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Restless Year

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It's been nearly three years since that first endless summer they spent together in Sheffield. Irwin's managed to persuade Dakin to take a break from studying and they're sat on the roof contemplating the summer ahead - Dakin having commandeered the nicest room in the flat precisely because of its easy access to the roof. They talk the evening away as the ashtray between them steadily fills up and the bottle of wine empties. Everything as it should be. Until, that is, there's a lull in the conversation that they both let hang in the air for a little too long, and Irwin - nervous, Dakin belatedly realises - fusses with his glasses before he asks the dreaded question.

 

"So… what do you think you want to do after you graduate?"

 

Dakin groans. "Oh, God. Not you too."

 

"Sorry?"

 

"It's all anyone wants to know lately. What my plans are, whether I've got a job lined up yet, et cetera."

 

In his third year, Dakin quickly learned that being a finalist meant he was suddenly expected to know what to do with the rest of his life. Until then, he'd taken the university experience in his stride, only vaguely aware that each stride had brought him closer to the edge of the precipice he now finds himself staring down. The route hitherto mapped out for him - A-Levels, entrance exams, degree - is nearing uncharted territory, and the way ahead is unclear. It doesn't help that both of his flatmates know exactly what they're doing - Rudge has a job at his dad's firm all lined up, and Scripps hasn't wavered once since he made his mind up aged six that he was going to be a writer. Frankly, he thinks, it isn't fair of either of them - part of him wonders if they're doing it on purpose to make him look bad. 

 

But thankfully when winter gave way to spring, he could simply focus on exams instead. He was thankful for the distraction from graduation and the future and impending life-changing career decisions - and if burying his head in a book didn't work, he found an abundance of sex and alcohol usually did the trick. If Irwin wasn't around to facilitate the former, there were plenty more willing participants, but he kept his promise and didn't fall for any of them - not even the ones he liked enough to sleep with more than once. He assumed things would continue in a similar vein - and maybe that was his mistake, but their arrangement worked, at least for Dakin - and Irwin never said anything to suggest otherwise.

 

"That's not what I meant. I know you must be sick of being asked those sorts of questions - I was exactly the same at your age. No, what I was getting at was - what do you want to do with regards to… us?"

 

Dakin shrugs. "More of the same?"

 

Irwin appears to consider the possibility for a moment. "Yes - or… Look, it's just an idea, but - I'm thinking of quitting the school at the end of the year. Teaching was only ever meant to be a temporary thing, and - I want the time to work on my book."

 

The book - of course. Irwin's been chipping away at this book for the last three years, and from what he gathers it's a continuation of his undergraduate research - not that he's allowed to read more than the occasional extract. What he has read has been typically witty and incisive - and probably the most fun he's had reading about monasteries (though he may be a touch biased, naturally). His attempts to persuade him to show it to a publisher have, however, been fruitless - Irwin insists it isn't ready, that it needs to be perfect before anyone else can read it.

 

"Anyway," he continues, "there wouldn't really be any reason for me to stay in Sheffield, so - what do you think about London?"

 

"You know I'll come visit you wherever," Dakin reassures him with a quick kiss.

 

"Yes. Or - and again, it's just a thought, but… how would you feel about - maybe - moving in together?"

 

And there it is - a lifeboat, something to cling to - but something in him stops him from reaching out and taking it. 

 

"Oh. We've never, um - talked about that before..."

 

"I know. I thought we might talk about it now? But - like I said, just a thought. I don't need an answer right away. I'm just putting it out there."

 

"Yeah, I think I just - need some time to think about it." 

 

It should be a relief - to know that whatever happens, Tom isn't going anywhere. Since the beginning of the year, all he's wanted has been a little clarity, a little certainty. He knows he should be relieved - wills himself to feel it, even - but all he feels is the trappings of domesticity closing in around him. Next it'll be mortgages and pensions and spending weekends looking at paint samples - and if there's one thing that scares him more than graduating, it's growing up. 

 

He drains what's left in his glass and climbs back in through his bedroom window, leaving Irwin staring out across the skyline.

 

"Let's just go to the pub, yeah?" Dakin calls out after him. "I said we'd meet the others at nine."

 

*

 

The White Horse is as busy as it ever is on a Friday night - even with exams looming, Oxford's best and brightest come in their droves to drink away their evenings and their troubles. By the time Dakin and Irwin arrive, it's rammed - but Rudge and Scripps, reliable as ever, came early to reserve their usual table. 

 

"Oi - you two - over here!" Rudge barks at them, straining to be heard above the crowd. 

 

Dakin elbows his way through the sea of students, clearing the way for Irwin, who's swallowed his pride for once and is leaning heavily on his walking stick. He knows his crap leg must be really giving him grief if he's using it in public - usually he flat-out refuses to be seen with it unless he's in agony. If the roles were reversed, Dakin thinks to himself, he'd take it everywhere - the stick has infinite (currently untapped) potential as a weapon, particularly in crowded pubs where one's flatmates insist that the best table is right at the back. 

 

Rudge is sat next to his latest conquest, and Scripps next to a mate from the Christian Union whose name Dakin's never bothered to learn.

 

"Perfect timing," Scripps says with a shit-eating grin. "It's Pete's round."

 

Rudge rolls his eyes and begrudgingly takes their orders - a beer for Irwin, and for Dakin a rum and Coke (a double, naturally) - as they take their seats next to Christian Union Bloke. 

 

Initially it had taken the rest of the Cutlers' lot a while to get used to Irwin's presence - and vice versa. The first few visits, he'd been scared to even leave the bedroom in case anyone saw him - and Dakin's reminders that everyone would hear them shagging anyway had been less than helpful. These days, though, more often than not he'll come into the kitchen to find Tom - sans glasses, wearing one of Stu's shirts - chatting to Don or Pete over a cup of their horrible instant coffee he only ever pretends to drink. As luck would have it, it turns out the three of them share a common interest - taking the piss out of Stuart Dakin. He lets them too, if only because it's a relief to see them getting along.

 

Tonight, however, the mood is altogether different. Rudge returns with the drinks and the rest of them make idle small talk while Dakin sits in silence, his earlier conversation with Irwin casting a shadow over the evening no matter how hard he tries to forget or how much he drinks. Usually, it's hell being in public with him, unable to kiss or even touch, but he finds himself feeling grateful for an excuse to put a little distance between them. 

 

Under the table, Irwin's hand brushes his - and on any other night it would feel electric, illicit, a promise of what's to come, but tonight it only irritates him. When he turns to look at him, Irwin asks, barely audibly, if he's alright, the look in his eyes pleading for reassurance - and Dakin knows he really means "are we alright". 

 

He manages a mumbled "I'm fine" and gives his hand a quick squeeze, but he's not even fooling himself anymore - their cramped little booth seems to be getting smaller by the minute and he needs some air (and another drink). He's not usually the claustrophobic type but imagines this must be what it feels like - and he insists on buying the next round, just to get away. Without so much as a look back, he stumbles off to the bar - alone.

Chapter Text

At the bar, Dakin's sitting idly waiting for the drinks when he hears a familiar voice call his name - and though at first he struggles to identify it, there's no mistaking the six feet of chiselled perfection facing him when he turns around.

 

"Stuart Dakin - I thought that was you. It's been a while, hasn't it?"

 

"Oh. Um - Gabriel, hi."

 

Gabriel is one of Stu's more regrettable shags - not because the sex had been at all bad, but because the man's an insufferable prick. A mate of Rudge's from the rugby team, he has quite the reputation with women, but when the entire first fifteen descended on their flat for post-match drinks, the two of them got spectacularly wasted and ended up in bed together. As a rule, Dakin tends not to go for closet cases - too much baggage for his liking - but he'd been willing to make an exception for this stupidly handsome dickhead.

 

"You sacking off revision too?"

 

Dakin shrugs. "I'm just here with my - with some mates."

 

"I haven't seen you since last term. You figure out what you're doing after graduation yet?"

 

He rolls his eyes so hard he's surprised he doesn't do himself an injury. "I'm here to forget about all of that," he replies, taking the opportunity to lay a hand on one of Gabriel's unreasonably muscly arms. And there it is - contact, electricity, illicit promise.

 

He leans in closer and lowers his voice. "Maybe I can help you with that? Hell, I'll make you forget your own name if you'll let me."

 

It's a horrible idea, Stu knows it is - but what he wouldn't give right now for a quick, uncomplicated shag. He briefly entertains the idea of running off into the night with this blond Etonian Adonis, hating himself for even thinking about it - but he's saved from himself by Scripps, who's staring daggers at him from across the room as he approaches the bar.

 

"Shit. Another time, yeah?"

 

Gabriel admits defeat and saunters off, presumably in search of his next target - as Don corners him with a face like thunder.

 

Stu groans. "What's up your arse tonight?" 

 

"You're seriously asking me that? You're the one getting shitfaced and flirting with Boy Wonder over here. Meanwhile your boyfriend - who's come all the way from fucking Sheffield just to see you - is sat over there with a face like a slapped arse because you're making his life a bloody misery. I mean, Christ - what's he ever done to you?"

 

He decides now isn't the time for a snarky comment about taking the Lord's name in vain. "He wants us to move in together."

 

"Right. And he's the bastard because…?"

 

"He's not, I know he's not. I just can't think about it right now and - it's made things weird."

 

"Can't now or can't ever?"

 

"I don't know, alright? I just know I'm not ready."

 

"Have you told him that?"

 

"No," Dakin sighs. "I said I'd think about it."

 

"What is wrong with you? If you don't want to live together, you need to tell him. For all our sakes. Pete and I aren't going to spend the rest of the weekend walking on eggshells around you two just because you won't have an honest conversation."

 

"Yeah, yeah - I'll do it tomorrow."

 

"No, Stu - now. "

 

"But - I just bought another round of drinks-"

 

"I think you've had enough, mate. Now - go home and talk to Irwin. Please. For the love of God."

 

*

 

Between the walk home, the cool night air and the glass of water he downed before he left (at Scripps' insistence), by the time they reach the flat Dakin's sobered up a little - or at least enough to feel a bit of remorse. They haven't said a word to each other since the pub - when he'd admitted they needed to talk and Irwin had simply replied, "yeah - I think we do". He's clearly fucking livid - rightly so - and the longer he waits to say anything the more Dakin dreads what's to come.

 

As he shuts the door behind him, Irwin's expression is one of hurt, anger and confusion - but he doesn't raise his voice at all, just fixes those sad eyes on him and says softly, simply - "You want to tell me what the fuck that was about?"

 

Somehow, it's worse than being yelled at. "I don't know. It was stupid. I'm sorry."

 

"I feel like I'm being punished for something, but I don't know what I'm supposed to have done."

 

"You haven't done anything, Tom. I'm just in a weird place, alright?"

 

"That's your excuse? You completely fucking humiliated me - and you were a total prick to the others all night." He's raising his voice now - and no, this is definitely worse.

 

"I said I'm sorry! I'm sure what's-her-name and Don's boring mate will get over it."

 

"Susan. Her name's Susan. And Don's mate - Richard - he's a perfectly nice bloke."

 

"How come you know their names?"

 

"Because I was paying attention!"

 

"Look, if I'm - distracted - it's only because I've got finals coming up, and then graduation, and I've got a million decisions to make about my future, and now thanks to you it's a million and one-"

 

"So this is about us moving in together? I'm sorry I asked." Irwin laughs - a bitter, humourless laugh. "Can we just - forget I said anything?"

 

"That's the thing - I don't think we can," Dakin admits. "Because it's not just about living together, is it? You'd want things to change, you - you'd want me to stop seeing other people."

 

"I thought that went without saying. So that's why you were chatting up that absurdly good-looking Ken doll at the bar? To make a point? Well, congratulations - you've made your fucking point. And you know what? I'm not sorry I asked. I'm not stupid - I knew you were going to want to see other people when you went off to university - but I thought it was better to share you than to lose you completely. And I made my peace with that, but it's been three years - it's not good enough anymore."

 

"You could have seen other people too, you know? It wasn't just for my benefit."

 

Irwin shakes his head. "I never wanted anyone else."

 

"No, you just wanted me to be someone I'm not. Tell me how that's not the same fucking thing."

 

"It's not like that - I just thought that sooner or later you might grow up. Clearly I was wrong. I'm not getting any younger, though - I can't keep doing this without some sort of tangible commitment from you."

 

There's a pause, Tom waiting for him to say something - and Stuart knows if he meets him halfway, if he just gives him something, then they can put this whole sorry evening behind them, but he's pissed off and proud and deep down he knows Tom deserves better anyway. So he doesn't say anything, and the moment passes.

 

"So that's it?" 

 

Stu even can't look at him, let alone answer.

 

"You're a fucking coward." Irwin practically spits the words at him, each one laced with venom.

 

"Oh, fuck you too!" Dakin snaps back. He knows he shouldn't, but he can't stand the way Tom's looking at him, all bitterness and disappointment, and it's a stupid knee-jerk reaction he immediately regrets.

 

Irwin's gathering his things now, heading for the door, and it's all becoming frighteningly real. 

 

"Where are you going?" 

 

"Well, I'm not staying here. I'll get a hotel - head home tomorrow."

 

"But - it's the middle of the night - and - your leg-"

 

"I'll manage. Goodbye, Stuart."

 

And then he's gone, slamming the door behind him - leaving Dakin to wonder how he could have fucked everything up quite so spectacularly in just a few short hours.

Chapter Text

Later - he isn't sure how much later, it could just as easily be seconds as hours - Scripps comes home to find Dakin on the roof, staring up at the vast emptiness of the night sky. It used to comfort them, in the early days, when they were gripped by homesickness but wouldn't admit it - to know that the stars here were the same stars as Sheffield's. Tonight, though, they just remind Dakin of the staggering insignificance of it all - of everything he is and everything he'll ever be. He's also depressingly sober - which he's going to have to remedy just as soon as he remembers how to move.

 

"Pete not with you?" Stuart asks as Don takes a seat next to him.

 

"No, he's gone to Susan's for the night. How did it go with Irwin?"

 

"How do you think?" 

 

"Shit. I'm sorry, mate." Don slings an arm round him and pulls him close. "Bloody hell, you're freezing. How long have you been out here?"

 

Stu shrugs. 

 

"It was for the best. We wanted different things. You did us a favour, really - better we find out now and move on with our lives. I've already wasted three years of his."

 

"He said that?"

 

"No - he didn't have to. Fuck him, though. I can do what I want now, can't I?"

 

"Yeah - that's what I'm afraid of."

 

"I'm fine, really."

 

"You don't seem-"

 

"I said I'm fine! Would you please just leave me alone?" It comes out harsher than intended, and Don visibly flinches.

 

"If you say so," he mutters, finally giving up and heading back inside.

 

Alone again, Dakin looks around at the lingering traces of Irwin - his cigarette stubs in the ashtray, the empty bottle of wine, the two glasses beside it. He tries to picture them there earlier that evening, but the image is slipping away from him already - he can't even remember which glass is which. They're both taunting him though, he decides, and he hurls them one by one across the roof, where they shatter on impact.

 

*

 

"Who's Tom?"

 

Shit. He'd hoped against hope that the other man hadn't heard him scream Tom's name as he'd come - and decides, for what good it'll do, to feign ignorance. "What?"

 

"You called me Tom."

 

"Hmm… don't think I did. Are you sure?"

 

Not-Tom doesn't buy it, and sets about putting his clothes back on. It's his fault, Stu thinks, for looking so much like him - this never would have happened otherwise. For the last few weeks his tried-and-tested method for forgetting things - booze and one-night stands (of which he'd prescribed himself a hefty dose) - had been very nearly working, until he'd spotted Not-Tom from across the bar earlier that night. Save for a few differences - longer hair, no glasses, the sort of beard Tom couldn't grow if he tried - they might as well be the same person. He can't for the life of him remember the man's real name - he'll blame the drink for that - all he remembers from their earlier conversation is Not-Tom telling him he's a law student.

 

"It's Evan - my name's Evan. You weren't even close." 

 

The way Evan's looking at him now, with that same disappointed look Tom had given him the last time they spoke - the resemblance really is uncanny.

 

"Sorry - Evan." He sighs, defeated, and reaches into the bedside drawer for a tissue to clean himself up with. "I haven't been myself lately."

 

Evan takes a break from fussing with the buttons on his shirt and sits back down on the edge of the bed, his expression softening somewhat. "He really did a number on you, didn't he?"

 

"Who?"

 

"Don't play dumb. Tom - whoever he is. The man I so clearly remind you of."

 

"Yeah, right. More like I did a number on him. Trust me, you wouldn't be feeling sorry for me if you knew how badly I'd fucked things up." He wills himself not to cry until after Evan's gone, but his eyes are stinging and he knows it's only a matter of time.

 

He shuffles a little closer. "Want to talk about it?"

 

"Absolutely not."

 

"Well - is there someone I can call? You seem like you're in a pretty bad way."

 

"I'd rather you didn't. I'll be fine - really. Sorry about… all of this." 

 

He watches as Evan gets dressed and makes his way out, waiting until he hears the click of the front door to give in to the crying. He's got no right to be feeling like this, he tells himself - it's his own stupid fault things are the way they are. And in the unlikely event he does change his mind about settling down, it's even less likely that Tom will want anything to do with him after the way he's been treated.

 

He finds himself drawn to the bookshelf-turned-booze-shelf above his desk and scans it for a bottle that isn't empty. An alarming number of them already are, but he finds one that isn't - a cheap, nasty vodka - and takes a swig. It tastes like paint stripper and burns like it too, but it takes the edge off. He takes another drink - and another.

 

He doesn't stop until he blacks out.

Chapter Text

The days begin to blur into one endless cycle of drinking and fucking and awful decisions, until Dakin can no longer tell anyone what day of the week it is any more than he could admit he'd made a mistake breaking things off with Irwin - which is to say, not for the life of him. He's told he sat his final exams, but he has no recollection of doing so. He's also vaguely aware of Rudge and Scripps exchanging worried looks every time they catch him doing another walk of shame - but things don't really come to a head until the weekend of the Cambridge trip.

 

These visits to and from the Cambridge lot have been a lifeline for the last three years - the boys are each other's home away from home, a reminder of Sheffield when it pulls at their heartstrings, calling them back. Often they can't afford to make the journey more than once a term, but they've held one another to regular visits since first year - birthdays being an absolute must. It was on one of these weekends in Cambridge that he'd first noticed the way Scripps looked at Posner, the way he hung on his every word like Pos used to hang on Dakin's - though Stu had never been so oblivious to David's attentions as David clearly was to Don's. He wonders if they'd always been like this and he just hadn't been paying attention back at school. 

 

The last they saw of each other was Crowther's birthday in February, which means that Akthar's is up next - though by Dakin's reckoning it isn't for another couple of weeks. He's surprised, then, when he comes home from another nameless, soulless encounter - dishevelled and still a bit drunk - to find Don and Pete packing their things. 

 

"Fucking hell, Stu," Don sighs as he drags his suitcase into the hall. "We're leaving in three hours. Have you even slept?"

 

"Leaving?"

 

"Adil's birthday - remember?"

 

"That's this weekend? Are you sure?"

 

Scripps gives him a withering look.

 

"Fuck. Alright, I'm just going to take a quick nap. Wake me up in a bit, yeah?"

 

"Fine. We're not missing the train because of you, though. If you're not ready to leave when we are, you're on your own, mate."

 

"I'll be ready," Dakin assures him as he slinks off in the direction of his room.

 

"Oh, and Stu?"

 

"What?"

 

"Maybe ease up on the drinking tonight, yeah? You've been hitting it pretty hard lately."

 

"Exams are over, Don. I'm celebrating."

 

"But… mate, you drank all through exams too."

 

"Can we not do this now? I'm tired." He slams the door behind him, ignoring Scripps' protests, and collapses face-down on the bed.

 

*

 

He wakes - several hours later - to an empty flat, a pounding headache and a note under his door in Scripps' handwriting:

 

Stu,

Tried to wake you but you were dead to the world. Give us a ring when you're on your way. And please, try to behave tonight?

D&P

 

It takes him a minute to remember what they're talking about, but eventually he drags himself to the phone and rings the Cambridge boys to let them know he'll be on the next train. He's fucked if he's going to 'behave' though, whatever that means. He grabs a couple of bottles of wine from the booze shelf on his way out - one bottle of the good stuff he'd bought as a birthday gift for Adil, and a bottle of the cheap, nasty stuff for himself. He polishes off the first one on the train just to spite Don for telling him to behave - and come to think of it he isn't sure Muslims are supposed to drink anyway, so he's probably doing Adil a favour while he's at it. He doesn't have an excuse for getting stuck into the second, but he does anyway - and by the time he turns up at the house he's three sheets to the wind again. One of Adil's Trekkie mates from the Science Fiction Society (he's banned from calling it the Virgin Society, at least to their faces) recognises Stu from a previous get-together and lets him in, though he looks none too happy to see him. The party's already in full swing but the others are nowhere to be seen, so he wanders from room to crowded room listening for the slightest hint of a Sheffield accent. He's about to go blundering into the kitchen when he hears someone say his name, and he decides to hover outside the door and eavesdrop instead.

 

"He should be here soon," someone (Pete? It sounds like Pete) says.

