Harry went to put the milk back in the fridge but as his fingers wrapped around the handle, he paused, catching sight of the leaflet he'd pinned to the front of it five days previously. It was barely visible now; its corner just poking out beneath the multitude of party invites, appointment letters and drawings that the kids had done.
He had no idea why he'd even bothered to entertain the idea of Ste accompanying him to the event it was promoting because he knew exactly what Ste's reaction would be. But now it was concealed by more important things, perhaps Ste wouldn't see it until it was too late and they wouldn't need to have a conversation about it.
Harry wasn't that lucky.
He was just about to open the door when Ste reached over his shoulder. "What's this?" Ste tugged the leaflet out from beneath a magnet, dislodging a couple of menus at the same time which fluttered to the floor. Harry put the milk away and bent to pick them up with a sigh.
"One of the lads I used to go to boarding school with, he's doing an art degree now and a gallery in town has an exhibition featuring up and coming artists," Harry told him, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of his stomach when Ste didn't react in any way. Harry put the menus back on the fridge as Ste continued to study the leaflet intently. "They're showing some of his work, thought it might be nice if we went," Harry finished with a nonchalant shrug of one shoulder.
Finally, Ste looked up with a frown. "What, together?"
"What do I know about art?"
"You don't need to know anything about art. I don't know anything about art." Ste pouted, looking down at the leaflet again like he might actually be considering it, but the sullen look on his face told a different story and Harry decided to try a different tack. "I've told everyone about you and they really want to meet you. We could call it a date," Harry suggested.
"Harry, I'd rather watch paint dry."
Harry turned away and picked up his mug. "Thanks."
"I didn't mean it like that," Ste said, following him to the living room.
Harry knew precisely what Ste meant because he was behaving exactly as he'd anticipated.
Ste dropped down onto the couch next to him. "It'll just be a bunch of pretentious students all looking down their noses at me, thinking they're better than me because they're at university earning a degree and I'm just serving food all day."
"Is that how you see me?"
"No," he said eventually, "course not."
Ste's denial lacked conviction and Harry wasn't sure he believed him. "Well, they're not like that either. It's all in your head."
"But I don't like art!" Ste declared vehemently.
"I've told you, it's not about the art!" Harry fired back. They glared silently at each other until Harry sighed in exasperation. "Look, I just wanted to introduce you to my mates and support Danny at the same time."
Ste screwed the leaflet up and threw it onto the couch as he stood up. "Well, tough, because I'm not going."
"Do it for me!" Harry implored as Ste stormed out, slamming the door behind him, conversation over.
Harry sighed once again. He would know better in the future.
James would hate this, Harry thinks as he looks around the tightly packed hall of overexcited parents, siblings and various other relations, all coming together to watch a group of five to eight-year-olds muddle through their school nativity play.
The noise of the audience as they each find a seat and wait for the production to start is rather deafening as everyone seems to be talking at once. Harry tries to block them out with little success as he checks his phone. There's still no reply to the text he sent James earlier telling him he was going to the nativity and that he would be home later than usual.
Next to Harry is his dad, still moaning about the fact they're sitting nine rows back and not at the front where they deserve to be. "We were one of the first to buy tickets," he complains, "surely that warrants a seat near the stage."
Before Harry can respond the lights dim and an immediate hush falls over the hall, apart from a few members of the audience too young to know the protocol.
A teacher starts playing a piano. She's not the best pianist in the world but luckily, it's a recognisable tune. Harry turns his phone off and tucks it into his pocket, chuckling to himself as Tony's leg starts bouncing up and down in nervous anticipation of seeing his three youngest children – Ant, Dee Dee and Rose – up on stage.
About five minutes into the performance, when none of his siblings have yet made an appearance, Harry's attention is beginning to wane. He considers checking his phone again when a late arrival catches his eye; it's James, and Harry's heart leaps at the sight of him.
He stands in front of the door as he looks around the hall, highlighted by the fairy lights that are strung around the frame. The suit and tie he's dressed in suggest he came straight from work. He's also wearing the Ede and Ravenscroft overcoat that Harry loves and he thinks James has never looked more handsome.
Harry rises from his chair slightly and lifts an arm to catch his attention. When James spots him, he strides confidently to the row in which Harry is sitting, immediately turning on the charm as he requests each person stand up so he can squeeze past them.
Tony tuts and leans towards Harry. "Can't even be bothered to show up on time," he grumbles.
Harry almost ignores him but he can't let his dad's comment pass without defending James. "He's a lawyer, dad," he says, just loud enough for Tony to hear. "It's not easy for him to get away. It's not like he works in a burger van." It's a dig at Ste who's sitting on the other side of Tony. A couple of months ago, Ste had raised enough money to buy himself a van and start yet another new business. Harry's not a snob; there's nothing wrong with selling burgers for a living, but he's fed up of his dad always having a go at his boyfriend.
