It was 10.57pm on Christmas Eve and as James Nightingale perused the diminutive quantity of god-awful wine left on the shelf in Price Slice, he was beginning to understand why some people, when put under tremendous amounts of stress, simply snapped and went on to perform atrocious acts of violence.
Because if he had to hear Michael Bublé encouraging him to have a holly, jolly Christmas just one more time, he would not be held responsible for his actions.
Desperate to escape as quickly as possible, he chose the most expensive wine (which was still cheap), maneuvered his way around an inebriated couple slobbering all over each other and slapped a note down on the counter. He didn't care about the change if it meant he could just walk out without having to interact with the poor, unlucky sod Simone had chosen to work the Christmas Eve shift.
As he exited, he pulled his scarf around his neck, covering as much of his face as he could in the hope nobody would recognise him and want to stop and talk, because contrary to Michael's advice, he was not planning on saying hello to any friends (not that he had any), never mind bloody strangers.
It was freezing cold and the snow had been falling thick and fast for the past few hours. Several inches of the white stuff covered everything in sight and sparkled like glitter in the Christmas lights. The village appeared magical and even James wasn't that much of a grinch that he couldn't appreciate how beautiful it looked.
As he approached his flat, having successfully avoided any human contact, his pace slowed. It was difficult to see through the heavy snow but there seemed to be something, or rather someone, leaning against his door.
As he ascended the last few steps, he cursed himself for not getting around to fixing the security light. A low moan escaped the small mound as the person huddled beneath a snow-covered, thread-bare blanket shifted position.
Great! Now he had a vagrant setting up home on his doorstep! It was obviously some chancer trying their luck, probably expecting to be invited in to spend a holly, jolly Christmas with a large, welcoming family before making off with all their valuable belongings.
"This isn't a doss house!" James said indignantly as he dug his wallet out of his coat pocket. "Here!" He held a twenty-pound note out towards the indiscernible lump. "Why don't you relocate outside the pub? You should fit right in with the McQueen's." He waved the note about impatiently when there was no attempt to take the money. "Better yet, Cindy Cunningham's house."
One shoe was poking out and James gave it a light kick when there was no response. "Hello? Can you hear me?" he asked, enunciating his words slowly.
James squinted through the darkness as the blanket slowly parted to reveal a pale, dirty face looking up at him. He was horrified when he realised it was one he was intimately familiar with.
"Harry," he croaked, and felt like his heart was breaking in two.
The bottle slipped from his hand and smashed as it caught the edge of the top step. Red wine splashed in every direction, staining the pure white snow like a crime scene.
Neither moved as the snow continued to fall around them and the distant sound of drunken merriment faded into nothingness.
Eventually James gave himself a mental shake, stuffed the money back into his pocket and bent to help Harry stand up.
The blanket slid until it was hanging down around Harry's shoulders and James noticed he was shivering beneath it. He brushed ineffectively at the snow that had accumulated on it, giving up when he realised the wool was soaked through and provided absolutely no protection or any degree of warmth.
"C'mon, let's get you inside." He tried to extricate Harry from his ineffective shelter but he wasn't giving it up easily. His hands gripped the edges tightly and were so cold and red that he couldn't let go. James carefully prised his fingers open and discarded the blanket on the floor before rushing to open the door.
He steered Harry inside and deposited him in front of the electric fire which he switched on and turned up to maximum. The flat's central heating meant that it was already comfortable but he knew Harry needed that extra warmth.
James kicked his shoes off and hung up his coat and scarf. "Get those wet clothes off, I'll find you something to put on," he instructed as he headed towards his bedroom. He wanted something he could wrap Harry up in with a minimum of fuss but realised his silk dressing gown was practically useless under the circumstances. He was about to get a blanket from the ottoman when he remembered his mother had a white, fluffy, hotel-style dressing gown hanging on the back of her door that he'd forgotten to stuff into a bin bag when he'd thrown her out.
He went to fetch it and returned to the living room, surprised to find Harry standing exactly where he'd left him having made no attempt whatsoever to remove his clothes.
James laid the dressing gown on the sofa and stood in front of him. "Let's get these off, shall we?" he said softly. When Harry remained unresponsive, James began divesting him of his clothes, keeping his movements slow and deliberate in order to give Harry plenty of opportunity to object should he wish to.
