I Promise I’ll Take You, But I’ll Struggle With Me

Ace is a cloudy day who’s lost his taste for tea and everything else in life. Kristen works at Caffe Nero and maybe she’s a bit broody and sarcastic, but her eyes are as blue as ten clear skies. They share a history class, and maybe a bit more.

summer-valentine

It’s strange because Ace has always been the happy one.

It’s strange because the world is strange and strange things happen in ways one never expects, and to people who never expect it. Ace never thought he’d have to reflect on something like this, but here he is.

His tea sits lukewarm and too watery between his hands in a cardboard cup, and it tastes a little bit like dirt. He wonders if tea always tasted this bad or if the British are just particularly good at fooling themselves.

But he loves it. Still, he loves tea. He loves a lot of things he doesn’t especially like anymore.

These days tea always tastes a little bit like dirt every morning when he sits here staring out the window of this particular Caffe Nero. Cars press against each other in the street, taillights a constant angry red, and it’s a bit drizzly this morning, as it every morning, even when the sun is out. And it’s never out.

It’s really too bad that London is on the list of things he loves, because he’ll never leave. He doesn’t even have enough will to leave this table. His bare arms feel clammy against the sticky wooden surface.

“S’cuse me sir, but this table is reserved for eat-in customers.”

Ace looks up and meets the eyes of a scowling barista, lips pressed thin. The short one, he thinks. The one who chews a lot of gum and has never been particularly nice despite how many of his teas supply her paycheck. She must be a true Londoner. It takes a special amount of raindrops and bitterness to become one of those.

“Sorry,” he mutters, picks up the tea he doesn’t really have any intention of finishing, and stands up from his chair. Everything above his knees feels too heavy, even if his coat has been hanging from his shoulders a bit too loosely these days.

He steps outside and the sidewalk is loud and people push past him without looking twice, and he wishes he could feel the tiny droplets of mist that stick to the fine hairs on the skin of his arms. But he doesn’t, doesn’t feel much, these days.

Ace takes a history class at university and maybe once upon a time he would have enjoyed it, would have found Imperial Russia full of interesting far away stories and romantic revolutions and big ideas, but it’s all just words, really. All just words and it doesn’t really matter anymore and they aren’t even in bloody Russia, are they?

He always sits in the middle of the lecture hall, not too near the front but not quite in the back, and whenever things get too boring or too big there’s always this girl. She has light brown hair than falls just below her shoulders and she sits a few rows in front of him, just to the right. And he stares at the back of her head because the color’s kind of nice, and it’s always kind of shiny under the lights of the lecture hall.

His distractions these days are pitiful. And a bit creepy, probably.

And then the lecture ends and he leaves. And then he comes back a few days later. And that’s how life is, with everything.

When Ace was about fourteen, he read a poem in his English class. Poetry, for Ace, was always a bit confusing, but this one, he found, was pretty straight forward.

It was about a world in which words were limited, in which a person could only speak so many a day. It sounded terrible, at the time, when Ace read it. Terrible and sad, and it make him grateful that he could talk to his friends, or family, or even a stranger, as much as he wanted.

It’s terrible, now, how Ace doesn’t see the harm it. How sometimes saying as much as fifty words in a day can be so difficult. He used to be so chatty, so full of words and things to say.

Sometimes, when the early morning sunlight slates through his closed window and he hasn’t slept at all, he wonders if he’s used all his words too quickly.

“Ace, I haven’t seen you in ages. How is that possible?”

“Well, anything’s possible.”

That’s a stupid response, but a very Ace thing to say, especially judging by the way Ben’s face lights up when he says it. It’s funny, how Old Ace things slip out now and then, but a bit nice, because it reminds Ace he’s still in there, somewhere lost in all this mess, saying silly things that make people smile. Things New Ace sees the irrationality behind, and he wonders if this is how people felt around him before, sometimes.

Not Ben, of course, his best friend with the rumpled blonde hair and oversized blue jumpers who makes even less sense than he does. But that’s only because he’s an artist.

“You alright?” Ben asks, sinking onto the couch beside him, so old and used it nearly touches the floor. That’s how everything is in their flat- old, used, cheap. It has a certain kind of charm, most of the time, with Ace’s books and video games and Ben’s paints and pencils and paper scattered everywhere. These days it’s a little messier than it used to be.

Ace shrugs, smiles a little just for him. “Yeah. You?”

Ben looks at him and Ace sees the guilt flash in his brown eyes. Most of the time Ben is lost in his little artist world, but sometimes he isn’t. “Ace, hey, I’m sorry I’ve not been around very much.”

Ace doesn’t like where this is going. “Ben-”

“No, I’ve been a shit friend, Ace.” Ben runs a hand through his hair and Ace stares at a hole in the knee of Ben’s skinny jeans. The worst thing, the absolute worst part of this, is that, for some unimaginable reason, others feel guilty about it.

“That’s not true,” Ace says. “You’re out there working on your photos and your drawings day and night, you’re fine.” He raises his eyebrows earnestly. “It’s all fine.”

Ben sighs. “And I spend too much time with Sophie.” He glances up at him, a tiny twist to the corner of his lips. “I’ve broken our pact, mate, and you haven’t even called me out on it.”

Ace feels a real smile soften on his lips. The two of them, as first years, freshly moved in for uni, bright eyed and eager had decided, quite seriously, to instill the Number One Important Rule to keep themselves afloat. Mates before dates.

“That was the stupidest thing we’d ever agreed to.” Ben laughs and Ace smiles, because Ben isn’t a shit friend at all. The complete opposite, really.

“Besides, Sophie’s my mate, so we’re doing just fine,” Ace says.

“She is pretty great, isn’t she.” Ben’s eyes sparkle, actually sparkle as he says it and Ace feels something that might be happiness flutter somewhere deep in his chest. No, Ben is a great friend. Dates before idiots, more like. At least one of them had managed to find love, and Ace is glad it’s not wasted on him.

His eyes sober slightly as they focus back on Ace. “But you’re, like- you- how are you?” And even though Ben’s an artist and his closest friend, he’s never been very good at talking about feelings.

And the thing is Ace is good at talking about feelings. It’s never a problem for him, he’s an open book. He used to be. Not so much anymore. Now it it’s another thing he doesn’t especially like.

He shrugs, and Ben kicks at his foot. He shrugs again, and Ben sighs, and they eat cold pizza for dinner and watch cartoons for the rest of the night.

It’s not like anyone had died.

No one had left, nothing went missing, nothing particular had changed. It was like clouds rolling in, slowly, slowly, slowly, so slow one might not even notice, and when the sun went away it was fine, because everyone has a few sunless days now and then – particularly in England – but then the clouds stayed, and that was a bit strange, and they grew thicker and darker and when it began to rain, it just didn’t stop.

Ace thinks about it that way, when he thinks about it, and he thinks about it a lot, because it’s always there.

When he’s laughing with Ben.

When he’s doing his homework.

When he’s on the phone with his mum.

When he’s at the store buying toothpaste.

When he’s trying to sleep and when he wakes up and when he takes a shower and when he crosses the street and pays for his lunch and sits in class.

It’s always there and it’s funny because it’s nothing it’s literally nothing he feels nothing he’s less than sad, sad isn’t the right word, he’s just nothing.

And he can’t get rid of it. He can’t make it stop. Nothing.

When people ask how he is or what it is or how he’s feeling and he just shrugs and says nothing and they just give him sad eyes because he’s lying because of course it’s something. Well.

It’s not.

There’s a new girl working at Caffe Nero and Ace might think she’s pretty and it’s his only consolation prize for having forced himself out of bed this morning.

She’s not especially chipper when she takes his order and she’s not especially fast, but he’s not in a rush and her hair is nice, and she kind of scowls a lot but it might be cute, in Ace’s opinion. Not that he’s watching.

She hands him his tea (maybe some sugar will make it taste a little better, but the thought of sugar makes him feel a bit ill) and it’s eat-in because he doesn’t want take up a seat with his to-go cup.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, slipping his money across the counter quietly, and she doesn’t seem to hear it over hustle and bustle of customers in their rush to get to work, or school, or maybe catch a flight to wherever. But she says, “You’re welcome,” and he meet her eyes for a moment and they’re very, very blue in a way Ace hasn’t felt the color blue in a very, very long time.

He smiles, but she turns away before she can catch it.

Ace finds himself in a bar, which is different.

He’s sat cozily between Ben and Sophie in a booth by the corner, and Derek and Zaire sit across from him and he wonders if this is their attempt at trying to distract him from the fact that he’s the only one not here with a date.

It doesn’t bother him, not really, it wouldn’t even if he wasn’t like…this. He’s glad his best friend found love and he’s glad his brother did too and he likes Sophie and Zaire and. He just likes them all, a lot. They’re all friends and it doesn’t make him feel like he needs a date.

He doesn’t want a date. Not now, anyway. Any girl deserves so much more love than this.

“Ace!” Derek says, and he stands up, looking at Ace’s glass. It’s nearly empty. “Here, let me get you another.”

Ace opens his mouth to respond but Derek’s already halfway to the bar, and well, if it makes him happy, well. He won’t stop him.

The bar is loud and the air is heavy with chatter and laughter and poison and there’s a lot of guys here right now, but more girls will show up later. Ace hadn’t wanted come, and Ben had tried to convince him and it hadn’t really worked, so he cheated and sent Sophie in, and not even a corpse could say no to Sophie.

The thing is, Sophie is a lot like him- she’s cheerful and funny and she’s upbeat and she loves books, and she’s a nice complement to all of Ben’s weird artistic abstractness. It’s kind of a shame that by the time he met her, he was slipping away. She got a glimpse of him, though, the Old Ace, and she maybe that’s why she still likes him.

Derek returns with another drink and he’s grinning that shit-eating grin Ace is so familiar with from years of growing up with him (like the time he locked Ace outside in the snow for three hours when he was twelve, and the time he tie-dyed all his underwear, and that time he switched his tea sugar with laundry powder), and he knows he should be wary of what he’s brought back.

“What is it?” Ace asks, because he knows it’s expected of him and he knows he’s not going to get an answer.

Derek winks and for all Ace knows it could be rat poison, but he takes a sip anyway and it’s far too strong, and he must wince funny because they all laugh and the sounds swirl around his brain and he isn’t even tipsy, doesn’t even like alcohol, and- it’s worth it, because of that.

It probably is rat poison, but some things are still worth it.

In an unsurprising twist of events, the girl with the pretty hair in his history class and the scowl-y girl with the blue eyes from Caffe Nero turn out to be one in the same.

Unless they’re twins, Ace considers – because one must consider all possibilities – but he doubts the world can handle that much passivity in two faces. So they must be the same girl, and he can’t believe he’s gone so long staring at the back of her head without seeing what her face looked like.

She comes in late that day, a particularly cold morning because it’s October now, and autumn is truly setting in. It’s a little rainy out, as always, and the doors open five minutes into class and her hair is damp, but her eyebrows are drawn like she knew she was going to be late so there really was no point in walking any faster.

It takes Ace a moment, but- pretty, she’s just very pretty, that’s what his brain registers. It’s all it ever seems to register with this girl, but he knows nothing about her beyond the fact that she takes this class and works at Caffe Nero. And she never seems to get very frazzled by the morning rush, or when their teacher calls on her unexpectedly, and she likes to scowl, a lot. She always says ‘you’re welcome’ when he thanks her for his tea, and her blue eyes could fight the sky and win.

Ace isn’t an observant guy. But he is. He doesn’t know. It’s been so long.

The rainwater dries from her hair and leaves it a bit rumpled, a bit wavy, and Ace thinks it’s nice.

Ace had the best childhood.

He had his best friend and his brother and a cool bike and his parents never punished him very badly when he got in trouble, and he was always good at making friends in school, and he liked school. He was never a “popular kid” but everyone seemed to like him, and he liked everyone, because why not?

Being a teenager wasn’t all that hard, at least not as hard as films and television make it seem, and he worked at a dog pound, and he liked some girls and kissed one when he was fourteen and almost went out with another one until he realized it was Ben she really liked, and it hurt but it wasn’t that big of a deal and, being the romantic that he was, he figured she simply wasn’t The One, and that he’d meet her one day.

Sure, Derek was kind of an idiot and sometimes he wished he lived somewhere warmer, like Spain, and his mother would never let him get a dog and his grandmother on his dad’s side died when he was eleven and that, perhaps, was the saddest he’d ever felt, but it was all stuff he got through, on his way to somewhere better.

He got into the University of London and he and Ben got a flat together, and he signed up for some psychology courses and an animal behavioral science class because he thought he might like to work with dogs one day, and it was all very exciting, and he was happy.

So it doesn’t make sense, it really doesn’t make any sense that this is what he’d come to be by the age of nineteen in the middle of his university career. Sure, he’s learned about it in his psychology classes but that’s all about nameless brains and strangers and sure, it happens to dogs too, to animals and organisms, but they’re strangers. They aren’t him. It was never supposed to be him.

On the days he stays home, can’t muster the strength to go to class or Caffe Nero or into the kitchen for a glass of water, that’s what he thinks about, vaguely, just thoughts that slip through his mind and out again, thin and fluid as smoke.

“I don’t know,” Sophie says. “What do you want to watch, Ace?”

It wasn’t supposed to happen, that Ben and Sophie would decide to spend their afternoon in the flat when Ace is having one of his Bad Days. It’s like, ever since Ben apologized about being a bad friend (which isn’t true, was never true), he’s around more, always around, working on his sketches at their tiny kitchen table or one of his paintings in his bedroom. Photographing the terrible view out their living room window on cloudy days and photoshopping pictures while they watch television or Ace tries to revise.

Sophie is here today and she’s not the chattiest person, but the flat is a little louder and Ace doesn’t really want to hear words right now. He doesn’t want to watch a movie. It’s three in the afternoon and he knows he should feel embarrassed about still being in his pajama bottoms.

“Um,” he says. Pauses for a minute. “I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Sophie says, and she’s patient, she’s very patient. She pushes her bangs out of her face. Ben’s no use, of course. He’ll either choose something very stupid or very abstract, and it takes a special kind of mood to want to watch that.

“Hey, how about the first Harry Potter?” she picks up the old DVD, plastic peeling off around the edges of the case. “It’s cold and cloudy outside, a good day for a comfort film, yeah? I’ll make hot chocolate.”

Ace nods slowly. The daylight slotting through the windows is rather bleak, and Harry Potter is familiar and warm and something he won’t have to give much thought to. “Yeah, that sounds nice.”

“Perfect. Ben, put this in.” She tosses the DVD into his lap and stands up to head to the kitchen. Ben huffs and pushes himself off the couch, and Ace watches both of them and he knows they wouldn’t be doing this if he wasn’t here. A pocket of warmth fills itself in Ace’s chest, and it’s very, very tiny and almost unnoticeable, almost not there, and today sucks and Ace has never smoked a day in his life, but if he had to find a way to describe himself today it would be akin to stale cigarette smoke.

The pocket of warmth almost isn’t there, but it is.

The girl has been working at Caffe Nero since the beginning of October, but it takes until it’s nearly Halloween for her to get a nametag. Kristen.

It’s not a very exciting name, but it’s nice and it’s soft but the ‘K’ is sharp enough and he thinks it might suit her. It’s pretty.

This also happens to be a day that she forgets to make his order, something that has never happened before, and he’s just about to slide away, let her keep his money because it’s not worth making a deal about, when she finishes another man’s drink (something caramel and pumpkin spice and disgustingly sweet), looks up and catches Ace’s eye.

“Oh!” she says. “I’m sorry, how long have you been standing there? Sorry, I’ll get your tea.”

She has it made in about forty five seconds, which is impressive, but then again it’s just some hot water and a teabag, so maybe it’s not.

“Sorry, the guy behind you ordered something I’m not so good at making, it stole my focus,” she explains, and Ace understands, he was never offended.

“S’alright,” he says, taking the tea. He looks back up and Kristen is still looking at him, and he hears himself saying, “You’re in my history class.”

She blinks, eyes drawing into a scowl. “What?”

“Um,” he says. “Imperial Russia. London University?” he gestures to his left, to the door. The university is about ten minutes down the road.

“Oh.” She looks vaguely surprised. “Really? That’s…cool. Maybe I’ll see you.”

Ace doesn’t know quite how to respond, but Kristen’s coworker walks by and pokes her in the back, and Kristen smiles sheepishly. “Enjoy your tea.”

“Thanks,” Ace says. He goes to sit by the window. It’s a little less drizzly outside than it has been, but still pretty cloudy.

A few days later, Ace isn’t quite sure why he does it but he orders his tea to-go.

Well, he does know why he orders his tea to go, and it’s because he has an ethology quiz and he didn’t really revise last night. He has his books in his bag and he does pay attention in class so he doesn’t think he’ll fail, but he knows he should take his tea and head to the library where it’s a little quieter than this busy coffee shop.

He notices his usual seat by the window is open, though, and Kristen gives him a nice smile when she hands him his tea, and it kind of reminds him of that small pocket of warmth in his chest. So he stays.

He’s got his textbook out and he’s reading about instinct versus associative learning in wild cats when he hears it.

“…that guy, he’s doing it again, taking up seats for our eat-in customers.”

Ace’s eyes freeze over the black printed words. He should probably start packing up now. There’s a lull in customers and the rush is over, and their voices drift over from behind the counter.

“Is it really that big of a deal, Meg? He ordered something, he’s a customer, and it’s past the morning rush. No one’s fighting for his seat.”

Something floods Ace’s chest at the sound of Kristen saying that. He’s nothing and chilly and a tiny bit stressed, and it feels…nice.

“That’s not the point, Kristen. If we don’t say anything he’ll do it again, and again-”

“Honestly, he’s not a puppy, we’re not here to train people how to do things.” Ace can almost hear the eye roll in her voice, and he presses his lips together to suppress the small smile at her words. She doesn’t even know what he’s revising right now.

“But-”

“Give it a rest, Meg. Looks like he’s revising for something anyway. If you want to yell at anyone, go tell that old guy to put his socks and shoes back on. Crusty feet are a true hazard, god.”

Ace hears the other girl, Meg, the same one who told him to leave the last time, give a huff and that’s the end of that conversation. Ace lets his lips quirk up as he begins to read again.

“This is not worth what I’m paid,” he hears Kristen mutter to herself behind the counter, and he almost laughs.

Ace sits between Ben and Sophie and the three of them watch Deathly Hallows Part I, their Harry Potter marathon having progressed slowly over the course of the last few weeks. Ace likes it. He’s a little sad the next film will be the last one.

