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She asks him to take off his shoes, and Stephen does, smiling back and throwing glances at the carpet. He hasn't been here since they've properly settled in; hasn't been here since before Jo came over permanently (though, of course, there is no talk of permanence from either her or Hugh; there's always 'a year or two' and 'in a few
months' or rarely 'when you come over next').

He's early. Jo shows him into the lounge and trots off to get tea before either of them have time to ask or answer, and if Stephen closes his eyes - and he does - he might as well be in England. It's like any other house of theirs he's ever been to. Then, the smell of tea, and pleasant conversation.

Stephen likes Jo. He tries, as always, to indicate this with every fibre of his body, but as usual, it is unresponsive; sluggish. His being, as it were, would do a better job of it, but his being, Stephen feels, is rarely visible. Possibly, it is still in London, wrapped around Daniel in his sleep. Possibly he looks distracted, for Jo says something about jetlag, and smiles indulgently, leaving him. Possibly she's right. His head feels like cotton wool. Like the murky sunlight seeping through the large patio windows.


 

Hugh arrives in the middle of the night, perhaps mistakenly thinking Stephen is asleep. A forgivable offense, considering the fact that he had gone to bed, according to the glaring digits on his phone, more than three hours ago. Jo would have texted, informing Hugh of this state of affairs. 'Stephen sleeping, no rush, see you tonight' sealed with an x, perhaps. To be fair, she would have called. Hugh's texts are brief, clumsy things; bumbling about the display like textular Stephens. Stephen has not called or texted anyone after he got off the
plane. He doesn't quite know why.

The crisp sheets smell of lavender and something undefinable, and to the sound of Hugh's feet (stockinged, no doubt) on the stairs, Stephen's mind drifts, finally, into unconsciousness.


 

They exchange hugs and soft-boiled eggs the next morning. "I thought you were writing your book," Hugh asks, all undiscerning eyes, and Stephen shrugs.

"I'm always writing something."

"I was under the impression there were deadlines involved, this time."

"Oh, deadlines." Stephen huffs, not taking a second helping. Hugh's eyes are on him in that trying-not-to-be way, or rather on the bits of him that aren't there anymore. Stephen catches them before they sprain
something. "I appreciate compliments, you know."

"I wasn't going to give you any."

"The sentiment is appreciated, nonetheless."

Hugh pokes at scattered eggshell remains, and smiles. Meeting his eyes, Stephen does, too.


 

There is never enough time. They both know this, but Stephen's mind is wired in such a way that it tends to translate this into Hugh doesn't want to give him any time. The italics are important. The more of them there are, the wronger he knows he is. Knowing is one thing though; internalizing quite another.

He talks to Daniel briefly on the phone, pretending to forget the time difference. It's not that he can't find things to occupy his time; the walk from Hugh's (and Jo's, yes) home into town is in itself significant and nearly suicidal - this is not a city meant for pedestrians - enough that he almost gives up the first time. But he doesn't come here to walk alongside dusty highways, meet with hopeful producers or shop at the Apple store. "No one knows me here," he tells Daniel using his newly purchased toy. "You should join me, pet." It's too early or too late for both of them; neither laugh.

Some hours later, and he's back at the house, giving fitness the finger just this once, and cabbing the distance. The driver doesn't know the way, exasperatingly babbling in Spanish and consulting his GPS rather than listen to Stephen's patient explanations in a language clearly too unfamiliar. A mile or so from the house Stephen thanks him, and walks the rest of the way. The roads are tolerable here, and besides, he couldn't breathe in there. He's passed by a few cars on the way, two of which look like Hugh's; one like Jo's. Neither are home when Stephen arrives, pleasantly walked-out, letting himself in with the key only one of them gave him.


 

Hugh spends the entire next day with him, and Stephen feels dejectedly shameful. He knows what a buggeringly exhausting schedule Hugh is on; saw first hand what it did to him the first few years he was over. Lawks. Years. Hugh is talkative today, as he usually is when they have any significant amount of time to spend together over here; his voice skirts the edges of American English carefully, like a schoolboy trying to keep his changing voice in check. Stephen mostly watches him and smiles. He remembers Hugh's first flat in California; a horrible, clean, sterile thing even worse than the hotel room they kept him in for eons; oozing with the cloying scent of nothing. The first time Stephen came over, they got disgracefully drunk in a local bar so shady that Hugh was not recognized (this was still possible, then), stumbling back at the ungodly hour of 11 PM, Hugh having a shoot the next day, and Stephen still jetlagged. They'd fallen chastely into bed together, like in Cambridge, when they saw so much of one another that you'd think it'd make Hugh sick. If it did, he never said anything. Stephen had woken up at 4 AM, and spent the remaining hours dithering between watching Hugh's open mouth and the rise and fall of his chest, and closing his eyes in a desperate bid for sleep.

They fall into an amicable silence as Hugh guides the car through some rather pretty countryside landscapes, but Stephen is even less here for the landscapes than he is for gadgets and producers. Hugh, he knows, would be happier on two wheels, but even with Stephen's much reduced state, that is not a feasible, nor dignified, mode of transportation for the both of them. Their destination is an elegant little restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere, clearly catering to a clientele not interested in recognition by the general public, who are kept at bay, possibly, by a pack of very polite hounds. Hugh keeps pointing out points of interests and trivia about the area, as if Stephen was merely a tourist. Half way through the first course, it's gotten enough on Stephen's nerves that he blurts out "I'm thinking of renting a house here," which is untrue; the thought hadn't crossed his mind until that moment.

Stephen bites his lip, but Hugh merely raises an eyebrow and smiles, carefully. "I expect I'll see more of you, then."

As they leave, Stephen wonders what the arsing fuck he's going to tell Daniel.