"Not again," Connor had begged. "Not again, please not again."
Then Connor had looked at him. Looked right at him. Not at Abby, or at Danny Quinn. Not at any of the people who were in a position to actually help Jenny, her skin pale and flecked with silver ice crystals. No, Connor had looked at him, as though somehow he had the power to fix it.
All that Lester had been able to do was look back, equally powerless.
It wasn't until a few hours had passed, when the ARC had begun to take on a more healthy temperature, that Lester had started his mental list. That look Connor had given him was the first item, but it took only a moment's thought to add 'Sleeping at his desk' and 'An unhealthy determination to figure out the artifact'. It was a list of observations, evidence that something was wrong with the youngest member of the team.
It was far from Lester's normal practice to take troubled employees home with him. If Connor had been one of the soldiers under his command, he'd have suggested a leave of absence, or a transfer to a less stressful post. If Connor had been one of the numerous civil servants who kept the requisitions in order and the public in the dark, he'd have arranged a referral to one of the government's staff psychologists or counselors, albeit one with unusually high clearance levels.
But Connor was neither a soldier nor a civil servant. He was, however, one of the few people left in the entire operation who had any chance of finding a long-term solution to the anomaly problem and he was by no means expendable. So Lester gave Connor his spare set of keys, and hoped like hell that he wasn't making a huge mistake.
James Lester had fathered three children and, for the first few years at least, he'd been a more than usually hands-on parent. Before his career had taken its turn for the influential, he'd been the one taking the kids to their sporting engagements, their piano recitals and their parent-teacher interviews. He'd been the one to demonstrate the art of shoelace tying several dozen times over. He'd been the one checking under the bed for the evils that lurked there.
As such, being woken at some ungodly hour of the night by muffled sounds of distress from the other room was not particularly a new experience. However, given that all three of his children were currently staying with their mother more than an hour's drive away, it was not an experience he had been anticipating tonight.
He lay in silence for a few moments, listening very carefully. There it was again. Quiet, perhaps deliberately muffled, but for all that clearly still the sound of someone crying.
The sound was originating from the spare room... This was reasonable of course. Unless some sort of chronically unhappy burglar was attempting a break-in, it stood to reason that the sounds were coming from the only other occupant in the house. His young house guest.
Lester added this newest sign of distress to the rapidly growing mental list of observations. For a list that was less than a week old, it was worryingly long.
What was even more concerning than the list itself, though, was that to the best of his knowledge he was the only person to have noticed any of the things on it. He couldn't really fault Quinn or Sarah, of course. They hadn't known Connor for all that long, and for most of that limited time Connor had been grieving, first for Stephen Hart and then for Nick Cutter.
Abby's obliviousness was less expected. Incongruously, of all the team members, Abby seemed the one most determined to make the situation worse. Lester never claimed to be a psychologist, but he was pretty sure that throwing the boy out of his home with only barely enough time to pack a bag was not one of the recommended strategies for dealing with depression.
Lester folded himself out of bed and picked his dressing gown off its hook. He wasn't entirely convinced that this was the right move to make, but the only other move he could think of was to stay in bed and ignore the sounds, and all of his instincts were railing against that option.
He knocked on Connor's door.
If he'd been anticipating high drama, perhaps a gnashing of teeth and baring of souls, he would have been sorely disappointed. The noises from the spare room stopped the second his knuckles touched wood.
"Connor? I didn't want to wake you, but I thought I heard something. Are you..." He paused for a moment, searching for suitable phrasing, "Is there anything I should be concerned about?"
This was quite unlike dealing with his young children. They had slept with their doors ajar so that he could see in without disturbing them. He also suspected that allaying his children's fears would prove to have been a doddle compared with those of the young man in the spare room. His daughter's monsters had been imaginary. Connor's monsters were very much more real.
"No," came Connor's answer, after a moments' pause. "No, everything's fine. I, ah, I think I might be coming down with a cold. You know, runny nose and sniffling and stuff." There was a loud and highly implausible cough, followed by an equally over-exaggerated sniff. "I'm sorry if I woke you, I'll try to be quieter."
Lester had never had trouble spotting a signal to leave when one was presented to him so clearly. Yes, this was nothing at all like dealing with his children.
Perhaps it was time to rethink the government psychologist option.
Upon moving in with Lester, Connor had learned very quickly that it was in his best interests to be ready to leave for work on time. It was something he had never been able to do when he was living with Abby, something that one of the more traitorous parts of his psyche liked to suggest could have contributed to her throwing him out.
This morning he was tired, but that was nothing new. He hadn't slept well since... Since all that stuff had happened, with the explosion and the body. All the stuff he didn't let himself think too much about unless he was in private. It had initially reminded him of Lord Voldemort, a Thing That Could Not Be Named, but the parallel between his own life and the life of a boy wizard didn't hold much of its old appeal. Nothing appealed very much these days, except the possibility of getting a good night's sleep.
Connor flopped inelegantly into one of the stools at the breakfast bar and looked covetously at the coffee machine. Lester had forbidden him from using it on pain of, well, pain... But coffee sounded incredibly tempting right now. He sighed and went for the cereal instead, taking care not to spill it over the edge of the bowl like last time. Lester didn't approve of that habit either.
"I rather expected you to be spending the day in bed today, Connor."
It never seemed to matter how early Connor got up in the morning, Lester was always up before him. He was also always impeccably washed, groomed and dressed while Connor still looked like he had recently lost a wrestling match with his duvet.
The thought of spending the day in bed was more than usually appealing, but the implication concerned him. Had Lester noticed a drop in Connor's performance? Was he making some pointed remark about having found Connor half-asleep at his desk yesterday instead of working on the artifact like he was supposed to be?
"Nope, no, I'm fine, wide awake, see?" He opened his eyes unnaturally wide. "Fine. One hundred percent. One hundred and ten percent. Why do you think I would...?"
"Your cold." Lester interjected pointedly. Then, presumably interpreting Connor's expression as confusion rather than worry, filled in the missing pieces. "The cold you said you were coming down with last night."
"Oh... Oh! Yeah, my cold." Connor cursed inwardly. This was the problem with lying to cover up insomnia – in the morning you were always too tired to remember what lies you had told.
Lester was looking at him expectantly. Connor flailed for an explanation.
"That wasn't really, well, I don't actually have a cold, exactly. I..." This was not working, not at all, and the longer he went the more suspicious it looked. "Allergies!" Ah ha! It was pure genius, even if he did say so himself. Well, think so himself. "Turns out it was just allergies. Took some anti-histamine this morning, and everything's good. See? No sneezing, no sniffling. All fine, ready for work."
He was really quite proud of himself, thinking of that despite the early hour and the sleep deprivation.
"Allergies from what exactly? Your bedroom?"
This one came far more naturally. "Dust." Connor declared with barely a pause. "Dust mites. They live in bedding, trigger off all sorts of allergic reactions." He smiled, but then faltered. "Not that I was implying that your house was dusty, 'cause it's not. It's really, really clean. But dust mites, you know, they're pretty sneaky little buggers..."
There was that raised eyebrow that Lester was so fond of wielding. "Is that so? I'll make sure to mention it to the cleaner next time she comes. Have her vacuum the mattress and get the pillows dry cleaned."
Connor smiled meekly, not entirely sure what to say next. He appeared to have got away with it, and didn't want to mess it up by over-talking like he usually did.
Lester, for some reason, looked vaguely put out by the whole exchange as he went to start up his exotic and complicated coffee machine. But then, as Connor thought about it, it pretty much made sense that he'd be disappointed. Lester had obviously been looking forward to a nice quiet day without Connor getting in the way or talking incessantly or being needy all the time. And now he'd gone and spoiled it by insisting on going into work.
There was only one thing for it. He would be as low maintenance as he possibly could. He would be seen and not heard, keep out of the way, do everything that he was asked to do and not question anything Lester said. He'd even pay attention in the morning briefing, no matter how hard it was to do. He would be a model employee and house guest.
It's not like he had somewhere else to go if he messed up again.
Connor was slowly, silently imploding. That was the disturbing conclusion that Lester kept coming back to. The normally loquacious young man hadn't spoken more than two words together on the drive in, despite several attempts at starting a conversation. Topics of work, the two troublesome diictodons, even a preferred television schedule for the evening had garnered little more than token responses. The trip home hadn't even produced those few words. Connor was shutting down, or at the least, shutting off.
Lester hoped that it was just fatigue. The possibility had been reinforced when Connor dropped off to sleep mid-way through the staff's morning briefing, but the distressed look Connor had given him when he had eventually been forced to gently shake him awake suggested that it was more complicated than that.
Connor didn't even try to change the television channel when Lester left the room, even though Lester was almost certain the science fiction channel was showing a marathon of some special-effects laden space adventure or another.
"You've been very quiet today," he observed, hoping for but not really expecting an explanation.
Connor actually seemed relieved by the comment. "Was I?" he asked, with poorly faked nonchalance, "I guess it was like you always say, if you haven't got anything important to say, best not to say anything at all." Connor smiled hopefully at Lester, like his children so often did when they were seeking his approval.
"I don't recall saying that." Lester pointed out.
Connor's apparent relief faltered.
"Well not those words exactly... Your words are normally a whole lot, you know, pointier than that. But that's sort of what you mean, isn't it?"
"I think perhaps you have taken me somewhat out of context." He gave Connor an appraising look, but refrained from using the eyebrow again. He reflected briefly on Connor's earlier comment, then prompted, "Do you? Have something important to say?"
Connor opened his mouth, then closed it again hurriedly. Averting his eyes and shaking his head, he answered, "Nah, nothing important." There was a moment of silence, then he shrugged. "Actually, I might just head off to bed now, if that's okay with you." Connor gave a clearly faked yawn, then got off the settee rather more quickly than necessary.
"It's only just 8.30."
Connor stopped, but didn't turn around. "Right. But I'm still a bit tired from the whole allergy thing last night, yeah?"
Lester gave him another of those appraising looks. "Yes," he responded slowly. "I expect you are."
He returned his attention to the television, allowing Connor to make his escape.
As Connor drew close to the door though, Lester interrupted.
"Connor?" Lester didn't take his eyes off the television. "If you do think of something important to say, I trust you will let me know." In his peripheral vision, he saw Connor pause for a moment, look back briefly, then nod.
"Yeah, I'll... Let you know."
