The distant chime of the doorbell hadn't really penetrated into the gloomy funk currently occupying Rash's mind – if he’d registered it at all, it was with the assumption that it would only be someone for his mother or his sister. Consequently, when there was a light tap on his door a minute later and somebody pushed it open without waiting for a reply, he sat up in flustered outrage at this invasion of his privacy.
His indignation levels doubled when he saw who it was.
"Stefan? What the bloody hell are you doing here?"
Stefan waved a vague hand at the door and gave him a sheepish smile. "Leila let me in."
Rash's glowering intensified, as it did automatically any time his sister's name fell from Stefan's lips. "Well she can just let you out again, can't she?" He flung himself face down on the bed again and rudely turned his back. To his irritation, instead of leaving Stefan came to sit beside him.
"Rash? What's wrong mate?"
"What's wrong?" Rash spluttered, eyes going wide as he stared resolutely at the wall a couple of inches from his nose. "I'm probably going to lose my job. Again. Because of you. Again."
Stefan hesitated. "I said I was sorry."
"Oh well, I’m sure that’ll make up for ten grand in property damages, won’t it?"
"They'll be insured."
Rash ignored him, and Stefan sighed. "Come on, you're not normally grumpy with me for this long." He leaned over, resting his hand on Rash's shoulder and trying to peek at his expression. "Forgive me?"
Rash rolled onto his back, staring up at Stefan rather bleakly. “I’m just warning you, that’s all. You'd better start looking for another flatmate."
"You're really holding it against me then?" Stefan asked in hurt surprise, some of his usual bounce knocked out of him.
Somewhat against his principles and refusing to acknowledge this had anything to do with Stefan’s utterly miserable expression, Rash relented with a sigh.
"It's not that.” He sat up and leaned his folded arms on his knees. “It's just – if I get busted back to uniform – there's no way I’ll be able to afford a mortgage. Even half a one."
Stefan faltered. "Shit. I've really fucked it up this time haven't I?"
"Yeah. Yeah, you have." They looked at each other and Stefan tried another tentative smile.
"Forgive me though?"
Rash groaned. "I hate you."
"So...is that a yes?"
"Course it's a yes. Twat."
Stefan grinned, hiding the genuine relief on his face by slinging an arm round Rash’s shoulders and pulling him into a hug.
“Get off, you dick.” Rash shoved him, but not hard, and Stefan laughed, getting to his feet. “Come on.”
“Where we going?”
Rash frowned at him. “Yeah, cos me turning up to tomorrow’s grilling hungover’s going to work so well for me.”
Stefan took Rash’s jacket off the back of the door and threw it at him. “I’m buying?” he coaxed.
Rash was first out the door.
Letting himself into the house the following evening, Rash was less than enthused to enter the living room and find Stefan already seated at the table, sharing a beer with Leila.
“Jesus, you spend more time in my house than I do. Is that my bloody beer you’re drinking?”
“Technically it’s mine now.” Stefan slid out of his seat and spread his arms enquiringly. “So? How did it go?”
“Do you actually care? Or was this just an excuse to spend time with my sister?” Rash glared at him mutinously.
Stefan cocked his head. “Two birds, one stone?” he smirked.
Rash made a wordless noise of disgust, peeling off his coat and throwing it onto a chair. He definitely looked troubled, and Stefan bit his lip. “Rash? They didn’t – did they?”
Rash glanced up reluctantly, took in the anxious faces of Leila and Stefan staring at him in horrified anticipation, and after dragging the tension out for a few more seconds gradually led a grin spread across his face.
“Nah. Off the hook.”
Stefan choked out an indignant laugh, and punched him in the shoulder. “You bastard.”
Leila hugged him, then slapped him round the back of the head, making him duck. “Ow!”
“Don’t do that to me!” She grabbed her bag and swallowed the last of the beer in her bottle. “Right, I’m out of here. Don’t wait up. Mum’s round at Mrs Janicot’s, so you’ve got the place to yourselves. Maybe consider a quiet night in as an alternative to breaking bits of London for a change?”
When she’d gone they looked at each other, united in indignant solidarity.
“We don’t break that much,” Stefan muttered.
“Yeah. It’s not our fault if other people break things,” Rash agreed. “Around us. Quite a lot.”
They started laughing, and the last shreds of tension between them melted away.
“So. Plans for tonight?” Stefan asked, dropping into one of the arm chairs and swinging his legs over the arm.
“Make yourself at home why don’t you?” Rash grumbled, but he fetched Stefan another beer and stretched out in the chair next to him with a tired sigh. “I dunno. Maybe we should stay in. It’s been a rough week. I’m knackered, to be honest.”
