James wasn’t good with emotions. The only thing that made him more uncomfortable than his own was someone else’s.
Unfortunately, he currently had a highly emotional employee by the name of Connor Temple.
It wasn’t like Connor was sitting around and crying or anything (thank God), but his grief was obvious all the same. He was quiet, which only a very short time ago James would have found wonderfully refreshing. Now it was simply disturbing. It was disturbing to see Connor drift around without any of his usual cheer and smiles.
Jenny had thought James was being too hard on him, on all of them, but the truth was that he didn’t know what else to do. Work gave him something to focus on so couldn’t it be the same for Connor? If Connor was concentrating on the ADD then perhaps he wouldn’t have the time or the energy to fall apart.
It seemed to work well enough, but that was before James found Connor living in the ARC. It was a moment of absolute weakness that prompted James to invite Connor to stay in his flat, a moment of weakness he knew he would regret.
But what was he supposed to do? What else could he possibly have done when faced with Connor, in his underwear, making coffee in the ARC with those two little monsters caged at his feet? He was only making the best of a bad situation and preventing the ARC from getting written up for violations of the health and safety guidelines.
It really had nothing at all to do with any compassion he might have felt, seeing the still grieving lad pathetically living in the ARC.
Because he didn’t have any. He really didn’t.
It was worse when Connor moved in. He was irritable and moody and even his moments of cheerfulness had a ring of falseness to them, like he was trying too hard. Unfortunately, avoiding someone was difficult when they were living in your flat.
James wanted to ask why Connor wasn’t staying with Abby any more. It seemed cruel to kick the boy out after the loss he’d suffered and James had never thought Abby could be cruel, not this thoughtlessly. He certainly had never been interested enough to want to waste his time deciphering their strange relationship, but perhaps they’d finally drifted irrevocably apart.
Terrible timing, really.
At the moment, Connor was in one of his funks. He was sitting on the sofa, staring out the window. It depressed James just looking at him.
The two diictodons were tumbling each other on the floor, for once managing not to destroy anything. Likely that wouldn’t last long. If James were in a generous mood, he might find the sight of them a tiny bit sweet, or at least semi-amusing, so it was alarming that Connor wasn’t paying them the least bit of attention. He actually liked the buggers, after all.
“I think I’ll make a pot of tea,” James said.
Connor took no notice of him.
“Connor?” James tried again, and then louder. “Connor!”
“What?” Connor’s eyes slid round to face James. “Were you talking to me?”
James pursed his lips. “Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Oh. Whatever. If you want; I don’t want to be a bother.” Connor turned back to the window.
‘Whatever,’ James mouthed silently and pinched the bridge of his nose. He walked into the kitchen to put the kettle on, thinking that he should make his own tea and forget Connor’s, but a voice in his head that sounded alarmingly like his mother reminded him that that would be rude and bad manners.
After a few minutes he brought the tea out and set it on the small glass table by the sofa. Connor glanced at him, his eyes big and startled, and then dropped his gaze. “Thanks,” he muttered and proceeded to stir a disgusting amount of sugar into his tea. He clutched the cup in his hands, resting them on his knees.
James felt a reluctant twinge of pity for Connor, who was so obviously miserable. No one should look that surprised and that grateful at being offered a cup of tea.
He sat on the sofa next to Connor and avoided thinking about how weird this all was. “Do you… Don’t you have anything you want to do? Some video game to play or something?”
“You want me to play video games?”
“The way you’re staring into space is making me want to throw myself out the window. The sound of you blowing up zombies would be a refreshing change of pace.”
Connor’s mouth twitched and then he said hopefully, “I bought Firefly on Blu-Ray before… er, before, and I haven’t watched it yet. You could watch, too, if you want?”
James had absolutely no idea what Connor was talking about. He thought about what he had been planning to do with his afternoon and then looked at Connor’s face. “All right.”
Connor gave him a blinding smile, the first real smile James could remember seeing from him since before Cutter’s death.
The tiny part of James where his emotions resided, the part he generally ignored, was insisting that a few hours spent watching whatever science-fiction garbage Connor had chosen would be completely worth that smile.
He told that part to shut up.
James was of the opinion that there must be something about Connor that made him particularly appetising to the creatures. It seemed that hardly a single anomaly alert went by without Connor in some way getting himself into danger. Nearly getting eaten, getting thumped on the head… The possibilities were endless.
That afternoon James walked onto the balcony outside his office and looked down into the atrium, to where Connor was sitting by the ADD, his legs swinging and a bandage dangling from between his fingers.
James sighed. He was fairly certain that bandage was meant to be on Connor’s head.
He strolled down the ramp without thinking about how it would look. He was James Lester, he could do what he wanted.
