Title: the in-between places
Author: uncorazonquebrado (camiii802 on LJ)
Word count: 18k
Warnings: Sexual content, drug use, alcohol, mentions previous suicide attempt
Disclaimer: I do not own Skins, or any of the familiar gen2 characters.
Notes: This fic was written for the skins_bigbang over on LJ, and I can't believe I'm finally posting my baby. Working on this fic has been such a long, exhausting, amazingly fun journey.
A huge thank you to shan_3414 for being the best beta I could've ever asked for, making procrastinating my writing so much fun (too much fun?) and sparing you all from my mad Paint skills a.k.a making one awesome fanmix/cover. And also to em-sh for looking this over/brit-picking and leaving me such lovely comments along the way. I'm not sure I could have done this without you guys, thank you!
In Celtic mythology, the in-between places were places of transition,
neither one thing nor the other.
It was always the two of them. Ever since the first day of primary school when Cook's "Oi, Mowgli" to the scrawny kid next to him earned him a black eye and a best friend in less than ten minutes.
CookandFreddie. Best mates for life.
Cook was never the silent type; all nervous energy and incessant talking. Always moving; running, dancing, fucking. Flying fists and kicking legs. Quick comebacks, seedy comments or too-loud laugh - always delivered with the attitude of not giving a fuck, and living up to it most of the time. Everything he did was an armor of mirrors and smoke screens to keep people out, keep anyone from seeing anything but what he wanted them to. Freddie was always so much more than that.
Freddie was his constant; the anchor that kept him from drifting off too far into the night, get lost, fuck up.
Then came Effy Stonem.
Mysterious, beautiful, broken Effy with her game and secretive smile and eyes that saw through all of Cook's crap.
Cook fell hard. Fell in love and fell to pieces.
He got his heart broken and broke a few himself in the process. Watched in silence as Effy chose Freddie over him - simply because he'd never refuse either of them anything, not really, he loved them too fucking much - even though he knew deep down that she'd tear his best friend to pieces.
He kept it all locked up – the love, the hurt, the anger - played the part of 'Cook' (I'm Cook) and beat himself to a pulp trying so fucking hard to go back to the past that he'd been running from all his life. Back to not giving a fuck and fucking without handing his heart over on a platter every single fucking time.
But then he snapped and Effy broke and Freddie was pulled right down with them.
Watching Freddie break, give up, hit Cook the hardest. That had always been the biggest difference between the two of them; Freddie always fought teeth and nail (and spliff) to get back up, while Cook had long ago built a life for himself at the bottom.
Freddie went to the end of the fucking Earth but he was going further, he'd have to. Freddie was going places and Cook would cheer him on silently from the sidelines because he was - and still is - nothing, but his best friend will always be more than that.
CookandFreddie. Nothing like each other but forever linked together. Always. Best mates for life.
But 'always' crumbled like a burning photograph and life stopped and everything changed.
His fist is flying through the air, knuckles torn and bloody, when the echo of a "Cook, don't" hits him like the crack of a whip; Freddie's voice from somewhere at the back of his head. Then he can't remember anything but the sound of his own labored breathing and the deafening echo of rushing blood in his ears.
The next flicker of a memory is of blaring sirens, people moving around him, yelling.
He's moving under water, drowning. Can't speak, can't move. Nothing but gone and empty and nonono. Blood everywhere, so much of it. Bloody clothes and blood trickling down his hands and blood all over the floor. He's riveted by it: the slow and steady dribble of crimson down the back of his right hand, coming from a big gash on his knuckle. He sits on the floor, staring at it unblinkingly, until someone drags him to his feet and covers his hand with clean, white cotton.
They ask him a million and one different questions but he has nothing to say, can't find the words. It feels like something has been ripped from his insides. Like the string holding a necklace together has been untied; sending the pearls scattering all over the floor. He's in a million pieces of nothing and he's never been good at solving puzzles – always too busy flipping them upside down and stomping on the pieces.
They eventually give up; clean him up and lock him away. The sound of his own heartbeat is like a mocking elegy inside his chest, bouncing off the white walls.
Gone. Empty. No way out.
Freddie is dead. Is dead. Dead.
The thought is paralyzing. Days pass and he still can't shake off the leaded blanket he seems to be covered with. It's not until they start talking about loony bins and hospitals that he manages to resurface long enough to speak up. "It was self-defense," is the first thing he says, jaw locked tight and voice hoarse from lack of use.
To his surprise they actually believe him.
The funeral is held on a Tuesday. He gets a leave somehow, later finds out it was his mum's doing. She probably did it out of guilt from having blown the dead kid and all - but Cook feels vaguely grateful somewhere underneath the nausea that still hits at the idea of his mum and his best friend.
It's not much; a brief glimpse of dark hair out of the corner of his eye as he walks up the stairs of the church, wanting nothing more than to run screaming in the opposite direction. But it doesn't matter. His heart, the bloody, beaten thing inside his ribcage, stutters painfully. Hopefully.
It feels all kinds of wrong so he turns his head away, forces himself not to look.
All of them sit in the same pew, silent and feeling out-of place. Everyone but Effy. Cook sits between JJ and Naomi. He spends the whole service staring at a tiny rip in his trousers, not blinking, until his eyes hurt from it all; there are too many things he can't fucking stand to look at and she won't look at him. He'd feel it if she did. She's sitting between her mum and some tall, dark-haired bloke that he assumes is her brother. Her face is hidden behind a curtain of dark curls and he's screaming soundlessly for her to look up. Fucking. Look. At. Me.
Next to a pale and absent-looking Mr Mclair, Karen's crying, muting the sounds with a hand pressed tightly against her lips. The sound of her quiet sobbing drowns out every other sound in the church, reverberating in his chest until he has to fight the urge to cover his ears. (You find him, you find my brother! He's all I've got)
Focusing on his foot bouncing restlessly against the marble floor Cook loses track of time, feels like he's sinking, and nearly jumps out of his own skin when Naomi suddenly reaches out and clasps his hand, hard. Blinking he looks down at their entwined hands. She's got black nail polish on; it's chipped and worn. He doesn't notice that she's crying silently, until a tear falls from her face and lands on his hand, wetting the tattoo there. Cook.
(I'm a fucking waste of space, I'm just a stupid kid, I've got no sense, criminal, I'm no fucking use, I'm nothing. I'm Cook)
He's buzzing with a current of a kind he can't identify when they lock him back up and it soon has him pacing the small room. Back and forth, back and forth.
He's alive (a fucking waste of space) and his best friend isn't (an aching hole of empty space and nothingness and gone)
He's nothing and nothing good ever stays with him and now Freddie's gone too.
The feeling grows, washes over him like liquid heat and threatens to drown him from the inside. Eventually he snaps, punches his fist into the too white wall. He doesn't feel the pain, goes on beating his knuckles against the cool, unyielding surface. It's not until a white hot spear of pain shoots through his hand and up his shoulder that he stops - nearly gagging - and stumbles to the floor.
It's the first time he's cried and it's ugly; loud and messy and painful and too fucking much.
There's a broken bone in his hand, the doctor tells him, and in spite of all his fuck-ups it is the first time he has ever broken something that seems easily mended.
The next day they announce that they're expecting him to meet with a fucking counselor.
That's when he knows the world is taking the piss, because they cannot be "bloody fuckin' serious!" But apparently they are because Duncan's there, saying something about good behavior and anger management and not throwing chairs around, before more or less manhandling him down the corridor to the counselor's office.
The counselor's name is Rebecca Watts. She's curvy, blonde and looks nothing like a counselor. A psychotic monster in Playboy wrapping.
He pulls a Good Will Hunting on her perfect ass; doesn't speak a word. Spends thirty minutes during their first meeting staring at her rack, only leering even more obviously when she shifts in her seat, having noticed what he's doing. Silently daring her to object; come on bitch, show me what you've got.
She doesn't comment, only raises a pale eyebrow and then begins to talk. She talks about fucking everything, like she's imitating JJ when he's locked on something.
Her current fixation; Cook.
'You should've fucking saved me, you bastard.'
He wakes up with a jolt, drenched in sweat and swallowing back bile. A murmur of voices can be heard through the locked door and the strained sound of his own labored breathing echoes in the dark space.
They can't expect him to do this. To keep breathing, to live through this. People keep talking to him, looking at him like he's actually there when he knows with absolute certainty that there's nothing, absolutely fucking nothing left. Freddie's dead but somehow Cook's the ghost and he can't even imagine a day when it won't feel this way.
Two weeks later he's still not saying a word to psycho bunny, even though her never-ending rant of questions and unwelcome musings are pulling shit up to the surface that he'd really prefer not to look at.
She's walking him out of her stupid bloody office when he makes his move. He pushes her around and up against the door and kisses her because he's still Cook - he has to be, it's the only option left - and he needs to prove a point.
She can't be trusted; she's nothing but a fraud.
But his lips have barely grazed hers before he's slammed face first into the closed door; good arm locked behind his back. He struggles, reacting instinctively to being restrained, but she's surprisingly strong for a freaking pint-sized girl and he's not really looking to break another bone. Surrender leaves a bitter taste at the back of his mouth, and she's barely loosened her grip before he sends the first thing - an expensive looking lamp - flying, shattering against the wall.
"I never liked that ghastly thing anyway," Dr Watts shrugs after a moment's silence, not really looking at him. "See you tomorrow, James."
Cook swallows, confused, suddenly feeling completely drained. He's halfway out the door when he stops, turns around, "Name's Cook."
"Have you ever loved someone?" He's back in her office a couple days later, elbows on his knees and foot tapping restlessly against the carpet, and saying the first thing that comes to mind. She opens her mouth but he cuts her off, "Like, really fucking loved someone? Heart ripped out your throat-love?"
Blue eyes. Dark curls. A slow smile and the smell of the sea. Fucks and fuck-ups.
Days pass; blurring together in a never-ending current of . There are a few tiny maroon blotches on the wall of his cell from where his knuckles hit the concrete hard enough for the skin to tear. He has lost count on how many times a day his gaze flits to the tiny marks. His blood is on the wall the way Freddie's must have been and it feels good somehow, like atonement.
Cursing under his breath Cook walks down the hallway and pushes some coins into the pay-phone with well-practiced moves. He is halfway through dialing the number when reality hits him and stops him mid-move, the room swaying around him.
Freddie won't pick up.
"There was this one time," he begins, the silence in the room is too much, grating at his insides and he needs to fucking say something. "Freddie and me, man, we were kids. Second, third grade or somethin'… I decided to climb the roof of this old shed. Right outside the women's locker room down at the health centre it was, perfect view."
