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Spoonful of Sunday

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Stephen moves his books to one side so his coffee can be placed on the table and looking up, he scowls at the server.

He likes this coffee shop, has been coming in here regularly for a long time. It's quiet, off the tourist map, and shabby in a way that has always come across, to Stephen at any rate, as somewhat disreputable. The café resembles a lady of means who no longer finds herself able to live in respected company, who has had to learn how to survive. Which is exactly why Steven likes it: for its well used and scuffed, but comfortable leather seats, battered tables and strange objects of decoration such as the stuffed parrot in the corner wearing a tiara.

It's as far from Starbucks as you can possibly imagine. Which is why he’s presently scowling at the server. The man is somewhat attractive in a curly-haired and ‘cheeky chappy’ way, dressed in well-fitted but faded jeans and dark blue long-sleeved shirt. However, he has also presented Stephen with a mug that has, of all things, a pink post-it note affixed to its side.

With Stephen’s name on it!

"Here's your coffee, Stephen," said cheeky chappy tells him, removing the post-it note from the mug. Stephen glares at him until the smile dims a little. He hadn't particularly wanted to give his name at the counter, was surprised and a little perturbed at having to do so but now... Well, now to have a post-it note and some random person addressing him by name! It doesn't even bear thinking about.

"Who," he asks, using his most scathing tone, the one that is guaranteed to make post-grad students shrivel up under their desks, "came up with the utterly superfluous idea of putting people's names on their mugs?"

Alan, whose name badge loudly and brightly portrays his name in rainbow colours, smiles a little tentatively. "Well that would be me," he tells Steven. “I thought it would be a really nice idea to actually get to know a little bit more about our customers."

Stephen nods and takes a mouthful of coffee, which is as good as ever. "I see," he responds, although he really doesn't. "It's an idea that Starbucks uses, isn't it? Something that's intended to intimate a closer relationship than actually exists. Something to make the customer feel special." He uses air quotes to emphasise his feelings on the matter, which are not positive. "It's a ridiculous idea."

Alan's smile dims again. "Well, I'm sorry you feel that way, but yours is the only complaint we've had so far. Most people seem to think that it's a nice idea."

Stephen shrugs. "Well let's be honest, the majority of people have the intelligence and social skills of an amoeba so I'm not massively surprised by that."

"You know what," Alan retorts. "You're very negative. If you carry on like this we won't serve you coffee again. Next time it will be camomile tea."

Stephen grins at that, he can't help himself. "I don't think so," he says. "You have a reputation for good coffee. I somehow think that you would lose a good proportion of your clientele if you started serving drinks that were made from dried flowers.”

Alan throws his head back and laughs and Stephen can't help but admire the line of his neck, and his dark curls, which are just the right length for wrapping one's fingers in. Stephen tilts his head a little and smiles at Alan, catching his gaze and allowing some of his thoughts to show on his face. Alan flushes a little, cheeks pink, and then he steps back, no longer as blasé  as he was before. This is a shame but also quite interesting and Stephen wonders what else might bring that colour to Alan’s cheeks.

"Enjoy your coffee," he tells Stephen. His voice is a little higher, more breathless and Stephen doesn’t respond, simply watches as Alan turns around and heads back to the counter.


***


Here's the thing about Alan: he gets distracted easily.

It’s just that there are so many interesting things in the world that it's hard to focus on doing just one thing for any length of time. He tried university, he really did, first a psychology degree, and then he switched to media studies, but neither of them worked out. The problem was that he only did the interesting assignments and there weren't too many of them. And so, even though he got good grades when he put work in, in the end he didn't actually do that often enough to pass.

So then he worked at bars, and joined a band (not because he was that good a musician but because he liked an excuse to hang out with his mates) and then, when the first one folded, another band. He worked backstage in theatres and washed dishes, worked at an adult store for a couple of months but that turned out to be too depressing. Most of Alan’s experiences have been fun, and interesting, and he's made a lot of friends and acquaintances and connections. But he's also reached the age of 27 without any formal qualification and a work history that is spottier than the back booth curtains at that sex shop he worked in. So you know, his options... Well, they’re kind of limited.

But then Alan sees the 'for sale' sign outside this little cafe near his mate Bill's flat. They’ve been there a few times and the coffee and food is good and it's a nice place. Alan stands on the street and stares and stares and thinks and thinks and then he calls Bill and says 'Mate. Coffee.' like it's a revelation. Bill, because he's an arsehole, says 'Bring me a large latte' and hangs up.

But the thing is. The thing is... Cafes are full of people. Different people every day and there are like... Eighty million coffee varieties and concoctions, and also cupcakes. Alan gets a little glaze-eyed thinking about all the different cupcakes, like chocolate-raspberry or lime-coconut or ginger-vanilla-surprise (he's not sure yet what the surprise is going to be and that's the way he likes it).

So Alan talks to his parents who are naturally suspicious because it's not like he's stuck the distances with any of his other ventures. However, on the other hand, a loan would actually mean he'd kind of have to. In the end they are thrilled enough by the idea that Alan actually has a fixed address (another bonus is the flat above the shop) that they give him the deposit and so, two months later, Alan owns a coffee shop.

And all of those connections from his previous jobs and activities actually turn out to be  a really good thing to have because the first few months he needs a lot of help and people willing to show him how to keep books and bake cupcakes (both things he turns out to be quite good at against everyone's expectations). Alan’s worked at enough shops and bars to know how to deal with the stock and register and customers, but it's still a learning curve. And it's hard work too. What it never is though, is boring.

And that's how Alan comes to own a coffee shop.


***

It’s Saturday evening and Alan breathes a sigh of relief as he locks up for the night and brings down the blinds on the windows. It's been a long two weeks since he took over the café, feels more like two months, and he's exhausted. He'd never thought that managing a coffee shop would be easy, heck he'd worked in enough cafés and restaurants to know just how tiring the work could be, but when it’s your own business there was added pressure.

He turns slowly in a circle, checking that everything is tidy and in its place for opening on Monday morning. There are a few additional posters and pictures that he's placed on the walls. To be honest there aren't that many changes that he wants to make to the business or to the decor. The look and feel of the place was one of the reasons for him finally taking the plunge and putting his money into his own business rather than working for other people.

Alan wants to change some of the food options. At the moment the menu is limited to Paninis and muffins. Having checked out the clientele he thinks that adding more cakes to the menu, together with some type of meze style dishes like olives, tapenade, cheese and homemade bread will go down well. He's also hoping to look into getting a licence for live music.

So far, there don't appear to have been that many complaints about the changes he's made. People have, on the whole, liked what's been done. Except for Stephen of course, who has complained vociferously about the post-it notes and the rainbow name badges, telling Alan that the coffee shop is becoming 'way too Starbucks!' An allegation that Alan had been happy to refute. "After all," he'd asked. “When was the last time that Stephen had seen any company using rainbow name badges for their staff?" Stephen hadn't been able to answer that, instead had simply gone back to his coffee, ignoring Alan. It hasn't stopped him coming into the café nearly every day and Alan has found himself looking out for him, enjoying the banter between them.

Alan smiles as he switches off the lights. The one thing he hadn't taken into account; hadn’t planned out on his many lists and excel documents that are stored on his laptop, was the possibility of being interested in one of his customers. Nor is Stephen Alan's usual type. He's older than Alan would normally go for, professorial, both in his manner and his appearance, but there's definitely something there: an interest, a twinkle in Stephen's eye. Alan has felt the stare on the back of his neck and has looked up on a couple of occasions to see Stephen deep in a book but known full well that a minute before Stephen's gaze was on him. There's something about Stephen that makes Alan want to duck his head. It's an interesting sensation and Alan isn't sure how he really feels about it.

His knees ache as he heads up the stairs, a side effect of being on his feet all day. All that Alan is intending to do for the rest of the night is having a long hot bath, eating the remains of the pizza from yesterday and drinking one, or possibly three, bottles of beer. Alan thinks it's kind of sad that this is now the way he spends his Saturday nights. He could go out, tomorrow is his day off after all, but he knows he won’t. Instead, he'll be going through his weekly figures to make sure everything tallies up against his stock In any event, there's nothing really that he wants to go out for at the moment. The clubs are normally full of barely legal teenagers; not something that he is remotely interested in, and the music, in his personal opinion, is pretty shit.

And it’s not like he’s really looking for anyone anyway. Alan’s relationship history is only marginally less spotted than his employment one. He’s had some one night stands and a few longer relationships and with one exception they were all good in their own way. In fact, he's still friends with most of his exes or at least on speaking terms.

The exception is Fil, with whom Alan was for two years. At first it was good; Fil was fun and carefree like Alan and they drifted around London, crashing with friends, renting rooms here and there in shared houses, even moved to Edinburgh for a couple of months. Fil was an artist, and he was a pretty good one too, enough that his multimedia works started to get noticed.

And well, they say fame changes people... Alan doesn't know if that's true for everyone but it sure was true of Fil. At first he was just happy to have more money and to take Alan out to fancy restaurants. Not that Alan particularly cared about the money though he was happy Fil's talent got noticed.

Unfortunately, the more well-known Fil became, the more time he started spending away, with people who weren’t Alan or any of their old friends, people who he started thinking as better than them.

Then suddenly Alan himself wasn't good enough anymore, for anything. He didn't know how to converse in the company Fil was keeping, didn't own a fancy suit for galleries or restaurants, didn’t want to move to more expensive digs or 'improve himself' by 'getting a real job'.

And it turned out that money and fancy parties weren’t the only thing that came with Fil’s new circle of friends. Drugs did too. And drugs and drink... Well, they really didn’t suit Fil. He got nasty with both, violent too, mostly just throwing things or hurting himself by putting a fist through a mirror, stupid shit like that, but Alan hated seeing it, it made him feel anxious and angry and helpless.

Things came to head one night when Fil got home stinking of whisky and his nostrils raw from snorting coke. They get into a fight, and this time Fil puts his fist to Alan’s face rather than the wall and things went downhill from that as the scars on his arm prove.

It's the final straw. After the A&E and the police and giving a statement that hurt more than the cuts, Alan gets his stuff, two duffel bags of it, and finds himself on Bill's couch with a cup of tea five hours later.

That was almost half a year ago and here he is; a proud owner of a struggling – no, up and coming – café. Alan grabs a cold bottle of San Miguel out of the fridge, opens it and salutes to his own good fortune before tilting his head back and taking a long drink. Toeing off his trainers he leaves them where they fall before padding into the bathroom, determined to wash away the week and all thoughts of relationships, past or potential.


***


The next week is busy as usual. Alan blows hair off his eyes, carefully balancing a tray of muffins as he backs out of the kitchen and into the cafe proper, nudging the door open with his hip. He's got his hair tied back as usual but, also as usual, by the afternoon bits of it have escaped and are tickling his face in the most annoying way. He loads the muffins onto the display case, wiping the plates and turning the cakes. There's probably no point of replenishing any of the other items on the sale as it's only a couple of hours until the closing time.

Alan wipes his hands clean, absentmindedly tugging the stray strand of hair behind his ear as he surveys the cafe. There are only a few people there at the moment, but the quiet is a blessing, not a worry, not when it comes after a busy morning and lunch time. There's a couple of teenagers sitting by the window, making their coffees last as an excuse to spend time together. Ah, young love, Alan grins to himself, feeling way older than his years for a while. A harried looking woman with a baby (who is thankfully asleep) and a guy, clearly a student, with a laptop make up rest of the customers.

That is, until the bell on the door announces a new one. Alan turns to look and isn't surprised in the least to see Stephen's familiar figure walking through. He's become bit of a regular, and Alan lifts a hand in greeting, pleased when the greeting is returned. He tamps down on the butterflies in his stomach determinedly, telling himself not to be foolish. Stephen is almost painfully posh and cultivated (although he plays up to it self-mockingly too) and despite the couple of interested looks Alan's caught, he's also most certainly out of his league.

Besides, he's still not sure he's ready to pursue anything, not even a brief dalliance (and dammit, now even his inner monologue sounds like Stephen). It's been six months since Fil, but Alan's not so sure if that's long enough. With a shake of his head he pulls himself out of his thoughts and grabs a pen and notepad, heading toward Stephen's table to take his order.


***


Stephen takes off his jacket and settles down comfortably in his corner, breathing a sigh of relief. It's been a busy day. "Blasted students," he mutters quietly to himself. It's good to actually get away from the university and just relax. One of the joys of being as senior as he is, is that he doesn't have to spend that much time with students. The days of lecturing to 80-100 students at a time are thankfully long gone.  However, there is still teaching to be done and he admits to himself that he wouldn't ever want to stop teaching no matter how annoying students can be. Today though has been particularly frustrating and Stephen needs coffee and one of the rather gorgeous cakes that Alan makes.

Even on the days that Stephen doesn't have to go into the university, doesn't have meetings or teaching, he still finds himself heading into the centre of the town to this cafe. Alan has dispelled Stephen's initial fears that he would change the coffee shop too much. If anything, it's cosier now than it was and the baking is certainly better. However, Stephen isn't afraid to admit to himself that Alan has become the main attraction that brings him back again and again.

Speak of the devil… Stephen smiles up at Alan, his gaze sweeping over him. Alan is wearing loose jeans and a blue v neck long-sleeved top, his chest hair peeking out from underneath the cotton and Stephen pulls his eyes away from that, not wanting to dwell on the bareness of Alan's neck.

"Hello Stephen," Alan says, automatically smiling back. He takes in the tired look on his face and the bag bulging with papers and books. "Large black coffee and..." he considers, "Victoria sponge? With homemade raspberry jam," he promises.

"You read my mind, dear boy." The endearment slips out before Stephen can stop himself. He really is very tired and he curses quietly at himself, hoping that Alan doesn't pick up on it. "If you have any left, I'd like to try another mug of your Monsoon Malabar."

Alan raises his eyebrows at being called 'boy' but doesn't comment on it. It doesn't seem derogatory in the least, simply affectionate. "I've ordered some more since you seemed to like it," he says, jotting down the order more out of habit than necessity. "Anything else you'd want?"

'You,' Stephen thinks but he doesn't voice that thought. "I'd rather like a cheese sandwich as well," he tells Alan. "Otherwise. I suspect I might keel over from sugar overload and we wouldn't want that now, would we?" Alan laughs at that, throwing his head back a little and Stephen stares for a moment before continuing. "You seem to know what I would like so I'll leave it up to you to pick the cheese and bread."

That's...  awfully like a challenge, Alan thinks. He stares at Stephen for a few long seconds with a critical eye. "For you... Hmm, I think something strong and sharp. And pickles. You seem like the kind of man who enjoys pickles." He taps the pen to his lips considering before turning around. "Back in a sec," he says, heading back behind the counter to sort out Stephen's order.

Stephen shakes his head and leans back in the seat, watching Alan walk away. He's been called many things before now but never 'a man who enjoys pickles. Something strong and sharp.'  It's interesting but the more he gets to see Alan, the more there appears to be to like about him. Or maybe it's just that Alan seems to be allowing more of himself to shine through. The fact that Alan ordered in more of the coffee that Stephen liked so much, sends a shiver of warmth through him.


***


Alan hums to himself, slicing one of the large rye baguettes open with a knife and then stuffing it full of the sharpest extra mature cheddar he has, adding some rocket salad and bowl of pickles on the side (otherwise they'll make the bread soggy). He slices it in half, arranges it just so on the plate, rolling eyes at himself a little but doing it anyway. He washes his hands and puts everything on the tray, the coffee poured last so it's steaming, and makes his way back to the table.

"Here you are," he says. "One cheese sandwich, Victoria sponge and a coffee." He balances the tray on the table, starting to move the condiment rack and Stephen's books out of the way to make some room for the food.

Stephen raises an eyebrow at Alan's fussing around the table and casts a quick look over the food on the tray, his mouth watering a little just at the smell and sight of it. Alan has carefully arranged the food on the plate and Stephen secretly smiles to himself at that. He's noticed that Alan is good at noticing and remembering things.

He watches as Alan reaches his hand up to brush some of his hair back from his face, and it’s then that Stephen notices the marks, the silvery scars trailing over Alan's arm. There are too many of them to be accidental and Stephen wonders how he's never noticed them before. "The food looks truly amazing," he tells Alan, voice catching a little as he tries not to stare.  Not to be obvious.

"Thanks," Alan says, beaming, stupidly happy over a throwaway comment over some sandwiches Jesus Christ he was being pathetic. "Is there..." He trails off then, because Stephen's eyes are no longer on his face.

Alan knows immediately what he's looking at. He'd rolled up his sleeves earlier to wash his hands and had forgotten to push them back down again, too eager to get back to Stephen and now look at him. Stupid slip-up. Alan's automatic reaction is to snatch his hands away but Bill's 'don't be an idiot' rings in his head clear as a day so he sucks it up and doesn't. Instead, he reaches down, putting the plates on the table now that there is finally room, letting Stephen look.

Stephen watches as Alan stiffens up and then almost visibly relaxes. He's not looking at Stephen, instead just putting the plates out and it gives Stephen times to look more thoroughly. He wants nothing more than to reach out and trace the marks with his fingers, follow them up, to feel the muscles in Alan's arms. See how far the scars might go. Stephen wonders whether they are the reason for Alan's habitual long-sleeved tops, his initial wariness and who might have caused them.  He finds that the most unpalatable thought; that somebody might have been the cause of the marks.

"It's not... I didn't..." Alan makes himself stop and take a slow breath. He just, he hates the idea of Stephen seeing the scars, but he hates the idea of him thinking that Alan had made them himself even more, that he'd tried to kill himself or something and just had really bad aim. "They're not self-inflicted," he says finally. "In case you were wondering," he adds, feeling awkward.

Alan is wide open right now, hurt and pain showing on his face and it's all that Stephen can do to stop himself from reaching out, from pressing his fingers against the pulse on Alan’s wrist to reassure him. "I never for a moment imagined that they were self-inflicted, Alan, but..." He clenches his left hand into a fist under the table and softens his voice. "They don't look to me as if they were accidentally made either. Which means," he looks up at Alan, "that if I ever meet the person who did this to you… They’re going to wish I hadn’t." Stephen knows he's over-reacting right now, knows he has no right to say these things to Alan, it's not as if Alan is his boyfriend, but he can't stop himself.

It should be ridiculous. Stephen is intimidating, sure, but intellectually, so a threat like that coming from his mouth should sound foolish. It doesn't.

Alan smiles anyway, a little uncertain, but genuine. "I... thanks, I think." He finally gives into the urge to roll down his sleeves. "I don't think there's a lot of chance of that though. You meeting... you know." He shrugs. "Not exactly kept in touch with the guy." Which is true. He'd pretty much cut all ties in Fil's direction and very much doubted Fil would come looking for him either, not after all this time.

Stephen smiles at him, ridiculously pleased by Alan’s answer. "Good," he says. "That's good..."  He's about to say more but then the doorbell jangles and Alan's attention is pulled away from him and to the new customer.

Alan is grateful for the interruption, smiling at Stephen briefly before hurrying behind the counter to serve a lady who has come asking for muffins to take away


***

Stephen curses as the wind starts to turn his umbrella inside out.  The weather is foul, and if he hadn't had to stay behind for the eternally annoying marking meeting, he would have left before the rain started. Would be happily full of Alan's cake and coffee.  Now though he will only have enough time to buy a piece of cake to take home with him.

He struggles to turn the umbrella the right way around, and in the end he just gives up before the wind can damage it too much.  Pulling his collar up around his neck he hastens his pace. Ten very wet minutes later he's pushing open the door to Alan's cafe.

Stephen shakes the water from his hair knowing full well that he must look like a drowned rat right now. Not a look he particularly wants to present to Alan but there's nothing he can do about it.

Alan is just about to lock the register when the door opens. The polite 'sorry but we're closing' dies on his lips as he sees just who it is that's dripping water onto his floor.

Stephen looks miserable and indignant, like some kind of large cat that has been dropped into a puddle and Alan feels the corner of his mouth twitch involuntarily though he fights it. The smile has as much to do with Stephen's appearances as it does about his mere presence. Alan knows he's been busy lately so he wasn't really expecting him today, especially not this late after all.

Wordlessly he goes to the kitchen and grabs a couple of clean towels before walking around the counter to hand them over to Stephen. "Here," he says, and the smile breaks free without his permission. "You look like you could use these."

"You are a godsend," Stephen tells him taking the towels. "It's hideous outside." he wipes the water away from his face and gives his hair a brisk rub before passing the damp items back to Alan.

"Thank you so much Alan - you go above and beyond as always.  Ugh," he unbuttons his coat.  "Do you mind awfully if I just let this dry for a moment or two?  I know you're about to shut so I thought I could maybe get a cake to take home with me."

Alan looks over Stephen's bedraggled form, then he looks outside where the rain is still beating the windows like it has a personal grudge against them, and then he looks at Stephen again. "Why don't you just stay and have your cake here?" he offers, trying for casual 'just being nice here' instead of 'please stay I'd love to talk to you because of my massive and obvious crush' and probably missing by a mile. "I sort of... forgot to have lunch so I was just going to have one of the leftover sandwiches myself. I could make us coffee?"

Alan is looking a little nervous, as though he thinks that Stephen is going to refuse his offer.  Which is patently stupid as far as Stephen is concerned. One of the many things that had annoyed him about the marking meeting was that he wouldn't have a chance to sit and chat to Alan today.

It's getting somewhat ridiculous when speaking, or not speaking to Alan has a positive or detrimental effect on his mood, but Stephen is under no illusions about himself. Knows just what liking somebody can do to his personality and actions!

"I would love to," he tells Alan. "I had intended to come in earlier but..." he shrugs. “Meetings, meetings and more blasted meetings - bah!"  He shrugs out of his coat and hangs it on the rack, leaving his umbrella with it.

He heads over to their usual table, and when did that happen he wonders.  When did they start to have a usual table?  Shaking his head to silence his mental voice, Stephen sits down and watches as Alan locks the door and turns the sign to closed, before dimming the lights slightly. Letting out a sigh of relief at finally being able to relax for the first time in a few hours, Stephen takes off his glasses and cleans them whilst waiting for Alan to join him.

Alan feels himself relaxing as Stephen sits down. It's as if everything is right in the world once Stephen is here. There's a voice at the back of his head questioning the wisdom of being alone with him, but it's an insecurity that is probably going to linger for a while and Alan stamps on it viciously, going to put together a tray of sandwiches and sweet things, as well as a carafe of coffee.

The radio is on in the background, more noticeable now that the noise of the customers is gone and he hums slightly to himself as he walks back to the table. "Here we are," he says, setting everything down and then following suit.

"Nourishment after a long day. At least I don't usually have to sit in the meetings."

Stephen smiles up at him and helps Alan to take the items off the tray.  "I seem to keep repeating myself, but thank you. This is very kind of you Alan. And trust me I try to avoid meetings if I can but sometimes no matter what excuse I might come up with, it just doesn't work."  He pours out two cups of coffee and pushes one to Alan, watching as he tops it up with cream and sugar.

"So," he kicks his legs out in front of him and leans back in the seat, warming his hands on the coffee.  "My day has been thoroughly boring so tell me about yours?"

