Whenever the blessed day of his discharge arrives, Stephen will be glad to never set foot within a hundred metres of a hospital again.
Unfortunately, he knows that’s only wishful thinking. He foresees many check-ups, tests, and appointments in his future. He is lucky to be alive, as everyone so helpfully reminds him.
‘Lucky’ is a matter of perspective, Stephen thinks. Sitting in bed in hospital, painkillers managing to only dull the edge of his pain, Stephen doesn’t feel so lucky. He feels alone and regretful. He feels like an idiot.
Which is only natural, he tells himself. He was an idiot. He still can’t quite believe he’d let Helen manipulate him like that. He’d made it so damn easy for her and now she’s gone, doing whatever it is she does when she isn’t messing with them, and Stephen is here, in hospital, alive only through what is pretty much a miracle.
Alive, but not completely whole. He lost massive amounts of blood and he’s got enough stitches that he feels like Frankenstein’s monster. He’s been told he has femoral nerve damage, which explains the reason why, when he’d first woken up, he could barely feel his leg. The first time they let him get out of bed, his knee buckled and if a nurse hadn’t been helping him, he would have ended up on his arse. Even with physical therapy, apparently there’s a distinct possibility he’ll never fully recover.
Stephen’s trying not to think about what that means. He has always been active and if he starts to consider the things he may no longer be able to do, he’s only going to end up even more miserable than he already is.
Cutter comes to see him sometimes, but he is guilty and subdued, barely able to look Stephen in the face. It’s as if he has no idea what to say to Stephen any more and Stephen feels much the same. ‘Sorry for being an idiot’ doesn’t seem to cut it.
The thing is, when Stephen had his moment of heroism, he hadn’t expected to be around for the aftermath. Generally when you lock yourself in a room filled with vicious predators, you don’t live to tell anyone about it. Not dying has made everything pretty awkward.
It isn’t that Stephen had wanted to die, exactly, but he hadn’t much cared to live, either. He’d turned his life into complete shit, made so many mistakes he couldn’t take back, and sacrificing himself for Cutter had seemed his best option. He couldn’t make up for what he’d done, but he could at least give up his shitty excuse of a life so that Cutter could go on living and making a difference. It probably doesn’t look like it now, but Cutter is still the best friend Stephen has ever had. There is absolutely no way he could ever have stood by and let Cutter walk into that room.
When he’d shut that door, however, Stephen had been fucking terrified. He had known he was going to die. The creatures were going to rip him apart and it was going to hurt. His memory of the experience is thankfully hazy-- the doctors have told him any memory loss may or may not return with time, but Stephen really has no desire to recover these particular memories. He knows he had a gun. He thinks he remembers the creatures going after each other, fighting to get to him. He doesn’t remember being rescued; he only knows that it had something to do with Lester, the SF team, and some impressive military equipment.
The one image he retains, clear as a picture, is the look on Cutter’s face through the window. Apparently it isn’t so great to watch someone decide to die for you.
The other members of the team visit sometimes, too, and it isn’t all that much more comfortable than Cutter. No one seems to know quite how to deal with him. Jenny is warm and friendly enough and keeps him apprised of what’s going on at the ARC, but she and Stephen have never been close and it shows. Abby is awkward and reserved. She thinks Stephen betrayed them (she has a point) and Stephen has the impression that she no longer knows how to act around him. She seems to have forgiven him (Stephen supposes it’s hard to hang onto a grudge when the person nearly died) but beyond that, she seems lost. As for Connor, well… Connor tries. He is enthusiastic almost to the point of exhausting Stephen and he very clearly wants everyone to get along and everything to be okay. Everything to be like it was.
But Stephen’s pretty sure it’s too late for that.
The first time Lester shows up is a bit of a shock. He looks completely incongruous standing there in the hospital room, dressed in one of his nice suits and a yellow tie, not a hair out of place. “Stephen. I trust you’re being well taken care of?”
“Well enough. Food could be better.”
“Yes, I’m sure. You are aware that you’re currently on paid medical leave?”
