A/N: Well, hello.
This story is a television-verse AU (note that: AU. Not real. Not book-verse. Don't bother telling me it didn't happen, please?) focused on Pip, Estella and Herbert at university.
Rated: PG-13 for sexual references, and expletives
It's a bit OOC (okay, a lot in some places) but please, forgive me. I tried not to write this, honest. It just sort of ate up my brain until I posted it.
As far as first impressions go, Herbert and Pip did not get off to a good start.
Pip was a mere eleven at the time, and fuming as he finally left Aunt Havisham's stupid posh house in the middle of nowhere. She wasn't even his Aunt, she was just some rich old lady who had the parish twirled around her little finger and so could demand that Joe sent Pip down the road – over two miles to walk because they could no longer afford to run the car – to amuse Estella. Upon arriving at the house, he had discovered that Estella had been given a PlayStation. This would not have annoyed him so much, but he had no idea how to work one, and his cautious suggestion that he could learn had earnt him an earful of snide comments from Estella that continued until he had decided that it would probably be better to leave than to break one of Aunt Havisham's expensive vases over Estella's head.
It would not have even made him happy to smash something over her snooty face, because she was so infuriating pretty that it would be a shame to see her cry. But that did not mean that he could not take his anger out on something else.
Beginning to cross the giant patch of weeds in front of the house, he kicked angrily at the dandelion heads, imagining the seeds breaking from the heads as explosions caused by his atomic feet. It was at this point, moments after a particularly large dandelion burst in a very satisfying manner, that Pip first heard Herbert Pocket's voice.
"Hey! Stop messing up the lawn!"
Pip gazed down at the weeds he had been trampling. They didn't look much like a lawn. They looked like a patch of weeds, and an unruly patch at that. Stifling the temptation to roll his eyes at the boy stood by the iron gates in a blazer, clearly waiting for the shiny Land Rover that was reversing carefully around the puddles in the road, Pip made to walk on home. He did have a considerable trek, after all.
The boy started, as if Pip's reaction was surprising, and then marched up to Pip and shoved a hand onto his chest.
"Aren't you going to apologise?" he demanded, in the same arrogant tone Pip had heard many weekenders from the city use when they complained about the factory down the road spoiling their heritage. Joe worked in that factory. It provided work for the people who remained when the weekend was over.
Pip shrugged, standing his ground and brushing the hand from his body. "The weeds'll survive."
The boy's eyes narrowed. "This house is clearly worth much more than you could possibly imagine," he sneered, and Pip felt the hot hand of anger grab hold of him. "It requires respect and proper treatment from the hands of those who can understand that, not people like you. Now apologise. Didn't your mother ever teach you –"
At this point Pip had had quite enough. Enough of the stupid rich boy, enough of Estella, enough of Satis House in general. Between the sneers he received from the weekenders when he walked into town on a Sunday and the stage whispers about the state of his clothes that no one ever seemed to hear but him, he had had enough of the supposed upper class altogether. They could go back to their stupid London lifestyle and stop complaining about everything in the country.
Pip did something he had rarely done before.
He punched the boy in the face.
Seven years and several more tussles later, Pip arrived in Cambridge. Shoving open the door to the flat – jammed, dragging on the floor – he awkwardly manoeuvred his suitcase into the small hallway and managed to push it shut behind him. It had been four flights of stairs to lug the suitcase, topped with a hold-all full of books, and his arms were aching.
So this was his home now.
If it hadn't have been for the scholarship, he never would have been there. The scholarship that had raised Pip up. He shut his eyes and leant back on the door, suddenly exhausted by the effort of cutting the ties that had bound him to his childhood.
"Hello!" An exuberant voice broke into his reverie, and Pip opened his eyes to see a boy with dark hair grinning at him. "You've finally arrived! So good to see you again!"
Oh good, his roommate was mad. See him again? When did he see him at all?
Perhaps that was a condition for his scholarship that he had not yet seen. Must be roomed with possible stalker.
"Hello?" he greeted in return, eying the beaming fool with wariness, and wondering if he could slip past him to grab something to use in defence should he turn out to be completely off his rocker.
The boy's face fell with an almost comedic speed, as if Pip's reaction was a terrible disappointment to him.
"Oh, you don't remember me," he said sadly. "Probably for the best. You didn't catch me at my peak."
Pip was resisting the urge to go back out of the door and run as fast as he could by that point. No one, bar anyone, was supposed to know who he was in Cambridge. That was the point of a fresh start. New place. New people. New Pip.
"I'm sorry," he said politely, "Who are you?"
The boy grinned, and held out a hand. "Herbert Pocket, pleased to meet you! You've only met me once before – you left quite an impression on me, I had a bruise for a week!"