Alan smiles, looking down at his coffee and using the excuse of chewing on his food to think. It's been a while since someone's been interested in his day and it's ridiculous how happy it's making him to sit here, trying to think of something funny to tell Stephen, something to make him laugh. "Well, there was a curious incident of a randy pet poodle at lunch time..." he starts, launching into a story of a posh elderly lady whose dog had tried to mate with everyone's legs in the five minutes it had taken Alan to point out that only guide or helper dogs were allowed in the cafe for health and safety reasons and he really had to ask her to leave.

Ten minutes later Stephen is laughing openly which Alan counts as a win. "...was cursing in French when she left. My school French is atrocious but I'm pretty sure she was calling my father a goat or something," he finishes, grinning as he pops the last of the sandwich into his mouth.

Before he can say anything else, his phone vibrates in his pocket, making him jump. Alan fishes it out, muttering a quick 'sorry' as he rapidly thumbs in a 'ok' and sends it back to Bill while Stephen is still catching his breath.

"Oh I wish I'd seen that," Stephen grins. "It sounds as though your day was much more eventful than mine. And certainly more interesting," he takes another mouthful of his sandwich, which is as excellent as always. "I'm honestly surprised that you have any food left at the end of the day," he tells him. "This," he waves his sandwich at Alan, "is delicious."

Stephen is enjoying just sitting here with Alan; even though Alan still seems to be a little nervous and he's been thinking about that, thinking about the marks on Alan's arms. And he's come to a fairly unpleasant conclusion which he hopes that he's wrong about.

"So, tell me how did you even come to be in Nottingham?" he asks Alan. "From your accent I know you're from London. How did you end up here?"

Alan leans back, hiding behind his cup of coffee for a bit. He should've expected something like this really, sooner or later, but in some ways the answer is such a can of worms that he'd rather Stephen knew nothing of it.

"My old friend moved here quite a few years ago," Alan says, hedging a bit. "And I'd visited Bill a few times, quite liked this place, had a nice feel to it. So when... Well, when I wanted to get out of London more or less permanently last year, it was an easy choice. Plus Bill was generous with his sofa." He shrugs. "And after few months here I saw this place being up for sale and... well, rest is history."

Alan has tensed up and he's looking a little unhappy, and Stephen figures it's because of the question he asked and what Alan might think that he will ask next. It's interesting though that Alan has said that he wanted to get out of London permanently, and Stephen wonders if it's because of a relationship gone bad.  It would explain Alan's edginess at times, especially if it's was a physically abusive relationship.

"Well, all I can say is that I'm glad you chose Nottingham," he picks up the coffee pot and refills their mugs.  "And my stomach is happy as well."

Alan relaxes at that and Stephen changes the subject, moving it away from Alan choosing to move to Nottingham, instead making him laugh at some of the essays that have been handed in this week.

They're just starting in on the cakes when Alan's phone goes again. Stephen watches as Alan checks the display and then sends a quick text back, and it's then that it hits him, realising that these are check-in texts - texts to make sure that Alan is still safe.

Stephen ponders for a moment but then he can't stop himself from speaking. "I hope that you never have cause to feel unsafe around me Alan," he says.

"What?" Alan's head snaps up and he fumbles his phone, almost dropping it. "Why would...?"

Stephen raises his eyebrows and casts a meaningful glance at Alan's mobile and fuck, fuck, damn his intuition for jumping to the unlikely yet true explanation. "That's not..." Alan's floundering, he knows he is, flushing probably too but he didn't expect Stephen to just guess, and... "I don't," he says finally, shaking his head firmly, "I don't feel unsafe, it's just..."

Something eases in Stephen at Alan's words, knowing that Alan feels safe around him. "It's a good habit to have. I just wish some of my students were as sensible. Is it Bill that you're texting?" he asks. Alan nods a little unhappily and Stephen frowns a little at the way Alan's is looking down at his mobile, not looking at Stephen. As though he's ashamed about what he's doing. About why he's doing it.

With anybody else Stephen would reach out and touch them to reassure them, but he's not sure how Alan would react if he did. But it's hard to not do anything when all he wants to do is basically pull Alan over to him and hug him.

"Do you want me to go Alan?"

Alan feels his stomach drop with disappointment. Of course. Who would want to stay around someone who basically thinks they're a killer psycho or something. "No." He shakes his head. No, he doesn't want Stephen to go. "It's fine, I'm just being..." Stupid, scared, letting the past dictate his actions... Something like that, though he doesn't know how to put it into words. "I'm sorry, I honestly don't think you would... And neither does Bill really, he's just being a little gung-ho about the whole thing." Which really, since it had been Bill who had collected him from the hospital just over a year ago, Alan can kind of understand.

Stephen nods, a little perturbed at the way that Alan is rubbing at his arms - at his scars. He doesn't even think that Alan is aware of what he's doing.

"Well he's only doing what a good friend should, and there's obviously a reason for his concern. Something to do with why you left London I imagine," Alan's gaze snaps up to meet his own and then he looks away again. Stephen sighs quietly and looks down at his own hands which have curled into fists at the thought of somebody hurting Alan.  He slowly stretches his fingers out.  "I'm sorry Alan, sorry for making you think about this. But..." he hesitates for a moment and then thinks 'fuck it'. The worse that can happen is Alan kicks him out of the cafe.

"Tell me to fuck off if you think I'm out of order Alan. But was it your ex?  Did he hurt you?"

'It wasn't his fault,' Alan almost says instinctively, except he knows that's not right. That while Fil hadn't been in his right mind at the time, he was still responsible for his actions. He's had enough people, some of them with psych degrees even, in a professional capacity, telling him that.

"Yes," Alan says. "And yes. It was my ex and he hurt me. And then I got the fuck out of London."

There's a buzzing in his ears at Alan's words, and Stephen digs his fingers into his palms to stop himself from reacting how he wants to. To stop from wanting to lash out at Alan's words. The thought that somebody hurt Alan that badly that he still has the scars from it makes him feel sick.

Alan is so tense right now that Stephen wonders if he'd break if Stephen touched him. With horror he sees his own hand moving out to touch Alan's right arm, to rest over his hand.

Alan blinks at Stephen's hand and then at the man himself. Stephen seems... angry and tense, but with a realisation that's as sharp as the knife in Fil’s hand had been, only in a way that's nothing but good, Alan understands that it's not directed at him but on his behalf.

And just like that all the tension goes out of him and he leans back in his chair. Squeezing Stephen's hand is easy suddenly, smiling at him in reassurance easier still. "I'm alright," he says. And he is. "It was a while ago and... Look, I'll tell you but only if you promise to trust me when I say I'm fine and that... you being here is fine too."

Stephen relaxes slightly at Alan's words and his touch. He squeezes Alan's hand back, not quite ready to let it go just yet, although he's not going to forcibly keep hold of Alan's hand.

"If you're comfortable with telling me Alan, then I would like to know. But... I don't want you to feel that you have to."  Stephen really does want to know what happened to Alan and about the arsehole that hurt him.

Alan eventually pulls his hand away but it's only so that he can pick up his coffee.  He takes a mouthful, and it looks as though he's thinking but then he starts to talk.

"His name was Phillip," Alan says, because that's an easy place to start. "But he went by Fil. With an F." The eye-roll is reflexive by now and Stephen shares it. "Yeah, yeah, it was pretentious, but he... wasn't. Well to start with."

Alan picks up a fork, poking at the cake slice absently, getting caught in the memories, not all of them unhappy. "We met through some mutual acquaintances, the usual story. I was waiting tables in about three different cafes and restaurants at the time, and spending my time off hanging around in the same places and others, mostly around Soho. Fil was an artist. Or is an artist still, I guess." He shrugs. Not like he's tried to find out what his ex is doing at the moment, doesn't care.

"We were together for two years. It was good. A lot of it. Most of it. We went out, had fun, moved in together after a few months, mostly to save on bills but... Yeah, it was good." No point in saying it wasn't, just because things changed later.

'Fil' Stephen nearly snorts at the absurdity of it.  Honestly, who uses names like that, and although Alan says that his ex wasn't pretentious that sounds like he was.  Alan's voice is a little halting and he's staring into the distance remembering what happened.

Stephen still can't get his head around how anybody could hurt Alan, and he wants to touch Alan again - to reassure himself as much as Alan but he doesn't. Not wanting to startle Alan right now.

"Well it sounds good so far.  What went wrong Alan?" he asks softly.

"That's the thing," Alan smiles ruefully, "things didn't go wrong, they went right. Fil started getting noticed for his art. And rightly so, he was good. His paintings... They were really good. Urban landscapes and stuff but always with this wicked little twist, clever, funny... like him. He was so happy. And I was happy for him. And then..." This part is the hardest, remembering back to those months when everything had started to slide out of control, little by little, so that he hadn't even noticed anything changing, not at first. "He changed. Or, I don't know, the life he was leading changed. There were parties. More and more, and people were blatantly trying to kiss his ass and... Fil didn't see it, went along with it." Alan takes a deep breath and then just says it: "And then there were the drugs."

Even now Alan seems to be defending his ex, and Stephen picks up his coffee, using it as something to do. Almost like a shield. People can certainly change but Stephen has always been of the opinion that if they do, that part of their personality has always been there. But he's certainly not going to say that - not now at least. Doesn't think it will particularly help Alan.

"And how did you fit into that new life?" he asks.

Alan laughs though there's no humour in it. "I didn't. It was obvious quickly that I didn't. Fil didn't want me dragging him down at the parties or functions, and I didn't want to be there anyway, watching him get drunk or high. We started fighting, about everything really, more and more..." He trails off, staring into air for a bit. "Same old story, isn't it really?" He sighs, rubbing at his arms, conscious of doing it but unable to help it. "One night Fil got home high as a kite. I don't know what he'd taken but he was flying. I got pissed. We argued. All over the flat really, but we ended up in the kitchen and he... He grabbed a knife."

Alan let's out a slow breath. "Didn't know what he was doing of course. Not that I'm excusing him but... Guess it would be worse if there had been intention there. As it was, he was out of his head, and not controlled enough to do much damage. Or at least not as much as he could have."

"These," he holds up his arms and then throws them in front of him as if he's shielding his body, "defensive wounds, see."

Stephen takes a deep breath and then he carefully puts his coffee mug down and rests his hands on his knees.  "I... oh fuck Alan." He doesn't know quite what to do right now. Wants to touch Alan - as much to reassure Alan as to reassure himself. "I really don't know what to say. Can't believe that somebody would do that to you, and..." his voice hardens. "I don't care how high or drunk he might have been it's still no fucking excuse for what he did."

He lets go of his knees and turns his body toward Alan.  "Please tell me that you went to the police about this Alan. Please tell me he didn't get away with it." He reaches out his hand slowly and touches Alan's arm, fingers over some of the scars, waiting to see if Alan will pull away.

Alan doesn't think he's ever heard Stephen curse like this and it startles him, the vehemence with which he's willing to jump to Alan's defence. And the way he's touching him; like he needs to check the scars are just that and not bleeding wounds anymore.

"I'm fine," Alan says again, to remind Stephen and himself too, a little. "And yeah, the police... didn't have much of a choice about it. After I... There was so much blood." There had been; the kitchen cupboards smeared with, his shirt in tatters, and it had hurt too though he'd been in a shock at the time, not registering it. "I think that's what snapped Fil out of it." He'd backed away, horrified, vomiting and shaking, and "I called an ambulance. They called the police. He got a custodial sentence though some of that was suspended on account of him entering rehab. I don't know if he did. I hope so." Alan is watching Stephen's hand still resting on his arm because it's easier than watching his face. There's more to the story, of course there is; nights at the hospital, his mum's face wet with tears, having to talk Bill down from doing something stupid, the whole ridiculous, long process of a court hearing, the way he'd flinch at any sudden movement during those first weeks and still sometimes and... but he doesn't want to go over that now. Maybe sometime. "So yeah, rest you know. Nottingham seemed like a good place for a new start."

Stephen is hearing Alan's words but his concentration right now is on Alan's arms and the silvery scars that mar them. He traces his fingers softly over them, but when he feels Alan shiver under his touch he moves his hand away.

"I'm sorry," he tells Alan. "Didn't mean to unsettle you and Alan... thank you for telling me. I hate that it happened, can't even begin to imagine what it was like and how you felt but I'm glad that you came to Nottingham. Glad that I met you."

 "I'm... glad too," Alan says because right now he doesn't have the words to tell Stephen that even though he unsettles him, it's not in a bad way. Instead he gets up, gathering their empty cups. "More coffee?" he asks. "Or maybe tea?"

He's already walking toward the counter, just needing a couple of minutes to himself. He's wrung out and exhausted all of a sudden, exposed too though what he told Stephen earlier is still true: he doesn't feel unsafe, not even now.

Stephen watches Alan walk away, drained by the conversation that they've just had. It's too late now to go back on his questions to Alan although he doesn't really regret it. Other than for the way Alan looks as though he's now carrying the world on his shoulders as he heads into the kitchen and out of sight.

What he still can't get his head around though is somebody hurting Alan; Alan who always makes an effort to talk to people, to smile and even though it's required as part of his job it has always seemed sincere to Stephen.

That's one of the reasons why his cafe is becoming so successful. Because of his personality as much as his delicious cakes.

Stephen looks down at where his hands are clenched in fists, and slowly one by one he loosens them. The rain is still beating down on the windows and Stephen leans back in the seat and waits for Alan to come back.

Alan takes his time making a pot of tea, needing the familiar ritual of filling the pot and setting out cups to calm himself down. He's feeling almost... embarrassed about having shared his less than glamorous past with Stephen and can't help wondering what Stephen must be thinking about him... The warm understanding in his eyes though, and the way he'd seemed angry at Alan's behalf go a long way reassuring him though.

He puts the tea things on the tray and takes it over to the table. "Right, hot drinks. And cake," he says, sitting down. "And... cheerier topics maybe?"

"More cake," Stephen smiles at him.  "Well who am I to refuse although I'm surprised you have any left after today, but maybe the rain kept people away.  So... cheerier subjects," he rubs his hands together.  "What are your thoughts on sci-fi and fantasy novels?"

Stephen really is curious about this. Most people assume that he only reads highbrow literature but he has enough of that at university, and has a very large collection of pulp sci-fi novels from the 50s amongst other books.

Well that surprises a laugh out of Alan. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio..." he can't resist quoting. “My thoughts are entirely positive, though I haven't had a chance to do a lot of reading lately. I think the last book I read was the latest 'Cloud Dreamer' novel and that was last year. I hear there's a new one out soon."

Stephen stores that little piece of information away for a possible future present for Alan, should he have the opportunity.  "I'm sure you've just been spending your time reading cake books," he grins at Alan, "for which we're all very grateful.  I've read the Cloud Dreamer series - they've very good aren't they. Who’s your favourite character?"

And then they're off, talking about the books they like, the whys and wherefores and who their favourite characters are.  It's relaxing and it's been a while since Stephen had fun like this, talking about books he loves rather than those he has to lecture on.  Alan seems to have a disturbing love of pirate based novels, and Stephen wonders whether or not he's actually seeing himself as a pirate.


***


Alan is wiping the tables, humming slightly to himself. It's been a busy a day and he's only five minutes from closing, the last customer just gathering her bags and waving a goodbye. Alan goes to pick up her cup and saucer and as his back is turned he hears the bell in the door go. Sighing a little to himself he calls over his shoulder: "Sorry, we're closing."

Stephen shuts the door behind him and turns the door sign to ‘closed’. "I know," he answers. "But I just had something I wanted to ask you. I won't keep you long."  Alan sounds tired and his shoulders are slumped a little as he turns around to face Stephen.

"Huh," Alan comments, raising his eyebrows and glancing meaningfully at the door sign. Stephen is acting awfully proprietary with what is essentially Alan's... well, property. "Right, well if you want to bother me after work you'll get to pitch in." He takes the dishes to the kitchen and comes back with a vacuum cleaner. "Help me put the chairs up and then you can ask me your question." Alan is going for breezy and bossy, determinedly ignoring the little twisty knot in his stomach that started forming as soon as Stephen closed the door.

Stephen puts his bag on the counter and takes off his jacket, smiling a little at Alan's bossiness.  "Should I lock the door?" he asks.

Alan throws him a glance.  "I'm surprised you haven't already," he comments dryly. "But yes please, just put it on the latch."

Locking the door as instructed, Stephen comes back to help Alan put away the last of the chairs.  "Anything else I can do?"

Alan considers, but the kitchen is already cleaned, the dishwasher whirring away. "You could go make us a cup of tea," he suggests.

Stephen looks at the machine behind the counter with something akin to horror and Alan chuckles. "Like I would let you break that," he comments, rolling his eyes. "There's a normal kettle in the kitchen. I'll have a vanilla chai. And not a word about my tea preferences," he lifts a finger in warning, "or you can come back at decent hour to ask your question." Without another word he turns on the vacuum cleaner and starts hoovering the floor.

"Heathen," Stephen mutters quietly although he doesn't really mean it. He will confess, if pushed, that he has no massive aversion to vanilla chai although his preference is for English breakfast and Earl Grey.

It doesn't take long for him to find and make the tea and five minutes later he's back with Alan.  "Here you go." He puts the mugs of tea down. "Hot and flavoursome, just like you ordered." He waits until Alan has finished his vacuuming and pushes the mug toward Alan.

Alan hesitates for a moment but then leaves the vacuum cleaner where it is, in the middle of the floor. What's the point of being the owner if you can't skive off every now and then? Besides, it would only be him first thing in the morning, he'd put it away then. Although, if the business kept this steady he could soon think about hiring someone else part-time...

"Thanks," he says, sitting down opposite Stephen and taking a grateful sip of the tea. "Now then. What was so urgent it couldn't wait until tomorrow?" he asks. "I assume it wasn't a coffee emergency since you've gone for Earl Grey instead of sniffing out my stash of Blue Mountain."

Now that he's here Stephen is beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, wondering how Alan might take his suggestion, his request. "Well, I... I wondered how you might feel about some extracurricular work."

If Alan’s eyebrows climb any higher they're going to crawl right into his hair. He stares at Stephen for a good five seconds before the corner of his mouth starts to twitch. "Oh, Professor..." he affects a slightly breathy voice and watches with delight as Stephen's face colours, "for extra credit?"

"Oh my god, you..." Stephen is almost lost for words, not least because of the image that Alan's voice and words conjure up. There's a moment when he thinks about having Alan down on his knees, about how he would look.

Stephen crosses his ankles surreptitiously and tries not to think about the fact that his cock is hardening. "Well, that would depend on just what you would be prepared to give me for that extra credit," he grins as Alan’s eyes widen. "Don't worry I'm joking. Look," he leans forward a little. "I'm having a garden party in a month's time for some of my work colleagues and I wondered whether you would be able to cater for it?"

Alan swallows a little, distracted by Stephen's voice and Stephen... flirting back? But if he was flirting back then that meant that Alan had been flirting when he'd only been joking, and well, he... "What?" Alan shakes his head, part in trying to clear it and part in denial. Did he imagine it or did Stephen's gaze drop to Alan's mouth there for a bit. He licks his lips nervously, taking another sip of his chai. "I don't do catering," he says.

"Nonsense," Stephen answers. "You cater every day. At least this way you'd have an idea of just how many people were going to be arriving to taste your extremely delicious cakes and savouries."

"How many people?" Alan asks before he can help himself. "No, wait, but that's not the same as running a cafe! I don't have like... How would I even get stuff to yours? My car's tiny!" He puts his mug down, leaning across the table to try and explain the impossibility of it to Stephen. "And I can't just close the cafe for a full day, and what would your guests even... I can't do any fancy stuff like, I don't know, macaroons." Although, to be honest, he probably could if he had a chance to practice a bit first... but that's not the point.

"Pfft." Stephen waves a hand in the air. "Macaroons are so last year. I believe the new thing is cake pops. But I'm not asking you to do fancy stuff Alan, maybe on a smaller scale but that's all and everything that you serve here would be more than suitable." Alan stares at him as though he doesn't believe a word that Stephen is saying. "It’s just a relaxed get together for maybe 12-15 people, certainly no more than that. And..." He leans forward and drops his voice a little so Alan has to lean in as well. "I have a car. A rather large car in fact. Now, isn't that fortuitous?"

"So... You'd come and collect the food yourself?" Alan asks. "That's... Well, maybe. I mean, people do ask for some stuff to take away and this would be like a larger version of that..."

Stephen coughs a little and takes some more tea before answering. He finds it ridiculous that this conversation is more difficult than reading a paper to a room of his peers. "Well, it would be on a Sunday and I was wondering whether, well, whether I could collect you as well. It would be really helpful to have someone serve the food. I'd obviously pay for your time," he hurries on as Alan stares, mug frozen halfway to his mouth. "And I promise to not make you wear a maid’s outfit."

"Yeah, not really my thing that," Alan mutters, mostly to himself, thinking. If Stephen is serious about the type of food served at the cafe being fine, then it really doesn't need someone to serve it. People tend to be able to pick up a slice of quiche or cake themselves. But... on the other hand, this would be an opportunity to see where Stephen lives. And to spend more time with the man. And, well, Alan can admit to being... curious. Maybe even interested, even though he knows this is not the kind of thing likely to lead anywhere. "What date?" he asks finally. "And if you say this Sunday I'll still do it but I'm doubling my fee because it's Thursday and if you left arranging this until the last minute you deserve to be charged for it so that you'll learn."

"Ah." Stephen rubs the back of his neck, knowing full well that he's probably looking quite shifty right now. "Well, that might actually be the case. I do really apologise Alan. I organised it a couple of weeks ago and... Well, I meant to organise the catering as well and then some things came up at work and I just forgot. I'm not the greatest of people for remembering dates. I could probably do with an assistant to deal with all of these things for me."  He gives what he hopes is a self-deprecating smile at Alan who is just staring at him.

"I need something stronger for this," Alan mutters, getting up and heading back into the kitchen.

Stephen sinks into his seat. He'd fully intended to ask Alan before now but he wasn't lying when he said that things had gotten on top of him and then all of a sudden the party was a few days away.  A moment or two later Alan is sitting back down at the table.

He passes a glass of what is obviously scotch from the scent that crosses Stephen's nose. "Here," he tells him. "If I'm going to do this then I think you need to give me a little bit more information than 12-15 people and ‘some sweet and savoury items’.

Stephen breathes a silent sigh of relief and sniffs at the whisky before taking a sip, and then on discovering that it's a good malt, he takes a larger mouthful.  He looks up to see Alan watching him.  "Sorry," he apologises with a small shrug. "I'm not always a snob you know."

"Hmm," is Alan's only response and Stephen shifts a little uncomfortably.  "I'm sorry for asking you this so late in the day," he apologises again. "But I really would very much like if you could cater for the event. We can go through you menu and I could tell you what I think would work."

Alan takes a large gulp of his drink, enjoying the burn as it goes down. He opens the notepad he'd also brought from the kitchen and uncaps a pen. "Right then, let's hear it."

Stephen starts talking, still looking chagrined which is kind of amusing though Alan does his best to not let it show. This kind of behaviour really shouldn't be encouraged and he can't have Stephen thinking he can just show up at all hours of the day and ask Alan for favours and Alan will just roll over and do them. Even if, he suspects, that might actually be the case. And isn't that a kick in the bollocks.

