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

Part 2/4

Part 3/4



Stephen twirls his spoon around the coffee cup, staring down into the coffee as though it might give him the answers to all of his questions, like a divination mirror.

It's nearing closing time and the cafe is quiet; there's only himself, Alan and a couple of other customers who are sat in a corner by the window.

It's been a few days since the dinner with his friends and Stephen hasn't been able to push Ken's words out of his mind. Keeps thinking about just how Alan might look; naked and desperate for Stephen to touch him. To be honest, the image had been that strong the previous night that Stephen hadn't been able to resist wrapping a hand around himself, thinking about it as he brought himself off. It has been quite difficult to meet Alan's eyes today and Stephen feels a little bit dirty about the whole thing, especially as Alan is wearing his sinfully tight black jeans today. It's been extremely hard to not stare.

And it is ridiculous that he's feeling like this which is why, this morning, he'd made up his mind that he would ask Alan over for dinner, for the Indian meal that he'd promised him.

"Hey." Stephen looks up at the distraction. "Are you intending on drinking that or just staring at it?" Alan asks.

Stephen has been back from his conference for about a week and has been to the cafe almost every day since. They've fallen right back into the habit of talking and teasing, and well, flirting, Alan likes to think. He hasn't really had the opportunity to even try to take it further though, it's been a busy week and Alan's been more than a little distracted by preparing for Stephen's surprise party. And well, he's still not sure if he should...

Stephen has showed up as normal today, on his way home from the office, Alan presumes, but had pretty much just hidden behind his book for the last hour, not even attempting to chat to Alan, which was out of the ordinary. Which is why he had finally broken down and gone and done it himself. If the mountain doesn't come to Mohammed…

"I'm just saying... It was probably cold twenty minutes ago. Something wrong with the coffee?" Alan asks, and then takes in the slightly pinched look on Stephen's face. "Something wrong in general?" he amends, sitting down in the chair opposite without being asked.

"What? Oh no! There's nothing wrong with the coffee, Alan. It's fine," Stephen hastens to reassure him. "There's nothing wrong with the coffee or... or with anything."

Alan looks a little sceptical which might have something to do with the way Stephen is avoiding his eyes. Normally by now they'd have been chatting, Stephen leaning on the counter and talking to Alan, or Alan joining him at his table and getting up now and again to serve customers.

"Everything's good," Stephen says a little more strongly. “It's just I've got a few things on my mind at the moment. That's all," he smiles at Alan. "So you've been pretty busy this week.  Are you going to get more help to assist?"

Alan lets the obvious tactic of changing the topic be, only narrowing his eyes at Stephen a little. "Yeah, Evie's getting one of her friends take a few shifts too." Which is necessary in order for Alan to get everything ready for Stephen's party. And after that he has at least two other catering offers to consider... "Who knows, I may even be able to take a day off at some point." Although not until after Stephen's party, Alan amends to himself.

Stephen takes a sip of the coffee, which as Alan stated is cold and pretty unpleasant right now. He wrinkles his nose and puts the cup back down. "That's good; both on getting some more help and having a day off. Do you have any plans for that mythical day?"

"Plans..." Alan leans back in his chair. "I don't know, there are so many options... Sleeping, eating, watching day time TV, sleeping some more... Endless party, that's what it will be." Alan grins.

Stephen blinks at him, wishing that Alan hadn't mentioned the word sleeping which of course then makes him think of beds and takes him right back to where he was the night before. "It sounds like fun," he says. "You could possibly even be completely radical and go to the cinema."

"I could," Alan concedes and then bites his lip, "...but it's not so fun going to the movies on my own. I quite like having someone there to help me mock the bad dialogue and pick out the plot holes." There. That was a hint so big that Alan felt kind of embarrassed for dropping it, but Stephen hadn't really shown any inclination on picking up on anything more subtle. Alan picks up one of the sugar sachets from the bowl, his fingers twisting that paper this way and that, completely betraying how nervous he is, despite the relaxed manner he's managing to maintain otherwise.

Stephen wants to put his hand out and take hold of Alan's hand, to stop him twitching. It's quite clear to him that Alan is nervous, even though he's able to meet Stephen's gaze. And that sounds like a very clear invitation from Alan. "I know exactly what you mean, and if you ever do require a companion to assist you in mocking the bad dialogue then you can of course always call on me.  Unless I'm attempting to impart literature into thick-skulled students that is. But, well..." Damn it, he thinks.  Now is really the time to ask. "You remember how we were texting previously about Indian food? I wondered if you'd, well if you have nothing on tomorrow, if you'd like to come around for dinner?"

Alan grins, delicious anticipation curling in his stomach because if he's not very much mistaken, Stephen just asked him for a date. It's on the tip of Alan's tongue to say 'yes, hell yes' but then he remembers the 50 mini Cornish pastries he's scheduled to do tomorrow night, because if he doesn't then he won't have time for the blackcurrant tarts the night after that, and then the cake will be late and... Dammit.

"Dammit," he says, the grin dropping off his face. "I can't. I've got a... a thing, a work thing, someone's ordered these muffins and I've got to get them done." Fuck, he's only lying a little, but it's probably obvious that he's not saying the whole truth and judging by the rapid way Stephen's expression is closing off, he's clearly jumping to the wrong conclusions. "Next week though, I'm free," Alan hastens to add. "Every night really, I'd... I'd really like to have dinner with you, I just... I can't tomorrow, I'm sorry," Alan finishes lamely.

Stephen grits his teeth, trying not to let Alan see how he feels about the rejection. It's been a while since he's been turned down but it's still as unpleasant as ever, especially as he thought that Alan was asking him to join him at the cinema at some time. He notes that Alan hasn't even bothered to respond to his offer to go along with him.  Alan is obviously just offering the following week as a sop, to try not to make it look exactly what it is. A 'no'.