So he was someone Pip had punched. Depending on when he had met him, that could be any of about thirty people. He'd had a particularly productive year when his GCSE's got stressful, before he had mellowed out with the assistance of Joe's calm voice.
"I'm sorry," he said shortly, still not managing to place the boy. He spoke well, so not his local school.
"After you floored me – that was some punch you had – I ran into the house and Estella laughed at me for a solid ten minutes before telling me who it was who had assaulted me. Then she went back to playing on her game thing and I thankfully did not see much more of her for the rest of my stay. Strange girl, that one. Elusive."
The lawn boy! Oh, that had been quite a punch. Straight to the cheekbone just right of his nose, if Pip remembered correctly, and then he had legged it out of the garden and down the road before the rich git could catch up and demand another apology.
"Estella's not elusive, she's everywhere," Pip replied, still wondering whether Herbert Pocket was mad. He did seem to smile quite a lot. "Pocket. You must be Aunt Havisham's cousin, then. How's the lawn?"
After the initial confusion of moving in with someone who already knew him, it turned out that Herbert was a very amiable flatmate.
"Toast," he announced happily on the first night, "I have no idea how to make anything but toast."
Pip sighed and moved into the kitchen – which was less of a kitchen and more of a few cupboards, a sink and an oven jammed into what should really be a closet – to discover that he could not make anything but toast either, because there's just bread and butter in the entire kitchen. Not even beer to make it seem like a feast. Able cook he might have been, but miracle worker he was not. They ate toast side by side on the sofa, watching a rerun of Doctor Who.
That pretty much set the benchmark for their friendship.
Bentley Drummle was going to drive him mad. Either that or he'd lose his three year record of not having been violent towards anything animate, and that would cause Joe great upset if he happened to find out.
"Pip?" he sneered, looking him up and down, from his messy hair – he slept in late and rushed to his first period – to his cheap canvas shoes. "What sort of name is Pip? That's not a real name, surely."
Pip counted to five in his head and bit his tongue whilst he waited out the first rush of hot anger. "Philip, then. Philip Pirrip."
Drummle wrinkled his nose. "Pirrip. That's not a name I've heard before."
No, Pip wanted to say, but that's probably because you've only left your estate to either attend your expensive boarding school – oh, he'd place a hefty sum on it being Eton – or for day trips to the city. It would be that his first encounter with another boy in his graduation year would be a boy who had strolled in from the history department to inform the lecturer that he was needed in reception. Pip had been doing so well, too. He'd been ten minutes early to the hall, despite having woken late. Hence, no one else was there, leaving him alone with Bentley Drummle, who had been keen to introduce himself, and was becoming increasingly keener to sneer at every part of Pip's attire.
"No?" Pip said mildly, wondering when someone else would turn up and rescue him from this dreadful overgrown child.
"I suppose you're one of the scholarship ones, then," Drummle continued, saying the word 'scholarship' as if it contained some kind of disgusting connotation instead of letting exceptional students into places they would not have otherwise been able to experience. "I hope you do have fun. Of course, you'll never really be part of this part of the world." He paused, and then lowered his voice, looking Pip dead in the eye. "You don't really belong here, Pip."
"Bentley," called a soft voice from the doorway, and thank God, Estella had come to save him. "Why aren't you doing something useful, like playing in traffic?" She enquired coolly, and Pip remembered briefly why he found her so very captivating for all those years. There was something quite wonderful in the way she could brush off someone as fat-headed as Drummle. No matter how well he presumed to know her though, she always twisted at the last moment, becoming someone else, something dangerous. For all he knew, she could have sat Drummle in the middle of the M-25 and be done with it.
The rest of Pip's first lecture passed without consequence, but he could not shake Drummle's final comment.
You don't really belong here.
"Ever met Bentley Drummle?" Pip enquired casually over the pasta he had cooked that night.
Herbert paused, his fork halfway to his mouth, and set his food down, pursing his lips. "Unfortunately. What about him?"
Pip shrugged. "I met him today."
Herbert fiddled with his fork, looking supremely put out. He sighed quietly to himself. "Try to stay out of his way."
Well, Pip wasn't exactly going to go looking for such a charming young man.
"Friday," Estella said shortly, appearing in front of Pip and yanking his book from his hands. "You need to come out on Friday."
"Estella, we are in a library. I am studying. Can we talk about my private life some other time?" Pip warned, reclaiming his book from her grip.
Estella rolled her eyes and pretended to examine her nails. "I didn't mean from a closet, Pip, I meant from your pokey little flat. You've been studying and doing nothing solidly for a month. Time to start being part of the world."