Dr Watts snorts in barely concealed amusement and for once it's all the encouragement he needs to go on. Leaning forward, elbows on his knees, he clears his throat, picking at a piece of string circling his wrist. He can't remember when he tied it there.
"Freds wasn't feeling it. Funsponge even then. But I went anyway." He loses himself in the memory, skidding down the roof, splinters everywhere. "…he never said told you so, yeah? Just dragged my arse back to his place and had his mum get the splinters out," He laughs at the memory and nearly jumps at the sound, stops.
Dr. Watts looks at him solemnly, brushing a tendril of hair from her face. "It's okay to laugh, James, it's a funny story."
Cook looks away, doesn't reply. He doesn't feel like talking anymore.
"Then what did you do?"
"I fucked her best friend."
"Did you have feelings for that girl?"
He gives a jerky shake of his head and rubs a hand over the back of his neck, guilt scraping at his insides.
"Then how come you slept with her?"
He shrugs, swallowing around the lump in his throat. "I'm Cook."
He has put as much space between himself and Dr Watts as possible, pacing like a tiger in a cage at the far corner of the room. He can't breathe, the neckline of the grey sweatshirt is too tight and there's not enough air in the room to provide his struggling lungs with oxygen. Not enough. Nothing. Freddie's gone and he's nothing and he can't breathe.
There are spots dancing in his vision, blurry streaks of gray racing back and forth, and the taste of copper in his mouth. He can still smell the blood; feel the nauseating wave of realization crash over him. The room sways, and he stumbles into the wall, knees giving out.
I'm no fucking use. Freddie is dead. I'm nothing. Is dead. I'm Cook . Dead.
"…I was pissed, yeah? Still am. He fucked her up…we fucked everything up and he decides to skip out? Just take off into the sunset, leave Effy. Me." He says it quietly, scrubs at the drying tear tracks with the heel of his hand, embarrassed now. The words are barely audible and brittle like singed paper because it feels like the worst kind of betrayal. To still remember the fiery ball of anger at the pit of his stomach when what he did next was so much worse. "I told him 'grow up' that I wasn't putting up with any of it anymore. Said I was done." He can feel the doctor's eyes on him but he can't look at her, wouldn't still be in the room if his bones didn't feel like they'd disintegrate if he tried to move. "I told him I was done and he died."
When they tell him he has got a visitor one day, Cook's barely able to hide his surprise. The memory of a guarded smile flickers at the back of his head for a second; knocking the breath out of his lungs even though he knows it's not her. It can't be. Please don't let it be her.
The sound of rushing blood is loud in his ears as he walks through the door of the visitation room, breathing a sigh of relief at the sight that awaits him.
It's JJ. Looking uncomfortable and nervous and just the same, and when they hug Cook has to squeeze his eyes shut against the sudden sting. "Looking good, J." He points out, collapsing into the uncomfortable plastic chair, aiming for his usual casualness but not quite getting it right. JJ does look good. Uncomfortable and nervous but good. Coping. Alive. "How's the lady?"
(Don't mention him. Don't ask about me. Don'tdon'tdon't.)
"Oh, Lara. Right. She's fine." JJ stutters, hands fluttering like butterfly wings – brushing through his hair and tugging at the collar of his t-shirt. Something's wrong and Cook can feel his throat tightening in response.
"J-" He somehow manages to keep his voice steady, but subconsciously folds his arms across his chest, "Talk to Cook, man."
JJ finally looks back up at him, his voice quiet and unsure. "It's Effy."
The rains falls in heavy drops, leaving everything soaked and smoothing the edges of the world to a blur of grey tones. The gravel crunches wetly under his feet as he trudges up the driveway, head bowed against the wind sending shivers down his spine.
The building ahead looks like a cheap Buckingham Palace-wannabe in the gloomy November weather. The windows are tiny squares of soft orange, barely visible through the rain, and promising a safe haven from nature's ill-tempered behavior.
He stops in the middle of the driveway and for the millionth time tries to understand what the fuck he's doing there - he can easily think of a dozen ways to better spend his half-day of closely monitored freedom. The device around his ankle itches, and he uses his other foot to rub at it through the fabric of his trousers, briefly wondering if the bloody thing is water proof or if he might be able to cut it off. Not that it'd make a difference anyway. He's too tired to run this time; a weary kind of ache constantly pushing him down.
He shivers as he walks down the hallway in the direction given by a strict-looking male nurse, soaked trainers squeaking against the linoleum floor. His feet become heavier with each passing step until he's standing still; staring blankly at an atrocious looking painting on the wall. He knows he's stalling, but can't quite bring himself to move. She once told him he was brave, but he's really not, least of all when it comes to her. When it comes to Effy he's chicken shit.
There's a sign on the wall a few steps away telling him he's actually reached the room he's been looking for and suddenly he's on the move again. Throwing himself into the deep end before he runs screaming in the other direction.
She's lying in bed with her back to him as if she's looking out the window where the rain is still pouring down. The cardigan she's wearing is too big, reaches halfway down her thighs and he'd recognize it anywhere. He moves carefully, quietly, as he walks up to the window and looks out, the rain reducing the world to nothing but a blurry haze. A quick glance over his shoulder sends a wave of tiny sparks through his system. Effy's asleep, dark eyelashes casting spidery shadows against her pale cheeks. She looks just the same, no new scars this time around. At least not on the outside. Suddenly nauseous, Cook has to divert his gaze. Deep breaths fogging up the glass.
"What, no umbrella?"
He starts, turns around and meets her eyes. Blue. So fucking blue, seeing right through him. For a second everything stops – frozen somewhere two years ago when everything was simple and exciting and 'sweet' – but then she blinks, lets her gaze wander over his dripping form and her lips quirk into a tiny smile that doesn't reach nowhere near her eyes.
"I…" He falters, fighting the growing sense of being caught in a strange, outlandish dream. "Did you-" He moves closer, staring at her disbelief. "…What?"
"It's raining," she shrugs, staring at something behind him.
Her lack of emotion hits him somewhere raw inside his chest and no. It's not fair. He saved her, kept her from ending up like road kill and it's just not fucking fair that it doesn't seem to matter anymore. That perhaps it never did.
He doesn't realize he's pacing until he nearly walks right into an armchair, muscles tense from the need to do something, anything. He wants to turn the world upside down, clear it of razors and speeding cars and poisonous pills. Hide her away in a cave or get in a car and drive, drive, drive 'til the end of the Earth. Hunt Dr Foster down and kill him. Kill all the bad men and the monsters in her head.
Keep her safe, because even if she won't stay with him he still needs her to stay.
"Fucking Hell, Eff." It comes out choked and Cook swallows, all his fired up energy dying as quickly as it flared up.
"Why-" he doesn't finish the sentence, afraid she'll give him an honest answer. Footsteps echo out in the hallway as he sits down with his back against the wall underneath the window, resting his arms on drawn up knees.
"Freds… Freddie fucking loved you." There's no reaction from the pale imitation of Effy on the bed. "He loved you," He says again, more force behind his words, this time feeling her eyes on him and keeping his firmly on the floor.
It has become a mantra; tattooed on his mind. He loved her, he loved her, he loved her. (I love her, I love her, I love her. I love you)
"I love him." Her voice is barely audible, frail, and he can tell she's close to tears. "And he's dead. Freddie died, and I -"
Realizing his cheeks are wet; rain from his hair mingling with tears he hadn't noticed crying, Cook scrubs a hand roughly over his face. His head hurts, a dull kind of ache behind his eyes, and he's still so fucking tired. "I know."
She sniffles, and he can hear the rustle of blankets as she moves. She's crying. Effy is crying and there's nothing he can do about it this time, no remote town to run to, no drinks to down. It's enough to make his skin crawl.
"What are you doing here, Cook?"
Fresh tears burn behind his eyes and he forces them back, swallowing hard against the truth that's clawing its way up his throat.
"He loved you."
It's all he's got to offer, all he can afford to say and the lie slips past his lips effortlessly. Let her believe he's there out of a messed up sense of obligation and nothing but.
There's no reply this time and the silence stretches out. The rain pelts against the windows, mixing with the sound of their breathing. Cook shivers, his head is fucking throbbing and he's cold - chilled to the bone - and everything still hurts too much but he hasn't felt this…safe, in months. His head comes to rest against his arms, eyes falling shut as the final tension seep from his shoulders.
The world is calm behind his closed eyelids.
"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news…but blue is not your color."
Cook frowns, and then promptly flinches as it causes the bruised and swollen skin around his right eye to stretch uncomfortably. "I'll keep that in mind."
"What?" Cook snaps, "Fucking walked away, I did! That prick was riling me up, man, and I fucking walked away like some scared lil pussy."
He had, and the mere thought of it still burns acidly in the pit of his stomach. He's Cook, he doesn't back down. Except he did, and look how that turned out; being pushed face first into a fucking concrete wall. All he wants to do now is to be left alone to lick his wounds in peace, but no, he has to sit in Dr Watts' stupid office and talk. He's so sick of talking.
"He went at me from behind. Got me good and proper, didn't he?" He spits, humiliation burning its way into his voice. "And I'm all for trying your Gandhi shit and all, if it gets me the fuck out of here sooner than later. But you don't go around jumping at people from behind, not even that toga-wearing pacifist would have put up with that shit."
Dr. Watts is silent for a moment, eyeing him carefully. The look in her eyes unreadable, then; "From what I've been told, David Nicholls looks even worse than you do."
"Fuckin' pussy fights like a girl."
She tries to hide the tug of her lip, but it's enough to let him know she doesn't necessarily disagree.
There's a collection of postcards in the drawer next to his bed. Ridiculous, kitschy ones of donkeys wearing sombreros and girls in string bikinis. Neon letters screaming out names of places he's never fucking heard of, all of them from Naomi.
So he has a drawer full of postcards, but only one picture on the wall.
('best bros for life')
Time is ticking away, the sound of it like a ticking bomb at the back of his head. His time is almost up. Freedom. Reality. An explosion of possibilities.
It scares the hell out of him.
The four white walls that used to feel like they were closing in on him no longer give the same suffocating feeling. He's gotten used to the lack of space. To the blissful lack of choice and the ability to pretend nothing has changed on the outside; that everything is still the same as the first time he got locked up. Freddie alive and still with Effy and both of them doing just peachy without Cook there to mess up their lives.