They watch them on his Bad Days and he wonders how Ben can tell they’re different from his bad days, but it’s probably more obvious than he realizes, and it’s a fight he has no heart for.

The credits roll and they sit there for a few minutes, lazily reading names in silence. Daylight was already waning by the time they started the movie, and it’s completely dark now and probably dinner time. Ace yawns.

“So,” Sophie breaks the silence. She wears one of Ben’s blue sweaters and they look cozy, beside each other. “Halloween’s next weekend. What are we doing?”

Ace and Ben shrug.

Sophie sighs. “You guys are losers.”

Ace yawns again. “Just wait for Derek to send out the mass text. We’ll have plans.”

“Yeah?” Sophie and Ben hadn’t been dating last Halloween, she wasn’t quite part of the ‘clique,’ as Derek liked to call them.

“This clique needs more girls,” Sophie had muttered when he’d declared them so, late one night as they were walking home from their usual pub.

“We’re not about enforcing gender roles in this clique,” Derek said. “But if we were, Ace is your go-to lady.”

“Hey,” Ace scowled.

“That, or find him a girlfriend,” Ben grinned.

Hey,” Ace said again. He could be fine on his own.

“I like you as you are,” Sophie had said, as if she could read his mind. Either Sophie was good at reading people, or he spent so much time with stupid guys he forgot how perceptive a girl could be. He appreciated it.

“The only one,” Zaire winked.

And now here Ace is, squished on their tiny couch with them, a whole lot of nothing later but they still seem to like him.

“Yeah, Derek and Zaire’ll probably have a party,” Ben shrugs. He stands up and the wooden floorboards creak beneath his weight. “Now let’s get some take away, the only thing I feel like planning right now is dinner.”

When Ace’s next history lecture rolls around, it’s not like he’s waiting for anything to happen.

Kristen walks in and she’s not late today, but he doesn’t hold his breath or anything. She glances around as she walks to her usual seat and Ace wonders if it’s lame to already be staring right at her. It doesn’t take long for her eyes to hit upon him, and when they do her eyebrows draw out of their frown. Ace gives a little wave.

Her face softens into a smile of recognition before she sits down. It’s probably lame to feel so jittery about this, such a miniscule interaction but- she’s the girl with the pretty hair, and it would be nice if the tiny pocket of warmth in his chest would stay a bit longer.

When Ace was seventeen he read a book by a Spanish author, set in Barcelona, called Shadow of the Wind.

It was about a boy named Daniel who read a secret book from a secret book collection, that someone, who turned out to be the author, was trying to burn every copy of. Barcelona is written dark and dirty and it’s set in the 1940s, and it has death and heartache and betrayal and incest, and it was amazing, how an author’s words could make it all so beautiful.

Ace doesn’t think of Spain as the dark place it is in that book. He’s been to Barcelona, and it was warm and colorful and he got a sunburn, and he loved it. But Daniel walked around a city that was dark, and sad, and beautiful, and it doesn’t really matter if that’s now how Spain really is, or isn’t.

It’s Halloween and Ben was right, Derek and Zaire are having a party at their flat tonight, and Ace doesn’t really want to go.

He was never much of a partier, even on his very best days, and now the prospect just seems about a million times less appealing. At least before he liked to socialize, talk to new people, bop around and dance a bit. Now the thought of sitting in a smoky flat with loud music pounding against his eardrums sparks absolutely no interest at all.

He hadn’t responded to Derek’s text about it two days ago, or Zaire’s yesterday, but he knows he’s on the list of People Who Are Definitely 100% Coming (And Bringing a Housewarming Gift).

Ace already went to Caffe Nero that morning but he doesn’t want to go back to the flat because Ben will make him get into whatever ridiculous costume he’s sure he picked out for him, and the university is locking up for the weekend. He supposes there’s about a million other places he could go in London, but.

He hadn’t expected her to be working, quite honestly. He knows she works mornings on Mondays and Wednesdays, and he assumes she has a shift before their class on Thursdays, but it’s only because he’s observant. Not creepy. He doesn’t have the energy to be creepy.

So he really doesn’t expect her to be working, because it’d be a long, dreadful Friday shift, but she is. And he doesn’t hate it.

It’s about five in the evening and there are only a few people milling about, and the café is probably closing in an hour, but it’s better than putting on face paint or whatever Ben has waiting for him. Speaking of, he feels his phone buzz in his pocket as he steps up to the counter, but he ignores it as Kristen’s eyes fall on him.

She raises her eyebrows, a tiny smile forming on her lips as she walks over. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she has cute ears, he thinks.

“You sure like it here, don’t you?” she says, and immediately he feels silly, should have gone to the Costa just a few steps down the street instead. He could tell her the truth, I’m avoiding Halloween and my brother’s party and my best friend’s texts, but instead he just shrugs and says, rather lamely, “Guess so.”

Kristen’s smile relaxes again at that, doesn’t really seem to mind, something about it a tad bit more genuine. “What would you like, then? Tea as usual?”

Tea has started tasting a little better in recent weeks but it’s four in the afternoon and he’s trying to miss a party, so instead he orders a hot chocolate. Caffe Nero does, admittedly, have the best hot chocolate, and he wonders why he doesn’t get that all the time.

She goes to make it and Ace steps to the side, even though no one is waiting behind him. He pushes his hair out of his eyes and he thinks vaguely that he should get a haircut, it’s been weeks, but it’s kind of like an extra layer, a small shield to hide beneath. It’d be dangerous, to get to comfortable under it.

The hot chocolate takes longer than tea but Kristen is still speedy, and she pushes it across the counter to him. Ace smiles in thanks and knows he should take it and go, but she’s still looking at him.

“Hey,” she says suddenly. “Have you done next week’s readings yet, the ones assigned yesterday? You know, for class?”

Even at his best Ace wouldn’t have had the will to read two hundred pages on Russia in one day. “Not yet.”

Kristen nods, looks away, bites her lip and Ace just looks at her. She places her hands on the edge of the counter and looks back up. “Sorry, that was an awful attempt at conversation.”

Ace feels himself smile because- is that what she’s doing? And yes, it was rather awful, but because his natural inclination is to reassure people, he tells her, “It was alright.”

“It was terrible.” Kristen raises her eyebrows, and he’s starting to confirm his belief that she’s a no bullshit kind of person. She pushes an invisible strand of hair behind her ear. “Sorry, I don’t usually try to make small talk.”

Which tempts Ace to ask, then why me? but he’s never been very bad at small talk and even though he hasn’t really attempted it in a while, he thinks he can make an exception right now. “S’not terrible. You started off with something we have in common. A truly awful attempt would be commenting on the weather.”

She rolls her eyes. “Well what’s there to say about the weather? Been the same since my shift started six hours ago. Been the same since London came into being.”

Ace presses his lips together in a smile.

“True,” he says. He pauses. “What’s your favorite thing to do?”

She blinks. “What?”

Ace shrugs. “You said you’re no good at small talk, let’s just get to the important stuff.” Which is good, because Ace has been engaging in far too much small talk lately, and with people like Ben, and Derek, and Sophie- because they make small words feel like big words and he knows they just want to get something out of him.

“Oh,” Kristen says, and she looks at him, like maybe she wants to come up with a good answer when the first thing that comes to her mind is something like watch TV, or eat candy. “I…I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Ace says. It’s a difficult question to answer, out of everything there is to do in the entire world, what you like to do most. “Think about it.”

Kristen smile slightly, lips a soft curve. “What about you, then?”

Ace is silent for a moment. He hasn’t thought about himself. His mind draws a long, gray blank and finally he says, “I forget.”

Her eyebrows draw together. “You forget?

He forgets. His chest feels hollow, suddenly. The words suck up his warmth and his bones feel heavy. “It happens.”

She looks at him, eyes curious and so blue. “I suppose so.” She glances down at the hot chocolate on the counter between them. “Might be getting cold.”

Ace sighs. “Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you get tea?” she asks. “You always get tea.”

Ace thinks again, but his mind is very gray and Kristen is a lovely girl, she’s pretty and she’s probably so, so interesting and he wants to know everything, but this is the longest conversation he’s had in days that has progressed further than what do you want for dinner? and his heart is beating slowly. Kristen is so lovely and he is so gray, and there are better customers than him to spend her time with.

“I don’t know, I guess,” he finally says.

Kristen shrugs. “Think about it.”

Ace stares. “Okay.” And he’s pretty sure the conversation is over now. “Happy Halloween.”

Kristen smiles, pink lips and sparkling eyes, and maybe that’s the thing that saves him, for today.

He drinks his hot chocolate slowly and when he gets back to his flat Ben spends thirty seconds telling him off for not answering his messages before throwing him an eye patch and plastic hook. The party at Derek and Zaire’s is loud and full of strangers and Ace talks to maybe four of them, and he decides that he can cross off partying and watching ten rounds of drinking games from his list of favorite things to do, as if they were ever on there.

But, he figures, he needs to start somewhere.

November settles in and it gets very cold, and there is less daylight and the sky is gray, always gray, and Ben wears two, sometimes three, layers of blue jumpers instead of a coat and Sophie always yells at him for it but he never listens.

Ace thinks that American holiday, Thanksgiving, is sometime this month, and he thinks that if he celebrated it, he isn’t sure what he’d be thankful for but it might have something to do with the way Kristen asks if she can sit next to him in their history class one day.

Quite frankly he’s shocked, because since their conversation on Halloween he hasn’t really tried talking to her, had kind of given up on that, and then one day she just walks past the row she usually sits in and suddenly she’s turning into his.

“Can I sit with you?” she asks, and the way she says it isn’t like, super polite, but a little demanding and Ace just looks at her.

“Uh, sure.”

Kristen shrugs off her bag and takes the seat beside him. “I figured since we’re both in this class, and it kind of sucks, and we both sit alone, it might be better to, like, share the suckiness?” She ends on a note of uncertainty, as if she’d been waiting to say that but realized how stupid it sounded once it was out of her mouth.

Ace nods. “Makes sense.”

She gives him a tiny smile, shoulders relaxing a fraction. She pulls her notebook out of her bag and looks at him again. “Can I ask you a question?”

Ace nods.

“What’s your name?”

Ace blinks. “Ace.”

She tilts her head. “Ace. You know, you look like an Ace.”

It’s funny, because he’s always kind of felt like his name is something to live up to. When he was younger, kids used to say things. “You gonna ace the test, Ace?” “I picked you for my team because I thought you’d be an ace player, Ace.”  And teachers, that one swimming instructor he had when he was eight. “Bet you’re an ace swimmer, huh?” “Which math team wants Ace?” Like he was some sort of good luck charm.

His grades were good but never amazing, he never excelled at anything, and he knew so many people that the name Ace would suit so much better. He usually let it roll off him when people said things. He never really lived up to the name and he never really tried to.

It surprises him, Kristen’s words. No one had ever said he looked like his name. It’s a statement, not a challenge.

“Really?” he asks.

“Yeah, why not?” she says. “I’m Kristen, by the way.”

Ace just smiles and thinks about how he’s seen her nametag, and how the first time he read it, he thought she looked like a Kristen.

Class starts, and they learn about Tolstoy and the house he lived in at Yasnaya Polyana, which was gold and grand and had thirty two rooms that he filled with thirteen children and the rest with words from his novels.

Ace is a little thrown off, because Kristen is not in front of him but beside him, and he doesn’t have a place to settle his eyes. Their arms almost touch and she scribbles down things from time to time, and maybe they’re on the cusp of friendship for reasons he couldn’t say why, so he doesn’t complain.

Kristen has a class right theirs ends, so they part ways and he tells her he’ll see her in the morning, because this is a Thing now, he supposes. Maybe learning about Russian novelists isn’t on his list of favorite things to do, but this has potential.

So they sit together in class now, and Ace goes to Caffe Nero for tea most mornings, and on Friday afternoons he gets hot chocolate and they chat and he supposes they’re kind of friends now. He learns she studies music and, like him, only took that history class because she absolutely had to, and she’s not quite sure what she wants to do with music, and yes, she sings, and no, I will not sing for you.

It’s nice. It’s beyond nice. It’s a little pocket of warmth that stays sometimes, that he carries home with him and shares with Ben, or Derek, or Zaire and Sophie if they’re there. It’s relief.

Temporary, something that fades when the sun goes down, but it’s better than nothing. Everything is better than nothing.

November passes like this. The weather is cold but Ace gets a little warmer, he thinks, and everything is still gray but sometimes there’s color and it’s better than the nothing of October and September and everything before that. The ache is still hollow and sometimes there are tears and he feels like his lungs forget to breathe some days, but he thinks maybe he’s learning again.

“So where’s home for you?” Kristen asks him one afternoon after their history class. December has arrived in a flurry of ice and mist, and they only have a few classes left for the term. They dawdle, for a few minutes, before Kristen has to go to her next class.

“Here,” Ace says, readjusting his shoulder straps. “London, I mean. Always lived in London. What about you?”

“Same,” she says. Her hair pulled back in a braid and she wears a pale blue sweater, and she looks exceptionally pretty today. He wonders why she asks, but it’s probably because winter break is coming and they’ll go home soon. “D’you like London?”

Ace shrugs. “Yeah. I don’t really know what it’s like living anywhere else, but I went to Spain once and I liked it there. I liked the sun.” He smiles. “Warm.”

Kristen nods. “You look like someone who would.”

Ace tilts his head. “What do you mean?”

“You know,” she says. They’re slowly making their way to the building next door, walking along the slick sidewalk, droplets of water sticking to their shoes. “Some people are just so…London.”

Maybe that shouldn’t make sense, but it kind of does.

She looks at him, eyes quietly moving between his. Her eyebrows don’t fall into a scowl as much anymore, he thinks, maybe. “Like…you’re not. I don’t think. I feel like you’re an open book, I guess. You seem like youcould be London, because the way I see how you sit in Caffe Nero, just looking at the window a lot, like you seem like you’re hiding something but you’re just…not.” She pauses and looks away, cheeks coloring. She quickly adds, “Sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be assuming, or anything. I bet I’m completely wrong, anyway.”

But the thing is Ace’s throat feels tight and his heart beats uncomfortably hard in his chest, and his neck feels warm and it doesn’t make sense,anything that she’s saying. Yet it does, it does, and he’s not sure what to say, if he should tell her she’s right, if he should just accept the apology. He swallows and it burns is throat.

“I-” His voice nearly cracks and he shakes his head. “What about you? Are- are you London?”

Kristen’s quiet for a moment. They’re nearly to her lecture. She sighs. “Probably.”

Ace smiles, because for some reason that makes him feel better. “S’not bad,” he says, nudging her as they climb the last step to her class. The hall is empty and she might be a little late. “I like London.”

Kristen looks at him, eyes surprised. She opens her mouth like she’s going to say something, but closes it, face softening, almost shy. She glances at the door to her classroom. “I’m probably late.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” He’s not sure why he phrases it as a question.

“That’s up to you, if you want tea.”

Ace smiles and nods and she goes into her class. He watches her, just for a moment, considering her words as his smile fades. “You seem like you’re hiding something but you’re just…not.”

He blinks as the door falls shut behind her.

What about you, Kristen? he thinks. What are you hiding?

“You should invite this girl out with us before term ends,” Derek tells Ace a week before they’re set to go home for Christmas. He’s sits on Ace’s couch, an unexpected visit on Tuesday night, but he brought Chinese take away so Ace isn’t too annoyed. As if he would be, anyway.

Ace looks at him, alarmed over a forkful of lo mein. “How do you know there’s a girl?”

A wide grin comes over Derek’s face. “I don’t.”

Ace’s face goes red. “I- you- you’re a jerk, you know that?”

“That, my dear, little brother, is common knowledge.” Derek spears some kung pao chicken. “Now tell me about her.”

“How did you even-”

“Ben’s told me you’re around less, that you spend time staring blankly into space with a wistful smile on your face, your eyes are brighter, they sparkle, almost-”

“Derek-”

“-you recite poetry about unrequited love at daybreak, steal Ben’s paints and create masterpieces depicting the Madonna-”

Derek.

Derek stops, grins that stupid grin that Ace despises more than anything else in this world, and shrugs, spoons some more rice on his paper plate. “Ben said he saw you walking with some girl he didn’t recognize on campus the other day. So who is she, then?”

“I can’t just walk with someone?”

Derek shrugs. “Sure you can. Doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an identity.” He raises an eyebrow. “Unless she doesn’t, then that’s a story I mustknow.”

Ace rolls his eyes and puts his plate down. “Yes, she has a name, but there’s not much else to tell.” Of course, that’s a lie, but Kristen isn’t…something to share. Not yet.

“Then tell me her name,” Derek says.

“I’m not…she isn’t…” Ace licks his lips and his voice fades. He looks down at the food, not very hungry anymore.

Surprisingly, Derek is quiet. When he looks back up, Derek is looking at him and he’s got a smile on his face that is a little sad, and a lot understanding.

“Hey,” Derek says lightly. He pokes Ace’s leg with a sock-clad toe. “I’m sure she’s cool. Just don’t be afraid to invite her out, okay?”

“Yeah,” Ace says softly, as if he’d ever do such a thing. In another universe, maybe, like the one he lived in before, or will after all of this.

Ace doesn’t end up inviting her out with them before term ends, but he does get her phone number on the last day before break.

“So, um, yeah, just, I don’t know, since we’re not going to be in class together next term, I mean, I might see you around here, and at our exam, but-” It’s Friday afternoon and there are only two other customers but Kristen looks a little frazzled, and Ace feels the pocket of warmth in his chest as full as it’s ever been because she just gave him her number and she wants to keep talking to him for reasons far beyond the capacity of his brain to understand. He almost wants to ask her what she’s doing after work tonight. Which is a big deal. A big deal of big effort.

Kristen falls silent and her cheeks are red and her hair is pulled up in a messy bun and she’s pretty, very pretty and Ace’s heart is beating and he’ll do it, he’s going to do it, ask her if she’s free after work-

“Ace!”

He nearly jumps out of his skin at the voice behind him, and when he turns around it’s into blue jumper-clad arms that aren’t Ben’s. Sophie smile up at him, eyes bright beneath the blunt cut of her bangs.

“Oh, hey, Soph,” he says, entirely caught off guard. He feels his cheeks redden as she reaches up and tugs on a lock of his hair, longer than he’s let it grow in ages, and tells him he needs a haircut. “And I haven’t seen you back at the flat in ages, where’ve you been? We’ve still got that last Harry Potter movie to finish.”