"Studying is not 'doing nothing'," Pip correctly tiredly, "Unlike you, I had to work for my place as a scholarship student, Estella. I'm trying to gain the approval of the professor." He thought for a moment. "Besides, Friday is toast night."
She did not seem to have heard him. "It wouldn't kill you to come out here, you know," she said, her piercing eyes fixed on a point in the distance. "People would understand."
"Yes, they understood perfectly before." Pip turned the page and tried to focus on at least one sentence concerning whatever it was he was even reading. What was this? Oh. His textbook. Of course.
She had distracted him, made him think of the name calling and the endless tirade of tedious asides that had followed him from the age of fourteen. Shirt lifter. Bender. Faggot.
"I think sometimes that you only want to seclude yourself, Pip," she complained, switching her focus back to him. "Who have you even spoken to this year, aside from Drummle?"
"It's barely the end of September, and I speak to Herbert!" Giving up, Pip shut his book, feeling defeated by the world in general.
Estella stared at him, a petulant frown already forming on her face. "Fine," she said suddenly, "Invite him too."
"Who?" Pip asked stupidly, feeling he already knew the answer.
"Herbert Pocket!" Estella exclaimed, "Invite him, if that will make you leave your house for once. But for God's sakes don't call me on Friday night feigning illness. I'll be round in a taxi at eight."
"Goody," Pip said tiredly to her retreating figure. Despite the indifferent face he had presented to Estella, he felt in the back of his mind a sudden joy. He was able to go out and enjoy himself now, after all. He might as well make the most of it.
Herbert was more enthusiastic about going out than Pip had been.
"Great!" He beamed, his face a picture of delight. "That sounds fun!"
That was the thing about Herbert; he was very enthusiastic about pretty much everything. It had been a good week since he had even made the face closest to a frown as he got, although he did tend to purse his lips – pout, even – if he heard something he didn't like.
He smiled as he put on a shirt and grabbed the toast that Pip had made – it was still toast Friday, even if they were going out – and then disappeared off into his room, humming to himself. Pip ate his toast quietly on his own before going to his own room and gazing in frustration at his limited supply of clothing. Finally deciding to wear jeans and a tragically old t-shirt that was barely holding itself together these days, he grabbed a jacket from a hanger and his wallet and phone as a taxi honked outside.
"That'll be Estella," he called to Herbert, who emerged from his room holding a pair of loafers.
"I can't find my phone," he cried in reply, dashing wildly around the minimal kitchen and dining area. Pip, already a step ahead of him, dialled Herbert's mobile and listened to it ringing from inside the lounge. After digging around for a moment, he discovered it under a sofa cushion. The taxi honked again, this time more persistently.
"I've got it!" he called, "Let's go, before Estella starts sending me abusive messages!"
Not that it would be anything new, of course. She had been sending Pip grumpy texts ever since she had learnt that he had a phone – God knows where she found his number.
True to form, his phone chirped happily from his pocket as he started hurrying downstairs, and upon opening the message, he read:
"I will drag you away from your toast by your ears if I have to, Pip."
Good to know that some things never changed.
Something else that had not changed was Estella's ability to enter places it was previously labelled 'impossible' for someone to get into. He remembered a time just after the whole 'I am not ashamed' thing blew up in his face and he was contemplating taking it into his own hands and buying a gun when Estella called up and demanded that he took her to the nearest town.
"You can drive, can't you?" she asked, her voice still imperious down a crackling line.
"Well, yes, but I don't—"
"So you could get us there?"
"I guess, but it's—"
"I'll meet you by the post box. I just got my driver's license."
It was helpless to protest against someone who was very used to getting their own way, and so Pip found himself driving Joe's company car – newly reclaimed as a plausible option with Joe's pay rise – to town, Estella smiling smugly in the passenger seat. She had not really gotten a driver's license, she had bought a counterfeit from God knows where, and was confident that she could get both herself and Pip into a club.
"My sister is going to kill me," Pip moaned, gripping the steering wheel too hard as they passed a set of traffic lights. "And then dig me up and sell me into slavery for sneaking out and getting myself arrested. With you."
"Why do you say that like you're not enjoying yourself?" Estella asked, her eyes wide. "We're just going to have a drink and then come home."
Pip only pulled a face to that. They ended up staying for the greater part of the night, and sleeping in the car after discovering that neither of them could figure out how the keys fitted into the ignition after a few too many tequila's. Pip drove them home at half past five the next morning, and after they parked behind Pip's school, they sat and laughed until they cried about events they could hazily remember from the previous night.