It's really no surprise especially given the age difference between them, Stephen thinks bitterly. It just goes to show as well how easy it is to read things the wrong way. To assume that because somebody is being friendly that it means more.

"Well if you're busy, then you're busy." he shrugs a little, trying not to let Alan see that he's upset by this.  "So yes let's take a rain check on that for the moment. Anyway, I... I need to go. It's getting a little late after all." He stands up, putting his book inside his bag.

"I'll see you later, Alan." With a casual wave, Stephen walks out.

Alan stares after him for long minutes before lowering his forehead to the table and banging it softly against the wood a few times. Perfect, just bloody perfect.


***


Stephen doesn't come by for two days. Nor does he text. To say that Alan is getting worried would be an understatement. What's the point of making all the pastries and tarts if Stephen isn't speaking to him? The cake gains another planned layer as Alan thinks about that, like somehow if he'll make it showy enough it'll fix things which is stupid. Or maybe it isn't. Stephen thinking Alan turned down the dinner invitation is though.

In the morning, of the third day when there is no sign of Stephen popping by to pick up a coffee on his way to work Alan finally has had enough. He leaves Tom, the new helper, dealing with the customers and hides in the stairs leading up to his flat, sitting down and pulls out his phone. Of course it still takes him a while to think of what to say.

Text from Alan, Thursday 10.41
Hi Stephen. Hope you're not ill or something. My espresso machine is asking after you and wondering if it got your order wrong and that's why you haven't been around...


***


Stephen curses as he reads the text, causing Emma to look up from the communion she's having with her coffee.

"What?" she asks. Stephen hesitates for a moment and then shows her the message. She nods and takes another mouthful of her coffee before responding.

"I presume this is the reason why for the last few days we've been frequenting corporate America rather than giving our money to the little man." She waves her arm around. "I mean, Starbucks? Really, Stephen. Don't get me wrong, the coffee isn't bad but their cakes are nothing compared to Alan's. So...?" she prompts. "Do tell."

Stephen sighs a little. He considers dissembling for all of a split second but it is rather pointless with Emma. She'll just poke and poke and poke at him until he gives in and tells her everything. "I asked him out," he tells her. "And he said no, so there we have it. And before you ask, yes I do indeed feel like a complete fool. An old fool for mistaking friendship for something else.”

She stares at him in disbelief because from what she'd seen from Alan she'd assumed that he would say yes. "Did he give a reason?" she asks.

"He said he was busy doing a catering job but," Stephen scratches the back of his head. "He did say he was free the following week but I know that it's just an excuse. Nothing more. I'm not quite that desperate that I'm going to go begging for another date."

Emma rolls her eyes in dismay, knowing that Alan was probably working on food for Stephen's party.

"I think you're being too quick to assume the worst," she tells him. "And also you're behaving quite badly, more like a teenager than an 'old man'. Even if Alan was turning you down – and to be honest I don't think he was, you know full well he's getting more and more private catering jobs – even if he was, that's no way to stop your friendship. So stop being acting like one of your bloody emo students, and text him back, or better still, get your arse in there this afternoon and say hello to him."

Stephen sits back in his seat still contemplating the message. "You know what I hate about you the most?" he asks finally. "The fact that you're always so right about these sort of things, and also that you won't put up with crap from me."

Emma laughs. "I live with Ken and Hugh, what do you expect? I don't put up with crap from them I'm most certainly not going to put up with it from you. Now, text him back."  She watches in satisfaction as after a moment, Stephen starts to type into his phone.

Text from Stephen, Thursday 10.53
Hi Alan. No, I'm not ill nor has your espresso machine gotten my order wrong. At any time.  Sorry for being in absentia. I've just been in one of my... moods for the last few days. I'll be in this afternoon after classes. Not sure what sandwiches you have on today, but you know what I like so if you could save me something. Please?


***


Alan has been staring at his phone for ten minutes, not caring about what a fool it makes him. After all, there's no one here to see it. Still, when it finally beeps with a new text message, he jumps a little, quickly thumbing it open.

The message is a relief and Alan feels something inside him relax although he does wonder about Stephen's 'moods' and what that ambiguous term might actually contain. Perhaps a reminder that whatever it is, Stephen doesn’t need to deal with it alone, is needed.

Text from Alan, Thursday 10.57
Oh good. My espresso machine is happy to hear that. As am I. You know what's good for 'moods' though? Carrot cake, large coffee, and a chat with a friend. You'll know where to find all. I'll make you my famous chicken club sandwich too just because I'm that awesome."

And because he isn't above using his culinary skills to his advantage. The way Alan reckons, he doesn't have too many of those. Feeling better, he gets up, slipping the phone into his pocket and heading back out to the cafe.


***


Stephen smiles at the text and Emma can see him physically relax. "Sorted then? she asks.

"I have no idea but I'm going in there later. Chicken sandwich and carrot cake apparently. "

He finds it hard to hide his pleasure at the thought of seeing Alan again even if it’s still a little awkward. For a moment he considers asking Emma if she thinks he should ask Alan again about dinner, but decides against it. He'll see how it feels when he's at the cafe.

Text from Stephen, Thursday 11.02
And I too have missed your espresso machine. Looking forward to it. See you later.

Stephen puts the phone down and tells Emma, who is grinning at him "Oh just shut up," he tells her.


***


"I thought that was my trick," Tom says from behind the register.

"What's that?" Alan asks.

"Clock watching," Tom answers. "I know I'm getting off in an hour and thirteen minutes but my understanding was the entrepreneurs such as yourself didn't really have a finishing time."

Alan fights off the flush, silently cursing his apparent tendency to hire smart mouths. "I'm just waiting for a friend. He said he'd pop by."

"Oh, Stephen," Tom says knowledgeably, and Alan rather feels like banging his head against the cake display because apparently his employees have no respect for his private life at all, clearly gossiping behind his back.

"Well, there he is now," Tom says, waving toward the door.

