Chapter 1

 

 

“WHERE’S EVAN?” Josh asked, hands full of polystyrene cups of coffee with cardboard holders around them. Chris carried a selection of muffins.

Daniel laughed. “He’s only gone to check the arrivals board again.” He scanned the crowd of people thronging the Arrivals hall of Manchester Airport, trying to spot his husband.

His face lit up. “There he is.” He shook his head as Evan got close enough to see him. “Now, has anything changed since the last time you looked? Is their plane still on time?” His lips twitched as he tried not to laugh at Evan.

Evan flushed. “Okay, make fun all you want. I was just checking to see that they hadn’t been delayed.” He dropped onto one of the chairs and held out his hand for a coffee.

Josh handed him a cup with a grin.

Chris chuckled. “I hope not. They’re due to land in about fifteen minutes.” He held out the muffins. “Choose one. It’s just a bite to keep us going until lunch.”

Daniel laughed as Evan and Josh fought it out for the chocolate muffin. “Remind me again: you two are how old? Six?”

Josh stared at him with wide, incredulous eyes and then tut-tutted to Evan. “You have my sympathies. Being married to a man who doesn’t understand the importance of chocolate.”

Evan sighed dramatically. “I know. The things I have to put up with.”

Chris snickered. “Oh, my sympathies lie entirely with Daniel. You’re a handful.”

Everyone except Evan got a laugh out of that.

Daniel leaned closer to Evan and dropped his voice. “It’s okay, baby. I know you’ve missed them. But not long now and we’ll have our Sean and Michael back with us.” He mouthed I love you and took hold of Evan’s hand, squeezing it tightly before releasing it. Evan gave him a grateful smile and sipped his coffee. Daniel wasn’t about to share their concerns with the others. It was enough that he and Evan were worrying about Sean—Josh and Chris didn’t need something else to worry about.

He took a closer look at Josh. He appeared tired. Daniel knew he was working night shifts as an agency nurse at Manchester Royal Infirmary, as well as carrying out his studies as a medical student. In fact, he’d barely gotten in the house from finishing his shift that morning before they were ready to pick up Sean and Michael. Evan had tried to argue that it didn’t need all four of them and two cars, but Josh had gotten this stubborn look on his face. Daniel could understand how he felt. It had been five long months since the boys had left for Spain, and all four of them couldn’t wait to have the other two back home.

There was another reason for his scrutiny. Daniel wasn’t sure what he’d done, but Josh had changed subtly in the way he acted around Daniel. Oh, nothing too obvious, and there were moments he was sure he was being paranoid, but there was definitely something going on. It had been like that ever since June. Daniel hadn’t said a word about his fears to Evan, and that had felt weird for a start. He hid nothing from his husband, but this? He was afraid Evan would laugh and tell him he was imagining it. Worse still—Evan might say he’d noticed it too.

Daniel drank his coffee and stared at the door where he knew Sean and Michael would appear eventually.

Those two are our hub, he thought pensively. Although Evan had known them the longest, Daniel had grown to love the couple when he’d moved in at the end of their first year. Then Josh had reappeared in their lives, along with Chris, both men with a strong connection to Michael.

Daniel smiled to himself as he thought about the couple. Michael was definitely the quieter of the two, and Daniel had yet to meet a more generous, good-natured man. He was plainly Sean’s rock. And right now that rock was sinking under the weight of worry about his husband’s health. Both he and Evan had been talking a lot in recent weeks via Skype with Michael, and it was clear Michael wasn’t happy with the doctor’s diagnosis of migraines.

If Sean has migraines, then why isn’t the medication helping?

The doctor had been adamant, however. He’d told Michael to give it time.

Easy to say that, but Michael is the one dealing with a husband in pain.

Evan nudged him with his shoulder. “Stop. You won’t solve anything by worrying.”

Daniel gave him a half-smile. “You really do know me, don’t you?”

Evan arched his eyebrows. “And this surprises you?” His eyes met Daniel’s. “Of course I know you.” His expression said what his lips did not. Daniel could see the love in those eyes, and it filled him with warmth.

Thank God I have you, he thought. There wasn’t a day went by without that thought crossing his mind.

“Hey, they’re early!”

Chris’s words broke through his internal meanderings. Daniel looked up to see Chris pointing to a monitor. Sure enough, it announced the arrival of their flight from Madrid.

Daniel got to his feet and grinned at his housemates. “Let’s go welcome our boys home.”

 

 

“WHY IS it our cases are always the last to come off the plane?” Sean grumbled.