Stephen's ideas mostly centre on cupcakes and mini quiches, which, fine, Alan can produce, though he is already having some ideas of his own. He lets Stephen ramble on for a bit - seems the scotch makes him even more loquacious - before he interrupts.

"Okay, so. I'm thinking for savoury: mushroom mini quiches, crayfish and rocket sandwiches, spicy chicken goujouns, vegetable filo wraps, and I'll make a gazpacho and some seedy bread rolls. For sweets: lemon and ginger cupcakes, fresh berry tart, chocolate and oat thins. I could make an ice-cream too, maybe something like vanilla with hazelnuts... But I don't have an ice-cream maker and it would be a bitch to transport. Unless... Do you have an ice-cream maker?" Alan looks up from his list to find Stephen staring at him. "I could, um, make it at yours if you do and if that's okay?" That was probably a stupid idea but Alan had actually gotten a little carried away with planning the menu.

Stephen thinks if he could possibly buy an ice-cream maker between now and Sunday but then shakes his head, because that seems like a step too far over the line he suspects he’s already crossed. “Besides, I've always thought of ice-cream as a rather intimate experience,” he adds, affecting a self-deprecating tone of ‘yes, I know I’m eccentric’. “So, maybe not for a garden party. I'd love to try your ice cream some other time though.”

“Uh-huh,” Alan snorts, amused despite himself. “No worries,” he says, before bending over his notepad again. “We’ll make do. What about…?”

 

***

 

A few days later Stephen is back at the café for a quick lunch in between boring departmental meetings. Alan waves at him from behind the counter, lifting a forefinger briefly in universal ‘just a sec’ gesture and so Stephen goes to find a free table. It’s a busy lunchtime and Stephen manages to squeeze himself into a corner, finding one of the few free tables.  Alan is clearly rushed off his feet and Stephen refuses to pout because he doesn’t have his full attention.  A few minutes later though Alan has placed a large cup of coffee on the table and left him with a sandwich and a muttered “Back in a minute.”

Stephen takes a mouthful of the coffee and looks around. He’s beginning to recognise some of the people here as Alan is building up a regular clientele and Stephen nods to a couple of people he knows. There are a few strangers though and Stephen is a little perturbed to notice in the corner opposite him is a homeless looking guy who is clearly pissed off about something. He’s glaring at Stephen as though Stephen was personally responsible for all the ills that had beset him.
The man has long straggly hair and a beard and is wearing a faded Star Trek t-shirt and jeans. He has a sandwich in front of him and is intermittently taking bites of it whilst giving Stephen a stink-eye. He doesn’t seem to be paying attention to anybody else in the café and Stephen shifts a little uncomfortably.

“Here.” Alan is back in front of him. He places a plate on the table with three cupcakes on it. “I want you to try these,” he tells Stephen. “They’re possibilities for the party.  Let me know which you prefer, if any that is. If you don’t like those I have plenty of other ideas.”

Stephen takes another mouthful of coffee to wash out the taste of his sandwich and bites down into the first mini cupcake.  It’s delicious, topped with a Malteser and with a buttercream topping that he can’t quite place. He glances up and over at the homeless guy.  If anything he looks even more pissed off than he did before. If that’s possible. He’s glaring fiercely at Stephen and bites into his sandwich as though he were tearing a chunk out of some helpless victim. Stephen tries to ignore him but truth be told he’s not used to such open animosity from random strangers.

He licks his fingers and then pops the second cupcake in his mouth. This one he can recognise straight away; strawberry with a white chocolate buttercream topping. It too is delicious and Stephen wonders whether he can ask Alan to make more than one type of cupcake. They’re just the right size, a mouthful of heaven. Stephen picks up the third one. This one he recognises from Alan’s stable of cupcakes that he sells. It’s a carrot cake cupcake and Stephen has had these before.  Truth be told he’s rather partial to them which is why he imagines that Alan has chosen it as one of the options. He pops it into his mouth and chews reflectively on it. He doesn’t want to cause Alan any more work than he needs to so he reckons he should just go for one flavour of the cupcake rather than two or three as he would like. Alan is already doing more than enough for the party as it is.

“So what do you think?” Alan is standing in front of him again, appearing like a jack-in-a-box.

“They were all scrumptious,” he says. “As you jolly well know.” He smiles up at Alan. “But I think for the party being in the summer the strawberry and white chocolate would go down best. What do you reckon?”

Alan puts his hands in the front of his apron. “If you only want one then that’s fine but I can cook more than one type if you liked either of the other two?” He looks eager to please and Stephen hesitates for a moment.

“Well like I said, they were all delicious. What was the topping on the Malteser one?” Stephen asks.

“Malt buttercream,” Alan answers. “It’s an American recipe I found and thought I’d try out.  I substituted Horlicks for the flavouring and it seems to work quite well.”

“It was very nice,” Stephen replies. “Okay, if you’re determined and have time,” he holds up an admonishing finger, “then I’d like a couple of options please. The strawberry and white chocolate and the carrot cake would both work really well.”

Alan grins at him. “See,” he says, “You can be wild and experimental if you really want. Two types of cupcakes it is then.”

The homeless guy is shaking his head and Stephen looks up at Alan. “Who’s the guy over there?” he asks, lowering his voice. “The homeless looking guy in the corner. “

Alan turns and stares, and then he looks back at Stephen. “Homeless guy,” he laughs. “That’s not a homeless guy although he looks like it at times. That’s Bill. He’s got a day off work and for some reason he decided to come stalk my café. I have no idea why he looks as though he’s constipated or some other such thing.  Don’t let him bother you. He’s pretty harmless really.”

Bill! Stephen’s heard much about Alan’s friend who helped him deal with the fallout with his ex, and was the reason Alan had chosen Nottingham as a place to start afresh, but this is the first time he’s seen the man. Stephen wonders why Bill is scowling at him though and somehow he doesn’t really believe Alan’s ‘he’s harmless’.  He suspects from the looks that Bill has been giving him that he’s anything but harmless especially if he were to do anything bad to Alan and he wonders whether Bill is here to check him out.  He lifts his coffee mug to Bill in salute and gets a scowl in return.

“Seriously Stephen.” Alan pushes an errant curl behind his ear. “Ignore him. If he’s bothering you I can always say something to him if you’d like.” He turns and looks over at Bill and gestures at him with his hand, almost as though he’s telling him to calm down.

“There’s no need,” Stephen tells him. He suspects at some point he’s going to make a proper acquaintance of Bill and doesn’t want it tinged with any kind of animosity, well no more than Bill seems to already be harbouring.

“Okay,” Alan says, picking up the cupcake plate. “Well if you’re happy with those two cupcake choices that’s what we’ll go with. Let me take your plate and I’ll get you another coffee. It looks as though this one has gotten cold before you finished it.”

He leaves the table and Stephen takes a glance at Bill. He flashes him a smile and gets a scowl in response but he wasn’t really expecting anything else. He picks up his sandwich and takes a bite.  He needs to head back to the office shortly for a meeting he has scheduled and he can’t be late.


***

Bill stays until closing time, munching his way through two sandwiches and three cookies as he reads The Guardian from cover to cover, scowling at the paper almost as fiercely as he’d scowled at Stephen. Alan sighs a lot but doesn’t say anything. Long friendship with Bill has taught him that it’s best to ignore his occasional bouts of protectiveness. If confronted about it Bill will just adamantly deny having any such mushy feelings and sulk for weeks, refusing to talk about anything but politics and angling.

As the last paying customer leaves – Bill’s saved his hide figuratively and literally enough times that Alan’s not going to charge him for coffee and food, the least he can do without either of them actually having to talk about their feelings on the matter – Bill brings his plate and cup to the counter, neatly folding the newspaper back into its rack.

“Here,” he says, “not terrible.” It’s as close to gushing thanks as he gets.

Alan grins and puts the dirty dishes away, continuing to wipe the display cabinets.

“So,” Bill continues after a minute’s companionable silence. “That was Stephen.”

“Yep, that was Stephen.” Alan fixes Bill with a steady gaze. Any sign of discomfort now and Bill will take it entirely the wrong way. “He’s a good man.”

Bill regards him quietly for a while before nodding once. “I’ll make up my own mind about that in due time,” he says gruffly.

Alan beams at him because this is Bill acquiescing to the fact that there will be a time in the future for him to get to know Stephen because there will be a future where Stephen is in Alan’s life. And regardless of the exact shape of that, it’s enough to make Alan happy.

“Right,” Bill says, clapping his hands together decisively. “I’m off. Got better things to do than hang around here all day checking up on your new special friend,” blithely ignoring the fact that it has been his choice to spend the day in Alan’s café doing just that.

With a wave of his hand he’s out of the door, leaving Alan laughing quietly to himself.


***


Text message from Alan, Friday 17.46
Hi Stephen. What are your thoughts on tartines? I was thinking something like figs with blue cheese and ham?

Text message from Stephen, Friday 17.52
That sounds interesting. I suppose it depends on what type of blue cheese you were intending to use. It would all work very well with a cold fresh white.

Text message from Alan, Friday 18.05
If you say so... I'm just taking care of the food. The drinks are your concern.

Text message from Stephen, Friday 18.13
Yes the drinks are my concern. Also try not to have a coronary before Sunday. That would be rather pointless :)

Text message from Stephen, Friday 18.30
Are you stressing, Alan? Do try not to dear boy. It's just friends after all.

Text message from Alan, Friday 20.11
Shut up with your dear boys you over educated bastard. I'm making a dark and white chocolate cheese cake which is going to be better than 90% of sex you've ever had.

Stephen raises an eyebrow at the phone. "Is that right?" he wonders out loud though there is no one to hear him. "Well they do say the proof is in the pudding…” Stephen grins softly to himself, before answering.

Text message from Stephen, Friday 20.15
I look forward to the cheesecake. And don't even start on over educated bastard. I know full well just from talking to you that university has been part of your life at some point.

Text message from Stephen, Friday 20.18
And stop baking now! It’s past 8pm on Friday and surely time to relax.

Text message from Stephen, Friday 20.37
Alan…?

Text message from Alan, Friday 21.12
Oh my god, fine, the cheesecake is done and so am I!

Text message from Stephen, Friday 21.13
Excellent. Good night, Alan.

Text message from Alan, Friday 21.15
Good night, Stephen.


***


The sun is blazing down as Stephen pulls into the car park behind Alan's shop. The weather is a pleasant surprise as the forecasters had been ominously talking about rain all week. Stephen parks the car right outside the door, it's a Sunday after all and majority of the shops are closed so he's not competing with anybody for space.

He sends a quick text to Alan to let him know that he's arrived and opens up the boot, which thankfully has a lot of room. Stephen leans against the side of the car and lifts his face to the sky, closing his eyes and enjoying the warmth of the sun.

He finds it astonishing that Alan actually agreed to do the catering for him, and not only that but a little guilty at leaving it so late. Alan had looked extremely harried when Stephen dropped in for a coffee on Saturday, not even coming over to speak to him.

There had though been almost constant texting communication; Alan sending random texts making comments about the food and how it was going, or just cursing him.  The last one had been at 11.30pm the previous night at which point Stephen had sent Alan one back telling him to go to bed.  Anything not done by that point could wait and Alan needed to sleep.  They'd been a very short 'okay, night' text received back and nothing after that for which Stephen had been grateful.

His respite is broken a couple of minutes later by a door opening and a rather pissed off voice telling him to "Stop daydreaming and come and give a hand!"

Stephen opens his eyes and pushes away from the car.


***


To say that Alan is stressed is to say that London is a 'nice town': kind of true, sure, but a gross misrepresentation all in all. Late as Stephen had been with his request (and insane as Alan had been for saying yes), it was always going to be busy getting everything done in time. But Alan knows he mostly has himself to blame for the blur of baking and cooking that has been the last 48 hours. Because he hadn't just settled for Stephen's genuine 'anything you sell here is fine' type of menu, oh no, he had to go and try not just to satisfy expectations but to exceed them. In his heart of hearts Alan admits that it's less about securing a good reputation and repeat business and more about impressing Stephen.

Because apparently Stephen's opinion matters way more than it should. Alan tries not to think about that too much. The constant baking and preparation had certainly helped him and now he has trays and cool bags full of food.

And Stephen in his kitchen, looking mellow and smiling in a way that makes Alan scowl. Easy for him, he only has to host the bloody party and talk bollocks about early 18th century literature or whatever it was that he and his work colleagues conversed about.

"Here," Alan says and pushes a cool bag full of the crayfish sandwiches into Stephen's hands. "Start with what’s already ready, I still need to pack the cupcakes. They need to go on top anyway."

Stephen makes a few trips back and forth between the kitchen and the car whilst Alan packs up a ridiculous amount of boxes of cupcakes.

"Just how many cupcakes did you make?" Stephen asks in the end. Alan says nothing, just sending him a look.  He looks harried and tired and there's cupcake icing on his face that Stephen wants to reach out and wipe off.  But he doesn't.  Alan finally finishes filling the boxes and then he rests his elbows on the counter, head down for a moment.

Stephen's fingers itch to stroke over the back of his neck, to press his fingers into Alan's shoulders and massage the tension out of them.

"I'll put these in the car," he tells him instead.  "Go and have a shower and get changed. You look exhausted."

Alan sighs, straightening up. He's not too bad, mainly because he'd taken Stephen's advice (order really) last night and actually gone to bed, but he'd still been up since 7 this morning, finalising stuff. Stephen is right though, Alan needs to clean up (he has a horrible feeling he's got frosting in his hair). He can't serve all this beautiful food looking like a bum.

"Double pay," he says, pointing a finger at Stephen. "Maybe triple if any of your work mates get drunk and I have to talk about bloody Marlowe and who he may or may not have been spying for."

With that he turns and takes the stairs up to the shower, black trousers and white shirt already ironed and waiting on his bed. He's going to look like a waiter, there's no helping it, but at least it's better than a filthy baker with dough on his face.

Once the cupcakes are put away carefully in the boot of the car Stephen takes a quick look at his watch. They really do have plenty of time and it's not as if they actually have a lot to do when they get back to his. He's already been up himself for a few hours, putting the final touches to everything, making sure the trestle tables were set up in the conservatory for the food, blinds down to make sure it didn't get too warm.  He's already spread linen table cloths and got out glasses and plates, so really all they need to do is finalise the setting up and then he hopes they will have time to have a quick break for a drink and a sandwich before people start arriving.

If he'd thought of it he would have suggested that Alan actually shower at his, though considering the mental images that produces, it’s perhaps for the best that isn’t the case.

Going back inside, he wipes the crumbs down from the counter whilst waiting for Alan. "You don't need to do that," a voice behind him says making him jump a little.

Stephen turns around and nearly catches his breath. Even though Alan's outfit is simple – plain white short sleeved shirt with the top two buttons undone, and black trousers – it's the most formal that Stephen has seen him and he... Well, he likes it. "I'm so sorry," he says trying to get his mind back on track, which is hard as Alan's hair is damp from the shower and his hair is curling into his neck.  "You could have showered at mine, I never thought.  Do you want to bring some spare clothes with you so that you can change afterwards?"

Alan is kind of glad that he hadn't had to shower at Stephen's because being naked in his bathroom, in his house would have done nothing to calm his rattled nerves. "Oh, um yeah okay, thanks... I'll just go grab something." Stephen's suggestion is a good one and Alan knows that by the end of the day he'll be wanting to get back to jeans and t-shirt.

He's back in no time, bag in hand, locking the shop after the two of them. "Wow," Alan says when they're outside, his eyes going wide at the sight of the silver Chrysler. "You weren't kidding. You could probably have your whole garden party on the back seat of that thing."

"Aye, yes." Stephen feels a little embarrassed at the size of his car, almost wanting to say that he's not compensating for anything because he isn't.  "I can't abide tiny small cars," he tells Alan. "Bit difficult to get comfortable in them and much as I'd like a Bentley I honestly can't afford one on my salary." He grins at Alan. "This was the closest I could get. So just chuck your stuff on the back seat, move my rubbish out of the way, and we can get going."

Alan does as he's told, moving Stephen's 'rubbish' (three bags full of books) out of the way and putting his rucksack of clothes down. He gets in to the front and immediately sinks into the luxurious seat, stretching his legs to their full, admittedly not impressive, length. "Oh yeah, Bentley or not, this sure beats my old Ford Escort."

Stephen smiles in that way of his that says he's feeling almost apologetic for his wealth and privileges, which Alan finds both ridiculous and, god help him, kind of adorable.

The trip is relatively short and uneventful. Stephen is a careful driver so Alan doesn't even have to worry about the state of his cupcakes (much) and they get to their destination without an incident. Stephen's detached house in West Bridgford comes as a no surprise to Alan. It's more or less as he expected; grand without being ostentatious, and indeed surprisingly cosy inside from what Alan can glance as they make the several trips to take the food from the car to the conservatory at the back. He hopes he'll have a chance to have a better look at some point but for now he settles on being grateful that Stephen has thought to set up tables ready.

"When do you want the food to be served?" Alan asks. "Because I don't want to unwrap stuff until just before. And would you have room in your fridge or pantry for the sweet stuff for now? I don't really want to leave it in the warm for that long." He may be fussing over the food a bit but... Can't be helped.

Stephen smiles at him; frazzled Alan is quite entertaining to watch. "There's a chest freezer in the garage if that will help, or you can use the fridge in the kitchen. There's plenty of room in it - whichever works for you. And Alan, calm down would you. At this rate you'll be having a heart attack before anybody gets here and who would I have then to serve the food?" He grins at Alan to show him that he's just joking.

"You mean you don't have a pair of pretty slave boys stashed in the cleaning cupboard?" Alan snarks back, but he gets Stephen's point and takes a deep breath. "Okay, okay, I am zen. Now show me the way to this freezer," he says, grabbing the cheesecakes that will suffer no harm from little extra cold.

"Pfft," Stephen waves a hand in the air. "A couple of slave boys would take up way too much of my time and energy. Maybe when I retire. Come on, I'll show you around the house and where you can dump your clothes. Once we've done that we're both sitting down and chilling out with a rather nice glass of Chablis and some sandwiches don't you think." He doesn't bother to wait for Alan's answer simply picks up a tray as well and heads towards the freezer.


***


The guest start trickling in just after midday, some alone, some with partners or friends, but all clearly either academics or professionals. It's not that they're obnoxious or unpleasant or anything – Alan can't imagine Stephen putting up with that – but they are all so very clearly from a different world from the one he usually inhabits. It's somewhat a relief that most of them ignore him, very politely of course, assuming – correctly, Alan sternly reminds himself – that he's here in the staff capacity.

Alan watches Stephen greet and converse and laugh, clearly enjoying himself and clearly in his element. He seems to genuinely like most of the people there, which is good Alan guesses, since he has to work with them. Alan keeps mostly to the kitchen and the conservatory, slowly unwrapping and arranging the food, making sure everything is ready.

By one o'clock Alan counts seventeen people mingling in the garden. He waits until he can catch Stephen's eye and then gives a meaningful nod and smile, inclining his head toward the conservatory. Stephen seems to get the message as he smiles in return. Alan slips back, taking his place behind the long table.

Stephen waits a few minutes to allow Alan time to sort himself out and get comfortable and then he turns to his guests. "For those of you who might like something to cushion your drinks food is about to be served in the conservatory. Please avail yourselves." He takes a mouthful of his G&T and watches as some of the guests start to drift inside. So far it's going well and he has no doubt that it will continue that way. The weather is gorgeous for a change, the sun showing no signs of disappearing behind a cloud, and having seen just how much food Alan had made he doesn't think there's any chance of people going hungry.


***


Alan is there really mostly to make sure the trays don't stay empty too long and explain what's on offer. All of the food is 'help yourself' variety so Alan keeps up the kind of small talk he does with his cafe customers, pointing out that the sandwiches have crayfish in case someone is allergic but the quiches are vegan (yes really, no butter used) and agreeing that the weather indeed is lovely.

The best part is when people start coming back for seconds, more lively now and full of compliments. Alan beams happily, relieved that the food is going down well. Stephen drifts in finally himself too, obviously having waited until all his guests had been fed. Alan narrows his eyes at him a bit. "Were you waiting to see if anyone keeled over first before you dared to come and have a taste?" he jokes.

"Oh absolutely," Stephen answers. "One should always have tasters don't you think?" He smiles and passes Alan a beer. "I figured you might be getting a little thirsty by now. So..." He peers at the food that's laid about before him, pleased that so much of it seems to have already been eaten. "What do you recommend?"

Alan grabs the bottle gratefully and takes a long swallow. It's warm, even with the conservatory blinds down and talking always makes him thirsty. "Okay, start with the gazpacho and a bread roll, then sample at will," he says. "Everything's good," Alan knows this with bone-deep certainty, "but I think you'll like those tartinis best. Remember, the ones I texted you about, with the figs, ham, and Roquefort."

He watches as Stephen does as instructed, waiting for the reaction. Somehow it matters more than the rest of the party put together.

Stephen does as instructed and takes one of the cups of gazpacho. Foregoing the spoons he takes a mouthful. "Oh that's lovely," he tells Alan before taking another sip. "It really is delicious, the flavour’s just right." He tries the bread roll next which is just how he likes it, soft and grainy. "Good," he says through the roll dipping it in the soup. "This is really good Alan." Alan is beaming now and Stephen can't help but smile back. He tips his head back and drains the cup, wiping it clean with the last bit of the roll before putting it down.

He almost wants to ask Alan to put him together a plate of things but doesn't, instead choosing to just pick at the food whilst he chats to Alan. "So everybody seems to be enjoying your food," he tells Alan. "Not that it's any surprise."

"Yeah, it's... I'm glad," Alan says, unaccountably bashful now in face of Stephen's compliments. He picks up one of the filo wraps and stuffs it into his own mouth for something to do. "So should you be, considering what it's costing you," he adds, deflecting.

"Whatever it’s costing me is worth it Alan," Stephen tells him. "After all look at them. They're thoroughly enjoying themselves and the food. It's a good thing that you made so much.  So..." He turns to look out of the conservatory doors. "Has everybody been alright with you?"

Alan blinks, surprised by the question. "Everything’s fine, Stephen," he tells him. "I'm a big boy and can take care of myself. Go out and talk to your guests." He makes shooing motions with his hands. "The food and me will be here after they've gone."

Stephen snags a few more things onto his plate, but goes, leaving Alan to look after what he came here to look after in the first place.


***


A couple of hours later, Alan is tidying the remnants of the cakes and other sweet things, transferring everything onto same plates and taking the dirty ones into the kitchen. The dessert had been a success too and he'd been glad to have made so many cupcakes as almost everyone had come back for seconds. He'd made coffee and tea too, but most of the guests had opted for more wine. It seems these academics sure knew how to drink and let loose. There's music drifting from the stereo perched on the open window and Alan can see some people already dancing.

He smiles, pleased that Stephen's party seems to be a success. He hasn't had a chance to talk to the man himself again, but he's put aside one of the cheesecakes when it became obvious Stephen was too busy socialising to do more than snag some biscuits and cup of coffee.

"Hello there," a voice says behind Alan and he turns to find one of the guests by the table, perusing what's left. "I've come to see if there's a tasty tart left for me." He's drunk and clearly finds his own joke amusing as he laughs at himself.