The last meeting with Dr Watts is different. Like before he gave up the pretense. He's back to quiet, deflecting her questions on pure instinct.
"You freaking out on me, James?"
The light-hearted question and the teasing smile in her voice have him looking up, ignoring the sting of nervous fluttering in his chest, forehead dipping into a frown. "What?"
"It's okay you know, it's a scary world out there."
As usual she's right on spot with her stupid comments, stirring up a nauseating whirlwind of butterflies in his stomach. "Nothing I can't handle, Becks." he replies, forcing a grin. Attempting a subject change by using the nickname that she's deemed inappropriate at least a dozen times, "I'm Cook." Even his go-to-explanation feels worn out and bleak.
She nods with an exasperated roll of her eyes, not approving of the nickname, but then turns serious, "You're more than that."
Cook starts, blinks, forced smile faltering.
He's still not convinced she's right about that one.
The world has grown. Without the heavy November clouds making the sky appear less infinite the vast stretch of blue feels overwhelming. Cook squints against the bright sunlight, drawing a blurry line in the gravel with the toe of his sneaker, swallows. His foot catches in the handle on his bag and he kicks it absentmindedly, swallows again, hands tightly locked in fists inside his pockets.
His head snaps up at the sound of JJ's voice, eyes flitting over his friend. Same hair, same ridiculously colorful clothes but a different JJ. "Yeah man?"
"Ready to go?"
No. Cook holds back on the instinctive reply, and silently berates himself for the near slip. He sucks in a breath, throws a final look over his shoulder before picking the bag off the ground. When he stands back up straight again his shoulders are squared; ready for battle. "You know me J, I was born ready."
Staying with his mum feels more than a little weird. Off. But it's not like he has anywhere else to go, really. She's surprisingly sober when he shows up, but her obvious unease around him is a sure sign it won't take her long to reach for the bottle she's got stacked in one of the kitchen cupboards.
His 'first night of freedom' as JJ calls it feels like anything but exactly that. He alternates between feeling like a trapped animal or throwing glances over his shoulder, waiting for someone to walk up to him and handcuff him at any second.
They head down to the pub and Cook gets absolutely trashed. Shitfaced. JJ ends up having to practically carry him home and in the morning he wakes up on the couch to some kid's show playing too fucking loudly on the television and Albert smearing his cheek with jam.
It's been almost a year.
When the maelstrom in his chest grows too big he walks; desperately trying to find his way without knowing which one is the right one or where it leads. Slowly, hands in his pockets and eyes firmly fixed on the ground, nothing like the carefree way of walking he lost the instance he chose to follow after psycho-doctor-fucking-Foster.
There are places he doesn't go. A lot of them. Places and streets which are too familiar, too heavily laden with memories.
Suddenly a smaller hand slips into his, a cheek resting against his lower arm. "I've missed you."
It's spoken quietly, but still hits him hard; sending crashing waves of aching warmth and worry and love through his system. He swallows, wrapping an arm around still scrawny shoulders and fuck, he's missed this too. Sometimes it feels like missing things is the only thing he does.
"Missed ya too, Pads."
It's been a year.
It's still too much. It will always be too much and him not enough. He's tried to block it out but to no avail. One whole fucking year and still all he has to do is close his eyes and he's back. Back in that room with the smell of blood fresh in the air, so thick he's choking on it.
He walks down the familiar street, around the house and into the back garden without really thinking; drawn like a moth to a flame and itching to burn. The bottle is warm from where his hand has been closed around the neck of it and he's not sure how long he's been carrying it around when he reaches out for the door handle and pushes the door open.
The tide of memories is so strong it nearly knocks him off his feet.
Cook stops, squishing his eyes shut hard to regain some level of control, before looking up and nearly jumping out of his own skin as he realizes he's not alone in the shed.
Blue. So fucking blue, seeing right through him.
Effy doesn't say anything, silently watching him from her position on the couch. She's been crying, he can tell, but her eyes are dry now. Moving further into the too familiar room, he leans back against the mirrored wall and slides down until he's sitting on the floor. The smell of Effy's glowing spliff sweetens the air, and he can almost hear the echo of Kylie Minogue playing at the back of his mind.
He twists the cap off the bottle, throws back a mouthful of vodka and pretends it's the burn of the alcohol that makes his eyes sting.
It's hard to say how long they've been sitting there when Cook gives in; when the reality of it all becomes too much and he has to get out. Away.
He gets to his feet, slowly and sluggishly. Stumbles and stops as the room tilts. The night air is cool around him as he staggers through the door, his eyes inevitably drawn to the dark window on the second floor of the house (no light, no Freds, no nothing)
Closing his eyes he leans back against the wall and exhales slowly. The breath that leaves his lungs is shaky and long; a purging of emotion he's struggling to hold back as the darkness sways around him. His stomach churns, protesting the amount of alcohol he's swallowed as well as a lack of food, and Cook focuses on breathing, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.
Then suddenly there's a shift in the air, a thickening of the darkness that has the hairs at the back of his neck standing and sure, as he turns his head to the left Effy's standing a few feet away. She looks almost translucent in the dark, like she's barely there at all. Cook opens his mouth to speak, to say what he doesn't know, but something stops him and when Effy turns around he follows her without a word.
She walks hastily through the garden, head bowed and arms wrapped around herself, not once stopping to look back and see if he's followed. Well out on the street she turns left with Cook still a few steps behind, trudging on in a drunken haze. He should probably say something, anything, but he remains silent. He has been lost for so long and the familiarity of following her wherever she goes – running away, hiding out, the two of them together – is a welcome comfort.
It could be minutes or hours later when they walk through the door of Effy's house. Cook has long ago lost all sense of time, feels like he's caught in a dream. Sleepwalking. The house is empty, no lights left on to guide their way up the stairs. The scent of her hits him like a blow when they reach her room and stops him in his steps. He hovers on the other side of the threshold, swallowing down the tightness in his throat, suddenly wide awake. He shouldn't be there; a voice at the back of his mind reminds him, but then Effy turns around and looks at him.
She doesn't seem surprised to find him hovering in the doorway; only walks up close enough for their breaths to mingle. Her eyes are glassy, impossibly dark as they meet his, and Cook falters. "Eff, wha-"
"Don't," she cuts him off quietly, putting a finger against his lips and making them tingle from the light touch. He obeys in spite of the questions burning in his throat, fingers curling against the palm of his hand to keep from reaching out for her.
He tries to speak up again, can't stop himself, but she shakes her head; finger pressing harder against his cupid's bow. There's a million emotions playing in her eyes and it's not the first time he contemplates the fact that she can see right through him, fucking knows him, and still there are times when he barely recognizes the mysterious creature in front of him.
Effy kisses him first. Just like the last time but now there's no sound of roaring engines to drown out the sound of his heart pounding inside his chest. His response is instant, fucking Pavlovian at this point, and he doesn't waste any time deepening the kiss.
Her skin feels familiar underneath his fingertips as his hand slips under her shirt, pulling it over her head, moving for his own next. Effy is already working on his zipper as they stumble further inside the room, lips never once losing contact.
This has always been the easy part. The giving in to the undeniable tension, the want, that simmers between them and damn the consequences. Fucking her has never meant nothing to him, never been mindless no matter what he's said in the past, how could it be? But it's always been easy, felt right. It's only afterwards that things have gone to shit before.
Her hand slipping beneath the waistband of his trousers jolts him back to reality. Groaning into the kiss his hands find her tits, making her squirm against him. He is hard, warmth pooling at the pit of his stomach, pushing away the lingering doubt and leaving no room for anything but Effy. The taste and feel and sound she makes as he pushes into her.
For just a second time slows down and everything's easy. Nothing but them, this, now, and he wants to hold on to it. But then Effy moves, urging him on with hips and hands and lips, breaking the spell.
The first time the name that's not his, but equally familiar to his own, falls from her lips he swallows it in a kiss and fucks her harder. As if he could erase the name from her mind using sheer force. Squeezing his eyes shut and burying his face in the sweat-damp crock of her neck, Cook forces any coherent thought out of his mind. He can't think of that now. Ever. Pushing his hand down between them he finds her clit, rubbing it hard, just right. He knows her body, better than anyone, better than him. He forces the climax out of her and lets her flexing muscles push him over the edge; pretending he doesn't hear his best friend's name echo in the silent room as she comes.
He reaches for her before he's even fully awake. Finding nothing but cool cotton sheets next to him he forces his eyes open, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the bright sunlight streaming through the curtains and sending shockwaves through his pounding skull. There's a foul taste at the back of his mouth and he feels like he's been mauled by a small truck but there's no time to think about that now because Effy's gone.
Sitting up much too fast he swallows back bile, only relaxing when his searching gaze lands on a familiar form. She's in the corner, knees drawn up and arms wrapped tightly around herself. Her hands are hidden in the too-long sleeves of a familiar looking cardigan and now Cook feels sick for a whole other reason. The ghost in the room is back. He picks his shirt off the floor and puts it on, reaching for the trousers next.
His skin feels too tight, like there's too much underneath the surface that needs to come bustling out and he simply can't allow it. He'd be all over the walls if it did. It's like she has scattered all the pieces of himself that he has managed to put back together, and in that second he hates her. Wants nothing more than to rip his heart out of his chest and force it down her throat until she gags on the shredded mess it has become. Because maybe that would make her see. Perhaps then she would understand that he would do anything for her – he would be anything or anyone as long as she'd have him. Anyone but Freddie.
He can feel her eyes on him as he slips his shoes on, and he wants to ask her if it worked. If fucking him and pretending he was someone else – his best mate - did the trick for her, or if the whole point of it was for it not to feel at all? To be mindless and empty and everything he's never believed the two of them were before this minute.
He sees things differently now and it hurts, and the guilt is tearing at his insides. Turning around despite his better judgment he finds her in the same position, eyes downcast, lost somewhere inside her own mind.
He barely makes it out the front door before throwing up.
The streets pass in a blur as he walks; wandering aimlessly but unable to stop. There's a deafening noise building in his head, a cacophony of screaming voices and crackling fires and broken moans and Cook wants out. He can't take it anymore, it hurts too much or not enough and he's so bloody tired.
At some point his never-stopping feet find a direction, and it's not too long before he finds himself on the front-step of a familiar building, ringing the doorbell before he can second-guess his decision. Moments pass, and suddenly there's a movement behind the glass, and Cook's not sure coming here was such a brilliant idea. He wouldn't have, if not the mere thought of downing another bottle of vodka or swallowing another bunch of pills to try and forget made him gag, and being alone is simply not an option. He doesn't trust himself enough to be without company.
