Stephen kicks the door to his flat shut with the heel of his shoe, drops the bags on the floor and walks into his living room. Like every single day for the last weeks, he just stands there. It's too early to go to sleep, and he's too tired to do anything else.
He listens for the sound of the shower, a rustling in the bedroom, anything, but he knows there's no one here. The silence is familiar, but it still sends cool shivers down his spine. He toes off his shoes and closes his eyes in relief and despair when they clatter on the wooden floor.
Helen isn't here. She hasn't been since the moment she disappeared, gone for good, leaving all her mess behind. Sometimes she comes back, but it's not the same. She's not the same. She tastes like salt and sulphur when he kisses her. The sex is rough and painful and it's not what he wants at all.
Nick isn't here either. The times when Nick turned up at his door, hair a mess and with swollen eyes, are long over. Stephen remembers how Nick used to need him. How Nick got drunk and leaned against his chest, his head rolling on Stephen's shoulder, falling asleep.
Now Nick has found something else to bury himself in. His new obsession gives him something to do, to think about, and it leaves Stephen with too much time on his hands. Stephen understands, of course he does, but he still feels replaced.
The Cutters, Helen and Nick, have been his life. He can't remember what he did before them, and now that they've both gone and left him, he simply doesn't know what to do when he comes home.
When he was a student, he admired them for their work, for the love that united them, for their endless enthusiasm. They let him into their lives, their research and eventually their home. He'd become Helen's lover and Nick's best friend and he never really stopped to think about what he was not only doing to them, but also to himself.
It doesn't matter any more. Their lives have moved on. His hasn't. He gets up in the morning for the work he does, that he loves, but when he comes back in the evening, his flat is empty.
He used to like his spartan, stark apartment. Now the endless white walls seem bleak and haunting. The Cutter's house has always felt more like a home than his own. Their lives have fitted around him, wrapping him and keeping him warm. Now he's left with nothing at all.
He needs to get out.
He drives back to the ARC because he's got nowhere else to go. The concrete walls of endless corridors are cold around him, but at least they don't threaten to cave in and bury him.
The light in Connor's lab is still on, like it is every night. He knocks carefully, and there's some rustling on the other side of the door, like he's shuffling papers over the table to hide something.
Stephen slides in, closes the door carefully behind him and smiles involuntarily at a little screen, buried under glass instruments and papers, buzzing and glowing from the laser swords swirling around on it.
Connor finally manages to shut his laptop. "What are you doing here?"
Stephen leans back against the door, trying not to think about what the hell he's really actually doing here.
"Checking if you're working or watching Star Wars again," he says.
Connor's eyes widen until he sees Stephen's smile.
"Nice one, mate."
Connor's warm voice makes something in Stephen's stomach unclench and he finally realises what he should have noticed long ago.
Connor makes him feel better.
"So, which one are you watching?" he says, drawing a chair up next to Connor's.
It should feel weird, Stephen reflects as he watches Connor fiddle with the DVD player, popping in another film, but it really doesn't.
All the evenings he spends over at Connor's small flat, folding his limbs under him on the tiny sofa, fill the emptiness.
Connor is never quiet. Connor always knows what to do next, which usually means watching the sequel, or something that's even better, you're gonna like it, promise.
"I can't believe you've never seen this one before," Connor says as he presses play and endless space fills the screen.
Stephen rubs his hand over his tired eyes. He knows that when he goes home, he'll just fall into his bed and sleep. It's such a relief after countless nights of tossing around on the unyielding mattress, staring at the merciless wall and struggling for indifferent sleep.
Now he feels like he might be able to handle this.
After nights and nights of watching their way through everything Connor deems immediately and non-negotiably necessary for Stephen's education and well-being, and when Stephen has one short second of doubt and oh God, what now?, Connor just pulls out the Xbox.
Stephen hasn't played a game for such a long time that Connor needs to explain all the buttons to him. His eyes never quite leave the screen while his fingers nudges Stephen's into the right directions.
A few weeks later, Stephen beats Connor at a football game. Connor pulls out the DVD, shoves it back into the cover and tells him that he's never liked that game anyway, that he's never really played it before, and that Stephen just had beginner's luck.
Stephen laughs when Connor falls back on the sofa next to him, pouting. He hits his fist against Connor's shoulder, shaking him up.
"Come on," he says. "Let's play something else and you can beat me up."
At work, he catches himself talking about the films he's watched, the games he's played, the comics he's found in Connor's bathroom.
The confused looks on everyone's face don't matter when Connor claps his back and jumps right into a discussion about the differences between original and adaptation of a comic Stephen can't even remember reading, but that's fine. Connor always talks enough for two.
When Stephen's hand brushes Connor's thigh one evening on the sofa, it could be a coincidence, but it's really not. Their eyes still fixed on the screen, he lets his hand slide up and tries not to feel like a teenage couple in a horror flick, because that would mean they'd get attacked by a monster soon and he doesn't have his gun with him.
Their first kiss is awkward, but Stephen wouldn't have wanted it any other way. He just buries a hand in Connor's hair, tilting his head carefully, and then he leans in. Connor's lips are so soft and pliant under him, and he lets his tongue slide along them, pulling him closer.
When he lets go again, Connor stares at him, eyes wide and dark, and his breath comes in short gasps.
Stephen finds it cute how Connor wriggles in his tight jeans, trying to hide his obvious erection. It's also quite unnecessary, because just looking at the bulge makes Stephen hot as hell.
He lets one finger slide over it, and watches Connor shudder in response.
"Bedroom?" he asks, surprised to hear his own voice so husky and deep.
Connor opens his mouth, obviously trying to answer and failing miserably, and then he nods.
Stephen kisses him again, holding his face and breathing in, and then he takes his hand.
While Stephen lets himself be pulled forwards by a stumbling Connor, he tries to figure out how long it's been since he's felt that way.
He hasn't exactly lived abstinently, but after Helen, there were only faceless women and one or two girlfriends that were never around. He's preferred it that way, actually. First, because he couldn't stand the thought of another woman sleeping in the bed that Helen sneaked into late in the night, whispering against his skin about the way she'd left Nick's bed to be with him. And later, because it was just easier.
But this is different. This is Connor, Connor, who was always there when he stumbled around in the darkness of the ARC. Connor, who let him into his home and life and let him win sometimes, when he's had a hard day. Or at least he'd say he had let him win. It doesn't really matter either way.
And when he looks down on Connor, who's hard for him, deliciously hard, he realises he's missed guys.
He's missed being with someone who can press against him in all the right places, hot and heavy, cock straining for attention, and who's making strangled, low noises deep down in his chest.
Connor arches up against him, struggling to get out of his jeans while kissing and groping at the same time, and Stephen revels in the sounds and movements that only boys can make.
Connor's hands roam over his body, stroking over his arms and chest and jaw, and Stephen pushes himself up on his elbows to give him room. Maybe, he thinks, Connor admires his body. Maybe he thinks it looks more manly and impressive. He lets Connor dig his hands into his shoulder when he thrusts down.
The way Connor looks up to him, lips swollen and red and wet, could be described as admiring, and that, he's definitely missed most of all.
He loses himself in the way Connor feels around him, warm and awed and desperate. When he comes, it's the easiest and best thing in the world.
Connor moans and pants and falls down next to him. He looks confused when Stephen pulls him into his arms, but slides in quickly enough.
Stephen buries his nose against Connor's neck and breathes.
Connor, he thinks, is young and sweet and much prettier than he'd expected. He's not perfect, of course, but he's also not round and soft. He looks nice.
He looks like something Stephen could come home to.