Alan rolls his eyes but keeps smiling. "Sure, there's some of the tartinis left." He offers a plate to the man who takes a long time to select one, which is probably because he keeps looking at Alan more than the food.

Stephen is on his way back from the bathroom when he hears Alan talking to one of the guests. What actually stops him though is the tone of the other man. It's... leering almost, mocking. Stephen stops just before the door at an angle so he can see in, but he can't be seen. As he suspected the man, Brad, isn't one of Stephen's guest, hadn’t been invited by him. Rather he’s been brought along by Tony, who works alongside Emma.

"So where did the Professor find you then?" Brad asks. "I must say he has good taste. You're almost as pretty as one of your tarts!" Stephen stiffens at the words and waits to hear just how Alan responds.

Alan isn't sure whether to laugh or get indignant. He got a few 'pretty boy' comments in his late teens but he thought he'd overgrown that a while ago. Besides, the man isn't that much older than him, he's certainly younger than Stephen by the look of him. Vainer as well, judging by his slicked back hair and the diamond cufflinks.

Honestly, is he for real? Alan keeps his face neutral, stepping away to continue tidying. "I run a cafe," he says, keeping it short, hoping the man takes a hint. But no, apparently he's two drinks past propriety.

"A cafe owner," Brad throws his head back and laughs. "Well, well, well... Stephen really is roughing it. But seriously, I do hope he's paying you for your work today. Unless you just do and give him whatever he asks."

In the doorway Stephen stiffens. This isn't the first time that Tony has brought Brad with him to a party and Stephen thinks he may have to speak to him about this going forward. He's not happy about what he's hearing, and what's basically being intimated at.

Alan grits his teeth, because, well, that's just not on. He doesn't really care what some random twat at a party thinks of him but what he's saying is pretty insulting to Stephen. "And am I take it that you're such close friends with Stephen that you know what he might ask for?" Alan says, regarding the guy coldly, all pretence of politeness gone now.

The man blinks. "I didn't think so," Alan continues. "Because a close friend would surely not imply what you've just been implying. I think perhaps you should help yourself to a cup of coffee from a thermos over there and join your friends at the party," he suggests, before turning his back.

That turns out to be a mistake. Moving quickly for a guy that drunk, he reaches across the table and grabs Alan by the arm, spinning him around. "You don't get to tell me what to do, you ignorant piece of rough trade."

Alan is honestly so surprised that his mouth just opens silently, which gives his assailant time to continue. "Although I'm sure 'baker' counts as 'skilled worker' so why don't you show me what else those fingers of yours can knead besides bread dough. I'm sure you've had plenty of practice with Ste–"

That's as far as he gets before Alan finally moves. He fists both hands in the guy's designer shirt, circling around the table while dragging him along and then finally physically pushing him toward the conservatory door. "You've no idea just how rough and trust me you don't want to find out," he growls, seriously angry now. "And as for putting my fingers anywhere near you, well... I had rather chop this hand off at a blow, And with the other fling it at thy face," he quotes, relishing the look of astonishment on the man's face before he finally shoves him through the doorway. "Tell people that the buffet is closed," Alan shouts after him, all but slamming the door shut.

Out of sight, Stephen takes a deep breath and straightens up. He'd managed to stop himself from going to Alan's rescue, sure that he wouldn't really appreciate it but it had been hard. What he'd just witnessed and heard had made his blood boil. How dare Brad speak to Alan like that, and to intimate that Alan was his piece of rough. Ugh! Although Alan quoting Shakespeare at Brad had been amusing... And also hot.

Stephen unfurls his fingers from the fists they'd made and rubs his hands together before stepping into the conservatory. Alan is standing against the door, back pressed to it and head down. He's breathing heavily and Stephen coughs, not wanting to surprise him.

Alan's head snaps up and he stops himself groaning from dismay when he sees Stephen standing there, face like thunder. Perfect. The only thing making that little encounter any worse was the fact that it clearly hadn't gone unwitnessed. Alan straightens up, feeling a bit shaky from the adrenaline spike, and rubs hands over his face. "Is it too much to hope you've just walked in this second, heard nothing and are only here for the cheesecake?" he asks resignedly.

Stephen shakes his head. "I'm afraid not," he tells Alan. "Unfortunately for Brad, I heard and saw everything." Alan's face drops and Stephen steps closer to him but still keeping a distance not quite sure how Alan will feel about anybody close to him right now. Alan looks as though he's about to bolt at any minute.

"Are you alright?" Stephen asks.

Alan blinks at Stephen's kind tone, so in contrast to his face which is still pinched in anger. "Yeah, yeah, I'm..." furious, mortified, afraid of having screwed up, "...fine. Look, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have lost my temper with one of your guests like that. It's just... What he said, and I... you wouldn't, I know that, and..." To his humiliation Alan realises he's rambling and with effort he bites down on his tongue to shut himself up and makes himself walk back to the tables and pick up where he left off, transferring leftover food back into containers. Too bad his hands feel too clumsy for the task, trembling slightly. Alan kind of feels like flinging the cupcakes at the wall in frustration.

Alan is quite clearly shaking and Stephen watches as he puts the cupcake boxes back down on the table before starting to stroke at his own arms. Stephen doesn't even think that Alan realises what he's doing. And now he doesn't hesitate; stepping closer to Alan he puts his hand carefully on Alan's arm.

"Hey," Stephen says. "Alan, you haven't done anything wrong okay and if one of my guests is being a dick to you, you're within your rights to say something to them." Alan stiffens first at the touch but then he seems to calm, stilling his repetitive movements and Stephen runs his hand slowly up Alan's arm until he’s gripping Alan's shoulder. Alan shivers and turns slightly toward him and there's nothing more Stephen wants to do right now but pull Alan into his arms.

"Come on," he tells him. "I think you need a stiff drink."

Alan nods, a tad jerkily. It's just... It's been a long time since someone's touched him like this; with kindness and comfort. Bill isn't exactly a huggy type of guy and Alan hasn't exactly been getting physical with any dates (because really, there haven't been any) since the whole thing with Fil, so it's only natural that he's feeling a little... touch-starved. Nothing more to it.

At least that's what he tells himself.

"Yeah, okay." Stephen definitely doesn't seem angry at Alan, which makes the knot inside his chest loosen up considerably. "A drink would be good I guess."

Stephen is still looking at him with something unreadable in his eyes and for a moment Alan thinks he's going to... But no. He gently steers Alan toward the kitchen, hand still on his shoulder, not letting go until Alan is sitting at the table.

The loss of that touch feels more acute than Alan wants to admit. Instead, he wraps his hands around the tumbler of whisky Stephen puts in front of him. "So, I take it that guy wasn't a close personal friend then?" he asks.

"No, he most certainly wasn't." Stephen is actually surprised at how angry he is right now. He hovers close to Alan who is looking rather lost and without thinking about it his hand comes to rest on Alan's shoulder again, fingers curling to touch the back of his neck. "I'm so sorry Alan," he says. "You shouldn't have had to put up with that although I do think he was rather surprised at you quoting Shakespeare."

Stephen's touch and his question are both unexpected but they shake something loose in him and Alan feels himself relax, slumping lower in the chair. He even laughs a little, thinking of the guy's face. "Not your fault," he says, tipping his head back to smile Stephen. "Although I do desire we may be better strangers," he quotes again, delighted at the way it makes Stephen's eyebrows climb up. "Him and I of course," Alan clarifies. "Not you and I." And well, that was a bit more than he meant to say and he turns back to the table, taking a sip of the whisky to hide his face for a bit.

There's something about Alan's smile that makes Stephen feel warm inside and he automatically smiles back.  "You have a nimble wit. I think ’twas made of Atalanta’s heels," replies Stephen. He steps back from Alan because if he doesn't he suspects he might just not stop touching him, and not only does he have to get back to his guests he also needs to speak to Brad.  Or Tony.

"Just chill out Alan, take your time and when you're ready, if you are okay with it, I'd like you to come outside as my guest. So, I'm just going to go and have a word with Brad right now. With a thief to the gallows, for though he go as softly as foot can fall, he thinks himself too soon there."

Alan barks a laugh at that, shaking his head. "Show off," he tells Stephen, though he says it with fondness. "Don't hang him where the neighbours can see at least."

Stephen just hums noncommittally so guess the jury is still out on that one. With a final clap on Alan's shoulder he leaves the kitchen, heading back out to the party.


***


Stephen steps back outside into the warmth. It seems an age since he went inside even though he knows that it can't be more than half an hour that's passed.  Both Emma and Brad look up as he comes out and Stephen wonders who might have witnessed Alan telling Brad to get out.

He pours himself another G&T at the drinks table but before he can head toward Brad, Emma has stepped up next to him and placed a hand on his arm.

"It's going well today isn't it?" she says. "The weather has been kind to us and the food is fabulous. Where did you find your caterer? He's very good."

He shrugs her hand off. "Yes he is... Very good. I'm pleased with the food. Would you excuse me please, Emma." He's not normally rude to Emma, who is a good friend but right now he wants to speak to Brad.

"I'm not sure what Brad did, Stephen, but do you really think you should speak to him right now?" she asks.

He turns around so he's facing her and lowers his voice. "He... he…" Stephen can barely get the words out. "Look, suffice as to say he insulted Alan, who even though he's catering for me, is still a guest in my house and I won't put up with that." His voice is clipped now but he doesn't care.

Emma sighs a little to herself. Brad is an arse who has a tendency to hit on everything that moves. Last Christmas gone Emma had to forcibly remove his paws from her backside. She doesn't really know what Tony sees in him to be honest but they've been sleeping together on and off for years, both equally unbothered by whoever the other sees on the side.

She doesn't remember seeing Stephen this angry for a while though, not since one of his research students got falsely accused of cheating a couple of years back. It's clear to anyone with eyes that the young caterer is clearly more than a random acquaintance to Stephen. "Okay, but do you think Alan would appreciate it if you make a massive scene and draw even more attention to the situation?" She'd been close enough to see Brad tumble out of the conservatory with some help from Alan's hands, but she's pretty sure that no one except her had paid much mind to the incident, if they'd noticed it at all. "Why don't you let me have a word with Tony while you stay here and try not to spontaneously combust?"

She has a point and that's what really annoys Stephen. Alan really wouldn't appreciate it if Stephen made a scene. Which he's likely to do. He still can't forget the way Alan was shaking after the encounter with Brad, and all Stephen wants to do right now it hit something or someone. Which is a completely alien feeling for him.

"What did you see Emma?" he asks.

"Not much," Emma says. "Just noticed Brad paying more attention to Alan than his food throughout the day so it wasn't any surprise to see him slipping back to the conservatory to try and catch him alone." She shrugs. "It was a surprise though – and a pleasant one – to see him practically fall out of there, looking like someone had hit him in the head." She grins wickedly. "Please tell me that Alan actually did that. Because it was about time someone did."

It's a delightful image but unfortunately not one that Stephen can verify. "Afraid not," he replies. "Brad made some rather unpleasant comments to Alan." And doesn't that just make Stephen grit his teeth, especially the ones about Alan being Stephen's boy. "And then he tried... Well let's put it this way: He didn't take kindly to Alan telling him to back off. He did however rather surprise Brad with his use of Shakespeare. After all, why would some piece of ‘rough trade’ like him know Shakespeare." Stephen’s voice is a little bitter and he downs his G&T in one go.  "I want Brad gone from here, Emma. I've asked Alan to come outside as my guest and I don't want Brad here when he joins us. If he does."

Emma's eyebrows hike up and her grin gets possibly even wickeder. "Shakespeare, eh?" she asks. "Bet you liked that..." She raises up a placating hand when Stephen looks like he's about to start defending his intentions or something. "Now, now, I'm just saying that Alan sounds like an interesting guy. I must have a chat with him when he joins us." She plucks the empty glass from Stephen’s hand and sets it down. "Go talk to the Millers, I think they're planning to leave soon and were looking for you earlier to say thanks. I'll go and find Tony. Don't worry, Brad will be departing soon if he knows what's good for him."

She turns to leave but gives one more piece of advice: "And stop downing G&Ts like they're water, doubt Alan will be impressed if you get as drunk as Brad." It's a low blow but one Emma reckons will ensure Stephen doesn't try to relive his wrestling days by tackling Brad to the meticulously cut lawn.

"Interfering female," Stephen mutters although everything that Emma is saying is right, which makes it even more annoying.

"I heard that," she tells him over her shoulder. "Go and be sociable Stephen. This is your party, after all."

Stephen fills his glass up with tonic and ice and heads over to Tamara and Val Miller, both of whom he's rather fond of. He keeps a keen eye on Emma whilst he's talking to them, and is rather pleased to see that she is taking no nonsense from Brad, and is slowly but carefully manoeuvring him to the exit. Tony catches Stephen's eye and sends him an apologetic smile and before Brad can say anything more, Tony has steered him out of the back gate and out of the party. Emma wanders over to join them and they're soon engaged in a chat about next year's students and what the new term might entail.


***


Alan stays at the table for ten more minutes, slowly sipping the drink. It's helping, but he knows it's mostly Stephen's words and touch that have calmed him down. Eventually, he gets up and finishes up packing away the food, putting all the leftover things in the fridge. Thankfully, there isn't much, which is convenient as Alan suspects he'll have to take a taxi home from here. Stephen isn't drunk by any means but he's certainly not fit to get behind the wheel again tonight.

Finally, Alan runs out of things to do. He could stay here, knows Stephen wouldn't mind, but it feels a bit cowardly, so in the end he grabs himself another beer and ventures outside into the afternoon sun.

The party is more or less winding down, for which Alan is grateful. Some people have already left, among them, he's happy to see, Brad. He hovers in the conservatory doorway for a short while, unsure because he doesn't know anyone here except Stephen who seems to be deep in conversation with a group of people and Alan doesn't really feel like interrupting.

He's saved by a smiling couple who come over, complimenting him on the food again before drawing him to the discussion about his cafe. It doesn't take them long to ask if Alan would be interested in catering their son's 18th birthday party.

They aren't the only ones who have similar questions and by the time Alan's made it to the Stephen's end of the garden he has three business cards in his hand with promises to call people to talk about details.

"This is all your fault," he tells Stephen, frowning in mock dismay. "I was perfectly happy with my small cafe, just me and the espresso machine, and now it looks like I have to hire people to cope with that and all this catering lark." He waves the business cards accusingly at Stephen before stuffing them into his pocket. "I'm counting on you to pass your work-seeking students my way," he adds.

Stephen beams at him, pleased to see that Alan has finally come outside and that people have been complimenting his food. Alan looks a lot more relaxed and he's lost that tight expression around his eyes. "Dear boy," Stephen tells him, clinking his glass against Alan's bottle. "It’s only your own fault for being so good at what you do. And you're assuming rather a lot to think that my students actually want to work, aren't you? Most of them are lazy layabouts. I'm astonished they even manage to get their essays in on time."

"Oy," Emma elbows him in the side and Stephen exhales slightly in surprise. "Don't put the students down like that. They don't all adhere to the stereotype. At least mine don't! Hi!" she says, turning to Alan and putting her hand out before Stephen can answer. "We haven't been properly introduced. I'm Emma, and for my sins not only do I work with Stephen but I've also known him for the better part of twenty years."

Alan likes Emma instinctively, she'd been one of the people who actually appeared to see him rather than a faceless serving boy behind the food earlier. "Nice to meet you," he says, shaking her hand. "In that case... Perhaps you can help me with something I've been wondering about Stephen here." He leans closer, lowering his voice and ignoring Stephen's half indignant, half amused huffing next to them. "Has he always been such a tremendous snob about his coffee, or is this something he's developed recently?"

Emma throws her head back and laughs. "Oh, I like you," she tells Alan. "And yes, he really has always been a tremendous snob about coffee.  You know," she throws a mocking glance at Stephen, "he and I shared a flat together at university. He didn't care what he ate as long as there was coffee and woe betide you if you took the last cup. He could be an absolute nightmare. The one time I was foolish enough to do that I had to stay away for at least three days to wait for him to calm down."   She grins at Alan.

"But who could stay mad with a woman as lovely and smart as you?" Alan asks, putting a hand to his chest and laying on the charm. Emma laughs again and even Stephen rolls his eyes, still trying to explain that he is not in fact a snob about coffee alright, he just knows what he likes and...

Alan and Emma blithely ignore his protests. They stand there chatting for a while. People are starting to make a move though and Stephen leaves to make sure everyone is alright, to say his goodbyes and presumably accept thanks for a good party.

Alan feels himself relax as the number of people decreases, and his gaze keeps drifting to Stephen no matter how many times he pulls his attention back to the conversation he and Emma are having.

Alan’s distraction doesn’t escape Emma’s notice. It's interesting observing how his gaze tracks Stephen around the garden even though he's obviously trying not to. But then Emma has found the whole afternoon interesting. Stephen has been waxing lyrical about his new coffee shop for a while and there has been mention of Alan, the new owner. At first Stephen had been incensed about the coffee shop being taken over, but then after a few days he’d quietened down, and then after a couple of weeks had started going in pretty much on a daily basis.

Having now met Alan, Emma can completely understand why. Alan is totally Stephen's type although a little younger than normal. It's been a while since Stephen was in a relationship, though he and Emma have even shared the same boyfriend before now although thankfully not at the same time. From the way that Alan is tracking Stephen's movements it would appear that Stephen isn't the only one interested and for that she's grateful.

"So... Stephen spends an awful amount of time in your coffee shop," Emma says, casually.  "I barely see him these days unless it's at staff meetings. Should I be blaming you for that?" She smiles to show there's no malice in her question.

"Oh, um what?" Alan's attention snaps back to the conversation and when Emma's question registers he can feel himself blushing. There's an implication there that he doesn't quite know what to do with. "I don't know, I guess you can blame the coffee and maybe the carrot cake. He does seem particularly fond of that."

"Oh, I'm sure that must be it," Emma smiles and takes a mouthful of her Pimms. "I'm sure you make amazing carrot cake Alan, and Stephen has always liked baked goods." She's not lying; after all it was a love of baked goods, Shakespeare and the Goons that had first gotten Stephen and Hugh together. But that's not a tale to mention to Alan right now. If this goes the way that she thinks it will there will be more than plenty of enough time for Alan to meet Hugh, and Ken. Emma has wondered over the years what might have happened between them all if Stephen hadn't been so resolutely monogamous.

 "You must come by and taste it yourself," Alan says, grateful that Emma's accepted her diversion. "Carrot cake on the house," he promises.

"Why is she getting free cake and I have to pay for it?" Stephen asks, appearing at Alan's shoulder and pushing a glass of something frosty into his hand before passing a similar glass to Emma.

"Because she didn't make me cater her garden party on two days’ notice," Alan says, sniffing at his glass. "What is this? Is this... That's ice cream," he says accusingly. "I didn't realise we were about to have such an intimate experience after all."

"What?" Emma giggles. "What are you talking about?"

"Ah..." Stephen can feel himself flushing a little that Alan remembered the conversation. "This isn't exactly ice-cream," he tells him. "This is a cocktail. There’s alcohol in it so it doesn't quite fall within the intimate experience category. That's the difference... Do you see?"

"I offered to make ice cream," Alan explains to a laughing Emma. "He said it was, and I quote, an 'intimate experience'."

"I bet," Emma snorts, sipping at her cocktail and watching with delight how flustered her friend is looking.

"And you," Alan continues, turning back to Stephen, "are the only man I know who claims that adding alcohol to something actually leads to less intimate experiences. Usually, it's the other way around." He takes a mouthful of the weird ice-cream and champagne concoction and groans appreciatively. "Fuck," he sighs, "that's so good I wouldn't mind getting intimate with it."

Stephen's face goes through at least three separate expressions before settling back to flustered. Emma doubles up in laughter.

"Do you know how much I hate you both right now?" Stephen says and pokes Emma. "And you Madam can stop laughing otherwise I'm going to tell Hugh and Ken that you haven't been behaving."

Emma snorts. "Like they'll care. You're damned lucky that I didn't bring them along with me today but they were, and I quote, 'doing manly things'."

"Manly things..." Stephen raises an eyebrow. "Right! I'll believe that when I see it. I think the last time that Hugh did anything manly was rowing at university. Anyway..." He flicks his fingers. "We were discussing the intimacy issues of ice-cream and alcohol." He turns his gaze back to Alan. "I'm sure that it depends on quite how much alcohol that a person has as to whether they become intimate or just physically incapable don't you? After all: ‘it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’" He grins at Alan.

"You need to stop quoting Shakespeare," Alan says solemnly. "Mainly because I'm running out of comebacks and will have to switch to Monty Python quotes next."

"You," Stephen points his finger at Alan. "Have many layers - which does not surprise me at all – and  if you do feel compelled to start quoting Monty Python, then by all means. But I will then feel compelled to respond in kind." He tries to make it sound threatening but it comes out as fond instead.

"Bring me a shrubbery!" Emma exclaims and cackles. Her phone starts ringing, playing a tinny version of Sexual Healing. "Hello boys," she answers, smiling, walking away a bit to take the call.

Alan puts two and two together, his high estimation of Emma going even higher. "Just how many boys does she have?" he asks, and then after a few second's consideration: "And how many girls?"

Stephen glances over at Emma who's talking animatedly on the telephone, her face lit up as she talks to Hugh and Ken. "Two," he tells Alan. "She has two boys. Well, men really - it's been a long time since either of them were boys. Years in fact. And no girls. They don't need anybody else in their triumvirate." His smile is a little sorrowful as he thinks about Hugh and what he wasn't able in the end to give him.

"So..." Stephen takes Alan's glass out of his hand. "Let me get you another of these. Can't have you with an empty glass."  He heads back to the kitchen before Alan can say anything.

There's a story there, Alan thinks but doesn't press. He doesn't know Stephen that well yet really, despite it feeling like they've been friends for years.

"Right, I'm off," Emma says once she’s back. "That was Ken; he and Hugh are a couple of blocks away and will be picking me up. They're..." She hesitates there, uncertainty flickering briefly over her eyes, and Alan can understand that, she doesn't know him that well yet either.

"Your partners," he finishes for her, smiling. "I gathered. They are clearly very lucky to have you."

Emma smiles, relaxing when Alan doesn't comment on her unusual home arrangement further. "Thank you," she says. "You are dreadfully sweet and," she kisses his cheek, "it was a pleasure meeting you. I'm sure we'll be seeing much more of each other in the future."

Before Alan has a chance to more than blink, Emma departs with a wave, going in search of Stephen to say her goodbyes.

Alan looks around, realising that he's on his own in the garden now, the last of the guests must have left while they were chatting. He glances at his watch, surprised to see that it's well past six pm. It could well be time he thought about getting home as well.

Stephen finishes the cocktail by pouring the champagne over the ice cream and the liquors. He omits the grated nutmeg that the recipe calls for - he's never particularly liked that part, finding it gives the cocktail a strange texture. It's then that he hears the step behind him. Turning his head he's not surprised to see Emma.

"You off darling?" he asks.

"I am," Emma agrees, putting her empty glass in the sink. "Hugh and Ken are picking me up, they should be here in a few minutes. So no need to make a third of those." She nods at the two glasses Stephen has finished off. "It's been... an interesting party, as always." She grins. "But lovely of course. And it was great to meet your new... friend, finally. I can see now why you're spending more time in his cafe than you do in your office."