 

"Sorry to do this on your birthday, mate." Another voice - unmistakably Don's. "We just - we're really worried about him."

 

"It's fine, really. If he's as bad as you say-"

 

"Isn't this typical Stu behaviour, though?" That's Timms' voice - he thinks. "I mean, he's sort of always been like this."

 

Don again. "I know - I've lived with him for the best part of three years. This is different. You'll see."

 

"See what?" Stu isn't having any of this anymore and stumbles into the kitchen, squinting at the harsh lights overhead. They're all there - the Oxbridge class of 1983 - all seven of them looking up at him in a way they never have before. They feel sorry for him, he realises, and the thought infuriates him.

 

"God, you were right - he looks dreadful," Timms says, under his breath - but not quite under enough. Lockwood elbows him sharply in the side.

 

Dakin does his best to look wounded, but he knows it's true - he looks like shit. It's been a couple of days since he last showered or shaved, and he hasn't been eating or sleeping brilliantly either. It's left him with a permanently pale, sickly look, and shadows under his eyes that won't go away. Even his hair's stopped cooperating.

 

Don's the first to speak. "Stuart - mate - why don't you sit down?"

 

There's one empty seat at the table, which he takes - but only because standing up is becoming increasingly difficult. 

 

"We need to talk," he continues, "about how much you've been drinking lately. Now - we're saying this because you're our mate, and - and we care about you-"

 

"Oh God. Is this - is this an intervention?" Stu looks around at the worried faces surrounding him, and Don doesn't need to answer - they speak for themselves. "I bet he's told you all sorts, hasn't he? Just because he's a fucking nun doesn't mean the rest of us have to be."

 

"It isn't just Don," Pete chips in. "I've noticed it too, and - we've spoken to the others and we all agree that this is clearly becoming a problem for you."

 

"I don't have a fucking problem. I'm a student - it'd be a problem if I didn't drink."

 

It's Posner's turn to pipe up. "I think you know it's gone a bit beyond that, Dakin. You wouldn't have thought this was an intervention if you didn't think there was anything to intervene about. Scrippsy told us you turned up drunk to some of your exams, for fuck's sake."

 

"Oh - he did, did he? Well maybe Scrippsy needs to stay out of other people's fucking business. Maybe that's what started this whole mess in the first place."

 

"I know this must be - confronting for you, mate," Don says, "and you're probably feeling a bit cornered right now - but you are literally going to kill yourself if you carry on like this. Please - don't take it out on me. I'm only trying to help."

 

"Of course. Because that's all you ever do, isn't it? Well, I'm getting sick of your help - and your holier-than-thou bullshit. You sit there, judging us all from on high - Saint Donald - interfering with our lives because the sad truth is you don't have a life of your own."

 

"That's not fair-"

 

"Isn't it? Maybe if you sorted out your own love life instead of sabotaging mine, I wouldn't need to fucking drink." He looks from Scripps to Pos to Scripps, and back again. It's a cheap shot and he knows it, but right now he'll do anything to deflect from the matter at hand.

 

Posner looks confused. "Don, what's he talking about? What love life?"

 

"Well, exactly," Dakin sneers.

 

"If you do this," Scripps  hisses, "I will never fucking forgive you."

 

"Don knows what I mean - don't you, Don?"

 

Scripps starts to look desperate. "Stuart, I'm begging you - please don't do this-"

 

"Isn't it obvious?"

 

He changes tactic and turns to Pos now. "David - he's wankered - don't listen to him-"

 

"He's in love with you. Has been for years. Only he'll never tell you because he's a fucking coward. So he ruined the one good thing I had going, because he was jealous - because I had the audacity to be fucking happy."

 

There's a moment of stunned silence as everyone takes in what Dakin's just said - what Dakin can't unsay. Pos looks shell-shocked, Scripps livid, the rest waiting for the ground to swallow them up.

 

"Don, is that - is that true?" Posner asks eventually. 

 

The silence speaks for itself. Pos, taken aback, excuses himself and Scripps gets up to follow him - but he turns to Dakin one last time before he leaves.

 

"You ruined things with Irwin all by yourself, mate. You don't get to blame me for that. And this - this was low, even for you. I am done trying to help you, I am done being your friend. I want you out of here - what's more, I want you out of the fucking flat by the time I get back, you hear me?"

 

"What - where am I supposed to go?"

 

"Not my problem," Scripps says as he follows Pos out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him.

 

Dakin looks around at the faces left in the room, each of them with that disappointed look he's been seeing a lot of lately - or maybe now it's crossed the line into outright contempt.

 

"I suppose you all agree with him?"

 

The others say nothing.

 

"Well, fuck you too. Fuck all of you!"

 

Dakin gets up to leave, but his dramatic exit is ruined somewhat by the ground swaying beneath his feet and the wave of nausea washing over him. He just about manages to make it to the kitchen sink before he's profusely and violently sick - none of the others make a move to help him, but he supposes that's his own fault. By the time he's done throwing up, he looks around and realises the others have all left too. 

 

Disgraced, alone, and without a thought or care as to where he's going, Dakin wanders off into the night.

Chapter Text

A week after the disastrous trip to Cambridge, Rudge and Scripps are spending an evening in the White Horse - at their usual table, naturally. With final exams under their belts, all that's left to do is wait until graduation - and in time-honoured tradition, they're passing the summer months in the pub, making the most of their time with the friends and acquaintances they're unlikely to see again. There's one notable absence, of course, but Scripps is glad of it - having served his sentence as Dakin's best friend for the last twenty-two years of his life, he's finally someone else's problem.

 

Rudge must be thinking the same thing, because he takes this moment to lay a reassuring hand on Scripps' shoulder. "Don, mate - I just wanted to say… I know things have been weird since Cambridge - and don't get me wrong, Stu had no right to out you like that - but it doesn't change anything, you know that, right? Just like it didn't change anything when Pos came out. You're our friend, and - we love you."

 

"Cheers, mate. I know it doesn't really change anything for you or the others - but I'm worried it's really fucked things up between me and David. I was going to tell him... you know, how I felt. Eventually. When the timing was right. But - he found out in the worst possible way. And clearly he doesn't feel the same, otherwise he would have said something by now."

 

"You don't know what's going through his head, alright? Maybe he was just… overwhelmed."

 

"I appreciate what you're trying to do, but I think it's time I faced facts. I'm going to die alone, and only my cats will mourn me."

 

"Now, hold on a minute - you're forgetting about the rest of us - your mates'd mourn you, idiot. So don't go getting ideas."

 

For the first time since the weekend, Don manages a smile. It's short-lived, though - their blissful peace is interrupted by a couple of Pete's meathead rugby mates spotting him and immediately inviting themselves to sit down. One thing he won't miss about Oxford is the posh rugby boys and their endless parties - which, for reasons unknown to Scripps, simply have to take place in his flat whether he likes it or not. He isn't even sure Rudge particularly likes them, but he tolerates them out of necessity. One is short and stocky - built like a sack of potatoes, though he'd never say that to his face - and the other is the tall blond prick he remembers Dakin fluttering his eyelashes at the last time they'd all been here together.

 

"Peter! Mate!" The tall one bellows, slinging an arm around Rudge as the pint in his other hand spills all over the table. "And Donny, my boy - how are you?"

 

"Gabriel, do you mind?" Rudge says before he can answer. "We're having a moment here."

 

"He doesn't mind, do you Donny?"

 

"I mind you bloody calling me that. It's Don. How many times-"

 

"Where's the other one?" The short one asks. "Your other flatmate, I mean. He not with you tonight?"

 

Rudge sighs. “He, um - moved out. We’re actually not speaking at the moment. It’s a long story.”

 

"Oh. Trouble in paradise? The Three Musketeers no longer?"

 

"Oh, shut up, Luke." Luke - that's his name.

 

"Well, good riddance," Gabriel says. "I never liked him."

 

Unnoticed by the others, Don raises an eyebrow. That's certainly not what it looked like, he thinks to himself.

 

"You should have heard how the others talked about him. The way he carried on!" He continues. "Must have spread his legs for half the men in Oxford. Riddled with STDs, no doubt."

 

"Only we get to talk about him like that, mate," Pete interrupts. "And if that's the case, maybe you ought to get yourself checked out - you did shag him last term."

 

Gabriel's lost for words - and satisfying though it may be, Don can't help but feel a little bit bad for the man being outed to his meathead mate. "Pete!" He hisses.

 

"It's fine, Don - literally everyone on the team knows."

 

"What's your fucking problem, Rudge?" Luke cuts in. "Why are you defending him? Thought you and the college bicycle were on the outs."

 

"That may be - but I've known him a right sight longer than the two of you, and - it's complicated, alright? Maybe I'm just sick of you posh knobs lording it over the rest of us."

 

"God, my father's right - this place is going to the dogs," Gabriel seethes. "Still, that's what happens when you give scholarships to gutter trash like Stuart Dakin."

 

"They're all the same," Luke agrees. "I'm all for affirmative action, but there needs to be some barrier for entry."

 

"Yes," Gabriel says with a hearty laugh. "Ideally somewhere around the Watford Gap!"

 

That's when Rudge shoots out of his seat and punches Gabriel in his stupid smug mouth.

 

He's thrown off balance and pitches headfirst into the carpet, Luke rushing to help him up as he brushes himself off. 

 

"You're a fucking psycho, mate!" Gabriel's clearly itching for a fight, but Luke holds him back, insisting Rudge isn't worth it, and eventually he relents and storms out of the pub, lackey in tow.

 

Scripps is still frozen to his seat in stunned silence when Rudge catches his breath and sits back down. "Right," he says nonchalantly. "Next round's on me."

 

"You punched him in the face," Don says incredulously.

 

"What's he gonna do, have me kicked off the team? Rugby season's over, and pretty soon I'll never have to see those pricks again."

 

"You punched him in the face!"

 

"Look, I know you're not Stu's biggest fan right now - and neither am I - but hearing those two carry on… They rub me up the wrong way, always have. And I know they make you uncomfortable, too." A satisfied little smirk spreads across his face. "God, I've wanted to do that for years. And it felt every bit as good as I imagined."

Chapter Text

The following morning, Scripps is woken far too early for his liking by a knock at the door. A glance at the clock on his bedside table tells him it's nearly noon, but still. He buries his head under the duvet, hoping either Rudge will answer it or whoever it is will go away - either one would be a favourable outcome. He doesn't stay awake long enough to find out which it is, though, drifting back off as he grumbles to himself about how Sundays ought to be days of rest.

 

Before he knows it, though, he's woken again by another knock - this one more insistent, louder. It's his bedroom door this time, he realises.

 

"Who is it?" Don groans.

 

"There's someone here to see you, mate," Pete replies.

 

Don begrudgingly throws on an old T-shirt and pokes his head round the door, realising David Posner is sitting in his living room and immediately wishing he'd done something with his hair.

 

"Hi, Don," he says softly.

 

"Oh, um - hi. Just - give us a minute, yeah? I'm getting dressed."

 

Disappearing back into his room, he frantically rifles through the piles of clothes on the floor until he finds a clean pair of trousers, and combs his fingers through his hair in a desperate attempt to tame it. If Pos notices the difference when he re-emerges, he doesn't remark upon it. (At least Rudge seems to have made a hasty retreat, so they've got the room to themselves.)

 

"Can I, um - get you anything? Tea?"

 

"I'm fine, thanks."

 

"Are you sure? It's no trouble. I was going to make some anyway-"

 

"Don, I don't want tea."

 

"Well, maybe I do!" 

 

David barely even flinches - just raises an eyebrow - but it's enough to make Don regret snapping.

 

"Sorry. Didn't mean to get in a flap," Don mumbles sheepishly, shuffling off to the kitchen. "Back in a moment."

 

"Don!" David calls after him. "...Milk, two sugars?"

 

By the time he returns with the tea, Don's managed to compose himself a little - there's always something oddly meditative about fixing himself a nice cup of tea, he finds. It hasn't quite quelled the pounding in his chest, but at least his hands don't shake when he places the two mugs down on the coffee table in front of them.

 

"So - no sign of Dakin," Pos remarks as he sips his tea. "The others told me you'd kicked him out but I didn't think he'd-"

 

"Go quietly? No, me neither. I was sure he'd kick up a stink about it, but - small mercies - he was gone by the time we got back. Haven't seen him since."

 

"Laying low? That's not like him."

 

"Not like him at all," Don agrees. "I don't think he's any friends left here - he's probably gone back to Sheffield with his tail between his legs. But you didn't come all this way to talk about Stu, did you?"

 

"No," Pos says softly. "No, I didn't."

 

"I'm so sorry you found out like that. I wanted to wait for the right time, and you've had such a rough ride of it the last couple of years-"

 

"You mean with my panic attacks? They're mostly under control now, have been ever since I got that new counsellor. So - you don't have to keep treating me like I'm fragile, you know? We're supposed to tell each other everything - especially the hard stuff. Let me worry about whether I can handle it."

 

"You're right. I think it was mostly me who couldn't handle it, if I'm honest. We've been friends for so long and I didn't want to fuck things up, and now I'm worried I have-"

 

"You haven't. And - I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have run off like that. I thought I needed time to figure out how to feel and what to say, but… Rudge made me realise saying nothing was actually worse-"

 

"Pete called you?" Don sighs. "Of course he did."

 

"Last night. But - don't be upset with him, he just couldn't bear to see you hurting. He told me I should just follow my instincts, and - well, they told me to come and see you first thing."

 

"And? How do you feel about it now?"

 

"Blindsided, mostly. Bit miffed you didn't tell me. Scared, naturally. But…" (and here he lays a hand on Don's knee) "excited, too."

 

Scripps takes Posner's hand in his own. "David… I-"

 

"I like you, Don. I really like you. And - I think we ought to give it a proper go. That is, if you'll still have me?"

 

Lost for words, and past the need for them, he answers David with a sweet, gentle kiss - and another, and another, all happily reciprocated.

 

"I don't have to be back in Cambridge until tomorrow," Pos says breathlessly. "We could spend the day together, if you wanted?"

 

"And the night?"

 

He pretends to be affronted. "Buy me dinner first, Donald! Then we'll talk."

 

They laugh, and for a brief moment everything's perfect - until, that is, the phone rings. Scripps is loath to answer it, but the nagging anxiety that it could be something important eventually gets the better of him. He musters up his best serious telephone voice (which is tricky when he's giddy with excitement and Pos is clinging to him like a limpet and whispering to him to tell whoever it is to sod off) and answers.

 

"Hello?"

 

"Don, sweetheart - it's Sandra. Don't suppose Stu's around? I need to talk to him about when I'm coming down for graduation so I can book the time off work."

 

Though her son may be an insufferable bastard, Don can't bring himself to harbour any ill will towards Sandra Dakin - she has the patience of a saint and the foul mouth of a sailor and he's always adored her (oftentimes more than he cared for Stu).

 

"Wait, you mean - didn't he move back home already?"

 

"No - I haven't been able to get hold of him for weeks. Fuck knows when he's coming home. Is he not there, then?"

 

"He, um - hasn't been for a while, no. It's a long story, but - we had a bit of a falling out. I assumed he'd just moved back in with you."

 

"No, I didn't even know he'd - so nobody's heard from him? In how long?"

 

Don wriggles free from David's grasp. "A little over a week, I think."

 

"Oh?" She's starting to sound worried now, and he feels guilty despite himself. "That's not like him. He would have called by now, unless something-"

 

"I'm sorry. I didn't even think about where he was going to go - it was the heat of the moment, and I was so angry-"

 

"You've no need to apologise to me, love. I know what Stuart can be like - I'm sure he was absolutely beastly to you. But something's definitely not right. I've just got this dreadful feeling. Right, sod work - I'm driving down there now and I'm not leaving without him."

 

"I'm afraid I mightn't be much help, but you're welcome to crash at ours, should you need to stay the night."

 

"Here's hoping I don't. Right, thanks love - I'll see you in a bit, yeah?"

 

"See you." The tremor in his hands is back as Don hangs up the phone and rejoins Pos on the sofa.

 

"Don? What's wrong?" He takes a hold of his shaking hands and leans in so their foreheads touch. "Talk to me."

 

"That was Stu's mum," he explains, voice trembling. "He, um - he's missing."

Chapter Text

While they wait for Sandra to arrive, Scripps explains the situation to Rudge and they resign themselves to an afternoon spent calling all the usual suspects to find out if they've seen Dakin in the last week, telling them to keep an eye out. There's no luck, however, and Don's becoming increasingly anxious.

 

"It's no good," he says after God knows how many phone calls. "Nobody's heard from him. What if - what if something's happened?"

 

Pos is gentle but firm. "You can't think like that," he replies. "He'll turn up eventually, he always does. Chances are he's fine - just off sulking somewhere and doesn't want to be found."

 

"Or he's drunk himself to death and it's my stupid fault. You saw the state he was in the night he left yours. And I just let him leave - no, worse - I told him to leave."

 

"He's lucky you didn't deck him!" Rudge explodes. "We all saw what a prick he was to you that night, mate. You can't help someone who won't help themselves."

 

"I know you're right, I just… still feel dreadful about it." He turns to Pos and takes his hand. "I'm sorry, David - I'm sure this isn't the romantic day out you had in mind."

 

"Don't be stupid," he says fondly, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze. "I'm here for you, whatever you need."

 

Don clings to him - an island in the storm, a beautiful maddening boy who's always been so much braver than him - and wonders how he could have such brilliant and rotten luck at the same time.

 

When Sandra arrives they bring her up to speed, and with no more leads they admit they're out of their depth and phone the police - for what good it does. An officer is sent round, but he only talks to them for a few minutes each - first Sandra, then Don, then the others, then Sandra again. After he's gone, Don, exhausted from recounting the whole sorry tale, finds Sandra in her son's room - sitting on the edge of the bed, clutching one of his pillows to her chest like it's Stuart himself. He's never seen her cry before, he realises - and the sight breaks his heart.

 

"What did he say?" Don asks tentatively.

 

"He was bloody useless. Told me they're not treating it as a priority because he's not considered what they call a 'high-risk missing person', whatever that means. He's fucking missing, isn't he - surely that's risk enough?"

 

"Fuck - I'm sorry. Can I get you anything? Cup of tea, something to eat-"

 

She shakes her head. "I can't just sit around here feeling fucking useless. I've got to do something, I've got to-"

 

"You need to take care of yourself. Just - let me get you something to eat, alright?" He gently wrenches the pillow from her hands and offers her a hug instead. She accepts and lets him take her weight as she sobs into his shoulder.

 

"You're such a good kid, Don. He doesn't deserve you as a friend."

 

"I… think I'm starting to see that now, yeah."

 

"I used to wish he was more like you, you know? Sometimes. When he was giving me grief or getting in trouble at school, I'd think - why can't he be more like Don? That's awful, isn't it? Now I couldn't care less what he's done - I just want him back. I know it's not the same for you, though - what he did to you was unforgivable."

 

"It was pretty rough, yeah. But that doesn't mean I wish him any harm. I really, truly hope you find him and he gets the help he needs. I just don't know if I could even look at him right now."

 

"That's more than fair, I think. Would you do me one favour, though?"

 

"Hm?"

 

"Take me to the college chapel? I've never been the praying sort, but right now I'll try anything."

 

*

 

Dakin wakes in the middle of the afternoon, back aching from the threadbare mattress and everything else aching from the hangover. He isn't sure he'll ever get used to his new surroundings but he can't imagine himself going back home, either. 

 

The first morning he'd woken up here, he hadn't the faintest idea where he was - or how he'd ended up wherever he was. His last memory had been of leaving Cambridge in disgrace, but he'd no idea if he even made it home. The view from the window certainly looked nothing like Oxford, and the 'bedroom', if it could be so categorised, would have been put to shame by even the dingiest of student flats. The 'bed' was just a beaten-up old mattress on the floor, the walls were bare brick and one of the windows was broken. Still fully dressed in last night's clothes, he'd made his way into the next room - a makeshift living room of sorts - in search of some sort of explanation. 

 

On the sofa were two girls around his age - one with dark hair and a nose ring, the other one blonde with a horned serpent tattooed on her arm - their faces flooded with relief on seeing him.

 

"Oh, thank fuck!" Nose Ring exclaimed. "He's awake."

 

Snake Tattoo rolled her eyes in Nose Ring's direction. "She was about to check in on you to make sure you were still breathing. I told her you were fine, just sleeping it off, but - she worries."

 

Dakin still hadn't a clue who they were, but they were both definitely his type - the most likely explanation was he'd gotten off with at least one of them the night before. "Sorry, last night's a bit hazy. Who are you? And - did we…?"

 

They looked from him to one another and in perfect unison burst out laughing. "You really have no idea, do you?" Snake Tattoo said incredulously. "No, we didn't. Not for your lack of trying - but neither of us is interested in men. Especially not ones who are barely conscious."

 

"We ran into you at the train station," Nose Ring explained. "You were a right state - I thought you were going to do something stupid at first. You told us about your boyfriend leaving you and your flatmates kicking you out and we said you could stay at ours until you got back on your feet."

 

"Mel never could resist taking in a stray," Snake Tattoo said fondly. "Especially one with a sob story."

 

"Yeah - I don't know about that," Dakin admitted. "It's my own fault, really - I was an arsehole. So - this place is yours?"

