Happy Valentine’s Day! I just about made it. RL isn’t the most fun right now, but it’s a year since Ghosts came out and I wanted to share some Jack and Gareth with you all. So here’s a bit that may or may not make it into Swings & Roundabouts, Jack and Gareth’s fourth book. It hints at one of the events in Swings, so if you don’t want to know what Jack and Gareth may be up against… don’t look under the picture!
Nico bided his time. He kept Daniel company while Daniel experimented with shortbread flavours. He tasted every mix and gave his opinion without a single bit of snark until Daniel settled on vanilla, cinnamon and cappucino. Nico watched him mix dough and cut out shapes, kept a close eye on the timer while they baked, and finally helped Daniel wrap the finished shortbread hearts in pink and white tissue paper.
He listened to Daniel worry about whether or not Jess would like what he’d made for her, never mind that he thought the whole exercise completely pointless. Presents he understood. Shortbread made sense. Why it needed to be accurately and perfectly heart-shaped though….? Still, it was something that mattered to Daniel and Nico, who’d been playing with an idea of his own over the last few days, knew that Daniel wouldn’t be able to listen unless he’d got his Valentine’s Day gift for Jess just as he wanted it.
Now Jess had proudly showed off the pink box of perfect almond shortbread hearts to all her friends at school. She’d declared all three flavours to be awesome and Daniel a kitchen wizard. And Daniel, who sported a deep red silk rosebud on his collar, hadn’t stopped grinning all day.
When Nico broached his idea while they waited for Jack after their last lesson he didn’t expect any opposition. “You know that heart-shaped pizza dinner you and Gareth made last year? D’you think we could do something like this tonight? Cheer them up after their fight an’ all.”
He didn’t go into how much the raised voices and Jack walking out had bothered him. He didn’t have to. They’d both lain awake all that night, had listened to Gareth pace downstairs and waited for Jack to come back. And while Jack and Gareth had talked the next day, while they’d apologised and returned to their routine, things weren’t anywhere near back to the way they’d been.
“A reminder of good things you mean? Good idea,” Daniel agreed immediately. “But we’re supposed to make pizza at Aidan’s tomorrow.”
“And? I don’t mind eating pizza two days running.”
“Neither do I, but Gareth will have a fit.”
“It’s one day. One special day. I’m sure Gareth can deal. Especially as they’re going away and we’re doing it for them. Jack likes your pizza.”
Daniel didn’t reply. He stared out over the courtyard, lips moving soundlessly. Nico recognised the look of Daniel mentally reviewing the contents of the larder and didn’t interrupt.
“This can work, but you need to help,” Daniel decided eventually. “Or I won’t have it ready before Gareth gets home.”
“What are we having? Not pizza, then?”
“No. We didn’t freeze that leftover roast chicken and I don’t want it to go to waste.”
“Roast chicken bits won’t make heart shapes.”
“Yes, they will. Sorta. I’ll make heart shaped puff pastry shells. When they’re baked we can fill them with the chicken and mushroom sauce. And we can have roast potatoes and carrots with it, but you need to help with those.”
Nico wasn’t fond of cooking. He made toast and tea. He could brew coffee that Jack was happy to drink. But touching raw food grossed him out. He didn’t go near raw meat or – worst of all – fresh fish with all the slimy scales and stuff. Vegetables weren’t too bad. Just cold and wet. And Daniel was changing his plans just because Nico had asked. Nico drew a deep breath. “I can peel potatoes.”
“I know that. You need to cut them into shapes, too.”
“You’re the artistic one.”
“And you can use a cutter to make heart shapes out of a potato slice.”
Maybe he could, at that. It was only a potato after all. “Pudding?”
Daniel tilted his head and thought. “We could make waffles. The waffle iron has a heart shape. Or we could cheat.”
“Get chocolates, you mean?”
“Yeah. And that red wine they like. Or Rachel may have a heart shaped cake.” He pushed away from the wall and slung his backpack over one shoulder. “There’s Jack. You wanna tell him?”
“Not about the dinner. I want him and Gareth to see it together. I want to see them laugh.”
Daniel shot him a sideways look. “Jack laughs.”
“Not as much as he used to. No telling.”
“Fine. Let’s see what we can find at Rachel’s.”
Rachel’s deli was full of heart shaped things from appetisers to cheese and biscuits, and from desserts to cake. Daniel spent an age looking at all the items on offer. He even had a whispered conversation with Rachel all while Nico kept Jack busy finding wine. He and Daniel were allowed a glass of wine with dinner since it was Valentine’s Day, and Jack – after calling out a question to Rachel – finally picked a bottle of pink champagne for them all to share. Nico preferred Jack’s favourite red wine. Maybe because it had mountains on the label and had come all the way from New Zealand. Jack didn’t need a lot of prompting to add a bottle to their basket.
Getting Jack to go upstairs and pack rather than join them in the kitchen was a lot trickier. Jack was suspicious and Nico always found it easier to hide things from Gareth. Jack knew and saw far too much and he was never shy to ask.
“Jack, it’s Valentine’s Day. We want to surprise you and Gareth. Let us?”
