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Restless Year

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In the brief interlude between summer school and the start of term, Tom and Stuart take a trip up north. Stu's been looking forward to it, for a number of reasons. As much as he loves London, it's good to get out every so often, and it's his first proper trip away with Tom. They've been meaning to go away together for a while, but they've both been far too busy for a proper holiday, so they settle instead for a long weekend in Sheffield. He's been looking forward to seeing his mum again, too - and Florian and the rest of his friends - but more than anything he's looking forward to showing Tom off to everyone. Tom's just been given a hefty advance from the publishers, so he treats them to first-class seats on the train - and as the English countryside rolls past, the rain pelts down around them, but they're warm and dry and ludicrously happy.

 

It's weird seeing Tom in the house where he grew up - it takes Stu back to that first summer they spent together, back when things between them were still secret and sordid, back when he never could have imagined his worlds would collide like this. He introduces him properly to his mum, who's ecstatic to finally meet him, and Lydia, who's more than a little starstruck. Tom isn't sure how to take either of them, at first - his own parents are both chronically stiff upper-lipped, and he doesn't know what to make of this loud, sweary, Northern woman or her butch girlfriend. He's touched - if a bit baffled - when Lydia asks him to sign her copy of his book. But then she gets him talking about history, and his programme, and what he's working on at the moment - and slowly but surely he comes out of his shell. By Friday evening, he's laughing along with Stu's mum's dirty jokes, and telling her he can see where Stuart gets it from. They have dinner in the kitchen where his mum had caught him sneaking in at the crack of dawn after a night at Tom's, and retire to the bedroom where Stu had first touched himself thinking about Tom, when it had still felt illicit and scary and exhilarating. (Sadly, Tom draws the line at shagging in Stu's childhood bedroom - especially with his mum in the next room - so he has to make do with kisses and cuddles and the promise of more when they get back to London.)

 

Saturday sees Stu return to the Staffordshire Arms for a hearty, greasy, pub lunch with Fiona and the boys. As expected, Fiona takes full credit for him and Tom getting back together - and he has to admit it wouldn't have happened without her, which pleases her no end. Everyone's pleased to see Tom again, and congratulates him on his success - and Stu realises part of the reason things had felt so fractured when they'd split up was because Tom had become their friend too. They'd made room for him in their ragtag group of misfits - and his absence had been sorely felt by everyone, not just Stuart. But he's back, and everything's as it should be. And now Tom's back in his comfort zone, he dazzles in conversation - and Stu's reminded of the acid tongue and sharp wit he first fell in love with all those years ago. As he looks at Tom over his fish and chips he wishes they didn't have to pretend not to be together in this stupid pub, because all he wants to do is kiss that stupid, clever mouth of his. (And - as soon as they’re alone - he does.)

 

Florian's curiosity gets the better of him, and he's tempted out of his anonymity by the prospect of meeting Tom. He's intrigued enough by him already, but nothing can keep him away when he finds out Tom's a bona fide celebrity. He insists on cooking them Sunday lunch, and Stu's helpless to refuse Florian's cooking, as always. And of course, because clearly Stu's got a type, Tom and Florian hit it off right away. 

 

"So, you're the boyfriend I've heard so much about!" Florian exclaims as he greets him with a warm, friendly hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Delighted to meet you. I'm Florian."

 

"Tom Irwin. Pleasure's all mine."

 

"Well, I know who you are - Stu told me I simply had to watch your programmes. He's sickeningly proud of you, and I can see why. I have to confess, a lot of it went over my head - I was never much good at history - but it all sounded terribly clever."

 

"Well, I'm sure I've heard just as much from him about your cooking. Misses it more than his mum's, I think."

 

"No pressure, then! Right, I'd better go and check on lunch - make sure it lives up to expectations - but you two make yourselves comfortable."

 

It doesn't just live up to expectations, it exceeds them. Tom won't leave without the recipe - because, as he puts it, he's going to teach Stu to cook if it kills him.

 

"It might," Florian warns him. "It just might."

 

*

 

The following weekend, they're sat out on Tom's balcony, savouring the last of the summer weather. Stu's made risotto - Florian's recipe, cooked under strict supervision from Tom - and for the first time, he's managed to make something that doesn't taste half bad. (The first couple of batches of rice had been horribly burnt, but - third time lucky - this one's just right.) Tom washes his down with white wine while Stu sips his sparkling water, and they steadily fill up the ashtray between them. Quitting smoking probably ought to be next on Stu's list, but neither of them are ready for that conversation. 

 

The sun is setting over Battersea Park, and it bathes the evening in a rosy glow. Tom looks beautiful - and it's not just the lighting, it's the way he's carrying himself, his shoulders relaxed, his expression unguarded. He catches Stu staring and gives him one of those rare, genuine smiles that makes his heart do a little flip in his chest. There's something he's been meaning to ask him - he'd been planning on doing it the weekend they'd gone to Sheffield, but his nerves had got the better of him. Now, though, he takes advantage of the lull in the conversation.

 

"Tom, can we talk?"

 

"...I thought we already were."

 

"Properly, I mean. I need to say something."

 

"Oh, um - alright. Go on."

 

Stu takes a deep breath and another sip of his water before he continues.

 

"So - a long time ago now, you… asked me something."

 

"Oh?"

 

"And I - I wasn't ready to hear it back then. I didn't know a good thing when I had it, and I ended up throwing it all away. Biggest mistake of my life. But, despite everything, here you are - and I'm grateful every day for you giving me another chance - not giving up on me. I love you so fucking much."

 

Tom reaches across the table and takes Stu's hand - and he hadn't even realised it was shaking until his touch steadies him and anchors him in the here and now. "Hey - I love you too," he says softly. "Everything that happened - it's in the past now, alright? You don't need to worry - I'm here, no matter what. I'll always be here."

 

"God, you're sweet... Alright, look - I'm just going to come out and say it. What you asked me before - if you asked me again now, I wouldn't make the same mistake. I - I wouldn't say no. So… does the offer still stand?"

 

Realisation dawns on Tom, and he smiles - but he's not going to make it that easy for Stu.

 

"Why don't you ask me yourself?"

 

"Alright, um - fuck, this is hard. I'd have been a lot nicer to you if I'd known how fucking hard this was."

 

"It's alright. I just - want to hear you say it."

 

"Right. Here goes. Tom…?"

 

"Yes?"

 

"How would you like to, um - maybe - move in together?"

 

Tom picks up his hand and kisses it. "I would like that very… very much."

 

"Oh, thank fuck ," Stu sighs, leaning in to give him a long, slow kiss.

 

"Well, what did you think I was going to say? Honestly…"

 

"I don't know - you could have got your own back there. Told me to fuck off."

 

"You're an idiot."

 

"Love you too. Bed?" 

 

Tom nods and gives him another kiss, before taking Stu by the hand and leading him back inside.