 

Nose Ring - Mel - nodded. "I mean, it's no-one's, really - but it's abandoned, so why shouldn't we live in it?"

 

"So - what, are you, like - squatters?"

 

"You say that like it's a bad thing!" Snake Tattoo said indignantly. "Most people here are just like you - queers with nowhere else to go."

 

"So how many people live here?"

 

"Honestly?" Mel replied. "It's hard to keep track - there's so many people coming and going all the time. But... at least twenty at any one time."

 

"Right. And - sorry, where the fuck am I?"

 

It turns out he's in a derelict warehouse in some grotty part of London, which should horrify him but right now it suits his mood just fine. Aside from Mel and Snake Tattoo - her girlfriend (Vanessa, he later learns she's called) - the squatters mostly keep to themselves, which suits him too. He isn't sure he could handle any more judgement right now - the intervention had been bad enough. The days turn into weeks and university is beginning to fade like a bad dream as he steadily drinks himself into oblivion. 

 

Sometimes he wonders if anyone notices he's gone - his flatmates or his former friends or his mum back home - but he can't bear the thought of facing them after everything that's happened. Irwin was right, he's a coward - and a miserable, pathetic, lonely one at that. The only real friend he's got left is Stuart Dakin, though he isn't sure he likes him much these days, and no amount of sex or alcohol is going to change that - but he'll be damned if he's not going to try.

Chapter Text

"Hold still!" Vanessa sighs in exasperation as she assaults Stu once more with the little black pencil and he cries out in pain.

 

"It's in my eye!" he protests.

 

"That's where it's supposed to be! Don't be such a baby."

 

"You're in good hands, Stu," Mel reassures him. And then, with a cheeky wink - "she's very good with her hands."

 

"Just don't put too much on, yeah? I want to look like Robert Smith, not Gene fucking Simmons."

 

"Done!" Vanessa says triumphantly, showing him her handiwork in the little compact mirror she keeps by her bedside. 

 

Mel's right, she's done a cracking job. He’s always quite liked his eyes but, when they're all dark and smoky like this, they look bigger somehow—brighter, even. Or maybe the eyeliner just distracts from the dark circles under his eyes. Whatever the reason, the effect is striking. It's been a while since he's felt even remotely sexy, and it makes him feel—not quite himself again—but more like himself than he's felt since Irwin left.

 

The three of them make their way to the girls' club of choice—a dark, sweaty, neon-lit basement crammed from wall to wall with people. The sort of place where the whole room seems to pulsate in time with the music. It's nothing like his weekend trips to Soho as a student—the gay bars there had felt glamorous and bohemian. But this place is downright seedy, or as the girls call it, "authentic" (all the cheaper for it, though).

 

Mel and Vanessa keep the drinks coming. There are drugs too, but Stu finds they make him feel far too much all at once, which is the complete opposite of what he wants, so he sticks to the soothing numbness alcohol brings. He loses them when they get up to dance, but he's not too worried— there are plenty of blokes willing to buy him drinks. One in particular catches his eye—a tall, muscled specimen in tiny white shorts and a blindingly bright blue satin shirt, buttons undone down to his navel to reveal a thick, dark, plume of chest hair. The conversation is minimal.  Drinks are bought, Tiny Shorts invites him to dance and Dakin accepts. No names exchanged; no unnecessary small talk. Just how he likes it.

 

Dakin's never been much of a dancer, but usually he's too drunk to let that stop him. It's easier with men too - girls (at least, the type he goes for) like a bit of romance, a bit of mystery, but with men it's fast and functional and straight to the point, less technique and more rutting and grinding against one another. Tiny Shorts grabs his arse and he reciprocates, pulling their bodies flush against each other. Stu kisses him, and it's rough and ravenous and the other guy's beard is like sandpaper against his jaw but he relishes the pain because it makes it all the more real. 

 

He lets Tiny Shorts take him by the hand and lead him through the crowd to the filthy alleyway out the back. For a summer night, it's freezing, but the other man's mouth is hot and hungry against his own. He pushes Stu up against the wall as the kiss grows more urgent. And, now they're away from prying eyes, he's unabashedly grinding against him—the friction sending the blood rushing to his cock. The other man grips him over the top of his jeans and Stu has to stop for a moment and take it all in—because this might just be the hottest fucking thing that's ever happened to him.

 

But it's too good to last, and the lustful haze is pierced by the sound of approaching footsteps as three, burly-looking, skinhead blokes round the corner. As they get closer, he hears one point them out to his mates.

 

"Eurgh! It's two blokes!" The others make similarly disgusted noises.

 

"Filthy fucking perverts!" another says, to them this time - and the rest join in, hurling abuse in their direction.

 

Everything happens very quickly after that— but what he does recall, he'll remember in slow motion. Tiny Shorts walking away, himself close behind. The others picking up speed. Breaking out into a run as the skinheads do the same. He's still a touch uncoordinated, and not as fast as the other guy. He doesn't get far before he trips and grazes his chin on the pavement, and he looks up to see Tiny Shorts disappear round another corner without even looking back. Bastard. It's not like he can call out after him, either—he doesn't even know his name. And the skinheads are catching up to him now.

 

He's hauled to his feet by the collar of his jacket, but the other two Neanderthals knock him to the ground again. He tries to fight them off—even throws a couple of feeble punches—but he quickly realises there's no point and lets his body go limp on the ground as the skinheads pummel him. For a moment he thinks this might be how he dies. He decides it's fitting, somehow—for him to die drunk and alone and seconds from sucking off a stranger in an alleyway, but his assailants lose interest once they realise he's stopped fighting back. Having had their fun for the evening, they leave him be. 

 

He knows he should try to get up, to find his way back to the girls, but his limbs feel heavy and his head is spinning. So when unconsciousness begins to wash over him, he doesn't fight that either.

Chapter Text

When Dakin opens his eyes, he finds the darkness of the alley has been replaced with fluorescent white lights, and the hard, uncomfortable ground with a hard, uncomfortable bed. He squeezes his eyes shut and it's a full minute before he can reopen them. Even the slightest movement brings the pain flooding back. But he forces himself to sit up and the rest of the room swims into view. The girls are by his bedside - Mel sleeping soundly, head resting on Vanessa's shoulder. Vanessa nudges her awake, and she greets Stu with a sleepy smile. 

 

Outside, the sun's beginning to rise.

 

He's in hospital, they tell him - they'd found him unconscious in the street and called an ambulance (and the police, too, just to be on the safe side). 

 

"You were so cold when we found you!" Mel exclaims. "I thought - I thought you were…." Her voice cracks and she melts into Vanessa's embrace, unable to finish.

 

"You really scared us, mate," Vanessa agrees. "What the hell happened?"

 

"Some fucking idiots - took issue with my being queer." 

 

"Bastards!"

 

"I was, um - with this other bloke, but… He got away."

 

"And just left you there? What a prick!"

 

He shrugs, trying for nonchalance, forgetting how much it hurts to move - and ends up on his back again, gasping for breath.

 

"Just - stop trying to move, alright? The doctors need to check you over in case you've broken anything."

 

He hasn't, they tell him. He's just badly bruised and a bit concussed - all things considered, he's gotten off lightly. But the police still want a word once the doctors are finished with him. He tells them what he can remember, but it isn't much to go on.

 

"I didn't get a proper look at them - or maybe I did? I don't remember much," he explains to the pretty, young policewoman. "I don't know when it happened or how long I was out for. I was a bit drunk, and - you know, I've had a few knocks to the head. Sorry I can't be of more help."

 

"That's quite alright," she says softly. She speaks with a Southern accent, but a refreshingly working class one - Essex, maybe. "But - Stuart, are you aware you've been reported missing?"

 

"What - when? By who?"

 

"Your mum. About a month ago now."

 

“Oh - shit. Has it really been that long?"

 

“Obviously we can’t make you do anything you don’t want to, but - it might be an idea to give her a call, yeah? Let her know you’re safe.”

 

"And have her see me like this?"

 

"Right now I think she'd be happy to see you at all. Promise me you'll think about it? I'm not saying your friends don't have your best interests at heart, but - you'll need a lot of rest when you get out of here. Lots of looking after. Home might be the best place for it." 

 

He knows she's right, of course - he can't imagine himself recovering from his injuries in that dingy warehouse, nor can he picture the girls waiting on him hand and foot. No, what he needs right now is a proper bed and his mum's homemade spaghetti bolognese - but that means crawling back to Sheffield and having to face everyone he's hurt or let down. 

 

In the end it's Mel and Vanessa who convince him, reminding him how lucky he is that his mum is still around, let alone gives a shit about him. Mel's mum died a few years ago and Vanessa's kicked her out for being gay, they tell him - so now he feels like a real prick.

 

"Fine," he relents. "I'll call her. God, if I'd known you two wanted me gone so badly I'd have left ages ago."

 

"Oh, shut up," Vanessa says fondly. "Obviously we're going to miss you, you idiot."

 

"I'll miss you too - both of you. Will you wait with me, until she gets here? I, um - don't really feel like being alone right now."

 

"Of course we will," says Mel. "We'll stay as long as you need."

 

*



Usually, Sandra Dakin isn't one to get out of bed at the arse crack of dawn, but the phone's shrill, insistent ring has her racing to answer it, heart in her throat. Every time it rings she'll hold her breath for news of her son, hoping against hope but dreading what the news might be. It's been a month now, and she's searched all of Oxford and Cambridge - and even circled back to Sheffield in case he'd come home while she was gone - to no avail. More often than not, it's Pam on the other end of the phone, asking her if there's anything she can do. Mrs Scripps has been an absolute saint, even though their sons aren't speaking - Don clearly hasn't told her the reason for their falling out, but when he does will be up to him. She won't take that choice away from him a second time.

 

Hands trembling with equal elation and dread, she picks up the phone - and recognises Stu's voice instantly. 

 

"Mum?" 

 

God, he sounds frightened - and young. Like he's a little boy again. She's thought long and hard about what she'd say to him if - when - she saw him again. She knows she ought to be furious with him for disappearing for weeks and phoning up out of the blue as if nothing's happened, but all she feels is overwhelming relief.

 

"Stu? Are you alright? Where are you? What's happened?"

 

"It's a long story. But - I'm alright, I'm with friends. I just... needed to get away for a bit. I didn't mean to scare you. I'm sorry."

 

She sighs. "It's alright, love. I'm just glad you're safe. I've been so worried. Please tell me you're coming home." 

 

"About that… could you come and get me?"

 

"You still haven't told me where you are."

 

"I, um - I'm in the hospital."

 

"What?"

 

"I'm fine. Or at least, I will be. Just - got a bit bashed up-"

 

"That doesn't sound fine! Which hospital are you in? I'll be there as soon as I can."

 

"...Mile End?"

 

"Mile End's in London! What the bloody hell are you doing there? Right, best give me a couple of hours. I'll see you soon, though. Stay right where you are! I love you."

 

"Love you too." He sounds close to tears now. She hangs up - for the sake of his pride.

Chapter Text

"A bit bashed up" is the understatement of the fucking century. He looks like he's been through hell and back - filthy, unshaven, bruised from head to toe - but it's him , it's really him. Stifling a sob, Sandra rushes over and gives him a fierce, tight hug, as if doing so will shield him from any further harm. 

 

"Ow! Careful!" he whines. 

 

"Shit! Sorry, love. Where does it hurt?"

 

"Everywhere!"

 

Unaccustomed to showing her son affection without crushing him to near-death, she takes one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs by his bedside and gingerly takes his hand instead. It feels weird, surreal - but everything about the situation does. 

 

"It's so good to see you," she says softly, balancing on a knife edge between wanting to laugh and cry. Perhaps she'll do both.

 

"Good to see you too. The girls have been looking after me, but - it's not the same."

 

He nods in the direction of the two women sat on the other side of his bed. She'd barely given them a second look when she walked in, but takes the opportunity to eye them up. These must be the friends he'd mentioned earlier. They look nervous, shifty - as if they're expecting a telling off from Sandra - but she gives them a little smile, as if to say don't worry, I won't bite.

 

The little one with the dark hair is the first to speak. "We're so sorry, Mrs Dakin-"

 

"Sandra, please. I'm not Mrs anything - never have been." 

 

"Sorry - Sandra. I swear, if we'd known he had family looking for him we'd have dragged him home ourselves."

 

"You'd have been welcome to try. He's a stubborn little bastard, though - takes after me."

 

The other one, a tall blonde, puts a protective arm around the first. "It's not your fault, babe. You couldn't have known what was going to happen."

 

"Yeah - what did happen, exactly? He still hasn't told me."

 

"We were, um - at this club," the little one replies. "There were - these guys-"

 

"It's fine, Mel - she knows I'm queer," Stu reassures her.

 

"What's that got to do with it?" Sandra asks. She's got some idea, of course, but desperately wants to be wrong. 

 

"It was a gay club," the blonde one explains. "He was attacked by homophobes."

 

"He? You weren't with him?"

 

"Um-"

 

"I'd gone out for some fresh air," Stu says a little too quickly - quickly enough for Sandra to know she doesn't want to know what he was really doing. "Mum, I really don't feel like talking about it. Can we just go home?"

 

She knows him well enough to know she isn't going to get any more out of him right now. But that doesn't mean they aren't going to have words later on - about the falling out with Don, the disappearing act, the drinking - all of it.

 

Stu says his goodbyes to the girls and Sandra thanks them for getting him back to her in one piece, just about. She manages to sweet talk one of the doctors into lending them a wheelchair when it becomes clear getting him out of bed and into the car is going to be a right pain in the arse. He still gripes and moans as they help him into the chair, of course - telling them off for manhandling him every time they so much as touch one of his bruises. But as far as Sandra's concerned, if he's got the energy to be a mardy little shit, it means he's improving. 

 

By the time they make it to the car, though, Stu's tired himself out, and the drive home is eerily quiet. She can't help but wish he'd start complaining again, if only so she can be absolutely sure it isn't some impostor in her son's clothes. She's only really convinced when he nods off halfway up the M1 and his breathing slows and turns to soft little snores. He's snored like that since he was a little kid, though he's always fiercely denied it. She'll tease him about it later, but for now she lets him sleep - he must be shattered.

 

They arrive home in the afternoon, both exhausted, and she doesn't think Stu's ever looked quite so relieved to see their shitty little two-bed semi in Parkwood Springs. Sandra asks him how long it's been since he last had a nice hot meal, and when he has to think about it she takes that to mean it's been too bloody long and insists on cooking his favourite. She even brings it to him in bed, which she hasn't done since he was about eight years old. He still isn't feeling too talkative, but she can't bear to let him out of her sight just yet - so she sits at his desk as he props himself up on a pillow, and they eat their spaghetti bolognese in near-silence. She's been running on adrenaline all morning and doesn't realise how hungry she is until she tucks in - hers is gone in about five minutes flat, but when she looks over at Stu he's barely touched his.

 

"You not having any more, love?" she asks, once she realises he's abandoned eating in favour of staring blankly at the wall.

 

"Oh - um, maybe later. Just - feeling a bit sick."

 

"You do look a bit peaky, actually. Probably coming down with something. Who knows how long you were out in the cold?" 

 

He looks like he's about to doze off again, so she takes the plate of spaghetti off his hands, but leaves it on the bedside table in case he gets peckish later. She could use a nap herself, she thinks - she can't have slept for more than about five hours last night, and she's beginning to feel it. Taking one more look at her son - her messy, impossible, beautiful boy - Sandra gives him a gentle kiss on the forehead before leaving him to rest. 

 

It's evening when she's woken by the sounds of someone clattering about in the bathroom, and she's grown so used to the house being empty that it takes her a moment to realise it's Stu. She doesn't think much of it, though - at least, until she drags herself out of bed and sees him from across the landing. The door is wide open and he's crumpled up in a heap on the bathroom floor, hunched over the toilet - shaking, sweating, sobbing. 

 

She's at his side in an instant. "Hey - hey, it's alright, I'm here. What's wrong, love - have you been sick?"

 

He nods pathetically, and she's about to hug him - gently, this time - when without warning he throws up again. When he resurfaces he's deathly pale, which makes the bruises on his face look even more pronounced. He throws himself into her arms, each horrible, convulsing sob leaving him gasping for air. She makes gentle shushing sounds she hopes are soothing, but it's difficult to tell.

 

"I want my mum," he mumbles into Sandra's shoulder.

 

"It's alright, sweetheart - I'm here, I've got you."

 

"I want my mum," he says again, and he sounds so desperately afraid - and so, so far away.

 

"Stu, it's me. I'm here."

 

"Tom?" He looks up at her - only, of course, he's not seeing her. "Tom, can you call my mum? I - I'm really scared, I want my mum."

 

Now there's a name she hasn't heard for a while. Tom - the boyfriend Stu's always pretended he was never that serious about, even though he stuck around a right sight longer than anyone else he's dated. Don's told her he isn't in the picture anymore, though - clearly Stu's more out of it than she thought.

 

"Alright, I - I'll call her. Don't worry, love." 

 

It seems to be the right thing to say, at least for the moment. His expression softens a little, but it's not enough to reassure Sandra - not when he's still feverish, trembling, looking like he might throw up again at any moment. She's not risking anything, not when she's just got him back. As much as she's dreading another drive to the hospital, she's more scared of what might happen if she doesn't do it - so, with a horrible sinking feeling, she helps him to his feet and down the stairs.

Chapter Text

Dakin drifts in and out of consciousness all night until he starts losing the ability to tell the difference. Sometimes he slips into nightmares - fragments of images half-remembered, hands reaching for him in the dark - and wakes with a start, but his eyelids always feel far too heavy for him to stay awake for more than a few seconds. He hears voices - his mum, various doctors and nurses - snatches of conversation that could well be hours apart, for how much sense they make to him.

 

"...had to sedate him, he was very distressed…"

 

He wonders absent-mindedly who they're talking about and where he is, but next thing he knows he's waking up from a dream he doesn't remember and there's a different nurse talking to his mum. (At least these ones have the decency to be Northern, he thinks to himself.)

 

"...didn't know you were back at work, Sandra-"

 

"I'm not - brought this one home in the morning, but…"

 

He's vaguely aware she's talking about him, but struggles to follow the conversation even so. He doesn't remember falling asleep again, but he must have - because the next time he opens his eyes the nurse is gone and his mum's talking to one of the doctors.

 

"...probably being overly cautious, but he's been through such a lot-"

 

"No, you did the right thing, bringing him in. Could have been life-threatening-"

 

"Fucking hell - oh, I think he's waking up - Stuart, love, can you hear me? It's me, it's Mum."

 

"Well, who else would you be?" he mumbles sleepily.

 

She breathes a sigh of relief, and that's when he notices the tears in her eyes, the sleeplessness written all over her face. "God, you scared me."

 

"What happened? And - why am I in the hospital? I thought you were taking me home."

 

"I did - yesterday morning. You really don't remember?"

 

He shakes his head. 

 

"You've been so ill, sweetheart. You didn't even know who I was. You were properly delirious - and so scared - and I couldn't help you…" Fresh tears spill down her face, and Stu can't help but feel dreadful about all the grief he's caused her.

 

"I - I'm sorry-"

 

"Now, don't be stupid - it's not your fault."

 

"About everything , I mean. So, what's happening - what's wrong with me?"

 

She looks up at the doctor next to her - a tall, stern-faced old man - and says it's probably best if he explains.

 

"Hi, Stuart," he says, in that calm, dispassionate way doctors talk. "I'm Dr. Singh. Your mother's told me about your symptoms, and your… history - and I believe what you're experiencing is alcohol withdrawal."

 

"You what?"

 

"It's common in alcoholics who stop drinking very suddenly. When your body becomes dependent on alcohol it takes a bit of time to readjust to functioning without it."

 

"But I - I'm not-"

 

"There's no shame in it, Stu," his mum assures him, taking his hand in hers. "You'll get through this, you just need a bit of help-"

 

"Or I could just have a drink and this would all go away." He turns his attention back to the doctor. "That's right, isn't it? If the problem's that I'm not drinking-"

 

"Technically, yes - but I wouldn't advise it. Withdrawal symptoms are a sign you've been drinking too heavily for far too long. I'd recommend inpatient treatment, in a specialist facility - where they'll be able to manage your symptoms and help you detox safely."

 

"Sorry, what's that in English?"

 

"Stu - he's talking about rehab," his mum says softly.

 

"I'll leave you two to discuss it," the doctor says as he sees himself out 

 

When he closes the door behind him, the room feels suddenly smaller, the silence deafening. In the end, his mum's the one to break it, Stuart uncharacteristically lost for words.

 

"Don told me he was worried about your drinking, but - withdrawal - I had no idea it had gotten that bad…"

 

"Neither did I." 

 

Stu replays the conversation in his head - it's common in alcoholics who stop drinking very suddenly… your body becomes dependent on alcohol… you've been drinking too heavily for far too long - and the reality he's spent months denying hits him like a ton of bricks. 

 

"Fuck. I'm an alcoholic."

 

"Yeah."

 

He chews on his lower lip, not quite able to look her in the eye. "Like Dad."