Michael longed to give him a hug, but the baggage claim area was not the place for public displays of affection. It had been bad enough on the plane. The elderly lady who’d sat next to them had given them some intense glances when Michael had taken hold of Sean’s hand during the take-off. Not everyone was accepting of gay couples, sadly.

Never mind. We’ll be home soon enough, and then I can hold him all I want.

Sean’s brow furrowed as he scanned the suitcases that tumbled in slow motion onto the moving conveyor belt. Michael felt that fluttery feeling in his stomach as he regarded his husband. The creases across Sean’s forehead told him there was more to Sean’s mood than impatience. They’d had to get up really early for the flight, and Michael knew tiredness was one of Sean’s triggers to bring on a headache. He’d made sure Sean had eaten enough—getting hungry was another trigger. In the last month or so, Michael had been doing a lot of research into migraines. He still wasn’t entirely convinced Sean’s increasingly frequent headaches were migraines, but right now it was all he could do. Part of him hoped getting back to a more moderate climate and out of the stifling heat of Córdoba would have a positive effect on Sean’s health. Even in August, the heat and humidity in the UK were easier to cope with than in the south of Spain.

Michael bumped shoulders with Sean. “It’s not like you can miss our cases, is it?” He grinned. Sean had bought three luggage straps to make it easier to spot the black suitcases. Michael smiled to himself. Trust Sean to pick rainbow stripes.

Sean’s wan smile was an improvement, at least. Then his face lit up. “There’s one.”

Michael moved closer to the belt and watched as the first of their huge cases made its way slowly toward them. He grabbed and heaved it onto the waiting trolley. It wasn’t long before the other two had joined them. Michael pushed the trolley toward the Nothing To Declare gate, Sean at his side. As they emerged from the corridor into the Arrivals hall, Michael’s heart leaped when he spotted four familiar faces, all grinning widely.

“Oh, look, they all came.” Sean’s delighted exclamation made him sigh internally with relief.

Maybe it’s going to be all right after all.

No sooner had they got through the barrier than they were surrounded by four men who hugged them enthusiastically. Michael didn’t give a damn how it looked to the crowds of people milling around them. He was so happy to be back with his extended family. Sean was beaming as first Evan, then Josh hugged him.

“Come on, let’s get you home,” Daniel said, grabbing a case. Josh and Chris took the others. “We’ve brought two cars, so you can choose who you travel home with.” He grinned. “Though that might be a good way to start an argument.”

Michael laughed and put his arm around Sean’s shoulder as they walked out of the airport and across the walkway to the car park, flanked by their housemates. Everyone was smiling and talking animatedly, including Sean.

God, it’s so good to be home.

 

 

JOSH PILED the dirty plates and bowls from lunch into the washing-up bowl and squeezed in the detergent before letting hot water cover them all. Chris stood next to him, tea towel in hand. Evan had already got the coffee machine going.

“Is Sean okay?” Chris asked quietly. “I was surprised when he said he needed to go lie down. It’s not that long a flight from Madrid.”

Which was exactly what Josh had been thinking. He’d already made up his mind to question Michael about it. Something didn’t add up. Josh gave Chris a smile. “I’m sure he’s just tired. He’ll probably be full of beans by tonight.” He handed Chris a clean bowl. “Here, do your job, drying-up boy.” He winked.

Chris widened his eyes. “Ooh, it’s like that, is it?” He flicked Josh’s backside with the towel. Josh yelped, and Chris snickered. “Drying-up boy, indeed.”

Josh had to smile. Chris had changed so much from the young man who’d moved into the house the previous summer. That Chris had been nervous, shy, and devastated by his parents’ reaction to him being gay. A year on, and Chris had blossomed. It had filled Josh with joy when Chris agreed to marry him. Josh had even begun to put the whole Eric episode behind him, though the thought of a trial made his heart sink each time it came to mind. But he knew Chris would be with him every step of the way.

“Sean’s asleep.”

Josh turned to look at Michael as he entered the kitchen, Daniel behind him. “Good. Then now perhaps you’ll tell us what’s going on.” He put down the washing-up brush, folded his arms across his chest, and fixed Michael with a firm stare.

Michael opened his mouth as if to speak.

“There’s nothing going on,” Daniel interjected. He sat down at the table. “Sean was just tired out. He was probably up way too late last night, eh, Michael?” He cast a glance in Michael’s direction.

Josh shook his head. “Uh-uh, not buying it.” He gave Daniel a cool stare. “I’m not stupid. And I may only be a second-year medical student, but please don’t forget that I used to be a nurse. Now, something is wrong, and I don’t just mean today.” He turned his attention back to Michael. “I know about the headaches. Evan told me a few months ago.”