Alan lifts his head just in time to see Stephen waving back a little uncertainly, clearly bemused by the enthusiastic greeting from someone he doesn't even know but who clearly knows him.

Alan points Stephen toward his usual table, indicating that he'll be right over with the food, and sets about making him the promised large coffee, the sandwich and slice of cake already waiting on the tray in the cooler.


***


Stephen fidgets a little whilst he waits for Alan, not really sure what type of greeting he's going to receive. He takes a small package out of his bag and turns it over and over in his hands. He's nervous and isn't sure whether the thing that he has bought Alan is a good idea or not.

'But friends buy each other gifts,' he reminds himself. His inner voice sounds remarkably like Emma at the moment, which is disturbing to say the least.

He shrugs his coat off and puts the package down, keeping the tips of his fingers resting on it. He's being ridiculous and he knows it. As Emma said, he's not a teenager and needs to stop acting like one.

A few minutes later Alan is heading his way, laden down with a full tray.

To his eyes Stephen looks... Uncomfortable and nervous, which is so atypical of him that Alan's worry spikes again.

"Hey, long time no see," he says, putting the tray down. "Well, three days, but you know it, um, felt long." He tries to cover for saying too much by starting to load the plates onto the table.

"Chicken club, carrot cake, and coffee as large as your head, as promised. I hope it improves your mood?"

Stephen smiles at him, and some of it even reaches his eyes so Alan counts it as a win.

"Would you... Would you care to join me?" Stephen asks. "I understand if you're busy, or don't want to at the moment but it would be nice." Alan stares at him and Stephen forcibly stops himself from fidgeting. "But you don't have to Alan. Don't worry about it."

Alan blinks at him in confusion and then sits his ass down before Stephen goes any further down the crazy alley he seems to be wandering on.

"Is this your first cup of coffee of the day?" he asks. "It's okay, you can tell me. Because that would explain why you're saying things that make no sense. Stephen..." Alan reaches out because he can’t help himself and briefly squeezes Stephen's arm, the wool of his jacket surprisingly soft under his hand. "I can think of plenty of occasions when I can't join you, for a chat, or coffee, or.... or home-cooked Indian meal, but I can't think of any, not one when I wouldn't want to."

Alan’s touch is a pleasant surprise and Stephen wishes that he'd linger over it instead crossing his arms and glaring meaningfully.

Stephen concedes the point. “Alright,” he says. “I hear you. I’m also aware that I have been a bit of an arse since I saw you last," Stephen says. "Indeed, I was an arse then too and for that I must apologise."

Alan tilts his head to one side but says nothing.

If Stephen were a heroine in a romantic novel he knows that right now he'd be wringing his hands together. But this isn’t Mills and Boon, no matter how much misunderstanding there seems to be.  He feels warm though at Alan's words about wanting to spend time with him.

"This is for you," he passes over the packet before he can bottle out.

Alan doesn't think Stephen's 'been an arse' as such, although the way he left last time was a bit cold and abrupt... Still, it's nothing that would warrant an apology in a form of a gift. Alan picks up the parcel and almost blurts out about it being Stephen's birthday soon and thus he should be getting the presents, but bites his tongue at the last second, remembering that he's not supposed to know about this.

"What's this?" he asks, picking at the tape. "You don't need to bribe me with... With, oh my god!" Alan's face breaks in a grin when he sees what's in under the wrapping paper. "The Last Ship of Avalon! This has only been out like, what, two seconds? I haven't even got an Amazon alert about it yet, how did you get your hands on this?" He's already turning it over and reading the jacket. He can’t believe Stephen remembered the conversation from months ago.

Stephen can't help smiling at Alan's reaction. "I have a friend," he tells him, "who works at a bookshop where they of course receive the books early. I asked him to put a copy aside for me. I'm glad you like it." He’s watching Alan turn the book around in his hands, warmed by his obvious pleasure at the gift.

"Alan... I wondered whether, well I... Oh, dammit it." Stephen picks up his coffee and takes a mouthful of it.

"Yes," Alan says and then blushes slightly, but there you have it. "I'm pretty sure that whatever it is that you're asking, the answer is yes as long as it's next week because I'm seriously snowed under, otherwise, I swear I would. Oh and unless you want to read this book before me in which case you can bugger off." He clutches the novel to his chest possessively. In truth there's no way he can even start on the book before next week, there's still so much to do: Stephen's party is in a couple of days and Alan has a cake to make.

Stephen breathes a sigh of relief, trying not to stare at Alan too obviously. The man is quite pretty when he blushes. "Don't worry," he tells him. "I'll let you read about Captain Rickster before asking to borrow your book. But I would very much like to cook dinner for you.  Next week?"

Alan knows he's smiling like he just won the lottery but, well, he kind of did. "Yes," he says, nodding enthusiastically. "I was promised lamb Rogan Josh. I take such promises very seriously, I'll have you know." He's grinning at Stephen, still clutching the book, painfully aware just how obvious he's probably being but unable to do anything about it.

It's difficult to not smile back at Alan, and Stephen doesn't even try. They're sitting, grinning at each other like a pair of loons and Stephen is pretty glad that it's quiet. "That's good," he says. "It will be nice to cook for somebody again. I'm looking forward to it."

"Me too," Alan says. He pushes the sandwich in Stephen's direction. "Eat. You should... eat. And I'm going to leave you in peace to eat now." He nods decisively and gets up, the book under his arm. "But don't... Don’t disappear without saying bye, okay?"

Stephen touches Alan's arm. "Thank you," he says. "And I promise I won't."


***


Alan kneels on the kitchen floor, staring into the oven. It's close to midnight. He is clearly going insane.

"Yeah, Davies. There's a clinical term for it too," Bill had said earlier when he'd come by to drop off more cocoa powder because Alan had ran out. "It's called 'head over heels' and it's usually terminal."