 

He may not remember anything about his father, but he's heard enough about him to know that's a good thing. His grandparents hadn't thought much of him in the first place - but when he ran out on his girlfriend and newborn kid, making off with half their savings in the process, all of the hatred they'd had for him had fallen on little Stu's shoulders. It wasn't until he was older that he understood why - when he found out how his dad would drink and gamble and knock his mum about when he'd had a few too many. It seems to Stu that leaving was the best thing he ever did - but it didn't stop his grandparents from warning him he'd turn out just like his father some day. And now - well...

 

"No. Don't you dare - you are nothing like that man, you hear me? What he was like - the things he did - that had nothing to do with him being an alcoholic, and everything to do with him being an arsehole."

 

"I - I've done some pretty awful things, too. I drove Tom away. I treated Don like shit-"

 

"I know about all of that - Don told me everything. And I'm not excusing any of it. You've a long road ahead of you if you want that boy to forgive you - and rightly so - but right now you've got a choice. You know you have this problem - so, what are you going to do about it? Bury your head in the sand and lash out at everyone who's trying to help you - or man up and accept the help you need?"

 

"Well, I haven't had much luck with the former, so - I think I'm ready to give the latter a go." He takes a deep breath, resigning himself to the prospect. "I'll do it. The rehab thing, I mean."

 

"There you go. Couldn't sound less like your dad if you tried. Now, these first few days are going to be the hardest, and you'll probably get worse before you get better, but you'll be in good hands. These people know what they're doing - and I'll be there too, every step of the way."

 

Every nerve in his body still feels like it's on fire, but he lets his mum hug him anyway. For her benefit, he tells himself - but truth be told, he needs it too.


"Thank you," he says softly, fighting back tears of his own. "Thank you so much."

Chapter Text

His mum's right about things getting worse before they get better. The nights are worst of all - when the nightmares crawl out of the woodwork and Dakin can't tell what's real anymore. But things start to settle down after the first week - they've got him on a cocktail of medication, to help him sleep, to help with the cravings. Their preferred method of treatment seems to be talking, though - he spends his days in and out of counselling and group therapy, but he isn't sure how telling a bunch of strangers about his problems is going to help anything.

 

What really gets him is the boredom - alone with his thoughts for hours on end, he has nothing to do but fixate on every mistake he's ever made.  Eventually, he calls his mum in a fit of what he can only describe as honest-to-God hysteria - and demands she bring him his portable cassette player and some books so he doesn't go completely insane. She tells him it's a bit late for that, by the sounds of it - but swings by first thing the following morning to drop off his stuff. He listens to every cassette he owns in one afternoon, and makes quick work of the paperbacks his mum picked out for him. But thankfully, she starts making a habit of bringing him a new cassette every time she visits, which gives him something to look forward to besides the endless therapy.

 

"What have you got for me this time?" Stu asks her once - when she has the misfortune of visiting him after a particularly trying day.

 

She practically bursts out laughing. "Nice to see you too! Honestly, I come all this way…" 

 

"Sorry - long day. Could use some music therapy right about now. Please?"

 

She makes a show of rummaging through her handbag and fishing out the promised tape. "Here you go - I got you The Cure."

 

"Is that the new one?" he asks, wide-eyed with excitement as he snatches it out of her hands. "Oh, Mum - you're a star. I've been climbing the bloody walls. I just want to come home already, it's not half depressing in here."

 

"I know, love. Just a week to go now - I'm so proud of you for sticking it out as long as you have."

 

"It must be costing you a fortune, though-"

 

"You let me worry about that, sunshine. I'm not letting you use that as an excuse to weasel your way out of here. Thirty days - that's what we agreed, remember?"

 

"I know. I just didn't realise how long thirty days was going to feel in here."

 

"Is it helping, though? The counselling and stuff?"

 

Stu shrugs.

 

"You are giving it a proper go, aren't you? You know you're not going to get better unless you work at it."

 

"Just don't see why they need to know my business," he says sulkily, staring down at the murky stain on the carpet he's spent the last few minutes scuffing with the sole of his shoe.

 

"I thought you'd love all the attention! Since when do you pass up the opportunity to talk about yourself?"

 

Stu rolls his eyes. "Oh, very funny. This is different, though - it's hard, talking about this kind of stuff."

 

"Well, of course it is! But those people in there want to help you as much as I do - you've just got to let them. And yes, that does mean opening up, I'm afraid. Trust me, though - it'll be worth it in the end."

 

It takes a couple of listens to the Cure tape and a good night's sleep, but the next day he throws himself back into the therapy sessions with renewed commitment. His mum's infuriatingly right, of course - talking eases the burden. He finds himself telling them all sorts - at first just about his drinking, but soon enough he's telling them about Irwin, about Oxford and Cambridge and London. He even tells them about his dad - and Hector, who he hasn't thought about in years. But now he thinks about it, the first time he'd gotten properly drunk would have been around the time the lifts with Hector started. He's never made the connection before, and isn't quite sure what to do with the information now, but - there it is.

 

The week is over before he knows it - and for all his clamouring to go home, he isn't quite sure what to do with himself now he's out. At least he's home now, but his mum's back at work and it's not like he can go and see Irwin or Scripps like he usually does during the holidays. Instead, he resigns himself to lonely microwave meals and crap TV - on a good day. On his bad days he can't concentrate on the telly, and doesn't feel much like getting out of bed anyway. 

 

The doctors had warned him the withdrawal symptoms would come and go, and it would probably be a few months or even a year until he felt like himself again - but he wasn't prepared for the way they would completely incapacitate him without any warning, after days of feeling fine. He certainly doesn't expect to find himself - just a few weeks after leaving rehab - rummaging through all the cupboards to find out where his mum's hidden the alcohol, when she comes home from work and catches him in the act. She doesn't shout at him or even get angry, just takes in the scene - her son sitting on the kitchen floor, wide-eyed and frantic, the contents of the kitchen cupboards strewn across the floor - and sighs.

 

"You won't find any," she says matter-of-factly. "I threw it all out."

 

Of course she did, Stu thinks to himself - and he wants to be angry with her for not trusting him, but clearly she was right not to. She sits down opposite him and starts putting the kitchen back the way she left it.

 

"Bad day?" 

 

"Rotten. I was just going to have one drink, honest - just to take the edge off."

 

"You know it doesn't work that way, love. You'd have one drink and then you wouldn't stop - you'd end up back where you started and have to go through withdrawal all over again."

 

Stu sighs, defeated. "I know. It was stupid. I'm just so sick of feeling like crap all the time. And being here on my own with nothing to do all day isn't helping, either."

 

She considers it for a moment. "Have you thought about - maybe getting a job?"

 

"Mum, if that's your way of saying you want me to pay rent, you can just ask."

 

"I mean, if you're offering, I won't say no. But - actually I was just thinking it might help you, having some sort of routine. I can ask around at the hospital, see if they've any vacancies?"

 

He gives her a withering look. "I am not emptying bedpans and cleaning up sick."

 

"No, not nursing! You wouldn't be qualified - and besides, you haven't the stomach for it. They're always short-staffed on reception though?"

 

"Admin? I wouldn't hate it, I suppose. And it'd be nice to feel sort of - normal again. Just until I figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life, yeah?"

 

"Of course - however long you need. It'd be completely up to you, I'd just put in a good word. But - I need you to do something for me."

 

"What?"

 

She gestures around her at the chaos in the kitchen. "I think - after… this - you need to think seriously about going to an AA meeting."

 

It's not the first time she's mentioned it - ever since Stu left rehab, there's been talk of meetings and talking to people who understand, but he's been dragging his heels about it. Talking to somebody one-on-one was one thing, but in group therapy he'd always stayed quiet and pretended to listen to what the others were saying. He's only managed to avoid it this long because he's been good and stayed sober - but he knows if his mum hadn't come home it only would have been a matter of time until he snuck out to the offie for a bottle of wine. Far be it from his mum to drag him kicking and screaming to the next meeting - but telling him he needs to "think seriously" about something is as close as she gets to putting her foot down with him.

 

"Fine," he concedes, "I'll go to one meeting - but if I hate it I'm not going back."

 

"Fine - all I ask is that you give it a try. And it's not going to replace the counselling, either - so don't even think about trying to get out of that."

 

Stu rolls his eyes and mutters to himself as he helps her clean up the kitchen - but if he's honest, he's grateful for the kick up the arse. One day he'll thank her properly, but right now he's feeling sorry for himself, so he sulks instead.

Chapter Text

The following Monday, Dakin's out of bed before noon for the first time in weeks, and he's oddly nervous about starting work. All of his clothes feel a size too big and nothing looks quite right in the mirror, but eventually he settles for a black shirt and trousers - which the late summer weather might give him cause to regret, but at least they match his mood. His mum tells him he looks like he's off to a fucking funeral, so he throws on a red tie to brighten it up - and once his hair's been sprayed into submission, he's finally ready. 

 

The office manager - a woman around his mum's age who introduces herself as Lydia - shows him around the front office and tells him not to worry if he finds the filing system a bit confusing at first, it took her a while to get the hang of it too. She seems sweet - almost patronisingly so - and maybe he's imagining it, but he thinks for a moment she has that same concerned, pitying look his mum gets sometimes. Stu wonders how much she told her about him when she was "putting in a good word" with her. Thankfully, she's got more important things to do and soon palms him off on one of her colleagues - and he's relieved until he sees who's working the reception desk with him.

 

"Fiona?" he says incredulously. "What are you doing here?"

 

"Stuart bloody Dakin! What are you doing here, more like?"

 

"I… sort of work here now."

 

"Well, I never! So, you finished uni? What's next - or is this it?"

 

"For now. What does it matter - why does there always have to be a next? Maybe I'm still figuring out the next bit." 

 

Stu isn't sure why he feels so on edge around her - after they stopped seeing each other they'd stayed friends, even gone for the occasional drink when he was home for the holidays. But things feel different now - they haven't spoken in months and there's so much Fiona doesn't know. He isn't sure how he'd even begin to tell her, or what she'd say.

 

"No need to get all defensive, I'm only asking! I forgot how bloody sensitive you are."

 

"Sorry. How have you been? I didn't know you'd quit the school."

 

"Yeah - a few months ago, now. It was a dead-end job - and we both know the boss was a prick. So - yeah, I'm doing great. Finally saved up enough to move out of my parents' house, started taking evening classes. Might even go to uni myself - I'm thinking of doing psychology." 

 

"Oh, that's brilliant." He relaxes a little - cracks a smile, even. "You always did deserve better."

 

"Believe me, I know."

 

He shouldn't be surprised that life carried on while he was too out of it to notice, and he hates that he's jealous of her for having it all figured out - but he is. Fortunately, that's when they're reprimanded for sitting around nattering instead of working. They're forced to continue the conversation on their lunch break - but it only prolongs the inevitable.

 

"So," she says to him over her tray of disgusting canteen food, "I heard you and Tom split up."

 

"Of course you did," he sighs. "I suppose he told you why?"

 

"He did - you're such a twat."

 

"I know, I know... How is he?"

 

"Oh, he was a right misery at first. But, you know Tom - he picked himself back up, moved to London. Sold his book, I hear."

 

"Finally!" Stu exclaims, heart swelling with pride as a big, stupid, beaming smile creeps unbidden across his face. "I thought he'd never finish the fucking thing. Actually, I was in London not too long ago - funny to think we could have crossed paths. Doubt he would have wanted to see me, though." (And thank fuck he didn't, he thinks to himself.)

 

Fiona takes a long drink of her coffee and looks him up and down like she's seeing him properly for the first time. "Something's different about you," she muses. "Can't put my finger on it... Have you lost weight or something?"

 

"Maybe a little bit. I need to start working out again, I just - got so busy last term. Kept forgetting to eat, as well."

 

"Exams will do that to you, I suppose. Chris was the same-"

 

"Chris? As in - Crowther?"

 

She nods, and there's a cheeky grin forming on her face.

 

"Are you two…? Since when?"

 

"Oh, not long. Couple of months - just since he's been back from Cambridge. Early days yet, but - it's going well."

 

Stu forgets that the rest of the Oxbridge lot are back in Sheffield too - he tries not to think about the fact he hasn't heard from any of them, telling himself it's what he deserves after the way he's acted.

 

"He fancied you at school, too, I'm sure of it. We all did. But he'd never have made a move then - too shy."

 

"No, only you were brave - or stupid enough. Shame - I could have saved myself a lot of time if I'd gone out with Chris in the first place."

 

"But then we might not have been friends - and what would you do without me?" he says with a shit-eating grin.

 

"Dickhead. You don't think we'd have been friends if I hadn't slept with you?"

 

"We both know I only wanted one thing when I was that age. Still do, I suppose. God, no wonder Tom outgrew me."

 

He's quiet for a moment - and Fiona, probably sensing he's getting maudlin, changes the subject. "What about you - you seeing anyone at the moment?"

 

"Oh, no. Not seriously, anyway." Stu realises he's barely even thought about sex since the Tiny Shorts incident - so much of his time and energy these days is taken up by just not drinking.

 

"It never is serious, not with you." She rolls her eyes at him, but her expression is fond. "Oh, before I forget - a few of us are going to the pub after work for Lydia's birthday. You want to come? You could get to know the girls, we could have a drink and a proper catch up."

 

"I, um - can't tonight. Early start tomorrow."

 

Fiona fixes him with a quizzical look. "That's never stopped you before."

 

"Alright, fine. Look - I don't…" He knows he should just tell her - look, I don't drink - or at least, I'm trying not to - and being in a pub full of drunk middle-aged women probably isn't the best thing for me right now - but something stops him. "...want to. I don't want to go. It kind of sounds like a nightmare."

 

"Fine, be like that," she snaps. "We should probably get back to work, anyway." And with that, she gathers up her things, empties what's left on her tray into the bin and flounces off. She barely says another word to him all afternoon, and he pretends not to care.

Chapter Text

The next day, there's a definite chill in the air - the weather's beginning to turn, and soon it'll be September. Dakin isn't quite sure where the summer went, and tries not to think about the fact he's wasted it away feeling sorry for himself. His mum's got the morning off work, so she spoils him with breakfast in bed and offers him a lift to the meeting - which he rejects out of hand because it's only round the corner, but it soon becomes clear that it's for her peace of mind, to make sure he actually goes. She drops him outside the church hall and doesn't leave until he's inside.

 

The meeting is in a cramped little room with plastic chairs arranged in a semi-circle, and practically everyone there looks twice his age - it's all pretty much what he expected. He avoids eye contact with any of the others and makes his way straight to the table at the back to help himself to a coffee - which he clutches to his chest like a shield until they're told to take their seats. 

 

The woman in charge takes her seat in the middle of the circle, introduces herself, and launches into the preamble. Stu only half-listens, and promptly forgets her name - but his attention is drawn once again when she announces she's going to lead them in a prayer. Perhaps he should have expected something like this too, he thinks - being in a church hall and all - but he's only just realising now this is probably going to be more Don's scene than his. The others have clearly heard the prayer before and some of them even mumble along - while Stu stares down at the murky surface of his coffee and scowls.

 

"Now," she continues, "I see we have a couple of new faces here today - would anyone like to introduce themselves?"

 

Stu looks around the circle, hoping for someone else to say something, but every eye in the room seems fixed on him. He must stick out like a sore thumb, he realises.

 

"Um - hi," he says reluctantly, "I'm Stuart, and I - do I have to say it? We all know why we're here."

 

The woman in the middle of the circle looks sympathetic, but she's unrelenting. "It is the first step," she explains, gesturing to the sign on the wall behind her. 

 

And there are the steps - all twelve of them staring down at him with as much superciliousness as lettering on a sign could possibly manage. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable. He skims over the next couple of steps, but they're about God again. He stops reading after that and turns his attention back to the circle, to the strangers looking at him encouragingly, hopefully - and it's too much. 

 

"...Yeah - no, I can't do this," he says at last, unable to look at any of them as he gets up and leaves.

 

Perched on the steps just outside the church hall, Stu drains his coffee and lights a cigarette. He isn't sure what stopped him saying the words - it's not like it's the first time he's said them. He remembers saying it to his mum in the hospital when he'd first come to terms with it - but the words must have got lost in the delirium and may as well have been said in a dream, because here and now, in a room full of strangers, he can't say them for the life of him. He wonders what the hell he's going to tell his mum when she comes to pick him up in an hour - but before he can even begin to think of a convincing lie, the door opens behind him and he's joined by a man with thick, dark hair and kind eyes. If he was in the meeting just now, Stu definitely wasn't paying attention - a grievous oversight on his part. This one isn't like the others - he can't be in more than his late twenties, early thirties at most, and Stu would be lying if he said he didn't notice how good-looking he is. 

 

"Just came to see if you were alright," he says, sitting down next to Stu and lighting a cigarette of his own. "It can get a bit intense in there, especially if it's your first time. It's Stuart, right?"

 

Stu nods.

 

"I'm Florian," he says with a smile. "And I'm an alcoholic. See - it gets easier to say, I promise." He's Southern, and sounds painfully like Irwin - but thankfully, that's where the resemblance ends. 

 

"How long have you been coming here?" 

 

"To AA? Nearly ten years, now. I would have been around your age when I first started - God, I'm old."

 

"You're not, though - not like that lot in there. Everyone else looks so old, and - sad."

 

Florian suppresses a laugh. "I remember thinking the same, but some people just - take a bit longer to get help than others. They're actually a really good bunch of people, once you get to know them."

 

"Yeah, I don't know - all that God stuff was a bit much. No offence, I'm just really not religious."

 

"Me neither, to be honest. I like to just think of it as a metaphor, though. All that stuff about turning yourself over to a higher power - I don't think it has to be a god, per se. For me, it's the people who helped me with my recovery. My family, my friends - the people in that room, even. You must have people like that, surely?"

 

"My mum's the only real family I've got. Most of my friends aren't speaking to me because I was a fucking nightmare when I drank. There's Fiona, but - she doesn't know about… any of this."

 

"Fiona - is that your girlfriend?"

 

"God, no. Not for years now. She's a good mate, though. I've been a bit of a prick to her too, lately."

 

"Why do you think you haven't told her? If she's a good mate, surely she'll understand."

 

Stu sighs and stubs out what's left of his cigarette. "I guess I... I'm ashamed. Yeah, no - I definitely am."

 

"Well, of course you are," Florian says sarcastically. "It's horribly shameful and embarrassing. I mean - alcohol? It's not addictive at all. That's why you're the only person ever to have a drinking problem."

 

And there's just something about the way he says it - Stu can't help but laugh. "I know it's stupid," he says once he's caught his breath, "but I can't help it. Weren't you ashamed, at first?"

 

"Of course. We all were, once."

 

"When does it go away? The shame?"

 

"For me, it was when I started coming here. I mean, it's one thing for me to sit here and tell you you're not alone and it's nothing to be ashamed of - but it's another thing for you to be in a room full of people who know exactly what you're going through and just want to support you and help you get better."

 

"You think I should go back inside, don't you?"

 

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to force you to - I know it's not for everyone. But - yes, I think if you give it a chance, it could really help you. Especially with the shame stuff. Just - stay for the rest of the meeting? And if you really hate it you can sod off and never come back, but at least you'll have given it a try."

 

"Fine, you win. I've got nothing better to do anyway - and it's bloody cold out."

Chapter Text

The following morning, Dakin's cornered at work by Fiona.

 

"Early start, my arse," she says accusingly. "You weren't even in yesterday."

 

"I didn't say I was working ," Stu hisses. Florian's words echo in his mind - if she's a good mate, she'll understand - and after a quick glance around the office to check nobody's listening - "I had a meeting. An AA meeting."

 

Her eyes widen at first, but once the initial surprise passes her face softens with understanding. " Oh . As in-"

 

"As in - Alcoholics Anonymous, yeah. It was my first meeting. That's why I didn't want to go out the other night. I've only been sober a couple of months, and - it's still hard, being around it."

 

Fiona sighs, and he can't tell if she's relieved there's an explanation, or just annoyed. "You should have just said that. Honestly, I wouldn't have cared."

 

"I know. I'm sorry I was a dick about it - I was just ashamed. I mean - I still don't want the whole office knowing, so if you could keep it to yourself that would be great. But someone told me I needed to open up more, so... this is me - doing that."

 

"I'm glad to hear it," she says with a smile. "So, the meeting was helpful?"

 

"Really helpful, yeah. I got chatting to this really nice bloke, and I sort of ended up asking him to be my sponsor - so instead of getting drunk next time I feel like shit, I can just call him instead. He's great, and - and he really gets it, and-"

 

" And you fancy him, don't you?"

 

Stu can feel himself flushing red-hot. "What? No. Shut up! Maybe a little bit. How did you- "  

 

"You're gushing, babe. You were the same with Tom - it's always blindingly obvious when you've got a crush. Seriously, though - maybe don't fuck your sponsor? I'm pretty sure that's not one of the steps."

 

"...I'm afraid I can't promise you that."

 

*

 

Autumn comes with a vengeance, and the years down south must have spoiled him because the cold hits him like never before. Fiona teases him for having gone soft, and he pouts and moans from under several layers of clothing. But he's settling into a routine, and learning to enjoy the littleness of life. There's work and AA and sometimes helping his mum fix things up around the house - which usually consists of him making them worse and then calling in someone more qualified, but it's the thought that counts, he tells himself. 