Connor was asleep on the settee. He wasn't lying on the settee, not even in one of those uncomfortable sprawls that all young men somehow assumed when sleeping on other people's couches. No, he was curled up, or perhaps a better description would be scrunched up, in the corner of the settee, knees drawn close and head resting gently to one side. He was in his pyjamas, but had neither blanket nor dressing gown. Lester was fairly confident that falling asleep in that arrangement had been unintentional.
It was still early. He'd only just got up himself, so Connor would normally be at least an hour from joining him. Lester allowed himself a minute to study the young man.
Physically he looked well enough. There were no particular signs of weight loss, no unusual pallor, none of the other common signs of ill health. But Connor's position was almost foetal, and the visible crustiness caught in his long eyelashes indicated that he had almost certainly been crying again shortly before going to sleep.
Lester took a step back from the couch, gaining a foot or so distance between Connor's potential flail range and himself. His youngest child had given him cause to learn how waking a sleeper by touch very often earned one an impressive bruise.
He coughed loudly.
Connor stirred, blinking three times slowly before his brain suddenly kicked into top gear. Between the sleep-mussed hair and wide eyes, he managed to look both lost and frantic.
"I'm sorry," Connor rushed out. "I was trying not to wake you! I was being as quiet as I could, I didn't mean to..."
"You didn't wake me, Connor," Lester interjected calmly. "My alarm clock did." At Connor's apparent lack of comprehension, he added, "It's morning. Have you slept here all night?"
Connor took a moment to construct an answer, his thought processes still muddled from a combination of bad sleep and sudden awakening. "Uh, no, not all night. Just... some of it, I guess. Not all that much of it really." The young man's thought processes had clearly not yet reached either 'coherent' or 'concise'. "Not much at all, actually. Just the last bit. The very last bit. Just a few minutes now that I think about it." He looked earnestly at Lester. "I didn't want to wake you up. I'm sorry."
"You didn't wake me, Connor, we’ve already covered that. What exactly were you doing last night that was so loud you thought it best to come out here to do it?"
Connor opened his mouth then closed it again, much the same way he had the evening before. It was clear the boy would never be able to play poker, his 'tells' were far too obvious.
"You know, the allergies thing. I didn't want to wake you again, not two nights in a row."
Lester looked hard at Connor. "Your allergies?"
"The ones you took something for yesterday?"
"Yes." A moment's pause. "Well no, obviously not those ones exactly... It was my other allergies." another moment's pause. "Different allergies." Connor must have known just how weak that explanation was, because his eyes were practically begging Lester to let him get away with it.
Lester stared at him pointedly, waiting for the embarrassingly ineffective ruse to collapse and for the confession to come out.
It didn't. Connor just looked increasingly more anxious.
Eventually Lester sighed. He was going to have to go to work in a couple of hours, this wasn't really a good time to force the issue. He decided a stay of proceedings was in order.
"I think you were right the first time, Connor." He held eye contact firmly. "You've definitely come down with a cold. Go back to bed, sleep it off." He waited a moment for the anxiety in Connor's eyes to fade before continuing. "I won't have you infecting the entire staff with whatever it is you've developed."
"A cold. Oh. Yes, that could be it after all. One of those... Night-time colds. I guess they must be going 'round at the moment."
"Evidently." Lester replied, then rather more pointedly said, "Bed, Connor. Now."
Connor all but fell off the sofa in his haste, before scampering off to his room without another word.
Lester tilted his head back and took a deep, calming breath. Why could nothing ever go to plan?
The day has been quiet, and not just because of the absence of their resident talkative scientist. The anomaly detector had remained steadfastly silent all day. Even a call about an unusually large cat in a area ten minutes drive away turned out to be an unusually large domestic cat, who managed to look almost as put out by the team's presence in his territory as Lester felt about having sent them there.
It had certainly been a very quiet day, and despite his usual protestations that all days should be like so quiet, Lester felt the hours drag. He preferred it when other people were rushing around looking panicked; it made him look more in-control by comparison. The day would, he considered ironically, have been a perfect day to corner Connor in his office and insist on sorting out his personal issues immediately. Of course, Connor was at home, hopefully (but doubtfully) sorting out his personal issues, so Lester instead browsed through government personnel files looking for a psychologist with civilian experience and a sufficiently high clearance level.
It was always preferable to have a fall-back plan.
Connor carefully closed the lid on the third of the shoe boxes containing the video games he'd brought with him from Abby's, and stowed it away under his bed. The living room was spotless now, as tidy as it had been before he’d moved in. His bedroom was looking much improved on its normal state too, albeit still cluttered. There wasn't much he could do about that, it was a fairly small space in which to keep all his entire collection of worldly goods.
He padded barefoot out to the kitchen. He had already washed all the dishes from his late breakfast, but he had left them to drip dry, so they were still in the rack. It was six o'clock now, only an hour before Lester would start packing up his paperwork to head home, and Connor wanted to have everything put away and tidy before he arrived. It would be a sign of appreciation, and proof positive that he could be a good house guest.
The noise of the front door opening was so loud in the quiet apartment that Connor jumped. He turned to look towards the source of the noise while simultaneously raising his left wrist to check the time on his watch. In the process, his hands forgot that they were holding two drinking glasses ready to be returned to the shelf.
They hit the tiled floor hard. The shattering sound, amplified by the small space, seemed louder by far than the noise the door had made mere seconds before. Connor froze, a dozen thoughts vying for his attention.
"Connor?" Lester's voice rang out from the hall, "Was that you? Or have your pets grown weary of destroying my formal wear and turned to destroying my glassware?"
Connor tried to suck in a breath. It was harder to do than it should have been, and it caught in his throat. He knew there was a dustpan in the utility room, just off the kitchen. If he got it quickly enough, he might be able to sweep up the mess while Lester was still divesting himself of his coat. Split-second decision made, he made a dash for the door.
He made it exactly two steps before he was sharply reminded of two facts, both of which should have been immediately self-evident. The first was that there was broken glass on the floor. The second was that he had bare feet. He hissed in surprise and hastily lifted the damaged foot from the floor, very nearly overbalancing himself in the process. It was only a combination of reflexes and luck that had him catch hold of the edge of the sink in time to prevent himself from toppling.
"Connor?" Lester appeared at the door, now sans coat, and looked at him over the top of the kitchen island in the center of the room.
"I was putting away the glasses," Connor offered by way of explanation.
Lester tilted his head a few degrees to the side to see around the corner of the island, where the furthest flung shards of glass lay scattered.
"Traditionally the clean glasses go on the shelf, Connor, not the floor."
Connor nodded. "I dropped it. You startled me." He was silent for a moment, then added in a voice that was bordering on petulant, "You're early."
Lester nodded. "There was very little of any urgency going on. I thought I'd better make sure you hadn't completely destroyed my apartment while I was away." He paused, then added, "Perhaps I should have left a few minutes earlier?"
"I'm sorry, I'll replace the glasses. And I'll clean up the broken bits just as soon as I..." He gestured vaguely at his damaged foot, which was on the opposite side of the kitchen island to Lester and therefore completely obscured.
Lester furrowed his brow. "As soon as you what?"
"Stop bleeding, mostly."
Lester did not look happy. He took the three brisk steps required to see clearly around the counter's edge.
"Oh, for heaven's..." he started, then muttered something inaudible under his breath.
Connor instinctively looked around for an escape route but found himself both cornered and surrounded – by Lester and the broken glass respectively.
Lester exhaled, something between a huff and a sigh, and made his way over to Connor, kicking pieces of glass out of the way with his very shiny and probably very expensive shoes. He wrapped one arm around Connor's side, and Connor instinctively put his arm across Lester's shoulders so as to use him as a crutch. Neither one said a word as they slowly maneuvered out of the kitchen.
Connor wasn't really surprised that Lester knew first aid. Lester seemed to know a lot of stuff about a lot of things. It was probably part of the mandatory training when you were a big government executive: pushing paper, scaring your staff, and first aid.
What did came as a surprise though was how gentle he was at it. Lester arranged Connor on the sofa so that the small of his back was against the arm rest and his damaged foot was elevated, resting in Lester's lap, where he took to it with a pair of tweezers.
The shard of glass was large enough that it slipped out of his foot quite quickly. When it did, Connor unintentionally made a small squeaking noise and curled his foot in. It was pure reflex, moving the sore thing away from what was making it sore in the first place. Lester tutted.
"Don't curl your foot in like that. You'll make it worse."
It was just a reminder, neither snappish nor long-suffering, and it sounded odd coming from Lester. Connor was still considering this incongruous bedside manner when Lester went to swab the area with an antiseptic wipe.
Connor shrieked and pulled back further at the cold and stinging surprise.
"Connor!" That one did have the usual level of aggravation, and sounded for more like his usual boss. Connor immediately felt his cheeks bloom an embarrassed red.
"Sorry," he replied. "You startled me. Again." Then, in a poor bid to reclaim some dignity, "And, that stuff stings."
"It's supposed to sting, it's antiseptic."
Connor ducked his head to try to hide his flushed cheeks. "Doesn't need antiseptic," he replied, all too aware of how petulant and juvenile he sounded, but nevertheless unable to stop himself. "The glasses were clean. I cleaned them myself just a little while ago."
"And the floor? And your feet? I suppose you had just washed them as well?"
Connor pouted, sullen. "No," he acquiesced, funneling all his concentration into sitting absolutely still and not making a noise. He watched while Lester finished using whatever foul-smelling substances he deemed necessary, but when Lester retrieved a large gauze pad and what looked like enough bandage to wrap an underage mummy, Connor once again couldn't stop himself.
"That's a bit much, isn't it? It's only a little scratch, already stopped bleeding. A plaster will cover it just fine. No need to go overboard."
Lester considered this for a moment, before shaking his head. "There's not much for a plaster to grip to on the sole of your foot, and while the cut is shallow it's also over an inch long."
Connor, in a wise display of self-control, didn't argue back, even as the bandage ended up winding right up and around his ankle.
"In any case, all the plasters I have are 'Thomas' themed," mused Lester, in a way that was almost but not quite absent minded, "I suspect that's not really to your taste."
Connor found himself parsing and re-parsing that comment several times over, trying to find a way to twist the words into something consistent with his mental image of Lester. The words stubbornly refused to co-operate.