Stephen doesn't respond to that, he knows full well that this won't be the last he hears of this from Emma, but he's pleased that she likes Alan. Emma, Hugh and Ken are the closest thing he has to family and he knows exactly how they can be if they don't like his partners. They'd loathed Cieran and made it pretty damned obvious as well. Not that Alan is his partner of course, he quickly reminds himself, but it would be nice to have that potential.

"Bye darling, I'll see you three for dinner next week?" He leans over and kisses her.  "I'd better get this back to Alan now before it melts too much.”

Emma departs with a wink and Stephen picks up the drinks, heading back out.


***

Alan is balancing a pile of plates and glasses on his arms, heading back to the house. It's been some years since he did waitering but once you got the knack, you don't lose it, he thinks to himself, nudging the conservatory door open with his hip and backing in. He's glad he took the time to tidy up earlier because the day is definitely catching up with him now.

That isn't the only thing. He almost runs into Stephen at the kitchen doorway and they do that ridiculous sideways dancing on the spot thing for a few seconds before Stephen finally steps back and gestures Alan to come in.

"You didn't have to do that," he says, nodding at the dishes.

"I know," Alan says. "I didn't mind. Emma gone?"

Stephen nods. "Everyone is. Finally!" He sounds kind of relieved which reminds Alan of what he came in in the first place for.

"Yeah, it's getting late." He goes to where he left his bag and starts rummaging in it for his phone. "Do you have a number for a local taxi firm?" he asks. "I should get going myself, I'm sure you want your house back."

Stephen's heart sinks at Alan's words as he realises the last thing he wants right now is for Alan to leave, was hoping that Alan would be happy to stay a while and chat, that they might be able to just relax and have a few drinks together. Just chill out.

"Here," he passes Alan one of the cocktails. "I made you another drink. Are you sure you have to go straight away? I know you've had a really busy day and, well you're probably tired but I wondered if you wanted to stay for a bit and have a drink. Or... well," he rubs his hand over the back of his neck. "If you're really tired you could always crash here. I have a number of spare rooms."

Stephen gulps at his cocktail, wondering where the hell that had come from, not quite believing he's asked Alan to stay.

Alan stares, the cocktail frozen half way to his lips. That was... not at all what he expected to hear. "I..." Alan starts but then realises he has no idea how to actually finish that sentence.

The sensible thing would be to politely refuse, order a cab, and go home. Stephen is his customer technically speaking, a paying client whose party Alan just catered, and today's been the first time they even interacted outside the familiar surroundings of Alan's cafe. On the other hand... Stephen's funny and kind, he jokes with Alan and doesn't treat him like an imbecile because of his age or lack of qualifications. And today he's introduced Alan to his friends and indeed treated Alan like he counted him among them.

But it's none of that that finally sways his decision. It's the memory of Stephen's hand on his shoulder and his concerned 'Are you alright?' after that whole incident with Brad that makes Alan put his phone back into his bag. "I believe I was promised a shower," he says, smiling a little uncertainly. "If I'm staying, I don't want to spend the rest of the night in this shirt."

"Um, yes, yes of course," Stephen is as shocked at Alan's response as he was about his own offer of staying the night. "I'll show you to the guest room that you can use. It has an en-suite wet room." Stephen is trying very hard not to think about Alan showering in his house. The more time he spends with Alan, the more he's enjoying his company and wondering whether there would be the chance of taking this further.

Putting his drink down, he waits until Alan has picked his bag up and then he leads him upstairs. The guest room that he shows Alan to is two down from his own bedroom. "Everything is already made up," he says, "and there are towels in the bathroom. You'll find new toothbrushes and toothpaste in the cupboard. I'll..." he turns and finds Alan staring at him with a smile on his face.  "Anyway, I'll see you downstairs when you're done."

Stephen hurries out of the room and goes to his own bedroom where he changes into more comfortable clothes; black jogging trousers and a grey t-shirt. His normal habit is to shower before going to bed and he'll keep to that tonight.

He does a cursory round in the garden, gathering dishes and rubbish, but leaving them stacked up in the kitchen. There’s plenty of time to sort the house tomorrow as it’s Bank Holiday. Or even later in the week. After all, one of the advantages of summer is not having to go to the university unless he has to and Stephen had planned spending the week working from his home office.

The after-party necessities seen to, Stephen settles in the lounge and a few moments later he's comfortably sat on the sofa and sipping at his cocktail.


***


Alan stands in the large bathroom for a while, staring at himself in the mirror. He kind of wants to laugh but is a little afraid that if he starts he won't be able to stop. After a moment's hesitation he pulls out his phone again and texts Bill, just a quick, 'staying with a friend' followed by an address. He's 99.9% sure that Stephen won't murder him in his sleep, but then again he never thought Fil would hit him in drugged up rage either so maybe Alan's instinct isn't to be trusted completely.

He takes a quick shower despite wanting to linger to enjoy it, and changes into the t-shirt and worn comfortable jeans he brought with him. When he gets back downstairs he finds Stephen on the sofa, drink in hand and BBC news on the telly.

It's so ridiculously homey that Alan almost feels like he's intruding but then Stephen notices him in the doorway and turns around to smile at him.

"I don't think I've seen you out of your suit before," Alan blurts out.

"Oh dear. Did you think that I stayed professorial not matter what?" Stephen smiles. "Trust me Alan, I'm more than happy to relax as soon as I get home and away from my students. Also, don't stand there looking like a spare part - come and sit down.  I was just checking the news headlines that's all."

Alan's eyes take in the room; walls lined with book cases, photographs dotted among the numerous volumes, and the centre taken over by a large comfortable looking three-piece suite. One of the armchairs is piled with Stephen's briefcase and files of paper, and the other one is further away, on the other side of the coffee table. Alan's gaze lands on the large sofa, Stephen at the other end, and then he sits down, curling his bare feet under him before he has a chance to second guess himself.

"Thank you," he says, picking up the waiting glass. "Your shower is great."

Stephen ducks his head and takes a long, much needed mouthful of cocktail, trying very hard not to think about how Alan might have looked in his shower; body wet and slippery.

"Thank you," he answers. "There are certain things that I feel are very important; good coffee," he grins at Alan, "big comfortable beds, deep baths and good fierce showers. There are of course other things that are just as important, but those are some of the things I want in my home."

He likes the fact that Alan has come to sit on the sofa, likes the fact that Alan has stayed and this evening is turning out to be much nicer than he expected. "So thank you very much for today, and for putting all of that together at such short notice. Everybody was suitably impressed, as you know from the amount of business cards you garnered."

Alan thumps the back of his head against the sofa cushions. "That's going to be bit of a double-edged sword," he says. "I wasn't kidding about needing to hire someone. The cafe's been pretty busy over the summer and that's before the students descend... There's no way I can keep that going and do any kind of catering all on my own."

"Good though surely," Stephen says. "But yes you're really going to be busy. Perhaps you need to limit yourself to how many catering jobs you take, and perhaps don't take them on three days’ notice.  You look absolutely shattered."

Which is no lie. Alan really does look tired.

Alan rolls his head to the side, looking at Stephen along the sofa back. "Wow thanks, you say the sweetest things." His sarcasm is somewhat undermined by the massive yawn that takes over his face. “Oh, speaking of!” He gets up and wanders out toward the kitchen and then back again a moment later with a platter of cheesecake and two forks.

“I saved you some,” he explains, shoving the thing into Stephen’s unresisting hands.

They chat amicably for a while, sharing the cheesecake, commenting on the news and Stephen’s guests, but over time Alan’s responses are getting slower and slower, until they finally stop altogether.

Glancing over, Stephen is not surprised to see Alan has fallen asleep on the sofa. His head is tilted back and he’s snoring slightly. Stephen watches him for a few minutes and then realising that he’s being a bit of a creepster he gently shakes Alan by the shoulder.

“Huh, what…” Alan blinks at him.

“Bedtime for you,” Stephen tells him. “Come on Alan, you’re falling asleep where you sit.” He stands and stretches out a hand to Alan. Alan stares at it for a moment and then he lets Stephen pull him up from the sofa, leaning into him. Alan is sleepy and warm and Stephen is left with no choice except to put his arm around him. “Come on,” he repeats and starts to lead Alan out of the lounge. Alan continues to lean against him, completely malleable. He manages to get Alan up the stairs without too much bouncing off the walls and down the corridor to the guest bedroom. Alan staggers a little as Stephen lets go of him as they enters the bedroom.

“Ooops,” he says turning and grinning at Stephen. And then before Stephen can do anything Alan has collapsed face down on the bed. Stephen thinks that Alan will be uncomfortable in his jeans but he isn’t exactly going to take them off for him. If Alan wants to sleep in his t-shirt and jeans then so be it. Stephen steps over to the bed and pulls the quilt over Alan who snuggles deeper into the bed, hugging the pillow a bit like a little kid. Stephen stares and then turns his back and heads to his bedroom.

He wants Alan, that’s pretty obvious to himself and Stephen drops down onto his own bed and takes out his phone to text Hugh.

Text from Stephen, Sunday 20.41
Oh god is it too late to change my mind and join you all in a foursome after all? That is seeming like the less complicated option right now.

It’s only seconds before Hugh responds.

Text from Hugh, Sunday 20.42
lol.  emma told us about your baker boy.

Fast on its heels, a text comes through from Ken also.

Text from Ken, Sunday 20.42
no, not too late, com here big boy i wantkjs;lgfl;mnerf

He rolls his eyes, assuming that Emma had – blessedly! – taken the phone off Ken before he managed to describe just exactly what he wanted to do.

Speaking of the devil, the phone rings at that point, Emma’s name flashing on the screen.  “Yes?” Stephen asks, answering.

Emma doesn’t say a word and only laughs at him solidly for two minutes before Stephen hangs up on her because really, his friends are arseholes.

Turning his phone off, he drops it onto the dresser next to the bed and gets ready for bed.  It’s early still, but like Alan he finds himself tired. Somehow though he doesn’t think he’ll sleep particularly well with Alan down the hallway.


***


Alan wakes up in a strange but very comfortable bed, wrapped around a large pillow. He knows where he is straight away - in Stephen's guest room - but he has only the fuzziest of memories of how he got there. They had been watching the news, and then Alan had remembered about the cheesecake and... He thinks Stephen had liked it, the memory of his delighted smile swimming around in Alan's mind and then...

Then he must have fallen asleep on the sofa. Alan squeezes his eyes shut and thumps his head against the pillow, which is downy soft and thus not particularly useful for self-recrimination. But seriously, how embarrassing, snoring and drooling and probably looking extremely ridiculous on Stephen's sofa. Plus he'd wasted a perfectly good opportunity to actually have a conversation with the man, to get to know him better, which is definitely something Alan wants to do.

Stephen makes him laugh and think, and makes him feel safe, which is probably why falling asleep in front of  him had come so easily. Alan is pretty sure Stephen had made sure he got to bed to sleep rather than leaving him on the sofa, and there's a hazy memory of stumbling up the stairs and bumping into a wall, and Stephen's warm hand at the small of his back...

Alan rolls onto his back and sits up. He's in his t-shirt and boxers, his jeans in a heap on the floor. Well, that's a relief at least, because if Stephen had actually gone as far as undressing him for bed - and Alan finds himself having not nearly as many objections about that as he probably should - then they would surely be neatly folded on a chair or something.

He leans over the edge and fishes his mobile out of the jeans pocket, relieved to see that it isn't too late. Just past nine which is a decent hour for a Bank Holiday if much later than he's used to getting up. Alan sits in the bed for a while longer, almost reluctant to get up. It's nice here, in Stephen's warm and airy house, and Alan doesn't really want to leave, ridiculous as that is.

But then again... Stephen didn't want him to leave either, did he? He's the one who asked Alan to stay over. Surely that must mean... something.

He hears a door opening then, and foot steps down the hall. They slow and then stop outside his door and Alan holds his breath, not sure whether he wants Stephen to come in or not, but then the steps resume again and Alan listens to Stephen walking downstairs. He lets out his breath, grabs the pillow and smacks himself on the face with it, telling himself to get a grip.

It's definitely time to get up though. His host is awake and hopefully coffee and breakfast were included in the offer to crash. Alan swings his legs out of the bed, padding toward the bathroom. Shower first and then he'd see.


***


Stephen is humming along to the radio when he catches movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns to see Alan hovering in the doorway to the kitchen. He’s dressed in his outfit of the previous night; jeans and t-shirt. He’s barefoot though and his hair is all damp, no doubt from the shower.

He looks a little unsure of himself and seeing him like this, Stephen just wants to eat him up.

“Good morning,” Stephen says. “Would you like some coffee?”

Alan smiles. “That makes a change for you to ask me that. Yes please.” He ventures into the kitchen. “I could smell the coffee from upstairs.”

Stephen pours Alan a mug and pushes the sugar and milk over to him. “There’s cream as well if you want that,” he says.

Alan shakes his head and adds sugar and milk to his drink. “This is fine thanks.” He takes a sniff of the coffee. “Colombian – just what the doctor ordered. Nice and strong.”

Stephen takes a mouthful of his own brew. “Did you sleep well?” he asks. He most definitely hadn’t. He’d spent most of the night tossing and turning which he put down hundred percent to having Alan sleeping two doors down from his bedroom.

“Like a log,” Alan responds. “I woke up at one point in the night and got undressed. Other than that I just zonked. I haven’t slept so well in a while. Clearly that’s what late nights and last minute catering does for me. And, well…” he looks embarrassed. “I’m sorry for falling asleep on your sofa. That was just rude of me.”

Stephen laughs. “No harm done, Alan. You clearly needed the sleep.” He takes a mouthful of his coffee and then tops it up from the machine. “Would you like some breakfast? I have plenty of fruit and also I was thinking of making pancakes. I have bacon and syrup if you like the sound of that?”

He watches as Alan inhales the coffee before responding. “Yes please,” he answers. “I’d like all of that. I can’t remember the last time somebody made me pancakes.” Truth be told he hadn’t really been expecting Stephen to cook anything more taxing than toast, or maybe bacon butties. Pancakes were a treat.

“Help yourself to more coffee if you want it,” Stephen nods towards the coffee machine. “I’ll get cracking on breakfast.” He turns away to get the ingredients. It’s been awhile since he cooked breakfast for anybody and he’s quite looking forward to it.


***


Alan yawns, dragging himself downstairs and into the cafe kitchen. The bread delivery is waiting outside the backdoor and he had the foresight to make three types of muffin batter yesterday after Stephen had dropped him home. He smiles, thinking about the unexpected... friendship that had grown between them as he puts on the coffee and the oven. Muffins in, he pours himself a mugful and sits down for a bit. Sleeping late yesterday had been great but it had messed with his internal schedule. Thankfully, he has cookies and croissants in the freezer and cakes can wait until a bit later. Nobody wants a Victoria sponge first thing in the morning. Well Stephen might ... Without thinking about it too much Alan takes his mobile out.

Text from Alan, Tuesday 07.30
You shouldn't have let me sleep so late. I'm all out of rhythm now and just want to crawl back to bed. If today's carrot cake tastes like beets or something you're explaining it to the customers.

Stephen laughs as he reads the text from Alan. It's a surprise to receive, but a pleasant surprise. He has a moment thinking about Alan's rhythm and then shakes his head.

Text from Stephen, Tuesday 07.45
Morning Alan. Well if the carrot cake tastes like beets you can tell people you're trying out a new recipe. I'm not going to apologise for letting you sleep late - you clearly needed it. Besides I'm sure you wouldn't have wanted me looming over you in bed at 7.00am.

Alan rather thinks Stephen is wrong about that although ideally he'd find Stephen in bed with him in the morning because he went to bed with him the previous night. Not something that he's going to say over a text. Or ever. Instead he sends:

Text from Alan, Tuesday 07.51
And whose fault was it that I needed the sleep? Anyway, making salami and roasted pepper sandwiches, in case you have time for lunch today. If you let me know I can keep one aside for you for the afternoon


***


Alan is carrying a new coffee and walnut cake from the kitchen, carefully balancing the tray on one hand while he opens the display case with the other, so it's no wonder he's not paying much attention to the customers. Eve, the new part-time assistant, is dealing with the orders anyway so Alan is excused from not clocking the man leaning on the counter at first, no matter how intensely he's staring at Alan. Which he is doing. Very intensely indeed. With a leer.

Alan blinks, looks around to see if Eve is behind him and wearing something non-work appropriate but no, she's making a latte for an old lady and wearing her usual t-shirt and jeans combo. Which means...

Alan turns back to the guy gazing at him from behind the counter like he's a piece of prime steak, the man's shaggy blond hair failing to hide the gleam in his eyes.

"Can I help you?" Alan asks.

"Well now..." Ken looks him up and down. Alan really is quite good looking, although not at all what Ken had been expecting.  But then Emma really hadn't said that much about Stephen's new interest; other than that he was younger than Stephen and certainly seemed able to take care of himself. She'd mentioned to them about the altercation with Brad. If nothing else Ken is disposed to give him the time of day just for that but they still have to check him out. They wouldn't be Stephen's friends if they didn't.

"I suppose it depends really on whether you're as tasty as that cake that you're carrying?"

Alan barks a laugh in surprise. It's been a while since someone tried to hit on him that blatantly. "Oh I definitely am," he says, grinning. "But, unlike this cake here, I'm not for sale. Nor are there any free tasters," he adds.

Ken pouts at him but he can't help grinning back. "Brains as well as beauty," he answers. "I am impressed. So will you be able to serve me or should I ask your pretty but rather busy assistant?"

"I'll be happy to serve you cake and whatever beverage you'd like to go with that," Alan says. "Where are you sitting?"

"Oh we're over there." Ken waves toward the back of the cafe where Hugh and Emma are sitting. "I think we'd like three different types of cake please, any type is fine. We like to live dangerously so why don't you surprise us." He looks Alan up and down again. "And to drink a pot of tea for two and a large full fat coffee with mint cordial if you have it. If not, hazelnut will do. Just something ridiculously sweet and unhealthy." He turns away and heads back to Hugh and Emma.

"Oh," he grins over his shoulder. "And if you have some spare cream then a lot of that in the coffee."

Alan follows the line of the man's hand to a table where another man, this one taller and thinner, sits together with... Emma. Emma who waves at him, looking equal measures of amused and apologetic.

"Um, I, sure," Alan says, automatically jotting down the order while his mind is busy putting one and two together and coming up with 'Emma and her 'boys'' and 'what the fuck are they doing here' and 'fuck, Stephen's friends’ and also 'mint cordial, seriously’ because, well, seriously?

He slips to the backroom under the pretence of finding a new bottle of hazelnut syrup, grateful for the opportunity to get his face under control. What the hell were Emma and her partners doing here?

"You okay, boss?" Eve pokes her head in. "Those friends of yours?"

"Yeah... Yeah, I'll take their order in," Alan says, "Don't worry about it."


***


Ken carefully avoids Emma's gaze as he sits down on the wall bench, elbowing Hugh and ignoring his "Hey," until Hugh moves over slightly. To be honest, Ken could quite easily have taken one of the empty seats but he'd much rather sit down next to Hugh and annoy him.

"So I ordered," he tells Emma grinning at her. "We have cake and drinks coming, and also I have a bone to pick with you."  Emma raises her right eyebrow but says nothing. "You said nothing about just how very pretty he is."

Emma rolls her eyes, struggling and probably failing to hide her amusement. Ken and Hugh had been whining at her to take them to see Alan and his cafe ever since she'd told them about meeting him at Stephen's party. She'd had no intentions to do that at first, because whatever it was between Alan and Stephen, it was clearly still fairly new, and she suspected Stephen would rather they were left alone to muddle through it without outside help.

But. Well... Reason didn't work so well with Ken and his insatiable curiosity, and when he got Hugh on his side too and started talking about how they could just go and 'check out this potential gold-digger toyboy' without her, Emma had picked the lesser of two evils and tagged along. At least this way she could keep some kind of control on the two of them, and hopefully protect any of them from being murdered by Stephen.

"I was trying to delay your meeting and the inevitable trauma your leering will no doubt give the poor guy," Emma says to Ken.

Hugh huffs in amusement but his gaze is fixed on Alan who is presumably preparing their order behind the counter, and the look in his eyes is only a couple of shades less intense than Ken's

Hugh's glasses slide down his nose and he pushes them up with his middle finger, blinking slightly at Emma.  "Oh really, that's not fair," he say. "I think you're underestimating him a little, Emma. After all, we just want to make sure that Stephen isn't making a foolish mistake. We all know that he's lonely, and that's not a good situation for him. He does stupid things."

Hugh knows all about the types of stupid mistakes that Stephen is capable of making; after all they were a couple for just over two years until they both realised that no matter how much they might try to make it work, it really wasn't going to.

"We're his friends," he says, tone intense now as he leans forward. "And we do our best for him."

Emma sighs, reaching over to squeeze Hugh's hand and smack at Ken's which is busily creeping toward the container of sugars, intent no doubt on shredding them. The only times she's ever seen Ken still is when he's asleep or writing.

"Of course we will," she tells Hugh. "But I really do think that the only mistake he's liable to make with Alan is to... Alan, hi!" Emma says brightly, looking up as Alan walks up to the table. "It's great to see you again."

Hugh watches carefully as Alan responds to Emma with a smile before starting to empty his tray onto the table. Ken's hand slides onto his knee reassuringly, which is silly. He and Stephen were over a very long time ago and he's been with Emma and Ken for longer than he ever was with Stephen. But he appreciates the thought; Ken might come across as a dickhead most of the time but he's ridiculously loyal to those he cares about.

There are three different types of cake, tea and a large coffee topped with cream.  "That's mine," he tells Alan, who's hesitating as to where to put it.

“It's with hazelnut and chocolate syrup," Alan says, placing the concoction in front of the tall man giving him a careful onceover. "He said you liked it sweet, hope he wasn't lying."

"Ken wouldn't dare," Emma says. "And this is Hugh," she points at the guy with the apparent sweet tooth.

They both reach over the table to shake Alan's hand, Hugh brief and firm and Ken lingering just to the edge of uncomfortable.

"It's nice to meet you," Alan says, even though he's not sure yet if it's actually that nice at all. Slightly intimidating might be a better way of describing it.

Alan excuses himself as soon as the drinks are down and the introductions over. It's clear as a day that Stephen's friends are here for more than the cakes but damn if Alan knows what it is. Unless it's to kindly tell him to stop making a fool of himself... Once at the back he takes his phone out to text Stephen and ask.

Text from Alan, Friday 14.03
So Emma, Hugh and Ken are currently eating cakes in my cafe and staring at me like I’m an interesting specimen they want to dissect. I wondered if you had an explanation...?


***


The talk Stephen is attending is thoroughly boring; the speaker's voice a monotone and Stephen is relieved when his phone vibrates in his pocket. His pleasure at the distraction lasts only until he reads the message though. Cursing softly, he sends Emma a quick, to the point, question.

Text from Stephen, Friday 14.05
What the hell are you playing at?

He follows it up with a text to Alan.