“Yeah, I know.” Stephen figures he’s owed that at least. “But… Lester, I’m not coming back to the ARC.”
Lester takes this pronouncement in his stride, almost seeming to dismiss it. “Well, let’s not make any hasty decisions. There will be plenty of time for you to think it over.”
“I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Whatever,” Stephen says because he’s too damn tired to argue. He isn’t going to come back. It isn’t only that he knows he’ll be a liability in the field, because he’s sure he would be offered a lab position. It’s more that Stephen doesn’t feel like he fits any more. He can’t just forget everything that’s happened and he doesn’t expect anyone else to, either.
But he can’t say that to Lester.
The silence stretches between them and Stephen wonders what Lester is even doing here. Any curiosity or casual interest he had in Stephen’s well-being could have been satisfied by asking another member of the team. He doesn’t think Lester likes him much and Stephen isn’t that fond of Lester, either.
Even Lester appears to sense the awkwardness and he folds his hands behind his back, but he still holds Stephen’s gaze. “Is there anything that you need?”
Oh, there are a hell of a lot of things Stephen needs, but not even Lester has the means to accomplish any of it. “Aside from not being here? No, I don’t think so.”
Lester watches him a while longer and then says, “If you think of anything that I might be able to help you with, please don’t hesitate to ask.” He turns to leave.
His unexpected and unsolicited kindness leaves Stephen feeling vaguely uncomfortable. I thought you were a traitor, runs through his mind on repeat. “Lester, wait.”
Lester stops and waits for him to speak.
“I’m sorry I didn’t trust you,” Stephen blurts out before he can think better of it. Of all the things he did wrong, if he had only been able to believe Lester was on their side, maybe it wouldn’t have turned out so horribly bad.
An odd expression that Stephen can’t place flits across Lester’s face. “Yes. Well, I imagine you’ve paid enough for it now. Take care of yourself, Stephen.”
Stephen leans back and stares at a crack in the ceiling. Lester is probably the last person Stephen cares about having forgiveness from, but the knot of guilt in his chest seems to ease a bit all the same.
After that first time, Lester starts to come by regularly. In the beginning, it’s weird. Stephen can probably count on one hand the number of times he’s spoken with Lester alone and they know next to nothing about one another.
But that almost makes it easier. Lester is the only one who doesn’t treat him differently, who doesn’t try to force false cheer or ignore what’s happened. Lester actually looks at him, really looks at him, and it’s amazing how refreshing that is.
Stephen thinks maybe it’s because they weren’t friends. Lester never gave a damn about what Stephen did in his personal life as long as it didn’t affect his work. And when it did, well... Lester doesn’t seem to hold it against him.
So once Stephen gets past the oddness of it all, he finds himself enjoying Lester’s visits. He might even appreciate Lester’s visits more than anyone else’s. He doesn’t feel like he has to try so hard when Lester is there. He doesn’t bother hiding it if he’s feeling shitty or if he’s in a bad mood and Lester never seems troubled by it. His dry humour often cuts through Stephen’s moodiness.
Lester isn’t such a bad person. Stephen thinks he might not have given him enough credit.
He doesn’t sleep much. Nightmares. The drugs helped at first, but now that he’s being weaned off of them, the low dosage does nothing to help him sleep. It seems like every time Stephen closes his eyes, he’s back in that room, the creatures surrounding him, Cutter shouting. He might not remember exactly what happened, but his imagination fills in the blanks quite well.
He falls asleep during the day sometimes, exhausted after his mostly sleepless nights, but the nightmares usually wake him then, too.
He can feel the teeth sinking into his leg and he struggles, kicking out and reaching for his gun but it’s too far beyond his grasp. There is a metallic smell of blood filling his nostrils, his hands are slippery with it and there’s so much red, it can’t possibly all be his. Someone’s screaming and he realises it’s him, he’s screaming and crying like a coward but he can’t--
“Stephen,” a low voice starts to bleed into his mind. “Stephen,” louder, more insistently.