"Thomas?" Connor asked, expecting to receive an eye-roll and a correction. "As in...?"
"The Tank Engine," clarified Lester. Then, sensing Connor's confusion, he added, "They're for Michael. My son."
While this made perfect logical sense, Connor was completely flabbergasted. He knew Lester was a father. At least, he knew in the intellectual sense. Lester had made no secret of it, had even mentioned his kids at work once or twice, but that knowledge had been entirely academic. Now one of those children had a name and a personality trait, and suddenly Lester looked like an actual human being.
"Your son? Your son likes Thomas?"
Lester blinked slowly at him before answering, "Yes." A pause, then, "He's only four. Most four-year old boys like Thomas. Trains in general, really."
"Well yes, of course, it's just..." Connor stumbled over his words, tightly wrapped ankle all but forgotten. "I knew you had kids, obviously. It's just... You never really talk about them. I don't think I've even heard their names before."
"I prefer to keep my work separate from my home life," Lester said by way of explanation. He lifted Connor's foot off his lap back down onto the ground, and started packing up the first-aid kit again. "But to assuage your curiosity, their names are Josephine, Charlotte and Michael, from oldest to youngest. Josephine is twelve, Michael is four."
"Just recently turned ten, and more than usually proud of reaching double figures." Lester tried to close the clasp on the first aid kit. It refused to snap into place, despite the absence of the bandage now gracing Connor's foot and ankle. Lester opened it again and started to rearrange its contents.
"That's a big age gap," Connor observed. As an afterthought he hastened to clarify, "Between Charlotte and Michael, I mean."
Lester nodded, the beginnings of a smile playing on his lips. "Yes, we had intended to only have two. Michael was an... unexpected pleasure."
Connor watched the expressions playing across Lester's face. This strange new person who had replaced his boss wore a natural smile which proclaimed his affection and pride for his young progeny. He looked in every part the proud dad. It wasn't a smirk or a sneer, it was just a smile, and it looked so incredibly out of place.
This time the clasp on the first aid kit closed with a satisfying click and Lester stood to put it away. As he went to leave the room, he picked up the remote control and dropped it casually next to Connor.
"Best not to walk about too much tonight, if you can help it."
He disappeared back into the kitchen, no doubt to stack away the first aid kit and clean up Connor's mess. Connor couldn't help staring after him, his mind buzzing with confusion.
Connor managed to sleep the whole night through, which was particularly odd given that his foot was itchy and over-warm in its bandage. He couldn't yet say he felt properly rested and refreshed, but he didn't feel like he was about to fall asleep in his cereal either. In all, a significant improvement on the usual state of affairs.
Lester had offered him coffee and a walking stick, both of which Connor accepted gratefully, but the drive to work had been awkward. The silence this time had less to do with Connor trying to be a low maintenance house guest, and more to do with his inability to reconcile the concept of ‘Lester the Boss’ with ‘Lester the human being’. He couldn't really think of anything to talk about that would suit both kinds of Lester, and so he settled on saying nothing.
Lester, for some reason, kept glancing at him for the whole trip. When they had arrived at work and Lester was getting out of the car, Connor had even patted down his hair, just in case it had been standing up at some strange angle, but there was nothing odd that he could find.
It only took a few minutes for word to spread through the ARC gossip tree that Connor had come into work injured, and only a few minutes more before Abby came to ask him about it.
"I broke a glass," Connor offered as an explanation. Noting quickly that Abby wasn't following, he added, "Then I stepped on it."
Abby rolled her eyes in mock despair. "Tell me you didn't have to get Lester to drive you to A&E?"
Connor shook his head. "No. Lester had a first aid kit. No hospitals required."
"In that case, maybe I should have a look at it," Abby replied. "You're rubbish enough at first aid when you're doing it on someone else. I hate to think what you've done to yourself."
Connor pouted. "I have perfectly good first aid skills!" he retorted, then looked away again. "Anyway, Lester did the first aiding bit, not me. It's fine. Actually, it's more than fine, it's overkill... Did you know that Lester..." Connor stopped mid-sentence. He wanted to make some comment about Lester owning Thomas the Tank Engine plasters, but something made him stop. He couldn't say why, but he didn't want to share this little insight with Abby just yet. It felt like he would be betraying something intimate. Something shared in confidence. A breach of trust.
"That Lester what?" Abby prompted, waiting for Connor to finish his sentence.
Connor was alarmed to realize that he was blushing.
"... knows first aid," he finished lamely.
Abby shrugged. "Lots of people know first aid," she dismissed, her attention caught on his unexpected flush of colour. "Are you sure you're okay though? You're looking a bit warm."
"I was sick yesterday," Connor ducked his head to avoid her gaze. "With a cold. Probably just the tail end of that."
Abby seemed to accept his explanation, much to Connor's relief, although she kept looking at him strangely.
Connor grabbed some pieces of paper from a randomly selected nearby pile at looked intently at them.
"Got a lot of stuff from yesterday to catch up on, actually," he said, avoiding eye-contact. "I really should get started on it."
"Yeah," Abby replied. "I guess Lester's pretty unforgiving about that sort of stuff." She stood stiff and awkward for a moment, like she wanted to pat his shoulder or give him a hug or something, but wasn't certain enough about the state of their relationship to try it, then turned and left.
Connor was incredibly relieved that she hadn't noticed how much brighter his blush had turned when she had mentioned Lester's name again.
The anomaly alarm shouldn't have come as a surprise to Connor but, lost in his thoughts as he was, the siren almost had him fall off his seat. He jumped up, stumbling almost immediately when the damaged sole of his foot made its presence known. Connor made a frustrated noise at no one in particular, grabbed the walking stick from its resting place on the side of the table and hobbled as fast as he could to the operations area.
Unfortunately though, 'as fast as he could' wasn't actually very fast at all, and by the time he reached the anomaly detector one of the technicians was already seated at the controls with the signal isolated.
Connor knew the area pinpointed on the map, although it was certainly not a place he would have chosen to frequent in his increasingly sparse free time. The anomaly was located deep in a large body of marshland. It wasn't easy going at the best of times, and there had been a lot of rain recently. The place would be just the sort of untraversable bog which would be poorly suited to a person with limited mobility and a walking stick.
Danny and Becker were already coordinating their plans, deciding on what to take with them and how to split the team best between the two vehicles. It was rapid fire, a routine well-practiced and, once settled, Becker went off to collect whatever equipment that had been decided on.
Danny turned his attention to Connor.
"Might be best this time if you..."
"Yeah," Connor interrupted, lifting the walking stick up as evidence. "Probably best if I just sit this one out. Man the detector."
"Good man." Danny slapped him on the back just hard enough to require him to readjust his balance without actually knocking him over.
Connor recovered quickly enough, but the rest of the team was already on their way out.
Connor flopped down into the recently-vacated detector control chair and stared intently at the blinking icon identifying the anomaly. He wondered if he could make this anomaly safe by force of will and a steely glare.
There was no harm in trying.
Between the portable radio the team had left behind for him announcing their status every few minutes, and the detector screen occupying most of his visual range, Connor was almost oblivious to anything else in the ARC. Nothing of any note had happened to the team yet, but even so the tension was almost unbearable. He had a horrible sick feeling in his stomach, like he'd eaten a whole bag of crisps, then finished it off with a whole bottle of coke, then the crisps had swollen up and were making him nauseous, only this was more emotional and less crisp-induced. It was not an unfamiliar sensation, but it was wholly unwelcome. Especially since he hadn't even been able to enjoy the crisp-eating part.
A light hand placed on his shoulder almost made him jump a mile. Fortunately he managed to stay in his seat, although his surprised yelp was probably audible from just about anywhere in the building.
Lester raised an eyebrow at the reaction, but didn't break the casual contact.
"It's not as easy as it ought to be," said Lester, quietly. The words had been pitched softly enough that it was clear they were only intended for Connor, but they were spoken without any pretence to stealth.
Connor's eyes traveled from Lester's hand up his arm, finally resting on his face. Lester's brow was slightly furrowed, his focus on the screen in front of them.
"What do you mean?" Connor asked.
Lester tilted his head towards the radio on the work bench. "Listening. Watching. Being here, when the team is out there. It's not as easy as it ought to be."
Connor considered this, the way his heart raced every time the radio was silent for more than a minute, and the gentle grip Lester still had on his shoulder.
"No," he acquiesced. "I guess it's really not."
There were no disasters that day, although at one point Sarah had dropped something during one of the regular updates. The combined noise of Sarah's squawk of surprise and the clatter of the object in question had caused Connor enough of a shock to send his face bone-white.
Lester had considered sending him home, or at least off to the bunk room for a lie down, but had thought better of it. The stress of not knowing would probably have done more harm to his fragile state of mind than anything else. Instead of sending him away, he had laid a calming hand over Connor's shaking one, taken the radio and calmly requested from Becker a confirmation that everyone was still intact.
It wasn't until the anomaly had been safely closed that Connor had begun to relax. Even so, there were undercurrents of... something... lingering all through the evening. It wasn't that Connor was jumpy from the scare, nor could it be said that he seemed overly anxious, but there was definitely something going on in his head. He was being quiet again, and hesitant to make eye contact.
Connor had taken himself off to bed early once again. Lester was almost certain that they were both heading towards another night of disturbed sleep. After completing his normal evening routine – half an hour for the news, a phone call to the kids, putting away the dinner dishes and a brief yet harried round of ‘chase the diictodons into their cage’ - he got the kettle and two large mugs out in preparation. He placed these on the kitchen bench where they would be easily accessible, then he turned out the lights and went to bed.
Connor blinked several times before the real world reasserted itself in his mind. It took him a few more seconds before his mind regained full control over his body, instructing his muscles to relax and his lungs to function again. It was a sequence he was all too familiar with, no matter how much he wished he wasn't.
He reached out to turn on the bedside lamp. It was an instinctive reaction, a fruitless attempt to make the darkness a little less all-encompassing. He drew his arm back under the duvet quickly, before his warmth escaped. The lamp had made the room brighter, but the darkness was still there.
Breathing was important. That was one constant to which Connor had always held. He tried those deep breaths that Abby had tried to teach him that time when he had asked her about her yoga classes. It was, in hindsight, an effort that had been doomed from the start. Connor was terrible at sitting still for more than a minute without something to occupy him, and meditation was impossible with a mind as active as his.