“Yeah, ah, been busy, sorry,” he shrugs, and he glances at Kristen, who’s been watching silently. She meets his eyes and the expression on her face is blank, unreadable.

“Here, let me buy you a coffee, we can walk back to the flat together.” Sophie steps ahead of him, smiles at Kristen and orders two coffees, and Ace knows he should introduce them but Sophie is oblivious and Kristen feels shut off and he’s not sure what he did wrong, but things are suddenly not what he wanted here.

Kristen makes the coffees at an inhuman speed and Ace steps forward to get them, opens his mouth to say thanks or I’ll text you, but then they’re in his hands and their fingers didn’t even brush, and Kristen’s walking to the back room.

“Perfect,” Sophie says, and takes a coffee from him. “Let’s go, then, I think Ben wanted to get dinner soon.”

They walk out of Caffe Nero and into the frigid December air. The sky is darkening and shop lights spill through windows as he and Sophie make their way up the road. Ace feels slightly lightheaded from the sudden turn of events and his stomach feels stupidly empty and sad as he realizes he never even said goodbye to Kristen.

Drinking coffee, he decides as his tongue slowly takes in in the heavy taste, is a different kind of bitter than tea.

It’s on Christmas that everything plummets.

Ace loves his family, and he loves his home, and he loves Christmas, and things go well the first week he’s home. He knows he needs to be revising for the exams he has when he returns to school, but he allows himself a period of relaxation, or, he thinks more appropriately, a week during which he doesn’t have to force himself to care.

So he helps his parents decorate the tree (as Derek eats popcorn and orders him where to hang things), watches movies with his dad, drinks the tea his mum makes him, and sleeps in far later than he should. It’s good, it’s nice. It’s a little dull and he knows there’s so much more he could be doing with his free time.

There’s always so much more he could be doing with his time.

Kristen’s number burns in his phone, and she doesn’t text him and he’s not sure what’s holding him back from texting her. Except he’s scared, maybe. Unsure. Especially after how they’d parted. This is definitely one of those times he doesn’t live up to his name.

He wants to, dear god he does. He misses talking to her more than anything else, he misses that pocket of warmth infused with the blue of her eyes and it’s only been a week.

Christmas Eve comes and it’s nice, he helps his mum make dinner and it’s warm in their kitchen and his dad and Derek are cracking stupid jokes and it might snow outside, but probably not. Ace is just beginning to feel his chest again, maybe a little, when his mother looks at him during a quiet moment and says, gently, “You alright, love?”

The question strikes him to the very core because it’s different when hismother asks it. Her eyes are soft and ready to understand, and he could never hide or lie to his mum. She’s the most important person in the world, honestly, and she should never have to know about this.

“’Course, Mum.” Ace lies straight through his teeth and smiles brightly, maybe enough like he used to that his mum might believe it. She just smiles back softly, reaches over and squeezes his hand in a way that conveys everything she could say if he would let her say it, and Ace is suddenly struck with the urge to cry.

He doesn’t, though. They finish dinner and his dad puts Christmas music on. Ace loves Christmas music and it sounds familiar and brings upon those fuzzy Christmas feelings, but it doesn’t sound as bright as it usually does even when he tries to force it, and that kind of makes Ace want to cry all over again. But he doesn’t.

It ends up raining that night instead of snowing. Ace lays on his stomach in his bed, cheek flat against his pillow as he listens to the raindrops against his dark window. He wants to sleep and he wants to feel as excited as he used to feel on Christmas Eve, because even though he’s nineteen  that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t feel excited. Christmas isChristmas and it’s magical and warm and happy and why doesn’t it feel like that this year, not at all? Why is this empty hole in his chest sucking up every bit of joy that comes in its path and not letting him have any of it?

He closes his eyes and lets out one, two, three tears. Maybe one more. The rain beats harder and all he wants is for Christmas to feel likeChristmas.

He goes to his grandmother’s house the next day, after a late morning of presents. He gets a nice watch and some books, and a video game from Derek. Like every Christmas, he has to make the joke about, where’s my new dog?  because he’s asked for one every year since he could talk. His eyes almost burn, slightly, at the fact that he’s almost glad his parents didn’t crack and get him one this year. No puppy would deserve what they’d get with this version of himself.

His family isn’t very big, but he supposes it’s nice to see them. His grandmother saves the seat beside her at the dinner table just for him, and she’s the best lady in the world after his mum. She’s easy to talk to but she doesn’t make him talk much, and she serves him first and Ace thinks that this is probably the best part of Christmas.

It’s colder, by the time they get home Christmas night, and it’s not raining and Ace is glad, but everything feels flat, the post-Christmas deflation. Everyone knows what their presents are and the last of the Christmas music plays on the radio, and there really isn’t such a need to turn on the Christmas tree lights anymore.

Derek already took off to Zaire’s from his grandmother’s house, and Ace’s parents go to watch the evening news, and Ace really doesn’t know what to do with himself, so he checks the time on his new watch even though the time doesn’t really matter, and goes up to his room.

Ace loves Christmas, but he didn’t like it this year, and he’s not sure what it is, this particular emptiness that he feels right now. He wants to blame Christmas for letting him down but it’s himself, it’s him that let him let Christmas disappoint him, because Christmas is never disappointing, and if this is what growing up means he’d really like no part in it.

It’s not Christmas, and it’s not growing up that’s making him feel this way. This, whatever this is, isn’t normal. He wants it to go away, wants it to go away. That’s all he wants, all he truly wanted for Christmas and he didn’t get it, and if Christmas, the “most wonderful time of the year,” can’t do that, then he doesn’t really know what can, and Ace stares at the dark window as something big and dark begins to grow in his chest, crowding his organs and blowing up around his heart and he feels his pulse quicken in his ears. His throat is tightening and the muscles behind his eyes begin to itch and burn and ache, and he’s breathing too fast, and it won’t go away won’t ever go away make it go away please go away please because he can’t live with it, can’t live like this for the rest of his life-

Tears cloud his vision because something needs it to get out and he feels nauseous, he shouldn’t have eaten so much at dinner, he wants to throw up he wants to pass out he wants to sleep for eternity- his hands are shaking and he rakes his nails over his face, over his wet eyes and cheeks and he doesn’t even want to feel good, he just wants to feel relief.

His phone buzzes in his pocket but he doesn’t even care, it’s probably just Ben trying to make plans for New Years and Ace doesn’t even want to think about another holiday so soon, especially one of new beginnings and resolutions and kissing at midnight.

He falls back on his pillow and stays there till it’s soaked and full of muffled sobs because this is what he is now, this is what it’s come to. He doesn’t even know why.

Sometimes, he thinks if he knew why it would be so much better. Then there would be something he could try to fix, something that he could pinpoint as broken, something he could heal. He doesn’t know why and nothing ever really broke, and it’s not fair and he’s so weak and there’s nothing to fix.

He feels like a stranger to himself, he doesn’t know who he is, who this version of Ace is and why exactly he exists, why this should ever have happened to him, to anyone. His mouth runs dry and he bites down on his fist, teeth nearly piercing through the skin, because why, why?

He does, admittedly, feel better once he’s run out of tears. His body feels as if he’s just run ten miles, his head aches and his eyes are nearly swollen shut, and it hurts when he squints them open and the lamplight hits them.

His heart still runs in his chest, but he can feel exhaustion coming over him, can hardly bear to keep his eyes open, wants to fade into nothingness. He should probably change, or brush his teeth, but he really doesn’t feel like moving. Ever.

Belatedly, perhaps eons later, he realizes he’s not asleep, and he remembers his phone and slowly pulls it out of his pocket, deciding that if it was Ben, he just won’t answer right now.  Sighing, he swipes it open.

It’s not Ben. It’s Kristen, and her message is short.

Happy Christmas x.

Maybe it’s something she’s sent to all of her friends, but for some reason it’s the first true inkling of warmth Ace has felt all night. He closes his eyes, because even if he was just a name on a send list, she thought of him, however briefly.

After a few minutes he picks his phone back up to respond, and he watches, strangely helpless, as his finger hits the call button instead of typing in a text.

She picks up after three rings.

“Hello?”

Her voices sounds hesitant, maybe confused, but it’s familiar and nice and Ace didn’t realize how much he missed it until right now.

“Hi, Kristen.” His voice is a little rough, he realizes as he hears it.

“Hi.”

Ace feels his lips stretch into a distant smile, because this is probably really awkward, but he’s past caring about anything like that tonight.

“Hi,” he says again, voice far away. “Sorry if you’re…are you busy?”

“No,” she says quickly. She clears her throat. “I mean, no, I’m just kind of…in my room doing nothing. Crazy Christmas night plans, you know?”

Ace lets out a laugh and it feels detached from himself. “Exactly,” he says. “I’m doing the same. Did you have a nice Christmas?”

Kristen’s voice sounds a bit more comfortable after that. “It was alright,” she says. “Saw my grandparents, but it was mostly just me and my dad. How about yours?”

Ace kind of wants to ask about her family, about why her mum doesn’t seem to be in this equation, but it’s something they’ve never talked about and he answers the question instead. “It was okay. Saw a lot of family and it was nice, but…yeah, it was alright.”

Kristen is quiet for a moment. “I’m glad,” she says, even though she probably wouldn’t be, if she’d just seen the scene he’d made of himself.

They fall into conversation about gifts and how Kristen and her dad had Chinese take away for Christmas dinner and Ace is beginning to nod off again, eyelids still puffy and heavy, when she says. “Ace?”

“Hm?”

“You…you sound, I don’t know…different,” she says uncertainly.

He pauses, heart jumping to his throat. “I’m alright,” he says quietly. It’s a lie, of course, but maybe it’s not entirely a lie when he’s talking to her.

“Are you sure? I mean, is that…why did you call me?” Her voice is gentle, curious.

Ace opens his eyes again, his sluggish mind catching up with the question. He searches for an answer that he doesn’t really have. “I…I don’t know. I saw your text and then I just…called you.”

“Oh. Okay.”

The tone of her voice makes him slightly curious. “Would you rather I didn’t?”

“What? No, of course not,” she says quickly. “I…I like talking to you, Ace. Why’d you think I sat next to you in class and all that?”

Ace feels himself smile again, something nice bubbling in his chest. “I like talking to you, too. I guess that’s why I called.” He pauses. “I spent all day with people but I felt like I didn’t really talk to them.”

“I know what you mean,” she says, and Ace wants to know why she knows what he means but he doesn’t say anything as she pauses, and when she speaks again her voice is soft. “You can always talk to me.”

“Thanks,” he says, chest tightening with something vaguely golden. “Um, same here.”

There’s silence for a moment, and when Ace speaks next he doesn’t really decide what he’s going to say but he hears himself say it anyway. “Hey, Kris?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m…sorry how I left Caffe Nero the other day. That was my friend, Sophie- I should’ve introduced you. She’s my best friend’s girlfriend.” He isn’t sure why he tacks on the end, but. Yes he is.

“Oh.” Kristen’s quiet for a moment, and when she speaks again, she sounds almost sheepish. “Oh, that’s alright. I just thought- I, well. Yeah.”

“Yeah,” he says. It’s quiet for a moment, before he says again, “Hey Kris?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you busy tomorrow?”

“No.” Her answer is quick, and she backpedals. “I- I mean. No, I’m not.”

“Wanna…want to meet up, or something?” he asks. He realizes that his heart is pounding.

“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, okay.”

A small smile nudges at his lips. “Okay. Perfect.”

They decide to meet up at a tube station that, surprisingly, isn’t far away for either of them, and by the time they hang up and Ace lets his phone fall to his side he feels a tiny, infinitesimal fraction lighter. Just a little. Maybe he can admit that talking to Kristen may just be on his list of favorite things to do.

He glances at his clock. 11:49. Christmas is almost over. He falls asleep before the clock hits twelve.

When Kristen shows up, she has a maroon knit hat on her head and she’s wrapped in a wool scarf, nose and cheeks rosy from the cold. Her boots crunch the melting ice on the sidewalk as she draws nearer, and Ace’s mind goes as hazy as the fog lingering around street corners today.

“Hi,” she says and tugs her hat lower over her ears, glancing up at him.  Her eyes are like the sky and it reminds him that winter isn’t going to last forever.

“Hey.” His breath comes out in a cloud of white air that swirls away in the wind, and people push around them on their way into the tube station.

Kristen smirks as a man shoves past Ace. “You do realize it’s Boxing Day, right?”

Okay, so maybe Ace had forgotten that tiny detail, but- he shrugs. He’s not sure what it is that makes him feel so…unafraid right now. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s Kristen. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s at the end of his rope, or at the start of another. After yesterday, he’s ready to do anything. “Well, we can either avoid it, or embrace it.”

She grins. He grins. She pushes him into the tube station and they take the line toward Oxford Street.

 

 

It’s absolutely mad.

The only time Ace has ever been out on Boxing Day was when he was fifteen and Ben dragged him out with him to get some video game he hadn’t gotten on Christmas, and even then it was only to a store a couple of streets over from his house. Usually, the day after Christmas is reserved for sitting around, toying with new gadgets and eating leftover Christmas cookies.

Ace doesn’t pass through the shopping district often, but this is as packed as he’s ever seen it, people jostling past each other on the sidewalks, shopping bags hanging off of arms. Wreaths still hang from lamp posts and fake Christmas trees still sparkle in retail windows. Cars beep and people laugh loudly and Ace can practically hear credit cards maxing out. He has always found it funny, that this should occur after the biggest gift-giving holiday in the world.

“Do you want to go anywhere in particular?” Kristen asks as they squeeze through the crowds. She’s got her fingers grasped around a handful of his coat.

“Not really,” he says, ducking down so she can hear him. “I’ve only got about eight pounds in my wallet, to be honest.”

Her laugh is something warm, and she tugs him into the nearest clothing store which is all bright colors and empty space and sharp edges, and, of course, stupidly expensive.

“I’m sorry, but did you mishear me when I said I have eight pounds in my wallet?” Ace says.

Kristen turns to look at him, a smirk growing on her face. “You’re funny when you get sarcastic.”

Ace isn’t quite sure what to say to that. He blinks instead. Kristen’s smirk turns into a grin and she grabs his arm. “Come on, I want to try on the most expensive scarf they have.”

The most expensive scarf turns out to be about seventy quid, and Ace is wary of even touching it as Kristen wraps it, a pretty red and light as air, around her neck. It looks pretty on her, but then again, everything probably does.

“Do you know how many shifts at Caffe Nero this is worth?” Kristen says, glancing up at him as she fingers the material.

“Too many?” he hazards a guess. “It…looks nice on you, though.”

Her lips fall into a smile, and she looks pleased, Ace thinks, as she glances at herself in the little mirror on the wall. A different scarf on the rack behind her suddenly catches Ace’s eye.

“What about that one?” he points.

Kristen turns, reaches out for the blue scarf he’s gesturing to. “This one?” she says, examining the price tag. She looks back up, raising her eyebrows appraisingly, and her voice takes on a note of mockery as she says, “Ace, it’s only fifty pounds, are you telling me to lower my standards?”

Ace should probably respond in kind, but he hears himself blurt out, “It’ll match your eyes.”

Kristen pauses and glances back down at the scarf. She pulls off the red one and takes the blue one off the rack and wraps it around her neck. It looks beautiful- she looks beautiful. She looks at him, eyes bright and almost shy.

“What is this, you’ve got an eye for fashion, do you?” she says, and this is something she does, he’s noticed, teases him when she’s pleased at something he’s said.

“Yes.” He rolls his eyes, because he isn’t afraid to give it right back anymore. “I wear the same hoodie three times a week because I lovefashion.”

She narrows her eyes just slightly, highly amused. “You certainly can be a sarcastic twat when you want to.”

“You should meet my brother,” Ace mutters.

Kristen’s eyes spark with interest. “If he’s worse than you, then I really should.”

Something warm kindles in Ace’s chest at the thought of her meeting Derek, at the prospect of her wanting to.

Kristen looks back at the mirror and sighs. “This really is nice.” And Ace feels a tug in his chest at the thought that maybe in another universe, one where he has lots of money and nothing good to spend it on, he’d buy it for her just to see her eyes light up.

Ace nods shortly, and his throat feels thick as he wants to  tell her that she really does look very, very pretty, but the words get stuck and he feels himself redden slightly.

Kristen slowly pulls it off and wraps her woolen scarf back around her neck, and she looks pretty in that too. She looks up at him, hair glossy in the overhead lighting, and pretty, Ace thinks. Always so pretty.

“Let’s go,” she murmurs, and tugs him along.

They wander in and out of stores they will probably never be able to afford, taking their time amidst the rushing crowds. It feels almost lucid, the sounds and the noise drowned out by Kristen’s voice and Kristen’s eyes and Kristen’s touch and all of it at him and on him, rolling over his skin in pleasant waves.

Finally, as he feels his energy begin to wane, Kristen wraps her hand around his arm. “Come on, let’s go into Waterstones.”

She directs him into the bookstore and as they walk through the doors the air immediately hushes around them, warm and smelling of crisp new pages. People mill about, taking their time to look at books that aren’t even on sale. This is Boxing Day after all, not the release of the seventh Harry Potter book.

“Let’s get some tea,” Kristen says, and starts toward the staircase that leads to the Costa upstairs. People sit around cozy tables and puffy armchairs, reading books and chatting quietly over their scones and sandwiches. Kristen doesn’t even give Ace a chance to intervene, simply steps up to the counter and orders two teas, and pays for both.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he says sheepishly as she stuffs the change into her purse.

“What are you talking about? Both of those are for me.” She raises an eyebrow.

Ace blinks and Kristen stares at him for five excruciating seconds before she rolls her eyes and nudges him in the side, a tiny smile on her lips. “Of course one of them is for you, idiot.”

Faint embarrassment sweeps down Ace’s spine as he lets his shoulders fall, smiling back sheepishly. “Shut up.”

“No, really, that was quite entertaining, watching you panic internally for a moment there.” The barista slides their teas across the counter and Kristen grabs them and hands one to Ace. It’s hot in his hands and it feels nice.

“Well, thanks,” is all he says in response.

Kristen sighs, and if Ace isn’t mistaken it seems rather fond. “It’s nothing, seeing as your money makes half of my paychecks, anyway.”

Ace smiles as they go to find a table. He hopes, a lot, that it means more than nothing. Ever since their conversation last night, it’s as if Kristen’s something new; bright-eyed and less restrained. She was humming on the tube earlier. Ace likes it. A lot.