Alan had thanked him for running to the shop for him and then kindly told him to fuck off. For all his blustering, he hadn't been able to refute Bill's diagnosis though.

Still couldn't. Alan sits down, back against the cupboard doors and gently bangs the back of his head against the wood. He is an idiot. Who the hell falls in... Gets a crush on a customer, based on...  Okay, by now several discussions over and about coffee and jam tarts, catering the man’s bloody garden party and about 300 text messages. But still. Alan apparently, that’s who. He's pretty sure the whole thing is against some kind of cafe-owner/baker rulebook at least. If not, then it bloody well should be.

The timer buzzes for a halfway mark and Alan cautiously opens the oven door, gently turning the cake tins around. At least they were looking okay. The first two tiers were already cooling on the rack, but the cake he’s planning needed more than a couple of levels so here he is, keeping watch like some kind of demented were-baker.

Alan slumps back against the cupboards, his ass numb from the floor. Seriously, how obvious could he get? When Emma had asked if he'd cater Stephen's surprise birthday party, he'd said yes without a moment's hesitation. Hell, he would've probably done it for free if he could've afforded it, though luckily Emma had been more than generous with the fee. The point is, that instead doing normal party-fare and a normal birthday cake (no candles apparently), Alan had gone for a four-tiered chocolate-coffee creation with a top part shaped like a cup of cappuccino as well as two individual pieces for Stephen, shaped like an espresso cup and a book.

All in all, Alan might as well have written 'I REALLY FANCY YOU' on top of the cake in pink frosting and it wouldn't have been any less subtle.

Or any less true. Because he really does quite fancy Stephen. Yes, the man was almost twenty years his senior, and from a totally different background than Alan himself, with his professorship in English literature and general air that spoke of old money and public schools, cricket and cucumber sandwiches. But he was also funny and caring, sharp as a razor and willing to try new things.

And Alan... Well, he kind of wishes he could be one of those new things Stephen might like to sample. And maybe, if he likes him well enough...

The buzzer goes off again, which is just as well because Alan doesn't think he should be taking that particular metaphor any further. He scrambles up and pulls the cake bases out, leaving them to cool overnight. Tomorrow morning he'll get up early and actually assemble the cake, ready for the party that afternoon.


***


Stephen is singing softly under his breath as he struggles with the front door key. He's feeling mellow and ever so slightly squiffy, having had a thoroughly enjoyable day with his friends.

"Got it!" He turns and grins at Hugh who is directly on his heels, almost pressing up against Stephen's back. "Come on, I seem to remember promising some champagne earlier on. It is my birthday after all." He pouts slightly at Hugh and Ken.

"Like we don't know it," Ken grins back at him. "Come on Stephen, time's a wasting after all, and at this rate Emma will be back before we even get inside."

"Pish posh," Stephen tells him, opening the door. "I'm not even sure why she had to nip back to yours. Okay, come on. Let's go crack that bottle."

Hugh pushes past him into the house. "I'll get the champagne and glasses," he tells Stephen. "Let's have the drinks outside. You open up the conservatory, I'll be just a few minutes."

He throws a quick sneaky grin at Ken who knows exactly what he's doing and heads toward the kitchen.

Ken throws his arm over Stephen's shoulder and guides him toward the back of the house. "Come on, you know better than to disobey Hugh."


***


Alan suppresses the fizzle of excitement that seems to be gripping the entire group of people, standing eerily quiet in Stephen's garden. He drifts toward the back, letting Stephen's friends and colleagues claim the prime spot, but makes sure he's got a clear line of sight to the conservatory doors because he wouldn't want to miss the look on Stephen's face for the world.

Alan's been at the house earlier than most of the guests, putting the food ready. He'd changed out of his jeans and t-shirt into actual trousers and a button down shirt in Stephen's guest room, feeling a little weird about using the shower and leaving his bags in there even though Emma had seemed certain that Stephen wouldn't mind.

There's a squeak of the conservatory doors and a hand – Alan assumes it's either Ken's or Hugh's – sticks out and flaps about in an attempt to signal those waiting, and then they can hear his voice –  Ken then – loudly proclaiming: "Definitely warm enough outside for those drinks Stephen!" followed by Stephen's: "My dear boy, why are you shou—"

The rest gets drowned under the loud "SURPRISE!" chorused by the guests as soon as Stephen steps through the doors. The look on his face is a thing of beauty, caught somewhere between shock and laughter, the latter winning out as everyone launches into 'For he's a jolly good fellow', Alan singing along happily.

Stephen is laughing as he accepts a glass of champagne from Ken. "You three..." he comments, looking around the garden to see who is here. “This is such a surprise and I love it. Thank you."

Ken grins. "Well, it's been a while since we threw a party and your birthday is as good an excuse as any." He nudges Stephen to let him know he's not serious. "Now, go and say hello to your guests.  There's food and cake and things sorted for later. And you know there might even be a special guest for you..." He pushes Stephen away.  "Go, go!"

A special guest! Stephen wonders what the hell Ken is talking about, but he is right about one thing. He does need to speak to the guests. Greeting his friends, Stephen starts to move around the garden.


***


Alan watches the way Stephen's whole face lights up at the sight of the party, the relaxed way he ambles among his friends, and he smiles. It's good to see him looking so happy, especially on his birthday. He slips back into the house, just going to see that Eve and Tom have arrived to help with the food. He finds the both of them in the kitchen, loading up trays of canapes and setting up the buffet proper.

"No one would believe you're a pair of scruffy students now," Alan remarks. They are both dressed for waitering and look smart.

"What are you doing in here?" Eve hisses at him like he's committing a nefarious offence rather than checking up on his employees. "We've got it covered, shouldn't you be back at the party?”

"Alright, alright!" Alan lifts both hands up in surrender, laughing. He holds the door open for them as they head out to the garden, Tom with a tray of drinks and Eve with a tray of mini-quiches. And, Alan notices with some level of mortification, a pile of his business cards on the side. There's nothing he can do about that now though except watch them all disappear into the throng.