Right now was a case in point. No matter how much he told himself that dreams were irrational and nonsensical, the thoughts and feelings they dredged up were very real, very vivid and very circular. They kept spinning around and around, chasing each other, gaining momentum until their combined centrifugal force shook him apart from the inside out.
So he breathed deeply, and tried to focus on the objects in his room, instead of the hurricane in his head. He focused on his game collection, stacked up in order of most recently played. He focused on the selection of mangled diictodon toys on the floor. He focused on his laptop, lid down, on the desk.
There was a knock on the door.
Connor gasped in surprise, his respiratory system momentarily forgetting that it had already taken in a deep breath. Connor's lungs, now overfull, protested and he made a coughing, spluttering sound.
Connor managed to coordinate his lungs with his vocal cords well enough to answer with a slightly wheezy, "Yes?"
There was a short pause, allowing Connor to bring his breathing back under control.
"Connor, do you, by any chance, sleep in the nude?"
This statement gave Connor considerable pause. There weren't many things which could break him out of one of his anxiety cycles, but that... Well as far as reset switches for an over-active brain went, that was damn effective. "Uh," he eventually stammered. "Uh, no... Nope. Pyjamas."
Lester's voice came from the other side of the door. "In that case, you won't mind if I come in."
Connor blinked several times, and opened his mouth, but no sound managed to escape.
Finally his brain caught up. "Yeah, I, uh, sure..." he answered, then rapidly appended, "If you want to, it's your house. But I'm fine, if you want to go back to bed."
Lester remained silent on that matter, choosing instead to enter Connor's bedroom.
In red and blue striped pyjamas.
The pyjamas were incongruous on their own, but it was the walking backwards which caused Connor his first moment of confusion. When Lester turned around to reveal that he was carrying a mug in each hand, that confusion was resolved only to be replaced by a more complex one. Why had Lester brought two mugs into his room at a few minutes past three in the morning?
Lester placed the mugs on Connor's bedside table, then moved to pull the small arm chair closer to the side of the bed. He had to remove several discarded items of clothing from the seat before it was usable, but once clear he settled into it quickly.
Connor felt immediately self-conscious and opted to stare at the two mugs rather than look at his companion. The mugs were steaming.
"You brought tea?" he asked, "That's very..." he hesitated. Thoughtful? Unexpected? British?
"You seemed to be having some trouble sleeping," Lester replied. "When Josephine was six, she used to have night terrors. She'd wake up distraught, with no idea why. Sometimes she was so upset that she refused to go back to sleep. A hot drink, on occasion, helped to persuade her."
"Oh, I, um... Thank you." Connor stammered.
"Of course, I expect you are suffering from bad dreams, not night terrors," Lester continued, his forthrightness making Connor feel increasingly uncomfortable.
Connor didn't trust his voice, so he nodded instead.
Lester mirrored the nod, but made no other movement. "I think the hot drink might be worth a try anyway." He picked up one of the two mugs and took a sip. He looked pointedly at Connor.
Connor quickly did likewise, taking a small sip. He raised his eyebrows, surprised. "It's quite weak," he said.
Lester's lip quirked upwards very slightly.
"It's water, Connor. No flavoured drinks after bed time."
Connor felt a smile work its way onto his face. He braved a glancing eye contact, noting the unexpectedly soft expression on Lester's face. "How do you do that?"
"Make hot water?" Lester queried. "You're no Jamie Oliver, but I expect even you could figure that one out by yourself."
"No," answered Connor, stopping himself a moment before he rolled his eyes. "I mean that switching thing you do. When you change from Sir James Lester - big scary bureaucrat -, to James Lester. regular guy who talks like a dad telling off his three year old?"
Lester sucked on his lip thoughtfully for a moment. "I expect that fact that I am, on occasion, dad to a three year old helps somewhat," he answered. "And of course, wrangling a team of academics and scientists bears a striking similarity to wrangling a group of overtired toddlers."
Connor grinned. "We're not that bad, and you've got a whole lot of special forces soldiers to keep an eye on us."
Lester nodded. "That's certainly true. I wonder if Captain Becker and his team would be willing to provide crowd control for Charlotte's next birthday party?" He gestured to Connor's mug. "Drink, before it gets cold."
Connor took another sip. It had already cooled to a comfortable drinking temperature. He watched Lester as he did likewise. "Tell me more about them?" Connor asked. "Your kids, I mean."
Lester raised an eyebrow. "What would you like to know?"
"Anything. What they like, what they don't like, what they're doing at school, embarrassing baby stories... Whatever."
Lester's eyebrow worked its way up an extra few millimetres. "Why the sudden interest?"
Connor dropped his eyes, his cheeks growing traitorously warm again. "You're always happy when you're talking about them. I... Well... It's nice, that's all."
"I see..." Lester said slowly. "Very well then. Let's start with Michael."
When Lester had started talking, Connor had interrupted frequently with questions and requests for clarification, but as the minutes stretched on towards morning, those comments had been fewer and farther apart. Lester had hoped that this was a sign that Connor was calm enough to sleep again, but he was showing no such signs. If anything, he had begun to grow increasingly pensive.
When Connor did eventually speak, it was quiet. "Do you miss them? During the week, when they're with their mum?"
Lester looked carefully at Connor. A life in the civil service had given Lester the ability to spot a loaded question from several miles away, and this one was far from subtle. He sucked on his lip again, considering his answer.
"Yes, I do. More than I would ever have thought possible." He watched Connor carefully for several seconds, waiting to see if he would volunteer any new information. He didn't. "And you, Connor? Do you miss them?"
Connor looked down at his hands, a gesture Lester immediately recognised as one of his least effective avoidance strategies. "I've never met your kids."
"I think you know that's not who I meant."
Connor sat silently for a moment, before quietly acquiescing, "Yeah." It was ambiguous enough to leave Lester wondering which question he was answering, before Connor elaborated, "I guess, a little bit."
Lester refrained from pointing out that spectacular under-exaggeration. "Is that what you're dreaming about?" he asked. It was a bold move, he knew, but timely.
Connor went very still. He even seemed to have stopped breathing. If it weren't for the fact that Lester could still see his eyelashes moving as he blinked a little too rapidly, he could have assumed he was looking at a statue.
Then, all of a sudden, Connor looked up again. He had a smile on his face, conspicuously forced and at odds with the distant look in his eyes. "Nah, that's just the usual stuff. You know, running late to an exam, showing up to work in my underwear..."
Lester couldn't help but comment at that. "I would have thought you were fairly well desensitised to showing up at work in your underwear by now." Connor barely even reacted. Lester sighed, making a conscious effort not to press on the bridge of his nose in frustration. "I'd strongly recommend against a career in the civil service, Connor," he said. "Or professional poker for that matter. You must be one of the most unconvincing liars I've ever met."
That was clearly the wrong thing to have said. Connor pressed his lips together and looked away, shutting himself out of the conversation they had just barely begun. Lester waited patiently in silence for several long seconds before Connor eventually spoke again.
"I'm not..." Connor twisted the bedclothes between his fingers. "I'm sorry for keeping you up so long, I wasn't thinking. You should go back to bed. I'll be fine. The hot water was great, thanks."
He rolled over in the bed, away from Lester, effectively ending any and all conversation.
At the very clear sign of dismissal, Lester collected his now empty mug and went to leave, disappointed, but paused with his hand on the door handle. He turned, looking at Connor, evaluating alternative courses of action.
After a few moments, Connor looked over his turned shoulder at the door to check if it was okay for him to turn the light out. When he spotted Lester still standing there, Connor furrowed his brow.
"Aren't you going to go back to bed?" he asked.
All at once, Lester came to a conclusion. "Yes actually," he answered. "I think I am".
Lester placed the empty mug precariously on the top of a pile of video game boxes, closed the bedroom door, and walked back to the bed. It was only a single bed, but it was on the largish size. It would be very crowded, but it would work.
"Move over then," Lester instructed. Connor stared, uncomprehending. "Move over. I won't fit if you're taking up all the space."
Connor opened his mouth, then closed it again, completely failing to make a sound.
Lester took matters into his own hands, taking the corner of the duvet and stripping it back from one side to make room for him to get in. Connor instinctively wormed back under the remaining covers to escape from the cold air, effectively clearing half of the bed. Lester took advantage of the newly-vacated space and set himself down, pulling the duvet back over both of them. He regarded Connor, who was so still he might as well have been suffering from some sort of premature rigor mortis.
"You can turn the light out now," Lester prompted.
Connor blinked. "But you're in my bed." he pointed out uselessly.
"Yes, which is why you can turn the light out now," agreed Lester.
"Did you want me to go? I can go out into the living room, sleep on the sofa if you want to stay here."
With all the patience he could muster, Lester kept his voice level. "There is no shortage of beds in this house, I think the sofa will be unnecessary."
"Oh. Well maybe I should go sleep in your bed then?"
Lester smirked. "Perhaps tomorrow night, Connor," he answered, letting the implications fall where they may. "But tonight I think here will work just fine."
"But..." Connor tried again, "You're in my bed. At the same time as me. We're both in my bed. Together." Without apparently moving, Connor had managed to manoeuvre himself so close to the edge of the bed that he looked likely to fall off.
"Yes, I thought that much was rather self evident." Lester replied. "I sometimes wonder what Cutter was thinking when he called you a genius." It was a gamble, mentioning Cutter, but Lester hoped that the veiled praise would counteract it. Connor was already caught off guard, there was a risk that the words could break the tentative trust they'd begun to establish. But then, crawling into bed with Connor in the first place had been a pretty big gamble. Lester was the one who had thrown Connor off balance in the first place, and there was no point in leaving a job half-finished.
Connor was staring at him. Lester was very much aware that he was being assessed, and remained passive. Eventually Connor came to a decision. He rolled onto his back and flicked the lamp off. They were bathed in darkness.
"I'm not, you know," Connor said a few seconds later.
"Not what?" Lester asked.
"A genius," Connor replied. Lester couldn't see much in the dark, but he could almost hear Connor's self-deprecating half smile. "I'm not stupid or anything, but that doesn't make me a genius. That was Cutter's job. He had the genius ideas, I just wrapped electronics around them. That's all."
Lester remained silent. His gambit seemed to be paying off, and he didn't want to spoil it by speaking prematurely.
"Why are you in my bed?" Connor asked.