Text from Stephen Friday 14.09
No, I have no idea what they're doing there. AND I'M NOT HAPPY... And trust me when I tell you that three of them is better than two. At least if Emma is there they'll behave. Up to a point!!! However, please feel free to be as rude as possible to them if you desire. Don't hold back because they're my friends and if Ken starts being a sleaze slap him down. It's the only way to deal with him like that.

Emma was expecting this but she won't let Hugh or Ken know, just pretending the text is from the colleague.

Text from Emma, Friday 14.10
Look it was either this or Hugh and Ken would've come here on their own. I won't let them traumatise Alan too much. I do like him you know!

Alan raises eyebrows at Stephen's vehement reply, feeling better about the whole thing now.

Text from Alan, Friday 14.12
LOL. That's good then because I already told Ken he couldn't sample anything but cakes.

Stephen grinds his teeth at Alan's text and the thought of what else Ken might have said to Alan.

Text from Stephen to Alan, Friday 14.13
Good. Ken has the manners of a warthog.

He sends another one for Emma, before reluctantly putting his phone away and pretending to focus back on the lecture.

Text from Stephen, Friday 14.15
You could have warned me and I find it rather invidious that the three of you waited until I'm away.


***


Ken pours the tea for Emma and himself because he knows that to assume Emma should do it, is to invite a rant about feminism and the perception of women in society. All of which he agrees with. Besides she's going to be pretty pissed off by the time they leave in any event. He has no intention of winding her up over tea pouring. Ken glances at Hugh who is simply toying with his piece of cake, and silently sighs. No matter what happens here Hugh will be hurt and Ken wishes there was something he and Emma could do about stopping that happening. "I'm going to get some sandwiches," he announces as he stands up.

"Ken..." Emma's voice has a warning note in it. "Behave."

"Don't I always?"

He ignores her sharp "No. You really don't," and heads over to the counter where a slightly harried looking Alan is waiting to serve.

Ken leans his elbows on the counter and grins broadly at him. "Can I order some sandwiches please?  Cake is all well and good at times but don't you feel it sets your teeth on edge after a while?  Although I'm sure you eat so many cakes you're quite sweet aren't you. Tell me, Alan," Ken lowers his voices a little, "Do you taste sweet?"

The mellowing effect of Stephen's text has vanished as Alan's had to spend fifteen minutes arguing with one of his suppliers, so when Ken comes back to the counter and starts with his innuendo again, Alan is not in the mood.

"Not today," he says, trying and probably failing to keep most of the snap out of his voice. "What kind of sandwiches would you like? We have salmon on rye, halloumi with roasted peppers, and Tuna Niçoise ready made at the moment."

Ken tilts his head and smirks at Alan. "Oh now that's a shame. I'm sure you're very pleasant when you're being sweet. So... sandwiches, sandwiches. What do I want?" He makes a point of looking over the contents under the counter.

"I think I would like halloumi and peppers on rye bread if you have it, salmon on rye and then beetroot, gherkins, cheese, tuna and boiled eggs please.  On crusty white.  Oh and some crisps if you don't serve your sandwiches with those."

Alan grits his teeth, counts to ten and thinks about shoving a gherkin right into Ken's mouth to shut him up. Then he says: "We don't have any beetroots in today, I'm afraid. There is cress or rocket salad if you'd prefer that."

 "What, not even pickled beetroot? Surely not - I mean can't your assistant go next door to the shop and buy a jar of pickled beetroot."

Alan carefully puts down the glasses he's been stacking and leans over the counter himself, getting right in Ken's face. "No," he says. "And I will tell you why. The shop next door is a Premier one, great for cheap vodka, fags, and a pint of milk, should you need some. There probably is a jar of pickled beetroots there as well and it's probably at least a year out of date and encrusted with god knows what. Fresh beetroots are actually in season at the moment and come Monday I will get a delivery of those, as well as aubergine, courgette and fennel. However, it is Friday afternoon now so what we have left is rocket and cress and they, like all my produce, are locally grown and organic and bloody delicious. So you will have those in your sandwich, with cheese and gherkins, but I will not let you ruin it with tuna and egg in the same one."

He takes a deep breath and stands back, smiling at Ken with a lot of teeth. "Go sit down now and I will bring the sandwiches over when they are done."

Ken stares for a moment and then he throws his head back, laughing loudly. "Oh I like you," he tells Alan. "You have bite on top of everything else. I can see why Stephen likes you. One thing though Alan," he straightens up, suddenly serious. "Friendship is one of the most tangible things in a world which offers fewer and fewer supports. Remember that."

He turns away before Alan can say anything and heads back to the table.

Alan stares after him, annoyed and confused in equal measure. "Bloody posh tossers and their bloody propensity for quotes," he mutters to himself, heading to the kitchen to make the sandwiches as ordered. Well, mostly as ordered.

It's pretty clear though what the allusion to friendship was hinting at and Alan's not sure whether to be flattered or discouraged that Stephen's closest friends have apparently trooped out all special like to check out him and his livelihood. He's even less sure he'll pass the muster, but at the same time oddly uncaring. What matters is that Stephen doesn't seem to have a problem with who Alan is or what he does, or with the bordering-on-flirty texts and conversations they've been having.

The thought makes him pull out his mobile again.

Text from Alan, Friday 14.47
Ken is never allowed to order a sandwich again.


***


Stephen has been constantly checking his mobile to see whether or not he's been sent any other texts, either from Alan, or his extremely annoying and soon to be dead friends.  He laughs out loud at Alan's text about the sandwich, drawing filthy looks from a few of the other attendees sat around him.

Text from Stephen to Alan, Friday 14.56
Oh dear. Well I imagine it was one of his more disgusting combinations.  I bet there were gherkins and beetroot in it. Just ignore him - I do most of the time. I should to point out though that at least these texts are more interesting than the talk I'm currently listening to. :)


***


"You look way too pleased about yourself," Emma says when Ken comes back to the table, smiling like the proverbial cat.

Hugh hums in agreement. "Did you get him to flirt back with you?" he asks, not knowing which answer he'd actually prefer and thinking that it probably made him a bad friend.

Ken throws Emma a quick glance and then slides back down next to Hugh, throwing his arm around Hugh's shoulders and giving him a quick squeeze. "I really, really didn't," he tells them, shaking his head.  "He's about as prickly as a cactus and certainly gives as good as he gets. I wish Stephen luck with that one. I think he'll give him a run for his money but I also think he might be good for him."

Hugh smiles, and if there's a needle of regret there somewhere, it's swamped by genuine joy about potential happiness for his friend. "That's... good, that's good."


***


Alan picks up the tray full of sandwiches and heads over. He'd been more than tempted to tell Eve to take them over, but that would've probably just meant that Ken would've found another excuse to come and loiter at the counter. Which seriously, he was starting to put off customers.

It's obvious that his arrival interrupts a discussion of some sorts, probably about him, though none of them have the grace to look even slightly guilty. Alan does his best to ignore the obvious. "Here you go," he says, putting plates onto the table. "Something savoury to go with your cakes. Anything else I can get you?"

Emma smiles at him. "Thank you Alan. Those look delicious, and no I think we're good for now.  Don't need anything just yet although we might want some more tea in a bit, but don't worry about us.  If we do, I'll come over and ask for it." She gives Ken a look. "Ken won't be bothering you again today Alan."

"Today?" Alan repeats. "Somehow that's not the comfort you might mean it to be," he mutters under his breath before gathering his tray and taking the out when it's given.

Back behind the counter he keeps a surreptitious eye on the trio, not sure what to think of them. Emma he likes, although so far he's questioning her taste in men. Ken has been nothing but obnoxious and Hugh is still a complete enigma, tight-lipped and watching him over the rim of his coffee mug.

Emma is pretty damned annoyed with the way that Ken has been acting, but she's also not hugely surprised. Finishing her cup of tea she stands up, pushing her chair back and heads over to the counter. To Alan.  She has a question, a favour to ask him and is really hoping that today won't put him off.

Alan watches Emma approaching a little warily, thankful though that she's left the men behind. "Ran out of tea?" he asks when she's close enough, smiling. He does like her.

"Yes," she smiles back at him. "I do tend to be a bit of a tea addict. Could we have another pot please Alan, with an extra cup for Hugh?  He's only allowed one OTT coffee in a day, otherwise he ends up climbing the walls. So," she leans on the counter. "I'm not going to apologise for our visiting today, because if it hadn't have been the three of us, then it would just have been Hugh and Ken, and that you wouldn't have liked. I do apologise for Ken being a dickhead but..." she shrugs. "He's not always like that. But I did have something to ask you."

Alan starts to prepare the pot of tea automatically, considering Emma's words. She's right, he doesn't think he would have appreciated Ken and Hugh showing up on their own. He'll reserve judgement on Ken's dickheadedness until later, though the man must have some redeeming qualities to have a chance with a woman like Emma.

"Alright," he says finally, putting the teapot and a third cup and saucer onto a tray. "What is it?" He sounds wary even to his own ears but it can't be helped.

"I don't know if Stephen has mentioned it to you, but it's his birthday soon. Stephen had a pretty awful birthday last year so I, well we, wanted to throw him a surprise party. I'd like to ask you to cater, but I'd very much like it if you would come along as a guest too. What do you say?" she asks.

Well, that's not what he was expecting at all. "No, no he hasn't said anything about a birthday," Alan says, annoyed. Bloody typical of Stephen too. Alan sighs in exasperation. "Yes, yes of course I'll cater for it. When is it and how many people? I'm really hoping that you're giving me more than three days’ notice here, unlike Stephen..."

Emma laughs.  "No I'm not quite as disorganized as Stephen. I don't leave things to the last minute," although she secretly thinks it took Stephen days to pluck up the courage to ask Alan to cater his party because he liked him.

"So I'm planning on inviting about 20 people, so with Stephen, you and us," she turns and glares at Hugh and Ken who both wave back at her. "It should be 25, and how are you at making birthday cakes?"

"Cake?" Alan blinks already thinking about the task of making a birthday cake big enough for 25 people and special enough to be good enough for Stephen. "Um, yeah I... I can make the cake. Do you think... Do you think coffee and chocolate one would be okay?" he asks, fidgeting with the napkins. "You know, would it be the kind of thing Stephen would... like?"

It's all that Emma can do to not grin at Alan. Clearly he and Stephen are as bad as each other, and she wonders just how much of a push they might need to get together, and even heaven forbid go out on a date! It's sweet though, seeing how he's fidgeting and trying not to be obvious about how important this is to him and she's happy that she thought to ask him to cater for the party.

"I think that Stephen would be happy with any cake that you make for him Alan, but yes - chocolate and coffee would go down very well. He's rather partial to both as I'm sure you're finding out."

She passes him her business card.  "Here's my card," she tells him. "I don't really want to spend more than £500.00 on the actual food so if you can give me some suggestions as to what you can do for that, and let me know how much the cake will cost on top of that.  Obviously don't forget to factor in your time Alan. I don't expect any kind of discount because this is for Stephen."

He blushes slightly at that and she wants to do nothing more than pat him on the head.  "Oh yes, and I forgot to mention, it would be in two weeks’ time - is that sufficient?"

"Yeah, that's..." Alan does a quick calculation in his head but he's got four times the time and twice the manpower compared to Stephen's garden party so he should be able to pull this off no problem. "That's fine," he says, pocketing Emma's card. "I'll do some costing and give you an email with some menu suggestions in a couple of days, if that's fine."

Emma nods, smiling. The expression on her face is close enough to a smug smirk that Alan is feeling a little transparent, but thankfully she doesn't push him to talk about Stephen. Instead she digs out her purse and pays for what they've ordered, stuffing a fiver into a tip jar too, before heading back to the table.

Alan gets busy with other customers and, if he's honest, distracted with thinking about Stephen's birthday menu and what to get him for a present - because really, a cake was a cake and not a present. The next time he notices Emma, Ken and Hugh is when they're getting up, pausing to wave at him from the door; Emma jauntily, Ken blowing an exaggerated kiss and Hugh lifting his hand almost solemnly. Alan waves back, belatedly realising he's holding a pink dishcloth.

"So a birthday party, eh?" Eve asks, jolting Alan out of his thoughts.

He turns to look at her. It would be pointless to accuse her of eavesdropping when he's going to ask her to do extra hours to cover the cafe so that he can focus on the party. "Yeah," he says. "Looks like."

Eve smiles brightly. "Surprise parties are the best! I'm sure your..." She hesitates a little but then goes with: "friend will love it."

Alan kind of wants to hide his face in the dishcloth but instead he just coughs, telling Eve to please go clear the tables because it's closing time. Apparently his stupid crush is obvious even to people who've only ever seen him and Stephen interact a couple of times. What is his life?


***


Alan misses Stephen. Which is stupid because he's only been gone for a few days and he's due back in a few more and it's not like they saw each other every day when he is in town. Well, actually pretty much every day except on Sundays when Alan's cafe is closed. But still. Stupid. Alan would be more annoyed with himself if Stephen didn't seem to be finding as many excuses to text him as vice versa.  As it is he reckons they're both being a little stupid about this, or at least he hopes so.

Alan flips on the kettle and reaches for his phone trying not to think when texting Stephen became as automatic as that.

Text from Alan, Tuesday 07.16
Tea, tea, tea. One thing I miss about being in a relationship (and there aren't many not about my last) is that occasionally someone else would make it for you. Like breakfast.

He sends it off, thinking about how nice it had been to wake up at Stephen's and walk to the kitchen to find him cooking.

Stephen smiles at his phone, not caring that he's probably grinning like a Cheshire cat right now. The texting between them has been ongoing since his party and Alan staying over. He likes that the first texts he receives each day are now from Alan.

Text from Stephen, Tuesday 07.25
Tea. How shocking. Don't you run a coffee shop? I know what you mean about having food cooked for you though. It's one of the things I like most in a relationship as well - being able to cook a meal for my partner. Not that there's been the opportunity to do that for a while. However, I digress.

Stephen stops himself from going any further down the road of his failed relationships. He's sure Alan isn't interested.

Text from Stephen (cont.), Tuesday 07.25
But not baking - I can't bake to save my life. I'm sure at some point Emma will tell you the story of the egg custard disaster!!! But cooking yes. I make a mean lamb curry. You could let me make it for you some time.

Alan blinks, tea mug half way to his mouth. Then he starts to grin. Unless he's very much mistaken Stephen just invited him for dinner. And sure it could be just a friendly thing but it could not.

Text from Alan, Tuesday 07.29
Well I reckon between the two of us we have both baking and cooking covered then. And I love a good curry so that's an offer I can't refuse. Or want to.

Stephen types 'it's a date,' into his phone and then carefully deletes the words, really not too sure how Alan might take it. Knows what he'd like the response to be but isn't ready for disappointment just yet. After all he is a lot older than Alan and this could just be a friendship thing on Alan's part. Which, as he hastily assures himself, is fine. So, a more cautious approach is needed.

Text from Stephen, Tuesday 07.35
That's good then. I'm rather partial to Indian food so I'm likely to make a bit of a feast. We can spend a few hours being piglets if you like although I have no intention of having my house blown down just yet. So when I'm back from this conference we should organise something.

Alan kind of wants to ask if this something they're organising is a date but he's frankly too chicken shit. Well possibly he'll just be able to tell at the time and not embarrass himself unnecessarily.

Text from Alan, Tuesday 07.38
Looking forward to that then? When are you back? My espresso machine is pining...


***


Alan is grabbing a hasty lunch in a lull between customers. It's Eve's day off and Alan is starting to wonder how he ever managed without her. It might be time to hire someone else too. There's no new message from Stephen which he knows but it doesn't stop him checking his phone again. Alan reminds himself that Stephen is busy and he shouldn't worry about it. Thing is though, it's not just his espresso machine that's pining.

Stephen has been standing at the hotel bar for the last hour with an old friend who he'd happened to bump into. They've been catching up on each other's personal lives - lots to catch up on with Rowan, not so much on Stephen's side. Rowan has headed back into the conference, allowing Stephen some free time. The next talk he's attending is in a couple of hours. He takes out his phone to catch up on his texts, automatically checking Alan's first. There are no new ones, just the one from the morning which Stephen didn’t quite know how to respond to at the time.

Text from Stephen, Tuesday 12.09
Pining is that right? Well I'm pining for the coffee and the quiet of your cafe. What am I going to do when you go on holiday? Are you going on holiday? You need to warn me when you do so. So I'm back in a couple of days and we should do curry soon. After all the nights are drawing in and it's getting colder.

Stephen is already planning out the Indian meal in his head; onion bhajis, mushroom pakora, chutney, lamb Rogan Josh, rice and naan - all homemade. The thought of having someone to cook for other than the triumvirate is filling him with a warm feeling, especially as it's Alan.


***


Alan is flopping on his sofa, cafe closed and cleaned. He's grinning at Stephen's message, tempted to say something about how there are better ways to warm up than coffee but ... yeah, perhaps not.

Text from Alan, Tuesday 18.06
Holiday? What is this mythical thing you speak of? Besides if I'd go then I'd need to have cover so the cafe would still be open so I'm sure you would survive. Rain and cold means more customers escaping the weather so I can't complain too much. I would be happy to let you warm me up with a hot home cooked meal.

And any other way you want, Alan thinks, though he isn't anywhere near brave enough to say so.


***


Despite Stephen doubting it at times, the conference does come to an end eventually and before the week is over he’s back to his usual rhythm of work, Alan’s café, home, Alan’s café, work… Their conversations are getting longer and more overtly flirtatious. Every time Stephen goes in determined to put an end to his foolish behaviour and every time he is overcome by Alan’s easy smile and welcoming chatter.

Tonight he’s not in Alan’s café though, but instead enjoying a home-cooked meal with some old friends.

"Oh my, that was good." Stephen puts down his cutlery and wipes up the remaining cream sauce with his bread.

He sits back in the chair and rubs his stomach, smiling across the table at Emma. "I'll say one thing Emma: if there were no other reason for being with Ken this would be it. He can cook if nothing else." His comment is a little barbed but he doesn't particularly care. Ken has been somewhat annoying the whole evening, making jibes about Alan and asking Stephen when he was going to man up.

They’re not comments that Stephen particularly appreciates, but they're not unexpected. Especially now that his friends have all met Alan.

"Hey, that's not fair." Ken protests.

"Oh shut up Ken," Stephen tells him. "Just because you can make a truly excellent salmon and lobster ravioli does not mean you can get away with saying what you like.  Even if there is chocolate mousse for afterwards."

"It does help though, doesn't it Stephen?" Hugh asks, smiling. "Always with the sweet tooth." He pats Stephen's shoulder affectionately as he gets up, starting to clear away the dishes. "And now you've found yourself a baker..."

Stephen looks like he's about to protest but then gives up. Emma grins into her wine glass.

"Annoying as he is," she says, ignoring Ken's 'Oy!' with ease born out of practice, "he does have a point. It's clear as anything that you fancy that bloke something rotten. And trust me, the feeling is obviously mutual. What are you waiting for? You have our blessing, if that's it." She holds out both her hands like bestowing a benediction. "Go forth and fornicate, my son."

Stephen glares at her because the most annoying thing about it is that no matter how much he might say he doesn't need or want their blessing, it is pretty important to him. They are his oldest and closest friends, and were it not for his desire to be monogamous he knows full well they would have liked more. Even now there are moments when he just wants to reach out to Hugh and pull him close, run his hands through Hugh's hair. Not that he’s pining away for Hugh, he really isn't, it's just the feeling of easy intimacy.

Stephen has, of course, introduced his last four boyfriends to them. Which didn't go down particularly well with the boyfriends, who'd all compared it to meeting Stephen's parents.  They'd only really liked one of them; Michael, but unfortunately Michael's career had taken him to the States which was the end of that relationship. They'd loathed his last boyfriend, Cieran, and made it pretty damned obvious as well.

At least this way they have actually already met Alan, and vice versa. And indeed they appear to like him if they're giving their blessing.  But...

"He's too young," Stephen tells them.  "He's way too young."

Emma exchanges a look with Hugh who's come back with the dessert and more wine. She's about to point out that Stephen certainly seems to think so if he doesn't even trust Alan to be old enough to make his own choices, but unfortunately Ken gets there first, with a line of argument that's far more... Well, Ken.

"Oh but think about all the youthful energy," he says, grinning at Stephen across the table. "Think about all the things you could do with that... Tie him and play with him all night, hmmm?" He sighs dreamily, putting as much leer into his expression as he can, because he hasn't had this perfect of an opportunity to wind up Stephen for years and he's not going to waste it. "Bet you'd like that. Wonder how many times you could make him-- Ow!" He rubs the back of his head that has just been slapped by Hugh.

"What the hell was that for," Ken glares up at Hugh.

"Give it a rest Ken," Hugh tells him tiredly. "Just for once. Please. Stephen, no!" He puts himself between Ken and Stephen who's out of his seat and trying to get at Ken.

Stephen wants nothing more than to wring Ken's neck right now. Most of the time he indulges his hard edges because of the ultimately good heart that lies within them but there are times when he'd happily kill the man. Like now. Making a comment like that about Alan is completely out of order. He lets Hugh push him back in his seat and fill up his glass again, as some of it had ended up sloshed over his hand from the shock at Ken's comment.

Te futueo et caballum tuum," he snarls at Ken, taking a large mouthful of the wine.

"Well, that would technically be--"

"Enough!" Emma slaps a hand over Ken's mouth, having come to the end of her patience finally. "One more word out of you and I'm going to let Stephen seriously hurt you." She glares down at him until he can see from her face that she's deadly serious.

Ken deflates visibly and slumps back into his chair although Emma waits another ten seconds before removing her hand.

"Sorry," Ken says, a little grudgingly but still. "I didn't mean it badly. I just think he's really nice... and hot," he can't help but add, flinching away from Hugh's bony elbow. "Hey, hey, I meant that like in a totally objective way, like 'way to go Stephen!'. There's a nice hot guy interested in you, you should totally ask him out." He takes a sip of his wine, muttering: "We all think that, so don't jump at me."

Stephen still looks tense and Hugh reaches out and strokes his hand up and down Stephen's arm until he can feel him starting to relax. "He might not say things in quite the right way Stephen, but he's right you know. You should stop hiding behind the difference in your ages and ask him out. Let's be honest, he's all you've talked about for the last few weeks."

"Goddammit you all," Stephen mutters. "Sometimes I really dislike how right you can be about things." Hugh beams at him. "And now, do you think that we can stop talking about my non-existent love life and actually have some dessert."

"Absolutely," Hugh says, laughing as he pushes the chocolate mousse in front of Stephen. "And trust me, I don't think it will be non-existent for very much longer."

The mousse is delicious, as always, and Stephen happily gives himself a large portion before passing it over to Emma. He takes a mouthful, trying not to think about what Ken said. But it's impossible.  Now that Ken has put the image of Alan tied down to his bed in his mind, Stephen can't help but think about it. Just how much energy Alan might have and what it would be like to wrap his hands in Alan's curly hair, hold him down and kiss him. He surreptitiously squeezes his thighs together and ignores Ken who is still smirking at him even though he is quiet now, knowing better than to push Emma too far.

Emma kicks Ken under the table and two seconds later Hugh clearly does the same, judging by the grimace on Ken's face. "So Stephen," she says, changing the subject. "Hope you don't have plans for your birthday."