 

Florian continues to be an absolute godsend, and in the short time they've known each other, he and Stu have become fast friends - he also continues to be a little bit gorgeous, and Stu's glad he didn't make Fiona any promises. He has his life enviably together - a rich, successful lawyer, he lives in one of those trendy (by Sheffield standards), newly-built apartments in the city centre. It's the sort of place Stu can imagine himself living in one day - though when the time does come, he's planning on getting as far away from Sheffield as possible. 

 

They often end up at Florian's place after meetings, or if they're both at a loose end for an evening - and the old Stu would have definitely made a move on him by now, but at the moment he's laser-focused on his recovery. He's slowly but surely working his way through the steps, and before he knows it he comes to the one he's been dreading most - making amends. The list of people he's hurt is a long one, and the thought of apologising to them all is exhausting and terrifying - particularly for the person at the top of his list. 

 

"I'm sure it won't be as bad as you think," Florian reassures him over dinner. Stu can't be arsed to cook, and his mum's working late - but Florian's a better cook than he'll ever be, and it's one of those nights when he's glad of the company. He's banned from cooking at Florian's after the last few disastrous attempts, so he watches from the couch instead.

 

"You don't know Don," he protests. "It'll be awful. He's a sanctimonious bastard at the best of times, but now I've given him every reason to be. What are you making, anyway?"

 

"They're called arancini ," he says in a dreadful approximation of an Italian accent that elicits a laugh from Stu. 

 

"You what?"

 

"They're like… little fried balls of risotto," he explains. "My mum used to make them for me when I was a kid."

 

"She Italian or just pretentious?"

 

"Both - in my experience, they go hand in hand. Right, dinner's ready." He emerges from the kitchen, a plate in each hand - and joins Stu on the couch. "Remind me - which one's Don and what did you do to him?"

 

"He's only the closest thing I ever had to a brother - Fuck me, that's good! You've got to give me the recipe."

 

"Flattery will get you everywhere - except out of this conversation. Besides, we know what happens when you try to cook. Now, quit changing the subject - what did you do?"

 

 "Oh, God. So basically, he staged an intervention - and obviously I wasn't ready to hear it. I would have said anything to get him to shut up, but I might have... gone a bit far."

 

"How far?"

 

"I… sort of outed him in front of all our friends. Including the boy he'd been in love with for years."

 

"Oh, he's that one. Fucking hell. You don't do things by halves, do you? I mean, there's no way around it - you're going to have to really eat shit if you want to make things right with him."

 

"Yeah. I want to, though. I don't care how long it takes - I just miss him so fucking much."

 

"Then tell him that."

 

"Yeah, or maybe I should just start with someone easier. Like Adil - all I did was ruin his birthday and throw up in his sink. And really, the others are mostly pissed off with me on Don's behalf-"

 

"-Which was why you wanted to speak to him first, remember? You'll be alright. And if you're not and it's awful, I'll be here for you afterwards and we can commiserate over Italian food."

 

Stu reluctantly agrees and promises Florian he'll call if things go south with Don. Usually, he'd hang around after dinner and they'd watch trash telly and talk shit, but tonight he heads straight home before he has a chance to chicken out. His mum's just got home, and is microwaving leftovers when he ambushes her.

 

"Mum, can you ring Auntie Pam for me?" he says, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he can stop himself. "I'm going to do it, I'm going to talk to Don, but - I can't just call him up, he won't want to hear from me, I need you to-"

 

"Alright, just - slow down. Breathe. What's this about Don?"

 

"I think I'm ready to do the making amends thing. Only, I might change my mind and chicken out tomorrow, so - I'm telling you now so you don't let me put it off any longer."

 

"Darling, I think it's a bit late-"

 

"It's not! I know it's been a few months, but it's not too late. I need to do it-"

 

"Late in the evening, I mean. I'll call her first thing tomorrow, I promise. But right now, I think you should probably get some sleep." She looks him up and down with narrowed eyes. "You seem pretty worked up. Do you need one of your tablets?"

 

"No, those things knock me right out - I'll never be able to get up for work tomorrow if I take one now. I'll be fine, I'm just nervous about seeing Don again."

 

"You, nervous? That's not like you."

 

"I know - I spent all that time drinking because I didn't want to feel anything, and now because of this withdrawal bollocks I'm a constant fucking bundle of nerves. I hate it."

 

She envelops him in a tight, reassuring hug. "You're past the worst of it now, love. And - I'm glad you're not shutting everything out anymore. You were always such a boy when it came to your feelings. It wasn't healthy."

 

"Yeah, well - this can't be good for me either. Must be taking years off my life."

 

"You'll find a middle ground eventually. It's where the rest of us live, and I promise you it's not all bad. Right, you - sleep. I'll call Pam in the morning, just - leave it to me. Love you."

 

It takes Stu another hour to calm his racing thoughts and get to sleep, but he makes it to work on time the next day by the skin of his teeth - and comes home to find a note from his mum on the kitchen counter:

 

Stu,

Spoke to Auntie Pam. She'll fix you up a meeting with Don - keep Saturday morning free.

Love, Mum

Chapter Text

The appointed Saturday arrives, and Stuart wakes feeling sick with nerves and can't get any breakfast down him, which he regrets halfway to Don's. As he makes his way along the neat little row of red-brick terraced houses, the Scrippses' front door looming ever closer, he starts to think he might actually faint. Growing up the house was like a second home to him, with his mum juggling two jobs and nursing school. Often he'd see more of Don's family than his own, not that they ever once complained about Stu's presence. Back then, he'd taken it for granted because he was just a kid and hadn't known any different, but now he's realising there's a lot he's taken for granted - particularly where Don's concerned.

 

Mrs Scripps answers the door, and in all the time Stu's known her, she's never looked at him with such despair and disappointment. 

 

She sighs. "I suppose you'd better come in."

 

He expects her to fetch Don (who, undoubtedly, is still in bed) straight away, but first she takes him to one side and lowers her voice.

 

"You know," she says, "I've made a lot of allowances for you over the years because your mum's my oldest and dearest friend - and you've always been like a son to me - but I have never - never seen Don so upset with you. He still won't tell me what happened, but I know you've really hurt him. So if you're just doing this to make yourself feel better..."

 

"I'm not. He needs to know how sorry I am-"

 

"No - what he needs is to know you've changed. There's nothing I want more than to see the two of you make up, but I don't ever want to see Don like that again, you hear me? Whatever you did-"

 

"I won't do it again, that I can promise you. I really am sorry, Mrs S-"

 

"She's not the one you need to apologise to." He hasn't heard it in months, but there's no mistaking Don's voice coming from the top of the stairs. He's bleary-eyed and dishevelled, looking every inch the wounded party - and clearly aggrieved to be awake so early on a Saturday. He slopes off to the kitchen without another word and Stu follows him, Pam close behind.

 

"Do you need anything, duck?" she asks. "Want me to put the kettle on, or-"

 

"I'll manage," Don replies curtly. "Could you just- give us the room, please, Mum?"

 

She leaves, seeming to take all the air in the room with her as she goes. Stu takes a seat at the kitchen table and stares down at the tears in his jeans, fiddling with the frayed threads while Don makes himself a cup of tea in fraught silence - or rather, what would be silence, were it not for the steady brewing of the kettle and the dull roar of the washing machine. As kids, they'd convinced themselves the Scrippses' ancient, juddering washing machine was home to some eldritch monster that would come and get them in the night unless they kept it sated with a steady diet of laundry - or rather, Stu had convinced Don, who had nightmares about the washing machine monster for weeks. And if Stu thought he'd landed himself in a world of trouble back then, nothing could have prepared him for this.

 

As Don sits down opposite him, Stu finally forces himself to look him in the eye. "Don, I - I fucked up. I fucked up so badly. I was an abominable prick to you and I am so, so sorry."

 

Don says nothing.

 

"I was in a rotten fucking place and I took it out on you," he continues. "Even though you only ever tried to help. And - if you never forgive me, that's more than fair, but I need you to know I'll do anything to make this right. I'm trying to be a better person, but it doesn't mean shit to me if I've lost you for good."

 

Don's face remains inscrutable. 

 

"I stopped drinking."

 

Don takes a deep breath before answering. "Like that time in second year, when you said you were going to try and stop drinking so much - and then a week later you woke me up the night before my final exam because you came home completely trashed at arse o'clock in the morning?"

 

"I did? I mean - of course I did. I'm sorry about that too. In fact, anything I don't mention, just - assume I don't remember it, but if I did I'd be sorry about that too."

 

"Duly noted. But you haven't answered the question. When you say you've stopped-"

 

"I've stopped for good this time. I'm in AA, I go to meetings, I've got a sponsor. Four months sober now. Don, I never want to drink again. I mean it, I'm done with that part of my life. I went through withdrawal when I stopped and it was horrific. I don't ever want to go through that a second time."

 

"Forgive me if I don't feel sorry for you."

 

"I'm not telling you any of this so you feel sorry for me! That's the last thing I want. I'm telling you so you know I'm serious about this. And - part of my recovery is admitting how much I've hurt the people around me, and - and making amends-"

 

"And you want me to absolve you? So you can feel better?"

 

"No! Shit. This is coming out all wrong. Yes, I feel awful about how I've treated you - and yes, I'd do anything to have my best mate back - but this isn't about me. It's about wanting to do right by you. And by everyone else I've been a prick to - I've got a whole list to work through, but - I wanted you to be the first. Because - I hurt you most of all. You always got the worst of me, and it wasn't fair."

 

"You're bloody right it wasn't."

 

"Outing you to everyone - telling Pos how you felt - that was the most reprehensible fucking thing I've ever done. I wouldn't want anything to do with me either. But I've missed you so much. I have to ask - is there any chance we could ever go back to the way things were?"

 

"Stu, I don't want things to go back to the way they were. They have to be different - better. I can't be your fucking punching bag anymore." A pause, a sigh - Don softening finally. "But… I have missed being your friend."

 

And maybe it's the relief, or the light-headedness from lack of food, or a combination of both - but he lets himself fall into Don's arms and starts to cry. Eventually, Don begins to hug him back, soothing him with gentle shushes and the occasional "hey - it's alright". And it's not alright, not completely - he knows it'll take time to heal things between them, but it finally feels like a step in the right direction.

 

When he finally pulls himself together, embarrassed by his sudden outburst, he's thankful for Don offering to make him a coffee as an excuse to change the subject. He accepts, and - though he may be pushing his luck - asks if there's anything to eat. Don simply sighs and reminds him he knows where the biscuit tin is.

 

"Got any Viscounts?" Stu asks, buoyed by the promise of sugar.

 

"If you eat all my fucking Viscounts, you can forget about us making up," Don mutters - and Stu knows he's probably joking, but leaves plenty for him just in case. 

 

"You're looking well," he adds, almost as an afterthought. "You were wasting away last time I saw you."

 

"God, I looked like shit, didn't I? Nearly back to fighting weight, though. My mum soon saw to that - wouldn't stop bloody feeding me when I first came home. So, how are the others?" Stu asks, dunking what he promises himself is his last biscuit into his coffee. "How's Pos? Are the two of you… alright?"

 

"Oh, we're better than alright," Don says with a sly smile. "We're actually… sort of together now."

 

"Oh, brilliant! Fucking finally ," Stu says, grinning from ear to ear. "So what you're saying is, in a way, I actually-"

 

"No. I know what you're going to say, and - no. Don't think you're getting off that easily, just because everything worked out fine in the end. We aren't together because of you, we're together despite you putting your big, stupid, drunken foot in it."

 

"You're right - sorry. That was stupid. I'm so happy for you, though, I really am."

 

"Thanks. And - I'm sorry about how things turned out between you and Tom."

 

"No, you were right - it was my fault. Besides, it's not why I went off the deep end. Part of it, maybe, but… there was other stuff, too - stuff I wasn't dealing with."

 

"What kind of stuff?"

 

"I'll tell you another time. We've talked about me enough - I want to know what you've been up to. I'm showing an interest. Trying to be less self-centred. Is it working? Am I doing it right?"

 

Don's been fighting off the beginnings of a smile, but he finally, finally admits defeat. 

 

"It's a start."

Chapter Text

To say that Dakin and Scripps fell back into their old ways would be an oversimplification - there was a sense of moving forward rather than back, but it had the ease of falling and the comforting familiarity of a return. What's left when the dust settles is something wiser, more grown-up, and built on stronger foundations than their friendship of old. One of the things Stu's always admired about Don is his ability to keep him on his toes - to catch him out in a lie or knock him off his high horse with a devastatingly hilarious put-down. But these days, they don't thrive on competition the way they did as boys - there's no need for it, nothing to prove anymore. They still prod and tease one another because some things never change, but more out of habit than the friendly rivalry of restless youth.

 

Having Don back in his life is a blessed relief - besides the obvious reason of having missed him like hell, there's also an easing of the guilt, and an end to fraught conversations with his mum where they both skirt around the subject of what they've taken to calling "what happened last summer". It cheers their mothers up no end, too - Don and Stu's falling out had necessitated a little distance between the two women, and clearly it's been hard on both of them, but they're thick as thieves again now. 

 

Stu also finds himself needing to go to meetings less often, and seeing less of Florian - which he has to remind himself is a good thing, however much he misses his cooking. They arrange to catch up before too long, though - Stu's been thinking about the future of late, and he's got something he wants to ask. 

 

Florian greets him with a hug - Stu reciprocates only too happily, breathing in… Aftershave? Cologne? Whatever it is, it smells expensive. He's still in his work clothes, his shirt a pristine white, top two buttons undone - and Stu tries not to focus on the peek of clavicle on display or the way the sleeves cling to his arms, showing off the hint of muscle beneath. He lets Florian fix them coffee (from the espresso machine, naturally - there's none of that instant shit here) and they both kick off their shoes and settle in on the couch for a chat.

 

"So, what have you been up to?" Florian asks. "It's been a while, but - I'm hoping that's a good thing."

 

"I'm been good, yeah. Making up for lost time with Don - don't know how I managed without him, to be honest. And - for the first time in ages, I've actually been thinking about the future. "

 

"Is that why you wanted to talk? I know it's been a trigger for you in the past-"

 

"No, it's nothing like that. I actually wanted to ask you for a bit of career advice. Do you reckon I'd make a good lawyer?"

 

"I... didn't realise you were thinking about getting into law."

 

"I'm not yet, not properly. It's just an idea, but - what do you think?"

 

"Yeah, I could see you as a lawyer. A bloody good one, come to think of it. You've got all the right qualities - opinionated, argumentative, bloody-minded-"

 

"Oi!"

 

"I'm sorry. Would you prefer… tenacious? Clever?"

 

"Getting warmer."

 

"Charming - when you want to be."

 

Stu grins. "I'll take that."

 

"Yeah - I'd be more than happy to help you with applying for courses and stuff. What made you think of it?"

 

"Well, clearly the money's good," he replies, gesturing around him at the luxury of Florian's apartment. "And - I don't know, you seem to like it."

 

"I do, yeah. I mean, you should know the hours can be a bit anti-social, and there's a lot of arguing with stuffed shirts, but-"

 

"Oh, I love a good argument."

 

"I thought you might. I'll bet you were on the debate team at Oxford, weren't you?"

 

"Naturally. I'd have gone up for captain in second year, but it would have interfered with my drinking schedule. Went for social sec instead - they're always more popular, anyway. And I was in charge of organising team piss-ups - which, if anything, facilitated the alcoholism. So, you know - it was a win-win, as far as I was concerned."

 

Florian throws back his hard and laughs heartily, showing rows of perfect teeth, before sighing and composing himself. "I'm so proud of you, you know that? You've come so far in such a short time, and - I couldn't be prouder to be your sponsor. I mean that."

 

And Stu could just fucking melt there and then, but he holds it together. "Thanks. Wouldn't have done it without you, though."

 

"Yes, you would," Florian chides him gently. "You should give yourself more credit."

 

He slings an arm round Stu, pulling him in for another hug - and without even thinking, Stu leans in and kisses him. For a split second, Florian's too stunned to react, but he soon pulls away. 

 

"Oh… I, um - I'm sorry, Stu," Florian stammers. "I hope I haven't… given you the wrong idea…" He looks mortified - which makes two of them - and there isn't even any alcohol for Stu to blame, just his own idiocy.

 

"No - I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that - don't know what I was thinking…"

 

"Don't get me wrong, I'm flattered - obviously. And I like you - I just... don't think of you in that way."

 

"Shit. I'm really sorry - you were being all sweet, and - I got carried away, I guess. It was stupid."

 

"You're just still so early on in your recovery - and I'm your sponsor . It'd be completely inappropriate - an abuse of my position."

 

"Oh, I've done worse."

 

Florian raises an eyebrow. "You're referring to the history teacher with whom you just got out of a three-year relationship? The one you're clearly not over?"

 

"...Yeah." Stu doesn't have a clever retort, so he glumly sips his coffee and stares down at the spotless plush carpet instead.

 

"This isn't going to be a problem for us, is it? Because I really like being your sponsor - it's a privilege - but... if it's going to be weird for you-"

 

"No! It won't, I promise. Like I said, I just got carried away. You remind me of him a little bit - sometimes - but it's a passing thing, honest. I'd much rather have you as my sponsor - as my friend - than fuck everything up over a stupid kiss."

 

"Good - I'm glad. I wouldn't want this to set you back at all."

 

"It won't. I don't think it was even really about you, if I'm honest."

 

"No, I had a feeling it wasn't." Satisfied that Stu isn't about to come onto him again, Florian shuffles closer and puts his arm back around him. "You still miss him, don't you?"

 

Stu can practically feel the air being knocked out of him as he crumples into Florian's arms. 

 

"More than anything."

Chapter Text

Dakin's sixth month of sobriety is a test of his newfound resolve. The dreaded law school applications are completed and sent off - his sights are set on London, so he hedges his bets between King's, UCL, and LSE (with glowing recommendations from his Oxford tutors, despite his final year grades having lapsed into mediocrity as his drinking worsened). He tells himself it's a coincidence that Irwin's in London now, and manages to convince himself - if nobody else.

 

It's also the month he turns twenty-three - the first tangible reminder that time has passed since he came home, and the first time he tests the waters with regards to Going Out. He picks a restaurant in town that's nice enough, but not so nice as to be expensive, and invites Fiona and the boys - all of them under strict instructions to enjoy themselves like they would on any other night out. It may be the first birthday he'll spend sober in ten years, but he refuses to let his friends not drink for his sake. It's far less painful than expected - though at first he feels utterly humiliated ordering a round of beers and a Coke, especially when the waitress assumes the Coke is Fiona's. But Fiona says nothing, just slides it across the table to Stu. Admittedly he pouts about it for a bit and whines that he feels like a freak, but he's surrounded by friends and overwhelmed with gratitude - he can't keep up his bad mood for long. Even Pos, who's still at Cambridge finishing up his teacher training, is back for the holidays and puts in an appearance - after some persuasion from Scripps. David takes particular delight in hearing about Stu's failed seduction of his AA sponsor, and enough time's passed that Stu can laugh about it too now.

 

"I can't believe you tried to snog him!" Pos splutters with laughter. "You're such an idiot."

 

Dakin rolls his eyes exaggeratedly. "Apparently it's frowned upon in AA to shag your sponsor. Who would have thought?"

 

"I did try to tell you," Fiona chimes in.

 

"Don't get me wrong, it wouldn't have stopped me, but - he's a bit of a stickler for stuff like that."

 

"What - caring about your recovery?" Scripps offers. "Not taking advantage of you?"

 

"Is that why he's not here tonight then?" Pos asks.

 

"No, that's just because of - well, the 'anonymous' of it all. We're fine, though. I won't deny he's hot, but - I think I wanted to be him more than I wanted to be with him. Anyway, he already took me out for dinner the other night - as a friend, obviously - to celebrate me hitting the six-month mark."

 

"Oh, I completely forgot!" Fiona exclaims. "Happy six months - would it be inappropriate to toast that?"

 

"Oh, fuck off," Stu sighs - but he raises his glass anyway, as the others do the same. 

 

All in all, he considers his birthday to have been a success - but the holidays are the real test, with their forced cheerfulness and socially-mandated drinking. He's been dreading the annual trip down to Derbyshire to spend Christmas with his grandparents, who have retired to the Peak District because they're insufferable cliches. As ever, they'll have plenty to say to Stu and his mum about their lives and choices, and none of it complimentary. They could hardly turn their noses up at their grandson, the Oxford undergraduate, but doubtless they won't look so favourably on their grandson, the recovering alcoholic (with a second-class degree, no less). At least it'll take some of the heat off his mum, who they're starting to doubt will ever get married - though they'll probably manage to blame her for Stu's failings too.  But - in a move that's nothing short of a Christmas miracle - he's spared an in-person telling-off from the miserable old gits, thanks to his mum getting into a blazing row with them over the phone a week beforehand, resulting in their invitation to Christmas dinner being formally rescinded. He's not privy to the details, but presumes they're less than thrilled at the latest developments in the Dakin family saga. Stu's heard it all before - "that boy will turn out just like his bastard father", and "why couldn't you have just married a nice man, Sandra" - the same tired tirade of grievances every year, until his mum finally snaps and unleashes her particular brand of righteous fury, usually on Stu's behalf. Either way, he's grateful for the excuse to have a quiet Christmas at home with his mum, watching crap telly and overdoing it on the mince pies. 

