“You astonish me, Stephen.”
He gave a nonchalant shrug as the Bee Gees droned on in the background. “I don’t know why you would prefer this over a perfectly enjoyable evening in.”
Alexander frowned as the blue and purple lights flashed over them in a flower pattern, illuminating their white-painted faces. Stephen thought they looked ridiculous with the white make-up and their noses painted red.
“It’s a charity Carnivale, Stephen. One that James, Harry and the others worked very hard on to organise.”
“I can get behind the charity part,” Stephen grumbled, tugging on the hem of the shiny dark blue, cheap-feeling waistcoat. “I just don’t understand why it has to be a carnival.”
“It’s supposed to be fun.”
They were stood in a corner of the ballroom-turned-carnival-tent, some ways away from the middle of the room that had been assigned to function as dancefloor as the Gibb brothers sang life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me, yeah, I’m stayin’ alive over the speakers. He watched with a sour face as people danced to their heart’s delight to the mediocre playlist, all clad in just as ridiculous costumes as them—if not more absurd. If it weren’t for Alexander, Stephen would have happily gone to stand behind the big potted plant even farther tucked away in the corner and waited until it was an acceptable time enough to leave.
The way Alexander had been eyeing the dancefloor ever since they arrived hadn’t gone unnoticed, patiently waiting for Stephen to finally give in and agree to a dance like their cat sat and waited for playtime with the funky furry things on a stick when they were busy. It wasn’t that he didn’t like dancing—he’d twirled around the living room with Alexander in his arms a number of times—he just didn’t like doing it when everyone was watching. Alexander knew, but he also knew he’d give in eventually. He wasn’t so sure about tonight, though.
He just wanted to go home, really.
Home to their idiot but sweet cat who had woken them up in the middle of the night by puking on the bed; Home to the stack of papers he still needed to work through; Home to the humongous pile of laundry that needed doing that had been put on hold because of the sheets with puke-stains that suddenly got priority. To their comfortable, familiar, and—most importantly—quiet and peaceful surroundings.
It had been such a hectic day, he didn’t know how Alexander still had the energy for all of… of this.
Tired and sat upon the closed lid of the toilet, he’d grumbled the entire twenty minutes that Alexander painted their faces after forcing him in the costume, telling him that the costume is already humiliating enough and the paint is just going to itch and flake as Alexander told him to hold still and stop talking or he’d paint his tongue if he kept it up. Judging by the look Alexander threw him, Stephen seriously wondered if he would, and stopped complaining just in case.
He was right, though—it had begun to itch terribly in the time they’d been here, though he tried not to touch it as best as he could. As much as he hated it, Alexander had put effort into it and tried his best.
“I don’t see how anyone can find this ‘fun’,” he said as he had to physically restrain himself from scratching his nose. Why was it always the nose that started to itch fastest?
“I can think of much better things to do with the evening.”
“And which would those be?” Alexander asked, a hint of irritation in his voice. “Watching a documentary on historical medicine you’ve seen twenty times already?”
Stephen blinked. Ouch. That was his favourite documentary. “Perhaps. Or reading a scientific novel. Something educational or worthy of the time, at the very least. Something that doesn’t require dressing up and behaving like an idiot.”
“Wha— You don’t think this—” Alexander waved a hand around them, indicating the festivities, the charity— “is worthy of your time?”
He actually sounded upset, Stephen realised—looked it, too. He didn’t often see Alexander like that.
“I didn’t mean—”
“Of course you didn’t,” Alexander cut him off. He turned away from him and towards the crowd, chugging his drink—which was still well over half-full—and placed the empty glass on a tray someone was holding as they came walking by with new drinks, taking another full glass and chugging that as well.
Oh, Stephen thought. Oh this was bad. Even for him.
Alexander wasn’t one to drink irresponsibly. There had only been a few instances in the time they’d been together on which he’d seen him clearly intoxicated. One being their anniversary; Another being Fitzjames’ and Crozier’s engagement party; And another being the previously mentioned’s wedding—you know, things that were to be truly celebrated. But not on office parties or events like these. He’d have a few drinks but… not like this.
He also wasn’t one to show his irritation; always very calm with patients even in the most stressful or chaotic moments, very laidback with Stephen, almost never seemed irredeemably cross with him. Sure, there were a few moments where Alexander was irritated with him, but again: never so much he wouldn’t talk to him or be terse with him.
…maybe his patience with him had finally run out.
The colour behind the white paint drained from his face as soon as the thought crossed his mind. Oh, what had he done? He’d been so caught up in being such a detestable man of a curmudgeon and in his own stupid little miseries, cursing the world and all good things on the daily, he’d never even thought of how Alexander would feel having to listen to all of it and put up with him. He always seemed so perfectly fine with the way things were he’d never even considered…
He went to reach out and take his hand.