Either way he doesn't have time to react – leave - before the door's pulled open. He visibly deflates, the bone-crushing sense of fatigue winning the battle.
"Cook, you alright?"
He shrugs, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on a spot somewhere above her head. Lips pressed together so hard it hurts before opening his mouth to offer some offhanded reply but no words come out, only a half-laugh that sounds like he's choking on it.
There are arms encircling his neck before he knows it, and he finds himself with his face buried somewhere in a mass of blonde hair as he returns the hug. Holds on for his fucking life and draws in a shaky breath.
(I'm sorry, I just really fucking love her. Love you. Sorry. Miss you. Sosorrysosorrysosorry)
Emily's voice filters through the air, and he can feel Naomi give a quick shake of her head but he doesn't move, doesn't speak; does nothing. Is nothing.
The smell of too-strong tea wakes him from his restless slumber and Cook buries his face deeper in the frilly cushion, bites back the sickening roll of his stomach. He doesn't want to wake up, he's too tired. Even breathing feels like too much of an effort.
The fingers brushing lightly over his temple startles him a little, but he finds himself leaning into the touch without thinking.
"I'm sorry." The hand comes to rest on his wrist briefly, warm and steadying.
"Hm?" His reply is muffled by the fabric of the cushion, confusion working its way through the thick, angry wall of guilt and self-loathing.
"I'm sorry I left," Naomi's voice is soft, quiet. "With Ems, after…we should've stayed…been here."
"'s alright," he croaks, face still buried, clears his throat. "Sorted."
At a loss for words, his hand finds her shoulder after a second's blind fumbling, squeezing it briefly. A hand covers his, warm from holding her mug of tea, their fingers intertwining. Naomi doesn't say anything and he's slowly drifting off to sleep again, safely anchored by her hand in his.
"Cook, are you okay?"
The question is barely a whisper this time, as if she already knows the answer and is terrified he'll prove her right.
No, he's not alright. Not even close. Too exhausted to lie, he swallows against the ever-present lump in his throat, grateful she can't see his face from where she's sitting with her back against the couch. "No."
Naomi squeezes his hand a little harder and he can hear her draw in an unsteady breath, getting her own emotions under control. "Okay."
It starts out like any other night since he got back out; with a party. Even though it's the last thing he feels like doing, it's the only thing that feels vaguely normal. The routine is simple and well-practiced. All it takes is downing a couple of lagers, popping a few pills and ignoring the disapproving looks from Naomi and Emily as he heads out.
The club is packed. A few more shots and another bunch of pills handed to him by a guy who looks somewhat familiar and Cook's gone. Comfortably, dizzyingly numb enough not to think. Remember. Feel.
It's fucking perfect. He loses himself in the moment. In the beat of the music and the flickering, disorienting lights and the push and sway of sweaty bodies moving around him. He feels good, almost at peace, like nothing matters. But then something happens, the colors become too intense, the music too loud, heart hammering too hard in his chest and he needs to get out. He stumbles through the crowd, pushing weakly at the bodies blocking his path when he sees him. Foster. Right there, a few steps ahead, looking at him with dead eyes. It's nothing more than a flicker of a memory, but it's enough to send his brain reeling, breath catching in his throat as an idea hits him like a fist.
He's going to die.
Foster is going to kill him, like he killed Freddie and almost Effy too and Cook has to get out but his legs won't move fast enough and he's so very fucked.
He runs, stumbles on trembling legs and somehow makes it outside but doesn't stop, only runs faster. When he finally comes to a stop it's only because he's too out of breath to run any further; leaning back against a brick wall and desperately trying to pull enough air back into his lungs. Skin crawling with the feeling of being watched, followed, it doesn't take long before he's walking again.
Two hours later, as the trip is finally beginning to wear off, he's still walking.
"Get up." A splash of cold water hits him right in the face, causing him to splutter and sit up to keep from choking.
"What the fuck?" He coughs, wiping water off his face and blinking at Naomi through wet eyelashes.
"Sober up, get your ass off my couch…shower, and…fucking do something!" Naomi snaps, sending another dose of icy water splashing on his face.
"Girl, what the-"
"It's been forever, Cook." Naomi goes on, "You can't keep doing this."
Can't keep doing this, whatever 'this' is. Cook shivers – his t-shirt soaked in places - rubs the back of his neck. He can't explain it. It's so different from the grief and the anger; this feeling that glues him to the spot, paralyzed, thinking 'now what?' (nowwhatnowwhatnowwhat)
"Am I gonna have to go get more water?" She interrupts his weary plea with a hint of humor in her voice, empty glass still clutched in her hand.
"Naomi," he shakes his head tiredly, feeling like it's an alien part of him that could fall off at any second, "I can't," he trails off, still not able to find the right words.
"Of course you can," Naomi's voice softens in an instant. The glass makes a clinking sound as she puts it down on the coffee table and sits down next to him. The couch dips, forcing their thighs together. "You're Cook."
"Nah." Another shake of his head. He's pretty sure he's not really 'Cook' anymore, no matter what they all call him. 'Cook' was a force of his own. He splashed about and never looked back. 'Cook' was Freddie's best mate and Freddie's gone. Perhaps Freddie took 'Cook' with him when he left, and that's why he feels like he's constantly in risk of drowning now?
"Freddie wouldn't want this," she murmurs, and the name alone is enough to send him crashing back into reality.
"Don't," he snaps, startled by the sudden anger in his voice.
Naomi starts, opens her mouth and then closes it again. "Okay," she finally agrees quietly, carefully nudging his shoulder with hers. "But you know I'm right."
Cook swallows, keeps his arm pressed against hers, feels the warmth of her skin against his. Of course she's right, he already knew that. He really wishes that it made any difference.
He shouldn't have come here, to this park and this bench. The memories attached to this particular spot are chafing at his insides, but maybe that's the reason he's here. Some kind of messed up self-torture . Either way, it's a perfect place to hide now that Naomi won't put up with him spending most of his time sprawled out on her couch. So he sits on this fucking bench instead, staring at the stupid ducks a few feet away.
He bloody hates ducks. Clueless, pointless creatures.
"Fuck off you…fuckers," He emphasizes his last word with a kick of his foot, sending gravel flying and grinning wickedly as the birds scatter, clucking wildly.
"Wow, that's awfully eloquent, James."
Cook jumps, nearly losing hold of his glowing cigarette. There's Becks, standing next to the bench looking barely recognizable in her t-shirt and jeans.
"In the flesh," she nods, smiling at him warmly though he can see the worry quite clearly in the shape of her brow. "Mind if I sit?"
She doesn't wait for his reply; the indifferent shrug of his shoulder as he puts the cigarette to his lips. Silence falls, and he steals a look at her through the corner of his eye. She's looking out over the pond, seeming oddly at peace with the situation whereas he is uncomfortable as fuck. Suddenly self conscious. As if she's sensed him looking, she turns to face him and it's just….weird. Seeing her there; on the outside. "How've you been?" She asks; then backtracks, "I mean, you don't have to… I'm not-"
He shoots her a wry look and she stops. Smiles.
"Ace," he lies even though he knows it will get him nowhere. She's too wicked smart for her own good.
There it is, the eyebrow lift he'd been dreading that tells him she doesn't believe a word he's saying.
"What are you doing here?" He replies , flicking the still glowing cigarette's butt to the ground and watching it fall. The change of subject is obvious, and he knows she recognizes it for what it is.
"Just passing through," Becks shrugs, her attention once more back on the ducks swimming in the murky water, and Cook breathes a sigh of relief. "on my way to the pub to watch the game" she elaborates. That's when he notices the scarf around her shoulders, smirks.
"Not a word," she quips, standing up and looking back down at him expectantly. "Come on then,"
"Sorry?" He's confused, shivers as a chill runs down his back. The air is damp and unpleasantly cold, leaves already covering the ground.
"I'm buying you a pint," she explains with a teasing eye roll, as if it's something that happens on a regular basis.
"That's what I said, innit?" She smirks, "Or were you and the ducks having a bit of a moment?"
"Oh, fuck off."
This time the smile almost reaches his eyes, and he gets to his feet.
The pub's fancier than any of the places he would usually set foot in, and Cook is on edge as they walk through the door. The feeling only intensifies at the "there's my girl." from a bald-headed man making his way around the bar and wrapping Becks up in a bear hug.
"Uncle Richard," Becks laughs, pecking him on the cheek, her colorful scarf standing out against the myriad of faded tattoos on the man's lower arms. "You're looking well. This is James, a…friend, of mine."
Cook braces himself for something, not entirely sure what. Though nothing close to the "Good to meet ya, lad", firm handshake and friendly smile that he gets. Before Uncle Richard turns his attention back to Becks. "Couple of pints, yeah?"
"Your uncle works here?"
"Nah," Becks shakes her head absentmindedly, fully concentrated on the game, "He owns it."
Uncle Richard walks up to them while Becks is still basking in her team's triumph, sitting down with a coffee mug in his hands. His grey eyes lock on Cook, evaluating him casually, and Cook fights the urge to shift in his seat.
"So, junior," Richard starts, and Cook looks up from his pint; "Rebecca tells me you might be looking for a job?"
They give him a room in the apartment upstairs. It's tiny, not much more than three small bedrooms and a bigger living room/kitchen area. There are clothes scattered all over the place, the old threadbare couch is filled with mismatched cushions and there's a Playboy poster on the fridge. His new bedroom is not much more than a closet but it's his and far away from his mum's house. He hasn't had his own space, without a huge fucking bolted door, in forever and it feels too good to be real. Like he doesn't deserve this kind of luck.
He cleans dishes, wipes tables and mops the floors. Skins what feels like at least half of his index finger peeling potatoes and gains a whole new level of respect for waitresses carrying around trays laden with pint glasses like it's nothing. The bloody things are heavy and he's becoming much too adapt at sweeping up broken glass. Even Sheila, Richard's pint-sized wife darts past him one Saturday evening, carrying a tray loaded with more glasses than what should be physically possible. It's not bloody right.
Exhaustion, a heavy kind of tired so different from the past year's weariness, becomes his constant companion. When he sleeps it's dreamless and deep and during the day he's too busy trying to keep up to think, remember. His first day off he sleeps 'til three in the afternoon and spends the rest of the day on the lumpy couch in the living room; staring blankly at re-runs of Eastenders playing on the TV screen.
But he grinds his teeth together, refusing to quit; to give in like he has done so many times before. Maybe he wants to prove a point, to whom he's not quite sure. Maybe it all comes down to gratitude.