 

Before he knows it, the end of the year rolls around - and nothing quite prepares him for the bizarre, bacchanalian circus that is the local pub on New Year's Eve. Usually he'd be the star of whatever alcohol-induced horror show unfolded within the hallowed halls of the Staffordshire Arms, but this year he finds himself on the outside looking in, seeing it anew with morbid fascination. It's not all bad - while the boys are off singing karaoke, he gets chatting to a tipsy blonde who kisses him at midnight, but she tastes far too much of champagne for his liking and he ends up discharging her to the care of her friends. He begins to wish some of the blokes he'd gone home with when he was blacking out every night had done the same - and the thought sends him down a spiral of regret, so he calls it a night and heads home. He'll ring Don in the morning and apologise for disappearing, but for now he needs to be on his own.

 

When he gets back, his mum's still out with the girls from work, and the empty house only ends up serving as an echo chamber for his racing thoughts. For the first time in a while, it crosses his mind to call Florian, but then he remembers he's spending the holiday season with his relatives in Italy. And then, for the first time in even longer, it crosses his mind to drink - but he recoils at the idea and retrieves his old sleeping pills from the bedside table instead. Better to knock himself out than throw away six months' hard work over one miserable night out, he thinks to himself as he drifts off to sleep, only half convinced he actually wants to wake up in the morning.

Chapter Text

Stu resurfaces on New Year's Day in the early afternoon, and places an apologetic phone call to Don - who sounds too hungover to give much of a shit (and may not have even noticed he was gone) but at least he isn't angry with him. He thinks he hears Pos' voice in the background, but he'll have to tease him later about Pos clearly having stayed the night - it's no fun if Scripps isn't awake enough for it. He settles instead for being smug and superior about his own lack of a hangover, which has been one of the more unexpected perks of recovery (at least for him - the others hate it). He drops round the Scrippses' house later (no Posner in sight) and explains everything, about the pub and the girl and his spiral last night. There's always been something about Don that makes him easy to confide in (a priestlike manner, perhaps - though he'd be horrified to hear that). There are things he hasn't told his mum or his counsellor or even Florian - things he isn't sure he'll ever find the words to tell them - but they come pouring out with barely any coaxing from Don. There are tears, too - an embarrassing amount - but it's a relief to finally tell someone.

 

The wait to hear back about his law school applications is excruciating - he hasn't been so strung out since he was waiting to hear from Oxford this time four years ago. Back then he'd been pretty confident about his chances, but some of that confidence has been stripped away over the last few months - so when the acceptance letters come it's a genuine surprise. After much deliberation and plenty of lengthy discussions with Florian about the specifics of each course, he settles on LSE - and the future starts to look a bit less terrifying and nebulous. He stops seizing up inside when people ask him what his plans are for the future, because he's finally got a fucking answer. 

 

It doesn't stop him feeling leagues behind the rest of his peers, who have had the whole of last year to set their own plans in motion. Pos is well on his way to becoming a teacher, Rudge is being primed to take over his dad's firm when he retires, and Scripps, having spent the last few months writing for the local rag, is already fending off job offers from national newspapers. He's proud of them, obviously, but can't help feeling jealous, competitive - like he's last out the starting gate in the unspoken race between them. But he keeps that to himself, lest he upset the balance - he's only just getting back on an even keel with the Cutlers' lot and can't risk them catching a whiff of sour grapes from him. Still, it feels good to know what direction he's headed in next - a point in his favour at last. He tells Don over coffee one morning - having decided to avoid the pub for the time being.

 

"Mate! That's brilliant," Don says earnestly. "You deserve a bit of good fucking news. So, when are you moving to London?"

 

"Soon as I can. The course doesn't start until September but I'm dying to get out of Sheffield. I mean - I love it, it's my home, but it's driving me up the fucking wall. I might try and get on to one of the summer schools at LSE - move down there a bit early so I can get my bearings. I just need to find a place, but renting in London's easier said than done."

 

"Tell me about it!" Don huffs. "I'll have to move too, if I take the job at The Independent, but everything's so bloody expensive down south. I'll be lucky if I can afford a shitty little studio to myself - but I think I'm probably doomed to take up lodgings in the spare room of some old lady who'll have conniptions every time David comes to visit."

 

Stu shudders. "Perish the thought! Can't the two of you get a place of your own?"

 

Don shakes his head. "He doesn't finish his teacher training until June, and I need to find somewhere ASAP. Besides, it's a bit early for us to be moving in together." He pauses, nursing his tea as he mulls over an idea. "But… what if I had a flatmate?"

 

"...Oh. You mean - me?"

 

"Well, why not? You'll be in London too, and - why should we both live somewhere shit when between the two of us we could scrape together enough for something a bit nicer?"

 

"But - you really want to live with me again? After last time?"

 

Don shrugs. "Just call me a glutton for punishment."

 

"Oh, very funny. I'm serious, though - you sure it's a good idea?"

 

"Nightmare though you were, you're a right sight better these days. You seem properly committed to your recovery - it might be the only thing I've ever seen you commit to, but… Look, I wouldn't be suggesting it if I didn't think you'd changed. And if you're worried about fucking it up, well - that's in your hands, isn't it?"

 

"Alright. Fuck it! Let's do this. You and me. Flatmates - take two. I won't make you regret it, honest - I'll be the best fucking flatmate you've ever had."

 

"You mean you'll actually take the bins out once in a while?"

 

"...Let's not go that far."

 

And so, it all starts becoming real. Their mums are pleased, if surprised, by the news - and their friends insist on throwing them one hell of a leaving do. It takes a while but they eventually find a modest two-bed flat in Willesden Green, and they move down in time for the spring. It's nothing like the luxury Stu imagined himself living in - nowhere near as glamorous as Florian's apartment back home - but it's what they can afford, and it's theirs , and he can't remember the last time he was this happy - busy, but happy. He sorts himself out with a job while he waits for his maintenance grant to come in, as an assistant for a fancy corporate law firm in the city - and while the slick, suited fuckers look down their noses at him, he takes comfort in knowing he'll be one of them before too long. Florian's made him promise he'll keep going to meetings, and call if he needs anything - "anything at all, day or night" - and he keeps to his word, even if more often than not he's calling for cooking advice (Stu's cooking still hasn't improved, and he doubts it ever will). As time goes by, the meetings become just another part of his routine, sobriety his new normal. 

 

But not a day passes where he doesn't think about Irwin - especially now he's down south, living the life they could have had together if he hadn't been so fucking stupid, knowing that somewhere, not too far away, Irwin's doing the same. 

Chapter Text

He's barely been in London a month when, out of the blue, Stu gets a phone call from his mum. That's nothing out of the ordinary - they make a point of catching up at least once a week - but it's a Monday evening, and they've just had their regularly scheduled Sunday call. Still, it's nice to hear her voice - when Stu was living at home they'd become closer than ever, and they're both finding the separation harder than expected. 

 

"Stuart, love," she says - innocently enough. "Are you watching the telly?"  

 

"You what?"

 

"You'll never guess who's on BBC Two."

 

"No, I probably won't. Go on, tell me."

 

"See for yourself. I knew I recognised him from somewhere, but I couldn't think where - and then he said his name. It's him, isn't it?"

 

Not knowing where this is going, but not liking how cryptic she's being, Stu turns on the TV and sets about looking for the remote. "Give me a second - where'd I put the bastard thing?" And then a thought occurs to him. "Hang on, since when do you watch BBC Two?"

 

"Oi! I'm not a total philistine, you know. And… Lydia likes it."

 

"Lydia from work? Didn't realise you two hung out."

 

"Oh, she's been... keeping me company, shall we say - since you moved out."

 

He'll have to quiz his mum later (and he has plenty of questions) about this new development in her personal life, and why he's only just hearing about it - but for now, he's just found the remote wedged under one of the sofa cushions, and as he flips the channel over to BBC Two his train of thought is stopped in its tracks. 

 

It's Irwin. 

 

Tom fucking Irwin is strolling through the grounds of some Cistercian monastery like him being on Stu's fucking TV is the most normal thing in the world, instead of whatever cruel joke the universe is clearly playing on him.

 

"What the fuck?" is all he can manage. 

 

Tom looks incredible - whoever dressed him knew exactly what they were doing. They've got him in a dark green shirt that brings out his eyes (and actually fits him so it doesn't look like he's drowning in it). His glasses are new - gone are the awful wire-rimmed specs that were always getting broken one way or another - and these ones look fucking expensive. But beyond that, there's something different in the way he carries himself - an air of confidence Stu doesn't remember him having when they were together. And - God, his voice - he thought he'd never hear that voice again. He drinks in every word, forgetting about his mum on the other end of the phone until she pipes up again.

 

"Stu? You still there?"

 

"...Yeah. Sorry, I'm just - still in shock. How did you know it was him? You never met him, I made sure of that."

 

"I wondered about that, but then I remembered - when I brought your stuff back from Oxford, there were all these pictures of you both. Letters, too. I just sort of put two and two together."

 

"Shit - you didn't read the letters, did you?"

 

"No! ...Why? Dirty letters, were they?"

 

"Not all of them! I mean - what? Shut up."

 

He hangs up after that - partly out of embarrassment, but mostly because he wants to give the rest of the programme his undivided attention. And suddenly he's twenty-one again, back in Sheffield for the summer, and they're in Tom's flat - Tom reading him the latest revision of a chapter that was perfect on the first draft, and the words barely registering because he's so blissfully happy (and in love - he knows that now). Only this time, they're both fully clothed, separated by the TV screen, worlds apart as Tom recites the words Stu's heard so many times in so many different ways - and yet they don't sound even a bit rehearsed. The old Tom would have hated something like this - the attention, the exposure - but this Tom looks right at home. He's a showman, he's a fucking rockstar and Stu is enthralled. 

 

He's vaguely aware of the keys jangling in the front door and Don letting himself in, but he doesn't take his eyes off the screen until he hears his friend's voice behind him, startlingly close.

 

"Oh. Bugger."

 

"Did you know about this?"

 

Don sighs. "We thought it best not to tell you. You've been doing so well lately, and - we were worried it might set you back."

 

"We? Did everyone know?"

 

"It was in the old boys' newsletter. Figured you didn't read it."

 

"Of course I don't - you're literally the only person who does. No, my mum called." Stu turns his attention back to the TV, and seeing Irwin's face again is still a shock to his system. "Now shut up, I'm trying to watch."

 

Don cracks open a beer from the fridge and takes a seat next to him. "I might watch too, then. I was only really giving it a miss for your sake. How long's left?"

 

Stu glances at the clock on the wall and can't quite believe the time. "Only twenty minutes? That can't be right."

 

Tragically, it is - and the remaining twenty minutes fly by, leaving Stu still reeling long after the credits roll. Only when he notices Don staring does he snap out of it.

 

"Fuck me!" he says at last. The news is starting now, but neither of them pay it any mind.

 

"You alright, mate?" Don asks tentatively.

 

He isn't sure how he'd even begin to answer that without breaking down into tears, so he pointedly dodges the question. "...He's done well for himself, hasn't he?"

 

"Well, what did you expect? Did you want him to still be cut up over you, all pathetic and pining?"

 

Stu scowls at him. "Like me, you mean?"

 

"No! I didn't mean it like that. Sorry, I didn't even think - didn't realise how badly you were still hung up on him."

 

"I love him," he says hopelessly, burying his head in his hands. "I love him so much. Fuck! I need to see him again-"

 

"Well, you'll have to wait until next week now-"

 

"Not on the sodding telly! I need to see him properly, face to face."

 

"You sure that's a good idea?"

 

"No, but it beats sitting around feeling sorry for myself. Fiona will have his number. I'll ask her."

Chapter Text

It's Crowther who answers the phone, and he's less than thrilled when Stu asks to speak to Fiona without so much as a hello.

 

"Charming!" Chris huffs. "Is there any reason you're demanding to speak to my girlfriend at this time of night?"

 

"Oh, spare me the jealous boyfriend routine, Chris - it doesn't suit you. Anyway, it's about Tom."

 

"...Ah. You saw him on the telly, then?"

 

"Yeah - cheers for telling me about that, by the way." 

 

"Can you really blame us for keeping it from you?"

 

"Suppose not. I'm not going to do anything stupid though, honest - I just need to talk to Fiona."

 

"Fine, I'll put her on. Just a sec - Fi!" he calls out. "It's for you."

 

There are muffled sounds and whispers as he hands over the phone, and then - finally - Fiona's voice.

 

"Stuart? Are you alright?"

 

"Yeah, I'm just trying to get in touch with Tom. I don't suppose you've got his number?"

 

She sighs. "So you saw-"

 

"Yes, I saw him on the fucking telly. You knew as well, then, I gather?"

 

"Of course I knew - he told me himself. What do you want with him, anyway?"

 

"Oh, the usual. Tell him I'm an idiot. Declare undying love, et cetera."

 

"Stu, please . He's my mate, and he's been messed around by you enough as it is - if you aren't going to take this seriously-"

 

"I'm dead serious, Fi."

 

She's quiet for a moment, and then -

 

"He'd kill me if he knew I was giving out his number."

 

"It's not like I'm some stranger!"

 

"No, you're worse! You broke his fucking heart, you know that? The rest of us had to pick up the pieces, and it took a long time but he's finally happy, and doing well for himself, and…" She sighs, her tone softening a little. "And despite everything, he still misses you like crazy. That's the only reason I'm doing this, you hear me? And if you ever, ever let him down again, you'll have me to answer to."

 

"So - you'll give me his number?"

 

"Yes. But don't tell him it was me. Unless it all goes well and the two of you get back together - then I'll be expecting full credit. You got a pen?"

 

*

 

Eventually, Don convinces him to wait until tomorrow and call Tom at a reasonable fucking hour, but it takes a level of restraint Stu didn't know he had. Tuesday is interminable - no matter how hard he tries to busy himself with filing and sorting and going out on coffee runs, the work day drags like it never has before. But finally, it's over - and he practically races home from the train station, only stopping to kick off his uncomfortable shoes before holing himself up in his room with the phone and dialling Irwin's number. Every ring is excruciating, and just as Stu's wondering if he'll ever actually pick up -

 

"Hello?" 

 

Stu's mouth is bone dry, and he's forgotten how to speak.

 

"Hello? Is anyone there?"

 

"Tom?" he manages, eventually. "It's me, it - it's Stuart."

 

He thinks he hears a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the phone, but Irwin's quick to compose himself as ever. "How the fuck did you get this number? ...No, wait. Don't tell me. Fiona bloody Proctor."

 

"It's not her fault, alright? I'm the one who got it out of her. Blame me."

 

"Oh, believe me - I do. What, you thought that now I've made something of myself - now I'm worthy of the great Stuart Dakin - you'd waltz back into my life and we'd pick up where we left off, like you didn't break my heart into a thousand fucking pieces?" 

 

"You're angry. That's fair - you should be. But - look, I know I fucked up. I knew it the second I let you walk out that door. It was the biggest mistake I ever made and I am so, so sorry."

 

"Stuart, it's been… over a year. Why now?"

 

"You were right. I was a fucking coward. And - I guess I still had a lot of growing up to do."

 

"And now?"

 

"I'm getting there - I think. Tom, I love you. I've always loved you. I never stopped loving you. I don't think I ever said that to you when we were together, not properly - but I should have, because I did. And - I still do. Love you, I mean. You can tell me to fuck off, if you want, but I really needed you to know that. It wasn't just in your head, and I'm sorry I ever made you think it was."

 

"Stuart, I…"

 

"Oh, God. You're seeing someone else, aren't you? I've left it too late-"

 

"No - not necessarily... But - you do remember why we split up, don't you? We were at different stages of our lives, we didn't want the same things. What - are you saying that's changed now?"

 

"I - I think it has, yeah. I'm not the same person I was a year ago. That life - I don't want it anymore."

 

"What do you want then? What does the new-and-improved Stuart Dakin want?"

 

"I want… I want something real."

 

"...Go on."

 

"I want you. Just you. Nobody else - fuck everyone else. It's always been you."

 

Tom's silent for a moment, weighing up the possibility - or at least, Stu hopes he is. 

 

"God, I must be out of my fucking mind," he says at last. "But - I really, really want to believe you."

 

"It's the truth, I promise. Just - let's meet for a drink, and we can talk-"

 

"No."

 

"Sorry?"

 

"I don't want a 'drink', or a 'talk'. I don't want another bloody euphemism. I've had enough of those. You take me out properly, on a proper date - or I cut my losses and walk away for good."

 

"Alright, then. If those are your terms - a date it is. Friday night okay for you?"

 

"Just a date, though. It doesn't mean - I'm not promising anything. One date, and... well, we'll take it from there, I suppose. We'd be starting all over again, you realise that?"

 

"Fine by me."

 

"...Friday night it is, then."

Chapter Text

Stu's absolutely bricking it come Friday evening - the entire contents of his wardrobe is laid out on the bed as Don watches him try on outfit after outfit. He's no help, of course - his wardrobe having been sourced almost entirely from the local Oxfam - but Stu needs a second opinion.

 

"Don, this is important," he whines. "You're not even trying!"

 

"Fine. The black one, I guess."

 

"You guess? Donald, the outcome of this date may well determine the entire rest of my life. I'm not staking my future on guesswork. Now tell me, which shirt says I'm mature and evolved and definitely boyfriend material - but in a sexy way?"

 

"That's a lot to ask of a shirt, but, um - the blue one?"

 

"Thank you! Was that so hard?" Stu asks, fishing out the black shirt from the pile on his bed. 

 

"Now, hang on - that's the first one you tried on.  It's also not fucking blue! Did you only ask me so you could do the opposite of whatever I said?"

 

"Don, I love you - but do you really think I'd come to you for fashion advice? Now, shoo. I've got to get changed. Unless you want to stay for the show?"

 

"Oh, fuck off," Don says as he makes his exasperated retreat.

 

Stu gives himself a good eyeing up in the mirror before he leaves, and he can't deny he looks good. It eases his nerves slightly, but as the bus pulls into Chelsea, they start creeping back in. It's the same feeling he'd get when he was back at university, surrounded by elites who never accepted him as one of their own, however well he dressed the part or learned to speak their language. Of course, it didn't matter back then, because he could just drink until he stopped feeling on edge around them - but now he's starting to regret choosing the fanciest Italian restaurant he knows. All of that melts away, though, as soon as he walks in and lays eyes on Tom - who's looking around nervously as if he's not sure Stuart's going to turn up (even though he's still a respectable five minutes early). He spots him then, and - he doesn't smile, exactly, but his face sort of relaxes, and maybe it's just the candles flickering, but his eyes seem to light up a bit. Stu, on the other hand, is grinning like a lovestruck idiot, and he barely even notices the waitress approach him until she clears her throat and asks pointedly if she can help him with anything.

 

"Oh, um - no, I'm alright, thanks," he replies absently, without taking his eyes off Irwin for a second in case he disappears. "I know where I'm going."

 

His memory hasn't been playing tricks on him - Tom looks every bit as good as he did on TV. Better, even - because he's here and real and three-dimensional, and Stu wishes they were somewhere a little more private so he could show Tom how much he's really missed him - but he's getting ahead of himself.

 

"Sorry - you haven't been waiting long, have you?" he says by way of a greeting. "I thought I was early. Should have known I wouldn't get here before you."

 

"It's fine," Tom assures him. "How have you been? You're looking well."

 

Stu had been hoping for sexy or ravishing or drop-dead gorgeous, but under the circumstances he'll settle for 'well'.

 

"Oh, you know. Just figuring out what to do with myself now I've finished uni. I don't need to ask you how you're doing, though - best-selling author, and now TV star."

 

"I wouldn't say star - it's pretty niche, what I do." Tom looks a bit flushed (still terrible with compliments, then) and his gaze flits downwards to examine the wine list. "But - yeah, things are good. Publisher's already asking me what I'm going to write my next book about."

 

"There you go - you're in demand. I'm so glad you finished that fucking book - what made you bite the bullet in the end?"

 

"It was basically finished already, but I kept tinkering with it because I thought it needed to be just so. Stupid, really - that's what editors are for. Anyway, I think I was waiting for something to click - for me to finally be happy with it - but I finally realised that wasn't going to happen. I had to just - like you said, bite the bullet. Let go."

 

"Sounds familiar."

 

There's a pause, and he takes Tom's silence as agreement - mentally kicking himself for bringing it up.

 

"Was it - was it my fault?" he asks at last. "I didn't think I was asking too much of you, but maybe-"

 

"No. You weren't asking too much. I just - couldn't give enough. Tom, I was awful to you. I treated you horribly, and I - I can't even begin to tell you how sorry I am. You deserved so much better."

 

"...If you're waiting for me to disagree with you-"

 

"I'm not. It's the truth. And this second chance is more than I deserve, but I'm determined not to fuck it up this time."

 

"I appreciate you saying that, I really do. Let's just - see how tonight goes, yeah?" He turns his attention back to the menu. "This wine list's longer than my fucking book - shall we just get a bottle of the house red?"

 

Ah. Shit. "About that… I don't - I've sort of, um - stopped drinking." 

 

"Oh." He's trying to mask his surprise, but it isn't working. "Right. Since when?"

