Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index
"I said I'd meet you out front."
Stuart strolled down the bakery aisle, grinning broadly. "Had to come in to take a piss." He walked up close to Vince so that he could quietly torment his friend with, "Don't worry, I'm not gonna out you at work-- or d'you think just being seen with me is evidence enough?"
"You know this lot," Vince said edgily, "the least thing gets them talking."
"Can't blame them if they wonder," Stuart said smugly. "Even if you were straight, obviously I'm enough to turn any bloke's head." He struck a pose. "They see us together, they'd never believe you're not shagging me, closet or no closet." He snorted. "Course, if they knew the whole saga it'd probably make their heads explode..."
Vince glared at him. "You twat. Some days, I really fucking hate you."
He did a little pirouette. "Don't you like this suit?"
"Piss off." Vince went back to his clipboard, marking off inventory, clearly simmering.
"C'mon, Vince, you're supposed to be my friend," Stuart wheedled. "I had to go in to work today for a meeting after we were out all last night, and Sandra asked if I was sick! She said I was looking tired. I'm looking for a little reassurance here and all you do is worry about your bloody reputation?"
Vince heaved a sigh and gave him a sidelong glace. "You look amazing, of course. It's a great suit. Mind you, it's much too posh for a matinee, you might as well wear a tux to the chemist's, but there you go."
"See, was that so hard?" Stuart reshaped his grin into his best come-fuck-me smile. "I'm going for that piss. But I've got an idea. Give us a minute, then follow me back. We can christen the Harlo's men's room."
"Stuart, shut your face!" Vince hissed, looking around anxiously.
"Come on, it'd be brilliant," Stuart insisted, dropping the joking tone. "Big secret slap in the face to all those fuckers, get one over on them for all the shit you put up with around here. You know I'm good for it," he smiled rakishly. "We wouldn't even be late for the movie."
"Fuck off," Vince replied firmly. "Where'd you park the Jeep? I'll wait for you outside."
Stuart sighed dramatically and tossed his friend the keys. "In the no parking zone. God, Vince, you're so boring," he groused, striding back towards the toilets.
Even so, he did linger in the men's room for a few minutes, just in case. Rinsing his hands, Stuart looked at himself in the small square mirror over the sink, and did a double take.
He really did look tired.
There were lines around his mouth; faint, not what you'd call wrinkles really. Character lines, right? But still. Lines. There was another across his forehead, too. And similar creases arrowed down from his eyes. Those weren't so bad, they just made more of his cheekbones, the pleasing shape of his narrow face, the stormy color of his dark blue irises. But they were lines all the same, and he hadn't seen them there before.
It was the light in here, he decided. The harsh buzzing fluorescents of this tatty supermarket. He was used to viewing himself in the gentle color-corrected halogens that lit the loo at work and in his flat, or in the dim illumination of some club or another. This light, so flat and unforgiving, put ten years on him. At least. Jesus, he practically looked thirty already. He practically looked forty already and he was only twenty-seven.
He swiped his hands through his hair and hastened out of the store.
"Jesus, what took you?" Vince asked as Stuart climbed into the car.
"Waiting for you, wasn't I?" Stuart said shortly. "Stood me up, y'bastard. Just for that, I'm not buying you popcorn."
"More likely you shagged a bagboy," Vince muttered, slumping down in the bucket seat as he shifted into drive.
"Are there any worth shagging?"
"Mm, well, there's one who's quite nice. Looks a bit like Jude Law. But he's straight."
"What, in Manchester?" Stuart scoffed. "The nerve!"
"I know, it's outrageous! But you can't talk to these people," Vince laughed, "they're too busy replicating to hear a word of it."
"God, that reminds me, Romey and Lisa want to have a baby," Stuart said.
"Lesbians. First they get a house together, now they want a baby. They might as well be heterosexual."
"Except for the crucial shagging women part," Stuart said. "I gather that's a bit important. They asked me if I'd be the father."
"Oh, that'd be quite something," Vince chortled. "You, a dad? I'm pretty sure there are mollusks with more paternal instincts than you. Dead mollusks, at that."