Stephen shrugs, clearly not caring much either way which is to be expected really.

"We're taking you out for lunch and drinks," she says. "And that exhibition you've been mentioning."

Stephen hesitates like he wants to refuse but that's not an option. They have to get him out of his house so that Alan and all the other guests can prepare the surprise party. "I'm not taking a no for an answer," Emma says, and then appeals to the one thing she knows to be a sure fire way to get Stephen to agree. "We miss spending time with you, Stephen. Let us do this for you, please?"

The expression on his face softens into a smile and he nods. Emma reaches out and squeezes his arm briefly, diverting attention away from the surreptitious fist bump Ken and Hugh are exchanging under the table.

***

 

Stephen twirls his spoon around the coffee cup, staring down into the coffee as though it might give him the answers to all of his questions, like a divination mirror.

It's nearing closing time and the cafe is quiet; there's only himself, Alan and a couple of other customers who are sat in a corner by the window.

It's been a few days since the dinner with his friends and Stephen hasn't been able to push Ken's words out of his mind. Keeps thinking about just how Alan might look; naked and desperate for Stephen to touch him. To be honest, the image had been that strong the previous night that Stephen hadn't been able to resist wrapping a hand around himself, thinking about it as he brought himself off. It has been quite difficult to meet Alan's eyes today and Stephen feels a little bit dirty about the whole thing, especially as Alan is wearing his sinfully tight black jeans today. It's been extremely hard to not stare.

And it is ridiculous that he's feeling like this which is why, this morning, he'd made up his mind that he would ask Alan over for dinner, for the Indian meal that he'd promised him.

"Hey." Stephen looks up at the distraction. "Are you intending on drinking that or just staring at it?" Alan asks.

Stephen has been back from his conference for about a week and has been to the cafe almost every day since. They've fallen right back into the habit of talking and teasing, and well, flirting, Alan likes to think. He hasn't really had the opportunity to even try to take it further though, it's been a busy week and Alan's been more than a little distracted by preparing for Stephen's surprise party. And well, he's still not sure if he should...

Stephen has showed up as normal today, on his way home from the office, Alan presumes, but had pretty much just hidden behind his book for the last hour, not even attempting to chat to Alan, which was out of the ordinary. Which is why he had finally broken down and gone and done it himself. If the mountain doesn't come to Mohammed…

"I'm just saying... It was probably cold twenty minutes ago. Something wrong with the coffee?" Alan asks, and then takes in the slightly pinched look on Stephen's face. "Something wrong in general?" he amends, sitting down in the chair opposite without being asked.

"What? Oh no! There's nothing wrong with the coffee, Alan. It's fine," Stephen hastens to reassure him. "There's nothing wrong with the coffee or... or with anything."

Alan looks a little sceptical which might have something to do with the way Stephen is avoiding his eyes. Normally by now they'd have been chatting, Stephen leaning on the counter and talking to Alan, or Alan joining him at his table and getting up now and again to serve customers.

"Everything's good," Stephen says a little more strongly. “It's just I've got a few things on my mind at the moment. That's all," he smiles at Alan. "So you've been pretty busy this week.  Are you going to get more help to assist?"

Alan lets the obvious tactic of changing the topic be, only narrowing his eyes at Stephen a little. "Yeah, Evie's getting one of her friends take a few shifts too." Which is necessary in order for Alan to get everything ready for Stephen's party. And after that he has at least two other catering offers to consider... "Who knows, I may even be able to take a day off at some point." Although not until after Stephen's party, Alan amends to himself.

Stephen takes a sip of the coffee, which as Alan stated is cold and pretty unpleasant right now. He wrinkles his nose and puts the cup back down. "That's good; both on getting some more help and having a day off. Do you have any plans for that mythical day?"

"Plans..." Alan leans back in his chair. "I don't know, there are so many options... Sleeping, eating, watching day time TV, sleeping some more... Endless party, that's what it will be." Alan grins.

Stephen blinks at him, wishing that Alan hadn't mentioned the word sleeping which of course then makes him think of beds and takes him right back to where he was the night before. "It sounds like fun," he says. "You could possibly even be completely radical and go to the cinema."

"I could," Alan concedes and then bites his lip, "...but it's not so fun going to the movies on my own. I quite like having someone there to help me mock the bad dialogue and pick out the plot holes." There. That was a hint so big that Alan felt kind of embarrassed for dropping it, but Stephen hadn't really shown any inclination on picking up on anything more subtle. Alan picks up one of the sugar sachets from the bowl, his fingers twisting that paper this way and that, completely betraying how nervous he is, despite the relaxed manner he's managing to maintain otherwise.

Stephen wants to put his hand out and take hold of Alan's hand, to stop him twitching. It's quite clear to him that Alan is nervous, even though he's able to meet Stephen's gaze. And that sounds like a very clear invitation from Alan. "I know exactly what you mean, and if you ever do require a companion to assist you in mocking the bad dialogue then you can of course always call on me.  Unless I'm attempting to impart literature into thick-skulled students that is. But, well..." Damn it, he thinks.  Now is really the time to ask. "You remember how we were texting previously about Indian food? I wondered if you'd, well if you have nothing on tomorrow, if you'd like to come around for dinner?"

Alan grins, delicious anticipation curling in his stomach because if he's not very much mistaken, Stephen just asked him for a date. It's on the tip of Alan's tongue to say 'yes, hell yes' but then he remembers the 50 mini Cornish pastries he's scheduled to do tomorrow night, because if he doesn't then he won't have time for the blackcurrant tarts the night after that, and then the cake will be late and... Dammit.

"Dammit," he says, the grin dropping off his face. "I can't. I've got a... a thing, a work thing, someone's ordered these muffins and I've got to get them done." Fuck, he's only lying a little, but it's probably obvious that he's not saying the whole truth and judging by the rapid way Stephen's expression is closing off, he's clearly jumping to the wrong conclusions. "Next week though, I'm free," Alan hastens to add. "Every night really, I'd... I'd really like to have dinner with you, I just... I can't tomorrow, I'm sorry," Alan finishes lamely.

Stephen grits his teeth, trying not to let Alan see how he feels about the rejection. It's been a while since he's been turned down but it's still as unpleasant as ever, especially as he thought that Alan was asking him to join him at the cinema at some time. He notes that Alan hasn't even bothered to respond to his offer to go along with him.  Alan is obviously just offering the following week as a sop, to try not to make it look exactly what it is. A 'no'.

It's really no surprise especially given the age difference between them, Stephen thinks bitterly. It just goes to show as well how easy it is to read things the wrong way. To assume that because somebody is being friendly that it means more.

"Well if you're busy, then you're busy." he shrugs a little, trying not to let Alan see that he's upset by this.  "So yes let's take a rain check on that for the moment. Anyway, I... I need to go. It's getting a little late after all." He stands up, putting his book inside his bag.

"I'll see you later, Alan." With a casual wave, Stephen walks out.

Alan stares after him for long minutes before lowering his forehead to the table and banging it softly against the wood a few times. Perfect, just bloody perfect.


***


Stephen doesn't come by for two days. Nor does he text. To say that Alan is getting worried would be an understatement. What's the point of making all the pastries and tarts if Stephen isn't speaking to him? The cake gains another planned layer as Alan thinks about that, like somehow if he'll make it showy enough it'll fix things which is stupid. Or maybe it isn't. Stephen thinking Alan turned down the dinner invitation is though.

In the morning, of the third day when there is no sign of Stephen popping by to pick up a coffee on his way to work Alan finally has had enough. He leaves Tom, the new helper, dealing with the customers and hides in the stairs leading up to his flat, sitting down and pulls out his phone. Of course it still takes him a while to think of what to say.

Text from Alan, Thursday 10.41
Hi Stephen. Hope you're not ill or something. My espresso machine is asking after you and wondering if it got your order wrong and that's why you haven't been around...


***


Stephen curses as he reads the text, causing Emma to look up from the communion she's having with her coffee.

"What?" she asks. Stephen hesitates for a moment and then shows her the message. She nods and takes another mouthful of her coffee before responding.

"I presume this is the reason why for the last few days we've been frequenting corporate America rather than giving our money to the little man." She waves her arm around. "I mean, Starbucks? Really, Stephen. Don't get me wrong, the coffee isn't bad but their cakes are nothing compared to Alan's. So...?" she prompts. "Do tell."

Stephen sighs a little. He considers dissembling for all of a split second but it is rather pointless with Emma. She'll just poke and poke and poke at him until he gives in and tells her everything. "I asked him out," he tells her. "And he said no, so there we have it. And before you ask, yes I do indeed feel like a complete fool. An old fool for mistaking friendship for something else.”

She stares at him in disbelief because from what she'd seen from Alan she'd assumed that he would say yes. "Did he give a reason?" she asks.

"He said he was busy doing a catering job but," Stephen scratches the back of his head. "He did say he was free the following week but I know that it's just an excuse. Nothing more. I'm not quite that desperate that I'm going to go begging for another date."

Emma rolls her eyes in dismay, knowing that Alan was probably working on food for Stephen's party.

"I think you're being too quick to assume the worst," she tells him. "And also you're behaving quite badly, more like a teenager than an 'old man'. Even if Alan was turning you down – and to be honest I don't think he was, you know full well he's getting more and more private catering jobs – even if he was, that's no way to stop your friendship. So stop being acting like one of your bloody emo students, and text him back, or better still, get your arse in there this afternoon and say hello to him."

Stephen sits back in his seat still contemplating the message. "You know what I hate about you the most?" he asks finally. "The fact that you're always so right about these sort of things, and also that you won't put up with crap from me."

Emma laughs. "I live with Ken and Hugh, what do you expect? I don't put up with crap from them I'm most certainly not going to put up with it from you. Now, text him back."  She watches in satisfaction as after a moment, Stephen starts to type into his phone.

Text from Stephen, Thursday 10.53
Hi Alan. No, I'm not ill nor has your espresso machine gotten my order wrong. At any time.  Sorry for being in absentia. I've just been in one of my... moods for the last few days. I'll be in this afternoon after classes. Not sure what sandwiches you have on today, but you know what I like so if you could save me something. Please?


***


Alan has been staring at his phone for ten minutes, not caring about what a fool it makes him. After all, there's no one here to see it. Still, when it finally beeps with a new text message, he jumps a little, quickly thumbing it open.

The message is a relief and Alan feels something inside him relax although he does wonder about Stephen's 'moods' and what that ambiguous term might actually contain. Perhaps a reminder that whatever it is, Stephen doesn’t need to deal with it alone, is needed.

Text from Alan, Thursday 10.57
Oh good. My espresso machine is happy to hear that. As am I. You know what's good for 'moods' though? Carrot cake, large coffee, and a chat with a friend. You'll know where to find all. I'll make you my famous chicken club sandwich too just because I'm that awesome."

And because he isn't above using his culinary skills to his advantage. The way Alan reckons, he doesn't have too many of those. Feeling better, he gets up, slipping the phone into his pocket and heading back out to the cafe.


***


Stephen smiles at the text and Emma can see him physically relax. "Sorted then? she asks.

"I have no idea but I'm going in there later. Chicken sandwich and carrot cake apparently. "

He finds it hard to hide his pleasure at the thought of seeing Alan again even if it’s still a little awkward. For a moment he considers asking Emma if she thinks he should ask Alan again about dinner, but decides against it. He'll see how it feels when he's at the cafe.

Text from Stephen, Thursday 11.02
And I too have missed your espresso machine. Looking forward to it. See you later.

Stephen puts the phone down and tells Emma, who is grinning at him "Oh just shut up," he tells her.


***


"I thought that was my trick," Tom says from behind the register.

"What's that?" Alan asks.

"Clock watching," Tom answers. "I know I'm getting off in an hour and thirteen minutes but my understanding was the entrepreneurs such as yourself didn't really have a finishing time."

Alan fights off the flush, silently cursing his apparent tendency to hire smart mouths. "I'm just waiting for a friend. He said he'd pop by."

"Oh, Stephen," Tom says knowledgeably, and Alan rather feels like banging his head against the cake display because apparently his employees have no respect for his private life at all, clearly gossiping behind his back.

"Well, there he is now," Tom says, waving toward the door.

Alan lifts his head just in time to see Stephen waving back a little uncertainly, clearly bemused by the enthusiastic greeting from someone he doesn't even know but who clearly knows him.

Alan points Stephen toward his usual table, indicating that he'll be right over with the food, and sets about making him the promised large coffee, the sandwich and slice of cake already waiting on the tray in the cooler.


***


Stephen fidgets a little whilst he waits for Alan, not really sure what type of greeting he's going to receive. He takes a small package out of his bag and turns it over and over in his hands. He's nervous and isn't sure whether the thing that he has bought Alan is a good idea or not.

'But friends buy each other gifts,' he reminds himself. His inner voice sounds remarkably like Emma at the moment, which is disturbing to say the least.

He shrugs his coat off and puts the package down, keeping the tips of his fingers resting on it. He's being ridiculous and he knows it. As Emma said, he's not a teenager and needs to stop acting like one.

A few minutes later Alan is heading his way, laden down with a full tray.

To his eyes Stephen looks... Uncomfortable and nervous, which is so atypical of him that Alan's worry spikes again.

"Hey, long time no see," he says, putting the tray down. "Well, three days, but you know it, um, felt long." He tries to cover for saying too much by starting to load the plates onto the table.

"Chicken club, carrot cake, and coffee as large as your head, as promised. I hope it improves your mood?"

Stephen smiles at him, and some of it even reaches his eyes so Alan counts it as a win.

"Would you... Would you care to join me?" Stephen asks. "I understand if you're busy, or don't want to at the moment but it would be nice." Alan stares at him and Stephen forcibly stops himself from fidgeting. "But you don't have to Alan. Don't worry about it."

Alan blinks at him in confusion and then sits his ass down before Stephen goes any further down the crazy alley he seems to be wandering on.

"Is this your first cup of coffee of the day?" he asks. "It's okay, you can tell me. Because that would explain why you're saying things that make no sense. Stephen..." Alan reaches out because he can’t help himself and briefly squeezes Stephen's arm, the wool of his jacket surprisingly soft under his hand. "I can think of plenty of occasions when I can't join you, for a chat, or coffee, or.... or home-cooked Indian meal, but I can't think of any, not one when I wouldn't want to."

Alan’s touch is a pleasant surprise and Stephen wishes that he'd linger over it instead crossing his arms and glaring meaningfully.

Stephen concedes the point. “Alright,” he says. “I hear you. I’m also aware that I have been a bit of an arse since I saw you last," Stephen says. "Indeed, I was an arse then too and for that I must apologise."

Alan tilts his head to one side but says nothing.

If Stephen were a heroine in a romantic novel he knows that right now he'd be wringing his hands together. But this isn’t Mills and Boon, no matter how much misunderstanding there seems to be.  He feels warm though at Alan's words about wanting to spend time with him.

"This is for you," he passes over the packet before he can bottle out.

Alan doesn't think Stephen's 'been an arse' as such, although the way he left last time was a bit cold and abrupt... Still, it's nothing that would warrant an apology in a form of a gift. Alan picks up the parcel and almost blurts out about it being Stephen's birthday soon and thus he should be getting the presents, but bites his tongue at the last second, remembering that he's not supposed to know about this.

"What's this?" he asks, picking at the tape. "You don't need to bribe me with... With, oh my god!" Alan's face breaks in a grin when he sees what's in under the wrapping paper. "The Last Ship of Avalon! This has only been out like, what, two seconds? I haven't even got an Amazon alert about it yet, how did you get your hands on this?" He's already turning it over and reading the jacket. He can’t believe Stephen remembered the conversation from months ago.

Stephen can't help smiling at Alan's reaction. "I have a friend," he tells him, "who works at a bookshop where they of course receive the books early. I asked him to put a copy aside for me. I'm glad you like it." He’s watching Alan turn the book around in his hands, warmed by his obvious pleasure at the gift.

"Alan... I wondered whether, well I... Oh, dammit it." Stephen picks up his coffee and takes a mouthful of it.

"Yes," Alan says and then blushes slightly, but there you have it. "I'm pretty sure that whatever it is that you're asking, the answer is yes as long as it's next week because I'm seriously snowed under, otherwise, I swear I would. Oh and unless you want to read this book before me in which case you can bugger off." He clutches the novel to his chest possessively. In truth there's no way he can even start on the book before next week, there's still so much to do: Stephen's party is in a couple of days and Alan has a cake to make.

Stephen breathes a sigh of relief, trying not to stare at Alan too obviously. The man is quite pretty when he blushes. "Don't worry," he tells him. "I'll let you read about Captain Rickster before asking to borrow your book. But I would very much like to cook dinner for you.  Next week?"

Alan knows he's smiling like he just won the lottery but, well, he kind of did. "Yes," he says, nodding enthusiastically. "I was promised lamb Rogan Josh. I take such promises very seriously, I'll have you know." He's grinning at Stephen, still clutching the book, painfully aware just how obvious he's probably being but unable to do anything about it.

It's difficult to not smile back at Alan, and Stephen doesn't even try. They're sitting, grinning at each other like a pair of loons and Stephen is pretty glad that it's quiet. "That's good," he says. "It will be nice to cook for somebody again. I'm looking forward to it."

"Me too," Alan says. He pushes the sandwich in Stephen's direction. "Eat. You should... eat. And I'm going to leave you in peace to eat now." He nods decisively and gets up, the book under his arm. "But don't... Don’t disappear without saying bye, okay?"

Stephen touches Alan's arm. "Thank you," he says. "And I promise I won't."


***


Alan kneels on the kitchen floor, staring into the oven. It's close to midnight. He is clearly going insane.

"Yeah, Davies. There's a clinical term for it too," Bill had said earlier when he'd come by to drop off more cocoa powder because Alan had ran out. "It's called 'head over heels' and it's usually terminal."

Alan had thanked him for running to the shop for him and then kindly told him to fuck off. For all his blustering, he hadn't been able to refute Bill's diagnosis though.

Still couldn't. Alan sits down, back against the cupboard doors and gently bangs the back of his head against the wood. He is an idiot. Who the hell falls in... Gets a crush on a customer, based on...  Okay, by now several discussions over and about coffee and jam tarts, catering the man’s bloody garden party and about 300 text messages. But still. Alan apparently, that’s who. He's pretty sure the whole thing is against some kind of cafe-owner/baker rulebook at least. If not, then it bloody well should be.

The timer buzzes for a halfway mark and Alan cautiously opens the oven door, gently turning the cake tins around. At least they were looking okay. The first two tiers were already cooling on the rack, but the cake he’s planning needed more than a couple of levels so here he is, keeping watch like some kind of demented were-baker.

Alan slumps back against the cupboards, his ass numb from the floor. Seriously, how obvious could he get? When Emma had asked if he'd cater Stephen's surprise birthday party, he'd said yes without a moment's hesitation. Hell, he would've probably done it for free if he could've afforded it, though luckily Emma had been more than generous with the fee. The point is, that instead doing normal party-fare and a normal birthday cake (no candles apparently), Alan had gone for a four-tiered chocolate-coffee creation with a top part shaped like a cup of cappuccino as well as two individual pieces for Stephen, shaped like an espresso cup and a book.

All in all, Alan might as well have written 'I REALLY FANCY YOU' on top of the cake in pink frosting and it wouldn't have been any less subtle.

Or any less true. Because he really does quite fancy Stephen. Yes, the man was almost twenty years his senior, and from a totally different background than Alan himself, with his professorship in English literature and general air that spoke of old money and public schools, cricket and cucumber sandwiches. But he was also funny and caring, sharp as a razor and willing to try new things.

And Alan... Well, he kind of wishes he could be one of those new things Stephen might like to sample. And maybe, if he likes him well enough...

The buzzer goes off again, which is just as well because Alan doesn't think he should be taking that particular metaphor any further. He scrambles up and pulls the cake bases out, leaving them to cool overnight. Tomorrow morning he'll get up early and actually assemble the cake, ready for the party that afternoon.


***


Stephen is singing softly under his breath as he struggles with the front door key. He's feeling mellow and ever so slightly squiffy, having had a thoroughly enjoyable day with his friends.

"Got it!" He turns and grins at Hugh who is directly on his heels, almost pressing up against Stephen's back. "Come on, I seem to remember promising some champagne earlier on. It is my birthday after all." He pouts slightly at Hugh and Ken.

"Like we don't know it," Ken grins back at him. "Come on Stephen, time's a wasting after all, and at this rate Emma will be back before we even get inside."

"Pish posh," Stephen tells him, opening the door. "I'm not even sure why she had to nip back to yours. Okay, come on. Let's go crack that bottle."

Hugh pushes past him into the house. "I'll get the champagne and glasses," he tells Stephen. "Let's have the drinks outside. You open up the conservatory, I'll be just a few minutes."

He throws a quick sneaky grin at Ken who knows exactly what he's doing and heads toward the kitchen.

Ken throws his arm over Stephen's shoulder and guides him toward the back of the house. "Come on, you know better than to disobey Hugh."


***


Alan suppresses the fizzle of excitement that seems to be gripping the entire group of people, standing eerily quiet in Stephen's garden. He drifts toward the back, letting Stephen's friends and colleagues claim the prime spot, but makes sure he's got a clear line of sight to the conservatory doors because he wouldn't want to miss the look on Stephen's face for the world.

Alan's been at the house earlier than most of the guests, putting the food ready. He'd changed out of his jeans and t-shirt into actual trousers and a button down shirt in Stephen's guest room, feeling a little weird about using the shower and leaving his bags in there even though Emma had seemed certain that Stephen wouldn't mind.

There's a squeak of the conservatory doors and a hand – Alan assumes it's either Ken's or Hugh's – sticks out and flaps about in an attempt to signal those waiting, and then they can hear his voice –  Ken then – loudly proclaiming: "Definitely warm enough outside for those drinks Stephen!" followed by Stephen's: "My dear boy, why are you shou—"

The rest gets drowned under the loud "SURPRISE!" chorused by the guests as soon as Stephen steps through the doors. The look on his face is a thing of beauty, caught somewhere between shock and laughter, the latter winning out as everyone launches into 'For he's a jolly good fellow', Alan singing along happily.

Stephen is laughing as he accepts a glass of champagne from Ken. "You three..." he comments, looking around the garden to see who is here. “This is such a surprise and I love it. Thank you."

Ken grins. "Well, it's been a while since we threw a party and your birthday is as good an excuse as any." He nudges Stephen to let him know he's not serious. "Now, go and say hello to your guests.  There's food and cake and things sorted for later. And you know there might even be a special guest for you..." He pushes Stephen away.  "Go, go!"

A special guest! Stephen wonders what the hell Ken is talking about, but he is right about one thing. He does need to speak to the guests. Greeting his friends, Stephen starts to move around the garden.


***


Alan watches the way Stephen's whole face lights up at the sight of the party, the relaxed way he ambles among his friends, and he smiles. It's good to see him looking so happy, especially on his birthday. He slips back into the house, just going to see that Eve and Tom have arrived to help with the food. He finds the both of them in the kitchen, loading up trays of canapes and setting up the buffet proper.

"No one would believe you're a pair of scruffy students now," Alan remarks. They are both dressed for waitering and look smart.