Maybe, just maybe, he simply kind of likes it.
Most days the food at the pub is cooked by a guy named Paolo. He's tall, lanky and can go on about his glorious, native Italy for hours, even though he was born in Scotland and has never been off the island. He inhabits one of the bigger bedrooms upstairs, leaves dirty kitchen towels scattered all over the place and never does anything stronger than spliff because 'chemicals mess up your taste buds".
The third inhabitant of the upstairs apartment is Owen.
Owen is a twat.
Stumbling through the back door, Cook shivers in the cool night air and reaches for his cigarettes as he sits down next to Sarah on the small bench outside. His feet feel like they're about to come off, and he's pretty sure that his shoulders are about to splinter in half too. "'s proper chaos in there."
Sarah, wrapped in Owen's huge parkas, doesn't reply but smiles and fishes a lighter out of one of the front pockets. Her chestnut colored bangs look bright red in the light from the small flame as she lights the cigarette for him. Cook lets out a long breath, smoke dancing in the air, for once finding himself enjoying the quiet.
Weeks fly by, turning into months. There's a new rhythm to follow now; work and days off and nights out. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happens but one day he wakes up, staring into the now familiar walls, and it no longer feels like he's constantly in risk of drowning, no longer breathing under water.
"That look right to you, mate?"
Cook twists his arm, inspecting the sketched roman numbers carefully.
He nods, having memorized the right combination a long time ago, then speaks up. "'s all good."
The tattoo artist gets to work, positioning Cook's arm the way he wants it on top of the work bench, then finishes setting up his tools.
"So, what does it mean?" The guy asks once the first few lines are there, permanently etched into Cook's lower right arm. "Please tell me it's not your girl's birthday or something, mate. No offense."
Cook gives a jerky shake of his head, watching the next letter take form. "My best mate's, actually."
"Yeah?" The guy sounds mildly surprised, focusing on the curved back of the C. "What's he gonna say?"
Cook swallows and lets the memories wash over him for a second, feeling it all.
"He died. Freddie's dead."
It's December, the streets covered in sleet, feathery snowflakes stubbornly falling through the air. Cook is hurrying down the street, newly bought packet of cigarettes safe in his pocket, refusing to be late for his lunch shift when it happens. He runs into Mr. Mclair.
Heart stuttering, Cook stares at the older man who's still reeling a little from the collision. Leo looks old. Really fucking old. Cook shifts his weight, trying to shake off the panic and say something, fucking anything. But he hasn't seen Freddie's dad since the funeral and doing it now leaves him numb, head buzzing. The older man is rambling, and Cook can feel his heart drop further in his chest as realization dawns on him. Drunk. Leo is drunk, on a Friday afternoon. Not at work, not at home. At the pub.
Mr. Mclair is rattling on, but Cook doesn't hear a word he is saying. It can't be much more than a minute before Karen's there, throwing a coat over her dad's shoulders, not meeting Cook's eyes, but it feels like a small eternity.
"Karen," his voice is hoarse when he manages to speak up, and then she finally looks at him, arm still hooked protectively around her father's waist.
"It's not-" she stutters, looking nothing like the Karen he used to know and too much like the one telling him to find her brother. "He's not…He just gets a little…overwhelmed, sometimes."
Cook can only nod, voice gone again. Watches the two of them make their way down the street and disappear from sight with the older man's garbled words ringing in his hears. "…you were his favorite, Cook. You and that girl. Ruined him, she did."
The buzzing in his head grows louder, turns into a blaring white noise, and without thinking twice about it he walks into the pub that Leo just exited.
Someone is calling his name but Cook ignores it, all his energy focused on the steps leading up to the apartment. The fuckers are moving and he's tired. Pissed off. The second time he nearly loses his footing he gives in to gravity and slumps down on the wet concrete, eyes falling closed.
There are shadows lurking behind his eyelids, taunting him with memories he's tried to forget. He'd almost forgotten how it felt. Drowning. Breathing under water.
"What the Hell, mate?" Paolo's voice cuts through the darkness and a hand wraps around his bicep. Cook starts, shrugging forcefully out of the hold, resting his head on one arm folded on top of the stairs.
"Fuck off." He grinds out, teeth clattering violently and making it hard to speak. He can hear voices; Paolo speaking to someone whose voice Cook can't make out, and then he's being hoisted to his feet. He struggles against the hold, but his arms are heavy and he has no energy left to fight.
The room is bright, and he's not sure where he is at first but then recognizes his own bed. Moving slowly on to his back, he is forced to hold his breath as he waits for his stomach to settle. Brief flashes of memory are still on an endless repeat through his mind, and he feels like shit and Freddie's dead and it's not bloody fair that it still hurts this much.
The alarm clock informs him that it is morning but he's not sure of what day, and nothing changes the fact that he has fucked up. Dragging himself out of bed he makes his way out into the living room - wondering if he should crawl downstairs first, or start packing his shit immediately - when an unsuspected sight stops him in mid-step.
Sheila. In their far-from-tidy kitchen.
She's cooking, her back to him, the smell of eggs frying both appealing and a little nauseating. Cook shuffles in the doorway; clears his throat and fights against the urge to look away as Sheila turns, spatula in hand.
"Good," she greets him casually, "I was two minutes away from calling Paolo up here again to drag you out of bed."
Cook stares, scratches his neck, not sure what to do. Unknowing, or feigning ignorance, Sheila helps him out.
"Sit," she nods in direction of their rickety kitchen table, "there's coffee, and eggs if you think you can stomach it."
Confused, Cook does as he's told, sinking down onto an empty chair. There's coffee, as promised, in a mug on the table. He doesn't understand it; Sheila being nice to him, not sure anyone's cooked him breakfast since he got old enough to do it himself. Doesn't deserve this.
His mumbled "Thanks" is met with a quick smile as Sheila busies herself with rinsing out the frying pan. The even more quiet "I'm sorry," as a plate is put down in front of him on the table, rewarded with a hand briefly resting on his neck.
"Have some breakfast, James."
He ends up downstairs not an hour later, paying Owen back for covering his ass the night before; Sheila's orders. The shift is nothing short of Hell-ish. Saturdays mean football all day long with complementary loud cheering and cursing from the pub's patrons. His head is pounding - feeling like his brain is about to leak out through his ears - and so much as looking at a pint makes him gag but he gets through it on pure will. He gets a sympathetic grimace from Paolo when he first walks through the kitchen door, pale and shaky, and when he returns from having seen his breakfast for a second time there's a glass of water waiting for him courtesy of Sheila. But other than that no one mentions the way he screwed up the night before.
There is a framed photograph on the wall behind the bar, the picture showing a smiling kid in Paddy's age sitting on a bike. It looks old and a little faded, and Cook finds himself drawn to it whenever he's sitting at the bar, wondering.
Richard catches him looking one night and reaches out to pick it off the shelf, wiping the glass with the towel hanging from his belt. "That's William," he explains solemnly, putting the frame back in its place, "Mine and Sheila's boy."
"Yeah?" Cook has never heard William mentioned before and finds it odd.
"We lost him almost fifteen years ago," Richard explains, filling two mugs of with what is left in the coffee pot. "Drunk driver," he walks around the bar, sitting down next to Cook and handing him one of the mugs. "He would've been 26 next month."
Cook hesitates, feeling caught somehow, his image of the couple twisting and reshaping in his mind. They seem so fine, happy, far away from where he's at and it makes no sense.
"This is when I use my old-man prerogative, and share what I've learned without you asking me to." Richard stops to have a mouthful of coffee. "It sounds like a bloody cliché, but life goes on. But so does death, though no one ever bothers mentioning that. Death – loss - is permanent in a way that life isn't. Losing your child, someone you love, it stays with you. There's no getting over that. Only thing left is learning how to live with it."
One fingertip tracing the rim of the mug, Cook listens, tries to come to grip with what the older man is saying. Thinks of the hours when he almost forgets that Freddie's not around anymore. Forgetting enough to pick up the phone ready to call him. How much it still hurts the second he realizes that Freddie's gone, won't pick up the phone. Never again.
"But you already knew that, didn't ya, lad?" Richard asks, and there's something in his eyes that makes Cook feel like the older man knows; briefly wonders if Becks has told her uncle something but quickly dismisses the idea. She wouldn't.
He sits up straighter, manages a nod, not quite trusting his voice.
The part he likes best about working at the pub are the days when he's in the kitchen; helping Paolo out with more than just the morning preparations. More than once Cook finds himself staring at the other guy, transfixed, taking in the difference between the laid-back Paolo who sprawls out on the couch upstairs and happily shares his spliff, and the self-assured, serious Paolo who rules the kitchen.
"Bollocks, give that pan a stir mate, will ya?" Paolo curses, motioning vaguely in direction of the stove where at least three different pots and pans are placed; busy maneuvering something that looks a little like road kill onto a chopping board himself. "Yeah, the small silver one. The milkpan. Quickly, before it burns."
Cook obeys, about to get back to his own tasks when Paolo speaks up again. "Bloody he-…salt, mate, on the counter. A pinch or two, in the pan."
"How-" Cook stutters, staring at the pot of sea salt next to the stove. "Paolo, man?"
No answer. There's only the sound of furious chopping and mumbled curses, before the Scot disappears out back in search of something, leaving Cook staring at the bubbling gravy.
"Paolo, you git, how much is a bloody 'pinch'?"
Naomi and Emily break up. Cook's not sure about the what's and the why's – Naomi flat out refuses to tell him anything. All he gets is her showing up on their doorstep and nearly knocking him off his feet as he opens the door, crashing into him, shivering from the effort of holding herself together.
He's got the night off and they end up on opposite ends of the couch, stretched out lazily, bottle of Tequila travelling back and forth between the two of them and the television playing on mute in the background. Naomi doesn't say much, uncharacteristically silent and Cook gets it; the loss for words big enough to encapsulate it all. Doesn't mean he will play along though, and let her mope in peace.
"Hogging the good stuff, Naomikins." he points out, nudging her in the ribs with a sock-clad foot.
Naomi snaps out of her thoughts, squirming away from the touch and taking another swig from the bottle in her hand. "You kind of forget, don't you?" she says, passing him the bottle, and Cook raises an eyebrow in question.
She is silent for a moment; head tilting at the side and staring blankly at the television. "How much it hurts. Having your heart broken. It's like your brain blocks out the memory the very moment you're happy again." She elaborates, chokes on an attempted laugh. "And it really fucking hurts."