As each article of clothing was removed, James tried his best to hide his anger and distress. Harry's body was a map of cuts and bruises and although they didn't look too serious, James felt each and every one as if they were his own.
His fingers fluttered over Harry's delicate skin as he mentally catalogued every mark he came across, taking great care not to harm him any further.
He took stock of the other changes in Harry too; he had large black circles beneath his eyes and long stubble that would soon rival his own beard. He was also slightly thinner than James remembered but that was to be expected under the circumstances.
When he was finally naked, James helped him into Marnie's dressing gown, concerned by how cold and clammy he still was. He guided him onto the sofa then gathered Harry's wet clothes and shoes before disposing of them in a bin bag which he left in the corner of the kitchen.
"Right," James said decisively, "let's get you something to eat." While the kettle boiled, he raided the fridge and put together two large chicken sandwiches with plenty of mayonnaise, just the way Harry liked them. And after making a large mug of milky tea, he took everything over to Harry, handed him the plate and put the mug down in front of him on the coffee table.
James felt saddened yet pleased when Harry immediately tucked into one of the sandwiches, ravenously stuffing the bread and meat into his mouth like it was his first meal in days, which in all likelihood it probably was.
"I'll leave you to it," James said, backing away. "There's plenty more if you want it."
James escaped to the bathroom. Closing the door behind him, he leaned against it and cried. He couldn't believe this had happened again and it was all his fault for turning Harry away. He should have realised who Harry would turn to for support and with Tony Hutchinson for a father, it was obvious he would once again have had to fend for himself.
Had he been on the streets all this time? Reduced to selling himself again in order to survive?
Well, whatever horrors he'd faced, James would make it up to him. Starting now.
He took a deep breath, wiped his face and went to the bath. Turning the taps on, he poured some of his expensive bath oil (the one Harry always used to tease him about) into the water and took a few minutes to gather himself while the bath filled.
After folding a couple of clean towels over the heated towel rail, he went back to the living room in search of Harry.
When James entered, he was relieved to see a drained mug and a plate full of crumbs on the coffee table. Harry looked up as James approached and James simply held out his hand. After only a moment's hesitation, Harry placed his hand in James's and James led the way to the bathroom.
The humidity felt almost stifling when James opened the door but he knew Harry would welcome it. He closed it behind them to keep the warmth in and went about informing Harry of the whereabouts of various items in the bathroom. "There are fresh towels on the rail, body wash and shampoo by the taps, and I think there's a disposable razor in the cabinet above the sink if you want it," James told him formally, as though he was an unfamiliar guest who hadn't been in James's flat before.
He was turning to leave, intending to give Harry some privacy, when Harry grabbed his wrist. James looked at him curiously. "Stay?" Harry asked, and how could James possibly refuse? He fought back tears and nodded, watching as Harry slipped off his robe and climbed gingerly into the bath.
James closed the lid of the toilet and sat down. He didn't know in what capacity Harry wanted him there so he decided to let him take the lead. It wasn't long before he found out. Harry held the sponge out to him, an unspoken question on his face, and James took it, honoured by the trust Harry still placed in him.
He rolled his sleeves up and knelt down beside the bath. Wetting the sponge, he decided the best course of action was to wash Harry's hair first and repeatedly squeezed clean water out over his head until his hair was soaking wet.
Harry's eyes had closed naturally to avoid getting water in them and while massaging the shampoo into his hair, it gave James the perfect opportunity to study him. His gaze roamed leisurely over Harry's face, and although he looked a little bit bruised and battered at the moment, James didn't think he'd ever seen such a glorious sight; he'd missed him so much!
Reluctantly, James rinsed Harry's hair and after cleaning his face as well as he could with a sponge, he applied soap once more and gently started scrubbing his back, taking his time to remove every last speck of dirt while again being careful not to exacerbate any of his injuries.
Unconsciously, he began moving the sponge in a circular motion over a small constellation of freckles on Harry's shoulder, a particularly favourite spot that James loved to kiss. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked quietly.
When Harry didn't respond, James decided he would talk when he was ready and shifted his attentions to Harry's arms and chest. He was trying to remain as detached as possible but he couldn't deny how good it felt to take care of Harry in this way. He was just sorry it was under these circumstances.