There's an empty chair a few seats down and upon reaching it, James gets everyone to move along until finally he's sitting down beside Harry.
"Sorry, I'm late," James says, "couldn't find a place to park. Those Chelsea tractors do take up rather a lot of room."
Harry rolls his eyes. Okay, so maybe James is a bit of a snob but Harry kinda loves him for it. "This is a nice surprise," he grins, his hand slipping naturally onto James's thigh, his thumb rubbing back and forth affectionately.
"Hmm… I take it my invitation got lost in the post."
Harry's not sure why but something about the way James jokes about not being invited just doesn't sit right with him. He turns to stare at the side of James's head as if that will somehow help him figure out exactly what it is but before he gets a chance, the woman sitting in front spins around and shushes them loudly like she's in a West End theatre and they're interrupting a show she's paid good money to see.
Harry's shocked into pulling his hand back, despite the woman only taking issue with their volume level.
James reacts by widening his eyes and glancing over his shoulder. He shakes his head and tuts in mock exasperation as if it's the people behind them who are being loud when it's obvious the woman knows exactly who the real culprits are. She just gives him a dirty look before turning once again to face the front.
James pulls a face at Harry and by silent, mutual agreement, they both focus their attention on the stage, but in the moments that follow, Harry's mind wanders as he contemplates James's seemingly casual joke.
Harry knows James has a habit of hiding his hurt behind a mask of indifference. He may act like something isn't important to him but most times that couldn't be further from the truth.
Harry had assumed this was the last place of earth James would want to be four days before Christmas – or at any time for that matter. He hadn't even entertained the idea of asking him to come because it would have put James in the uncomfortable position of having to come up with an excuse.
Harry leans towards him. "I didn't think it was your type of thing," he says in a hushed tone.
"What's that?" James asks, perhaps not as quietly as Harry, but this time, a little more considerate of those around them.
"It's not. I'd rather stick pins in my eyes," James says bluntly but then he glances at Harry and feels blindly for his hand, drawing it to rest once more upon his thigh, and this time it's James, his hand covering Harry's, who's rubbing his thumb back and forth fondly. He leans in surreptitiously, his voice softening as he continues. "But you adore those children and I adore you so…"
Harry melts inside at James's words. He laces their fingers together and presses a kiss to the back of his hand. "Thank you for coming," he whispers before turning his attention back to the play with a smile.
After that, if Harry spends more time gazing at the man beside him than he does the stage, well, he can be forgiven. (And James only checks his e-mails once.)
Harry didn't have a lot of experience being taken care of when he was sick. He supposed his mother must have looked after him adequately enough when he was a baby but naturally, he couldn't remember that far back.
Of course, growing up, his father hadn't been around, and Tessie had never really been the maternal type so he'd mostly taken care of himself, and when she'd packed him off to boarding school, he'd seen even less of her.
It didn't matter how old you were, Harry thought, everyone craved a bit of TLC when they were feeling poorly, and anyone who said otherwise was lying.
Harry had been feeling under the weather for a couple of days now and, as expected, he'd woken up feeling terrible. All he wanted to do was cuddle up under a duvet with Ste and watch movies all day.
"Can't you take the day off?"
Ste was in the kitchen preparing the kids' lunches. "I can't. Your dad needs me in the restaurant."
Harry coughed. "He'll understand."
"We've got a large booking at lunch. It's all hands on deck."
Harry sighed. Feeling sorry for himself, he walked up to Ste and attempted to put his arms around him. "A cuddle before you go then?"
Ste dodged out of the way. "Ugh, don't come near me! And keep away from the kids! Last thing I need is having to take time off to look after them. Leah turns into a right little diva when she's ill - demanding this, demanding that!"
No change there then, Harry thought as he gave up and went to sit down on the sofa. "Can you slip to Price Slice then, get me some medicine?"
"I haven't got time, I've gotta take Leah and Lucas to school." After Ste had sealed their lunchboxes and packed them into their respective bags, he dumped them by the door then went over to the sideboard in the living room and rummaged through a drawer. After scrambling around in the drawer for a few seconds, he eventually produced half a packet of honey and lemon lozenges. Looking pleased with himself, he threw the packet to Harry. "There you go, I knew we had some."
As soon as Harry caught them, he cringed, his fingers instantly sticking to the syrupy substance coating the packet. He didn't need to pull back the torn packaging to know that each individually wrapped lozenge would be a leaking, gooey mess, deteriorating due to heat and the passing of time. "Thanks," Harry said weakly, already planning to throw them away as soon as Ste had left.
Ste wiped his hands on his trousers. "No worries. I'll get you some more on the way home," he promised.