“I don’t believe that bandage is doing any good where it is,” he told Connor as he stopped in front of him.
“Huh?” Connor glanced down at his hand as if he’d forgotten what he was holding. “Oh, right. It itched.”
James peered at the row of stitches above Connor’s eyebrow. “That’s why you’re supposed to keep it covered.”
“I suppose. They said I could uncover it tomorrow anyway, so I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“For God’s sake,” James said and removed the bandage from Connor’s lax grip. “Don’t be such an idiot.” He held up the gauze over Connor’s wound and realised it was no longer going to do the job. “Come with me.”
Connor stared at him in curiosity, like James was a puzzle that needed solving, but he followed after him anyway.
Back in his office, James took a small medical kit out of a drawer and found some gauze and a bit of tape. He fitted a square of gauze to Connor’s forehead and taped it in place, nodding in satisfaction.
Immediately Connor lifted a hand but James slapped it away. “Don’t touch!”
“Sorry. What are you doing this for?” Connor asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“Because clearly you’re too idiotic to take care of yourself,” James said. Just to ensure his words couldn’t be misinterpreted as actual concern, he added, “You’re the only one who can work the ADD properly. Makes you a damned nuisance to replace.”
The suspicion in Connor’s face didn’t go away, but it was joined by something else James couldn’t name that made him feel somehow uncomfortable. He backed away to replace the medical kit, saying, “Go on, get out of here, try not to do anything else stupid.”
Connor complied, with a bashful, grateful smile that James ignored. He was doing nothing more than his job, after all. It was his duty to check on the basic health and welfare of his employees and he would have done exactly the same for anyone, not just Connor. The fact that he had got Connor to smile again was of no importance.
After Connor left, James sat back down at his desk and did not once entertain the thought of checking the atrium again.
When James came home from a painfully boring black-tie event, it looked like a tornado had hit his flat. He stifled the urge to shout for Connor and stepped gingerly across the remains of that week’s newspapers, carefully not looking too closely lest he discover anything more valuable amongst the wreckage. Sid and Nancy themselves were nowhere to be seen, which was probably for the best.
James followed the sounds of clanging and cursing into the kitchen, whereupon he froze in dismay. There wasn’t a clean surface in the entire room, bowls and utensils scattered across the counters and substances James was scared to identify spilled and dripped all over. In the middle of the disaster stood Connor, dusty with flour and looking guilty.
It took an immense effort not to raise his voice. “Connor, please explain yourself.”
There was an unidentifiable smear of something on Connor’s cheek. “Um. I was… baking? I wanted to make this cake, but… It always seemed so easy when my mum made it.”
“Have you ever baked before?”
In the midst of the mess James noticed a glass and a mostly empty decanter that at one point had held a very good scotch. “Are you drunk?”
“I dunno that I’d say I’m drunk, but I might’ve had something to drink, yeah.”
Perfect. Bored, grieving, drunk Connor - James should probably consider himself lucky the flat wasn’t burned to the ground. “Give me some room, please,” he said and inspected what Connor had been up to.
He needed less than thirty seconds to determine the whole thing was unsalvageable. “Right,” he said and grabbed a spatula and the nearest dirty bowl. “Into the bin. All of it.”
Connor was doing his best impression of a kicked puppy. It was really quite good. “That bad?”
“Yes, Connor, that bad,” James said as he started scraping out what had been meant to pass as batter.
“Do you bake, then? Is that how you know?”
“I can’t imagine you--”
“Connor!” James said and banged the whisk into the sink. “If you aren’t going to help me clean up your mess, then at least do me a favour and get out of my way!”
Connor’s shoulders slumped and he shuffled to the counter to grab a glass bowl, but his foot slipped as he stepped into a spill and the bowl dropped, cracking down the middle. Connor braced his hands on the counter and looked at James, drawing his lower lip between his teeth. “Lester, I’m--”
“Just get out! Just… just get out and let me finish before you do any more damage.” He watched Connor blink his big eyes and then hurry out.
James put his hands to his face for a moment and breathed, willing himself to return to a state of calm. Christ, it was like dealing with his children. Well, if his children got themselves drunk on James’ good liquor. And much as he loved his children, not a one of them could match Connor’s pathetic face. (God help him if they could.)
The amount of washing up there was made him feel rather ill, so he put as much as he could into the dishwasher to make it easier on himself before removing his jacket and rolling up his sleeves. As he wiped the counter, he couldn’t banish Connor’s face from his mind.
He told himself that he had a right to be angry. James was doing Connor a favour by letting him stay here and yet he had been repaid by having his home trashed. He dared anyone to react differently.
But yet all he felt now was guilt. What sort of person would invite a good-hearted and obviously devastated acquaintance into their home and proceed to yell at them? It wasn’t like Connor had done any of it on purpose, nor had he ruined anything that couldn’t be fixed.