She had gotten in then by using her brazen attitude and a fake license. Now, she was using Aunt Havisham's legacy to get a booth in a club whose name made Herbert's eyebrows all but disappear into his fringe.
"She's got enough money for the both of us." She shrugged, instead of explaining. That was the thing about Estella – she was perfectly content to extort money from her ailing relative, and Pip could not bring himself to be surprised.
Instead he flopped into the booth and ordered a beer from the waiter.
"You didn't tell me that you and Estella grew up together," Herbert muttered in his ear when she disappeared to greet a friend.
Pip shrugged. "Past lives. If she wasn't in Cambridge, I wouldn't mention her at all. It's a new start, Herbert."
Herbert surveyed him for a moment with a serious face. "For me, too," he finally replied, "Fresh start."
Pip cocked his head to one side, and decided that if he was going to get drunk – inevitably when he went out with Estella he could not remember much the next day – he might as well have this conversation, and forget about it.
"What are you running from?" he asked, taking a large swig of his beer as it arrived. Herbert took a deep breath.
"I fell in love," he said with a huff of laughter, his eyes fixed on Pip's face. "My family did not like it; my mother went as far to say I was ruining the family reputation. Therefore here I am, financing myself through my education, as my family no longer have any desire to subsidise me."
Pip considered this, drinking some more of his beer. It was going to disappear at an alarming rate if he wasn't careful. "That's a shame," he said carefully, wondering who she was, what she looked like, did she like Herbert's smile – "I hope she was worth it."
There was a pause in which more of Pip's drink vanished, and Herbert nursed his gin and tonic, looking pensive.
"No," he finally conceded, "He wasn't."
As Pip suspected he might, he woke up the next morning utterly disorientated, with a foul taste in his mouth and an odd thrumming in his head. For a moment he struggled to get his bearings, but then it became clear to him: he was on his sofa. In his flat. And someone was making coffee.
"Herbert?" he called blearily, immediately cringing at the ragged sound of his voice.
"You up?" Came the reply, and Herbert entered Pip's line of vision, hanging over him. "You drink like a fish, Pip!"
"Yeah," Pip returned groggily, "Plenty of experience, drinking with Estella. How'd I end up here?"
"Well," Herbert made an awkward attempt at a smile. "We got a taxi back, and you pretty much collapsed there. You made it up all the stairs on your own, but you did... talk. A lot."
"Oh good," Pip replied, feeling himself slip back into alcohol-induced exhaustion. "I'm going to bed. Night, Herbert."
Herbert's "It's ten o'clock in the morning!" followed him as he dragged himself into his own room and crawled under the covers, ready to sleep off whatever he'd done.
"I told you you'd enjoy yourself!" Estella told him, cornering him in the library once more. "Why are you back here so soon?"
It was Sunday, and after sleeping for most of the previous day, emerging to eat toast and then return to bed once more, Pip was trying once more to bully his textbook into submission. Herbert had still been asleep when he left the flat at a relatively early eight thirty, and he had been quietly studying in the peace of the library for a good two hours before Estella appeared out of nowhere to harass him.
"Yeah," he replied, still trying to focus on levers and pivots, "You did."
"And Herbert says that you came out to him!" Estella continued, ignoring Pip's shell-shocked expression in favour of soldering on. "And you told him all about your life, apparently. He was so nice, we should go out again sometime."
"So I can make a fool of myself again? Not likely," Pip muttered, glaring obstinately at his book before deciding he had to shut it to concentrate on the fact that he had told Herbert what he had intended to conceal from everybody.
"No, he assured me that you were charming in every way," Estella replied, "You should move in together."
Pip rubbed his right temple. It was clearly too early to be dealing with Estella. It was always too early to be dealing with Estella. "We do live together. We share a flat, remember?"
She rolled her eyes, and stared straight at him. "I didn't mean to continue in separate bedrooms, Pip."
And then she left him spluttering, unable to concentrate on his work once more, leaving the library as suddenly as she had arrived.
It was not that he had not noticed.
There was that smile Herbert pulled whenever anything that could be in the slightest positive connected happened. That raising of the eyebrows. Those eyes.
But that meant absolutely nothing.
Two men could live together without gazing after one another, couldn't they? Besides, Pip knew the danger. He could not go back to his 'home' without hearing the echoes of Billy Johnson yelling 'poofter' at his receding figure, pushing him around, forcing him to change in the toilets so he would not 'perv' on the rest of the boys in the changing room. It was odd, how things followed you like that. It would hurt to be 'out'. He just knew it would. His phone buzzed. It was a text from Estella.
"I mean it. Stop worrying. He's nice."
Nice. Pip vaguely remembered Herbert telling him something about a boy and his family. Nice and similarly orientated.
