[identity profile] kat-lair.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] blacktulipfic
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Part 1/4 + Header Info

Part 2/4



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is no lie. Alan really does look tired.

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

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

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

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

“Huh, what…” Alan blinks at him.

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

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

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

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

It’s only seconds before Hugh responds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

"Can I help you?" Alan asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

He follows it up with a text to Alan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

"Don't I always?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thought makes him pull out his mobile again.

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


***


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

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


***


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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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


***


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

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

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


***


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well, that would technically be--"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Continue to Part 4/4

***

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