***


Stephen has only managed to get around one quarter of the garden, and is chatting to Emma when a serving tray appears under his nose. "Mini quiche sir, they're very good."

Stephen glances around in surprise to see Eve proffering the food at him. "Eve?"

"Yes Sir, that's me. This makes a change from the café, doesn't it?" She grins at him. "But you should definitely have a quiche. They're made with love!"

Stephen is a little perplexed right now but he takes one, biting into it and enjoying the tasty mouthful. "That's very good," he tells her as he takes another. "So where's Alan?" he asks.

Eve bobs him a little mocking curtsy. "I think that's for you to find out, sir, don't you?"  Before Stephen can say anything to her she's gone past him and is handing out quiches to his guests. He turns around to glare at Emma who has her hand over her mouth and is trying pretty ineffectually to not laugh at him.

"Your face," she tells him. "Honestly, Stephen your face right now is a picture. But seriously, who else did you think I'd get to cater your party? So why don't you fill up your champagne glass and go find your boy."

"Pfft." He turns away. "I don't know what you mean by ‘my boy’." He ignores her "Sure you don't" and has a look around, trying to find Alan. There's a warm feeling inside at the thought of seeing Alan again, at seeing Alan at his birthday party. Finally, he spots him lurking on the other side of the garden. Time to go say hello.


***


Alan is talking football with one of Stephen's colleagues who he vaguely recognises from the garden party a few months' past. She's telling him about the connections between sports and politics which apparently is her girlfriend's thesis subject and Alan is actually interested enough that he doesn't notice Stephen until he appears at his shoulder suddenly.

"It's the birthday boy!" Melanie exclaims, leaning over to kiss Stephen on both cheeks. "Great party, Stephen. Sue is sorry to miss it but it's three days before her Viva, you know how it is."

"Hello darling," he answers kissing her back. "I'm surprised you're still sane enough to leave the house. I remember exactly what that was like. Can you remember when the last time was that she bathed?"

Mel laughs and shakes her head. "Don't be mean," she tells him. "Although..." she leans in, "She is a little smelly right now, but don't tell her I told you that otherwise I'll be banned to the guest room for the next two months."

"I promise," Stephen says before turning to Alan. He's feeling a little unsure of himself right now, wondering how to approach Alan.

Melanie's eyes move back and forth between Alan and Stephen for a few seconds before she points toward the other end of the garden and says: "Oh, I see Jill there, I'm just going to..." and without further ado shimmies off.

Alan waves after her before turning to Stephen. He raises his glass, taking in his smart suit and tentative smile. "Happy birthday," he says. "And 'surprise' I guess." He shrugs a little sheepishly.

"Surprise is the word," Stephen responds. "But we've been put on this carnival ride. We close our eyes never knowing where it'll take us next.”

Alan stares at him for a moment and then shakes his head. "Only you would come out with something like that."

Stephen grins and clinks his glass against Alan's. "But of course, I am after all rather fabulous." He's feeling rather giddy; not sure whether it's from the drinks he had earlier, topped off with the champagne now, the party or Alan's presence. Probably the latter.

"That you are," Alan agrees and if he means it as a joke, it comes out sounding a bit more serious than that. To cover it, he wags a finger at Stephen. "You are also in so much trouble!"

Stephen looks mildly alarmed and Alan continues: "If Emma hadn't told me about the party, I wouldn't have known anything about it being your birthday, would I? No, don't even try, I know you: You would've just kept quiet and acted like it wasn't a big deal and then eventually I would've found out and been terribly, terribly upset that you hadn't told me and refused to give you any coffee and cake for at least three days!"

Alan is looking positively fierce right now and Stephen doesn't really know what to say because Alan is completely right. He wouldn't have mentioned it to him. "Ah, well... I really am sorry. Tell me," he leans down a little to Alan's height. "What can I do to make it up to you?"

 Alan pretends to think for a while, tapping a finger against the glass. Finally, he puts it on the nearby table, carefully plucking Stephen's out of his hand too and setting it aside. "Well now, I can think of one thing..."

"What?" Stephen asks and he looks so genuinely worried for having potentially upset him that Alan almost feels sorry for tricking him, even if it is just a little.

"You can stand there and accept a birthday hug from me," Alan says, not waiting for an agreement before stepping forward, right into Stephen's personal space and wrapping arms around his shoulders, having to stand on tiptoe a little to reach. He presses close, hugging tightly and with his whole body, brave from the champagne and the dinner invitation and months and months of talking and getting to know each other, brave because of Stephen, because he makes Alan want to be that, makes it worth being scared. "Happy birthday," he says, whispers really, the words muffled by Stephen's jacket, his expensive aftershave tickling Alan's nose.

Stephen isn't sure at first how to react; he stiffens up, hands hovering in mid-air before he gives in, letting himself have this and putting his arms around Alan, pulling him closer, hands tight on his back. He's wanted to touch Alan for such a long time now and even though this is just a birthday hug he's going to make the most of it. Alan's breath whispers across his neck and it's all Stephen can do to stop himself from turning his head slightly and kissing Alan like he wants to.

He's not sure how long the hug goes on for or what might have happened because suddenly Emma is there, her hand on Stephen's arm.

"I think it's time for cake, don't you?" she announces brightly.

Alan blinks a little, pulling away. It feels cold once Stephen's arms slip from his back and he's kind of annoyed at Emma's interruption. Grateful too, if he's honest though, because he'd kind of wanted to know what would happen if he'd just press a kiss to the underside of Stephen's jaw and had been fighting a losing battle about whether or not to test it.

"Cake, right," he says, running a slightly flustered hand through his hair, no doubt messing it further. "Give me ten minutes to go sort it," he tells Emma, flashing a quick smile at Stephen, not quite meeting his eyes, before he heads off in the direction of the kitchen. Eve and Tom are good kids but Alan definitely needs to oversee the cake himself.