Cook grimaces, takes another mouthful of tequila. "Yeah."
He's almost asleep when a sound coming from the door brings him back to wakefulness. The room is momentarily flooded in soft light from the lamppost out on the street as Naomi tiptoes through the door, closing it behind her. Cook sits up, rubbing a hand across his face tiredly. "Naomi?"
"I can't sleep." She replies, padding across the floor. The air is cool against his skin as the covers are lifted and she slips into his bed. Dumbfounded, Cook falls back against the pillows, arm reflexively wrapping itself around her.
"Can I stay here?" The question is breathed against his neck, her voice small, and he understands. Gets it.
"Please," he chuckles, forcing some humor into his voice. "Like I'd ever throw you out of my bed."
The attempted joke is met with silence and Cook startles when suddenly there are soft lips pressing against the pulse point on his neck. The kiss sends tingles down his spine, but only causes his confusion to grow. Another kiss is pressed against his jaw line, one hand moving across his chest. Naomi shifts, easing closer and the leg that's almost on top of his rubs against his thigh, sending a fresh wave of electricity thrumming in his veins. His lack of protest seems to spur her on and she picks up her pace, hand moving further down, dangerously low.
"Whoa-" He catches her hand and pulls it away in a vain attempt to stop whatever it is that she's doing, but only ends up with Naomi nearly straddling him. "What the fuck?"
"That's the general idea," Naomi quips, all signs of the broken girl from before replaced with stern resolution, and this time kisses him on the mouth. Cook bites back a moan as she rubs against him. Momentarily lost in the sensation of the warmth of her against him, the tightening in his stomach, he kisses her back; tongue and teeth and roaming hands. It's like throwing oil on a burning fire; things growing more heated, frenzied. His hand slips inside the t-shirt she's wearing, soft skin under the pads of his fingers. But when she sighs into the kiss Cook stops cold because yeah, it feels great and he hasn't gotten laid in a really long time and he's already fucking hard, but it's Naomi.
"Hey," he breaks off the kiss, twisting his face away as she pays him no heed. "Naomi, hey, stop."
"What?" She sounds impatient, simply moving her attention to his neck until he takes her head between his hands and forces her head back, looking her in the eyes.
"Stop," he says again, quietly, willing her to understand. To recognize that there's no way he can do this and not screw something, them, up in the process and it's not an option. "shit ain't right."
"You've gone on and on about fucking me since the day we met," Naomi points out, still straddling his thighs, "don't tell me you don't want it anymore," she adds, with a pointed look down at the part of him that hasn't quite realized how messed up the situation is.
"That's not the point," Cook objects, glaring at her as she writhes against him and forces him to bite back a frustrated groan. At last he ends up grabbing her by the hips and nearly throwing her off of him.
"Then what's your fucking problem!" she sounds close to tears and quickly turns as she lands on the mattress, facing away from him, shoulders squared.
He lets out a sigh, equal parts relief and worry, leaning on one arm and looking over her tense shoulder. "For a smart girl you're being really daft."
She's crying, there are actual tears running down her cheeks and fuck. He fucking hates this, being unable to fix things. Powerless. "You love someone, remember?"
"What if I don't want to anymore?"
"It's not that easy now, is it?" He feels more than sees her shake her head, her hair tickling his skin as she breathes out a shaky sigh. Cook lies back down; still keeping a hand on her arm and feeling it tremble as she struggles to pull herself together, then, "Truce? Come on, Naomikins, show me some love."
"I already tried that, you twat." Naomi retorts and he can't stop the relieved laugh that comes spilling out.
"The non willy-waggle kind." He adds as she turns around to face him again. Attempting an easy-going smile and breathing a sigh of relief as she shifts closer, wrapping herself around him. But not without poking him in the ribs first. Hard.
"Ow," He points out good-humoredly, but moves his arm to make room for her head.
"Shut up," Naomi mumbles, burying her face against the crock of his neck and wrapping an arm around his torso. Cook closes his eyes too, much more comfortable now that things are back to a level he can handle. He can feel Naomi beginning to relax next to him, her breath evening out. Thinking she's asleep he startles when she speaks up after a few minutes silence.
"You're a good person, Cook."
He swallows, chest tightening, "I'm fucked up." He admits quietly, "I'm a bloody mess."
There's a moment when nothing is heard but their breathing. "You're sad," Naomi finally replies, pressing her lips briefly against his naked shoulder, "it's not the same thing."
This time it doesn't take long before she's asleep next to him, but Cook stays awake for a long time after that, her words echoing in his mind.
Their laughter is drowned out in the loud thumping of the base, the flickering lights disorienting the crowd. It's a good night, all of them out together. Even JJ made an appearance but left a while back and now it's just the three of them left; woozy with alcohol and enjoying the moment. Cook grins, watching Naomi spin around under his arm. Naomi stumbles, reaching out to take Sarah by the hand and pull her into the dance.
That's when he sees her. Effy. A few feet away, arms hooked around the neck of some random guy, looking straight at him. Cook freezes in his step, breath catching in his throat, and nearly falls over as Naomi and Sarah tumble into him. When he regains his balance Effy's still looking at him, her expression unreadable, and this time as the room sways around him he can't blame the alcohol. It's been so long since he last saw her; sitting in a corner of her bedroom wrapped up in Freddie's old cardigan.
The moment stretches, but is suddenly gone as someone pulls at his arm; Naomi, her eyebrows knitted in confusion. As he looks back up Effy's no longer looking at him; her eyes closed as she dances, 'random guy's hands greedily cupping her ass.
Suddenly Cook doesn't feel like dancing anymore.
"Naomi, get the door!" Pulling on a pair of grey sweatpants hurriedly Cook reaches for the towel and scrubs it over his wet hair. Leaving the bathroom he's silently praying it won't be Richard or Paolo, telling him he needs to grab an extra shift down at the pub. He only got back upstairs twenty minutes ago and this far the only plan he has for the night includes the couch, beer and watching some crappy TV with Naomi.
"Who's it?" Walking out into the living room, towel slung over his shoulders, he comes to an abrupt stop, heart stuttering, when he spots the guest standing just outside the front door.
Effy looks over Naomi's shoulder, arms crossed defensively over her chest, barely looking him in the eye before she turns and walks away without another word.
"Effy?" For a second Cook's frozen, staring blankly at the empty spot in the doorway which Effy occupied mere heartbeats ago, but then he's moving quickly. "What the bloody hell happened?" He throws the question at Naomi as he hurries by, but there's no time for her to reply before he's out the door.
He rushes down the stairs, the metal freezing cold against his bare feet, catching a glimpse of black leather as Effy disappears behind the corner of the building. "Effy!"
Cook runs, heart stuck somewhere in his throat; needing to get to her. Catch her before she disappears. Again. As always. She's always running from him and suddenly it pisses him off. Catching up with her he closes a hand around her arm, spinning her around. "What the fuck, Eff?"
Her eyes are cold as they meet his, jaw tight in anger even as she shivers in her customary tights and leather jacket.
"You surely don't waste any time, do you Cook?" The question catches him off guard, gives her enough time to continue uninterrupted. "Going for the whole gang, is that it? Another cross off your list?"
At a loss for words, still not sure what she's going on about, Cook can only stare at her in stunned confusion.
"I suppose Katie might not be too hard to convince; she's on outs with the boyfriend again. And we all know Emily has tried cock once, I'm sure she'll do a repeat performance if you get her drunk enough. Maybe you could make it a threesome and kill two birds with one stone?"
"Girl, what are you on about? I'm not fucking-"
"Whatever." She turns her back on him, walking away.
No. No way. There's no fucking way she's getting away this easily. "Where are you going, Eff?" He throws the question at her back. She keeps doing this, reeling him back in whenever he tries to get away. As often as there are moments when he barely knows who she is, there are moments like this too. Moments when he just knows. "What are you so fucking scared of?"
That catches her attention and the infuriated, "I'm not scared!" is so achingly familiar, forever etched into his mind, that for a second he's back there, standing at the side of the road. Powerless. Always so fucking helpless around her. It has always come down to this, to Effy running away and him following; chasing after her or being pulled along.
"Right. Don't tell me. Run away. 's what you always do, innit? Hide behind your 'mystery girl' shit and your perfect arse and your fucking happy pills. Grow up! You know what? I'm done. I'm bloody done chasing after you, trying to save you. Freddie tried and lot of good it did him."
He barely has time to react before she spins around and slaps him. Hard. The palm of her hand leaving a burning imprint on his cheek and effectively cutting off his rant. They're both breathing hard, chests heaving, as their eyes meet. He watches the emotion fade from her features, the mask slipping back into place.
"Fuck you, Cook."
As she walks away this time, he doesn't even stick around to watch her leave.
Naomi is still standing in the doorway when he walks back up the stairs. Shivering both from the cold and something else entirely, he brushes past her, ignoring her worried 'Cook, what-" and cutting off any further questions by slamming the bedroom door shut behind him.
Breath escaping him in constricted huffs, he leans back against the door for a moment before the reality of it all becomes too much and he's pacing. Hands locked behind his neck to keep from punching something he walks back and forth, every nerve ending on fire, waiting for the red haze of anger dulling his mind to clear.
He's not sure how long it takes before he dares venture outside the bedroom, but when he does Naomi's sitting cross-legged on the couch, waiting. She watches him closely from the corner of her eye as he sits down, doesn't speak just yet but leans her head against his shoulder.
"There's a hand print on your cheek."
His hand comes up to rub over the sore skin, grimacing at the obvious swelling, but then shrugs.
Losing Effy somehow hurts less than he remembers.
The date sneaks up on him. He's busy with work and more work and mastering and hanging out with Naomi and living, and before he knows it, it has been two years. Two fucking years ago today he was still blissfully unaware of how his life had already changed beyond return.
The grass is like a plush green carpet under his feet as he walks across the lawn, feeling unsure and out of place. He's never been here before, hasn't had neither the guts, nor felt the need to before today. Sitting down cross-legged opposite the grey slate headstone, he pulls absentmindedly at straws of grass, twirling them between his fingers. There are fresh flowers in one of those plastic vase things, and he knows it's all Karen's doing.
If Paolo thinks that he doesn't notice what's going on, he's sorely mistaken. There are casual requests of assistance thrown over a shoulder, his share of kitchen prep-shifts growing in numbers. Neither does he fail to notice the shared looks between the Scot and Richard, telling him they will be talking about him later, but he doesn't comment.