It wasn't until he began washing Harry's legs and feet that Harry started talking. "I was at Mum's for a while," he said, his gaze focussed on James's hands. "Went straight there after I left the village. I thought she was okay with me crashing with her but it soon became clear I was getting in the way of her and her latest boyfriend… so I came back."
James looked up, surprised. "Back to Hollyoaks, you mean?"
Harry nodded. "I saw Dad outside the hospital. He was with Diane and the kids. I think maybe Dee Dee had been for a check-up?" Harry shrugged. "Anyway, they all looked so happy…" Harry trailed off as if he was reliving the moment. "I didn't want to disturb them so I walked away before they saw me."
"And then what?"
"I was going to knock on your door only I couldn't bring myself to do it." Harry looked down. "I couldn't handle being rejected again, figured I'd be better off on the streets."
James abandoned his task, the edge of the bath supporting his arms as his hands hung down over the water. "Oh, Harry."
"It wasn't so bad at first. I had my clothes that I'd taken to Mum's with me and I nicked a couple of blankets off her when I left but it wasn't long before they got stolen along with everything else I had with me… and then it started getting colder and people just don't give to beggars anymore, you know? They think you're either gonna spend it on drugs or booze, so most of them just walk by and ignore you... and that's the nice ones." Harry pulled his legs up and hugged his knees. "I was spat on, kicked, called names, beaten up..."
James felt ashamed for trying to move Harry on earlier when he'd found him on his doorstep. "Did you…" James could hardly bring himself to ask but he had to know. "Did you sell yourself?"
Harry shook his head. "That's why I came back. I was cold, hungry, I had no money, and I was this close—" he said, holding his thumb and forefinger about a millimetre apart, "—but in the end, I couldn't go through with it. I just kept picturing your face and how repulsed you'd be."
James moved closer and placed his hand lightly on Harry's knee. "By the situation you found yourself in, Harry, but not by you… never by you."
Harry smiled sadly. For several seconds they just stared into each other's eyes, but then a car alarm beeped briefly outside the flat and broke the spell.
James removed his hand. "I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. I didn't mean what I said to you that night, but you have to understand, I was lashing out because I was angry!" he said desperately, his hands gripping the edge of the tub more tightly. "I keep going against my better judgement and letting people in, even though I end up getting hurt time and time again!" He sighed and cupped Harry's cheek affectionately. "And of course, I did exactly the same thing with you because how could I not?" he asked softly, completely fascinated by the feel of Harry's stubble.
When he felt Harry press his face against his palm, he pulled his hand away from temptation. "I thought you felt the same yet you repeatedly chose Ste over me. And what did you do when you actually had the freedom to tell him the truth, to tell him I was the man you loved?" he asked, becoming agitated once again. "You asked me to put a stop to it! You knew that I wanted you more than anything in the world yet you still went ahead and married him!"
Harry reached his hand out to James's but James shook him off in frustration and stood up, placing his hands on his hips. He hadn't meant to have a go at Harry but the fact that he'd actually gone ahead and married Ste that day still hurt deeply.
"You're not to blame for any of this, James. You did nothing wrong. You were right to turn me away because I should have had the guts to stop the wedding myself, not wait for you to do it for me. I was a coward, keeping Ste as my back-up. I should have had more trust in you - in us - I mean, why did I even question whether or not you still wanted me? You'd been telling me for weeks to leave Ste..."
Harry frowned as if trying to figure out the answer and when James didn't respond, he continued. "After the storm, I went to see him." James huffed out an incredulous laugh and Harry rushed to reassure him. "Just to check on him after what happened to Tegan. He told me that if I stayed in the village then he wouldn't, and when I went to see my dad afterwards and told him that I'd leave so that Ste didn't have to… well, put it this way, he didn't try to stop me. In fact, he pretty much told me to go."
Harry stared up at him with big, blue eyes. Huddled in the bath the way he was, he looked so young and vulnerable. The fact that Harry had felt unwanted and unloved made James's heart ache. He wanted to comfort him but he suppressed the urge, instead explaining why he hadn't gone after him. "When I didn't see you around, I asked Tony where you were. He said you'd gone to your mum's to get away from me, said I'd messed you up enough and that if I loved you then I'd leave you alone."
It wasn't until James finished talking that he realised he'd inadvertently confessed to still loving Harry despite everything that had happened. Luckily, Harry appeared not to have noticed.