They find a small table tucked against the wall beside the Art History section, and Ace takes the seat facing the books. It’s silent, for a few seconds, and Ace doesn’t know where to look so he focuses on a picture of Mona Lisa’s face on a copy of a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci.

“Um,” he starts, glancing at Kristen’s face instead. “Do you come here a lot?”

She puts her tea down. “Waterstones?”

“Oxford street.” He shrugs. “Or Waterstones.”

Kristen snorts and lifts up her maroon hat. “My aunt knit me this hat and scarf, I got my coat half off at Primark, and I work at Caffe Nero when I’m not crying over schoolwork. Does it sound like I visit Oxford Street often?”

Ace’s lips press into a smile. “I think I got the gist of it when you tried those scarves on.” He pauses, looking at her. “You do like sarcasm, don’t you?”

Kristen shrugs and picks up her tea, but Ace thinks she looks vaguely satisfied at his words. “My dad says I get it from my mum.”

Ace wraps his hand around his mug, letting the warmth seep through to his skin until it burns slightly. Curiosity wins out. “Do you not- is your mum…?”

Kristen looks up at him, blue through black lashes. “She died, when I was five.”

“Oh.” Ace doesn’t know what to say to that. It seems silly, for some reason, to say he’s sorry, like he ever knew her mother.

Kristen shrugs again. “It’s just me and my dad, it’s alright.” Ace just nods, still unsure of what to say, but he wants to know more and is almost disappointed when she says, “What about you? What’s your family like?”

He knows he’s got no reason to feel guilty when he tells her he has a dad, a mother, and a brother. He knows she’d probably hit him if he ever expressed anything as silly as feeling bad over something neither of them have control over, and something she wouldn’t want pity for, anyway.

“I still want to meet your brother.”

Ace sighs. “He’s a pain in the arse.”

Kristen smirks. “Can’t say I’ve ever really wanted an older brother. Maybe a younger sibling, they’d take my dad’s attention off me all the time.”

“Depends on who’s asking for it, really,” Ace mutters. He looks at her, taking his chance to turn the conversation to her again. “What do you mean about your dad?”

Kristen shrugs, tucking an arm against her chest. “Nothing. Just the spoils of living the life of the only child of a single parent. “ She says it fast and clipped and her tone is a bit broody, but Ace isn’t exactly a stranger to that. Before he can respond, she changes the subject. “Tell me about your bother. Tell me about your friends, where do you live at school?”

“Um,” Ace starts, and he’s suddenly uncomfortable with the small number of names he has to say. He says it anyway, describes Ben and his artistic eccentricities, Derek and his pain-in-the-arse eccentricities, Sophie’s common sense that keeps them all together, and how Zaire’s too cool for all of them.

“So, um, yeah. Those are my friends, I guess,” he finishes lamely. “Not exactly, er, popular, I guess.”

Kristen’s face softens, and this would probably be a good time for her to make some sort of sarcastic remark, maybe, ‘well I guess I can’t hang out with you then,’ but she only says, “So?”

So…nothing. Ace likes his friends. He loves them a lot and they’re better than having five hundred friends. He meets her gaze with a smile. “So nothing, really. What about you?”

It’s strange, the way Kristen’s face fades slightly. She keeps a smile playing on her lips, though. She shrugs. “I live in a flat with some girls, and they’re nice. I like my co-workers. Most of them, anyway. I guess I’ve just never been…very good at making friends?” she says it like a question, and Ace wants to hug her.

“Sure you are,” he says. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Kristen lets out an unbidden laugh. “Yeah, and do you remember when I first tried to talk to you? Small talk?”

And- okay, maybe it makes a bit of sense. Maybe she’s not good at that kind of stuff, maybe she’s a bit moody and not always the most polite, but…Ace likes it. He doesn’t know what it is. It’s her. Like there’s so much locked up inside of her, and he wants to see it, even if just a little. The world should want to be friends with her.

“Hey,” Ace says, and nudges her foot beneath the table with his. “What’s your favorite song?”

She raises her eyebrows, eyes tinged with amusement. “My favorite song?” she says, nudging him back. “You really like these ‘favorite’ questions, don’t you?”

Ace smiles sheepishly. “It’s interesting, people’s favorites.”

She nudges his foot again and leaves it there this time, resting against his ankle, and the pocket of warmth in Ace’s chest is such a contradiction to yesterday it’s almost hard to believe that he woke up to a damp pillow this morning. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

“Anyway, you study music, what’s your favorite song, then?” he asks.

“You study psychology, what’s your favorite mental condition?” she shoots back, and the comment falls flat before she finishes saying it and he can tell she knows it. Her foot falls away from his ankle and it leaves a cold space. She looks embarrassed. “I mean-”

He hooks his ankle around hers again. “I focus more on ethology, actually,” he says. “Animal behavior.”

“Oh, yes, right-”

“And my favorite mental condition is probably the condition of like, being awake, probably,” he says, knowing he doesn’t even sound like he’s making sense. He doesn’t think he’d ever be able to call himself a psychologist.

Kristen tilts her head. “Being awake?”

“Like,” and he’s not sure what he’s doing, explaining this, suddenly. He looks down at his hands. “The opposite of being under water.” He’s not making sense at all, and he shouldn’t even have answered her question. He just sounds silly, and he feels a niggling humiliation in his stomach. He starts to pulls his feet under his chair.

Kristen catches his ankle again and he looks up. Her expression is curious and soft and understanding, somehow, and Ace kind of wants to hide under the table away from her gaze. He feels himself blush.

“You read a lot, don’t you?” is all she says, voice oddly light. He shrugs. She smiles.

“I think…I think that makes more sense than any psychological nonsense you could have said,” she says, and Ace feels something warm flush across his shoulder blades and down his chest. He feels himself give a tentative smile.

Yes. Talking to Kristen is definitely high on the list of favorite things he likes to do.

Yesterday,” she says suddenly, and he looks up again. “The Beatles song. My favorite song. Well, it’s one of them. The first that comes to mind when anyone asks me that question. Probably mostly so I don’t have to explain my weirder tastes.”

Ace shrugs. “I’ve got all day to listen.”

He does, and he will. He’ll listen to her talk about obscure bands he’d never care about in a million years otherwise. He’ll find himself caring, just a little, because of the way her eyes light up when she talks about them.

Listening to Kristen talk. Another thing on the list. He relaxes his foot beneath the table and she smiles into her words just a little bit more.

Maybe an hour, or two, or three pass but it feels like far too little time before Kristen glances at her watch and sighs. “So, my dad and I are going to visit my grandparents tonight, mum’s side of the family, and I need to be back in a little bit.”

They venture back out into the street, crowds insane as ever, and head toward the tube station. They don’t walk particularly fast, Kristen isn’t in any rush, and if their hands bump once, or twice, or ten times, well.

She stands in front of him on the tube, because it’s the tube and it wasn’t really made for more than fifteen people at a time. Ace has always found it slightly claustrophobic, but right now Kristen stands so close he can smell the flowery scent of her hair, and every time the train turns she leans back against his chest, just slightly, and Ace kind of wants her to stay there forever because there’s a kind of lightness that surrounds her.

They slip into daylight again, and it’s funny because they only live about fifteen minutes walking distance from one another, they’ve discovered. They pause on the sidewalk outside the tube station, and it’s significantly quieter than the train and the bustle of Oxford Street. Water drips off the curb as ice melts, and Ace sticks his hands in his pockets. She looks at him.

“So, um-”

“Louie!”

Running footsteps and the sound of scratching on pavement sound from behind them, and Ace turns just in time for a small dog to run right into his ankles. The dog looks up at him, yipping and panting, and he’s little, just out of puppyhood, all fluffy and white with his collar trailing behind him. Ace crouches down to pet him, grinning. “Hey, buddy.”

His owner catches up, panting, a squat man who looks as if he hasn’t run a day in his life. “Louie, bad boy! I’m sorry-” He puts a hand on his chest as he tries to catch his breath. “He doesn’t normally run off on me like that-”

“S’okay,” Ace says, smiling. He scratches behind Louie’s ears and the dog yips, propping his front paws up on Ace’s knee. It’s been ages, Ace realizes, since he’s played with a dog.

“He does seem to like you, though,” the man says, breathing more deeply now.  “It’s funny, he’s never done that before.”

“I used to work at a pound,” Ace says as Louie licks his hand. “I’m studying to work with them, actually.”

“Well you’ve got this one in the palm of your hand,” the man says, a smile creeping onto his face. “And he listens to no one. Come on, Louie, we’ve got to go home.”

The man may as well not even exist to Louie, and it takes Ace actually picking him up and handing him back to the man to get him to go. The man thanks him, and Ace feels a strange sense of melancholy as Louie’s yips fade down the street.

“You’re studying to work with dogs?” Kristen says from behind him. He turns back to her and finds her leaning against a light post, arms folded across her chest and eyes curious.

“Well, that was the plan,” Ace shrugs. He smiles. He can’t believe he forgot just how…nice dogs are.

Was the plan?”

Ace shrugs. “Is the plan. I dunno, I’ve got a lot of those animal behavior classes under my belt, so.” He hasn’t really thought about plans in a while.

Kristen smiles slightly. “I think that makes sense. Suits you.”

Ace looks at her. “You think so?”

She pushes herself off the light post and lets her hands fall to her sides. “Yeah. You were sweet with that dog.”

Ace feels his cheeks flush slightly, and he hopes she assumes it’s just because of the cold. “Well I…like dogs, so…”

Kristen smiles. “Really? Do you?” She kicks the tip of his shoe lightly before he can respond. “Okay, I’ve really got to go…but today was nice. I had fun.”

Ace feels himself smile. “I did too.”

The sky has darkened overhead, and the sound of a car horn echoes in the distance. Kristen’s face lights up, like she’s hit upon an idea. “Hey, we should revise together, for our Russia exam.”

Ace laughs. “You look too excited about that.” Kristen’s face flushes and something lovely sweeps down Ace’s spine.

“Look, I’m just saying it might be helpful if we revise together instead of alone-”

Ace kicks the tip of her boot. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

Ace nods, smile lingering on his face. “Yeah. I’ll text you.”

“Alright.” Her face is still red and she tucks a piece of hair under her hat.

“I had fun too, Kristen. Have a nice time with your grandparents,” he says.

“Yeah,” she says, and she takes a step away,  tugging on the ends of her scarf. She smiles and Ace feels in the pit of his stomach, a pleasant curl of warmth as the puddles on the sidewalk freeze over as night sweeps in. “I’ll see you.”

“So where’ve you been all day?” Derek says the minute Ace steps into the kitchen, shrugging his coat off.

Ace doesn’t even respond, just smiles, looks at his dad at the stove and asks, “What’s for dinner?”

“All your favorite Christmas leftovers.”

It sounds kind of delicious, for some reason, and when Ace looks back at Derek he’s got his arms folded and is looking at Ace with a raised eyebrow, and Ace just shrugs. Derek raises his other eyebrow, and Ace thinks he might look pleased.

It’s their third day of revising and they’ve been sitting in the teashop a street over from Ace’s house for two hours, and Ace’s eyes are beginning to blur over the words Bolshevik and Menshevik.

He’s just about to say something, to suggest a break or that they get more food, when Kristen shifts her hand on the table. He stills as the tips of her fingers find his. And stay there. He stares down at his textbook, eyes acutely aware of every curve of every vowel, every sharp edge of every V and every K.

After an entire minute it becomes apparent that she’s not going to move her hand, fingers burning into his skin, and he decides maybe he’ll wait for that break, decides that he doesn’t quite mind revising like this, for a little bit longer.

Taking exams are definitely not on Ace’s list of favorite things to do, but his history class is his last one and once he emerges, blinking in the pale daylight, he finally feels his shoulders relax.

“That took you about forever,” Kristen says, looking up from her phone where she stands against the wall, waiting for him.

“Sorry I’m not a speedy genius like you.” The words slip out before he can think about them, and god, she’s really been rubbing off on him.

Kristen seems to realize the same thing, and her grin is wind. “You should be, I bet you got Lenin and Stalin mixed up. But hey, we’re finished! We should celebrate like good uni kids.”

Which means- going out, Ace assumes. Of course she means going out, because literally every other university student on the planet goes out, except for him. But it’s not so bad, with friends, and he’s been feeling…better, these days, he thinks. He could do this.

“Hey, yeah, actually.” Ace clears his throat. He tugs on the strap on his bag. “My friends, we’re, going out. Tomorrow night, after my brother’s last shift. If you’d like to come?”

Kristen looks up at him, eyes blue and round, lips pink in a way that makes him squirm down to his toes. “Yeah, I would.”

Ace flushes with relief at her words. He’s tugged his shoulder straps so hard the tip of his backpack touches the nape of his neck. He smiles. “Perfect.”

The bar is crowded and the air is heavy and the smell of Guinness is more powerful than anything else, but Ace supposes it makes sense since the place is called McGinty’s, and with Kristen on one side of him and Zaire on the other, Ace feel strangely out of his element.

Luckily though, he doesn’t feel nervous like he did before, when he wassure Derek was going to say something stupid and ruin everything.

“Please, Derek, just please don’t be weird,” he’d said earlier, before they’d left.

“Me, weird?” he said, putting a hand on his chest and looking at him. “Ace, it’s not weird, it’s my natural charm. How do you think I got Zaire?”

Zaire snorted and walked over to undo the top button of Derek’s shirt to add a touch of rumpled nonchalance to his look. “Charm is one word for it.” But his eyes were fond, and Derek looked back at him with just as much affection, if perhaps not more. Ace wanted to hurl himself out the window.

As it turned out, Derek and Kristen got along…wonderfully. They hit it off instantly, faster than Ace had ever seen anyone click, Derek’s wit meeting Kristen’s snark at just the right point, infused with the perfect amount of sarcasm. Ace wasn’t sure if he was happy or jealous, or simply relieved.

“Tell us, then, Kristen,” Derek says, putting his drink down after taking a long sip. “Why’d you start hanging out with this bum?” He squints an eye and points at Ace.

Ace narrows his eyes. It was only a matter of time. He opens his mouth to tell him to piss off or something of that nature, when he feels Kristen shrug and say, “Why do you hang out with him?”

Derek raises his eyebrows, and Ace can tell he’s impressed. “Touché,” he says coolly.

Sophie bursts out in a laugh. “Oh, she’s good, I like her.” She looks at Kristen. “Stick around, will you? We need someone to keep Derek in his place. And this group’s needed another girl for ages.”

“Clique,” Derek corrects her.

Sophie rolls her eyes, and Kristen looks immensely pleased. She meets Ace’s eyes, glittery in the low light, and he smiles at her, feeling his gaze go soft. He wants to tell he’s glad she’s here, really glad.

“We hang out with Ace because he’s cool,” Ben speaks up, and if there’s anyone Ace can always rely on, it’s him. “That, and he’s got lots of money. C’mon.” He pushes his chair back and grabs Ace by the shoulder of his shirt to drag up to get more drinks. Ace sighs and goes too easily.

“Sophie’s right,” is all Ben says as they walk to the bar. He’s got a blue jumper on, rolled up to the elbows. “Kristen’s great. Keep her.”

Ace doesn’t try to bite back his grin. Keep her.

He wants to. If she’ll keep him, too.

Ace’s face is probably flushed from drinks, and it’s louder now, a lot louder, and Zaire is laughing into his shoulder and Kristen’s close, soclose and their legs and their arms and their hands are touching, warm skin against skin and Ace is positively floating.

He’s not quite sure when they leave, but drunken club-goers are stalking the sidewalks so it must be late, but Kristen’s beside him, always besidehim, even when she’s talking to Derek, or Ben, or any of them.

Derek and Zaire break off to go home to their flat farther in the city, and Ben and Ace walk Sophie and Kristen back to their own flats, taking it a bit slower than necessary, but it’s probably two am and they’re past being late for anything. Kristen holds Ace’s hand for a bit and his heart beats too much and the streetlights glow rings of gold in the darkness.

“Thanks for inviting me out tonight,” she says before she slips into her flat, just a few streets over from his. Her eyes are ridiculously bright in the pale streetlamp light, and her cheeks are rosy and he kind of wants to kiss her, and he hasn’t wanted to kiss anyone in so long. “I had fun, I like your brother.”

“I like you.”

The words slip out of his mouth and he doesn’t quite comprehend them until she’s beaming and he can see all of her teeth, and she’s so pretty he feels a physical ache in his chest. She squeezes his hand. “I like you too, Ace.” Then she slips inside, and she’s gone.

Ben flings an arm around Ace’s shoulders as they walk slowly, a little drunkenly, back to their own flat.

Ace loves the Lord of the Rings films more than he loves the books, and he doesn’t usually make it open knowledge, because saying a movie is better than the book is akin to saying you prefer broccoli to chocolate, but- he likes the movies more than he likes the books.

He knows exactly why that is, and it’s not that he’s trying to insult J.R.R. Tolkien, of course not, Tolkien’s a great writer, and the books are good. They create a fantastic world too big for stale paper pages.

Life, is what the films are. They’re movement, fluidity, sound and character. Character, most of all, Ace thinks. A good plot is good, but good characters are great, and Peter Jackson rescued Sam, and Frodo, and Merry and Pippen, Aragorn and Arwen, from where they were trapped between quotation marks and page numbers, and gave themcolor.

He and Ben talked about it once, how sometimes it takes more than one artist to see things, even if one is good enough on its own. They complement each other, add to each other. A book doesn’t have to be better than a film, and a film doesn’t have to fight against a book. Neither have to be better than the other; they’re just different parts of a bigger, beautiful whole.

“We’re only here because it’s the cheapest place you could think of taking me, aren’t we?”

Kristen raises an eyebrow and Ace nudges her in the side and stays there, stays close because the late winter sun is out today and it slates through the tall museum windows, hitting the side of her face and casting shadows beneath her eyelashes.

“We’re here because I thought you might appreciate some history and culture.”

Free history and culture.”

“Fine, would you like me to pay twenty pounds for you to ride the London Eye? Alone?”

Kristen grins. “Shush. I love free history and culture.” She grabs onto the lapel of his jacket and pulls him into the next room, filled with more Ancient Greek vases than the last.

So maybe the British Museum is free, but he didn’t take her here because of that. “This is one of my favorite places in London, if you’re so curious about why we’re here,” he says.

Kristen pulls her eyes off a vase depicting Aphrodite’s birth, beauty born out of sea foam, and looks at him. “It is? Why?”