Stephen wakes up, hair sticking to his forehead and the thin sheet uncomfortably hot over his legs. He blinks rapidly and tries to slow down his breathing. Eventually he becomes aware of the hand resting on his shoulder and remembers the voice. He turns. “Lester,” he says in surprise.
“Would you rather I was someone else?” Lester asks, quirking an eyebrow.
“No, I… I wasn’t expecting you, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry I had to wake you, but it didn’t seem like you were having an altogether pleasant dream.”
Stephen shuts his eyes again and tries to banish the images from his head. He can still smell the blood. “I can’t remember the last time I had a pleasant dream.”
Lester squeezes Stephen’s shoulder once before removing his hand. “I can imagine.”
“No,” Stephen says quietly. “You really can’t.”
There is silence for a while before Lester volunteers, “Not to belittle your own no doubt horrifying ordeal, but I was attacked, too.”
“I believe you were distracted by the lovely Helen Cutter at the time. Leek left me a gift in the form of a future predator loose in the ARC.”
“It didn’t kill you?” It’s a stupid question but Stephen can’t help it.
“Clearly not. I can use a gun, you know.” A touch of defensiveness colours Lester’s words.
Stephen laughs. “Sorry. It’s just… I’m trying to picture you shooting a gun while dressed in one of those suits.”
“I cut a dashing figure, I’ve no doubt. Although I’m afraid I can’t take all the credit; it was the mammoth that killed it in the end.”
“The mammoth,” Stephen repeats. Lester had everyone doubting him, but somehow he’d earned the loyalty of a mammoth.
Lester hesitates and then says, “I see it in my dreams, sometimes, too.”
Stephen sits there in bed, Lester at his side, and for the first time in a very long while, he doesn’t feel alone.
Up until now, Stephen has avoided looking at himself too closely. The stitches have been out for some time and he knows he must be a mass of new scars. He’s noticed them in a cursory fashion when he bathes but he hasn’t cared to make an examination. It’s a form of denial, he supposes. If he doesn’t look he can pretend it hasn’t happened.
But that’s childish. So Stephen stands in front of the mirror in the bathroom (he thinks it’s down to Lester that he’s got a private room with an en suite bathroom), wearing nothing but his underwear, and makes himself look.
It’s not a surprise, of course, but it’s still strange to actually see. He’s almost fascinated as he looks at himself, as he looks at the healing wounds criss-crossing his chest. Well, there’s a kick in the arse to his vanity, that’s for sure.
The sudden voice startles him and in reaching for the hospital gown he’d thrown across the sink, Stephen knocks into the IV. He curses.
“Stephen? Are you all right?” Stephen had left the door ajar and Lester pushes it the rest of the way open. Then he stops, staring. “Christ.”
“Not a pretty sight, is it?” Stephen thinks he might be blushing, caught like this. He can hardly reconcile himself with how he looks, let alone how he appears to someone else.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just…” Lester holds a hand out like he wants to touch but then he pulls it back.
“It’s okay.” Stephen shrugs back into the gown and wheels the IV out of the bathroom. Lester looks like he’s thinking about offering assistance but doesn’t, for which Stephen is grateful. He is slow and unsteady and his knee gives way more often than he would like, but he can damn well walk across a room by himself.
He gets back into the bed and Lester remains standing, watching him. Stephen sighs. “Stop that.”
“Looking at me like I’m a hair’s breadth from falling into my grave. It’s only a few scars. I’m fine.”
Lester looks flustered, like he got caught doing something he shouldn’t. “I’m afraid you’ve misinterpreted my concern. I was merely mourning the loss to women and gay men everywhere now that you’re no longer perfect.”
Stephen feels his face break into the first genuine smile in as long as he can remember.
After spending so long in hospital, Stephen knows the nurses. The one on shift now, Rachel, is his favourite. She’s young and sweet and he thinks she has a crush on him-- she blushes a lot.
“So, tomorrow’s the big day, right? You’re going home?” Rachel says as she replaces the IV bag.
“That’s what they tell me.”
“You must be so excited.”