Truth is; he likes it, working in the kitchen. It's fun. There's a pattern to it all; a predictable chain of events that he finds comforting. There are no unexpected twists and turns if he gets it right. Power and control.
He makes a fucking gateau - Black Forest, all by himself - finds the recipe in one of Sheila's old books. He throws the whole thing away not five minutes after he's finished.
It feels a little like a 'fuck you right back'.
"Happy Birthday," Sarah grins, doing a feeble attempt at putting a garish, red party hat on his head and Cook frowns, ducks away.
"Who told you?"
"I have my ways," she replies airily, giving up on the party hat ambush with a shrug, then adds; "We're going out tonight, all of us, no excuses."
"You've already told me that," He grins, attempting to swallow his last chip down with a mouthful of lager but finding the can empty. Technically it's no longer his birthday - the clock on the kitchen wall is past three am – but they've had a good time and he's comfortably buzzed and he doesn't care about technicalities. Sarah's drinking deeply from her own can, legs dangling leisurely as she sits on the counter top. Paolo would throw a fit if he saw her sitting there, and it only adds to the feeling of childish glee from having sneaked into the pub's kitchen in the first place.
"Oh, I know." She smirks, and holds her drink out for him with a tilt of her head. "But I never gave you your present."
There's a shift in the air, something changing despite her deliberately cheesy line, and Cook goes with it. Walks slowly on slightly unsteady feet, eyes never leaving hers. When he stops he's standing between her legs, hands coming to rest on her thighs after a brief moment's hesitation. Her skin is warm under his palms.
She doesn't give him 'the eye', but plain out kisses him, slipping a hand behind his neck and pressing soft lips against his. She tastes of cigarettes and beer. Cook kisses her back eagerly, one hand moving up her thigh as the other arm wraps around her; letting out a frustrated groan as she pulls back too soon.
"Easy there, junior," she winks, grinding slowly against him and making him go fucking cross-eyed with undiluted want. "Let's take this nice and slow, yeah?"
And they do. Twice. What Paolo doesn't know won't kill him.
"You've been avoiding me." She corners him in the pantry a few days later and Cook doesn't bother lying. He has been avoiding her but only because he actually likes her. Doesn't want to mess her up which he's bound to do, he's still all kinds of fucked up. He's got nothing to offer her.
"I'm not expecting-" she makes a pause, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Look. I'm not about to profess my wild and undying love for you, so chill, yeah?"
Cook blinks, wondering if he really should feel a little insulted, when she continues. "I like you." She says with a shrug of her shoulder, walking into his personal space and Cook has to force himself not to back away. She looks good today, he notices idly, dark hair pulled into a messy bun on top of her head and her white shirt buttoned just low enough to make things interesting.
"So why don't you…stop thinking so much, and kiss me?"
"You'd like Sarah, man, she's ace. I think JJ's a little scared of her, but that's him, yeah? Has no cool around the ladies. We're not, like, a thing, yeah? Nothing serious, you know me. She's not-"
Effy. She's not Effy. The name catches in his throat, scorching his insides. Sarah's not Effy and that's a good thing. Easy. But he can't think about that now, about her, he shouldn't. Not here.
He takes a long, deep drag from the joint, forcing himself to change the subject. "Saw your dad the other day, by the way, he looks good. Better. Karen too. She's huge, man, proper whale sized these days, almost asked her if she's having twins or somethin'. Figured I'd get my ass kicked if I did, tho. She on the other hand is down-right terrifying. Bloody hormones."
He stubs the joint out in the yellowing grass, looking around the empty cemetery. The sky is darkening fast, and he should probably get going before he's late but still lingers, soaking up the peace and quiet. Silence doesn't terrify him the way it used to.
"I miss you, man."
"When the two of you are decent, ya might want to get back out here. Sarah, table three looks about ready to order."
"Sorry, Richard." Sarah mumbles, still half-hidden behind Cook and discreetly trying to button her shirt back up.
Cook looks at the floor, nudging a single onion knocked from its shelf with the toe of his shoe, caught between sheer horror and growing amusement. It's not too bad, no bits hanging out on display or anything, and Richard doesn't seem too upset. There would definitely have been a better time and place for the older man to find out than right now - in the store cupboard on a busy Friday night - but there's not much to do about that now.
It's worth being put on toilet cleaning duty for the next week or so.
"You better not break that girl's heart, lad."
Cook swallows, placing another chair on top of the freshly wiped table, feeling stupid for not seeing this conversation coming. "Richard, I-"
"No need explaining yourself to me," Richard interrupts, the look on his face cancelling out the harshness of his words. "And I already told Sarah the same thing."
"Staring, Naomikins," He points out, arms spreading wide to grant her better view. "Understandable, I reckon. Not even the likes of you can stay immune to the Cookie good looks and charm."
Naomi smiles, throws a cushion in his general direction. Jumping out of harm's way, Cook goes back to rummaging through a messy kitchen drawer in search for a lighter. He can still feel her eyes on him and the lighter is nowhere to be found, so he finally relents, "What?"
"Nothing. Just. You look…good, Cook. Happy."
He fights a smile that would only further prove her right and forces his face into one of mock pity. "Still dreaming of the willy-waggle that never was?"
"Shut up." Naomi blushes, but is laughing all the same and when a second cushion hits him straight in the head as he turns his back on her, Cook is laughing too.
"Oi, kitchen boy," The voice cuts through the everyday, kitchen sounds and Cook fights a grin, not looking up from what he's doing. "I don't know what you've put in my dinner, but it's completely inedible."
"Oh ya know," he quips, "Just a little…natural flavor." The gesture he makes with his hand is enough to temporarily stun the unexpected guest, and he turns around laughing as Becks lets out a disgusted sound.
"Ew." She points out, frowning, once her breathing is back to normal again. "I hadn't actually ordered anything yet and now I've lost my appetite."
"You'd love it," he winks, knowing he's pushing his luck more than a little. He can feel her looking at him as he works; busy with Paolo being on a break and a few of the pub's patrons waiting on their food. It's not a huge deal, Paolo did most of the work before he left and it's mostly finishing touches. Pinch of salt and all that, but it feels a little like he's in charge anyway. Like they trust him to actually know what he's doing.
It's been over two fucking years without Freddie and sometimes he still can't understand how he does it. Survives. Lives. Laughs.
Not that there has been any laughing today. He's been snapping at everyone, sticking to himself, making sure to take his breaks whenever there's no one else out back smoking or getting some fresh air.
He doesn't feel like having company; poor replacements for someone who's never coming back. Feels even worse about thinking of the people he's come to consider family as replacements.
The evening is warm, nothing can be heard but the distant whirring of the kitchen fans, and a car or two passing on the street. Sarah is walking up the stairs towards him but he ignores her even though he knows it's childish and unfair, only has another mouthful of lukewarm beer from the can next to him on the stairs.
"I called you earlier,"
He puts the can back down without looking at her, shrugs. Bites back the scathing 'you're not my girlfriend' that's burning on his tongue. Even though they've never put a label on whatever it is that they are- right there is a line he's not drunk enough to cross. But he can't be around her right now. Not when he can't look at her without seeing everything she's not, who she is not.
He keeps his head down, feeling the weight of her gaze heavy on his shoulders and praying she'll go away before he says something hurtful enough to make her leave. Every second feels like a small eternity, but it can't be more than a minute before Sarah walks back down the stairs without another word. It doesn't feel as much of a relief as he had hoped.
The alcohol burns its way down his throat, blurring his senses further until the world is smeared around the edges; taking the edge off everything. Thought it doesn't take long before the vast stretch of water in front of him is beginning to feel too much, too big. He gets up, and walks from the harbor on unsteady legs but the feeling lingers. He shouldn't have come there.
Seeing the shape asleep under the covers first thing as he walks through the door has him releasing a breath he hadn't been aware of holding. She came back and she waited for him, the concept feels foreign and for a moment he can only stare. But relief paves way for exhaustion and it's not long before he strips down to his underwear, stumbling and biting back a curse as he jams his toe into a chair covered in a pile of laundry. Sarah stirs, mumbling something in her sleep as he gets into bed. Cook holds his breath, not wanting to wake her up, only releasing it once she relaxes against the pillow once again. Daring to drape one arm over her shoulder, he makes himself comfortable in the bed, breathing a little easier now.
The way her breathing changes alerts him to the fact that she's awake just before she speaks. "Tell me about him."
The command is spoken softly, fingertips brushing lightly over the tattoo on his lower arm, tracing the Roman numbers carefully.
"Don't lie to me." Sarah cuts him off, her breath warm against his chest and their legs tangled together.
He forces the instinct telling him to brush it off back down, closing his eyes briefly against the all too familiar stab of pain in his chest. Remembers what Richard said months ago about learning to live with it and realizing it was true. "We were heading back from this party once, yeah, Freddie and I. JJ too…"
"Come sit down, lad. I have something I'd like to talk to you about."
Cook struggles with the box he's carrying, putting it down on top of the bar. His stomach drops a little at the older man's unusually serious tone of voice. With a lump slowly building in the pit of his stomach he does as he's told, sinking down on one of the couches in the empty booth. Maybe they're letting him go, sure the pub's doing great but perhaps that's not enough. They might want someone more experienced, less prone to fucking up…or fucking their waitress.
He dares a look over at Richard, who smiles a little at his nervous expression. "Relax, James." Then he turns serious, arms resting on the table between them. "You're doing great, lad. Paolo has been giving me reports, as you probably have noticed, apart from what I've been able to see for myself."
It's only pure will that keeps the blush from showing on his face, but Cook is forced to look away. Not used to compliments like that and first now understanding how much it matters what they think of him here. It's been quite the selective group of people over the year whose judgment and praise has actually mattered to him. For the longest of times it was pretty much a one-man-club. That seems to have changed without Cook himself really noticing.
"Thing is. I have a friend over in Cardiff, Scott Evans, we used to work on the ship together. His son is starting up a business, a big place, and he's looking for assistants. I had words with Scott, old bugger owes me one, and if you want the job you can start Monday. Do it well and they'll move you up, let you start training with one of the chefs."
Cook can only stare at the older man, eyebrows knit together. It sounds too good to be true. Perhaps they're really just looking for a way to get rid of him. Get the obnoxious, loud kid with the mood swings and the tendency to drink them away off their hands.
Richard helps make up his mind as he continues, "I'm not saying we want you gone, lad, you're part of this family now whether you want it or not. 'S a good opportunity for you, 's all."
"'Cook the cook' has quite the ring to it, don't you think?"