"Well, he was right about not going after me. I don't deserve you. He told me a few home truths, made me realise what a selfish liar I was." Harry swallowed. "I made the decision to marry someone I wasn't in love with and I blamed other people for it." He sniffed and wiped at his eyes. "And then we talked about all the other things I've done and… and he made me feel depraved," he choked out, starting to cry. "And you know what? I am. I've slept with men for money, I left Amy for dead then covered up her death, I let Ste go to prison for it, and I cheated on him with you! I said I should leave and I was desperately waiting for him to say 'no, you're my son and I love you' and to talk me out of it but he didn't, he didn't talk me out of it." Harry paused to draw in a deep, shuddery breath, tears streaming down his face. "I was right. Ste is more of a son to him. I'm disgusting," he sobbed, his head dropping to his knees.
Tears welled up in James's eyes. All of the pain and resentment he'd felt at Harry's betrayal; suddenly, none of it mattered. He rushed to console him, cupping his hands on either side of his face and forcing his head up. "Never!"
"But all that I've done—"
"Harry, look at me!" James ordered, gently shaking Harry's head until he looked directly at him. "You are not disgusting, do you hear me?"
Harry gave a small nod, his blue eyes swimming with tears.
"You will never be that," James said, his voice cracking, "not to me."
Harry relinquished his grip on his knees and took firm hold of James's wrists, his feet sliding smoothly down the bath until his legs disappeared beneath the murky water. He closed his eyes and dropped his head as much as James's hands would allow. More tears ran down his face and James gently wiped them away with his thumbs. "How can you possibly be selfish when you put other people's feelings before your own happiness?" he asked wonderingly. "If you hadn't been worried about what it would do to your family when Dee Dee was sick, you would have told them weeks ago and we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Harry raised his head and opened his eyes. "You think?"
"And as for having the nerve to look down on you for being a cheat, well, there's no bigger hypocrite than Tony Hutchinson," James sneered. "Yes, you've lied, but who hasn't? And you've stood by Ste more times than he deserved; he was lucky to have you!"
Harry sniffed and James continued. "As for sleeping with other men, well, you can hardly be condemned for that, can you? Not when it was me that sent you down that particular path in the first place—"
"—and with Amy, you were scared!" he said vehemently, once more shaking Harry's head, this time to emphasise his conviction. "You never meant to hurt her but when you did, you panicked," he reasoned. "You just did what half the people in this village probably would have done. And after that you went into self-preservation mode. It's a natural reaction, it doesn't make you a monster. We've all done things we're not proud of. Just learn to embrace the darkness inside you and screw everyone else who doesn't love you in spite of it."
Harry smiled weakly and James sighed, his gaze roaming Harry's face before he continued. "When you have a pathetic excuse for a father who views your imperfections as weaknesses that need to be eradicated, it makes you doubt every relationship you ever have. There's always that nagging voice in the back of your mind telling you you're not good enough and making you question how anyone could possibly love you for who you are, so it's really no surprise you didn't trust my feelings for you."
A stray tear rolled down Harry's cheek and James brushed it away. "Do you want to know what I see when I look at you? I see a kind, considerate, intelligent, young man who simply got scared," he said softly. "Tony's always made you feel second best, and you married Ste because deep down you couldn't believe someone wanted you - Harry Thompson - with all of his messed-up flaws…"
Harry huffed out a watery laugh and James smiled and touched their foreheads together.
"You have no idea how many times I've listened to that message," James breathed.
They both closed their eyes and James allowed himself a moment to savour the feeling of Harry stroking his thumbs back and forth across his wrists.
"I accept all of your faults without reservation, Harry, because they're an essential part of who you are. You'll always be my first choice… my only choice… because I love you."
They silently rearranged themselves, their arms wrapping around each other effortlessly. James closed his eyes, held him close and breathed him in.
Harry would smell like him tonight and he couldn't help the possessive thrill that went through him at the thought.
They remained that way until Harry mumbled, "The water's going cold."
James chuckled and hugged him even tighter. He just needed a few more seconds.
Before long, the muted sound of drunken revellers heading home reached their ears; their festive cheer en masse telling them that Christmas Eve had come to an end.
It had been an eventful night and one James never wanted to repeat. He was fully aware of the part he'd played in Harry's misery these past few weeks, and vowed that the young lad would never be cold again.
He kissed Harry's cheek and whispered in his ear. "Merry Christmas."