't we, Harry?" Judging by the way Tony's face had faltered, he hadn't given much thought to the fact that the invitation would naturally include James.
"Looking forward to it, Dad," Harry had confirmed before agreeing to meet up again at the restaurant when they got back to Hollyoaks.
His father was currently at war with a banner that read CONGRADULATIONS HARRY in large red letters, presumably a project undertaken by Ant, Dee Dee and Rose if the spelling was anything to go by.
Harry chuckled to himself as Tony perched on top of a step ladder and argued with Diane about whether the banner was straight or not. The party had obviously been hastily put together but Harry decided it was the thought that counted. He and his dad had only very recently started talking to each other again after Tony had practically forced Harry out of the village following his catastrophe of a wedding with Ste. That was almost four years ago now and so much had happened since then, it felt like a lifetime.
His gaze was drawn to his mortarboard sitting on the bar. He was playing absentmindedly with the tassel when James sidled up beside him and held out a flute of champagne. "You do know how sexy you look in that get-up," James announced, not caring who was within hearing distance.
"Behave," Harry said, taking the glass from him.
"I'm being serious." James made a show of looking him up and down. "The things I'd do to you in that robe," he mused aloud and Harry took a sip to hide his smile. James leaned down and lowered his voice so that only Harry could hear his next words. "I'll let you keep the hat on too if you're a good boy," he murmured against Harry's ear, causing him to shiver.
James chuckled and straightened. "What do you say we ditch these losers and celebrate privately?" When Harry failed to respond, James continued. "You know you want to," he whispered.
Harry bit his lip, seriously considering it for a moment. "We can't. I have to return them by six or I lose my deposit."
"Spoilsport," James pouted before downing all of his champagne.
As if by magic, Marnie suddenly appeared to exchange James's empty glass for a fresh one. "James, stop pestering the boy. I'm sure he also needs to return them clean," she emphasised. "Am I right, Harry?"
Harry, who was drinking a mouthful of champagne, spluttered as it went down the wrong way.
James ignored him. "That's why dry cleaning was invented, Mother," he declared.
Marnie rolled her eyes at her son. "I don't think that's quite the reason dry cleaning was invented, darling. Besides," she said, patting Harry's cheek, "you'd never get it back in time," she pointed out as she glided away again.
Harry himself had invited Marnie, along with Romeo, who was no doubt getting up to no good with Lily in a corner somewhere. He didn't know what his dad thought when they showed up but he didn't care; it was Harry's graduation party after all. It had taken a long time, but after James had finally forgiven Marnie for being involved in covering up Romeo's existence, they'd all become surprisingly close.
Harry felt James's hand on his arse and looked up to catch the innocent expression on his face. "Stop it. My dad's gone to a lot of trouble putting on this party to celebrate me graduating."
"Ah, yes, cheese and pineapple on sticks and frozen vol-au-vents. He really has gone all out. Remind me again what he does for a living..."
"At least he's making an effort," Harry said, defensively. He looked down at his shoes and swallowed. "He told me how proud he was of me earlier," he said quietly.
"Harry, I know he's your father but I just don't understand why you continue to crave the man's approval." James sighed theatrically. "The great Tony Hutchinson; master of failed businesses and doomed relationships. Of course! It must have been Tony who encouraged you not to give up writing your dissertation! He must have stayed up with you past midnight for weeks helping you study for your exams, not to mention supported you emotionally and financially..."
Harry chuckled. "No, that was you," he said, amused. "And you know how grateful I am. But he's my dad and I know he's not been there for me in the past but maybe it's time to put all that behind us and start again."
Harry observed his father who was now putting the finishing touches to the buffet. He'd just placed two platters on the table and was re-positioning the cheese and pineapple hedgehog when he noticed Harry looking at him. Tony gave him a big thumbs up, grinning from ear to ear, and Harry raised his eyebrows and nodded back at him.
"He's trying," Harry shrugged as he watched Tony begin to gather a few people together.
James relented with a sigh and put his arm around Harry. "Yes, very trying."
"Harry!" Tony beckoned him over excitedly. "Harry, c'mon! Family photo!"
Harry put his glass down and reluctantly started walking towards the group but James remained by the bar. Harry turned around and looked at him questioningly. "James?"
"He said family, Harry," James spat, his lip curling.
"Exactly. So why aren't you coming?" Harry asked, confused.
"I'm the monster who corrupted his son and stole him away." Harry winced as James banged his glass down on the bar, surprised it hadn't smashed with the force. "I'm sure he doesn't want a permanent reminder in a frame on the mantelpiece."
Harry knew they both still experienced moments of self-loathing and insecurity due to their past but they had each other now and their relationship was based wholly and completely on unconditional love. They just needed reminding of it every now and then.
"Well, that's just tough," Harry said as he walked back to James, "because I want you in it and if you're not, then neither am I." He tried to wrap his arms around James's waist but James shrugged out of his embrace. "Hey!" Harry admonished. "Since when did you give a damn about Tony Hutchinson anyway?"
When he didn't get a response, Harry persisted in closing the gap between them, resting his hands on James's waist. He smiled softly, admiring James's beautiful face until he finally looked him in the eyes. "You're the great James Nightingale," he teased, pulling James's body into his. "My charismatic, kind, sexy, funny, super talented, devilishly handsome-" As Harry paused, he cupped the back of James's neck and drew him closer, kissing him firmly on the lips. "-husband," he concluded with a warm smile. "And the only person I care about being in that photo." Harry felt some of the tension leave James's body and after a moment reluctantly relaxed his hold. "Yeah?"
James swallowed and nodded. "Yes."
"C'mon then," Harry said as he took a step back and held out his hand. "Let's drag Marnie away from the champagne, find Romeo, and get this bloody photo over with." James took his hand and Harry laced their fingers together, pleased with himself. "And then, if my calculations are correct, we have exactly two hours and fourteen minutes to spend however we please and still have time to get back to uni by six," he grinned, leading the way.
"Harry!" Harry felt a tug and turned to see James wink at him. "Don't forget your cap."