[identity profile] kat-lair.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] blacktulipfic
***

Title: Spoonful of Sunday
Author: [livejournal.com profile] kat_lair/ Mistress Kat & [livejournal.com profile] pushkin666
Fandom: QI RPF
Pairing: Alan Davies/Stephen Fry, Kenneth Branagh/Hugh Laurie/Emma Thompson (background), Stephen Fry/OMC (past), Alan Davies/OMC (past)
Genre: coffee shop AU
Rating: R
Word count: 40,730 (ahahaha ughhhhh)
Disclaimer: This is not a real story about real people. This is a fictional story about fictional representations of real people.

Summary: Alan owns a coffee shop. Stephen owns a caffeine addiction and a sweet tooth. Neither of them own up to their feelings, at least not out loud. Cue mutual pining and a lot of cake.

Author notes: Look, this is sheer, ridiculous authorial self-indulgence of clichés and more food related stuff than January diet really allows for. You might still enjoy it. [livejournal.com profile] margaret_r said she did even after beta-reading it (bless her) so who knows? Read with coffee and cake, you’ll probably want some anyway.



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

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

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

With Stephen’s name on it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you want me to go Alan?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Continue to Part 2/4


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