***


Stephen watches him go and then turns to glare at Emma. "Just what the hell are you playing at?" he asks. "One minute you’re shoving Alan toward me and then, when we're maybe actually getting somewhere..." He runs his hand through his hair in exasperation. "Then of all things, you send him off to get cake! Cake!!!"

Emma smiles at him and pats his arm patronisingly. "Oh, don't worry Stephen. I'm sure you'll have time for hugging and more at a later date. Maybe even later today! Now, stop being a grump," she links her arm into his, "and come and let me fill up your champagne glass and then we can wait for Alan to bring out your cake. Don't tell me you're not curious about how it looks.”

Stephen sighs. It's difficult for him to remain really angry at Emma, especially after she has organised his surprise party. Looking around he smiles at his friends and lets her lead him over to the drinks table in the corner where Ken - who else - is making violently coloured cocktails. Stephen eyes them a little with trepidation.

"Just champagne for me, Ken." He passes his empty glass and watches as he fills it up with champagne and then, before Stephen can snatch it back, Ken tops it up with calvados and gives it a stir.

"Here." He hands it back to Stephen with a grin. "Just chill, Stephen. Cake soon, don't you know?"

"The pair of you are extremely annoying," Stephen tells them but it's half hearted. "But thank you, the three of you for organising this. It's... wonderful.

Hugh joins them, while other people start drifting closer also and soon Stephen is busy accepting congratulations, cards and occasional bottle-shaped presents.


***


Alan freely admits that he's fussing over the cake but... Well, it has to be just right. Eve and Tom are doing a good job at not sniggering at him too much, just patiently waiting while he adds the final decorations (chocolate coffee beans and deep purple violets) to the big cake, before repeating the same with the small individual ones. The whole thing is kind of cheesy, but... Alan figures it must be obvious how he feels about Stephen already whether or not you add complicated baked goods to the showcase.

"Okay, we're ready," Alan finally says. He lights the sparklers on top of the big cake and holds the door open for Eve and Tom who are both needed to carry it to the garden. Then he lights the sparkler in the small ones, grabs the tray of those himself and follows them out into the party already ooh'ing over his creation. There is a flock of butterflies flapping about in his stomach but he stomps on them firmly, focusing on not tripping over anything as he slowly makes his way toward Stephen.

"Oh my," Stephen can feel the smile broadening on his face as he watches the cakes come out of the house. "That's just... Amazing." He's concentrating so much on the cake that Eve and Tom are carrying that at first he doesn't notice Alan.

The cake is just stunning and Stephen can't help staring at it as Eve and Tom carefully place it on the pedestal table that's clearly been decorated just for the purpose; white tablecloth with purple and gold glitter and stars strewn across it. There's room left and Stephen realises why when Alan arrives next to him with a tray containing two smaller cakes.

"Coffee and chocolate and books," Alan says as he puts them down in front of Stephen. "Some of your favourite things, I believe?"

"Made by his favourite baker no less," Ken mutters from the side loud enough to be heard. Alan laughs and blushes a bit, choosing to focus on the way Hugh is elbowing Ken to be quiet rather than the look of... something, like affection and realisation, that's stealing over Stephen's face.

Stephen stares down at the cakes which are shaped into a cup of coffee and a book, and it's then that what's happening here fully hits him. That the feelings he has for Alan are returned. He's sure that Alan has simply been paid for the larger cake, and that the smaller one are Alan's personal gift. His declaration almost.

"Thank you," he says, reaching out and touching Alan's hand. "Thank you, Alan."

"It's..." 'nothing', Alan almost says, but that would be a lie because it's something alright. "...no trouble," finishes lamely. "Happy birthday." He's aware of shuffling his feet a little but can't help it because of the way Stephen is smiling at him and the way his fingers are brushing his hand and--

"Oh my god, I think I'm going to be sick," Kevin is murmuring behind Stephen. "Just give it up already and just ki-- Ow! Hey!" He's rubbing his head where Emma apparently smacked him, glaring. "I'm only saying what everyone is thinking."

"Wouldn't hurt you to do some thinking too," Hugh says, rolling his eyes, but he's smiling.

Stephen has turned to glare at his friends and Alan can feel himself blushing because, well, and there's just too many people here for this and he... "I'm just going to..." He lets himself fade into the crowd while Stephen is berating Ken. The party is still going strong so it's easy to slip out, back to the house and the safety of the kitchen.


***


"There are times Ken when I could quite happily wring your neck," Stephen tells his friend. "And this is one of those times, and I'm quite sure that neither Hugh nor Emma would come to your assistance."

Ken shrugs and takes a mouthful of his drink. "I'm only saying what is painfully obvious," he answers, ducking to miss another smack from Emma. "Stop it," he tells her. "You know full well that you think Alan is good for Stephen, or would be if Stephen ever pulled his finger out and did something about it."

Stephen watches as Hugh puts out his hand and drags Ken to his side, arms going around his waist. There would have been a time when that had hurt to watch but not now. Stephen hasn't felt that way about Hugh for a very long time. But even though Ken is as irritating as normal he's telling the truth, and Alan's cake was about as big a declaration of his feelings as it could possibly be.

"Hmm, you could be right. Which in your case is an absolute miracle," he tells Ken. "But first I think I'm going to try some of his rather delicious looking cake. It is, after all, my birthday."


***


Back at the kitchens there's plenty to keep Alan busy. Eve and Tom point out that tidying and washing up was something he paid them to do but Alan just shrugs and gets stuck in. He needs something to keep his hands occupied at least. There's nothing to be done about his mind though which is tangled up in 'what ifs' or his heart that's still going double speed.