"It was getting cold standing in the doorway," he answered, feigning a casual air.
"That's not the reason." Any trace of surprise from earlier was gone now. What remained was a combination of suspicion and curiosity.
Lester weighed up his possible answers carefully.
"Do you remember a few days ago, I told you that if you had something important to say to me, then you should say it. That I would listen. Do you remember?"
Connor nodded, although in the darkness it came across more as a rustling of pillows.
"Well then," continued Lester. "I'm giving you the opportunity to do so."
Lester woke first, as usual. He briefly considered slipping away before Connor woke up and allowing the younger man to get a little more sleep, but decided against it. Whatever message Connor might get from waking up alone after the night before, he was pretty sure it would be the wrong one.
Instead, Lester cleared his throat loudly enough to cause Connor to scrunch his face up and squeeze one eye open. After a few seconds, the second eye joined the first and Lester felt himself being regarded nervously.
"I'm getting up now, Connor," Lester said plainly, well aware of how difficult Connor found mornings in general. "You're very welcome to go back to sleep, as it's only 6.30. But if you would like to get up, you can join me for coffee. I'm going to make some now."
"Coffee?" Connor asked. "From your coffee machine?"
"Yes," replied Lester. "Obviously from my coffee machine. Where else would I be getting it from?"
Connor quirked his lip up just a little. "I don't know. It's just... you never let me have coffee from your coffee machine."
"Perhaps if you got up at a reasonable hour I might offer it more frequently," Lester retorted.
Connor pursed his lips. "Is it really only 6.30?"
"And you really get up this early every day?"
Connor pushed himself up on one elbow so that he could see the clock on the far bedside table. "Huh," he said, thereby confirming the early hour. "Wow." He flopped back down onto the pillow and took a deep, decisive breath. "Okay, I'll get up. But only because there's coffee."
Lester nodded, rolling away and climbing out of bed. His slippers were in the wrong room, which was quite inconvenient. He went to get them before heading down to the kitchen, giving Connor some room and time to compose himself.
Connor padded into the kitchen in his slippers about a minute after Lester. He set himself down on a kitchen stool and watched Lester with the kind of sleepy fascination borne of the early hour and the shiny and complex nature of the machine in question. Lester worked the coffee machine with a practiced ease, and soon had it running its normal cycle, slightly modified to fill two cups rather than one.
Connor jumped when Lester placed the packet of corn flakes and a bowl in front of him. Lester had always kept breakfast cereals in the house, but they were for the benefit of his children rather than himself. His preference was, naturally, for toast.
"Thanks," answered Connor, a slight hint of colour appearing in his face.
Lester assumed, rightly, that Connor was not used to being waited on at breakfast time. Connor started to get up to retrieve the milk and sugar, but Lester waved him back. A moment later, both were set down on the table.
Connor self-consciously poured a bowl of cereal, accidentally over-tipping and spilling a few flakes over the edge of the bowl. The sound of Lester clearing his throat spurred Connor to quickly scoop the rogue flakes back into the bowl and pull his hands into his lap like an errant school child. Lester once again rolled his eyes, and turned to drop some bread into the toaster.
Connor finally managed to speak. "Ah, so... About last night..."
"Yes?" replied Lester, now retrieving jam and thus partially obscured by the pantry door.
"Well I just... You know..." he stammered awkwardly. Once again, Connor had apparently failed to plan his complete sentence in advance, choosing instead to break the silence with only a vague idea of where he was going to end up.
Oddly enough, Lester was beginning to find that trait less irksome and more endearing.
Having found at least a few words to string together, Connor stammered on. "I guess, thanks for bring in tea. Or hot water. That was... Thoughtful." He smiled hopefully, picking up the milk bottle and unscrewing the lid.
"You're very welcome," replied Lester. "Although I think tonight it might be better if we sleep in my bed. It's queen sized. Much less crowded."
Connor spilled the milk in surprise.
Lester made no comment, calmly collecting a tea towel from the hook on the wall and passing it over.
"Sorry!" Connor apologized, rapidly swabbing up the small puddle. "It's just... Well I didn't really expect..." He forced himself to take a deep breath, pressing his lips together for a second before continuing, "You want to sleep together again tonight?"
"That was what I was implying, yes," replied Lester.
"Oh," said Connor, nodding slowly to himself. "Okay. Only... Why?"
Lester collected his freshly-popped toast and sat next to Connor at the bench. "Because last night I offered you an opportunity to tell me what it is that is concerning you, and you did not take advantage of it. I intend to offer that same opportunity again tonight. Your cereal is losing cohesion, you really should eat it before it becomes completely unpalatable."
"Oh," said Connor once again, starting at the cereal, but clearly thinking instead about Lester's offer. "I didn't... You really want to know? You really want me to tell you?"
Lester nodded. "I do, yes."
The coffee machine chose that moment to squeal obnoxiously. Connor jumped again, then watched it with a distant fascination as it started to drool out its delightful, if poorly timed, liquid caffeine.
"Okay, but don't tell anyone..." he began quietly, staring at the tiny curl of steam above the cups.
Lester nodded lightly, spreading margarine on his toast.
"Sometimes I dream that they're mad at me," Connor confessed. "Sometimes just Cutter, or Tom, sometimes they're all together." Connor stirred absentmindedly at the bowl of milky mush in front of him. Lester watched in silence, pleasantly surprised when Connor dared a moment of eye contact. "I wake up when I have those dreams, but I can normally go back to sleep."
Lester refraining from speaking, half-expecting Connor to continue, but nodded his understanding.
There was silence for several seconds.
"I think the coffee is done," Connor eventually said.
Lester looked at the machine. It had been done before Connor had finally started to talk, but he had hoped for a slightly longer burst of honesty from the young man, and had thus left the coffee to cool. He rose to collect the two cups, his eyes barely leaving Connor, who, in turn, was staring firmly once again at his breakfast bowl. The spoon was slowly sinking into his cornflake quicksand, something Connor was apparently enthralled by.
Lester mixed in the requisite milk and sugar, then placed one cup in front of Connor before reclaiming his own seat, cup in hand.
"Careful," Lester warned. "It's still very hot."
Connor nodded, bringing the cup close but refraining from drinking.
"Do you know what survivor's guilt is?" Lester asked carefully. Connor nodded slowly, granting Lester leave to continue. "You've lost a lot of people over the past few years. And you've been with a lot of those people when they died... Under those circumstances, it would be entirely understandable if you experienced survivor's guilt. Even though you know you're not to blame."
Connor took a small, halting breath at that. He grabbed the tip of his spoon, playing briefly with his bowl of mush before letting it sit again. "That's nice of you to say."
Lester wasn't quite sure what he had been expecting from Connor, but that wasn't it.
Connor glanced up though, clarifying. "Problem is, I am to blame, at least partly. Tom died because I told him something I shouldn't. Stephen died because I was too much of a wuss to tell Cutter and Stephen to sort themselves out when it could have made a difference. Cutter died because I didn't find him in time..." The eye-contact disappeared again, the cereal earning itself another half-hearted stir. "Or maybe I did find him in time, but instead of getting him out of there while I still had the chance, I just sat there and waited for him to die."
For the first time in a very, very long time, Lester had no idea what to say.
Lester stood, hands on hips, looking put out.
This was, of course, not an uncommon occurrence. Lorraine had just waved Connor through with a long-suffering look and a tired head shake when he had arrived at the office.
Connor didn't understand why it was that, despite having an entire team of technicians, electricians, mechanical engineers and general science staff on hand at the ARC, Lester always insisted on calling him whenever his laptop had network connection problems. That's not to say that Connor wasn't technically capable of fixing Lester's network issues, because that was pretty much a given. Compared to building a system which pinpointed magnetic disturbances around the country using nothing but radio distortion patterns, configuring Windows 7 network drivers was pretty mundane. It just seemed, though, that with everything else that was going on in his life right at the moment, there might have been someone else available to rescue Lester's incommunicado laptop.
Doubly so today, considering the awkwardness that he and Lester had been caught up in that morning. He hadn't really meant to share the way he did, not with his boss of all people. He had to stop giving people reasons to fire him, or to send him off for psychological assessment, or whatever it was top secret military organizations did with people who were going mad.
In hindsight, Lester had played his cards pretty well, luring Connor out of bed with the promise of caffeine, only to trick him into sleep-deprived confessions he hadn't even been entirely ready to admit to himself. He supposed it would make sense for Lester to be trained in interrogation techniques, but he hadn't expected to be on the receiving end of them.
Right now, Lester was just looking impatient, peering over Connor's shoulder at the screen. It had the default ARC logo on the desktop, looking stark and impersonal. Connor opened up the network settings window, immediately noticing the little red x on top of the network icon.
"It was working this morning," commented Lester. "Have you been doing something to the computers that would have caused it to break?"
"No, I don't think so," Connor replied wearily. "If everyone's computer had lost the network, then I'd say probably one of the IT guys had done something, but it looks like it's just your computer." The whole situation was awkward really, Connor mused, while practiced fingers worked at the computer's settings. That morning, once Connor had realized just how deep a hole he had dug himself, he’d immediately gone into evasion mode. He had started up irrelevant conversations, asked Lester questions about unrelated things, and when Lester persisted in his line of questioning Connor had given short, nondescript answers. Finally, in the car on the way in, Lester had huffed his irritation over the misdirection and the two of them had remained in silence until they’d parted ways in the ARC's underground car park. Lester had never been a particularly easy person to read, but Connor couldn't help feeling that maybe he had overstepped the boundaries of their relationship this time.
Of course that was a pretty ridiculous idea, given that only the night before Lester had very purposefully crawled into bed with him. How anyone was supposed to figure out appropriate personal boundaries after something like that, Connor did not know.
He checked the back of Lester's laptop, and jiggled the cable a couple of times. It had no effect. "Have you tried turning it off then turning it on again?"
Lester managed to look even less impressed than he had a few moments earlier. "Of course I did, but clearly it didn't do any good." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "You'd think with a team the size of his, Gates would at least be able to produce a computer that didn't break quite so often. Even the anomaly detector only needs to be rebooted every few weeks, and that was built by a team of one university drop-out and very little else."
Connor chose to take that as a compliment, despite its very backhanded nature. "Actually, Bill Gates dropped out of university early on, to work on Microsoft."
"Well that explains quite a few things," Lester grumbled.