Still going to hurt.
Unfortunately for Pip, the texts from Estella kept coming. He was awoken at two in the morning on the following Tuesday, his phone buzzing loudly somewhere across the room.
"Fuck off," he mumbled, trying to block out the sound by burying his head under a pillow. It persisted. Clearly, Estella was out for his attention. He gave in and retrieved the phone from the pocket of yesterday's jeans.
"7 New Messages" Great. Thanks, Estella. Much appreciated.
"Why have I heard nothing from you and him?"
"Don't you love me anymore?"
"What about our fabulous past?"
"Are you not leaving your house because you're busy fucking?"
"OMG, you are."
"Bentley wants to know who bottoms."
"He's placed a tenner on one of you. I won't say which."
Pip rubbed a hand over his face, and decided he could not possibly sleep with the image of Herbert beneath him just behind his eyelids. Which was probably Estella's intention.
"Estella. It's been a day since I last saw you. Piss off."
He pressed send and dropped back onto his bed, feeling utterly helpless against Estella's scheming, plotting mind. He was going to have to stop talking to her. His phone vibrated again.
"A day is more than enough time, Pip. I know you too well to even bother commenting on the fact that you didn't deny the sex."
She was going to crow over that forever if he wasn't lucky. He threw the phone down onto the bed and decided that now was the perfect time to go and watch TV – after all, he only had to be awake in six hours to attend a class. He might as well fill his time productively.
Strolling into the lounge in his underwear – fuck it, middle of the night, where's the remote – he all but collapsed into the sofa, the exertion of walking all the way from his bedroom making him feel tired. He tried closing his eyes – nope, still a scandalous image of Herbert in his head. Not going away, then. For all he knew, he might never be able to sleep again without feeling that tug below his stomach.
Turning on the TV, he found a cheaply made romcom and stared at it, the film not quite seeping into his brain, which was still concentrated on Estella's messages. Herbert wandered into the room, yawning.
"Oh, it's you," he mumbled, "Thought we were being burgled."
"So you wandered through unarmed to take them on," Pip countered, "Ten marks for effort, if nothing else."
As Herbert fell gracelessly onto the sofa beside him, Pip had a sudden flash of Herbert falling onto his bed in a similar fashion. Preferably naked. He was halfway there now, just a tee shirt and a pair of boxers away from –
He was going to punch Estella for ever bringing it up.
He watched the rest of the film beside Herbert, accidently finding himself more engrossed by the boy than by the blockbuster.
He began to notice.
That was definitely a bad thing. Spurred on by Estella's endless texts, he found himself pretending not to stare, and finding excuses to touch Herbert in any way – brushing fluff off his clothing, a stray hair in his eyes, even an eyelash that had fallen onto his cheek – which was becoming a startlingly regular habit.
He needed to do something about it.
Before Estella did something drastic, like she was always threatening. Her latest text read:
"I could book you a table at a nice restaurant if you want to seduce him properly."
He politely declined, wishing that he had the guts to agree to her plans. There had been countless opportunities, after all.
"Estella tells me that you've got a thing with Herbert Pocket," drawled Bentley Drummle, to Pip's immediate despair. He looked up from his work – would he never be allowed to study unhindered? – to find Drummle sneering in distaste at him. "You know you can't get into this part of the world like that, Pippy Pirrip."
"I have no idea what you're talking about Bentley, I'm trying to work," Pip countered, his jaw setting in the early onset of anger at seeing Drummle's arrogant face.
"I think you do," Drummle replied, his expression twisting into a leer. "You can't fuck your way into society, Pippy. And even if you could, Herbert Pocket is not the boy to help you. He belongs here as much as you do."
Pip stared at Drummle evenly. "Thank you," he said after a pause, "For enlightening my life so heartily."
He gathered up his books and left, Drummle thankfully not following. Whatever Estella had told him, it had gone on too long. What if Herbert found out that they had apparently been having sex, or worse, found out that Pip wanted to?
A voice in the back of his head asked hesitantly if that was so bad, only to be confronted by every example of the mindset towards Pip's sexuality ever experienced by him. No, it was not okay. It was setting himself up for an almighty fall, and he would not let it happen again.
Pulling out his phone, he found Estella in his contact list.
"Stop telling people that I'm fucking Herbert. Stop talking to Drummle. He's a dick."
He fired off the text, feeling a familiar mixture of anger and self-loathing rise within him. Fuck Drummle. Who was he to tell him where he belonged? Why should Pip have to deal with this shit again?
Estella did not reply.