‘Excited’ perhaps isn’t the right word. Maybe ‘relieved’. Stephen doesn’t have much to be excited about these days. “I can’t wait.”
“Do you have someone to help you? A girlfriend, or family, or… a friend?” Rachel is clearly concerned, like she can’t bear the thought of Stephen having no one.
Stephen tries to envision himself asking Cutter for assistance and simply can’t. He knows that Cutter would, but Stephen can’t… He can’t ask. Not Abby, either, and Connor would have to borrow a car. Maybe Jenny. She’ll be kind, at least, and she won’t ask questions.
He forces a smile to put Rachel at ease. “That won’t be a problem.”
She matches his smile, her relief evident. “Great.”
He doesn’t want to be unkind, but Stephen’s grateful when Rachel moves on to another patient. Her enthusiasm is wearing and he’s tired of pretending.
Cutter comes to see him in the evening and Stephen can tell just by looking that he’s there to say something in particular. Stephen is roughly ninety-nine percent sure that it will be something he doesn’t want to hear.
Cutter has never been one for formalities, so he gets right to it. “Why’d you do it?”
“I’ve done a lot of things. You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Why’d you lock yourself in there?”
“Because it was the right thing to do.” It’s probably the most clichéd response he could have given and that suits Stephen just fine. He does not want to be having this discussion.
“I would’ve done it. You should have--”
Stephen cuts him off. “Consider it an apology, all right? Consider it a gift.”
Cutter opens and shuts his mouth a few times, spluttering in anger. “It wasn’t a fucking box of chocolates, Stephen. It was your life!”
“Yeah, it was my life. I can do what I bloody please with it.”
“And I can do what I please with mine! I’d made my choice, but you took that away from me. You shut yourself in there like your life was worth less than mine.”
“Because it fucking was!” Stephen shouts. He’s disgusted with himself and maybe he’s glad they’re talking about this now. Cutter’s anger is better than his passivity and Stephen needs for someone, anyone to say what they really think. “Jesus Christ, Cutter, look at what I did. I may as well have fucking helped Helen put those creatures in there.”
“That’s a bit harsh, don’t you--”
“Don’t make excuses for me. No one will say it because you’re all so fucking happy I’m not dead, you treat me like I’m made of glass, but I know you’re all thinking it. Stephen, Helen’s little lapdog, too stupid to catch on that every sodding word that came out of her mouth was a lie.”
“Stephen…” Cutter is looking at him, so disappointed, and Stephen hates it.
“Just forget it, Cutter.”
Cutter wants to say more, Stephen knows, but there’s a sound of footsteps approaching the door.
Lester peers in at them. “Bad time?” he asks.
“I was just leaving,” Cutter says and strides out of the room.
“I’m not sure whether I should apologise for interrupting or accept your gratitude for putting an end to an awkward conversation,” Lester comments as he sits down.
“Thank you,” Stephen says and Lester smirks.
“I’ve heard they’re letting you go home tomorrow.”
“If you haven’t made any other arrangements, I can drive you.”
The offer is unexpected and Stephen isn’t sure what he should make of it. Lester visiting him in hospital is one thing, but giving him help afterward is something else entirely. “You don’t have to do that. I’ll manage.”
“It’s no trouble,” Lester insists. He has the same look on his face he does at the ARC when people have the audacity to disagree with him.
Stephen shrugs and tries to sound nonchalant. “Suit yourself.”
Lester arrives at the hospital for Stephen during his lunch hour. He asks a lot of questions of the nurses that make Stephen feel rather uncomfortable. He doesn’t need a nursemaid; this was supposed to be a lift and nothing more.
They force him to leave in a wheelchair, which is incredibly embarrassing, but Stephen knows better than to waste his energy fighting it. The man that wheels him out insists upon helping him into Lester’s car and it’s all Stephen can do not to knock him on his arse. By the expression on Lester’s face, he knows just what Stephen’s thinking.
They’re mostly quiet on the drive, aside from Stephen offering a few directions and Lester complaining about the traffic, but it’s an easy sort of silence.