“I’m going to the loo,” said Alexander curtly and shrugged Stephen’s hand away. He didn’t even look at him as he briskly walked off.
Stephen was left staring after him, alone at their table with various party snacks and empty glasses, co-workers and friends dancing around him as the Gibb brothers’ voices sang, how can you mend this broken man? How can a loser ever win?
The bathroom lights made the white paint on his face look a sickly colour. He looked like a drowned puppy; feeling stiflingly hot in his costume all of a sudden, the big, ruffled collar too tight, the pointy hat continuously sliding off to the side, an unruly curl sticking to his forehead, trying to keep it together as he looked at his sad reflection in the mirror, tears prickling behind his eyes.
At least the costume was fitting, he supposed; he felt like a clown.
There was a soft knock on the door that startled him. Oh, for God’s sake. A man couldn’t even be alone in the midst of his breakdown.
He cleared his throat and pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, willing the tears away, hoping to sound as normal as he could. There was white, wet paint all over his hands, now. He looked up into the mirror. At least it wasn’t disastrous: there was still plenty on his face, so he didn’t look like a complete idiot like Stephen had said they did just yet.
“Yes?” he called, still looking at his own reflection. His voice wavered just a little; It was the best that he could do.
The door opened just a smidge for Thomas Blanky to peek his head around the corner, his expression soft with kind concern. It felt weird to be the one on the receiving end of that look, as he was usually the person who gave it to others.
“I suppose the question speaks for itself,” Alexander said in a voice that was thicker than usual, averting his eyes.
“Mmn, right—Saw you making a bee-line for the restrooms and leaving a very stupid-looking Stephen behind.” Thomas grinned a wide grin that showed his teeth and stepped in fully to close the door behind him and lock it, and leaned back against it. He limped only a little, now.
Alexander nodded towards his leg. “How’s it working out for you? You seem a lot better for it than six months ago.”
“Oh, yeah—” Thomas grinned again as he knocked his fist against the hard plastic— “getting used to this shiny new thing. Not as good as the old one yet, but we’re getting there.” He straightened back up, and his face was all seriousness again as he took a good look at Alexander.
“But that’s not why we’re here, is it?”
Oh, curse the man.
As he looked down at his paint-stained hands, from the corner of his eye Alexander saw Thomas’ expression softening. Oh, he felt ridiculous. Overreacting. He wasn’t usually like this. Maybe it was the drink.
“It’s Stephen,” he sighed, frustrated. “It’s always Stephen, isn’t it? He’s just so… detestable, at times. I don’t know what to do with it, anymore.” He winced as he looked at Thomas. He’d never really admitted that to anyone before.
“Well,” said Thomas, raising his eyebrows. “It is Stephen—comes with the man, doesn’t it?”
“It does, I just—” Alexander cut himself off and sighed again, looking up at the fluorescent lights of the restroom. “I feel ridiculous. It’s not that I’m not happy with him, because I am—very much so. It’s just that sometimes… Sometimes, I just feel a little overwhelmed.”
“Mmn,” was all that Thomas said to that. Well, there wasn’t really anything else to say, was there? Even Alexander himself didn’t know what to say next.
Being with Stephen was frustrating at times, he knew that better than anyone, and he was willing to deal with it—had done so in the past and planned on doing it in the future—but, well… It was hard, sometimes. He didn’t think he’d ever even admitted to himself that at times, it was just a little too much—even for him. But here he was, and he said it, and it was true.
And he didn’t quite know what to do with it.
When he looked back at Thomas, Alexander noticed how intently he had been studying him.
“You know,” said Thomas, pursing his lips. “I think the both of youse might need to talk a little more—and I know you’re a very open man—” saying this, he pushed himself off the door and clapped Alexander on a ruffle-clad shoulder, and grinned sympathetically— “but Stephen isn’t.”
He was all seriousness now, looking up at Alexander with a kind look in his eyes. “You’re a kind-hearted, caring fella, and you clearly love the bloody idiot to death, but I also know you haven’t got a clue as what to do with him sometimes—which is… pretty fuckin’ understandable. But look, thing is: you’re too kind. You’ve got a patience that exceeds the limits and that’s great with your patients, but with Stephen you’ve got to set borders. Or you’re going to get dragged under by his moods.
“You need to set your boundaries to how much negativity you’re able to deal with, and when he gets too moody, you’re going to tell him. Just tell him: “I feel like you’re being too negative”. But you need to leave him some space as well, try and put yourself in his place; There’ll be a reason why he’s acting like that, and knowing Stephen, he’s not going to say it out loud if he can help it.”