A day passed, then a week. Estella had stopped sending him messages – probably fuming that he had tried to tell her what to do – and Pip deliberately avoided contact with Herbert, to the extent that he missed toast Friday because he was hiding in his room studying. He smelt it, though, and wondered briefly why he was bothering to seclude himself from someone who understood his plight perfectly.
Because he was a little bit in love with him, that was why.
Eventually, he was going to have to spend more time with Herbert than just saying 'hello' and running off to do some more studying – or lying on his bed thinking about whether he could afford to be in love with someone right that moment – and when that moment came, it would be awkward. For him. Not for Herbert, who could charm his way through anything, but for Pip, because he would be looking the boy he had recently had a dream about rimming in the eyes.
He was having more and more Herbert-centred dreams, which was unsettling. He was supposed to be ridding himself of any Herbert-related thoughts, not creating more of them.
The following Wednesday, it rained.
It rained on many occasions in a year, but that Wednesday, the rain was consequential. Pip was trying to find something, anything, to eat in the kitchen, the radio on and fighting for dominance against the noise of the water on the windowpanes. No bread. Nothing in the fridge but half a red pepper and some milk. He gave up, and leant on the counter morosely, staring into the rain.
The combination of the noise of the weather and the noise whatever the radio station was classing as 'music' meant that Pip did not hear the front door open, nor hear Herbert shuffling around in the hallway. When he appeared in the door, it was a sudden shock to the system.
"Oh," he said intelligently, "Hello."
It was the first good look he'd had of Herbert in a week or so, and it was a devastating one. He had obviously been walking home in the rain, and was soaked to the skin, his tee and jeans clinging to his body. He was also looking quite cold.
Despite his best intentions, Pip found himself grabbing the hand towel from the side and using it to dry Herbert's hands while he apologised profusely for dripping water through the flat.
"No problem," Pip replied gently, handing over the towel and trying not to see how the rain had plastered Herbert's hair to his forehead, and would really benefit with being swept to one side. It was also showing the colour of his eyes in bright relief against his pale skin.
"It was only a five minute walk, didn't seem worth getting the bus," Herbert explained with a wry grin, kicking off his sodden canvas plimsolls. "I swear it was about to ease up when I left campus."
It had been raining solidly for a good hour – but Herbert's optimism had never failed to astound Pip.
"I'd offer you a cup of tea, but we've got none," Pip replied, dragging his eyes from the contours of Herbert's body with extreme reluctance. "No bread, either. Or food in general."
Herbert pulled a face, then shrugged, peeling off his tee shirt. Pip had to avert his eyes to prevent himself from staring.
"Something stronger?" Herbert suggested. "I think there's some whiskey under the sink."
Pip pulled the whiskey from behind the bleach, and reached to grab two tumblers from the cupboard, conveniently turning his back on his friend. Yes, a stiff drink sounded about right. Concentrate on drink. Forget Herbert.
This ploy was ruined when he turned to find Herbert inches from him. He took the glass from Pip's hand, and held out the other for the alcohol.
Pip accidently found himself ignoring the request for alcohol, and closing the inches between their lips. It was quiet, and soft, Herbert's lips like a dream beneath his – and then Pip's brain came into play.
He drew back suddenly, releasing his hold on his tumbler and dashing from the room.
He didn't even pause when he heard Herbert call his name, just rushed out of the flat.
His phone was already in his hand, his fingers dialling a number he'd known ever since he could remember. They picked up on the second ring.
"What is it you want?"
Pip was midway through rushing down the stairs, his heart beating in his ears, but the coldness in the voice still made him pause for a split second.
"Estella," he said in a voice that was not supposed to sound so broken, "I fucked up."
There was a pause on the line.
"What do you want, Pip?" she asked again, her voice softer this time. "Are you okay?"
"No. Yes. I don't know. I messed it up and I was trying so hard—"
"Pip are you having another identity crisis? I thought that we'd agreed that after that boy in Lincolnshire—"
"—I can't do it, I can't live with him—"
"What on Earth are you saying? What have you done?"
Pip stopped, finding himself outside, the rain beating down through his cardigan. He took a deep breath or two, feeling his skin cooling.
"Can I come round?" he asked plaintively, "Please?"
Estella also took a deep breath. "We'll talk about this when you arrive. You're wasting your minutes."
She hung up, leaving Pip standing in the rain with nothing but the flimsiest offer of a house for the night he could have ever accepted.
She was not best pleased when he confessed his mistake to her.
"You ran away," she said dryly, "You kissed him, ran away and now you're refusing to go back. Is that right?"
"I didn't run," Pip grumbled, his hands firmly clasped around the mug of coffee she'd given him. He was wrapped in a dressing gown – he didn't know whose, but he had a horrible feeling that he didn't want to know, either – on her sofa, feeling all of fourteen again. "I just... left."