The slamming of the door jolted Harry awake. He'd been dozing on the couch and had to take a moment to figure out where he was and what time it was.
Ste swept past him, kids in tow, juggling their school bags and two Price Slice carrier bags. "How are ya?" he asked loudly as he started unpacking, oblivious to the fact they'd just woken Harry up or simply not caring.
Harry forced himself to get up and walk to the kitchen, watching as Ste removed items from the bags and placed them on the counter; three frozen pizzas, two bottles of coke and a tub of ice cream.
"I know, I know, it's all junk food but our Leah did really well in her test today and it's the start of the weekend so I thought, why not treat 'em? You hungry?"
Ste had finished unpacking and there was no sign of any cough medicine or anything else Harry had requested. "Did you get my medicine?" he asked, despite already knowing the answer.
"Damn it, I knew I'd forgotten something."
Harry groaned in exasperation, which set off a minor coughing fit. "Ste, I texted you!"
"Well, I forgot, alright? The restaurant's been crazy busy all day, I've hardly had a minute to myself and Leah and Lucas were nagging me for pizza and— where are you going?"
Harry put a coat on over his t-shirt and pyjama bottoms. "To get some medicine," he said, shoving his feet into a pair of his dad's trainers that were by the door.
"I'll go tomorrow, I promise," Ste called.
Harry coughed and slammed the door on his way out.
Harry wakes feeling like death warmed up. He turns over with a groan, seeking comfort within James's arms but all he encounters is cold sheets and disappointment.
He coughs and opens his eyes reluctantly. Bright sunshine lights up the ceiling above the top of the blackout curtains informing him it's daytime. He gropes for his phone on the bedside table, wincing at the brightness of the screen when he checks the time.
A hint of something delicious is somehow managing to penetrate his blocked nose and his stomach grumbles. Forcing himself to get out of bed, he decides to investigate.
His sock-clad feet shuffle along the laminate flooring as he enters the living room, snuggly cocooned within the duvet he shares with James.
It's almost midday so the sight of his boyfriend cooking in the kitchen is an unexpected but welcome surprise. James is concentrating on stirring the contents of a saucepan but looks up, his face brightening when he spots Harry. "Ah, you're awake. I was just about to see if you wanted anything to eat. You hungry?"
"I am actually." Harry's voice is hoarse and his throat sore, made worse by having to sleep with his mouth open. He makes his way over to the sink and fills himself a glass of water. "Why aren't you at work?"
"I thought I'd make some comfort food to cheer you up."
"Chicken soup," James reveals when Harry trudges up beside him and peers into the saucepan.
As Harry takes a large sip of water, he notices the stick blender on the counter. James is a wonderful cook and the neat pile of vegetable peelings on the chopping board and small jars of herbs and spices sitting next to the hob are all evidence of him going to the trouble of making the soup from scratch.
"I thought you were working on an important case."
James shrugs. "I'm working from home for a couple of days," he responds vaguely, which isn't a denial, Harry thinks. James may act like it's no big deal but it occurs to Harry that the only reason he's spending time away from the office is to take care of him and the feeling of warmth Harry experiences at the thought has nothing to do with his illness.
James removes the pan from the heat and turns off the gas. "How are you feeling?" he asks, putting a hand on Harry's forehead. Harry thinks James doesn't really know what he's feeling for but he seems satisfied. "Go sit down, I'll fetch it over."
Harry takes his water over to the sofa, shrugging off the duvet as he sits. He finds an empty space to place his glass on the coffee table, in amongst the assortment of supplies that James must have gathered for his benefit; Lucozade, ibuprofen, cough medicine, lozenges, Lemsip, Vicks, the remote control and a brand-new box of tissues have all been arranged within easy reach of the sofa. The first tissue has even been pulled out in case of emergency!
James appears and sets a tray down on Harry's lap. The sight of chicken soup and a couple of slices of crusty bread spread thickly with butter makes Harry's stomach grumble again.
"Soak the bread so it doesn't hurt your throat," James advises. "I'm going to get some work done. Call me if you need anything." He doesn't mention the array of items on the table, just kisses the top of Harry's head and goes over to his desk.
Harry stares at the back of James's head for a moment, then down at his soup. It's all a little bit overwhelming if he's honest. He's never been sick while he's been with James and he hadn't really given much thought to how James might respond when it eventually happened but it certainly wasn't like this.
Harry had arrived home from uni the previous night feeling rough. He'd assured James it was just a cold but it hadn't stopped him from fussing around him.
It shouldn't surprise Harry that James has a caring side but sometimes he almost forgets. He doesn't show it often, only with people he truly cares about, and Harry feels privileged to be one of the few people who gets to see how attentive and caring he can be.
Stupidly, he feels tears welling up and wipes them away before James can see.