Ace shrugs. “My mum used to bring me and my brother here, sometimes, when we were younger. On weekdays and stuff, when there were workshops for little kids. And, you know,” he nods at the vase. “I like this stuff.”

Kristen’s eyes soften, like he’s noticed they do when he shares these kinds of things with her, and something pleasant curls in Ace’s chest.

It’s three days past Valentine’s Day, which they hadn’t done anything for, and Ace kind of wonders if they should have, but Kristen was working, anyway. So instead he texted her this morning, and maybe this is a date, maybe it’s not. Ace is kind of hoping for the former, but he’s not sure if he should say anything.

They take their time exploring the entire museum, trailing from Ancient Greek history to the Romans, and the Egyptians, to Medieval England and Modern London, Imperial China and twentieth century Africa. There are busts from 300 BC and props from the David Tennant Era of Doctor Who, suits of armor from the 1400s and Bibles from 50 AD. It’s amazing, unfathomable, to look at things so old.

“Someone,” he says, as the two of them look at coins from Ancient Rome, emblazoned with the face of Julius Caesar, “held that in their pocket over two thousand years ago. I wonder what they bought with it?”

Kristen shrugs. “Food? Animals? Slaves?”

“Thanks,” Ace deadpans, “for completely sucking the wonder out of that question.”

Kristen gives him a toothy grin, and he’s stuck with the desire to kiss it right off of her face.

He looks away, because he shouldn’t– at least, not here, and- he’s still not quite sure how to deal with this, all these- feelings. Filling him up and making his head swim. It’s dizzying, sometimes, like he’s taken a steep hill too fast, and he hasn’t had time for his ears to pop.

It’s nice, though, to see the sky above the clouds.

They stop in front Capitoline Wolf, a statue of Remus and Romulus as babies, drinking their mother wolf’s milk. “Cute,” Ace says. Kristen grins.

“Hey.” She nudges him with her elbow. “Remember at Christmas, when you said you wanted to work with dogs?”

“This is a wolf, Kristen.”

She rolls her eyes. “I was saying, remember how you said you wanted to work with dogs?”

“Yeah,” Ace shrugs. “What about it?”

“I just,” she says, looking at him. “I’ve never really heard you talk about it since then, is all.”

Ace looks back at her. “What’s there to talk about, really?”

“What’s there not to talk about?” She grins a little, nudges him. “Is it your favorite thing to do, then?”

And Kristen- she just makes it all seem so easy, to talk about what he might want to do one day. She turns his own questions on him and suddenly the answer doesn’t sound very complicated.

“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe, one of them, yeah.”

They’re standing in the middle of the British Museum next to a statue from Ancient Rome, people breeze past them from one exhibit to the next, low murmurs echo off the walls and muffled laughter sneaks past fingers pressed to smiling lips, and he doesn’t know why it’s making him nervous, to want things again.

He glances at her, nonexistent words caught in his throat, and something in her eyes change, grows a bit softer, a bit warmer. Her smile fades and she doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t press it, instead just shuffles a bit closer, until their coat sleeves touch and the backs of their hands brush. His heart beats steadily, quietly, and he really, really likes this girl.

They take the tube to central London, where they grab dinner at the cheap pub that really isn’t very cheap, but it’s warm and the smells wafting through the doorway appeals to their ravenous stomachs. Museum going can take a lot out of a person, Ace has learned. The two of them sit at a table with scars in the wooden surface and the food is greasy and delicious, and they’ve gotten dinner together before, but this one feels a bit different, like something’s changed in the air between them.

Ace pays for her dinner, and for moment Kristen hesitates, as if unsure whether to argue. In the end she makes a feeble attempt, and when he just smiles at her, she blinks and falls silent, tips of her cheeks turning rosy under the dim lighting. Ace wonders if he’s seeing things.

They walk after that, walk all the way down to St. Paul’s Cathedral because they’ve really got no where else to be. Ace might have an early class tomorrow, but he’ll regret that later. The sidewalks are hardly busy and the people they do pass are wrapped in scarves and puffy jackets, and Ace can feel the icy air seeping through the material of his coat.

“Let’s go to the Harry Potter bridge,” Kristen says, pulling the side of his jacket and starting down a set of stone steps. Ace feels his lips quirk up. Any girl who refers to Millennium Bridge as the Harry Potter bridge has to be a keeper.

His legs are aching a bit, but all this walking must be good after that food they ate for dinner, and he’d probably walk ten more miles if she was leading, to be honest. Kristen stops after stepping off the last stair, the reflection of the bridge glowing in Thames in front of her.

That’s not what she’s looking at, though, Ace realizes as she begins toward the piano tucked away to the side of the path, half lit by a lamppost several feet away. Kristen glances back at Ace, a certain brightness flickering across her face.

“Do you play?” Ace asks, and really, he should know this by now.

She nods, and she looks almost shy, suddenly, as she steps in front of the piano, just beside the little bench. Her fingers ghost over the keys, casting long shadows across the even surfaces.

Ace steps up beside her. “Can I hear?”

Kristen looks back at him, eyes flickering between his. Her lips twist into a sheepish smile. “I don’t know, I’m not very…” she trails off, and Ace can tell it’s so much of a lie that she can’t even finish the sentence.

“I want to hear,” Ace decides. He walks around to the other end of the bench, sits down. He looks up at her, waiting.

Kristen blinks, fingers pressed lightly on the keys, still standing as she looks at Ace. “Ace, I-”

“Please?”

Kristen’s mouth falls closed, shoulders squaring slightly at the singular question, and she lets herself fall onto the bench beside him. “Do you know anything?” she says, and Ace knows it’s a last-ditch attempt at trying to avoid the request.

Ace shrugs. “I can play, like, Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He presses his fingers to the keys, plays the stilted notes off easily. They bounce, jilted, off of the stone steps they just walked down.

Kristen lets out a small laugh, a puff of white air escaping her lips as Ace’s hand falls still over the keys. “Lovely. Your rhythm could use a bit of work, though.”

“Didn’t realize this was a critique,” Ace mutters, but she catches the smile on his lips and she rolls her eyes, places her own hand on the octave below his and plays the first few notes. For such a simple song, it’s amazing how much better she plays it. Or perhaps he’s just really, really bad.

She looks at him, and he tries to play it again, hardly doing any better than the first time. “You need to keep time- use your foot.” She taps her the tip of her shoe on his toes beneath the piano.

It turns out he’s bad at that, too. He can’t quite seem to keep a steady beat with his foot and play steady notes at the same time. He can sense Kristen trying not to laugh beside him.

“Hey, we’re not all musical geniuses like you, you know,” he says, nudging his shoulder against hers. She lets out a real laugh, and it echoes off the brick wall in front of them, clear in the chilly air.

“I’m not a genius, I’ve just studied it,” she says, smile laced in her voice. “Here, maybe this will help.” And without warning, she places her hand right over his, fingers over fingers, palm warm against his skin. Something lighter than air gets caught in his throat.

Kristen doesn’t look up at him, doesn’t bat an eyelash, just presses her forefinger down over the note, and it rings out loud and clear into the silence between them. She guides him steadily into the next note, and the next. If they played to the tempo of his heart, Ace thinks, it’d be the fastest version of Mary Had a Little Lamb ever heard.

The song comes to an end, the last note floating away into the air between them. Kristen lets her hand linger over his, just for a moment. When she pulls away, the air against his skin is much, much too cold.

“Thanks,” he says, untangling the word from his throat. “That- helped. A lot.”

“I think so,” she says. The streetlamp casts long shadows across her face, but he can see the glint in her eyes.

Her fingers rest on the edges of the keys, and Ace nudges them because he misses them already, maybe. “Okay,” he says, fully in control of his voice again. “Your turn, then.”

She looks at him. “I just played.”

“Kristen,” he says, raising his eyebrows. “If you think I’m going to let you get away with guiding me through Mary Had a Little Lamb and leave it at that, you’re not very smart.” He smiles at the indignant frown that crosses Kristen’s face. He presses on her fingers again. “But you aresmart, and you know lots of real songs that I want to hear. Please?”

It’s almost comical, how she deflates when he says that word again. She sighs, and he can detect a hint of nervousness by the way she bites her lip before setting both of her hands on the higher keys. She looks up at him, eyelashes casting shadows across her cheeks. “I hate you for making me do this.”

Ace grins. “Come on, haven’t you played for anyone before? Like, besides for a class?”

Kristen blinks, and a beat passes before she says, so soft Ace nearly doesn’t catch it as a siren echoes from somewhere in the distance and the breeze whistles between them.

“No one’s ever asked.”

She glances back up at him, too quick for him to formulate any type of response, before she looks away and presses her fingers to the keys. The notes seem to bleed slowly into the very air around them, seeping from the piano the frigid air.

Her hands move over the keys cleanly and effortlessly, and the sound fills the little corner they inhibit, this tiny part of London carved out just for them.

The notes grow louder, harder as she presses down on the keys. It sounds almost like a bruise, blooming purple and blue in the space between him. Ace wonders, distantly, what she’s letting him have a glimpse of, if he’s feeling even a fraction of what she does when she experiences music because this….this is incredible.

Her hands sweep across the piano, so quick she makes it look easy. Ace stares, mouth open, ears trying to keep up, to hear and enjoy and appreciate every note before it passes.

The notes grow progressively lighter after that, her fingers skittering over the keys, and if Ace had to read this song like a brain, he thinks it might be some sort of catharsis.

The notes flicker away, light and golden as they fade into the night, and he doesn’t want them to go, not just yet. But they do.

The song comes to an end, and as silence settles between them again, vibrations of the piano fading to nothing, all the air feels like it’s sucked out of Ace’s lungs and he’s never wanted to hug anyone, to kiss anyone, this much in his life. He’d so very much like to kiss her.

He wants to tell her that he’d like to hear that song again, that he’d like her to play another one, that he wants to hear her play a thousand more songs, every day, for the rest of his life, because he’s sure he hasn’t felt so much since……

Since before all his nothing. He wants to kiss her.

Kristen moves her hands from the keys, pulls them tightly into her lap and holds them there, looking anywhere but at him. Ace knows he needs to say something, but the only thing that comes to mind is a blind, repetitive, I love you.

It’s bloody amazing.

“I think,” he says slowly, “that was- it was-”

“It was alright,” Kristen says lightly, shrugging her shoulders. “Just something I’ve been working on. It’s not even mine, just a song I like. It’s…you know.” She shrugs again, still not meeting his eyes. Ace wants to kiss her so much his lips almost ache.

“It’s bloody fantastic,” he says. He wishes he wasn’t so terrible at expressing his thoughts, because this is critical. “Will you play another? Will you play five more? Ten more? Fifty?”

That makes her smile, and she laughs, just slightly, looking up at him and meeting his eyes. Her gaze is warm and fond and sweet and oh god he’s fallen in love.

It hits him, hard, and he’s just staring, he knows it, staring and saying nothing and probably looking like an idiot, but it really just all catches up with him, then and there. He’s in love with her, he is, even the way he is he’s somehow managed to fall in love, and he wants to personally interrogate every person in the world about why they’ve never asked her to play a song for them.

“Ace?” Her smile has faded, slightly, as she stares back at him. She pauses for a brief moment, squeezing her hands together in her lap. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” Of course. Yes.

“Is this…” A patch of white air escapes her lips. “Is this a date?”

The question slows the blood in Ace’s veins, and it takes a long millisecond for her words to reach his brain. He’s in love with her, yes, he knows this, but actually facing it suddenly makes him want to run out on Millennium Bridge as Death Eaters attack it.

When he realizes he actually may have to face it, like, right now, it’s as if his breath freezes in the air, and he doesn’t know how to react, how to respond, and each of the heartbeats that pump through his fingertips scream yes, yes, yes.

Finally, he says slowly, “Do you want it to be?”

She looks away, bites down on her tongue, and that, he quickly gathers, was not the right thing to say.

“I mean,” he says quickly, backtracking. His hands are clammy as he twists them around the bottom of his coat. “I mean, I just- want to make sure. Because. If you didn’t, then, that might be- bad. Like, I wouldn’t want to force you. I- I mean, you know, I- I-” Oh god, he’s drowning, he’s drowning so badly his lungs filled with water five minutes ago. “I’m not- very good at this.”

His face is hot and he feels like his body is burning up inside his jacket. The words hang between them and he feels like a complete and utter failure.

When Kristen looks up again, though, there’s amusement laced in her expression. “Obviously.”

“Hey,” he says, even though he knows there’s no arguing, even though he agrees with her, to be honest. But the air feels lighter, suddenly, and he needs a little breath.

“You’re so stupid,” she says, but she’s smiling now. “Valentine’s Day was three days ago, you bring me out all day, pay for my dinner, walk the stupid, bloody romantic streets with me and listen to my music and- you expect me to think this isn’t a date?”

Ace’s throat feels like it’s closing up again. “You asked!”

She sighs, long and slow. “I did, didn’t I.”

He nodes solemnly. She punches him in the arm. “Hey!” he twists away. She grabs his arm. “This is a date,” she says firmly.

“I know,” Ace says without thinking.

Kristen blinks. Ace wants to peel his face off.

And then she kisses him.

Everything goes fuzzy and time feels stretched, everything is moving at the speed of light around them and all that matters are the seconds Kristen’s lips spend on his. Stars fly behind his eyelids and if Ace thought he was feeling so much before, this is too much in a completely different, utterly blissful way.

It might just be the best three seconds of Ace’s life.

Ace blinks fast and everything is so very vibrant, the world feels numb around them and his ears feel like they’ve got cotton balls in them and his heartbeat is so loud and her eyes are wide staring back at him, and he wants to do that again. Very, very much, please.

“Everything is so much better with you,” he breathes without meaning to.

Her cheeks turn rosy in the light from the streetlamp, or they probably already were, and his are too, red as the surface of the freaking sun. Her face blanks out for a moment, just a quick second, before she lets go of his coat and her arms are wrapped around him, her lips are on the corner of his mouth and it’s late and the air is cold against his skin and the Thames flows behind her and London moves around them but Ace is on a date with Kristen, he’s kissing her slowly and he’s in love and everything is warm, warm, warm…

The next few weeks are like flying in blue skies.

Ace spends nearly all his time with Kristen, and they go on dates and she hangs out with Ace’s friends and they all really like her, and Ace really likes her and he’s glad he gets to kiss her, glad he gets to do something about it now.

She makes him feel so many things and it’s amazing, it’s warm and happy and he doesn’t want to land, wants to keep flying in these blue skies forever because there might be a storm down there on the ground, and being on top of the clouds is so much better, so much clearer and colorful and he can breathe up here.

It’s a Friday night in mid-March and he, Sophie, and Ben have finallydecided to finish up their Harry Potter movie marathon after months of hiatus. The difference from before is that it’s not one of his Bad Days (he hasn’t had one in a while), and Kristen’s joined them.

It’s not a double date, really, just four friends hanging out.

“Ace, this is definitely a double date,” Sophie says, wiggling her eyebrows from where she sits on the couch as he pushes the disk into the DVD player. Ace rolls his eyes at her, but something warms his heart as peals of laughter sound from the kitchen, where Ben and Kristen disappeared to make popcorn.

“At least I don’t have to third wheel anymore,” Ace says, a grin curling on his lips as he gets up.

“Oh please,” Sophie, raising an eyebrow. “Do you know what It’s like, being the only girl with the four of you? Mind numbing.”

“Didn’t know I needed to get a girlfriend for you to make friends,” Ace says as he sits down on the couch. Sophie punches him in the arm.

“Hey now.” Ben walks into the room with a giant bowl of popcorn in his arms, Kristen close behind him. He squeezes into the space on Sophie’s other side. “Always knew you two put up an act of friendship in front of me.”

“We don’t love you enough to give that much of an effort,” Sophie says, grabbing a handful of popcorn. Kristen settles on Ace’s other side.

“Neither does Kristen, she wouldn’t even make us drinks,” Ben says, looking over at her pointedly.

Sophie raises her eyebrows. “We’re watching Harry Potter, not getting ready for a night out.”

“He means espresso drinks,” Kristen says. “Like the ones I make at work. Because I can make them with Ben and Ace’s imaginary espresso machine. Hand over the popcorn, yeah?”

The bowl comes to rest in Ace’s lap, and the popcorn is salty and warm on his tongue. “Do we even have espresso?” he asks.

“Doesn’t matter,” Kristen says. “I’m not at Caffe Nero, I’m making nothing.” She takes a handful of popcorn and sits back.

“Wait, that’s where the two of you met, right?” Sophie says, looking between the two of them. “The one by the university? Wait.” Something in her eyes clear. “Ace, that day I ran into you- I bought you coffee. Before Christmas? You’d been- you were there talking to Kristen!”

Something uncomfortable niggles its way around Ace’s stomach. “Er- oh yeah.”

“Oh yeah?” Sophie repeats. She narrows her eyes. “You were talking to Kristen and you didn’t even introduce me?”

“Well, you just kind of like, came in really fast-”

“Sure, blame me,” Sophie says, settling into the couch and looking over him at Kristen. “Help this one learn some manners, please? I must’ve seemed so rude.”

Kristen bites her lip and her eyes slide to Ace’s. “Yeah, I’ll teach him.” Sophie and Ben laugh and Ace feels slightly embarrassed and still a tad ashamed of it all, even though he hadn’t thought of that day in ages. But Kristen smiles, tucks himself against his side and reaches for more popcorn, and Ben hits play on the remote.

 

 

“You should have introduced me to Sophie, you know,” Kristen says later after the movie’s ended, when the two of them are in the kitchen cleaning out the popcorn bowl and tea mugs, because at some point during the movie Ben couldn’t stand it any longer and made some himself.

“Yeah, I know,” Ace says, and he really doesn’t want to talk about this. The hot water streams over his hands and the bowl’s probably clean by now.

Kristen pokes him in the side. “I mean, do you know how jealous I was?”

Ace looks up. “What?”

Kristen rolls her eyes and leans her back against the counter, folding her arms. “Yes, you idiot. You two were all chummy and I’d only just worked up the nerve to give you my phone number.”

Ace blinks. “Oh- I’m sorry, Kris.”

“Well of course you are.” She reaches over to turn off the water, and the kitchen goes oddly quiet. “You let her buy a coffee for you and then you left without even saying goodbye. Sophie’s right, you do need to learn manners.”

Hot shame burns low in Ace’s belly. When he looks up again, though, Kristen has a soft smile on her face. She reaches for the bowl and grabs a tea towel to dry it. “Dunno why I liked you so much.”