 

"Last term at Oxford - I, um - had a bit of a breakdown, I guess you'd call it. I'm fine now, but… my drinking got quite bad, and - it was just best for everyone that I stopped."

 

"I'm sorry, I… I had no idea."

 

"It's alright. Like I said - I'm fine. I'm in AA, I've got it under control. I'll be a year sober in June."

 

He's smiling now, and God, Stu's missed that smile. "That's good. That's really good. Fuck - nearly a year." The smile falters. "It wasn't… because of me, was it?"

 

"What? No! It was - a lot of things. And - I always had a bit of a drinking problem, let's be honest. It was a ticking time bomb - just be grateful you weren't around when it went off. I'd have hated for you to see me like that."

 

And then - because they always have dreadful timing - the waitress comes over and asks if she can get them any drinks.

 

"Oh - just water, thanks," Tom says quickly. 

 

Stu's having none of it. "He'll have a glass of the house red," he says firmly. "And a water for me."

 

"Maybe I just changed my mind," he says once the waitress is gone.

 

"You didn't, though - I know exactly what you were doing. You were being thoughtful and sweet and I won't have it. I'm fine. I can be around it - you don't have to worry."

 

"Alright. Sorry - I hope that wasn't patronising?"

 

"I'll allow it," he says with a smile.

 

The drinks come and they say no more about it - and Stu orders the arancini in an attempt to impress Tom, because fuck if he's ordering spag bol in a snooty place like this.

 

"So, what degree did you end up getting?" Tom asks him as they wait for their food.

 

"Second," he admits a little sheepishly. (He tries not to let it bother him, but despite everything, it still does - he'd had that first-class degree in the bag until everything went to shit.)

 

"Oh - did the old magic not work?"

 

He laughs ruefully. "Turns out getting hammered the night before your exams - and the morning of your exams - isn't an effective study method."

 

"Hm. Who'd have thought?"

 

"Shocking, really."

 

"Bloody impressive you got a degree at all, by the sounds of it."

 

And he hasn't thought of it like that before, but Tom's right. At the end of the day, he still came out of it all with a degree - from Oxford, no less. "Yeah, actually," he agrees. "I probably still did better than half those fuckers - and I was absolutely twatted out of my mind."

 

That earns him a disapproving look from an elderly couple at the table next to theirs, so he lowers his voice accordingly.

 

"Anyway," he continues. "It didn't matter in the end. I was in rehab over the summer, so I couldn't have gone to graduation even if I wanted to."

 

He's shocked, Stu knows he is, but there's a part of him that enjoys still being able to surprise Tom. Besides, there's no point holding anything back. Holding back was what drove him away in the first place, so - full disclosure it is. Eventually, though, the conversation steers into safer waters - like what the rest of the Cutlers' lot are up to, and Tom's book, and Stu's career plans.

 

"I reckon I'll specialise in financial law," Stu tells him. "Have you seen how much money those bastards make? It's obscene."

 

Tom chuckles in agreement - and then there's a lull in the conversation as their food arrives. There's no denying it tastes exquisite, but Stu's starting to worry about how much it's going to set him back, and there's no hiding his relief when Tom refuses to let him pay. It may ruin his grand romantic gesture ever so slightly, but clearly Tom can afford it - and Stu definitely can't. So maybe he didn't quite think every aspect of it through, but considering he's never taken anyone out on a proper date before, it could be going a lot worse. They talk until long after everyone else has left, and the waiting staff are clearly anxious for them to leave - even the ones who recognise Tom from the telly and would happily let him get away with murder.

 

"I suppose we should get going," Tom says eventually. "Looks like they're closing up."

 

"Shit. It's been so good, seeing you again. So - first date. How'd I do?"

 

"You're not supposed to ask that! God, this is weird - in some ways it's like you haven't changed a bit, but then - in some ways you're completely different."

 

"I hope that's a good thing?"

 

"Yes, it's a good thing." Tom's smile is reassuring - with, if Stu's not mistaken, a hint of mischief in it. "Look, I never do this on a first date, but - well, we have history, don't we?"

 

"Yes…?"

 

"Do you… maybe want to come back to mine?"

 

"I thought you'd never ask."

Chapter Text

Stu's expecting a crowded, sweaty tube ride back to Tom's place - or worse still, another bus - but thankfully, Tom hails them a cab. It's an inconceivable extravagance for Stu, but clearly one Tom's accustomed to - and he'd be lying if he said the thought didn't turn him on a little bit, especially once he sees where Tom lives now. The streets in his part of town are lined with trees and the houses are stately, red-brick, Victorian mansions - and he isn't expecting the cab to stop outside one of them, but it does.

 

"Fuck me!" Stu exclaims. "This is your house?"

 

"Flat," Tom corrects him. "It's divided up into flats. I'm not that fucking rich."

 

"Not yet."

 

He can downplay it all he likes, but Stuart's entire flat could probably fit into Tom's front room alone. They're on the top floor, and the view is incredible - they're overlooking Battersea Park, Stu realises. It'd be hard for him not to be seduced by a place like this - that is to say, if he needed seducing. 

 

With the door shut behind them, Tom kisses him - and it feels like coming home. Stu melts into the kiss, slipping his arms around Tom's waist to pull him closer, Tom tangling his fingers in Stu's hair, and it's fucking perfect. They end up on the sofa together - still kissing, Tom lying on top of him - but that's when the tightness starts in Stu's chest and he first realises something doesn't feel right. 

 

Flashes of memories creep unbidden into his mind - fragments of images half-remembered, hands reaching for him in the dark - a recurring nightmare that isn't a nightmare this time because he's awake, and he should be on top of the fucking world but right now the walls feel like they're closing in around him. Tom's oblivious, and with a wandering hand reaches to undo his trousers - and that sends him over the edge. He bats his hand away and breaks the kiss - coming up for air to find he can barely breathe.

 

"Hey," Tom says softly. "What's wrong?"

 

"Oh, God. I - I'm really sorry," he stammers. "I, um - I don't think I can do this."

 

Stu knows he ought to explain properly - he owes him that at the very least - but he can't stay in this room for another fucking moment, so he leaves Tom calling out after him, hurt and confused.

 

*

 

Don's been looking forward to having the flat to himself for the evening. Love him though he does, Stu's been an insufferable pain in the arse since he realised what everyone else knew all along - that he's in love with Irwin - and frankly Don could use a break from all the dramatics. He uses the quiet to get some reading done before falling asleep in front of the news - but he's woken some time after midnight by the slamming of the front door. He's ready to have a go at him about it - because he must have told him a thousand times, for the sake of his nerves, not to slam that bloody door - until he gets a proper look at Stu in the dimly lit hallway and sees he's been crying. 

 

"Shit - what's the matter?" he asks. "Did something happen with Irwin?"

 

"Yes - and no," Stu replies hoarsely. "Everything was fine, it was going really well, but - then he took me back to his, and…"

 

"And…?"

 

"It was fine, at first. We snogged a bit - that part was nice."

 

"And then?"

 

"And then nothing! It started getting a bit hot and heavy, but - I had some sort of freak out, and - all I knew was I had to get out of there. It was like I couldn't breathe all of a sudden, and - and the room kept getting smaller, and-"

 

"Sounds like you had a panic attack, mate."

 

"No - are you sure?" 

 

"I mean, I think so - David used to get them, and they sound… pretty much like what you're describing."

 

"I can't have had a panic attack at the thought of finally getting fucking laid!" Stu protests.

 

"Is it because of… what happened, do you think?" Don's nervous to bring it up - neither of them have mentioned it since New Year, when they'd both got quite teary about it and Stu had made him promise not to tell a soul.

 

"It must be. It's the only thing that makes sense. I just - I thought it'd be fine, it's been so long, but-"

 

"Does he know about it?"

 

"It's hardly the sort of thing you bring up on a first date, Don."

 

"So, you just left - and he has no idea why?"

 

"Probably thinks I've changed my mind. I couldn't explain, I could hardly get the words out. I've fucked it again, haven't I?" He sighs dejectedly and slinks off to the living room, where he collapses onto the sofa in a self-pitying heap.

 

"What makes you think that? If you just talk to him-"

 

"It's too late now, isn't it? That was my one chance to make things right, and instead I made myself look like a complete fucking mental case."

 

"Now, stop it," Don says firmly. "You're not a mental case. You've just - been through some fucked-up stuff. It stands to reason you'd be a bit fucked up."

 

"How am I supposed to tell him, though?"

 

"Well, you pick up the phone, and then you dial his number-"

 

Stu gives him a withering look, and Don sits down next to him and puts an arm round his hopeless, infuriating best mate.

 

"Just tell him, like you told me."

 

"And if he doesn't believe me? Or tells me it's my own fault? Or just - doesn't want to hear it?"

 

"Then he's an even bigger idiot than you - and that's saying something. Now get some sleep, we'll deal with it in the morning."

 

But the next day, Don decides to take matters into his own hands - and he'll just have to hope Stuart forgives him once he's sorted things out with Irwin. He doesn't want to believe he'd just disappear on him like that, but Stu's done worse to get out of having difficult conversations - and he decides his best friend's future happiness isn't worth the risk (and nor is Don putting up with the foul mood he'll be in if things don't work out). Fortunately, the months of early starts at work have conditioned him to get up with the sodding dawn chorus without even needing to set an alarm - and Stu's still dead to the world when Don sneaks into his room and grabs the slip of paper with Irwin's number on it from the bedside table. He's half expecting Stu to have doodled little hearts all over it, the way he's been carrying on since Monday night. It's just an ordinary slip of paper, though - with the number and Tom's name in Stu's scrawly handwriting (Don's never quite gotten used to calling his former teacher by his first name, and defaults to Irwin when he isn't around). 

 

Irwin answers the phone almost straight away, but he seems none too happy about it.

 

"Hello?" he says - painfully middle-class phone-answering voice strained with irritation. "Who is this?" 

 

"Tom? It's Don Scripps," he replies, keeping his voice down in case Dakin hears him. "Look, Stu told me what happened last night-"

 

"You know more than I do, then." 

 

"I know. And - yeah, he went about it completely cack-handedly, but when doesn't he? I know why he ran out on you, though - and I promise it's not what you're thinking."

 

"You mean he hasn't just - changed his mind about what he wants?"

 

"No! Fuck, no."

 

"Then why isn't he telling me this?" 

 

"Because right now, he's asleep. He doesn't know I'm doing this. But - I think you might be the love of his life, and I'm not about to let him fuck this up again. There are things you don't know - things I don't think he's told anyone else, and… Just come round, will you? Just talk to him - it's not my place to tell you, but - I promise you, it'll make sense."

 

"It had better be a fucking good excuse," Irwin warns him, "if I'm to haul arse across town at this time on a Saturday morning."

 

"So you'll come?"

 

"Fine. What have I got to lose? Other than my fucking dignity, and that's hanging on by a thread as it is." He sighs, resigning himself to the idea. "Tell him I'm on my way."

Chapter Text

"He's what?"

 

"He's coming over," Don says, calm as anything. "Now."

 

"He can't come here!" Stu complains. "You haven't seen his place - it makes ours look like a fucking embarrassment."

 

"Well, as much as I'd love you to tidy up a bit, I don't think he's going to care what the sodding flat looks like. But if it bothers you that much, just - take him somewhere nice. So long as you actually talk to him. Properly."

 

"Fine. Fucking hell. So you're sure I haven't blown it already?"

 

"Would he be on his way right now if you had? Now get dressed, you daft bastard."

 

Stu does as he's told, and while he wishes he had a bit longer to make himself presentable, this time he's grateful for Don's intervention. When Tom arrives, he's still trying to get his hair to behave - but all of that's forgotten when he hears the doorbell. He looks as if, like Stu, he's been up half the night tossing and turning - but he's still undeniably gorgeous, in last night's navy shirt and a pair of jeans that hug his skinny frame.

 

"...Hey," Stu says, hating how fucking awkward and nervous he sounds. "Why don't we, um - go for a walk or something? There's a park up the road, and I - I'll be ready in a second, just let me get my jacket."

 

He disappears back into the flat - only for a moment, but he's relieved nonetheless when he returns and Tom's still there. At least the fresh air helps his nerves as he leads the way to the park at the end of the road, and eventually he breaks the silence.

 

"Thanks for coming, by the way. Don must have put in a pretty good word for me."

 

"Yeah - that's a good friend you've got there. I hope you don't take him for granted."

 

"Not anymore, I don't," Stu assures him. "Look, I really am sorry about last night. But I promise, the way I feel about you hasn't changed a bit. I still want to be with you more than anything. There's just - something you need to know."

 

"I'm listening."

 

They're coming to a bench now, and Stuart takes a seat, gesturing for Tom to join him.

 

Stu takes a deep breath and composes himself before he continues. "I haven't had sex since before I got sober. And - I thought it would be fine, but - evidently it wasn't. See, when my drinking was at its worst, I was - I was a mess. I was blacking out most nights, and I - well, I got myself into some bad situations."

 

Tom's brow furrows with worry. "How bad are we talking?"

 

"I had a lot of sex, with - quite a lot of men, and - I don't remember much of it, obviously, so it's hard to say, but - I think some of them might have, um - you know. Taken advantage."

 

He makes a horrified sound, as if all the air's been knocked out of him. "Stuart, are you saying - you think you were raped?"

 

Stu bristles at his choice of wording. "I, um - I'd rather not call it that. Besides, I don't think it really - counts, as such. What you've got to understand is I - I was depressed. I didn't really care what happened to me. I let it happen, I let people - use me, because I was too out of it to give a shit. It's not like I would have said no-"

 

"But you were in no state to say yes, either!" Tom snaps. "You were blackout drunk, for fuck's sake." 

 

"But if I hadn't been drinking so much-"

 

"No. I don't accept that. You drank because you're an alcoholic, not because you were... asking for something to happen." His eyes are filling with hot, angry tears, and he wipes them away with the sleeve of his jacket. "Sorry. The thought of that happening to you - the thought of you blaming yourself all this time, when any decent man would have left you well alone…"

 

"Like you. That first time we went for a drink, the day of the funeral - when I got absolutely wankered, and you wouldn't lay a finger on me, no matter how much I wanted you to? I've been thinking about that a lot, lately, and - I don't know if I ever thanked you. I wouldn't have wanted that to be our first time, and I - I'm glad it wasn't."

 

It's still early enough for the park to be quiet - a jogger here, a dog walker there, but nothing more - and Stu decides it's safe for them to hold hands. As he interlaces their fingers, Tom raises Stuart's hand to his lips and kisses it - a sweet, old-fashioned gesture that's quintessentially Tom, and makes Stu smile despite the stinging of tears in his eyes. 

 

"Anyway," he continues, "the more it happened the worse I felt - and the worse I felt the more I drank. And the more I drank - well, you get the idea."

 

"I know that can't have been easy for you to tell me," Tom says softly. "But - I appreciate it. And I'm truly sorry that happened to you. I completely understand why you panicked last night. If I'd known, I wouldn't have even suggested-"

 

"It's not your fault. I thought I'd be fine. It was all so long ago, I didn't think - I'm sorry I didn't stick around to explain properly last night."

 

"And I'm sorry for assuming the worst - I feel like a bit of a prick now."

 

"Don't." He leans his head against Tom's shoulder. "I've given you every reason to think the worst of me - and usually you're right." 

 

An elderly woman shuffles past them - she's being dragged along by a silly, yappy, little dog and she's staring daggers at the two of them, so they decide it's best they keep walking. Tom's not ready to let go of his hand, though, and Stu leads them a little further up the path towards a secluded grove of trees, where he's hoping they'll find a bit of privacy.

 

"I hate to ask this," Tom says tentatively. "And I promise you I'm asking for your sake, not mine. But - you have been tested, haven't you? After everything that's happened."

 

"Yeah, don't worry. Don practically dragged me to the doctor's himself when I told him. I've been tested for just about everything under the sun - all clear, thank fuck. But, God - waiting for those results was the most stressful fucking thing I've ever done."

 

"I can imagine - it was scary enough when I did it, and I had no real reason to worry. I'm always careful, and - I've barely been with anyone since you."

 

"But - you have?"

 

"A couple of dates, here and there. Nothing worth mentioning - they were never any good. And I have to be careful meeting people these days, especially now I get recognised - I'm not ready for the whole world to know just yet. I, um - hope that's alright?"

 

"With me, you mean? So - you still want to give this another go - even though I'm damaged goods?"

 

"You're not damaged goods, Stuart."

 

"You know what I mean. I haven't had sex in God knows how long, and - I don't know when I'll be ready-"

 

"Hey - we can wait as long as you need. Or - if you never wanted to have sex again, that'd be fine too."

 

"I do - eventually. I just need to take it slow, I think."

 

"Of course. Slow as you like - you're in charge." He looks around to make sure the coast is clear, and it is - the trees do an excellent job of shielding them from any passers by. "Can I kiss you?"

 

"Yeah," Stu says softly, taking a step forward to close the gap between them. "Yeah, I'd like that."

Chapter Text

Slowly but surely, they begin to settle into a routine again. The first few weeks don’t quite feel real, and Stu savours every blissful moment he spends with Tom. At first, they’re only really apart for work, or on a Monday evening - when Tom refuses to watch himself on TV, while Stu insists on watching him. Each time he does so, he's reminded just how fucking clever Tom is, and his heart swells with pride every time he flips an argument on its head and rewrites it with a carefully-crafted metaphor. And full of newfound confidence he may be, but part of Tom's still crying out for validation - and as soon as the programme ends, Stu's there on the other end of the phone to give it to him. He briefly considers writing him essays on each one - something along the lines of "and this part here you argued especially well, but more importantly your eyebrows did that thing they do sometimes, and it was incredibly sexy" - but the thought of it reminds him far too much of school, and they're supposed to be moving forwards, not looking back.

 

His efforts to keep him away from the flat prove futile - he and Don are far too fond of one another’s company, and before long Stuart’s forced to expose Tom to his quiet life of suburban mediocrity. But, as predicted, he couldn’t care less - he never did, after all. It was only ever Stu’s pride that stopped him inviting Tom round sooner - a decision he regrets as soon as he’s reminded just how much his flatmate and boyfriend enjoy ganging up on him. (Back in the day, he’d always felt a bit weird about calling Tom his boyfriend - but these days, he’ll take any opportunity to do so.)

 

It occurs to him that last time they were together, they'd gone about it completely arse-backwards - the sex stuff had still been new and exciting for Stu, and they'd rushed headlong into it, only getting to know each other further down the track, as an afterthought. There's none of that this time round - they do things the old-fashioned way. After their first date, Stu's wary of pushing his limits when it comes to sex, and Tom's far too much of a gentleman to rush him. He imagines the wait must be excruciating, though - for the first month, all they do is kiss and hold hands, and occasionally snuggle on the sofa while watching anything but Tom on the telly. 

 

The first time Tom stays over, they've been up half the night chatting with Don and David, and the evening's slipped past without any of them giving much thought to the time. It isn't the first time David's come to stay, but it is the first time Stu hasn't purposefully made other plans. When he was miserable and missing Tom dreadfully, the last thing he'd wanted was to be around the happy couple. Now, with him back in the picture, the four of them get along like a house on fire (well, almost - Tom and David less so, but they tolerate each other for the sake of their boyfriends). As they clear away the remnants of the night's takeaway curry, Stuart catches Tom stifling a yawn. He sneaks up behind him and slides his arms around his waist, giving him a gentle squeeze and a kiss on the neck.

 

"It's getting late," Stu murmurs into his ear. "Why don't you stay here tonight?"

 

Tom looks up from the dishes in the sink - because of course he's too polite not to do the washing up, even when he's a fucking guest - and glances over his shoulder at Stuart. "Are you sure?" 

 

"Just to sleep over, mind. I'm still not feeling up to any funny business just yet."

 

"I know - but still," Tom persists, turning to face him now. "I don't want you doing anything you're not comfortable with-"

 

"Babe, it's fine."

 

Tom raises an eyebrow at him. "...Babe?"

 

It's slipped out before he even realises he's said it, and now he can feel himself getting flushed with embarrassment. "Oh, shut up."

 

"No, I - I like it," Tom reassures him, pulling him in for a kiss - which, of course, is when Don comes in and starts crashing about making tea as loudly as possible to let them know he'd like his kitchen back. 

 

Stu smiles into the kiss. "I think that's our cue to go to bed, babe," he says salaciously - more to wind Don up than anything else - and he takes Tom by the hand and leads him to his room.

 

They stay awake for a while longer, kissing and whispering under the covers, but eventually they fall asleep tangled up in one another, Stu resting his head on Tom's chest, feeling it gently rise and fall in time with his breathing. 

 

Later - he's not sure how much later, it can't be long - a nightmare wakes him in a cold sweat, leaving him gasping for breath. It's been a while since he's had one - but maybe it was overdue, he thinks to himself. Beside him, Tom's beginning to wake up too - and when he sees the state Stuart's in, he sits up sharply, eyes wide with worry.

 

"Hey - it's alright, I'm here," he says, placing an arm round him and pressing a gentle kiss to his temple. "Bad dream?"

 

Stu nods, choking back tears. "It's fine, it happens - I just need a minute..."