Connor pushed back from the desk, the wheelie chair sliding along the smooth floor almost silently. Back in his student days, he'd participated in any number of wheelie chair races. Competing with Lester's chair would have been like driving a Ferrari in a race full of VW Beetles. Of course, as a student he almost certainly couldn't have afforded a chair like Lester's. He wasn't entirely sure he would be able to afford one now.
Connor got down onto his hands and knees. He spotted the problem almost instantly. The network cable was dangling loose, clearly unplugged from its wall socket. At almost exactly the same moment, Connor heard the sound of Lester's door closing.
He crawled back a few centimeters, peering up over the edge of the desk to where Lester was standing in front of the closed door. "Network cable was unplugged," he said, waving the end of the cable around in all its self-evident glory.
"Yes," replied Lester. "I know."
Connor stumbled over that thought for a moment, before answering, "Well... I... think that's why your network isn't working."
Lester nodded. "I rather suspected as much, since the problem happened immediately after I unplugged it. Sit." He gestured to the chair which Connor had only just vacated.
Connor didn't move.
"Don't you want me to plug it in again?" he asked instead, waving the cable end in the air.
"It can wait," replied Lester, gesturing once again to the chair. "I said sit."
Connor very slowly worked his way out from under the desk and back into the chair. He had a very uneasy feeling of being trapped. Lester pulled over one of the visitor’s chairs, and sat facing him across the desk. Connor tried to smile, but strongly suspected it was coming across as more of a grimace.
"There are some things I need to discuss with you, Connor, and I didn't think they could wait until this evening. You have been avoiding me, being deliberately evasive since..." he paused, then exhaled in a way that almost sounded like a chuckle. "Good lord, Connor, you look like you're expecting to be assigned an after-school detention."
"Oh," replied Connor, rapidly unclasping his hands from his lap before realizing that he had nowhere else to put them. They flailed around for a moment before settling on the desk in front of him. "Sorry, I didn't mean to... look like that."
"And yet you persist," Lester commented. He offered a smile which was almost certainly meant to be calming, and his eyes softened very slightly. Connor didn't really feel overly reassured, but he tried to relax anyway as Lester continued. "This morning you did as I asked and shared your concerns with me. However, since that time you have avoided me as much as possible, and when that was not practical you avoided the topic almost as effectively."
Connor clasped his hands together again. An after-school detention was suddenly sounding a lot less frightening than the conversation he was actually having.
Lester waited until Connor was watching him again before he continued. "I've been doing some research, and it has only confirmed my initial thoughts. Your friend, Tom, died because of a parasitic infection. Do you disagree?"
Connor returned the very slightest shake of his head.
"Good. Then we are on the same page at least. Stephen died from a creature attack, there's little to no doubt there. Nick Cutter died from a bullet wound inflicted by his chronically disturbed ex-wife." Lester leaned forward a short way in his seat before continuing. "There are dozens more soldiers and civilians who have been injured or killed in the course of the anomaly project. I could show you every one of those records, but you would not find a single one which attributes their death to you." Lester reached over his desk and placed a warm palm over Connor's own, fidgeting hands. "You are innocent, Connor. Your guilt is misplaced. Do you understand?"
The anomaly detector chose that moment to start blaring.
Any anomaly that didn't result in any serious injuries or leave any exceptionally large creatures requiring accommodation really ought to be considered a success, Lester mused. Of course, one couldn't really expect these phenomena to keep to business hours, no matter how much personal inconvenience it caused him. Even so, it would have been vastly preferable if this particular anomaly had chosen to close by, say, five o'clock, or even six. 11pm was an unreasonable hour, by anyone's standards.
Lester had always considered it part of his job to remain at the office, alert and at the ready, until every anomaly was called in as either 'safe' or 'closed', so he was not unfamiliar with late night vigils. The difference tonight was that this vigil was not taking place in his nice comfortable office chair at the ARC, but rather, in his car on the outskirts of a small farming village about 45 minutes drive away.
Connor had been on the team investigating this particular anomaly, which had proved more than usually complicated to close. Lester knew full well that he could have waited at the ARC for Connor to return before driving them both home, but that would only make them even later to bed. Instead, he had driven out to meet the young man in the field.
It was purely an exercise in time saving, of course. While Lester was naturally concerned for the welfare of all his staff, his decision to drive out for Connor in particular was entirely practical. At least, that's what he chose to tell himself. He carefully avoided thinking about how easy it would have been to simply arrange a taxi for Connor once everything at the site had been secured.
Fortunately, Connor's adrenaline-fueled grin as he had bounded up to the car in the dark proved an excellent distraction from such thoughts. Bright against the dark mustiness of the evening, Connor all but glowed with enthusiasm and energy. The halting conversations from the morning's trip in were all but forgotten as Connor's words ran on almost faster than Lester could keep up.
"And then he got the dart rifle, and I'm not exaggerating, he was standing two hundred... no, three hundred meters away, and he got the dart right in its chest! First time! And then it wobbled for a moment and fell right down, easy as anything to drag back through. And then on the other side there was a hill, and we just went a little way so that we could check that there wasn't any other threat, and when we got to the top of the hill we looked down into a valley and there were hundreds of them, maybe even thousands. It was absolutely amazing, I wish you could have seen it! And then..."
Connor enthused for several more minutes with almost no input from Lester, before his sentences started to fall back into a more normal rhythm.
"Were there any civilians involved?" Lester asked. He already knew the answer, it had been reported in to him before Connor had made it back to the car, but he wanted to contribute something a bit more concrete that 'oh', and 'indeed' to the conversation.
Connor shook his head. "No, I don't think there was anyone around for miles."
Lester nodded, pleased that Connor's opinion had matched the earlier statements from Becker. "That's lucky. I imagine this one would have been quite complicated to explain away, had there been witnesses."
"Yeah," Connor replied. "For sure."
Lester allowed himself a glance at the passenger seat for a moment, concerned at Connor's rapid decline towards brevity, but relaxed quickly. Connor still looked upbeat and happy, but the adrenaline surge was well on its way out. Connor looked exhausted.
Lester remained deliberately silent for the next few miles, and was not surprised to see Connor's eyes start to droop. By the time the car pulled up to the security gate of his apartment complex, Connor was well and truly out of it. Lester was loathe to wake the young man up, but he also had no intention of remaining in the car all night.
Fortunately, he didn't have to do either. When Lester pulled the handbrake on, Connor blinked and looked around.
"The car's stopped. Are we home already?"
Lester nodded. "Yes," he answered, trying to ignore the pleasant feeling in his chest when Connor referred to the apartment as 'home'. "You fell asleep on the way. Shall we go in?"
Having made his way in, Connor headed straight for his room, but stopped in the doorway when Lester cleared his throat loudly. He turned around slowly.
"My room's the next one down. Just get your pyjamas and then let yourself in. I don't intend spending another night in the single bed."
Connor blinked. He was tired enough not to want to get caught up in a long discussion about anything, but this was significant enough to warrant a moment's thought. "I'm pretty tired, maybe I should just sleep in my own bed?"
Lester raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps I did not make myself clear, Connor. I would very much appreciate not having to get up in the middle of the night to check on you, should I suspect that something is awry. I hope you're not intending to make an issue of this."
Connor reminded himself to close his mouth, wondering how long it had been left open. He swallowed, trying to figure out the best way of phrasing the next statement. The truth was that the idea of curling up in bed with someone else was wonderful, and the idea of Lester as that someone else seemed far less strange than it would have done a few days ago. But he also didn't want to become any more of a burden on Lester than he already was as a house guest.
"You don't actually have to... check on me." Connor said carefully. "I just have occasional bad dreams, that's all. I'll be fine."
Lester stepped up close. Connor had always misread personal space, or so he had been told, but he was pretty sure Lester was closer than traditionally recommended for roommates. He overrode his own instinct to take a step backwards, because he was already pretty much up against the hallway wall already.
"I know I don't have to, Connor," Lester said seriously. "But I choose to. However, that choice would be made much less inconvenient if you would sleep in my room."
Connor nodded, not trusting his voice. Lester smiled.
"You had better get your pyjamas and come along then."
Connor did as he was told, sidling into his room and quickly rifling through the pile of discarded clothes on the floor for something suitable before making his way one door down the hall. He hesitated at the door, peering in.
Lester's room was done in various shades of green, which were much more subdued than he had expected. The walls were a pale moss color, with the duvet a darker shade of the same. The bed itself was consistent with the modern minimalist style of the rest of the house, as were the bedside tables. The lamps on both sides of the bed had been lit, casting warm creamy cones of light up against the wall behind them, giving the room a distinctly intimate feel.
Ever-efficient, Lester had already dressed for bed in the time it had taken Connor to find his way through his own mess. He was turning down the sheets when Connor caught his attention. At Lester's raised eyebrow, Connor shuffled in self-consciously.
"Do you, um..." Connor stumbled over the words. "Do you have a side? Of the bed? That you, ah, prefer?"
"Yes, this one," replied Lester, gesturing loosely at the side he was nearest to.
"Oh," said Connor uselessly. "Good. I guess I'll sleep on this side."
Lester's only response came in the form of an "mmm hmm."
Connor placed his pyjamas in a pile on 'his' side of the bed and started to pull his t-shirt off over his head. Then he stopped.
He had never really been body conscious before, at least, not overly. He'd happily wandered around Abby's flat in nothing but boxer shorts without really thinking about it. Of course, he had the excuse of the heating (not to mention the presence of Abby herself dressed in not much more than her pants).
He was also fairly sure that his body wasn't entirely repulsive. He wouldn't dare to compare himself to the buff special forces soldiers with whom he worked, but after almost three years of running away from dinosaurs, he was pleasantly fit.
Nevertheless, standing in Lester's room with his shirt half way over his head, he felt painfully shy. It didn't matter that it was ridiculous, doubly so since Lester was already in his sleeping gear. It was simply that Lester was watching him get undressed, and that made a horrible warm prickly feeling creep up his neck, threatening his cheeks with an even more embarrassing blush.
"Could you, ah..." Connor gave Lester a pointed look, hoping that would be enough. Lester returned a questioning expression, so Connor was forced wave his finger round in the air in a gesture intended to express 'turn around' without actually saying the words.
Lester had the gall to look amused at Connor's request, but turned his back. "You will let me know when you are done?"