Ace curls his fingers around the edge of the counter, fingertips likes prunes. His heart feels higher in his chest. “I liked you, too,” he says, eyes her hands as she catches every droplet on the plastic. “That was my problem, I think.”

There was a bigger problem, of course, but he isn’t ready to say that yet. He probably should.

“I’m a problem, then?” She sets the bowl, dry and clean, on the counter.

Ace nearly sighs. “Will you ever let me say something nice without giving me a hard time?” he asks.

She looks at him, eyes quirking upward as she smiles, just a small one. Her cheeks are the tiniest bit pink. “Probably not.”

Natural defense, uses humor and self-degradation by way of accepting complements. Hits her directly in the heart.

Ace wonders if he learned that in a psychology class or if he made it up. Maybe both.

He shrugs. “Okay,” he says. “If it makes you feel better I felt like a jerk and I really wanted to kiss you that day.” He pauses. “Every day.”

Her face flushes deeper and the faucet drips every few seconds, the light glows dim from the ceiling and they’ve got too many packs of microwavable noodles and not enough cabinet space. Sophie’s giggle drifts in through the doorway.

“Good,” Kristen says softly. “That’s exactly how you should have felt.”

Ace smiles, and he keeps smiling as he leans in to kiss her, and he’s smiling when they break apart, and smiling when she pulls him back in.

“Kristen makes you happy, yeah?” Ben says later, after the girls have gone home. He stretches his arms over his head and leans back into the couch, yawning.

Ace nods, the feeling of Kristen’s lips still lingering on his, a feeling he’s realized he’s gotten used to recently. “Yeah…yeah.” He smiles.

“Good,” Ben nods. “You deserve it. I’m not even going to be mad that you broke our deal.”

Ace punches him in the arm, harder than Sophie done to him earlier.

There’s laughter in Ben eyes, laced with something like relief.

It’s April, and Derek invites them all over to his and Zaire’s flat for Ace’s birthday.

“These are the tackiest decorations I’ve ever seen,” Kristen says as soon as she walks in. Balloons are hung from every corner of the room and HAPPY BIRTHDAY is spelled out on separate pieces of printer paper and taped to the wall, letters in colorful computer ink except for ‘day,’ written out in blue ballpoint pen.

Zaire shrugs. “I ran out of ink.”

Derek puts his hands on his hips. “Of course these decorations are tacky,” he says. “That’s only because Ace loves tacky decorations.”

“It’s true,” Ace says. Balloons are fun, they make him feel five again, not twenty. Kristen doesn’t look surprised.

Derek leads them into the kitchen. “I’ve got pizza, booze, and fruit punch.” He looks around at them. “Fruit punch for Ace, booze for the rest of us.”

“Are we also going to play pin the tail on the donkey?” Sophie asks sarcastically.

“Of course,” Derek says and points to wall behind them. A poster of a donkey with Ace’s head is taped to the wall.

“After about five shots each,” Ben mutters. Zaire claps him on the shoulder.

Ace does end up drinking a considerable amount of fruit punch that Derek spiked anyway, and almost wins pin the tail on the donkey but fails miserably at musical cheers. Zaire and Derek nearly start wrestling over the winning chair, until Zaire ends up straddling a pink faced Derek on it instead. It’s only after they’ve been kissing for seven minutes straight that Kristen declares them both winners and Sophie gets out the cake.

“Fuck,” she says, alcohol long having removed her filter. “We forgot candles!”

The cake is chocolate and covered in sprinkles, Ace’s favorite. Though at this point, with five cups of fruit punch and four vodka shots running through his veins, the cake could be make of toilet paper and it would be his favorite. “That’s okay,” he’s quick to say.

“No, no, it’s not!” Derek says. He begins rummaging through his kitchen drawers. “Ah, fuck, yes! Got one.”

He strides over to the counter and sticks a single cigarette right into the middle of the cake.

“That is not a candle,” Ben says.

Zaire fishes around in his pocket until he pulls out a lighter. He lights the cigarette, a flame that lasts for millisecond and turns into a dull glow before the slow stench of tobacco fills the room.

“Make a wish, Acey,” Derek says, squeezing his shoulders.

Ace’s mind goes blank, and for a moment everything seems to be hanging on edge as if this is the most important decision he’s ever going to make.

Then he meets Kristen’s eyes over the cake, blue and glossy in the bright kitchen lights, and Ben stands beside her with a smile, and Sophie’s beside him and all of them, they’re all smiling and waiting and watching and everything seems so simple, really.

He blows on the cigarette and nothing happens, really, so Derek plucks it out of the cake and he tells Ace to stomp on it instead, right on their linoleum floor.

“Put the hell out of that flame, mate,” Ben says, and Ace feels it, he does, as it goes out beneath his shoe.

The cake is delicious and Ace is surprised until he realizes that Derek didn’t make it, but Sophie and Kristen and he loves it all the more. The six of them eat the entire thing, and Ace wonders if he’s going to puke later. He hopes not.

It’s a fantastic birthday.

He collapses on Zaire and Derek’s couch for the night, Kristen tucked into his side and Ben and Sophie curled in their armchair, Zaire and Derek on the floor even though their bed is a doorway five feet away.

When he blinks himself awake the next morning his head is pounding and sunlight streams through the blinds. He smells coffee coming from the kitchen and only Derek lies on the floor, playing a game on his phone.

His head feels ready to split and he kind of wants to die, but he’s also really kind of happy.

Kristen’s face is pressed into the crook of his arm and some of her hair is in his mouth. When she looks up, her eyes are hooded and her face is slightly flushed. Ace smiles at her. She groans and pushes her face back into his shirt.

“Morning,” Zaire says, walking in with a tray of mugs filled with the strongest coffee Ace has ever smelled.

By the time Ace leaves with Kristen, Ben, and Sophie in toe, feeling rumpled and vaguely part of a group walk of shame, the sun is high in the sky and the air is surprisingly warm. The tube is stuffy and the movement of the train makes him feel nauseous, and by the time they reach the university Ace is ready to collapse in his bed.

“Happy birthday,” Kristen says as they go their separate ways. She reaches into her purse and pushes something into his hands as she presses a kiss to his lips. It’s a CD.

“You wanted to know my favorite song,” she says. Her hair is pulled into a messy braid and her highlights shine in the sunlight. “I decided to give you a few.”

Ace smiles and kisses her once more, long and tasting of coffee. “Thank you.”

When he gets home, he listens to Kristen’s songs until he falls to sleep again.

 

 

 

You know where to find me for no particular reason…

…cause we go a long way back…back to nothing at all…

Ace would like to think he’s reached the end of the road.

When the movie ends, the protagonist gets the girl, or the guy, and they live happily ever after, right? Love means happiness, right? It means fulfilment and contentment and Nothing Bad Ever Again, right?

Ace would like to ignore the fact that a story’s ending might simply be just another plot point, the middle of a different story, a prelude to another climax, or, the worst, the beginning of another story altogether.

It’s as if Ace is trying to grip at air, and it’s slowly sliding through his fingers.

That’s the only way he knows how to describe it, this slow decent back to earth. And it makes him angry, because this isn’t how it’s supposed to go.

He’s in love, the sound of Kristen’s voice swims in his bloodstream, his heart beats to the rhythm of her name and his skin tingles at the touch of her fingertips. He’s in love.

It’s May and classes are over, and he finds he doesn’t really care. The weather’s been better, of course. A bit warmer, a bit more sun. It feels nice.

He grabs for it, this feeling he gets when the sun shines from between the clouds, when Kristen kisses him so hard his toes go numb, when he makes her laugh or she says something about how much she likes him and his heart sings.

He wants to keep his grip on these good feelings, but he’s realizing how stupid he was to think that they could hold him over forever. They’re slipping out of his fingers, little wisps of color and sound, floating away so slow he almost didn’t notice, at first.

“You okay?” Kristen says quietly one afternoon after she gets out of work, free coffees in hand. They’d opted for taking a walk in the cool sunlight, willing to put off schoolwork until deadlines grew a bit direr.

“Yeah,” Ace says, automatically quirking his lips into a small smile. Kristen runs her thumb over the back of his knuckles.

“Yeah?” she says.

“Yeah,” he says again, word slipping softly off his tongue.

She’s not dumb. She knows him, and though they’ve never explicitly talked about it, she knows. It’s probably an important point he should have brought up when they first started dating, but he was a bit more hopeful then.

The thought drags him away, and Kristen presses her thumb against the back of his hand, pulling him back. A bus squeaks to a halt at a stop down the sidewalk. He looks at her.

“Let’s go to the music rooms,” he says suddenly, saying the first place that comes to his mind. The sun’s a bit bright and the coffee’s gone a bit cold in his hand. “Teach me a new song on the piano.”

Kristen pulls him closer, arm against arm, and presses a kiss into the fabric on his shoulder. “Alright.”

“Hey,” Ben says as he walks into their tiny living room. Ace sits on the floor, books and notes spread out around him. “It’s Friday night, what’s all this about?”

Ace looks at him. “I’ve got an exam on Monday.”

It’s true. Except for the fact that in the past hour Ace feels as if he’s comprehended a total of five words and has spent more time with what’s already in his head than cramming more into it. Ben must notice the frown that pulls at the corners of his mouth.

“You okay?” he asks, shoving his hands into to the pockets of his jeans and falling onto the couch behind him. Ace presses his lips together.

“Yeah,” he says, picking up a random sheet of notes and staring at the letters without taking in their meaning. “Yeah, course I am.”

“Dunno about this revising,” Ben says, nudging one of his notebooks with his foot. “We should go do something. See a movie or something.”

“Cause when we’re not watching movies here, we’ve got to be watching them when we’re out,” Ace says, and he’s just joking, but when he glances up again he sees something like guilt flicker across Ben’s face.

“I mean- it was just the first thing to come to my mind, we can do anything,” Ben says.

“I know,” Ace says. He holds back a sigh. It really is pointless to keep on like this when he’s not even getting anything done. “Want to just play some Donkey Kong?”

Ben’s smile is coated in relief, and Ace wonders if he should feel bad about that. “Yeah.” Ben pulls out a Nintendo controller from between the couch cushions, eager enough that Ace is suddenly incredibly glad to have a Friday night with his best friend. Ben’s good like that, keeping him out of his head.

Ace would like to blame his exams.

Those always seem to suck the life out of students, and Ace has certainly never been immune. He sees his friends a bit less, and he tries to tell himself it’s for studying, but most of the time he finds himself in his room with the shades pulled because the sun is bright and it makes him feel guilty, somehow. So he sleeps.

He sees Kristen less. He doesn’t mean to, and he most certainly doesn’t want to. He simply can’t help it.

“Fuck,” Ace breathes into the air between his face and the light of his phone, a text from Kristen lingering on the screen, twenty five minutes old and colored with one too many smiley face emojis than she ever uses.

“I want to make you breakfast,” Kristen says one Saturday morning when he went to bed late and woke up early and wasn’t able to fall back to sleep. He texted her for once, thinking he wouldn’t get a response for a few hours yet, until there was a knock on his door and now here they are, in his and Ben’s little kitchen.

“Why?” Ace asks without thinking, finger etching a pattern into the fabric on her waist.

Kristen rolls her eyes and pecks him on the lips. “If you don’t know the answer to that, then we may as well end this right now.” She pushes him into one of their spindly kitchen chairs and moves to turn the stove on. Pale morning sunlight leaks in through the tiny window over the sink and makes her skin look golden.

Ace feels his lips curl into a smile. “What are you making?”

“Something I knew I couldn’t rely on you and Ben to have the ingredients for.” She rummages around in the plastic grocery bag she’d set on the counter. “You’ll see.”

She ends up making crepes, perfect and warm and filled with sugar and Nutella, Ace’s favorite. The flat is quiet around them, Ben still sound asleep in his room, and it’s nice just the two of them, socked feet touching beneath the table. Ace feels better, and the crepe is so sweet on Ace’s tongue that he feels his face melt into a smile.

“There we go,” Kristen says, smiling into her own forkful of crepe. Her eyes could make him learn to believe that blue is a warm color, he thinks.

“What?” he says, licking his top lip clean.

She shrugs. “My dad, whenever I was sad, he’d make me crepes for breakfast. Or when I wasn’t sad. Or just, I don’t know, he just would. They’d make me happy.”

You’re sad. I want to make you happy.

“Your dad sounds like a smart guy.”

Kristen nods. “He is.” She pauses, takes another bite, continues slowly. “I wasn’t the easiest kid, you know? It was hard sometimes, growing up just the two of us.”

Her words are soft in the still air of the kitchen, eyes focused on the swirl of steam rising from her teacup. “It was a bit lonely, sometimes. Both of us were always a bit too…quiet? Felt like we’d kind of, like, live around each other. I had the worst attitude, still do, I know it.” She meets his eyes, smiling just slightly. “And he was always too…good.”

The Nutella goes sticky in Ace’s mouth, and he swallows, looking at her, not exactly sure what to say.

“I used to think it was because we were too different. Me with my music, him with his…work and television shows. People used to tell me I was like my mum, and I believed that, you know? I wanted to be like my mum. Even though I only had really vague memories of her.”

Kristen pauses again and the silence presses in on Ace’s ears. The air feels heavy, all of the sudden. Ace waits, half of his crepe going cold on his plate.

“My mum committed suicide, I learned that when I was seventeen,” she says softly.  “By accident. I was looking for something in my dad’s closet and found some papers. I always thought she got hit by a bus, but turns out she stepped in front of it?” She phrases the fact like a question, face twisting in a sad little way. She looks down at her plate.

Ace’s breath feels as if it’s stuck in his throat and something heavy sinks to the bottom of his stomach.

She blinks at her plate. “It’s weird, when you kind of look up to someone your entire life, and feel special when people tell you you’re like them, only to find out they had…stuff you didn’t know about. It’s like…I had to rethink my identity.” She swallows. “It was hard, you know?”

Ace’s ears are buzzing. He never, ever would have guessed. Not that people ever can, he thinks distantly.

“I couldn’t…walk any street without thinking, ‘is this is? Is this where it happened?’ I couldn’t stand it,” she says. “I never let myself find out, though. Like, it’d ruin a tiny part of London for me.”

Kristen squeezes her hand around her fork. She looks up. “Sorry,” she says, voice soft and sheepish. “I didn’t mean to go off like that…what was I talking about?”

Ace puts his fork down, clears his throat and gives a tiny, mirthless smile. “Your dad? Crepes?”

Kristen laughs, just a small one, but her hold on her fork isn’t any looser.

Ace looks at her, heart beating with the inadequacy of everything that comes to his mind to say. Finally, he simply reaches across the table and takes the fork out of her hand, lets her wrap her fingers around his instead. This isn’t something she tells people, he realizes suddenly.

“Thanks,” he says into the quiet, “for sharing this with me.” His chest is tight and her fingers are familiar now.

She simply looks up and squeezes his hand, a silent I trust you.

A silent you mean a lot to me.

A silent I’m here for you too.

They finish their crepes in the sunny kitchen, and though they’ve grown cold, Kristen is warm and close, all soft smiles and pink cheeks, and when Ace kisses some of the Nutella off of her lips, it tastes sweet again.

“It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain.” 

Ace reads the writing slowly, etched into a plague on the wall at the entrance of the psychology building. A small Oscar Wilde is scrawled beneath it.

It’s an amazing thing, Ace thinks. The human brain. Capable of suchwonders. But did you know, he wants to ask, did you know that animals can get depressed, too?

He’s pretty sure that isn’t what Oscar Wilde was getting at when he wrote that, but he doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter what the great events are the world are, because in Ace’s world it’s raining. It’s raining all the damn time.

I just want it to stop, he thinks, hopelessly and tiredly.

He passed his exams. He shouldn’t feel like crying.

They should talk about it. Ace knows they should talk about it. He should have talked about it the second they got together. They’ve talked aroundit, sure. And maybe it’s not fair, the way Ace hasn’t revealed a thing about himself when Kristen tries so hard.

He hasn’t seen her for five days, and when the one week mark rolls around, she stops texting him altogether. He’s pissed her off, and he feels awful, and he knows he dug this hole himself but he doesn’t know what to do.

Text her, the voice of common sense in his head tells him. It’s easy, simple, just a few words. Calling her would probably be better, and maybe stopping at her flat would be the best course of action, but. Getting himself to pull up a blank text is difficult enough.

He knows he should. He knows he should do a lot of things, but it’s like he’s got this block, and he doesn’t know how to get past it. An invisible wall that renders him utterly useless to the rest of the world. It makes him feel like garbage, like a waste of air and he knows it hurts people, but he can’t do it.

Maybe it’s a stroke of luck that Kristen shows up at his flat.

“Hi,” she says when he finally opens the door. She’s got a light jacket on and the hallway is dim behind her. Ben’s not home, and Ace finds himself nervous, suddenly, and kind of wishes he was.

“Hi,” he says, mind going blank.

“Um.” She glances around, still standing in the hallway. Ace curls his toes against the cold hardwood and steps back because he’s an idiot. “Right, sorry, come in.”

She slips her boots off beside the door, and it’s a mess, their flat. He and Ben haven’t done any dishes in three days, video games lay strewn on the floor in front of the television, Ben spilled his charcoals the other day and didn’t pick them up, and there’s a pile of dirty laundry building up at the foot of Ace’s bed. Ace bites his tongue.

“Sorry I’ve not been around,” he says quickly, because he knows he should get it out of the way. Kristen just nods, and he knows he’s not forgiven.

“I was- going to text you,” he stutters out lamely.

“S’okay,” she says, even though it’s obviously not. She stands next to the door. “What’ve you been up to, then?”

Ace shrugs. “Uh. You know.” Nothing. He can’t even use school as an excuse, now that exams are over.

“Not really, I don’t actually,” she says, and okay, she’s pissed at him. Ace chews on his lip. She shrugs. “I’ve been moving out of my flat this week though, for the summer.” And- crap. He wishes he hadn’t missed so many of her calls, she probably needed help with that.

“Oh.” His shoulders slump, and he feels like utter shit. There’s no excuse, really. He curls his fingers in on themselves. “Kristen, I’m really sorry.”

She looks at him, folding her arms in front of herself. “I just want to know where you’ve been?” she says. “You always answer my texts, I don’t…”

He should say it, he should tell her, Kristen, I’m so sad all the time and I don’t know why, but it sounds silly, almost, when she’s looking at him as if she requires a substantial explanation.

“I know,” he says. He can feel his palms growing clammy. “I know, I want to, I’m just…I’m shit, Kris.”