He stacks up plates and clings to the memory of Stephen's smile and the warmth in his eyes and tries to convince himself that the nervous twisting in his gut is just anticipation, not fear of having screwed up. Alan is reasonably sure that his cake shaped gesture was well received but... Dammit, why did he think it was a good idea to do this in the middle of the party with all these people around?


***


Stephen watches with some pleasure as the large birthday cake is quickly decimated by his friends. It's good to see that Alan's baking is appreciated, but he's not prepared to let anybody near the smaller cakes. They’re his, and his alone. Alan made them especially for him. He's been keeping an eye on the conservatory door but Alan still hasn't come back outside and he hopes that Ken hasn't embarrassed Alan too much. There are times when he could quite happily slap Ken, but he leaves that job to Emma.

He can't stop thinking about how Alan had looked when he'd presented the cake to Stephen, and he knows that he's prevaricating by wandering around the garden. The longer he takes to approach Alan, the more chance there is of Alan thinking that this is all a huge mistake. And the thing is that Stephen has had plenty of time to decide whether or not he wants this. If he wants Alan and Stephen knows that he does.

"Fuck it," he finally mutters and heads towards the conservatory. They have been unsure around each other for long enough, and although Stephen doesn't want to lose Alan as a friend, he wants something more.


***


Alan is setting out the last two boxes of pastries onto the plates while Eve and Tom stand by, waiting to take them out to the waiting guests. He's so intent on his task that Eve's 'Oh hello, if it isn't the man of the hour' throws him for a few seconds until he realises she's looking over his shoulder and talking to... Well, it doesn't take a genius to figure that out.

"Hello Eve. And Tom, isn't it?" Stephen is saying, followed by thanks and compliments for their help and waitering. Alan isn't really listening, focusing on making sure his hands don't shake and keeping his face impassive. And not turning around.

The reprieve isn't long though and soon all the pastries are laid, just so, and Alan is left with nothing to do except straighten up and tell Eve and Tom to take the food out. They exchange a look, chorusing 'Yes, Alan' and troop out with barely suppressed giggles. Alan sighs, wiping crumbs off his hands nervously. Nothing for it then.

"Hey," he says, finally daring to look in Stephen's direction. "Did you run out of cake?"

"No," Stephen takes a step closer to Alan. "I didn't." He places the empty plate on the counter. "It's my birthday you know." Alan looks a little puzzled and Stephen continues. "It's my birthday and I think that there's something that I'm missing. Something that I've been missing for a while." He steps closer until he's at Alan's side. "What do you think that is?"

"Um," Alan says, which really he can't be blamed for because there's a sense of purpose in Stephen that he hasn't seen before; an intensity that's all focused on him. "I don't…" he clears his throat, can feel his eyes go wide with surprise because Stephen's suddenly there, right next to him, and yeah of course Alan knows that he's taller than him but it's still kind of disconcerting, though not unpleasantly so. "I don't know," he says, his fingers curling nervously into the hem of his shirt. "Seems to me like you have everything."

Alan is looking a little nervous and Stephen hopes that he's not about to make a massive mistake. But although Alan's body language is apprehensive, he is still turned toward Stephen. "Tell me if I'm wrong," Stephen says, lifting his hand and slowly pushing Alan's hair out of his eyes.

Alan goes still, eyes staring at Stephen but he doesn't move away. Taking that as tentative consent, Stephen steps closer still until he's bracketing Alan against the kitchen counter. "I don't have everything," he says, fingers slowly trailing down the side of Alan's face. "There's something else I want Alan. Someone who I want."

Alan swallows, his heart in his throat. He wants to smile or laugh because Stephen's intention is clear and this is exactly what Alan has been hoping for, for longer than he even realises probably, but the moment is too tense for that.

"Yeah?" he asks, and his hands are shaking slightly as he brings them up to Stephen's warm chest, his whole body shivering at the contact as he clutches Stephen's jacket, already pushing closer, for more, even though he doesn't mean to, just... "That makes two of us then," he says, voice catching.

Stephen’s heart leaps at the words and he trails his fingers down to Alan's throat, the tips pressing slightly against the frantically beating pulse. "That's good," he says softly. "Really marvellous, actually."  Bending his head, he brushes his lips against Alan's.

Alan makes a soft sound and Stephen pushes him carefully against the counter, his tongue flicking over Alan's lips, seeking entrance.

Stephen is being so very careful with him, his touch light and his kisses still questioning and yet Alan already feels like he's coming apart at the seams. It feels good, better even than he imagined, and he'd imagined this a lot; Stephen's body pressing against his, hands warm as they slowly slide down his slides before finally settling on Alan's hips. And god, god that makes him groan and push back, a sudden involuntary twitch of need that leaves his mouth open and pliant for Stephen's tongue. His arms come up to wind around Stephen's neck and he's on his tiptoes, trying to get closer.

Stephen just can't seem to get enough. Right now all he wants to do is to continue to touch Alan, to explore his body the way his tongue is exploring the inside of Alan's mouth, to taste him all over. Alan is eager, kissing him back, and without thinking about it Stephen moves his hands around to Alan's backside and lifts.

There's a squeak from Alan as their mouths part and Stephen hoists him on the countertop, but it doesn’t interrupt things for too long. Stephen steps between Alan's legs and wraps his hands in those curls, bringing Alan's mouth back to his own.


***


"People are starting to ask after him," Hugh comments quietly under the cover of his wine glass. Then he pre-emptively slaps a hand over Ken's mouth before he has a chance to add his two cents in for which Emma is grateful. "Should I go... look for him?" he asks, not sounding too eager for the task.

Not that Emma can blame him. They all know where Stephen has gone and while she knows Hugh is genuinely happy about the developments, she also knows he probably doesn't want to walk in on the said developments in the... the developmental stage. So to speak.

"It's alright," she says, patting him on the arm. "I'll go." She picks up her empty glass for cover, heading to the house. She sticks her head in the conservatory first, finding a kissing couple that decidedly isn't Alan and Stephen, before backing out.