When they arrive at Stephen’s flat, Lester follows him in without invitation as if he wants to make sure Stephen settles in okay. Stephen thinks again that he doesn’t need a nursemaid, but Lester’s presence is less irritating than maybe it should be. It helps that Lester doesn’t push-- he lets Stephen walk on his own, at his own pace.
Stephen makes his way slowly into the kitchen, pulling out a bottle of scotch from the cabinet. He takes a swig straight from the bottle-- it’s nearly empty anyway. He looks at Lester, challenging him to say something.
Lester frowns at him but all he says is, “I assume you aren’t taking anything that will mix poorly with that.”
“It’s such a relief I’ve got you to look after me, Lester,” Stephen says and pointedly swallows another mouthful of the scotch.
“I hope you don’t think I’m being entirely altruistic.” Lester holds out his hand for the scotch.
Stephen smirks and gives it to him. “Here, I’ll find you a glass…”
“No need,” Lester says and puts the bottle to his lips.
Stephen is so shocked he has to remind himself to breathe. He finds himself staring at the long line of Lester’s throat, tracking the movement of his Adam’s apple with his eyes. He feels a flicker of something like want but brushes it aside. It’s Lester.
Lester gives the bottle back, a hint of smugness in his greenish-grey eyes. “I’ll call for takeaway,” he offers. “I don’t imagine you’ve still got anything in your kitchen.”
“Not anything that hasn’t spoiled,” Stephen agrees, shaking himself out of his stupor.
“Curry?” Stephen says hopefully. “There’s a menu by the phone.”
“I’ll buy; consider it a ‘sorry you nearly got eaten’ gift.”
Stephen smiles as he watches Lester walk over to the phone. “You might be surprised to know I haven’t had any of those yet.”
“People have no consideration these days. Then again, look at the company we keep.”
Lester stays and eats with him, and then he stays for a while after that. Stephen thinks about asking if he’s supposed to be returning to the ARC but he doesn’t. He’d missed this, the simple companionship of having someone to share a meal with, to talk to.
It doesn’t occur to him until much later, when he’s lying awake in bed, that thinking of Lester in that way should feel weird.
The following evening, Stephen is lounging on the sofa with the TV on, not really watching it, when someone knocks on the door. He considers ignoring it because who the hell would be stopping by?
Helen, his mind supplies helpfully, but Stephen dismisses that. He doesn’t suppose he’s much use to Helen at the moment and she tends not to make social calls. In any case, she probably wouldn’t have knocked.
The knocking starts to sound impatient. Stephen limps over to the door, curiosity winning out. In the corridor is possibly the last sight Stephen could have imagined. Lester is standing there, several bags of groceries in his hands. Stephen just stands in the doorway, staring at him.
“I took the liberty of purchasing a few things,” Lester says, like it’s completely normal. He’s dressed in old jeans and a polo shirt, his hair slightly ruffled, like he’d had a walk in the wind, and Stephen has never seen him look so… ordinary.
“Okay,” Stephen says and steps aside to let Lester in. What else could he do?
Lester heads straight into the kitchen and begins putting things away. He pulls a couple of takeaway cartons out of the refrigerator and dumps them right into the bin, which Stephen feels is a great decision.
The groceries consist mostly of staples, bread, milk, eggs, and the like, but Stephen is particularly fond of Lester’s purchase of a six-pack of beer. He pops the lids off two bottles, keeping one for himself and handing the other to Lester. “Thanks for this.”
For a moment Lester appears almost awkward, like Stephen’s small display of gratitude is the only thing about this situation that can throw him off-balance. “I was concerned you would either starve or try to live on takeaway.”
“I’m getting the suspicious feeling that you actually care about me, Lester.”
Lester scoffs. “Are you sure you haven’t suffered brain trauma?”
“My head’s about the only thing that escaped unscathed,” Stephen answers ruefully.
“Well, I have always thought you were rather dim.”
“I never would have guessed.”
“I do try to keep my personal opinions to myself. Treat everyone the same and all that.” A small smile is hovering about Lester’s mouth and Stephen thinks this is quite possibly the first time he’s ever seen Lester even close to smiling.