Kristen’s arms slide to her sides, but she draws her eyebrows together as he takes a step forward. “I’m sorry,” he says again, quickly, because his heart is beginning to hammer and he doesn’t quite know why he’s so nervous, except that he doesn’t want Kristen to be mad at him.

She reaches forward and takes one of his hands, presses her palm to his, and she’s got to feel the cold sweat that’s broken out along his skin. She looks up at him. “Ace? Talk to me?” she says quietly. She threads their fingers together. “Tell me what you’re thinking?”

He presses his teeth together, closes his eyes. “I’m thinking that I’m a terrible boyfriend,” he says. “You’ve got every right to be upset with me.”

“Ace.” A note of softness laces itself into her voice, and he opens his eyes again. “I’m not- I just want to know why. Talk to me, yeah?”

He needs to tell her. If he wants her to keep him, he needs to tell her. And he’s about to, but instead of words, he begins to feel something like panic build up in his throat.

“I want to,” he says, nearly breathless all of the sudden. It’s a cold, tight hand that wraps itself around his windpipe, and, oh god, not in front of Kristen, no-

“Ace?”

The expression on Kristen’s face changes completely as she looks at him, and he sees it dawn on her face when she realizes exactly what is happening. “Oh, Ace-”

She closes the space between them, wraps her arms around him and pulls him against her, hand at the nape of his neck, soft in his hair and it feels nice, he vaguely registers. His heart is hammering wildly against his ribcage, strings of panic tightening around his lungs, too small to breath-

“Hey, hey, it’s okay, Ace, you’re okay, I’m not mad at you,” she murmurs into his shoulder, voice soft and warm and he squeezes his eyes shut against the fabric of her shirt. He concentrates on her voice and her smell and the warmth radiating from her skin, counting the syllables of her name as his mind races a million miles ahead of him.

“I love you, I love you,” she’s whispering, and it vaguely registers that it’s the first either of them has said that, and he hopes she’s not just saying it because of the situation, but he really doesn’t think she’d do that.

Finally, finally, he begins to feel himself go calm against her, arms relaxing and wrapping themselves around her waist, pulling her closer. His lungs expand and he can breathe again, and he feels exhausted, suddenly.

“I’m sorry,” he says, just above a whisper, into her hair.

“Don’t be.” She runs her hand through his hair and presses her lips to his neck, warmth melting into his skin.

When he pulls back a few minutes later, she doesn’t let him go far, her hands curled into the fabric of his t-shirt.

“I do want to tell you,” he says, glancing at her eyes. They feel puffy, sleepy.

“I know.” Her voice is gentle.

“I don’t want to make this hard for us,” he says softly.

“I know,” she says again. She fingers the collar of his shirt, brushing against the skin of his neck. “I know, Ace.”

He just looks at her, feeling empty and out of words. “I can tell you.”

“I know,” she says one more time. She looks up at him again. “You’re exhausted.” She reaches up, runs her finger under one of his eyes, along the circle she finds there.

He shrugs. “I’ve no reason to be.”

Her expression turns sad, suddenly. Not pitying, thankfully. Just sad.

“Doesn’t matter,” is all she says, and Ace wants to kiss her. Instead, he lets her lead him to his room, and even though it’s only four in the afternoon, they get in his bed and she pulls the blankets over them, holds him impossibly close.

He doesn’t wake up until daylight the next day.

‘Mental illness’ was something Ace never really thought would apply to himself. And maybe that’s been his problem, he thinks. Because he’s more than sad. Sadness is thick, hot tears and gasping breaths, bruised feelings and a wounded heart, a true puncture to the soul. It’s life, really.

He’s sad but it’s dull. It lingers even when he’s happy, and it’s cold, stale tears that find him at the oddest times, for no reasons. He’s sad and itfeels like an illness.

Like the body contracts a fever, a teacher of his had said when he was a first year, the brain gets sick, too.

It’s raining a week later.

“You okay?” Kristen says, brushing a raindrop from his forehead as she leans up to kiss him on the cheek. Exams results came out two weeks ago now and Ace knows he needs to find a summer job to keep his flat with Ben till next year, but his heart – or brain, maybe both – haven’t been in it.

She just got out of work, skin warm and laced with the smell of espresso and pastries. She looks a bit tired, but her eyes are bright, as they always seem to be when she looks at him. Something jabs at Ace’s heart and he wonders, doesn’t understand why it’s him she likes so much.

He means to say it later, when they’re at his flat or hers, where it’s warm inside even though it’s June outside, the height of spring. The warmest brightest month is cold and rainy and Ace shivers, feeling almost safe under the shield of raindrops collecting on his hair.

“I’m-” His next word gets stuck in his throat, because he’s not entirely sure what it’s going to be. Fine. He’s fine, he’s fine they should go to something where they’re both happy and fine.

Kristen’s eyebrows draw together just slightly. “Ace?”

A raindrop slides down the side of her face and he presses a finger against it, just lightly. She doesn’t react and he wants to find safety in her kiss, but he knows he shouldn’t. They’re standing outside Caffe Nero.

“Um,” he says, and they should really go inside somewhere, but instead he sees an awning over a small flight of cement steps leading into a bank, or a shopping store, or a museum, whatever, it doesn’t really matter. He pulls her beneath it, because he doesn’t think he could do this somewhere warm, or particularly quiet. He should do it somewhere they can be alone, and warm, and hear each other clearly, but fear licks at his insides at the thought.

“What is it?” she says, and she sounds like she knows, she does know. Water drips from the awning onto the sidewalk and the cold breeze makes him shiver, but he realizes his hands have been shaking for far longer.

Ace swallows and avoids her eyes, knowing he really doesn’t need to be so nervous. Kristen will understand. She’s made that perfectly clear, but his insides knot anyway. He doesn’t want to ruin anything.

“I’m afraid I’m going to ruin everything.” That’s not what he meant to say, not at all, and when it slips off his tongue he wants to call it back, to stop their path to her ears and start over, because, wow, what a great way to open this conversation.

He watches her eyebrows shoot up. “What?”

“I- I mean, that’s not what I mean to say,” he tries to backpedal. Strings of anxiety wrap themselves around his ribcage, knotting and tangling themselves together, and he’s silent for a moment before Kristen asks, voice soft, “What do you mean to say, then?”

“I’m sorry I’ve been so…” He looks up, eyes finding a tiny hole in the corner of the awning fabric. He focuses on it, tries to find the words. It should be so hard, she literally held him through a panic attack just a week ago. “Like, not answering texts and things. I. It’s hard sometimes?”

When he glances back at Kristen he can’t read the expression on her face, it’s so carefully smooth. He wants to dive into the blue of her eyes, drown in them, be gone. “I don’t know why I- feel this way. Sometimes.” He doesn’t know what he’s saying, a mess of words coming from his mouth and he knows it makes no sense. He mouth feels dry.

Kristen says, expression still carefully unreadable, but body close, “Feel what way?”

“Like I-” He’s never tried to put it into words before, not out loud. His heart beats a million miles in his chest. “Like I can’t breathe,” he finally says, tongue dry as sandpaper. “Like I don’t want to,” he adds softly.

Kristen blinks, lips parting just slightly. “What?”

Ace licks his lips, doing them no good. His hand is clammy when he tries to reach out for hers but for some reason, thinks better of it. “That was- maybe that was a bad way to describe it. I mean, maybe I’m being dramatic. I- I’ve never tried to explain it before-” His mouth races off ahead of him, blabbing excuses and he just wants to her get it and he doesn’t want her to leave him.

He pauses abruptly, the idea slicing through his thoughts. Oh god, what if she left him. What if she realizes he’s nothing very worthwhile at all, too much trouble with all his sad baggage.

Ace.” The sudden panic must show on his face, because she reaches out and takes one of his clammy hands. “Hey, hey, I hear you, okay? Breathe.”

She wants him to breathe, he thinks to himself, before it’s a repeat of last time. She wants him to breathe. He breathes, and she tucks his head into the crook of her shoulder like she did a week ago.

She holds him like that, for five minutes, maybe ten, until his heart begins to slow and he realizes, with warm, honey-sweet relief, that she’s not going anywhere. Cars pass by on the street, tires slick in the rain water. “I remember what you said,” She says, quietly, “Remember? That day after Christmas, at Waterstones. Your favorite mental state- being awake. Being able to breathe.” She pushes the hair off his forehead, hand warm. “Explain it to me, I’m listening. You don’t have to rush.”

Explain it to me. I’m listening. You don’t have to rush.

He meets her eyes. H can tell her, he can tell her anything, and she’ll listen, and she’ll understand, or she’ll try to understand.

He doesn’t know how he found her, or where she’s come from, or how he got so lucky to find such an anchor. Or a buoy, more like, keeping him afloat, connected to air.

He doesn’t mean to say what he says next.

But he means it more than anything.

“I love you.”

Kristen freezes for a split second before she softens, nearly melts into his touch again and laughs suddenly, presses her face into his shoulder and laughs before she looks up, eyes bright, and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth. Ace’s face feels hot, his mind is jumbled with relief and love and he doesn’t quite know what path he’s taking with this conversation, but he knows that he means it completely.

“I’m such a mess,” he mumbles into her hair.

“You’re not,” she whispers. “You’re my favorite.” Her voice is like gold, and she kisses him again. “Now talk to me, love.”

The thing is, she never uses terms of endearment like that- no ‘love’ or ‘sweetie’ or ‘baby’ – they’re all far too cringe-inducing, she’s said in the past. So to hear her say it, to call him what he feels for her, something so simple and sweet, unwinds him entirely.

“I love you,” he says again, voice quiet, and he looks into her eyes, close and blue. “And I’m afraid I’ll mess things up. I…” His voice fades.

“Hmm,” she nudges him on, and the sound of the rain hitting the top of the awning is distant in the background.

His voice is soft as he says, floating thinly though the air, “I’m sad a lot.”

It’s interesting, finally saying it out loud. It doesn’t feel like any sort of revelation, or a great release. It feels like words, and as Kristen presses her fingers against his, he’s simply glad he said them.

I know, her eyes say.

“It makes it hard to do things,” he says slowly, “even though I know I should.”

Kristen rubs circles against his knuckles with the pad of her thumb, and it feels nice.

“And it scares me,” he says, voice barely above a whisper, “because I don’t want to lose you.”

Kristen looks at him, tangles their fingers together. She steps into his space, brings their hands up between them. “It scares me too,” she admits softly.

Hot guilt sinks into his stomach at her words, because that’s the last thing he wants, her worrying about him like that. “I’m sorry,” he says in a rush, but to his surprise, she silences him with a kiss.

“Don’t be sorry,” she says against his lips. She pulls away slightly, a look of deep understanding in her eyes. “Ace, you really think I couldn’t tell, all the way back when I met you?” She pokes him in the stomach, the tiniest smile quirking her lips up. “You think I didn’t know what I was getting myself into?”

He feels a tiny, sheepish smile come over his face. “I guess not.”

She presses another kiss to his mouth. “Maybe it’s not so bad to be scared,” she says quietly against his lips, warm in the cold air that moves around them. “Maybe it means- means we’re both here for the long haul.”

Something warm slips down Ace’s windpipe, and he wants to hug her for eternity. “Yeah?” he says, and his voice breaks only slightly.

“Yeah,” she says. She squeezes his hand. “I am, at least.”

“Me too.”

The breeze pushes her hair into her face, and he untangles one of his hands to push it back. Her eyes are glassy, beautiful and blue and full of so much…love, he realizes. No one’s ever looked at him like the way Kristen is right now.

“Thank you,” he says. He still feels it, dull and pressing in on his heart, but he hopes what he’s feeling for Kristen is stronger.

“I love you,” she whispers before she kisses him again, words swirling into the city and the rain. They feel almost unbeatable.

He texts her, now, whenever he doesn’t feel like he should. Whenever he’s sad. Whenever he panics, whenever he’s bored or tired or aching or hopeless or anything.

He’s learning to be part of a team, and it’s good, so far.

Countries don’t win wars with armies of one, someone must’ve said once.

Or maybe he thought of that one on his own.

Kristen helps him find a job at a pet store, which only further proves that she is, indeed, the best girlfriend in the world. Ace doesn’t quite realize the effects that baby animals have on his mood until he begins working early July. That, and summer sunshine helps.

“Here you go,” Ace says, gently placing a little bull terrier into a little boy’s lap. His eyes light up as he takes the squirming dog in his arms. His mother looks on, smiling and taking pictures with her phone.

“Can I keep him?” the little boy asks Ace, looking up at him with wide eyes, and Ace laughs, giving the puppy a pat. He’s one of his favorites, twelve weeks old and full of a particular spunky energy. Kristen doesn’t believe that the animals can have such distinctive personalities, but Ace knows they do- he knows them, he can tell.

“That’s up to your mum, bud,” Ace says, but he hopes so, very much, that this boy gets to keep him.

A dog, Ace wants to tattoo on his skin, is good for the soul.

The boy turns to his mother. “Mum!” he says, holding the little dog still in his grip. “Mum, I need him.”

“Maybe, love,” his mother says, and gives Ace a knowing smile. Ace is suddenly struck with the desire to argue on the boy’s behalf. He needshim. It’s vital, really, for this boy to have this dog.

It hits him in the throat, and he swallows as he looks back at the little boy, who holds the puppy as if he’s never loved anything quite so much, which might not be true, not yet, but he could.

Several days later, when the boy comes back with his mother and declares they would like to take the terrier, Ace feels his heart fit together, just a bit more.

Things go in and out and some days Ace is fighting and other days he’s drowning and sometimes he feels like he’s won. School starts up in a few weeks, his last year at university, and he’s excited, a bit.

August floats by slowly, warm nights spent with his friends, sunny afternoons at the pet shop tending to the puppies and the kittens and the hamsters. He goes on dates with Kristen and he and Ben drive up north for a Manchester United match one weekend, he lets Sophie drag him to bookstores on quiet afternoons and Derek takes him to fashion shows Zaire’s working in for free. It’s not a bad summer, after all.

The sadness lingers anyways, always, but Ace keeps on.

September comes and maybe classes are too much to deal with too fast. The summer air lingers and he just wants to keep it, doesn’t want to limit his pet store hours in exchange for afternoons of classes and writing essays and revising. He was getting used to handling things the way they were.

He slinks beneath his blankets one morning as his alarm blares from his phone to get him up for his first class, and he finds he simply doesn’t have the strength to reach out and turn it off. It’s been so long since he’s had a Bad Day.

After about fifteen minutes, a knock comes from the other side of his door. “Ace! Are you going to turn that thing off?”

No, Ace thinks in his head but he reaches his hands out from beneath his covers and his phone goes silent. It’s Ben’s day of afternoon classes and sleeping in, and Ace is a jerk roommate and he really wishes he could bring himself to care more, but he can’t, not today. He also wishes he cared about this class he has that starts in ten minutes.

Even if he left now, he’d be late anyway.

So he stays in bed as apathy and hopelessness wash over him in waves and he falls in and out of sleep and he wishes he could hold on to it for just a few hours, because time moves so much quicker when he’s asleep. His brain doesn’t think when he’s asleep. It’s been so long since he’s had a day like this.

He should text Kristen. He knows he should.

He hears Ben leave around one, the door slamming shut behind him and Ace knows Ben assumes he went to class. Ace closes his eyes again and buries his face in the stale warmth of his blankets. His skin feels gross and his mouth tastes disgusting but today the world is a heavy place outside.

His phone buzzes but he doesn’t answer it, just closes his eyes against the passing minutes as his chest contracts because he knows who it is. It’s been months since he let himself ignore a text, even on his worst days.

This, then, is the absolute worst.

Ace squeezes his eyes shut, presses his nose into his pillow until it hurts.

His phone keeps buzzing from time to time as hours slip by and Ace falls asleep in and out in and out until he opens his eyes to someone banging on his door and there aren’t any shadows on the ceiling anymore.

“Ace!” Finally, the knob turns, and the door creaks open slowly. “Ace?”

Ben’s voice is hesitant and Ace knows he knows what he’s going to find. Ace doesn’t move, but his eyes are open and he wonders if Ben can see the light from the hallway reflecting off of them.

“Ace,” Ben says for the hundredth time, and his voice is laced with a sigh and a million unsaid things. ‘You didn’t get out of bed today.’ ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were having one of your Bad Days?’

Whether he knows Ace is awake or not, it must not matter, because he slips into the room, leaving the door ajar just slightly, a slice of yellow light stretching across the floor, and walks over to the side of Ace’s bed. He sits down on the floor in front of his nightstand. Ace watches as a fold in his blue t-shirt catches on one of the handles.

“Ace,” he says again, just one more time, and Ace wonders if his name is said so many times it will cancel out his existence. Ben is silent for a moment. Their flat is quiet and Ace can hear the gentle footsteps of someone moving around upstairs. When Ben speaks, it’s just above a whisper, as if he’s not entirely sure he wants Ace to hear him.

“I wish I knew what to do for you,” he says slowly. “I really, really wish I knew what to do for you. I’m sorry I don’t. I’m sorry that I’m your best friend and I’ve run out of things to say.”

Ace opens his mouth, wants to say it’s okay, and it’s not your fault, andthis has nothing to do with you, but his voice slips away.

“Like, I should know what to do, shouldn’t I?” Ben is looking down at his hands, face in a shadows, touched only by the smallest bit of light from the doorway. “I just never thought it’d go on this long, and I’ve had my share of bad days and I try to understand what you’re thinking, but I don’t-” He breaks off, takes a breath. “I don’t.”

You don’t have to.

“And it scares me, you know?” Ben’s voice drops to a whisper. “Because you’re fighting some sort of battle and I should be there with you, but all I can do is stand on the sidelines and watch, really. Try to give you some ammo.”

Ace feels his fingers curl around a handful of his sheets.

“And it feels so weak. And I’m just- I’m just terrified that one day you just won’t- that you’ll-” Ben breaks off, and Ace grips his sheet so hard his fingers start to burn. “I don’t know. I just don’t know, Ace.” Ben runs his hands over his face. “I’m just- I guess I’m just saying that I’m sorry that you feel this way. You’re my best friend and you’ll always be my best friend, and- I never want you to feel like you can’t ask me for anything.” He lets out a completely humorless little laugh. “Even if I’m clueless.”

Ace’s hand burns around his sheets, and there are so many things he wants to say – ‘I know, Ben,’ ‘You’re the best friend I could ever have,’ ‘I’m sorry for shutting you out,’ ‘You’re not clueless, you’re not clueless at all.’ ‘You do so much,’ ‘Don’t be scared,’ ‘Don’t be scared of me.’ – but the words get tangled in his mind and his eyes burn and his head aches.