 

Tom isn't convinced, and pulls him in for a proper hug - and he's sweaty and snivelling and disgusting but Tom doesn't care. "It's alright," he says again. "I've got you. You're safe."

 

And there's something about the way he says it - Stu believes him. 

 

"Deep breaths - that's it…" 

 

He carries on whispering gentle encouragements until Stu's breathing slows and he starts to feel a little more grounded. He mumbles an apology, but Tom's having none of it and they both collapse back onto the bed, safe and content in each other's arms. And usually after a nightmare he'll be too keyed up to sleep again for at least another hour, but Tom's presence is soothing and he can feel himself starting to relax already. 

 

"I love you," he says sleepily, cradling Tom's face in his hands and giving him a soft, sweet kiss.

 

"I love you too," Tom replies - and it's too dark to see his face properly, but Stu can hear the smile in his voice.

Chapter Text

Soon enough, Stu's summer classes start, and while he enjoys being a student again it's a shock to his system having to spend so much time away from Tom. They make time for each other, of course - though sometimes they'll spend an evening together and barely speak, Tom using the time to do some research for his next book while Stu whacks out an essay or crams in a couple of hours of reading. But it's comforting for them both to know they've a hand to hold or a shoulder to lean on while they go about their separate lives. 

 

He's so busy with coursework he forgets he's nearly a year sober - in the end, it's Tom who reminds him. They're in Tom's flat - both reading, Stu lying on the sofa with his head in Tom's lap, Tom absent-mindedly stroking his hair with his free hand.

 

"Do you want to do something - mark the occasion?" he asks, looking up from his book. "I'm not really sure what you do for this sort of thing, but-"

 

"Yeah - no, that'd be nice," Stu says with a smile. "It's this Saturday. Only if you're free, though - I realise it's a bit short notice."

 

"Even if I wasn't free - this is far more important. Might be a bit late to make dinner reservations, but - why don't you come round here? I'll cook you something nice, we'll have a proper little celebration."

 

"Oh, that'd be perfect," Stu sighs. "And I've been thinking - I'm in a really good place, we're in a really good place… maybe we could - give the sex thing another try?"

 

"Oh - um, only if you're absolutely sure," Tom says, trying - and failing - to hide his excitement. "I don't want to put any pressure on you-"

 

Stu forces himself to sit up properly so they can look at each other, face to face. "I'll have to see how I feel on the night, obviously, but - yeah. I think I'm ready."

 

"Wow… alright. Fuck - that's great. I mean - besides the obvious, I'm also - just really glad you're in a better place. And of course, if you change your mind between now and then, I won't hold you to it. But-"

 

"Tom, it's fine. I know. Will you just - kiss me, please?"

 

He doesn't need to be asked twice.

 

*

 

Saturday comes, and Stu needs a moment to take it all in - where he was a year ago, where he is now, how ridiculously lucky he is to have Tom back in his life, how stupidly happy he is to be spending tonight with him. His mum calls in the morning to congratulate him, as does Florian - and he feels a little bit guilty for not calling them so much lately, but he's been busy being in love, and he tells them as such. They're both pretty understanding - after all, they know how much Tom means to him, and they'd both been over the moon to hear they were back together.

 

In the afternoon, he heads to an AA meeting to swap his 11-month chip for a one-year one - and he's never been the type to get sentimental about inanimate objects, but the sight of the bronze medallion in his hand makes him feel oddly emotional. He looks down at the little "I" - a year's worth of hard work, of struggling to shake off a harrowing addiction, all reduced to a single Roman numeral on a coin the size of a poker chip - and he's overcome with pride. He tucks it into the inside pocket of his jacket - the one closest to his heart - and for the forty-five minutes and two buses it takes him to get to Tom's, he can't stop smiling (though, admittedly, that may have more to do with the thought of the evening ahead).

 

Tom's halfway through cooking when he answers the door - tea towel over his shoulder, glasses off, and the sight is adorably domestic.

 

"No glasses?" Stu says, doing his best to sound scandalised. "We've not even had dinner yet and you're already naked!"

 

"Oh, behave," Tom says witheringly. "I can't cook in them, they get steamed up."

 

"I know, I'm only teasing. Come here."

 

With one hand on his chest and the other on the back of his neck, he leans in for a kiss, which Tom happily grants him.

 

"Congratulations, by the way - how was your meeting?"

 

"Good, yeah. Really good." He reaches into his pocket and produces the coin - and the sight of it fills him with pride all over again. "I'm a year sober - officially - and it feels... pretty fucking great." 

 

"I'm so proud of you. You know that, right?"

 

"You might have mentioned it once or twice. Need a hand with the dinner?"

 

Tom lets him help - a grievous error on his part. It starts off well enough - vegetables are chopped without incident or injury, and Stu starts to think this cooking business isn't so hard after all. But then it comes to the actual cooking, and Tom makes the mistake of asking him to keep an eye on it while he nips to the loo. By the time he returns, the pan's making an alarming noise and Tom's expression quickly turns to one of panic as he takes back control of the situation.

 

"Oh, it's all stuck to the wok," he groans. "Did you even stir it?"

 

"You said keep an eye on it! You didn't tell me to stir it!"

 

"It's a stir fry!" Tom sighs despairingly. "Just - set the table or something, would you?"

 

"Have I ruined it?"

 

"It'll be fine, I'll just pick out the burnt bits."

 

"...I love you?"

 

"You're such an idiot." Tom shakes his head, but he's clearly trying not to laugh. "I love you too - now, please get out of my kitchen."

 

Despite everything, dinner is a success. One of these days he'll learn to cook properly, Stu tells himself - Tom's too good at it for him to be in any real rush to learn, but the thought of his boyfriend playing teacher again is certainly an incentive. 

 

He tries to savour the meal but, preoccupied with what's to come, he demolishes it in a matter of minutes - though if Tom notices, he doesn't mind. His attempts to do the washing up are quickly derailed by Stu distracting him with kisses - but again, he doesn't seem to mind, and kisses him back deeply and passionately.

 

"Stuart - the dishes…" he protests feebly. But he doesn't take his hands off Stu's waist - nor does he make any effort to conceal his erection.

 

"Sod the dishes - they can wait. That, on the other hand…"

 

"Only if you're sure you still want to. Don't let… this... pressure you - I'm a big boy, I can take care of it myself. And - just because we said tonight was the night doesn't mean you have to…"

 

"I want to. Do you?"

 

"God, yes." Tom sighs, kissing him with renewed fervour. "Just - before we do - one more thing?"

 

"Hm?"

 

"I just want you to know - I'm glad we waited. And - really, it hasn't even felt like waiting. It's been nice - taking things slow, getting to know each other again - I think it's what we needed."

 

And - not for the first time - Stu can't quite believe his luck.  "Were you always this perfect?"

 

"Quite possibly. You didn't know how good you had it, but I was a fucking catch."

 

"Oh, shut up - and take me to bed."

Chapter Text

The two of them fall into bed, still locked in a tight embrace as Tom kisses Stu senseless. Relaxing into the kiss, he lets Tom run a hand down the curve of his spine, only just stopping before he reaches his arse.

 

"You want me to touch you here?" he asks, already breathless.

 

Stu nods, and he grips it tight, pulling them closer still, and they're both rock-hard now.

 

"How about… here?" The hand leaves Stu's arse and makes its way up his inner thigh in a gentle caress - and all Stu can do is whimper in response because Tom's hand is getting ever closer to his cock. "And… here?"

 

"Yes!" 

 

Stu rocks his hips back and forth, fucking the palm of Tom's hand through his jeans - which are unbearably tight now. As much as he'd hoped Tom would be the one to undress him, he has to unzip them himself to relieve some of the pressure - but Tom must have read his mind and slips his hands under the waistband of Stu's boxers. Stu arches his back to allow him to slide them - and his jeans - off in one seamless motion. 

 

There's a pause as Tom takes his own trousers off, and Stu takes the opportunity to yank his T-shirt over his head, nearly getting stuck in his excitement. He takes Tom's shirt off for him, stopping after each button to kiss every newly-exposed inch of his chest, Tom's soft little sighs gradually increasing in pitch as Stu uses his free hand to stroke his cock.

 

Tossing his shirt aside and leaving his glasses on the bedside table, Tom turns his attention to Stuart's dick, and grabs his balls with one hand while the other sees to his erection. And Stu knows he's going to have to pace himself if he wants this to last, but Tom's making it damn near impossible with each precise, masterful stroke. 

 

"You want me to suck you off?" Stu purrs, looking up at him with lust-fogged eyes.

 

"Yeah… you want to…?"

 

"Fuck, yes." 

 

There was a time when it would have irritated him, Tom stopping at each new frontier to check and double check he's still comfortable - but now he's so intensely grateful that it only turns him on more. It reminds Stu of Tom holding him after one of his nightmares, reassuring him he's safe, and he's struck again by just how fucking much he loves him. He's never felt inclined to cry during sex - but if he was the type, he thinks to himself, he'd probably be in floods of tears by now. 

 

He kisses him again, gentler and more tender than before - starting a trail of kisses that winds its way down Tom's neck and chest, finishing just above his crotch. The head of his cock is glazed with pre-come and Stu laps at it with the tip of his tongue, savouring the taste before taking its full (and not unimpressive) length into his mouth. Tom lets out a gasp and a softly whispered "fuck" that makes Stu shiver with pleasure, and his gaze flickers upwards to meet Tom's. As they lock eyes, he's looking at Stu with such shameless desire that he'd grin like an idiot if he didn't have his mouth full. He sucks harder instead, and Tom throws back his head and moans with delight - and he can only take a few minutes of Stu alternating between sucking him off and teasing him with his tongue before they have to stop. (Clearly, Stu isn't the only one having trouble pacing himself. It's Tom's fault, though - his technique is second to none, and he taught Stu everything he knows.)

 

When Stu comes up for air, Tom's cheeks are flushed and there are red marks beginning to bloom on his neck where Stu might have got a bit carried away with the kissing. He's too turned on to feel guilty, though - and besides, Tom always gives as good as he gets.

 

He sits up on the edge of the bed and places a gentle hand on Stu's thigh. "Shall I, um - fetch the…?"

 

"The lube? Yeah, go on - and the condoms, while you're at it."

 

"God, you're keen... Alright, you just - make yourself comfortable. I won't be a second."

 

He gives him a quick kiss before disappearing from view, and as Stu lays down - on his front now, backside on display - he hears Tom rummaging about in the walk-in closet, and the anticipation sends another delicious shiver coursing through him. 

 

"Alright, just remember - any time you want to stop, you just say so, yeah?" Tom's voice, muffled and distant at first, comes sharply back into focus as he emerges with a condom in one hand and a bottle of lube in the other. "You're safe, you're in control, you're - fuck, you're incredible..."

 

Stu's made a point of putting on a show for him - arching his back to show off his arse to its full advantage, spreading his legs as far as he comfortably can, throwing a provocative glance over his shoulder while one hand tugs at his cock - he imagines the effect is like something from one of the dirty magazines he'd have hidden under his mattress as a teenager. It certainly has a powerful effect on Tom, who practically throws himself back onto the bed and buries his head between Stu's legs. 

 

His tongue is hot and wet and wanting as it pokes and probes at Stu's hole, and soon it's joined by a lubed-up finger that reminds Stu of what's to come and fills him with an excitement that borders on impatience. But he still just about has the presence of mind to savour every new-old sensation - to revel in the luxury of having all the time in the world to take things slow. Another finger slips in alongside the first, and Stu moans into the pillow as his body readjusts to the feeling. Tom pushes deeper, locating his prostate now, and even with the pillow muffling his screams of pleasure, they must be deafening.

 

"Fuck me…" he pants, as he slowly regains the ability to form sentences. "Please. I need your cock in me - now."

 

Tom finally withdraws and reaches for the condom next to him on the mattress. "How do you want this?" he asks softly, in a low voice that melts Stu's brain. 

 

"Hm? Oh, right - hang on…" He rolls over onto his back, just in time to watch Tom coating his dick with lube. "Like this - I want to look at you."

 

“Oh, that’s perfect,” Tom sighs. “You’re perfect. Nice and slow, yeah?”

 

Stu nods - and inch by inch, Tom begins easing his cock into him. He's slow and patient and everything Stu needs right now, and Stu's glad they can kiss in this position because he can't fucking get enough of him. Each gentle little thrust is punctuated with kisses, and as Tom begins to pick up the pace, Stu wraps his arms around Tom's neck, his legs around his waist, desperate to be as close to him as physically possible. He's never felt so achingly intimate with anyone as he does in this moment with Tom - and he's always found the expression "making love" a bit quaint for his liking, but for the first time he's starting to see why people call it that.

 

The pressure of Tom's cock inside him is unrelenting, and it feels even better than he remembers. Stu moans into his mouth and mutters obscenities that grow increasingly incoherent the closer he gets to orgasm.

 

Tom brushes a sweat-slicked lock of hair from Stuart's face. "I'm so fucking close," he says in between ragged breaths. "Do you mind if I-"

 

"Yes," Stu replies breathlessly. "Please. I need to come so fucking badly."

 

That's all the encouragement Tom needs - a few more thrusts and he's there, his whole body shaking with the sheer force of his orgasm. And Stu isn't far behind - he comes harder than he has in his fucking life, and with a high-pitched, strangled sob that he barely even notices escaping his lips.

 

And then it's over - and Tom's pulling out but Stu's still weak at the knees, so he lies there unable to move while Tom fetches some wipes and cleans him up. And even in that small gesture, there's so much intimacy that he's intoxicated by it - his body craving it the way it used to crave alcohol. Once he's been cleaned up, he rolls over onto his side and allows himself to be spooned, Tom pressing gentle kisses to the back of his neck while the two of them catch their breath.

 

"How was that for you?" he asks, his arm snaking its way around Stu's waist. "Worth the wait?"

 

"Tom, you were un-fucking-believable…" Stu sighs. "It was - and I don't say this lightly - mind-blowing."

 

It shouldn't need saying - he's told Tom more than enough times how good he is at sex - but it's worth it every time to see the beaming smile on Tom's face. And sure enough, when he sneaks a peek over his shoulder, there it is. 

 

"Was it - alright for you too?"


"I thought that much was obvious," Tom replies - but he showers him with praise nonetheless, and Stu drinks in every word of it, until the exhaustion takes hold and he drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

"It was so intense," Stu sighs. "Easily the best sex I've had - and I've had some fucking incredible sex."

 

"And don't we all know it," Don groans as he stirs what must be his fifth sugar into his tea.

 

"I'm serious - I didn't think it could be this good. And we didn't even do anything kinky! Just - nice and slow, lots of kissing… Missionary-"

 

"Fucking hell, Stu! Must you paint me a picture?"

 

Stu pouts at him. "You always liked hearing about my sexploits..."

 

"When we were teenagers, maybe - and half of those were made-up, anyway. But I don't need to live vicariously through you anymore, do I? I dare say I've had more sex than you this last year."

 

"Oh, I don't doubt that," Stu agrees, taking a swig of his coffee. "I don't know - maybe it was just because it's been a while, but… it's so different when you're in love. Like - night and day. Not that I'd pass up a one-night stand, if I weren't in a committed, loving relationship. It just isn't the same…"

 

"What's not the same?" asks Pos as he blunders into the living room, still in his pyjamas, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

 

Since finishing his teaching diploma, David has pretty much taken up permanent residence with the boys. While Stu likes him a lot better now he isn't pining after him like a lost puppy, having another person in their tiny, already-cramped flat is taking some getting used to. He'll also routinely forget he's there, only to jump out of his skin at the sight of Pos coming out of the bathroom in the middle of the night, or wandering into the kitchen while Stu's making breakfast in his underwear. (He'd once - jokingly - suggested they put a bell on him so people can hear him coming, but David had sharply reminded him he wasn't a cat, and spent the rest of the day in a huff with him.)

 

"Sex - it's better when you're in love, apparently," Don explains.

 

"No. Really?" Pos says with a smirk. "Never would have known."

 

"So… judging from your reactions, I'm guessing I've been a bit slow on the uptake here?"

 

"Just a bit, mate," Don snickers. 

 

David flings himself onto the sofa like some sort of troubled Victorian heroine and turns to Don. "Wait, I thought they weren't…"

 

"David!" Don hisses.

 

"Shit." They both turn their guiltiest expressions on Stu.

 

"Don! You told him?"

 

"Just that you were… taking things slow." Don says sheepishly, lowering his voice to a whisper. "I didn't say why, honest."

 

"Sorry, Stu. It's my fault, really - I told him I wouldn't come and stay if I had to listen to you and Irwin going at it in the next room."

 

"That's not fair! I hear you and him shagging all the time - like bloody rabbits, you are."

 

"We aren't that bad!" Don protests. "Nothing like you were at Oxford."

 

"Yeah!" David chips in. "And Tom was our history teacher, don't forget."

 

"So? He was mine too! Whatever, I've got an essay to write."

 

And with that, he drains the last of his coffee and marches off to his room. It's a preventative measure, more than anything else - he can feel himself getting worked up, and he knows it's better for everyone if he takes some time to cool off. He’s happy enough to bury his head in a book for a bit, but before long there’s a knock at his door.

 

“Don, I don’t want to-”

 

“It’s David.”

 

“Oh, um - fine. Come in.”

 

David shuffles in and takes a seat at the very end of the bed. "I'm sorry about before - I realise it might have sounded like I was judging you, and - I didn't mean to. Just… don't be angry with Don, yeah? Whatever your reasons - or his reasons - for wanting to wait, he didn't tell me. Your secrets are safe with him. And - they'd be safe with me, if you ever did want to talk-"

 

"You're not going to get it out of me, so don't bother trying."

 

"I'm not here to pry. I'm just checking you're alright. Don would have, but I think he was afraid of getting his head bitten off."

 

"He needn't be - I just wanted some space."

 

"Oh - I can go, if you want?"

 

"No, you're alright." Stu says nonchalantly. "We don't really talk much, do we, you and I? At least, not without Don around - why is that? Do you not like me anymore?"

 

There's a pause, David considering the question.

 

"...Not in the way I used to. Which isn't to say I dislike you as such, but - I'm pretty embarrassed of who I was back then, and - I think you remind me of that, a little bit. It's not your fault, it just - is what it is."

 

"I think I know what you mean. I'm not overly fond of who I used to be, either. But - we're not those people anymore, are we? We don't have to let those dickheads make things awkward between us."

 

"No, I suppose not. We could just - be friends. If you wanted?"

 

"Aren't we already friends?" Stu says indignantly.

 

"You tell me, you're the one who's always sniping at me."

 

"Because I thought we were friends! You've seen how me and Don are with each other. It's - affectionate sniping."

 

"Of course! Silly me."

 

"And for the record, I don't think you've anything to be embarrassed about. I always thought you were - I don't know, sweet - back then. Amusing, up to a point. And Don clearly thought the world of you, so I pretty much had to accept the two of you as a package deal."

 

"Is this you being nice?" Pos splutters. "I think I preferred the sniping."

 

"But, I was going to say - if I'd got to know you properly, given you a chance, I think we could have been friends a lot sooner."

 

"And I think if I'd got to know you properly, I'd have wondered what I ever saw in you a lot sooner," David says with a cheeky grin. (Friendly sniping - now he's getting it.) "I can't have made it easy for you, though - carrying on the way I did when I knew you weren't interested."

 

"I didn't make it easy for you, either. Flaunting Fiona and then Tom in front of you when I knew how you felt." 

 

"All worked out for the best in the end though, didn't it? I'm happy, Don's happy, you and Irwin are disgustingly happy. When Don first told me he was moving back in with you, I thought he'd lost his mind - I told him as such. But for the most part, I've been - pleasantly surprised. All the work you've done on yourself? It shows, it really does. Just know that if you hurt Don again I'll make you wish you'd never been born."

 

"Alright! Fighting words. Aren't I supposed to say that to you? You being my best mate's boyfriend and all."

 

"Ordinarily, yes - but let's take a look at both of our track records, shall we?"

 

Stu sighs. "Fine, I suppose I deserve that. But I promise you, wholeheartedly, that I will never, ever - as long as I live - get drunk and out him again. Or hurt him in any other conceivable way. I love him. Even when he shoots his big mouth off about my sex life - or lack thereof, until very recently. He's family - which means so are you now, by association." He raises his voice so Don can hear him in the other room. "So you can come in now, Don - I know you're listening."

 

Don pokes his head around the door. "But it was just getting good! Tell me how much you love me again."

 

"Oh, come here, you big idiot." 

 

Stu throws his arms wide, signalling for Don to join them on the bed - and Don throws himself at Stu, hugging him fiercely, knocking him over with an unexpected amount of force for someone so tiny. David looks on, laughing helplessly - which is when Don reaches out and tickles him into submission until he lands on the bed next to them with a surprised little squeal. As the three of them catch their breath, Stu and David snuggle up to Don, who's got an arm around each of them and is grinning from ear to ear.

 

"So, have my two favourite people sorted out their differences?" 

 

"Yep," Stu assures him. "Talked it all out like proper grown-ups."

 

David nods in agreement, and Don's never looked more relieved.

 

"But now I really do have to get this essay done - so sod off, the pair of you," Stu says, giving them each a last playful shove and a kiss on the forehead, before returning - a little more reluctantly than before - to his books.

Chapter Text

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.