It suits him, Stephen decides.
Lester shows up the next day as well, without even offering an excuse. Stephen is confused, but he has to admit that he’s grateful enough for the company that the reason doesn’t matter as much as perhaps it should.
However, he also has to admit that it isn’t just any company he wants. Connor phoned this morning and Stephen knows that if he had only asked Connor would have been here as soon as he was able. Knowing Connor, he probably would have brought anyone he could manage along with him.
But somehow the idea of Connor and his chatter is completely unappealing. It isn’t fair to Connor, who wants only to be Stephen’s friend, like he always has been, who wants only to help, but Stephen can’t help the way he feels.
It’s easier with Lester, that’s all. With Lester there aren’t any expectations. With Lester, he doesn’t feel like he should be guilty or like he has to make amends.
“I don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered your decision about leaving the ARC,” Lester is saying now.
To be honest, Stephen is surprised this hasn’t come up before. “No, I haven’t,” he says and dares Lester to argue.
He doesn’t. “It’s probably for the best. Better that you get out while you have the chance. Do you have any plans for the future?”
“Not really.” Stephen has enough to get by on for at least the foreseeable future and frankly speaking, he’s been avoiding any planning beyond the day-to-day. “I might try and get away for a while. Out of England.”
“Nothing to keep you here,” Lester murmurs and he deliberately doesn’t look at Stephen, his face turned completely away.
Stephen doesn’t know why, but he feels inexplicably sad all of a sudden. “No,” he finally says, barely louder than a whisper. “I don’t have anything to keep me here any more.”
They don’t speak again for some time.
A day goes by and Lester doesn’t visit. It’s ridiculous that Stephen is disappointed. Lester has a life, after all, and Stephen knows he shouldn’t expect anything. He doesn’t even know what the hell they’re doing, what this thing is between them.
But when Stephen hears a knock at his door the following day, there’s an embarrassing flutter of eagerness in his chest. He doesn’t even think to consider it might be someone else.
Lester shows up with Chinese takeaway and Stephen finds himself grinning. “It’s like you’ve become my personal servant. You always bring food.”
“I was starving,” Lester says and pushes past him. “You’re lucky I’m feeling generous enough to share.”
Stephen is kind enough not to point out that Lester could have gone home to his own flat to eat. He gets a couple of beers out of the refrigerator. “I can even offer you beer you didn’t have to buy yourself this time.”
“Will wonders never cease?” Lester has made himself perfectly at home at Stephen’s table, the cartons of Chinese spread out. He looks like he belongs but then, Lester has an air of confidence about him, like he expects to be welcome wherever he is.
They eat their meal and drink their beer and it feels almost like being with Cutter in the old days, before everything got so complicated. Easy conversation and companionability.
“Cutter’s got himself a new assistant,” Lester tells him.
And that… that stings more than Stephen wants to admit. “Has he?” he says in what he hopes is an unconcerned tone.
Lester seems to regret his choice of words but doesn’t take them back. “Sarah Page, an Egyptologist they ran into during an incursion. I’m not sure exactly what use she’ll be, but then, most of Cutter’s thinking is beyond me.”
“Most of the time he’s not thinking so much as making giant leaps, expecting everyone else to keep up.”
“He needs someone sensible around him to hold him back. I hope Dr. Page is up to the task.” Lester looks at Stephen a bit too intently as he speaks and Stephen has a momentary fear that he’s changed his mind and is about to try and ask Stephen back to the ARC again (as if Stephen had ever had any success restraining Cutter anyway).
But he doesn’t. Instead Lester goes on to say, “We’ve a new head of security, as well. Captain Becker.”
“It’s about time.”
“I’d like to see what you’d make of him. Ridiculously young, pretty, stick up his arse the size of a cricket bat.”
“Bet I could remove the stick.”
Lester’s gaze flickers over Stephen. “I’m sure you’d like to try.”