"What are you doing in here?" Eve hisses at him like he's committing a nefarious offence rather than checking up on his employees. "We've got it covered, shouldn't you be back at the party?”

"Alright, alright!" Alan lifts both hands up in surrender, laughing. He holds the door open for them as they head out to the garden, Tom with a tray of drinks and Eve with a tray of mini-quiches. And, Alan notices with some level of mortification, a pile of his business cards on the side. There's nothing he can do about that now though except watch them all disappear into the throng.


***


Stephen has only managed to get around one quarter of the garden, and is chatting to Emma when a serving tray appears under his nose. "Mini quiche sir, they're very good."

Stephen glances around in surprise to see Eve proffering the food at him. "Eve?"

"Yes Sir, that's me. This makes a change from the café, doesn't it?" She grins at him. "But you should definitely have a quiche. They're made with love!"

Stephen is a little perplexed right now but he takes one, biting into it and enjoying the tasty mouthful. "That's very good," he tells her as he takes another. "So where's Alan?" he asks.

Eve bobs him a little mocking curtsy. "I think that's for you to find out, sir, don't you?"  Before Stephen can say anything to her she's gone past him and is handing out quiches to his guests. He turns around to glare at Emma who has her hand over her mouth and is trying pretty ineffectually to not laugh at him.

"Your face," she tells him. "Honestly, Stephen your face right now is a picture. But seriously, who else did you think I'd get to cater your party? So why don't you fill up your champagne glass and go find your boy."

"Pfft." He turns away. "I don't know what you mean by ‘my boy’." He ignores her "Sure you don't" and has a look around, trying to find Alan. There's a warm feeling inside at the thought of seeing Alan again, at seeing Alan at his birthday party. Finally, he spots him lurking on the other side of the garden. Time to go say hello.


***


Alan is talking football with one of Stephen's colleagues who he vaguely recognises from the garden party a few months' past. She's telling him about the connections between sports and politics which apparently is her girlfriend's thesis subject and Alan is actually interested enough that he doesn't notice Stephen until he appears at his shoulder suddenly.

"It's the birthday boy!" Melanie exclaims, leaning over to kiss Stephen on both cheeks. "Great party, Stephen. Sue is sorry to miss it but it's three days before her Viva, you know how it is."

"Hello darling," he answers kissing her back. "I'm surprised you're still sane enough to leave the house. I remember exactly what that was like. Can you remember when the last time was that she bathed?"

Mel laughs and shakes her head. "Don't be mean," she tells him. "Although..." she leans in, "She is a little smelly right now, but don't tell her I told you that otherwise I'll be banned to the guest room for the next two months."

"I promise," Stephen says before turning to Alan. He's feeling a little unsure of himself right now, wondering how to approach Alan.

Melanie's eyes move back and forth between Alan and Stephen for a few seconds before she points toward the other end of the garden and says: "Oh, I see Jill there, I'm just going to..." and without further ado shimmies off.

Alan waves after her before turning to Stephen. He raises his glass, taking in his smart suit and tentative smile. "Happy birthday," he says. "And 'surprise' I guess." He shrugs a little sheepishly.

"Surprise is the word," Stephen responds. "But we've been put on this carnival ride. We close our eyes never knowing where it'll take us next.”

Alan stares at him for a moment and then shakes his head. "Only you would come out with something like that."

Stephen grins and clinks his glass against Alan's. "But of course, I am after all rather fabulous." He's feeling rather giddy; not sure whether it's from the drinks he had earlier, topped off with the champagne now, the party or Alan's presence. Probably the latter.

"That you are," Alan agrees and if he means it as a joke, it comes out sounding a bit more serious than that. To cover it, he wags a finger at Stephen. "You are also in so much trouble!"

Stephen looks mildly alarmed and Alan continues: "If Emma hadn't told me about the party, I wouldn't have known anything about it being your birthday, would I? No, don't even try, I know you: You would've just kept quiet and acted like it wasn't a big deal and then eventually I would've found out and been terribly, terribly upset that you hadn't told me and refused to give you any coffee and cake for at least three days!"

Alan is looking positively fierce right now and Stephen doesn't really know what to say because Alan is completely right. He wouldn't have mentioned it to him. "Ah, well... I really am sorry. Tell me," he leans down a little to Alan's height. "What can I do to make it up to you?"

 Alan pretends to think for a while, tapping a finger against the glass. Finally, he puts it on the nearby table, carefully plucking Stephen's out of his hand too and setting it aside. "Well now, I can think of one thing..."

"What?" Stephen asks and he looks so genuinely worried for having potentially upset him that Alan almost feels sorry for tricking him, even if it is just a little.

"You can stand there and accept a birthday hug from me," Alan says, not waiting for an agreement before stepping forward, right into Stephen's personal space and wrapping arms around his shoulders, having to stand on tiptoe a little to reach. He presses close, hugging tightly and with his whole body, brave from the champagne and the dinner invitation and months and months of talking and getting to know each other, brave because of Stephen, because he makes Alan want to be that, makes it worth being scared. "Happy birthday," he says, whispers really, the words muffled by Stephen's jacket, his expensive aftershave tickling Alan's nose.

Stephen isn't sure at first how to react; he stiffens up, hands hovering in mid-air before he gives in, letting himself have this and putting his arms around Alan, pulling him closer, hands tight on his back. He's wanted to touch Alan for such a long time now and even though this is just a birthday hug he's going to make the most of it. Alan's breath whispers across his neck and it's all Stephen can do to stop himself from turning his head slightly and kissing Alan like he wants to.

He's not sure how long the hug goes on for or what might have happened because suddenly Emma is there, her hand on Stephen's arm.

"I think it's time for cake, don't you?" she announces brightly.

Alan blinks a little, pulling away. It feels cold once Stephen's arms slip from his back and he's kind of annoyed at Emma's interruption. Grateful too, if he's honest though, because he'd kind of wanted to know what would happen if he'd just press a kiss to the underside of Stephen's jaw and had been fighting a losing battle about whether or not to test it.

"Cake, right," he says, running a slightly flustered hand through his hair, no doubt messing it further. "Give me ten minutes to go sort it," he tells Emma, flashing a quick smile at Stephen, not quite meeting his eyes, before he heads off in the direction of the kitchen. Eve and Tom are good kids but Alan definitely needs to oversee the cake himself.


***


Stephen watches him go and then turns to glare at Emma. "Just what the hell are you playing at?" he asks. "One minute you’re shoving Alan toward me and then, when we're maybe actually getting somewhere..." He runs his hand through his hair in exasperation. "Then of all things, you send him off to get cake! Cake!!!"

Emma smiles at him and pats his arm patronisingly. "Oh, don't worry Stephen. I'm sure you'll have time for hugging and more at a later date. Maybe even later today! Now, stop being a grump," she links her arm into his, "and come and let me fill up your champagne glass and then we can wait for Alan to bring out your cake. Don't tell me you're not curious about how it looks.”

Stephen sighs. It's difficult for him to remain really angry at Emma, especially after she has organised his surprise party. Looking around he smiles at his friends and lets her lead him over to the drinks table in the corner where Ken - who else - is making violently coloured cocktails. Stephen eyes them a little with trepidation.

"Just champagne for me, Ken." He passes his empty glass and watches as he fills it up with champagne and then, before Stephen can snatch it back, Ken tops it up with calvados and gives it a stir.

"Here." He hands it back to Stephen with a grin. "Just chill, Stephen. Cake soon, don't you know?"

"The pair of you are extremely annoying," Stephen tells them but it's half hearted. "But thank you, the three of you for organising this. It's... wonderful.

Hugh joins them, while other people start drifting closer also and soon Stephen is busy accepting congratulations, cards and occasional bottle-shaped presents.


***


Alan freely admits that he's fussing over the cake but... Well, it has to be just right. Eve and Tom are doing a good job at not sniggering at him too much, just patiently waiting while he adds the final decorations (chocolate coffee beans and deep purple violets) to the big cake, before repeating the same with the small individual ones. The whole thing is kind of cheesy, but... Alan figures it must be obvious how he feels about Stephen already whether or not you add complicated baked goods to the showcase.

"Okay, we're ready," Alan finally says. He lights the sparklers on top of the big cake and holds the door open for Eve and Tom who are both needed to carry it to the garden. Then he lights the sparkler in the small ones, grabs the tray of those himself and follows them out into the party already ooh'ing over his creation. There is a flock of butterflies flapping about in his stomach but he stomps on them firmly, focusing on not tripping over anything as he slowly makes his way toward Stephen.

"Oh my," Stephen can feel the smile broadening on his face as he watches the cakes come out of the house. "That's just... Amazing." He's concentrating so much on the cake that Eve and Tom are carrying that at first he doesn't notice Alan.

The cake is just stunning and Stephen can't help staring at it as Eve and Tom carefully place it on the pedestal table that's clearly been decorated just for the purpose; white tablecloth with purple and gold glitter and stars strewn across it. There's room left and Stephen realises why when Alan arrives next to him with a tray containing two smaller cakes.

"Coffee and chocolate and books," Alan says as he puts them down in front of Stephen. "Some of your favourite things, I believe?"

"Made by his favourite baker no less," Ken mutters from the side loud enough to be heard. Alan laughs and blushes a bit, choosing to focus on the way Hugh is elbowing Ken to be quiet rather than the look of... something, like affection and realisation, that's stealing over Stephen's face.

Stephen stares down at the cakes which are shaped into a cup of coffee and a book, and it's then that what's happening here fully hits him. That the feelings he has for Alan are returned. He's sure that Alan has simply been paid for the larger cake, and that the smaller one are Alan's personal gift. His declaration almost.

"Thank you," he says, reaching out and touching Alan's hand. "Thank you, Alan."

"It's..." 'nothing', Alan almost says, but that would be a lie because it's something alright. "...no trouble," finishes lamely. "Happy birthday." He's aware of shuffling his feet a little but can't help it because of the way Stephen is smiling at him and the way his fingers are brushing his hand and--

"Oh my god, I think I'm going to be sick," Kevin is murmuring behind Stephen. "Just give it up already and just ki-- Ow! Hey!" He's rubbing his head where Emma apparently smacked him, glaring. "I'm only saying what everyone is thinking."

"Wouldn't hurt you to do some thinking too," Hugh says, rolling his eyes, but he's smiling.

Stephen has turned to glare at his friends and Alan can feel himself blushing because, well, and there's just too many people here for this and he... "I'm just going to..." He lets himself fade into the crowd while Stephen is berating Ken. The party is still going strong so it's easy to slip out, back to the house and the safety of the kitchen.


***


"There are times Ken when I could quite happily wring your neck," Stephen tells his friend. "And this is one of those times, and I'm quite sure that neither Hugh nor Emma would come to your assistance."

Ken shrugs and takes a mouthful of his drink. "I'm only saying what is painfully obvious," he answers, ducking to miss another smack from Emma. "Stop it," he tells her. "You know full well that you think Alan is good for Stephen, or would be if Stephen ever pulled his finger out and did something about it."

Stephen watches as Hugh puts out his hand and drags Ken to his side, arms going around his waist. There would have been a time when that had hurt to watch but not now. Stephen hasn't felt that way about Hugh for a very long time. But even though Ken is as irritating as normal he's telling the truth, and Alan's cake was about as big a declaration of his feelings as it could possibly be.

"Hmm, you could be right. Which in your case is an absolute miracle," he tells Ken. "But first I think I'm going to try some of his rather delicious looking cake. It is, after all, my birthday."


***


Back at the kitchens there's plenty to keep Alan busy. Eve and Tom point out that tidying and washing up was something he paid them to do but Alan just shrugs and gets stuck in. He needs something to keep his hands occupied at least. There's nothing to be done about his mind though which is tangled up in 'what ifs' or his heart that's still going double speed.

He stacks up plates and clings to the memory of Stephen's smile and the warmth in his eyes and tries to convince himself that the nervous twisting in his gut is just anticipation, not fear of having screwed up. Alan is reasonably sure that his cake shaped gesture was well received but... Dammit, why did he think it was a good idea to do this in the middle of the party with all these people around?


***


Stephen watches with some pleasure as the large birthday cake is quickly decimated by his friends. It's good to see that Alan's baking is appreciated, but he's not prepared to let anybody near the smaller cakes. They’re his, and his alone. Alan made them especially for him. He's been keeping an eye on the conservatory door but Alan still hasn't come back outside and he hopes that Ken hasn't embarrassed Alan too much. There are times when he could quite happily slap Ken, but he leaves that job to Emma.

He can't stop thinking about how Alan had looked when he'd presented the cake to Stephen, and he knows that he's prevaricating by wandering around the garden. The longer he takes to approach Alan, the more chance there is of Alan thinking that this is all a huge mistake. And the thing is that Stephen has had plenty of time to decide whether or not he wants this. If he wants Alan and Stephen knows that he does.

"Fuck it," he finally mutters and heads towards the conservatory. They have been unsure around each other for long enough, and although Stephen doesn't want to lose Alan as a friend, he wants something more.


***


Alan is setting out the last two boxes of pastries onto the plates while Eve and Tom stand by, waiting to take them out to the waiting guests. He's so intent on his task that Eve's 'Oh hello, if it isn't the man of the hour' throws him for a few seconds until he realises she's looking over his shoulder and talking to... Well, it doesn't take a genius to figure that out.

"Hello Eve. And Tom, isn't it?" Stephen is saying, followed by thanks and compliments for their help and waitering. Alan isn't really listening, focusing on making sure his hands don't shake and keeping his face impassive. And not turning around.

The reprieve isn't long though and soon all the pastries are laid, just so, and Alan is left with nothing to do except straighten up and tell Eve and Tom to take the food out. They exchange a look, chorusing 'Yes, Alan' and troop out with barely suppressed giggles. Alan sighs, wiping crumbs off his hands nervously. Nothing for it then.

"Hey," he says, finally daring to look in Stephen's direction. "Did you run out of cake?"

"No," Stephen takes a step closer to Alan. "I didn't." He places the empty plate on the counter. "It's my birthday you know." Alan looks a little puzzled and Stephen continues. "It's my birthday and I think that there's something that I'm missing. Something that I've been missing for a while." He steps closer until he's at Alan's side. "What do you think that is?"

"Um," Alan says, which really he can't be blamed for because there's a sense of purpose in Stephen that he hasn't seen before; an intensity that's all focused on him. "I don't…" he clears his throat, can feel his eyes go wide with surprise because Stephen's suddenly there, right next to him, and yeah of course Alan knows that he's taller than him but it's still kind of disconcerting, though not unpleasantly so. "I don't know," he says, his fingers curling nervously into the hem of his shirt. "Seems to me like you have everything."

Alan is looking a little nervous and Stephen hopes that he's not about to make a massive mistake. But although Alan's body language is apprehensive, he is still turned toward Stephen. "Tell me if I'm wrong," Stephen says, lifting his hand and slowly pushing Alan's hair out of his eyes.

Alan goes still, eyes staring at Stephen but he doesn't move away. Taking that as tentative consent, Stephen steps closer still until he's bracketing Alan against the kitchen counter. "I don't have everything," he says, fingers slowly trailing down the side of Alan's face. "There's something else I want Alan. Someone who I want."

Alan swallows, his heart in his throat. He wants to smile or laugh because Stephen's intention is clear and this is exactly what Alan has been hoping for, for longer than he even realises probably, but the moment is too tense for that.

"Yeah?" he asks, and his hands are shaking slightly as he brings them up to Stephen's warm chest, his whole body shivering at the contact as he clutches Stephen's jacket, already pushing closer, for more, even though he doesn't mean to, just... "That makes two of us then," he says, voice catching.

Stephen’s heart leaps at the words and he trails his fingers down to Alan's throat, the tips pressing slightly against the frantically beating pulse. "That's good," he says softly. "Really marvellous, actually."  Bending his head, he brushes his lips against Alan's.

Alan makes a soft sound and Stephen pushes him carefully against the counter, his tongue flicking over Alan's lips, seeking entrance.

Stephen is being so very careful with him, his touch light and his kisses still questioning and yet Alan already feels like he's coming apart at the seams. It feels good, better even than he imagined, and he'd imagined this a lot; Stephen's body pressing against his, hands warm as they slowly slide down his slides before finally settling on Alan's hips. And god, god that makes him groan and push back, a sudden involuntary twitch of need that leaves his mouth open and pliant for Stephen's tongue. His arms come up to wind around Stephen's neck and he's on his tiptoes, trying to get closer.

Stephen just can't seem to get enough. Right now all he wants to do is to continue to touch Alan, to explore his body the way his tongue is exploring the inside of Alan's mouth, to taste him all over. Alan is eager, kissing him back, and without thinking about it Stephen moves his hands around to Alan's backside and lifts.

There's a squeak from Alan as their mouths part and Stephen hoists him on the countertop, but it doesn’t interrupt things for too long. Stephen steps between Alan's legs and wraps his hands in those curls, bringing Alan's mouth back to his own.


***


"People are starting to ask after him," Hugh comments quietly under the cover of his wine glass. Then he pre-emptively slaps a hand over Ken's mouth before he has a chance to add his two cents in for which Emma is grateful. "Should I go... look for him?" he asks, not sounding too eager for the task.

Not that Emma can blame him. They all know where Stephen has gone and while she knows Hugh is genuinely happy about the developments, she also knows he probably doesn't want to walk in on the said developments in the... the developmental stage. So to speak.

"It's alright," she says, patting him on the arm. "I'll go." She picks up her empty glass for cover, heading to the house. She sticks her head in the conservatory first, finding a kissing couple that decidedly isn't Alan and Stephen, before backing out.

In the hallway, Emma casts a considering eye toward the staircase but no, surely not... Stephen has to have enough sense not to go from months of pining to a quickie in the middle of his own birthday party. Well, she sincerely hopes so anyway.

Heading toward the kitchen first, she encounters an obstacle of sorts, in the form of two tittering students, one of whom she distantly recognises from a class last year.

"Erm, I wouldn't go in if I were you," the boy says, shifting from foot to foot.

"Yes. Alan is... very busy. With the, um, cupcakes," the girl adds, biting her lip.

"I'm sure," Emma says, smiling. "Look, it's very sweet of you to stand guard like this and I'm sure they'll appreciate not having just anyone wander in but... People are starting to ask after Stephen so don't you think someone ought to remind him that there's a party going on?"

"Um..." The kids exchange glances but finally part ways, letting Emma proceed.

The kitchen door is almost shut but not completely and Emma pauses for a fraction of a second to listen, just in case, but hears nothing but an occasional rustle of clothes so she hazards a peak.

And then has to suppress a delighted giggle herself. Honestly, it's like catching two school kids making out, not grown men: Alan is on the counter, his legs dangerously close to wrapping themselves around Stephen who... Dear lord, has both hands buried in Alan's hair and is kissing him with some serious concentration. It's a sight to behold alright, and no hardship to look at. Emma gives herself a few more seconds before stepping in and clearing her throat meaningfully.


***


Stephen is lost in the taste and touch of Alan, wrapped up in him so completely it takes a moment or so before he registers that there's somebody else in the room. He reluctantly breaks the kiss, swiping his tongue carefully over Alan's lips before turning to the interloper. He keeps his hands on Alan though, not wanting to let go of him just yet.

"Emma," his voice is sharp. Much as he loves Emma he could quite happily throttle her right now.  She raises her eyebrows at him and then walks over to the drinks fridge.

"Oh, don't give me that tone Stephen," she responds. "You know full well I'd be more than happy to stand here and watch the pair of you make out, even with or without Alan's blushes but people are asking for you. I presumed you'd rather I disturb you than anybody else."  She opens up the fridge, takes out a fresh bottle of champagne and fills her glass and then raises it in salute to them both.  "Cheers," she says. "It's about bloody time too."

"Oh, for god's sake woman, pass me that bottle." Stephen grabs the champagne bottle that she passes to him and takes a swig of the fizzy alcohol, enjoying the way the flavour bursts on his mouth. "Here," he hands it to Alan. "You'll need it. This is just the start!"

Alan takes a long drink although the alcohol does absolutely nothing to cool the flush on his cheeks... or in other parts of his body. Stephen and Emma are still glaring at each other, although it's really just outright laughter on Emma's part and Stephen can't seem to muster up any actual annoyance, judging by the way his mouth keeps curling into a smile while his fingers keep curling around Alan's hips.

The absurdity and the sheer bloody brilliance of the situation coupled with the champagne finally tips Alan over from embarrassment to amusement and before he knows it he's snorting with laughter, face pressed against Stephen's shoulder.

"You've broken his sanity already," Emma comments drily.

"Oh fuck you," Stephen says and then pats Alan's back awkwardly, asking if he's okay, which only sends Alan into another fit of hilarity.

"If anybody's broken his sanity it's you and your boys," Stephen splutters at her as Alan giggles into his shoulder. "Alan, seriously, I'm reconsidering the champagne right now." He tries to take the bottle away from Alan without success.

"No. Mine," Alan responds clasping the champagne to his chest. "It's all mine," he's pouting now and Stephen starts to laugh, riding high on the kiss and the fact that Alan seems as happy about this as Stephen is.

Emma shakes her head.  "Well aren't you the cutest pair." She grabs another bottle of champagne from the fridge realising full well that Alan isn't going to give his up.

"I'll see you both outside in a few moments," she tells them. "And if not," she warns, "I'll send Ken in to find you and I'm sure you don't want that."

Stephen watches her leave before turning back to Alan. "So... I think we're on the same page here."  Alan smiles and salutes him with the champagne and takes another mouthful before handing it to Stephen. "And I wondered whether you'd like to come over next week. I do remember promising to cook you a curry."

"You did." Alan grins happily and then narrows his eyes. "Hey, hey, were you asking me on a date that time? Because if I'd known that we could've been doing this," he waves an illustrative hand between them, momentarily tightening his legs against Stephen's, "in my kitchen. Where there is no party outside waiting to distract you."

For a moment Stephen is nonplussed as he thought it would have been obvious that he was asking Alan on a date, but then Hugh had always complained that he could be opaque without even meaning to.

"Well yes." He rubs his hand over the back of his neck in agitation. "I was asking you out on a date. Am asking you out on a date now."

"Alright then, well in that case..." Alan makes a show of thinking, tapping his finger against the champagne bottle for a few seconds. He doesn't have a heart to keep the charade up for more than a few seconds though because Stephen, the idiot, is actually starting to look genuinely worried. "Yes," Alan says, rolling his eyes. "Oh my god, how can you even... I would've said yes to a date after the first few weeks of knowing you. I thought it was obvious how much I..."

He stops talking then, choosing to reach out and drop a kiss to Stephen's lip instead of making a fool of himself. "I made you a cake," he points out. "And I lied: It totally was a lot of bloody trouble. But totally worth it." He kisses Stephen again, for emphasis. "So yes, to a date. You idiot."

And that's just... Well, Stephen knows that he's probably grinning like a loon but he doesn't care. Yes he's idiotic, yes he's older than Alan but those things are of no importance, not when Alan is kissing him. Ignoring his promise to Emma, he wraps his hands in Alan's hair again and returns the kiss. His friends, the party, can wait right now. Alan deserves all of the attention that Stephen can give him.

And Stephen plans on devoting quite lot of time just for that.