“No stamina, that’s your trouble,” Stefan teased, toasting him with the bottle.
“Feel free to fuck off and do something more energetic then.” Rash kicked off his shoes and swivelled round in his own chair so they were facing each other. “Personally I’m staying right here and ordering pizza.”
“We-ell, I s’pose I could have a night off, keep you company,” Stefan conceded happily. “Can’t have you sat at home all alone, can we?”
“Are you saying you only want me for my pizza?” Rash laughed, throwing the metal cap from his beer bottle at Stefan’s head. Stefan batted it away just before it hit him in the face, then scrabbled for it on the carpet to throw back at him.
“Not at all. I mean, I’m here for your beer as well.”
By half eleven they’d polished off all the pizza, all the beer, and somehow made their way through two bottles of wine for good measure. When Mrs Sayyad came home she found them slumped together on the sofa in front of Celebrity Big Brother, and shook her head at them fondly before delivering a stern warning that they’d better clear up the mess before she came down in the morning or else.
When she’d gone up to bed, Rash turned to look sleepily at Stefan. “You staying?” he mumbled.
“Do I get your bed?”
“No! Fuck off. You can crash on the sofa if you want though.”
“You’re all heart.”
“You’re too pissed to cycle home,” Rash pointed out.
“Yes sir, Mr Poleeceman,” Stefan said in his best Polish accent, and Rash elbowed him.
“Shut up. I just meant you’d probably end up in a canal or something.”
“Yeah, I’ve often thought that.”
Stefan spluttered with laughter despite himself. “I meant that you’d care.”
“I’d probably be the poor sod who had to fish out your bloated body in the morning,” Rash declared. “It’s purely self-interest.”
“Who are you calling bloated?”
“Who ate more than his fair share of pizza?”
Stefan patted Rash on the knee. “I’m saving you from yourself, mate. Look at it that way.”
Rash nodded consideringly. “That’s true. Keep it up. Maybe I’ll buy you another pizza before Saturday’s race.”
“I’d still beat you.”
“Nah, you’d be too busy throwing up. Let’s face it, it’s the only thing you’re good at.”
“Oh, cute. That’s cute.”
Rash stared at him, pokerfaced. “You think I’m cute?”
“What? No! Cute in the sense of - ” Stefan caught the smirk, and slapped the back of his hand against Rash’s chest, laughing. “Fine, yeah, you’re cute. But I’m still going to win on Saturday, ‘cause you know what, you might be cute, but me, I’m fit.” He poked Rash in the arm, drunkenly pleased with his joke, and Rash shook his head despairingly.
“Fit for the scrapheap maybe, yeah,” he said, trying to ignore the confused part of his brain that was wondering if Stefan had actually literally just agreed he was cute. Actually, no, fuck it.
“So you do think I’m cute?”
Stefan frowned at him, hazy with drink and slightly nonplussed. He shrugged. “Yeah? I mean – you’re not, like, a ten or anything. Maybe a five?”
Rash seized on the implied insult because it was safer than dealing with the ramifications of the rest of it. “Yeah? Well you’re a fucking three at best.”
They stared at each other, and Rash belatedly conceded that this might not have been the world’s most discouraging put-down.
“Fine” Stefan shrugged again, and groped for the wine bottle, peering disconsolately at it when it proved to be empty. “You got any more booze?”
“No. You’ve drunk it all.” Rash frowned at him. “Why aren’t you arguing?”
“What about?” Stefan pouted at him. “God, I can’t win with you, you complain when I disagree with you, and now you’re complaining when I don’t.”
“So you agree I’m cuter than you then?” Rash wasn’t entirely sure how this had become a point of principle, or why he couldn’t just let it drop.
“Yeah. ‘Cause like I said,” Stefan grinned. “I’m fitter.”
They were staring at each other again now, heads resting just a few inches apart against the back of the sofa. Stefan was smirking, and Rash unconsciously licked his lips. “Stop it,” he muttered.
Stefan raised an eyebrow. “Stop what?”
“You’re doing that thing with your face again.”
“What, smiling?” Stefan laughed quietly. “Why?” He dropped his voice to an undertone. “Does it make you want to – you know. Wipe it off my face somehow?”
“I could punch you in it,” Rash offered.
“Would that make you feel better?”
Rash groaned. “I dunno. This is weird. You’re weird.”
Stefan looked at him consideringly for a moment, then closed the gap between them and kissed Rash gently on the lips.
For a second Rash didn’t react, then he jerked back convulsively, staring at Stefan in wild-eyed alarm.