Stephen doesn’t miss the way Lester looks at him and it makes him feel a bit reckless. “How pretty is he? Prettier than me?” He pushes his chair back slightly, stretching out his legs.
This time Lester lets his gaze purposely linger, his eyes travelling over Stephen from head to toe, making Stephen feel suddenly warm. “He’s appropriately tall, dark, and handsome but he lacks your perpetual ‘just shagged’ look.”
“I’ve been told it’s a good look,” Stephen says and licks his bottom lip. Then it occurs to him that they’re flirting. He’s flirting with Lester. What the fuck? Is he really so desperate that Lester’s starting to look like a good option? He doesn’t even like Lester.
Except that isn’t fair. Lester’s been a better friend to him lately than his actual friends. What Stephen would really like to know is why. Some misguided sense of guilt? Pity?
Fuck that. He might be pathetic but he still has his pride. “What are you doing, Lester?”
Lester is visibly thrown by Stephen’s abrupt attitude change. “I believe it’s called having a conversation.”
“That’s not what I meant. What are you doing? Why do you keep coming here? I’m not returning to the ARC so you don’t have an investment in me any more. We were never friends. I mean, shit. I called you a traitor.” Stephen can never tell what Lester is thinking and he has never wanted to be able to more than at this precise moment.
“I can’t say that I’ve ever been accused of overstaying my welcome before, but there’s a first time for everything. I’m sorry if my attempts at friendliness made you uncomfortable. God knows I don’t get much practice at it.” He stands up, looking down at Stephen. “If you need anything… Well, you know where to find me.”
When the door closes, indicating that Lester has gone, Stephen feels somehow… bereft. Shit. Why is he such an arse? Why can’t he just let someone be nice to him without fucking it up?
He clears up the Chinese and wishes he could have kept his mouth shut. Why had he felt the need to analyse things anyway? It had all been fine the way it was, their indefinable… relationship thing. He was enjoying Lester’s company. He should have left it at that.
Maybe Lester did only start coming to see him because he felt responsible, or because he felt sorry for Stephen, but if that had been all it was, he wouldn’t have kept coming. He wouldn’t have continued to go out of his way to spend time with Stephen. Right?
Stephen thinks that maybe Lester is as lonely as he is and maybe that’s all that matters. He thinks he might like to explore this thing they have, see what it could become. Being with Lester had felt amazingly uncomplicated until Stephen had made it, well, complicated.
He thinks he’d like to have something uncomplicated in his life right about now.
Stephen gets Connor to hack into Lester’s personal files to find his address. It’s probably weird that that doesn’t feel weird.
Connor is curious about it. “So, what, are you two friends now or something?” he asks.
Stephen needs a long time to figure out how to answer. “I guess we’ll find out,” he says finally.
“I hope you are,” comes Connor’s reply. “I think you both seem like you could use a friend. You know how he came to see you? In hospital?”
“He came before that, too. Before you were awake. I just thought you should know.”
A few weeks ago, that probably would have surprised Stephen. Now it just seems… inevitable. “Thanks, Connor. I’ll… I’ll let you know what happens.” It’s the best overture of friendship, of amends, that he can make.
It takes him until the weekend to work up the courage to drive to Lester’s flat and then he has a minor crisis as he stands outside the door. What if Lester isn’t there? He should have rung first, but that would have defeated the purpose of his grand gesture (not that it’s particularly grand, but it’s at least grander than a phone call). Stephen hasn’t believed in a higher power for a long time but he sends up a prayer now. If Lester doesn’t answer, Stephen doesn’t know if he’ll be able to try again.
He knocks. The wait feels interminable but is probably actually a minute or less. Lester answers.
Surprise flickers across Lester’s face before he quells it. “Stephen. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Stephen takes a breath, holds it, and lets it out. He tries to look casual and hopefully a little bit charming. “I’m afraid I might have been a bit of a prat.”
“Now however did you arrive at that conclusion?”
“Are you going to let me in or do I have to stand out here where any one of your neighbours could hear us?”
Lester scowls and opens the door wider. “Come in, then.”