Cook holds back a shudder, throwing Sarah who's lounging casually on his bed a pleading look.
"Or maybe I should start calling you Jamie."
She looks so pleased with herself, grinning like a Cheshire cat, and suddenly he's hit with a wave of affection. He's going to miss her, miss this place, and suddenly he doesn't want to go to Cardiff anymore. He wants to stay right where he is, crawl under the covers with her and pretend like the outside world doesn't exist. Smoke up with Paolo and hang out with Naomi. Sit in the bar and listen to Richard's crazy stories about his sailor days, joke around with JJ. Wants to stay home.
"See you around, yeah?"
He nods, hands shoved deep in his pockets, watching in growing amusement how Naomi shifts awkwardly. Waiting for her to crack, wishing for it. Three heartbeats later she breaks, throwing her arms around his neck and burrowing her nose in the crock of his neck. "I'll miss you." She breathes, "Don't… just come back…later. Promise."
"You're the one off to uni next semester." He points out jokingly, so fucking proud of her it burns, but then caves in and hugs her tighter. "Promise."
It's been two weeks when he calls her, it's in the middle of the night and the first thing to come out of his mouth is; "Marcus Evans is a fucking tosser."
He's drunk and maybe just a little bit maudlin, stretched out on his rickety bed and trying to find a position that doesn't make him feel like his spine is about to shatter into a million pieces. He thought he'd gotten used to the speed and the hard work, but the fancy restaurant is nothing like Paolo's kitchen and it's wearing at him.
Naomi laughs into the receiver; a low, throaty sound that unclenches something inside his chest. "Yeah?"
He nods sagely, but then remembers she can't see him, opens his mouth to speak.
"He's supposed to be brilliant," She points out with a yawn, interrupting him. "'Michelin rising stars' and all that, right?"
Cook frowns, forgets what he was about to say. No, he's pretty sure Evans is a twat in desperate need for some pussy. Plus, he doesn't wanna try and be reasonable about this, he wants to complain about bitch face-'these-filets-are-pure-shit'-Evans and for Naomi to agree with everything he's saying. Simple as that.
"The man's a bloody wanker," he objects sullenly, and shit, maybe he's a little more drunk than he thought because he's sounding like Paddy when the kid doesn't get his way. Naomi chuckles and Cook relaxes into the mattress. He likes that sound, has lots of memories tied to it. Good times.
"Okay," she agrees, and there's a rustle of covers on her side of the line. "Just…stick with it, yeah?"
"'kay" He breathes, finding a better angle for his head against the pillow, can't really remember what it was he was so pissed about two minutes ago, feeling warm and drowsy. "So what're you wearin'?"
The laugh is louder this time, and he grins at the sound, already half asleep.
"Good job tonight."
The praise is both unexpected and given so casually that for a moment Cook doesn't realize it's directed at him. But then he stops, looks up from wiping down the counter top to see Evans standing there. Glaring down at him as usual.
"Cheers." He has to work hard to keep a question mark out of his voice.
"Take the rubbish out once you're done with that."
"Sod off, Michael, you sorry fucker." Cook laughs, throwing a chip after the guy as he walks away; running home to his girlfriend before he gets put on house arrest. The others join in on the friendly heckle, a shower of chips soon raining through the air and earning them the finger in reply.
Suddenly parched Cook gets off the curb, searching through his pockets for change.
"Looks like someone's on the pull," one of the others points out, a series of whooping sounds following from the rest of the gang
Cook twists on his heels, grinning, "Aw, don't be jealous. I'll still have enough energy left for your mum." The comeback is completed with a less than innocent gesture, and this time it's his turn to duck and run from chips being thrown his direction.
He gets in line at the fast food stall - busy at this time of night - still grinning at the exchange. The sound of people walking up behind him doesn't attract his attention, but then an all too familiar voice seeps through the air. It still has his heart stuttering painfully in his chest, he notices idly, sucking in a breath before turning around and there she is.
She looks good. Not in an 'oh-that-bird-is-fit' kind of way, she's always been fucking gorgeous to him. Good - less like the walking dead and more like the girl that stepped out of a car and tasted ketchup off his cheek. The girl with her is looking at him skeptically; twirling a strand of curly hair around her finger.
"Hey," He speaks first, painfully obvious of his hoarse tone of voice. Another slap wouldn't be unexpected, or unwarranted. He's lost count on how many times he's gone over what he said to her, and more specifically the way he said it.
But the slap never comes. She's simply looking at him, looking strangely unsure of herself and the other girl clearly picks on the sudden tension in the air, nudges her shoulder carefully. "Effy?"
"Chelle, this is Cook." Effy introduces them, voice pitched low.
Cook watches the other girl's jaw quite literally drop, her eyes flitting to him before returning to Effy. He feels like he's the only one left out of a secret and Effy still hasn't said a word directed at him. Unable to tell what she's thinking, he watches her intently, waiting for a sign. Anything that can tell him what's going on inside her head.
"He's my friend."
The wave of relief surging through his bloodstream at her words is like a high, for a moment amplifying everything; colors, sounds, emotions.
Chelle recovers quickly, "Hello Cook."
He nods distractedly in greeting, still not quite able to take his eyes off Effy. His tongue feels too big for his mouth; unable to form words and he doesn't know what to say anyway. Doesn't know if there's anything left to say or too much left unspoken.
"I-" He stutters, tears his gaze away, "I should go." It's as if his feet have been glued to the ground, and as he tries to move - walk away, run and hide – he nearly trips over himself. "I'll see you around?" He wants to take it back the second it's out; the question hanging unanswered in the air for a few excruciating seconds.
Effy looks a little taken aback, but then visibly relaxes. The way her arms have been stiffly crossed over her chest loosening a little. "See you around, Cook."
He bumps into her one night, a few weeks after the first time; on his way home after yet another exhausting, exciting shift at the restaurant. His feet hurt and his back aches but adrenaline is still flowing in his veins and he knows he won't be able to sleep in a long time.
It's not the first time they've seen each other since that first, awkward meeting. They've bumped into each other once or twice; shared a look or a brief 'hello'. She's with a group of girls. Friends. Not followers or people she's taken under her wings for protection, but friends. He can tell the difference in the relaxed set of her shoulders and the way she is the first one to speak up this time. There are stage whispers echoing around them as he replies, and the rest of the group introduces themselves under drunken giggling and then seemingly vanishes into thin air. A called out 'see you later, Effy', is all the evidence left claiming that they were ever there at all, and Effy rolls her eyes at their lack of subtlety.
Some of the tension returns once it's just the two of them, and Cook can feel the rush of adrenaline beginning to wear off at record speed. Unsure of what to do with his hands he takes a cigarette out and lights it; inhales deeply and feels the smoke fill up his lungs. Freezes mid-move as Effy reaches out and plucks it from his lips, taking a drag before giving it back. Her fingers brush against his chin as she does, sending a rush of electricity down his spine. Cook takes another drag off his cigarette, clears his throat as he exhales. "You live around here?"
Effy only nods, motioning down the street, "Colum Road."
They start walking in silence, awkward tension easing off once they're moving. She's so close, and Cook can't help stealing glances over at her profile as they walk. Their arms brush together every now and then and he's surprised he doesn't stagger each time it happens.
"I didn't remember." Effy interrupts the silence as they turn around a street corner, bringing him out of his thoughts. He's about to voice his confusion when she continues, "about that night on the road. Not until later."
Cook nearly stops walking. The sudden rush of memories like a brick wall in front of him. He remembers it all too well, always has. The panic and the fucking helplessness. The sound of blaring car horns. "What about now?"
She turns her head to meet his eyes briefly, not answering his question. Then suddenly her hand slips into his, their fingers intertwining, squeezing gently.
Momentarily stunned, Cook doesn't speak. In spite of everything they have done and been through they've never done this – held hands - before. It feels new but somewhat familiar. Like going back and moving forwards at the same time.
The walk is over too soon, and before he knows it they're standing outside of the student hall. The street is empty, music coming from an open window on the second floor. He swallows, fights the urge to shift, nearly startle as she leans in and kisses him on the cheek. The kiss is brief, a light brush of lips, barely there before it's gone but still sending a fresh rush of electricity through his system, causing the hairs on his arms to stand on end.
"Thank you, Cook."
The text is unexpected. He had no idea she still had his number, grateful he never got around to changing it. He finds her easily once he gets to the park, somehow knowing she would be close to the water. It's warm out, lots of people scattered on the grass and walking around, but she is alone on the bench. He sits down next to her and squints against the sun. There are ducks swimming in the murky water, and he chuckles at what feels like an ancient memory.
Effy's looking at him when he turns his head towards her, eyebrows raised questioningly and he shrugs in reply.
"Remember when you told me to grow up?"
The question is unexpected, and Cook can feel his stomach drop. "Yeah. Listen, Effy, man, I-"
"You were right." She cuts him off, looking out over the river.
"Nah," He shakes his head, rubbing a hand absentmindedly over the tattoo on his lower arm.
"Yes, you were…about a lot of things. After Freddie," Effy stops, swallows, and he recognizes the slight pause at the mentioning of his best friend because he does the same thing. Probably always will, but it no longer keeps him from saying it. "I was scared of everything. The entire world frightened me."
Even though he already knew, it hurts to hear her say it, because there is a part of him that still wishes he could have stuck around to save her. That always wants to save her. "But here you are."
"I couldn't run fast enough."
He almost smiles at that, but recognizes the struggle behind the acknowledgement.
"Do you ever get scared, Cook?"
(That's what I always loved about you, Cook. Brave.)
Her question catches him off guard and he manages a shrug, for a moment feigning indifference, but recognizes the lie and decides this isn't the time to play it cool. Act like it's nothing and doesn't matter when it's been everything and still is in a way. "That's the whole point though, innit? When you think about it, shit's difficult. You fuck up. People…people die,"
And maybe his voice cracks a little and perhaps it always will because losing Freddie will always hurt, but it's okay. He can see that now. They are okay.
"So I figure you've gotta do it anyway, yeah? Do the things that scare you shitless…makes your heart fucking jump right out of your chest. That's what matters."
There is a long stretch of silence once he stops talking, but then Effy speaks up again. "You didn't answer my question."
"What?" He looks over at her again, really takes her in.
"Are you ever scared?"
"Who? Me?" He can't help the grin splitting his features. Nudges her with a knee and only grins wider as she shoots him a mildly exasperated look. Blue eyes, so fucking blue, seeing straight through him. "I'm bloody terrified."
There is some seriously amazing art made for this fic, you can find the links on my profile.