“I— I—” Alexander started, stammering. “I try to. I really try, but… at times I feel as if there’s a wall that prevents me from getting through to him.”
“I don’t doubt that you do,” Thomas reassured him, squeezing his shoulder. “I think… Stephen is complicated. He’s a very logical man, and definitely not as comfortable with voicing his feelings as you are, perhaps isn’t comfortable enough to acknowledge them himself to the degree that you do.
“I think that maybe he fears if he lets himself, and shows you, that you might not want to know. The way he looked when you stormed off—he’s afraid to lose you.”
Alexander’s heart skipped a beat. He’d thought there might have been something up, at times, but he had never wanted to pry. He knew from past experiences that Stephen didn’t like it when he did, so he simply didn’t. But it wasn’t often that Stephen told him himself, either—sometimes with the smaller things, yes, but… not a lot.
He gulped. “Do you think…"
He couldn’t finish the sentence. Couldn’t help but think he hadn’t made Stephen like he could tell him anything, that they’d figure it out, together, but couldn’t stand to think of it any longer, either.
“I think,” Thomas said in a calm, reassuring tone, sensing Alexander’s unease, “that youse both need to take a step towards the other, and maybe if you did that first, he’d feel more at ease in doing the same thing.”
Things sunk in slowly as Alexander searched Thomas’ honest eyes that were looking at him with a strange sort of fatherly kindness, even though the age gap between them wasn’t all that big. He was grateful to have his friendship, to have his trust and advice. Thomas was more than just a fun colleague: you could really count on him—for anything, really.
“Do you really think so?”
Thomas smiled and squeezed his shoulder again. “Oh yeah, I do. The man loves you to bits, Alex, he’s just an idiot when it comes to showing you.”
Alexander couldn’t help but smile as Thomas guffawed—a wide, toothy, love-struck grin as he thought of Stephen. Thought of the way Stephen always knew how he liked his coffee when making them both a cuppa, of the way Stephen’s fingers lingered just for a second longer when passing the carafe filled with water during dinner, of the soft kiss Stephen dutifully planted on his forehead when Alexander had gone to bed earlier than him.
Oh, Thomas was right.
“Alright, fix your make-up, lad,” grinned Thomas, giving Alexander’s shoulder a last, hearty squeeze. “Let’s go and find your man, eh?”
The music that had been muffled before through the closed door now poured back in as Alexander stepped out of the restroom, the blue and purple lights flowing back over him to play with the shadows on his white-painted face. The playlist had now moved on to Beatles territory.
As they walked back towards the crowd and the dancefloor and the music drummed on in their ears, he thought of what to say—and what Stephen would say. More about the latter, really. Oh lord, he really didn’t know what to expect. Thomas had reassured him the make-up still looked just fine before they stepped out. He didn’t usually care about it that much, but he didn’t want Stephen to feel worse than he might already be if he saw him come back out with runny paint everywhere.
God, always thinking of Stephen.
He could see the table in the distance where he’d left Stephen at earlier, but not Stephen. Scanning the crowd consisting of 127 colleagues plus partners, as far as he could see, Stephen wasn’t anywhere to be found either. It was hard to see with the lights, but he was fairly certain.
“I don’t see him,” he said to Thomas next to him. “Do you?”
“…No, I don’t,” Thomas said as he squinted. “Bloody fool. Where’s he run off to?” he muttered under his breath, scanning the crowd as well.
Well, this wasn’t good. Did he upset him so much as to actually leave? That was hardly like Stephen… but then again Alexander had never stormed off on him like that.
“You don’t think he left, do you?” asked Alexander, a hint of anxiety creeping into his voice as a pang of guilt shot through his chest.
“He’s an idiot if he did—and I’ll tell him just that when I find him.”
Standing a little ways away from the edge of the dancefloor, they stood looking for Stephen, craning their necks to try and see over the top of the crowd in hopes of spotting him. Maybe they should have just stayed home like Stephen had said, then none of this would have happened. But… Thomas had been right in what he’d said, and they couldn’t go on forever like this. If they did, some time it would go wrong—irreparably so, and he didn’t want that.
So maybe it was good that this happened. If only they could find the man so they could actually talk about it; Leaving things like this was not a thing Alexander was willing to do.
Next to him, Thomas had stopped looking around and had seemingly locked in on something in the crowd. “Wait here,” he said as he patted Alexander’s arm, and he made his way towards the dancefloor.
Alexander barely had any time to open his mouth before the man was pushing himself through the ever-moving flow of people and disappeared in its waves, leaving him standing by the sideline by himself and with no idea whether or not Thomas had actually seen Stephen or someone else with a similar costume; They weren’t the only ones in clown costumes.