"At a considerable rate," Estella finished. "You're right, you did mess up. Why, Phillip Pirrip, did you not stay and use the excuse of his wet clothing to get him completely naked?"
Pip cringed. "Don't say things like that! I should not be letting this get in the way."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "You're right, you should not be letting your own twisted sense of what's right and wrong stop you from kissing Herbert Pocket." Pip made to protest, but she held a hand up to stop him. "I know you, Pip. You think that the world will end if one boy likes another, but it doesn't! You're not in some backwater hamlet anymore, people have brains here! You are never going to be able to use yours if you keep letting this whole 'I cannot be who I really am' thing play around in the back of your mind, and you well know it. You need to go back and grovel." She thought carefully for a moment, her eyes wide on Pip. "And then sex."
Pip ducked his head and muttered a curse under his breath. Then he turned his best doe eyes on Estella.
"Please can I stay here, so I don't have to deal with it yet?" he begged, trying his hardest to look like he wasn't utterly pathetic and yet was at the same time.
The eyebrow went up again. "One night, Pip. And you can take the sofa. I'm going to bed."
Pip remained at Estella's town house for as long as he could possibly manage, finally being pushed out past ten o'clock in the evening. He crept back into the flat like a fugitive, sneaking into his room. It took him a long time to sleep, his guts winding into knots at the thought of the apology he was going to have to make. Because frankly, it was inexcusable, kissing your platonic friend without even being drunk.
Even if he was drunk, it would have been awful. As Herbert had discovered, Pip talked when he was drunk. Obviously that would have gone well.
He probably would have confessed his undying adoration, and then told him in explicit detail the dreams he had been having. He had to be thankful, then, that it was only a kiss and not a confession.
The next morning he got up early and went to the corner shop, buying bread for apology toast. Toast was good. Distract him with food, apologise, and move on with life. Out of his head, out of his way.
By the time he had returned to the flat and made the toast, Herbert was up – he could hear him stumbling around in his room. When he finally got around to entering the kitchen, still only dressed in his standard sleep wear of a tee shirt and boxers, Pip was able to hand him a plate of toast and ignore the thoughtful face Herbert was wearing.
There was a moment in which they stood at opposite ends of the small space and contemplated one another, and then Pip decided to bite the bullet and get it over with.
"I'm sorry," he said slowly, watching Herbert carefully to work out whether he'd change his streak of kindness with some cruelty for the unexpected assault Pip had given him. "For what happened the other night. It won't happen again."
Herbert kept his poker face, setting down his toast. The sound resounded in the silence between them.
"Really?" he replied, cocking his head, "I'm not. Sorry, that is. I am sorry about the leaving very quickly part – but not the kiss."
Pip wanted to open his mouth and tell him to stop talking; stop now before he had to leave again. He wanted to kiss him again, insanely ignoring all his previous calculations. He did neither, taking a breath and turning his back on Herbert to get himself a glass of water.
Why was this kitchen so tiny? Why did he ever think that he could be so close to Herbert without hating himself a little more?
"Pip, look at me," Herbert murmured.
Pip did not answer, focusing on taking a sip of water. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat to stay alive.
"Why are you so desperate to forget about it? I know you, Pip, and this is ridiculous."
"I can't," Pip shot at Herbert suddenly, surprising himself a little. "Fresh start."
Herbert sighed softly behind him. "Pip, I don't understand why you are so utterly infuriating."
Pip turned to leave, but found his way blocked by Herbert, who was barely inches away once more. This was becoming a dangerous habit. This time, it was Herbert who was leaning forwards. He stopped just short of Pip's lips, and Pip noticed belatedly that he had made no attempt to move.
Nor was he making any attempt to.
In his head, much of his brain was screaming to get out, but his legs were frozen in the space between the counter and Herbert, unwilling to move.
His eyes fluttered closed as Herbert pushed his lips onto Pip's, soft sensation setting in.
Whilst his legs were not moving, his hand was, and it had woven itself into Herbert's hair, pulling him closer. The exact opposite of what he was supposed to do. Unfortunately, the majority of Pip did not seem to care at all anymore. Fresh start. They weren't in a school yard, they were in the comfort of their own home, and it was euphoric.
Their lips finally moved apart, but they stayed where they were, Herbert resting his forehead upon Pip's. It was quiet, Pip dimly realised, nothing else to fill the space but them.
"You need to go to your lecture," Herbert reminded him softly, "And I need to go to mine."
He kissed Pip chastely, and then picked up the apology toast and left.
Pip could have sang. Or punched himself. Either seemed appropriate.