In the hallway, Emma casts a considering eye toward the staircase but no, surely not... Stephen has to have enough sense not to go from months of pining to a quickie in the middle of his own birthday party. Well, she sincerely hopes so anyway.

Heading toward the kitchen first, she encounters an obstacle of sorts, in the form of two tittering students, one of whom she distantly recognises from a class last year.

"Erm, I wouldn't go in if I were you," the boy says, shifting from foot to foot.

"Yes. Alan is... very busy. With the, um, cupcakes," the girl adds, biting her lip.

"I'm sure," Emma says, smiling. "Look, it's very sweet of you to stand guard like this and I'm sure they'll appreciate not having just anyone wander in but... People are starting to ask after Stephen so don't you think someone ought to remind him that there's a party going on?"

"Um..." The kids exchange glances but finally part ways, letting Emma proceed.

The kitchen door is almost shut but not completely and Emma pauses for a fraction of a second to listen, just in case, but hears nothing but an occasional rustle of clothes so she hazards a peak.

And then has to suppress a delighted giggle herself. Honestly, it's like catching two school kids making out, not grown men: Alan is on the counter, his legs dangerously close to wrapping themselves around Stephen who... Dear lord, has both hands buried in Alan's hair and is kissing him with some serious concentration. It's a sight to behold alright, and no hardship to look at. Emma gives herself a few more seconds before stepping in and clearing her throat meaningfully.


***


Stephen is lost in the taste and touch of Alan, wrapped up in him so completely it takes a moment or so before he registers that there's somebody else in the room. He reluctantly breaks the kiss, swiping his tongue carefully over Alan's lips before turning to the interloper. He keeps his hands on Alan though, not wanting to let go of him just yet.

"Emma," his voice is sharp. Much as he loves Emma he could quite happily throttle her right now.  She raises her eyebrows at him and then walks over to the drinks fridge.

"Oh, don't give me that tone Stephen," she responds. "You know full well I'd be more than happy to stand here and watch the pair of you make out, even with or without Alan's blushes but people are asking for you. I presumed you'd rather I disturb you than anybody else."  She opens up the fridge, takes out a fresh bottle of champagne and fills her glass and then raises it in salute to them both.  "Cheers," she says. "It's about bloody time too."

"Oh, for god's sake woman, pass me that bottle." Stephen grabs the champagne bottle that she passes to him and takes a swig of the fizzy alcohol, enjoying the way the flavour bursts on his mouth. "Here," he hands it to Alan. "You'll need it. This is just the start!"

Alan takes a long drink although the alcohol does absolutely nothing to cool the flush on his cheeks... or in other parts of his body. Stephen and Emma are still glaring at each other, although it's really just outright laughter on Emma's part and Stephen can't seem to muster up any actual annoyance, judging by the way his mouth keeps curling into a smile while his fingers keep curling around Alan's hips.

The absurdity and the sheer bloody brilliance of the situation coupled with the champagne finally tips Alan over from embarrassment to amusement and before he knows it he's snorting with laughter, face pressed against Stephen's shoulder.

"You've broken his sanity already," Emma comments drily.

"Oh fuck you," Stephen says and then pats Alan's back awkwardly, asking if he's okay, which only sends Alan into another fit of hilarity.

"If anybody's broken his sanity it's you and your boys," Stephen splutters at her as Alan giggles into his shoulder. "Alan, seriously, I'm reconsidering the champagne right now." He tries to take the bottle away from Alan without success.

"No. Mine," Alan responds clasping the champagne to his chest. "It's all mine," he's pouting now and Stephen starts to laugh, riding high on the kiss and the fact that Alan seems as happy about this as Stephen is.

Emma shakes her head.  "Well aren't you the cutest pair." She grabs another bottle of champagne from the fridge realising full well that Alan isn't going to give his up.

"I'll see you both outside in a few moments," she tells them. "And if not," she warns, "I'll send Ken in to find you and I'm sure you don't want that."

Stephen watches her leave before turning back to Alan. "So... I think we're on the same page here."  Alan smiles and salutes him with the champagne and takes another mouthful before handing it to Stephen. "And I wondered whether you'd like to come over next week. I do remember promising to cook you a curry."

"You did." Alan grins happily and then narrows his eyes. "Hey, hey, were you asking me on a date that time? Because if I'd known that we could've been doing this," he waves an illustrative hand between them, momentarily tightening his legs against Stephen's, "in my kitchen. Where there is no party outside waiting to distract you."

For a moment Stephen is nonplussed as he thought it would have been obvious that he was asking Alan on a date, but then Hugh had always complained that he could be opaque without even meaning to.

"Well yes." He rubs his hand over the back of his neck in agitation. "I was asking you out on a date. Am asking you out on a date now."

"Alright then, well in that case..." Alan makes a show of thinking, tapping his finger against the champagne bottle for a few seconds. He doesn't have a heart to keep the charade up for more than a few seconds though because Stephen, the idiot, is actually starting to look genuinely worried. "Yes," Alan says, rolling his eyes. "Oh my god, how can you even... I would've said yes to a date after the first few weeks of knowing you. I thought it was obvious how much I..."

He stops talking then, choosing to reach out and drop a kiss to Stephen's lip instead of making a fool of himself. "I made you a cake," he points out. "And I lied: It totally was a lot of bloody trouble. But totally worth it." He kisses Stephen again, for emphasis. "So yes, to a date. You idiot."

And that's just... Well, Stephen knows that he's probably grinning like a loon but he doesn't care. Yes he's idiotic, yes he's older than Alan but those things are of no importance, not when Alan is kissing him. Ignoring his promise to Emma, he wraps his hands in Alan's hair again and returns the kiss. His friends, the party, can wait right now. Alan deserves all of the attention that Stephen can give him.

And Stephen plans on devoting quite lot of time just for that.




***

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Black Tulip Fic

July 2017

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