Jack rocked back on his heels. The suspicious frown smoothed out a little. “Sure.”
“Don’t look like that,” Nico implored. “We just want to cheer you up. You’ve both not been the same and… and it bothers us?” His voice wobbled a bit at the end as he admitted that and he hated it. Fortunately, Jack knew what he was talking about. He didn’t ask anything else. He just wrapped Nico in a hug.
“It’s fine, Nico. I promise.”
“You can’t promise that.” Nico hugged back as if his life depended on it. “Before… Gareth was just stressed. Now he’s so… so quiet. Connor says that’s how it started with his parents. First they had a fight, then they stopped talking, and then his dad walked out.”
“Not gonna happen.” Jack pushed him back a little and slipped a thumb under his jaw to make him look up. He wasn’t angry. “Listen to me, Nico. Nothing’s gonna happen, okay? Yes, we had a fight, but we talked about it and we sorted it out.”
“Then why is Gareth so grumpy?”
“Because he doesn’t know where we’re going.”
Now Jack grinned like an imp and Nico fought the urge to snarl at him. “Why don’t you tell him?”
“Because it’s a surprise?” Jack pushed him toward the kitchen. “Daniel wants you. I’ll go pack. And if you wanna keep secrets, listen out for Gareth’s bike, okay?”
“Why didn’t you say?”
Nico walked straight into Daniel’s hug and his blush was faster than his attempt to hide his face. Jack usually waited until Nico was ready to talk. Daniel didn’t need to. He knew what Nico was afraid of. Still, Nico tried to deflect his concern. “I didn’t want to spoil your fun. You were busy with Jess’s gift.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious. I got that. You should have talked to me anyway.”
“I didn’t want— You really like Jess and—”
Daniel snorted in a very un-Daniel way at that. “Reboot your memory app,” he mimicked Jack. “Yes, I like Jess. But love comes in all shapes and sizes and family comes first.”
That wasn’t news. Gareth said it a lot. Most days Nico believed it. Then the door had slammed behind Jack and the roar of his bike had sounded like the end of something good.
“Snap out of it.”
Daniel’s punch didn’t hurt. But his glare did.
“You’re being silly. And I don’t think Jack and Gareth are anything like Connor’s parents.”
“No. They had one real fight. And they both apologised the next day. Connor says his parents were at it for years before they split. Now come and see what I got from Rachel. See if that won’t make them laugh.”
“Beetroot!” Nico gasped, barely able to swallow past the laughter. “Pickled beetroot. This is gross.”
Gareth reached across the table and plucked the half-eaten piece of cake from his fingers. He popped it into his mouth and chewed. “My brain hurts,” he laughed when he’d swallowed the bite. “Talk about false advertising.”
“What do we think this is, then?” Jack pointed to what looked like a bite-sized croissant, complete with icing sugar dusting.
“Fish,” Daniel suggested. “It’s gotta be. We had beef and horseradish, we had pickled beetroot, and we had cheese. We haven’t had fish yet.”
Daniel was right, and they all ate the final pieces of their starter with a mix of delight and revulsion.
“I didn’t get it when you showed me,” Nico admitted. “I didn’t get it at all.”
“That’s because you expected to see something that looked like starters and you expected something sweet and that’s what you got,” Gareth suggested. “You can’t tell that the cakes aren’t the pudding. Not from looking at them.”
They leaned over the second large platter Daniel had set out. It held pieces of cheese, prawns on skewers, tiny burgers in buns, chips, and even a miniature steak pie. They looked totally realistic. And all were supposedly dessert.
“Really reminds me of that stuff you’re doing at work,” Gareth told Jack, only for Jack to look blankly back at him.
“Playing on people’s expectations. If you look like an axe murderer, and behave like an axe murderer, then people will think you’re an axe murderer and not contribute to your chosen charity. Isn’t that what you said?”
“If you see cake and it looks like Black Forest Gateau you don’t expect to taste pickled beetroot.” Daniel was having fun.
So did Gareth, who surrounded his heart-shaped chicken casserole with carrot triangles, potato hearts and mushroom squares. “Did you break the heart-shaped cutter?” he asked as they cleared away the dishes in preparation for trying the sweets.
“I’d say that was deliberate.” Jack, who’d gone for the champagne and glasses, wrapped his arms around Gareth’s waist and rested his chin on Gareth’s shoulder. “In case we’d forgotten that love comes in all shapes and sizes.”
Gareth leaned into Jack’s hold and looked between Daniel and Nico. Unerringly, his gaze settled on Nico and then he held out a hand and drew Nico into a hug. “That’s not even remotely likely, Nico,” he said while Jack pulled Daniel close. “We’re a family because we wanted to be one. That makes us strong even when we argue.”
“I know,” Nico whispered fiercely. “Most days, I know that.” He breathed in Gareth’s spicy cologne, as familiar to him as the citrus scent that Jack used, and let it comfort him. Went back to believing that love came in all shapes and sizes and that family came first. And he wasn’t at all surprised when a champagne cork popped and Daniel waved a skewer of shrimps into his face.
“So what do we think these will taste of?”