And really, the drinking was distressing. While it was true that James didn’t spend a lot of time with Connor outside work, he knew enough to know that Connor had never been much of a drinker. Downing that much scotch while he was sitting alone at home was a very bad sign.
When James left the kitchen, he found Connor kneeling on the ground next to a swept-up pile of shreds of paper, rubbing his fingers over the gnawed leg of a chair.
“Connor,” James said softly.
Connor jerked to his feet immediately, crossing one arm over his front and rubbing at his opposite elbow. “I’m sorry, Lester, I’m sorry that--”
James held up a hand and Connor quieted. “I shouldn’t have shouted. It’s just been a long day.”
“And it didn’t help that I’d turned your beautiful flat into a disaster area.”
“No, it certainly wasn’t what I’d hoped to come home to. But still, I shouldn’t have shouted at you.”
“I wasn’t keeping an eye on them like I should have, and I… Well, I might actually be a bit drunk.” Connor shrugged his shoulders in a sheepish gesture, the edges of his words slurred slightly.
“You don’t say,” James said dryly.
Connor reached out a hand to brush against James’ shirt. “Look, you’ve got a stain. You’ve ruined your tux cleaning up after me.” His lip wobbled alarmingly.
Oh, God. Did Connor get weepy when he was drunk? James wasn’t sure he could face it. “It’ll come out.” He tugged Connor’s arm and started to move away. “Come here.”
Connor followed James into the bathroom and waited wordlessly as James wet a washcloth. He stood in slightly stupefied silence while James scrubbed at his face, wiping away the mess. It was probably bad that James was becoming so used to looking after Connor.
He tossed the dirty washcloth into the laundry hamper and examined Connor. “Better, though your clothes are filthy and I believe you’ve got some flour in your hair.” To prove his point, he swept a hand through Connor’s hair and watched a puff of flour burst into the air.
“Why are you being so nice to me?”
If Connor thought James was nice to him, he shuddered to think what the lad’s definition of ‘mean’ was.
“I know you don’t want me here,” Connor continued before James could formulate a response. “Abby didn’t want me either. How can I blame her, after everything? After Professor Cutter… I couldn’t help him, I couldn’t stop him dying, and now I can’t even figure out that stupid artefact. It was what he wanted, his dying wish, and I can’t even…” There was a sheen of moisture in Connor’s dark eyes and he ran a shaky hand over his face. “He’d be so disappointed in me.”
“That’s a load of bollocks,” James said before Connor could spew out any more drivel. “Nick Cutter is dead because he was married to a psychopath.” And because I gravely miscalculated. “Blaming yourself is pointless and ridiculous. You might not know what that artefact is today, or tomorrow, or even in a month, but you will figure it out. Cutter didn’t have a bloody clue what it was, so I hardly think he could be upset at you for the same. He trusted you to figure it out and you will, I’ve no doubt of that.”
Connor was staring at James like he’d never seen him before, like he was an alien just come down from a spaceship or something. But his mouth was curving into a reluctant smile, his whole face lighting up, and James wondered when the last time someone had paid him a compliment was.
James shifted in place. “As for the rest, well, do I strike you as the kind of man who would put up with something I don’t like when I don’t have to? If I didn’t want you here, Connor, I wouldn’t have asked you to stay.” He waited until Connor nodded, the expression on his face so hopeful and earnest it was almost painful. “That being said, I have grown accustomed to a certain degree of quiet and order. We are simply going to have to get used to each other.”
“And probably I should stay out of the kitchen.”
James’ mouth quirked. “Yes, I would appreciate that. The next time you have a craving for baked goods, please, just ask.”
“You weren’t here,” Connor said with a plaintive note in his voice.
“How old are you? Twenty-five, twenty-six? I should hope you have the patience to wait a couple of hours.”
“You would really come home at eleven from an evening of kissing up to people you hate and bake me a cake?”
“If that’s what you need.” James couldn’t say, I worry about you, but he could do this much.
For a long moment Connor simply stood there in silence, looking at him. Then he started, “I’m… I’m going to…”
And that was when James found himself with an armful of Connor Temple. He froze with his hands at his sides, Connor pressed right up against him and clenching his hands in the back of James’ shirt. Squashing his discomfort, James patted his back awkwardly as Connor tucked his face against James’ neck, sniffling quietly. A weepy drunk, clearly, but James held him anyway and whispered soothing nonsense.
Eventually James realised Connor was saying something, the words muffled against his skin. “It was supposed to be for you.”
“Yeah. To thank you? It seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe that was the alcohol talking.”
James closed his eyes, tightening his grip around Connor’s back. “I… I appreciate the thought.”
Emotions. Bloody useless things.