Stephen steps inside and takes stock of the place. There’s a lot of white. It’s also very clean. Stephen isn’t sure what he would have expected Lester’s flat to look like, but he supposes this is about right. It’s decorated simply but elegantly and it all looks a bit expensive.
Lester falls into Stephen’s line of sight again, arms crossed over his chest. He doesn’t look precisely happy. “What is it you want?”
That’s certainly a loaded question. If only Stephen knew the answer. “I… I came here to apologise, believe it or not.”
“Go on, then.”
Of course Lester wasn’t going to make this easy for him. “I don’t know if you’d noticed, but my life’s been pretty much shit recently.”
“Really? I had no idea.”
“I sort of buggered up my friendships,” Stephen says, the words coming slowly and almost painfully. “I think I’ve forgotten how it feels, to have a friend. To have someone care.”
“They still care about you,” Lester interjects.
“No, I know. I know that, but I’m not the same any more. Do you know what I mean?” Stephen runs a hand through his hair. “Sod it, I don’t even know what I mean. I fucked up my life, Lester. I let down the people who matter and I trusted… I didn’t trust the people I should have and I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t think I can fix it. And you’re just… You’re just here, all the time, and I couldn’t figure out why. I couldn’t understand why you cared. But I think I’ve figured it out now.”
Lester’s expression has softened a little and he doesn’t look quite so hostile. “Have you?”
“I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter why. Because I like having you around. And whatever the reason you first started coming to see me, I guess you must have started to like being around me, too. Otherwise you wouldn’t still be here.”
“You came to me,” Lester points out.
Stephen dismisses that. “Whatever. Semantics. My point is that you’ve tried to be my friend and I was rude.”
“Dreadfully rude,” Lester clarifies and now he’s very nearly smiling.
“Dreadfully rude,” Stephen agrees. “But I thought we could make a clean start of it. If you still want to.”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to think it over.”
“Bastard,” Stephen says with a laugh while Lester creases his forehead like he needs to concentrate incredibly hard.
Lester makes a tutting noise. “Stephen, I thought you were trying to stop being rude. That’s a terrible way to start our friendship.”
Stephen looks at Lester and that reckless feeling washes over him again. If he’s going to do this, he’s going to see it all the way through. “There’s something else, too. Something I’ve realised.”
“Do tell. I’m riveted.”
“I think your feelings towards me aren’t entirely… proper.”
Lester’s eyes go wide but otherwise he doesn’t react. “I haven’t the slightest idea what you mean.”
“I’m pretty sure you do,” Stephen says, sauntering closer.
An ordinary person might have taken a few steps back, kept a safe distance, but Lester has never been ordinary. He stands his ground and lets Stephen come right up to him, tilting his head back to meet Stephen’s gaze. “Are you quite certain you aren’t merely projecting your own fantasies onto me?”
“Oh, I’m quite certain.” Stephen lets his hands hover just over Lester’s hips, watches the fluttering of his eyelids and his involuntary twitch of anticipation.
“I don’t think you--”
“You talk too much,” Stephen interrupts and closes his mouth over Lester’s. Lester’s lips are still parted and his breath whooshes into Stephen’s mouth. He makes a tiny sound, halfway between a gasp and a moan, that Stephen thinks he could get used to hearing. He takes the opportunity to slowly lick into Lester’s mouth, feeling Lester’s hair soft beneath his fingers.
Stephen slides his hands down Lester’s sides and brings their hips together. “There,” he says. “Not proper at all.”
“Have you looked at yourself? A nun would have improper thoughts about you.” Lester sounds deliciously breathless and Stephen thinks, with not a little pride, I did that.
“Again with the talking,” Stephen says. He finds the sofa by luck and pushes Lester down onto it, settling over his lap. “Let’s see which of your improper thoughts we can put into action.” All of them, he hopes. He kisses the skin beneath Lester’s ear and bites down on Lester’s earlobe.
Lester shifts his hips and arches upwards. “Stephen,” he murmurs, voice pitched low like Stephen’s never heard before, and Stephen decides that’s the kind of talking he can live with.