"Yah huh," Connor agreed, changing his clothes in almost record time. He crawled into bed as fast as he could, then pulled the sheets up to his chin. "Okay, you can turn around now."
Lester did so, then quickly and efficiently settled himself into the bed. Lester was instantly at ease, which only served to make Connor feel tenser. He couldn't fathom why Lester believed that this would actually help him sleep better. If he felt any more anxious at that moment, he'd probably burst. He'd burst into a big, messy puddle of anxious. And then he'd have to apologize for causing a mess.
"Let me put your mind at rest, Connor." Lester was lying on his side, facing Connor who was steadfastly staring at the ceiling. "I don't intend to ravage you, or to draw embarrassing illustrations on your face while you sleep, or to cause you any form of harm whatsoever. There are no shenanigans planned. You can relax."
"I am relaxed," Connor lied. He knew it was unconvincing, but didn't really know what else to say.
Lester gave a small, private sigh. "If you say so," he said, then turned off the lights.
"Were they angry at you again?" Lester asked, the dark of their shared bedroom failing to obscure the speed of Connor's breathing, the way his fingers fidgeted with the edge of the duvet, or how he kept stealing momentary glances at his companion.
Another night, another bad dream.
Connor shook his head, but didn't speak. Lester suspected that it was a matter of not trusting his voice, rather than having nothing to say.
"So this was a new dream? A different dream?"
Connor considered this, then shook his head again, more cautiously than before.
Lester's eyes had adjusted to the light properly now, allowing him to see Connor's rapid blinking.
Lester rolled onto his side, using his elbow to prop himself up a few degrees while he adjusted his pillows. "Perhaps we could bypass the round of 20 questions?" he suggested. This earned him a small, forced upward quirk of the lip. It was a sign of recognition only, utterly devoid of humour. There was a nod, but still Connor kept his silence.
Lester let it continue for almost two minutes, waiting for an explanation. He didn't get one.
"You have my curiosity piqued," he eventually said. "It wasn't the normal dream, yet it wasn't a new one?"
"It was..." Connor hesitated, still staring at the ceiling. "It's not the dream I told you about. But it's... I've had it before."
The silence stretched out again. Lester was hesitant to break it, but it was necessary.
"Do you intend to elaborate?" he prompted gently. "Or do I need to go and boil another two cups of water first?"
This earned another small smile of recognition from Connor. It was still distant and forced, but it was something. "No water, but thanks anyway," he said. His fingers kept twisting the bed sheets while Lester watched.
Eventually, Lester placed a hand over Connor's, stroking lightly down to the fingers and gently prising them away from the fabric. He used his free hand to smooth out the sheet, then carefully enclosed Connor's anxious fingers between his palms.
Connor stared at this for a moment. "I'm sorry. I'm not really sure if I'm ready to put it into words yet."
Lester made no comment, just rubbed Connor's hand very lightly between his.
Connor took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts and trying to synchronize his breathing with the movements of Lester's hands. "They're all there, everyone who... left..." Connor pressed out eventually, by an act of sheer willpower. "In my dreams, they're all alive, and they're okay. But then they look at me like they don't know me. Like they never met me." Connor looked at Lester then, eyes bright. "They're all alive, but they don't want me there with them."
Lester felt a spike of sympathetic grief in his stomach. He released Connor's hands and moved to pull him into an embrace at the exact same moment that Connor rolled away from him. Lester settled for resting his hands on the back of Connor's shoulders instead.
"I should... I'll just... I'm sorry, I'll..." Connor sat up, pulling back the duvet and placing his feet on the cold wooden floor.
"Connor Temple, you will stop right this instant." Lester knew how effective his commanding voice could be. Under other circumstances, he might have felt smug at the immediacy with which Connor stilled, but right now Lester just felt frustrated. He took a deep, calming breath. "For someone with such an obvious fear of rejection, Connor, you're awfully quick to run away from someone offering you compassion."
Connor stayed very still.
"Get back into the bed," he instructed. He was still using his commanding voice, but he was gentler about it this time. Connor looked over his shoulder at Lester for a moment, before stiffly complying. Lester refrained from reaching out for him again, this time giving him space. "Do you have any concept of how confusing you can be?" Lester's frustration finally found its voice. "You go around day to day wearing your heart on your sleeve for everyone to see, but the moment anyone calls you on it or offers to help, you run off to be by yourself. Is this some kind of masochism? Do you enjoy feeling isolated and sorry for yourself? Are you self-destructive? It would certainly explain the numerous injuries you seem to inflict upon yourself when you're in the field."
Connor shook his head. "I don't... I'm not... I'm not like that," he protested, "It's just... well... you're you. You don't tolerate excessive shows of emotion. And you never show weakness. And... I really don't want to do anything that would make you throw me out. I'm sorry. I just don't know what I'd do if..." he trailed off again.
"Have I ever given you any indication that I might be inclined to throw you out?" he asked. Connor gave him a look that spoke more than the young man could have expressed verbally in a month. Lester closed his eyes for a moment. "I can be brusque sometimes. That is part of who I am. It is how I prefer to relate to people. However, I have extended an invitation for you to live here with me until you choose to move elsewhere. That invitation is not going to be revoked simply because you are behaving like yourself."
It was hard to tell if Connor was feeling better or worse for that little speech, so Lester decided to move the conversation on.
"Will you be able to go back to sleep, or are you too awake now?"
Connor nervously clutched at his pillow. "I'll go back to sleep," he said, then added, "I really am sorry for waking you."
"You're forgiven, on the grounds that you promise to wake me again if the nightmare recurs. Agreed?"
Connor replied with a small nod. "All right."
Lester rolled back into his preferred position, suppressing his desire to pull Connor into his arms, to protect him from the terrors waiting behind closed eyelids.
Even after all Lester's efforts, Connor was still not ready for that.
"Can I ask you a question?" Connor was pretty much certain that his nonchalance was blindingly fake.
He waited for Lester's nod, then hesitated in the doorway to the spacious office. The truth of it was that Lester had been pretty much, well, brilliant to him for weeks now. He had been supportive and understanding. He had provided whatever Connor had needed, from a room to stay in to a sympathetic ear, even when Connor didn't know that he needed it. The very last thing Connor's wanted was to seem ungrateful, and yet...
"Were you intending to ask this question in the near future, or should I have Lorraine pencil something in for tomorrow?"
Connor blushed and ducked his head to hide his smile. Even Lester's comments seemed less officious and more companionable now. Or maybe that was just in the eye of the beholder? Connor took a deep breath, then went for it.
"I was just wondering, with you being really nice to me recently, and letting me come and stay with you... Actually, not just stay but, uh, well you know..." he emphasized that part particularly, leaning into the words to make the implication clear."Then making me coffee and sort of, well making me feel better when I was feeling really down, oh and especially letting me talk to you about, well, stuff..."
"One day, Connor," Lester interrupted, "I will teach you about full stops. You'll find they make sentence construction much less challenging."
Connor swallowed, and took a deep breath. "Right. Sorry. I know... 'Plan your sentences before you say them'... It's just that I just wanted to know..." he paused again, hesitating, then, "Why are you doing all that stuff for me?"
Lester looked thoughtful. Clearly planning sentences before he said them was a skill Lester had mastered a very long time ago.
"You seemed to need it," he answered eventually, simple and to the point. "And it was within my power to make it happen."
Connor chewed at his lower lip. "That's all?"
"It's enough, don't you think?" countered Lester, getting up from his chair and walking around the desk to stand in front of Connor. "I expect that, under similar circumstances, you would do the same for Abby, or for Sarah, or for Quinn?"
"Well yeah," answered Connor thoughtlessly. "But they're my friends."
That sentence came out a moment before his brain finished processing it. That processing, unfortunately, completed just in time to see Lester's reaction. Connor tried to clarify quickly, "I don't mean that we're not friends!" He opened his eyes wide in an attempt to look earnest, but mostly projected an air of 'utterly terrified'. "I mean, well, we're friendly, obviously, I wouldn't dream of implying that I didn't like you, because I do, I really like you and I wasn't saying otherwise..."
"Full stops, Connor" interjected Lester. His momentary flash of emotion had lapsed back into his typical poker face.
"Sorry. I just didn't mean what it sounded like I meant. Not really. I'm always doing that, always screwing things up like that. I..." Connor finally overrode his instinct of talking his way even deeper into trouble and fell silent.
Lester kept staring at him, watching silently, until the emptiness in the conversation almost pushed Connor to start rambling again. Then, quiet and serious, he asked, "What, exactly, do you think of me Connor? Am I a manipulative bureaucrat with allusions of grandeur? A convenient colleague with a sharp wit and a suitable spare bedroom?"
Connor shook his head vehemently. This time he was determined to plan his response properly, even if Lester's stare was causing that hot prickly feeling to start in his neck and cheeks again. "No, that's not really what I think of you at all. I mean, sure, I used to think that, before I got to know you, but I don't think that any more." He offered up a hopeful smile.
"Then what do you think now?" Lester asked.
Connor swallowed. "Um... I think you're... a really smart guy, obviously. And you're really good at your job, and I mean really good. And... you're thoughtful. And generous, even though you like to make out like you're only being self-serving when you do it. And I think you're probably a really great dad, 'cause you obviously love your kids like mad. And, um..."
Connor's found his list cut short by a pair of very warm, soft lips pressing against his own. Lester's fingers brushed his cheek, sweeping back to settle by his ear.
It took a moment for those few seconds to sort themselves out in his head. Then finally his thoughts caught up with what had happened. Lester had just kissed him.
Lester pulled back, letting his thumb catch on Connor's chin for the barest of seconds. There was a very slight touch of colour high on his cheekbones. "And what are your thoughts about me now?"
Connor blinked again. "I'm... not really sure..." he answered slowly.
"I see. In that case, perhaps you'd like to think it over at your own desk. I have quite a lot of work to be getting on with."
Lester sat back behind his desk, picking up a pen and rolling it thoughtfully in his fingers, firmly entrenching himself in his paperwork.
Connor saw himself out.
This was, simply put, a problem. This was not what Lester had intended at all.
As hard as it was to believe, the silence in the car on the drive home was even more uncomfortable than it had been on the first few trips back home with Connor. Therein, Lester mused, lay the problem. It wasn't just 'home' any more, it was ‘home with Connor’. It didn't matter how much Lester tried to rationalise it, he wanted Connor with him. Did it count as Stockholm Syndrome if he was the one who had invited his tormentor to stay in the first place? Either way, the young man had woven himself into Lester's life so thoroughly that the idea of his absence made Lester feel hollow and abandoned.