“What was that?!”
“What was what?”
“You kissed me!”
This blatant denial stopped Rash in his tracks and he blinked. “Yes you did!”
Stefan shook his head. “Nope.” He smiled slowly in wicked delight. “You totally kissed me first.”
“I bloody didn’t!”
“Did too.” Stefan folded his arms and stretched out, crossing his ankles and turning his attention back to the television. “I don’t know what you’re worried about anyway. I mean, it wasn’t much of a kiss. It was pretty crap, in fact.”
Rash shook his head violently. “Oh, no. I know what you’re doing. You’re not goading me into doing it again. Do I look stupid?”
Stefan looked sideways at him. “Are you sure you want me to answer that?”
The building bubble of tension was pricked by Rash’s splutter of reluctant laughter, and he subsided weakly back against the cushions.
“Seriously, why’d you do it?” he murmured.
Stefan shrugged. “Why not?”
“You like girls though.”
“I like both.”
“You never told me that.”
“You never asked.” Stefan reluctantly looked round at him, half-afraid of what he’d see in Rash’s face. “Is it a problem?”
Rash shook his head. “No. I guess. I mean, no, of course it’s not. It’s fine.”
Stefan perked up. “So can we have another go?”
“No!” Rash folded his arms defensively. “I just meant – it’s fine you being bi. Not fine kissing me. Pervert.”
“Your loss.” Stefan turned his attention back to Big Brother, and Rash glared at the side of his head.
“How can you do that?”
“Just – forget about it like that? Go back to watching telly, like nothing happened?”
Stefan sighed. “Well what else am I supposed to do? I mean, I’d suggest snogging as an alternative, but you seemed pretty against that as an option.”
“I’m not gay!”
“Neither am I.”
“You know what I mean.”
Stefan gave up on trying to concentrate on the telly and fumbled for the remote, turning it off and sitting up to face Rash. He beckoned him closer, as if about to impart some big secret, and Rash automatically leaned towards him.
Stefan slid a hand round the back of Rash’s head, and kissed him again. Rash flinched in initial surprise, but he didn’t pull away this time and after a second Stefan risked deepening the kiss.
For a few long seconds they kissed each other with a rather drunken intensity, before Rash backed off again, groaning quietly.
“No. No, no, no, we can’t do this.”
Rash stared at him. “Why not? In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re a man, Stefan.”
Stefan grinned. “You know, that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“Oh, piss off.” Rash slumped in defeat, and Stefan shuffled up closer to him.
“What’s wrong? Come on, are you that bothered? I mean, I’m kinda guessing from the fact you haven’t actually punched me yet that you’re not really that upset by the idea.”
Rash stared down at his hands, picking nervously at his fingernails until Stefan reached over and laid his own hand calmingly over the top of them.
“I just – don’t wanna be a cheap notch in your bedpost,” Rash mumbled.
Stefan stared at him. “You what?”
“I know what you’re like. You’re like some kind of – flirting machine,” Rash complained. “I don’t want to be a statistic.”
To Rash’s rather self-conscious annoyance, Stefan immediately cracked up laughing.
“Rash! Are you saying you want to be wooed?” Stefan nudged him painfully with his elbow and beamed in delight. “I’ll be as wude as you like, I promise.”
Seeing that he’d genuinely made Rash uncomfortable Stefan tried to straighten his face, but giggles kept spluttering out, and he had to clear his throat severely.
“Um. Okay. Are you saying the reason you don’t want to kiss me isn’t because you’re having a big gay freak out but because you’re afraid I’m only doing it to – what? Pass the time?”
Rash muttered something rude under his breath, but met Stefan's eyes defiantly. “Are you?”
“No.” Stefan shook his head, looking bewildered. “Why would I risk our friendship for a quick snog?”
“I dunno. I don’t know why you do half the things you do. You act first and think later, that’s what you do,” Rash protested. “Why would this be any different?”
“Because – because – ” Stefan gestured helplessly. “It just is.” He sighed. “I like you, okay? Jeez, don’t make me come out with soppy stuff, it’ll be humiliating for both of us.”
Rash eyed him warily. “You like me?”
“Yeah, don’t tell anyone though,” Stefan grinned. “I’ll deny I ever said it.”
They studied each other carefully, assessing the possibilities. Finally, Stefan sighed.
“Alright, fine. Will you go out with me?”
Rash hesitated. “You could sound a bit more enthusiastic about it,” he complained, but there was a smile tugging at his lips, and Stefan tangled his fingers into the front of Rash’s shirt and pulled him deliberately forwards.
“Shut up and kiss me.”