“I just want you to be okay. But, you know, it’ll be okay even if you’re not okay.” He looks up, searching for Ace’s eyes in the darkness. When he doesn’t find them, he looks back down at his hands but doesn’t leave. It’s funny, to realize that Ben, artist of all things abstract and confusing, is baffled by such a thing. Except, it’s not very funny at all.

It’s good, Ace thinks, to share dark silence with someone. Like it’s not pressing in on him quite as hard. Almost better than talking, sometimes.

Ben stands up some twenty minutes later, finds Ace’s shoulder in the darkness and grips it, leaving a quiet, “Love you, mate,” in the air before he leaves, floorboard creaking beneath his feet. He closes the door quietly behind him.

Ace closes his eyes and he feels empty, so completely hollow, but he tattoos Ben’s words to the inside of his chest.

You always give me enough ammo.

It’s only a short while later before he hears a knock on his door again. It’s softer this time, and again, the person on the other side doesn’t wait for him to answer before the knob twists and light leaks into the room.

“Ace,” Kristen says, and Ace’s heart drops.

Ben was one thing. Ben’s seen him like this. Kristen has held him as he quivers through panic attacks but she’s never seen him wallow in bed, gross and un-showered and pathetic.

For the first time all day, Ace sits up. His skin feels clammy and greasy and he’s sure his hair is sticking up in all directions, and he’s in some old t-shirt that probably doesn’t smell great. Like Ben, she doesn’t turn on the light, but she does close the door behind her, blanketing the room in darkness.

“Kristen-” Ace’s voice is raspy from disuse, and he clears his throat, running a hand through his hair in the hopes of taming it a little. He pushes his sheets away and tries to stand up.

“Hey,” she says, and pushes him back down on the bed. He can see her face in the pale light, and maybe if this was another universe this would all be a beautiful dream.

“What are you-”

Ace falls silent as she sits down beside him, close enough that their knees press together snuggly side by side. Ace’s heartbeak kicks up, just a little, as if it’s getting used to nearly feeling something again.

“I missed you at Caffe Nero this morning,” Kristen says, voice gentle in the quiet.

“I’m sorry, I-”

She places a finger on his lips, face soft. “Shhh, it’s alright. I know. You don’t have to be sorry,” she says. A small pause. “Ben texted me and asked me to come over.”

“Oh.”

They fall into silence again. Ace holds his hands in front of him, digging his fingernails into his palm, feeling like a kid who’s been caught skipping school.

Kristen must sense it, because she reaches over and pries one hand away, lacing her fingers through his, warm and gentle. “It’s okay, Ace,” she says. “We’ve been through this before.”

Ace licks his lips. “I know,” he says. He does know. “S’not really okay, though.”

He sees Kristen look up in his peripheral vision. “No, I guess not,” she says softly.

Ace sighs. His voice feels croaky from disuse, but he suddenly finds he has some words he wants to say. “You guys are always tell me it’s okay. But it’s not.” He falls silent for a moment, and Kristen doesn’t say anything. The words fall through barely moving lips. “It doesn’t feel okay.”

Kristen is silent, hand gripping his tightly, and Ace lets the words hang in the air for a moment before he says, “Don’t try to say anything comforting. Not today. It’s just how it is. I don’t even know what to say to myself anymore. Don’t think I ever did.”

Another pause, then Kristen squeezes his hand and scoots closer, closes all space between them. Her voice floats through the air. “Say something to me, then?”

Ace’s eyes slide to hers. “What?”

“If you don’t know what to say to yourself,” she says, “say something to me.”

Ace blinks. “Like…what?”

“Anything.” She rubs her thumb over the back of his hand, voice soft. “Just talk to me.”

Just talk to me. It’s all she ever asks for, and it’s always the one thing that’s so hard to give. Even after all these months, it’s still so hard and hereally wishes it wasn’t.

He grits his teeth together. Just talk to me.

Just talk to me.

Justtalktomejusttalktomejusttalktome.

When his voice comes out, it’s strained, almost angry, threaded with pain and exhaustion. “I just don’t want to feel like this anymore.”

He tugs at a loose string on his pants with his free hand, feels the littlesnap snap snap as it unravels from the fabric. He twists it around the tip of his finger, cutting off the bloodflow. Kristen lets go of his other hand, pushes her fingers through his.

“Why can’t I shake it?” he says, and his voice feels thck. “I have everything I could ever want. I go to a great school, study a subject I love, work a pet store, have you and Ben and Derek and- the best friends. Why do I still feel sad? There’s no reason.”

It’s quiet for a moment. “I think,” Kristen finally says quietly. “Ace, it’s okay not to have a reason.”

“But like,” Ace says, struggling for the words. “If there’s no reason, then how can I fix it? How can we find what’s broken? Like- like- I don’t mean to be- but, you know, like when you found out about your mum? And it, you know-”

“Turned me into an desperate mess,” Kristen says, nodding.

“See, you had a reason, there was like- a- a trigger-” Ace stops, running a hand over his face. “I never had one. I just…faded.”

He feels her squeeze his hand, her voice as soft and calm as it always is, and he doesn’t know how she does it, how she handles these freak outs of his, these mood swings with such poise. How she knows that’s what he needs.

“Ace,” she says, and her voice is unusually low, “are you a psychology student or not?”

“I mean, yeah-”

“Then you know,” she says, voice almost strained, “that everyone is different, yeah? Sometimes bad things happen that make people sad, sometimes it’s genetics, sometimes it just…happens.”

And yes, he knows that. He knows it back and forth, but he doesn’t want that explanation. That explanation doesn’t fix things. That explanation feels endless and hopeless and, some days, he curses the day he ever decided to study psychology. So it just happened. So what.

“It just happened,” he says. “I was fine, I’ve always been happy all my life. I was, you know, the cheerful one. I liked everything, life was great. Ben and I came here and we were flatmates and uni was great, and then-” He tucks his thumb into his empty fist. “It just wasn’t. I just wasn’t. It was like, it was slow, but then I just didn’t want to wake up in the morning and I’d never felt that way before. And okay, it just happened, but Kris.” He squeezes her hand, not quite sure what he’s asking for. “I’ve waited months for it to go away, and it won’t- it just- itwon’t-”

Tears spring to his eyes, burning hot and hollow, and his chest hurts, like there’s something trying to slice its way out of him.

Ace can hear Ben walking quietly around the flat outside his door, a distant television playing in the flat upstairs.

“And I feel like,” he whispers, throat thick, “I feel like everyone’s just been waiting for me to be the old Ace again.”

When he looks up and meets Kristen’s eyes, he finds blue swimming in the pale light slotting through a crack in his shade. Ace feels his heart drop.

“Kris-”

She shakes her head, eyes welling over. They soundlessly slip down her cheeks, as if she has had practice in crying silently.

“Kris,” he says again, voice soft. He brings his hand up to her face, thumbs away the tears he finds there. It doesn’t stop them as they begin to fall thicker, faster, silent as stale air and if Ace couldn’t see her crying he wouldn’t even know she was.

She shakes her head again, pressing her lips together so tightly they turn white, tears sliding over them, down her chin and landing somewhere among their fingers. She shakes her head again, takes a shuddering breath, and presses her forehead against his shoulder.

Ace doesn’t know what to do, because seeing Kristen crying has to be one of the most terrible things. He wraps an arm around her shoulders, pulls her closer, so she’s close to him and he’s close to her and he doesn’t know what to do.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers into her hair. For all the pain I’ve caused you, he wants to add. She just squeezes his hand, fingers burning against fingers, and shakes her head against the fabric of his t-shirt.

“Never,” she says, voice muffled, “never say that again.”

Okay.

Things go silent around them and Ace isn’t sure what time is, or how long it’s been since she got here, but it doesn’t really matter as he leans down and pulls her boots off, grabs one of his bigger hoodies and pulls it over her head. Her eyes are puffy in the dim light, glossy reflections as he leans forward and kisses her on the forehead and keeps his lips there.

Ace feels like sadness breathes in the air around them and it’s dark, and bruised, and it thrives off of the salt in their tears, and he wonders why the stars aligned to bring them to this moment.

Things move, and the days grow colder, but knit hats and skin are warm.

Kristen’s there and Ben is there, they’re always there, and Derek is there and maybe, he begins to think one day when Sophie and Zaire pay him a surprise visit at work and make him introduce them to all the puppies, he was wrong about what he thought about his friends.

“We just want you to be you, Ace,” Kristen had said the morning after that Very Sad Night they shared in his dark room. The sunlight snuck around his window shades, peaked through the cracks and coated their faces in pale, bright light. They lay close and entangled, too difficult to say where one ended and the other began.

“Okay,” he’d said, and somehow, he’d meant it.

A few days later, Ben walked with him over to the counseling center. He’d signed his name up on a sheet of paper, hand shaking slightly, but he’d felt an inexplicable rush of relief and gratitude when Ben grinned at him, clapped him on the back and said, “Proud of you, mate.”

Maybe, he thought, it was time for a new Ace. One that he, most of all, would like best.

It takes time. Everything takes time.

“We should go to Spain,” Kristen says one day near Halloween. “It’s warm there.”

Ace laughs, pecks her on the lips.

“Okay.”

The counseling helps, Ace supposes. At least there, unlike in his psychology classes, he doesn’t feel like a subject, like a human brain. He feels like a person. His counselor is nice, his name is Josh, he’s in his thirties and he seems to genuinely like Ace, and he has three dogs.

“You definitely,” Josh said during their first meeting, pen tucked behind his ear, eyebrows raised, “need to get a dog one day, my friend. I should give them half my paycheck, for all the wonders they work.”

Ace knows, he most definitely knows.

And he knows the wonders humans can work, too. Their smiles and their voices and their creativity, their sense of humor and their intelligence and their love.

Everyone isn’t all the different, he begins to realize. Except for the fact that different things happen to each of them. That they’re all born with a different set of events to live out. Except for the fact that they aredifferent.

“You’re not making any sense, bro,” Derek says one day when Ace is at his flat. The potato chips they’re eating are slightly stale but Ace doesn’t mind, licks the salt off his lips and grins.

“I am, actually,” he says, and he feels confident about it. Derek glances up and looks at him, pauses.

“It’s good to see you smile like that,” he says suddenly. “It’s like- the room is sunnier, or something.”

Ace blinks in surprise.

“Oh. Thanks?”

Derek waves a hand, rolling his eyes. “See what you’ve done? You’ve gone and made me all sentimental, I feel like I’ve got rainbows in my veins, you suck.”

“You’ve always got rainbows in your veins, that’s nothing I did,” Ace says, but he’s grinning again.

“Don’t care, you still suck,” Derek says defiantly, raising his chin. Ace eats another potato chip, still stale, but somehow a bit more delicious.

Good days and bad days come and they go, and soon it’s Christmas again, but it’s not as bad as last Christmas, Ace realizes.

Kristen invites him over this year, and he goes over her house for dinner on Christmas night and he’s only a little bit nervous about finally meeting her father.

“We always just get Chinese take away, hope you don’t mind?” Kristen says when she lets him in. The flat she shares with her dad is nothing special, perhaps just a bit bigger than his and Ben’s (but a hell of a lot nicer), and pictures of Kristen at various ages are lined along every wall.

“Course I don’t mind,” Ace says. He loves holiday roasts, but he’s always up for the unconventional. And after everything he’s eaten at his grandmother’s today, the last thing he needs is more mashed potatoes.

“Erm, Dad?” Kristen says as they walk through the doorway into the kitchen. A man about Ace’s height stands at the counter, separating Chinese boxes. He looks up, and he doesn’t look like Kristen, not really, but his eyes are kind and he smiles. “This is Ace,” she says.

“So you’re Ace,” her father says, stepping forward to shake Ace’s hand. “The boy that has enchanted by daughter. Yet it took her months to finally get her to bring you around.”

Dad, shut up,” Kristen says, rolling her eyes. There’s a hint of amusement there, and a certain fondness that Ace suspects Kristen isn’t even aware is there. He feels himself smile.

“You know what, I think I’ll show Ace some baby pictures before I shut up,” her dad says, winking at Ace, and Ace actually laughs out loud.

Dinner is actually fun, and Ace finds himself getting along with Kristen’s dad a little too easily, which has to be against some sort of “first time meeting the father law,” right?

After dinner Kristen takes him to her room. It’s painted a pale pink – “Has been this way since I was born” – but it’s littered with touches of Kristen. Sheets of music, CD’s piled against the window, books and photos and a keyboard at the end of her bed, even a ukulele on a shelf in her open closet. There’s even a picture of them, just one, printed out from somewhere and taped crookedly on her wall. Ace bites back a smile as he nudges her.

“Shut up,” she says. She falls back on her bed. Something behind her catches Ace’s eye. He walks around her bed.

“Kris?” Ace runs a finger down a small frame, perched on her dresser, nearly hidden by books and jewelry and other little trinkets. It’s a picture of a girl who, at first glance, Ace thought to be Kristen.

Her hair is blonder, he realizes upon second glance. Shorter and a bit messier. Her face is slightly sharper than Kristen’s, her shoulders skinnier. Her smile is nice, though, and she seems to be laughing at something off camera. He knows who it is before she answers, of course.

“My mum,” Kristen says, picking up the frame. She looks at it for a moment, brow furrowing. “I think she’s younger than I am right now, in this picture.”

“She’s pretty,” Ace says. He glances up at Kristen. “You look like her.”

“That’s what everyone’s always said,” Kristen says, and there’s a tiny sigh behind her voice. She sets the photo back down.

“Well,” Ace says slowly, contemplating. “You look like your dad, too, I think.”

She looks up, surprise coloring her face. “You think so?”

“Yeah,” Ace says. He looks at her. “You know, just, in a different way.”

When Kristen smiles, it’s slow, but it’s bright, a tentative bright, and she looks away, biting her lip as if she’s embarrassed he’ll see. Her next words surprise him. “I’ve told you how we used to not get along so much?”

Ace nods.

“I think- you know, I used to think it was because we were opposites,” she says. She looks back up at him. “But- that’s not it, really. My dad- he’s probably, like, the strongest guy I know.” And Ace can hear it, in her voice as she speaks about him. “And I think, well. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, I guess, over the past year. I think it’s because we were always so…alike.”

There’s pride there, in her expression and in the way that she says it, but also, Ace thinks, a tiny bit of shame, when she says next, “And I always prided myself on being like my mother. But she wasn’t the one that raised me, you know? She wasn’t the one that put up with me. She had her reasons, but- she left.” Kristen pauses, pushes a piece of hair behind her ear. “And I don’t blame her. I don’t try to understand what she was going through because no one knows, really, but. My dad didn’t leave.” Her voice turns soft as she goes on. “My dad stayed, and he raised me on his own, and he loved me as best as he could. And I never wanted to be like him.” She pauses, swallows.

“Kris,” Ace says softly.

She looks up, meets Ace’s eyes. “But everything I know about loving, I learned from him, you know?” She looks, suddenly, on the verge of tears. “I was terrible to him for so many years because I was angry about my mother.” She pauses again. “Every picture in this house is of me, and I didn’t hang a single one of them.”

Ace steps forward, pushes her hair out of her face. “I think,” he says quietly, “that you don’t realize just how well you love.”

“But I don’t,” she says, meeting his eyes.

“You do,” Ace says. “You do, Kris. You love so well.”

And when he finds her lips, hers are soft, and they’re warm, and they’rethere. And this year’s Christmas, Ace thinks to himself as they settle at the piano in her living room later after her dad’s called them out for pudding, tea sweet on their tongues, is much, much better than last year’s.

Ace sits by the window in Caffe Nero, watching people hurry down the London sidewalk and cars drive bumper to bumper. It’s drizzly out and he’s got a pencil in his hand, and he supposes the tea in his paper cup would have gone cold long ago, if he hadn’t finished it.

“This seat is reserved for eat-in customers only, you know,” a voice suddenly whispers in Ace’s ear.

Ace feels himself smile before she even presses her lips against his cheek and takes the seat next to him, running a hand through his hair. “You cut it. It’s really nice, I like it. Were you hoping I wouldn’t recognize you over here?”

He looks at Kristen and raises an eyebrow. “Exactly,” he deadpans.

She smiles. “Dunno, we all need our alone time…”

He kicks her foot, hooks his ankle around hers. “Nah.”

Kristen smiles at him, and she looks so pleased, blue eyes two half-crescent moons looking at him, looking right at him. And even when it’s difficult (because it can be difficult, sometimes) he’s always looking back.

She leans forward and kisses him. “I’ve got to start my shift.”

“Hmm.” He pulls her back before she can go too far, and she smiles against his lips.

Anything involving Kristen, he’s decided (a long time ago, really) is on his list of favorites. And it’s a long list.

Ace goes to classes. He works at the pet shop and he’s been put in charge of the dogs, and he goes to counseling every Tuesday. He spends time with his friends. He kisses Kristen every day, and he’s better at focusing on his work than he ever was last year.

Things are still hard, a lot of times. He has his bad days and his very bad days, and he has his good days and he has his great days. Kristen isn’t always patient and neither is he, and sometimes he wonders how long this will all last, but then Kristen will tuck herself under his arm when she’s in a mood or simply show up when he’s particularly annoyed, and there’s no reason to really expect an ending, he finds.

There’s no real ending, he thinks. He won’t wake up one day and be able to say, “Okay. Good. It’s over.” But things get better. Things go on. There’s a warm pocket in his chest and it fluctuates, and Ace understands things, he understands himself. He understands his friends (except maybe Derek. He’ll never understand Derek), and he understands dogs, and these are things that matter to him, he decides.

He understands until he doesn’t understand, and that’s okay. Because sometimes, when people run out of understanding, the only thing left to do is love.

And that’s something he can do.

“You alright?” Kristen asks, pressing her lips to his shoulder as they walk down the sidewalk, humming something against his skin. Her hair smells like flowers and it reminds him that soon it’ll be spring. He smiles, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. They’re headed nowhere in particular, but it’s nice to roam without a destination, sometimes.

“Yeah,” he says, brushing a bit of hair out of her face. “I’m alright.”

Her eyes are so nice and blue when she smiles up and him, and the late afternoon sun glows low against lamp posts and car windows. It’s warm on Ace’s face. The air is cool, but the sun is warm, and he can feel it.

Ace smiles.

It’s so nice to feel it.

 

fin.


 

Title cred goes to the song We Were Lovers by the Analogue Affair~

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