Michael swiveled his head to gaze at Evan and slowly shook his head. Evan dropped his chin to his chest, cheeks flushed. Michael sighed. He walked over to the kitchen table and sat, placing his hands on the wooden surface. He stared at them for a moment before speaking. “Okay. Sean’s been having headaches for about six months, maybe more. It took him until June to finally go see a doctor, who diagnosed migraines.”

“Which is what you thought it might be,” Evan added quickly, looking at Josh.

Josh nodded. “So I’m assuming he has medication for them.”

“Yes. The doctor gave him these tablets that he’s supposed to take once the symptoms appear. Only trouble is, the two or three times he’s taken them, they did absolutely nothing.”

Josh tilted his head. “And as a matter of interest, have there been any more incidents like the one where he walked out on you after a row?”

Michael jerked his head up. There was a moment of silence, and then his shoulders sagged. “So we had a row. Married couples do have them, you know.”

Chris was following the proceedings with intense concentration. “Yeah, but you two aren’t like most married couples. If you two argue, it has to be something really serious. I’ve known you for less time than anyone here, and even I know that.” He cast a quick look in Josh’s direction. “And I don’t appreciate being kept in the dark about all this. ’Cause from where I’m standing, everyone knew about Sean’s headaches except me.”

Josh couldn’t miss the hurt in his lover’s eyes. “Aw, fuck, honey.” He went over to Chris and put his arms around him. “I didn’t want you to worry, that was all.”

Chris leaned against him, and at last his arms slipped around Josh.

“The point is,” Daniel said in a determined tone, “we all know now, so if Sean gets worse, you’ll tell us, right, Michael?” He fixed Michael with a firm stare. “No more keeping anyone in the dark.”

Michael nodded. “Maybe it’s best this way. At least we’re all looking out for him now.”

Daniel nodded in agreement. “And you have a couple of months before term starts. Why don’t you spend some time with your mum and your sisters in Oxford? Or maybe go down to the Isle of Wight for a while? You two worked really hard the last ten months. Maybe a holiday is just what you need.”

Michael looked thoughtful. “That’s not a bad idea, actually. I’ll suggest it to Sean when he wakes up. But right now….” He stared imploringly at them. “I could really use a coffee.”

Evan snorted and went to pour him a mug. Josh released Chris and went back to his washing-up.

I’m glad they’re home, he thought as he passed the clean dishes to Chris. But I can’t get rid of the feeling that something’s coming, something huge.

What that something was, Josh didn’t have a clue.

 

 

“SO WHAT’S the gossip?” Sean asked eagerly. He curled up against Michael on the couch, head leaning against his husband’s shoulder. That nap had done him a lot of good, and he felt thoroughly spoiled when he came downstairs to find dinner already taken care of. It seemed a lot had changed in their absence—namely, the boys had learned to cook. Sean had laughed at the look of delight on Michael’s face when he tasted Daniel’s lasagna.

Josh sat in the big, squashy armchair with Chris in his lap, their arms around each other. “We just took Dad on holiday to the Isle of Wight.”

Sean smiled at the thought of his former home, though not without a brief stab of sadness. It had been so long since he’d seen his mother. Oh, he got letters and e-mails, sure, but it wasn’t the same.

“Did you like it?”

Josh beamed. “It was such a beautiful island, and just what Dad needed.”

Sean nodded and snuggled up closer to Michael, who tightened his arm around him.

Daniel spoke up. “But you should have been here a few weeks ago. Evan’s brother John came to town for a job interview in a primary school.”

“Did he get it?”

Evan chuckled. “Oh yeah. We took him out to celebrate at Babel.”

Sean grinned. “Okay, what am I missing here?”

Daniel stroked Evan’s hair as he sat on the bean bag at Daniel’s feet. “Remember how John kissed me, when I went to meet Ev’s parents for the first time?” Sean and Michael nodded. “Well, it seems John has finally made his mind up.” He paused. “He came out.”

Michael laughed. “Well, that took long enough.”

Evan nodded. “But you’re going to love this. Last week I went with him to find somewhere to live, and he’s found this great shared house—and the three guys who live there are all gay.” His eyes sparkled.

Sean burst out laughing. “Talk about following in his brother’s footsteps.” He gazed at Evan fondly. “It must be nice, though, to have him living so close to you.”

Evan’s face lit up. “Yeah, it’s great. Though after seeing how he was in Babel? That boy is going to be a handful.”

Michael dipped his head to whisper in Sean’s ear. “It’s good to be home, isn’t it?”

Sean hugged his husband tighter. “Oh God, yes.”

He closed his eyes and half-listened to the conversations, Michael’s voice a comforting rumble in his chest.

It felt unbelievably good to be home.