But there was no denying that Connor had quite clearly been hiding from him since that incredibly ill-advised kiss. He even had a suspicion that, when he had eventually found him to drive him home, Connor had been trying to arrange alternative accommodation with one of the SF soldiers. Lester didn't even want to think about the jealousy he had felt at that moment.
Despite all that, Connor was in the car now, they were headed home together, and everything felt wrong. Connor's fidgeting was not borne of enthusiasm but of uncertainty. His silence didn't flow from contentment, but from fear. This was, in effect, the worst possible scenario. A monumental problem.
After almost eight minutes of mutual silence, it was inevitable that they would both choose the same moment to speak.
"I wanted to explain...."
"I don't exactly..."
They both stopped again, then Lester offered, "After you."
"I don't exactly know what..." he stopped again, looking at the roof, then exhaling loudly. "Never mind, it's nothing. What were you saying?"
Lester was no stranger to interrogation. Maybe not the water-boarding, strapped to a chair, electrodes in sensitive places type of interrogation, but certainly the more political kind; the kind where pointy little civil servants with beady little eyes would ask leading questions and use every answer against you. Lester had long since mastered the skill of not saying things which would get him into trouble. Unfortunately, this left him with almost nothing he could say to Connor.
"I want to clarify. This morning, I wasn't attempting to force you into anything against your will. I was in no way implying that I expected anything from you but professionalism, and nothing which happened there has any bearing on your future success in the anomaly project. I want to make that clear, because top secret governmental projects do not coexist happily with sexual harassment cases."
"Oh," said Connor. He actually sounded disappointed. "Okay."
There were a few minutes more of silence, then Connor started up again.
"I didn't mind it, not really, you just surprised me. That was the only thing. Well, I was surprised and confused. So I guess that's two things."
"I do hope this doesn't degrade into a recitation of the Spanish Inquisition sketch." Lester interjected. Connor looked at him, startled, then grinned.
"Surprise and fear! Two things!" he quoted mischievously. "Fear and surprise! And ruthless efficiency! Three things!" Connor's chirpiness echoed inappropriately in the small space. His grin slipped back to a preoccupied look. "I just..." Connor eventually started. "Well, I'm pretty bad at reading people. I'm not like you, the way you know what people are thinking straight away. I misread people all the time. I mean, look at Abby, I always thought she was interested in me, the whole 'sending me signals' thing, but then if I tried to start something she'd always tell me that I was wrong. So if I'm wrong then tell me, and I'll shut up about it, I promise, no sexual harassment claims or anything, but... when you kissed me, was that a signal? As in, you know, a signal?"
Lester watched the road with an unwarranted focus. He wasn't sure why, but the idea of looking at Connor at that moment terrified him. "I think that you may not be as bad as you think, when it comes to reading people. I have observed many mixed signals from Abby as regards you, so you have every right to be confused by them."
Even in his peripheral vision, Lester could see Connor furrowing his brow. "Oh. Thanks, I guess..." Connor answered slowly. "But... was that a 'no' then? Or a 'yes'?"
"What you need to understand Connor, is that these things are quite complex. You have been grieving and I have been the person offering you a safe place to do so. In addition and for lack of a better term, I am your boss. My earlier remark about sexual harassment suits should not be taken lightly. Workplace relationships are troublesome enough when you're not trying to operate one of the most secret operations in the history of the Commonwealth."
"Okay." Connor pushed on, "But that's not really what I'm confused by. I'm okay with either answer, yes or no, I really am, I'd just like to know."
Lester teased at his bottom lip. Connor was not normally so hard to distract. "It is a provisional 'yes'. A 'yes' with caveats."
"Huh," Connor said thoughtfully, watching Lester for a few moments before starting to show the barest hint of amusement. "You're not really very good at romance, are you?"
Lester risked taking his eyes off the road for a moment to look at Connor. He looked curious, thoughtful. There was no outright rejection, but there was also no particular sign of enthusiasm.
Connor tilted his head to the side. "You were married though," he stated.
Lester nodded, turning his eyes back to the road.
"Up until late last year, yes. For ten years, as it happened."
"But.. to a girl." Connor elaborated.
Lester nodded again.
"I expect she would prefer the term 'woman' rather than 'girl', but yes; my wife was of the female persuasion."
"I'm not a girl," Connor pointed out helpfully.
"I had noticed that, yes." The traffic lights ahead thoughtlessly turned amber, even though there was no traffic crossing in front of them. Lester slowed down.
"And that's not a problem for you?" Connor asked.
Lester looked out of his window to his right, avoiding eye contact. This was not a part of his identity that he had ever made widely known. In all honesty, it was not something he had ever felt comfortable sharing with anyone.
"It does complicate things somewhat. Being attracted to a woman is a great deal more acceptable, socially and politically speaking. But no, your gender does not affect my sentiment." The light turned red.
"Oh." Connor said finally. "Okay then. That's interesting."
Lester was starting to regret the effort he had put into finding Connor this evening to take him home. If he had just let Connor find a handy soldier to stay with tonight, then this painfully uncomfortable situation could have been avoided.
"I do want to stress that you are under no obligations," Lester repeated, "I have no expectations of you. You have a place in my house for as long as you need it regardless of how you feel. I didn't offer it under false pretences. I most likely shouldn't have acted the way I did today in my office, but what's done can't be undone. If you would like, though, we can act as though it never happened." It was an escape route. It was always necessary to give negotiating opponents an appropriate escape route. A way of backing down without losing face. Lester just wasn't entirely sure whether it was an escape route for Connor or for himself.
"Cool. Good. That's good information. Helpful information," Connor replied.
It had the feel of someone saying one thing while thinking about something else entirely. Lester felt his ears getting warm, although it was hard to say which potential outcome was causing the precipitating nervousness.
"The light's gone green," Connor said.
Lester's brain practically flew through all the possible interpretations he could for that phrase before realising that it was just an observation of the traffic lights they had stopped at. He shook himself mentally and engaged the accelerator.
Lester felt Connor watching him.
"Just making absolutely sure here, but like I said, I misread things sometimes. We're definitely talking about starting a relationship, not just boss or friend but the other kind. The kind with quotation marks around 'relationship'. Right?"
Lester nodded, all too aware that the escape route he had set up earlier was getting harder and harder to take.
"Okay," Connor said, sounding more confident than he had since before they got into the car. "That's what I thought... Um... Could you pull over?"
Lester couldn't bring himself to look at Connor. "Are you feeling unwell?"
Lester's heart sank. He would never have admitted, even to himself, how much he had wanted Connor to say yes. 'Yes' would have meant that the request to stop had nothing to do with his own surprisingly personal confession. 'No' meant... He didn't even want to think about it. It didn't matter now, what mattered was damage control.
"I see. Connor, I do want to stress that you are welcome at my apartment for as long as you want regardless, but if you don't want to stay then I am happy to drive you to wherever it is you'd feel more comfortable. You don't have to get out and walk."
"What?" Connor asked, obviously confused, "Where else would I be going? And why would I get out and walk there?"
Lester did look across at Connor now, just for a moment, and was perplexed by what he saw. "You said you wanted me to pull over. If you're not feeling unwell, and you don't want to get out of the car, then why on earth would you ask me to pull over on a major road only six minutes from home?"
Connor's lip quirked upwards and his eyes mischievously lit up his face. "'Cause I want to try kissing you properly, and I think that's kind of a driving hazard."
Lester pulled the car over exactly four seconds later.
Lester awoke to a face full of fluffy, brown hair and an arm full of soft, warm Connor. It was 6:25, and as usual he had woken just a few minutes before the alarm ticked on. In a pleasant break from tradition though, his night's sleep had not been interrupted by Connor's nightmares.
He carefully extricated one arm from the tangle of Connor, then reached across to flick off the alarm. There was no reason to let it disrupt Connor's rest. Lester unfolded himself from around his young partner and slipped out of the bed into his waiting slippers.
He made it as far as the door before he heard Connor move.
"Where are you going?"The words were sleepy and muffled, yet still quietly plaintive.
"It's morning, Connor. I'm getting ready for work. On time. Something you might consider trying at some point."
"Are you coming back?"
Lester looked at Connor with a mixture of amusement and affection. "It's Wednesday. We have to be at work in two hours. I very much doubt that I will be coming back in the mean time."
"But eventually, you'll come back?"
There was more to that question then the words implied. Much more. Fortunately, Lester was very good at loaded questions.
"Always, Connor. I'm not going to go anywhere away from you for long."
Lester was immediately treated to one of those smiles that lit up Connor's whole face, and the rest of the room right along with it. "Right now, though, I'm going to get myself some coffee."
Connor perked up further at that. "From the coffee machine? Can I have some too?"
"You know the rules, Connor. If you want coffee, you have to get up at a reasonable time."
Connor nodded. "6:45?" He asked.
"All right," replied Lester.
"What about 7:00?"
"I suppose that would be acceptable."
Epilogue (some months later)
Lester took out a single mug and placed it on the kitchen bench. He filled the kettle, but didn't switch it on.
He followed his routine. He was a creature of habit, Connor had said as much many times over the past few months, and he saw no particular reason to change just because Connor wasn't around to observe it.
He watched the news for half an hour, then he talked on the phone with his children. He explained to Michael that there was nothing under his bed even after the lights went out. He reassured Charlotte that he would be there for her piano recital on Thursday. When Josephine asked if his friends had been found yet, he replied in the negative.
"I'm sorry Dad, I'm sure they'll find them soon."
He washed the dinner dishes, and tidied his desk. He fed the diictodons, then rounded them into their cage. The two had been quiet, almost lethargic since Connor hadn't come home. Lester wasn't sure whether they were sick or just sad. He had considered taking them back into the ARC, but giving them up seemed too much like giving up on Connor's return, so the two leathery little terrors were allowed to stay.
He went back to the kitchen, staring at the single mug standing lonely on the table. He had a feeling he wouldn't sleep uninterrupted through the night, and a cup of hot water always...
He caught his breath and his thoughts before they went to far down that path. He closed his eyes briefly, then went over to the cupboard and retrieved a second cup. He placed it next to the first.
Just in case.