He settled for eating the other slice of toast and heading off to his lecture like Herbert had suggested, feeling dazed.
23 New Messages
"How did the apology go?"
"Did you kiss and make up?"
"Seriously, answer me."
"You haven't gone into a melodramatic fug have you?"
"Stay away from the whiskey, your student loans are already big enough."
"Text me if you feel like it."
"Or, you know, anytime."
"I AM WASTING MY UNLIMITED TEXTS HERE."
"Are you not replying because you're having make up sex?"
"I hear it's good."
"Let him be the dom. You're supposed to be in repentance."
"Try talking to me, sometime. You might find that I dealt with your drivel the other day and so am entitled to the ensuing gossip."
"Seriously, though. What happened?"
"Are you dead?"
"Did Herbert finally snap and punch you back?"
"You owe him for that. It was hilarious."
"His face when he came in! I cried with laughter, I won't lie."
"I might just die here, without you talking to me."
"I'll come round and disturb your love nest, I swear to God."
Pip sighed, scrolling through the seemingly endless tirade Estella was able to keep up. He had turned his phone off in the lecturing theatre, his own instinct being to talk to Estella, but over ruling it to take notes and concentrate. It had been a good lecture, but turning on his phone afterwards meant that he had seen all that he had missed from Estella.
Sighing, he opened a reply and considered it for a moment.
"I'm alive. Herbert didn't punch me."
He sent it, thought for a moment, and added as an afterthought:
"By all means, don't waste your texts on me."
She cornered him at three minutes past four that afternoon in a coffee shop. He was a little surprised to have avoided her for so long, if he was honest with himself. The texts had stopped after his reply, which was shocking enough, and then he had had a whole three hours in which he was free to study and think about Herbert alternately. Going to get a coffee had turned into a drinking coffee and wondering if he was mad session, until Estella turned up and sat in the armchair opposite him, looking more composed than Pip. She always looked more composed than Pip.
"So?" she prompted, and when he silently took a gulp of coffee she continued, "All I get from you is that you're not dead. Do you have any idea how worried I was? I thought that you might run off and sulk in a park somewhere, then get mugged and bleed to death behind a tree."
"Your faith in me, Estella, it's touching."
"You could have, though. You do tend to run off when you get upset. What happened this morning that you're obviously trying not to tell me about?"
Damn Estella and her intuition. "Nothing," Pip replied sharply, feeling like a child caught with his hand in the biscuits. Estella raised an eyebrow – make that a toddler. "Even if anything did happen, it really has to stop because—"
"Because you have instability issues and you're scared of being in love?"
"Because you can't seem to admit that all you want is him and it's killing you?"
"Estella! I can't—"
"Function without him? For goodness sakes Pip, stop finding excuses. It's simple. You're never going to go home. You don't want to, and you've been searching for excuses to leave forever. You do not have to deal with the small minded attitudes you once put up with; you're sharing a flat with one of the man of your dreams, in a place where people are far too polite to say something moronic! Stop telling yourself that you 'can't', Pip. You already are."
They stared at each other for a minute. Pip was trying to think of something that would stop Estella from being right, and failing. His mind was still too focused on Herbert. Still.
"I don't know what to do," he admitted.
Estella worried at her lower lip. "You could just buy some condoms for standby?" she suggested, and then laughed at the strangled noise Pip made in reply. "No, perhaps not, you might have a meltdown at the till. You could just go back to your flat and hope that he hasn't thought better of it?"
"Yeah," Pip agreed, "That's all I came up with, too. He'll be back there now. His lecture was only an hour long, and he keeps Friday free because we have toast... What?"
Estella was raising an eyebrow once more, her expression incredulous. "Are you sure that you didn't get married, and forget to tell me?"
She left him drinking the remainders of his coffee and wondering whether it was about time Herbert repaid the punch Pip had given him so long ago.
Herbert did not punch Pip when he walked through the door an hour later. There was a moment when Pip thought that he might have gone out, and hung up his coat quietly before kicking off his shoes and heading towards the lounge. He barely took a step before Herbert stepped in front of him, smiling as he leaned down to kiss Pip once more.
Again, the dazed feeling took over Pip's mind, and he found it very difficult to find a word that would convey how eager he was when Herbert asked him – or told him with an added inflection of questioning – to watch a film.
He was sure that it was a good film, too, if only he hadn't found himself pinned beneath Herbert before half an hour had passed, dimly wondering if the dazed feeling would ever leave as the other boy grazed his teeth against Pip's throat.
Perhaps Estella had been right again, when she told him that his already was doing what he said he couldn't. Oh well.
It was a fresh start, anyway.