All he could do now was wait here while ABBA’s S.O.S. played on through the speakers. How ironic, he thought as Agnetha sang I try to reach for you but you have closed your mind and a few lines later the whole group plus the crowd in front of him: So when you’re near me, darling can’t you hear me, S.O.S. It was almost like the playlist was mocking them.
Standing here, waiting, was not something he was used to doing—or even remotely liked, for that matter. Whenever something needed done he was always happy to help; He didn’t like things laying around when they could be done right then and there. Now, this really wasn’t the same, but still—he couldn’t help but feel like he ought to do something.
Thomas was taking an awful long time. Though, he realised, it probably just felt like an eternity instead of it actually being that long. Still, he was considering going in after him. But then again… What if he had found him and was talking to him right now? He didn’t want to show up before Thomas had gotten his point across to Stephen and possibly make things worse.
Just then, ABBA’s S.O.S. switched to something else entirely, and Dean Martin’s voice sounded throughout the room.
That was odd.
He looked over towards where he thought he’d seen the laptop hooked up to the speaker system earlier that night, and saw James in his Britannia costume turn away from the thing and smile as he clapped someone on a ruffle-clad shoulder—the same ruffled collar Alexander was wearing. Oh—
It was Stephen.
He didn’t know how fast he’d ran over, but when he reached them he grabbed Stephen’s shoulder and pulled him into a near-crushing hug. “I thought you’d left!”
“Wha— Alex—” Stephen stammered as soon as he saw it was him. “I was going to look for you—I was worried.”
Alexander vaguely registered James saying “I’ll leave you two to it,” behind them; He was far too glad to have found Stephen.
“I shouldn’t have stormed off like that,” he said when he let him go, looking up at Stephen with an apologetic look on his face. “I—”
“No, I—” Stephen interrupted, shaking his head— “you had every right to. I know how I am.”
As he saw the way that Stephen steeled himself for what he thought was about to come, Alexander remembered what Thomas had told him, and shook his head.
“Well, you are, but… I should have just told you. It wasn’t right to leave you standing there—I don’t want to be that kind of man.”
“But—” Stephen started but didn’t finish, and just shook his head. “I’m— You know—”
“You are, but I love you, you daft man,” Alexander laughed. He couldn’t help it. “And you should know by know that nothing you do will stop me from doing just that.”
After a short moment while Stephen’s searching gaze roved over Alexander’s face, and however miniscule it may have been, Alexander thought he could see the faintest hint of a smile on his lips, and that was enough for him. Though Stephen’s expression got serious again when he gingerly took Alexander’s hand in his, Alexander knew it wasn’t a dire-serious expression. From the few times he’d seen it, he knew this was one where Stephen was willing to admit something he normally wouldn’t, to let him take a peek—to really break himself open and give himself over to Alexander’s mercy.
And Alexander would let him; He’d hold out his hands and take whatever Stephen would give him and hold it close to his heart, and keep it safe from any harm. He wouldn’t dare do otherwise.
“I know that I’m not an agreeable person to be around,” Stephen said softly as he looked down at their clasped hands, “but I—I realised something when you were away, and I’m ashamed of myself for becoming so detestable that even you…”
He trailed off as his mouth worked but no sound came out, frowning.
“What I mean to say—” he looked up at Alexander then, as he said it, his expression one that even Alexander hadn’t seen before; So open— “is that, it’s not you, Alex. God knows I’ve made you feel like it, and I’m sorry—for all the hurt that I’ve caused you.”
Alexander could only stare up at him with an awed expression for a moment as he took everything he said in, but then squeezed Stephen’s hand and smiled his most loving, caring smile at him before he leaned in to kiss him.
They weren’t the couple to kiss in public, least of all with so many people present, but Alexander really couldn’t care less right in that moment. And apparently, neither did Stephen: melting into it and moulding himself to Alexander, pulling him closer with his hands on his hips.
“I think,” said Alexander with a smile as bright as any when they parted, “that we could both do a little better. Thomas told me some things, and I realise that he’s right in saying them, and I want to take his advice and make them work…”
He didn’t know how it happened, but while he told Stephen about what Thomas had said to him about finding a balance between the two of them, to where both Stephen could voice his annoyance and Alexander could let him know if he worried Stephen was being too negative, they’d fallen into a slow dance. Stephen’s hands on his middle and his own arms around Stephen’s neck felt just as good now as it did when they were at home, the soft exhale of Stephen’s breath on his neck warming him through and through entirely, even though he knew that was physically impossible—he felt it, though.
As Dean Martin was close to finishing his song, singing Your love made it well worth waiting, for someone like you, Alexander saw Thomas standing just outside the crowd, grinning and doing a thumbs-up, and gave him one in return.