"I dunno. I'm thinking about it. Uh, that's a red light--"
Vince hit the brakes and looked at him. "Are you serious? They actually asked you?"
"Yeah," Stuart said.
"And you're really thinking about it?"
"I said I'd go to this family planning counselor or something that they're going to. They're going to do like a genetic history for me and see how it would match up, me and Romey."
He shrugged. "I think they've got a couple of other blokes lined up as well, but come down to it, you know they're going to choose me-- I mean, look at me. Plus Lisa knows exactly how much money I've got, and she never hesitates to remind me where the first of it came from, too. They know I can afford to help support a kid, especially working at Thrive and all."
"I can't believe you're up for it," Vince said.
"I'm up for anything," Stuart informed him. "You'd've found that out if you'd followed me to the loo like I said."
"Get off that," Vince said, taking a left turn too sharply, jouncing Stuart against the shoulder strap of the safety belt. "You're not funny."
Stuart rolled his eyes with exaggerated annoyance. "It's no wonder you never cop off," he said. "I might as well be talking in semaphore."
"Shit, road construction. It's already almost three. We're going to miss the previews."
"Relax. Doesn't start til three twenty."
"I read a bunch of reviews; they said you don't have to follow the show to understand the movie, but I'm not sure I believe that. Maybe I should run it down for you, yeah?"
"I've watched the show," Stuart said, peering out the window, looking for someone to ogle.
"Oh yeah? What's your favorite episode?" Vince challenged.
"The one where the main bloke wears this red Speedo," Stuart answered. "Though I also like the one where he has a nice grapply fistfight with the bald butch-looking boss guy."
"Yeah, but what about the plot?"
"Right, there's the bloke and the redhead, the two of them are like secret agents--"
"They're in the FBI."
"And they do stuff like Unsolved Mysteries."
"Fair enough. Plus there's a conspiracy to hide all the paranormal stuff they find, and to cover up how aliens are coming to colonize the Earth."
"Sure," Stuart said, "whatever."
"Cos that's what the movie is about, is what I'm saying. The conspiracy part. Five years they've been doing this show, they built up this whole story about the conspiracy. That cigarette-smoking bloke, he's in on it. If you don't know about that, I don't know if you'll be able to follow the film."
"As long as whatsis is in it, I'll be following along just fine," Stuart said.
"You fancy David Duchovny?"
"Isn't that why you watch the bloody show?"
"I like Krycek better," Vince said, "but he won't be in the movie, I don't think. He's not in it half enough. The best was that 'Tunguska', him and Mulder trapped in Russia, where they had to rely on each other? And Krycek left Mulder stranded and got him infected with the black oil, but at the end, he got his arm lopped off."
"He's an amputee, and you fancy him? God, Vince, that's really kinky," he laughed. "You sad bastard. I never knew you had it in you. Go on then, what other dark and awful secret lusts are you harboring?"
Vince made a face. "Just one," he muttered under his breath, parking the Jeep.
Stuart wound up buying him popcorn after all.
He couldn't be arsed to pay much attention to the movie; he was too busy brooding over the sight of himself in that mirror at Harlo's. Twenty minutes in, he buggered off to the loo and planted himself in front of the huge mirror in the cinema men's room.
The light there was more flattering, but he'd seen the lines and now he couldn't stop seeing them, graven on his face for all time. He tried out a smile. More lines. Once they'd been more like dimples, but now they were just smile lines, and there were crinkles at the corners of his eyes as well.
He was fucked. It was all about confidence, he knew that, he'd always known it. You went to the Village, you were young, thin, built, and well-turned-out, you worked it for all it was worth and you copped off. Chance'd be a fine thing, but why leave it to chance? They were all in the clubs for the same thing, and as far as Stuart was concerned that thing was Stuart.
It would all go to hell if he couldn't keep his confidence up, though. Didn't matter how gorgeous you were: if you didn't make out like you were God's favorite fuck and knew it, who'd waste their time? If he lost his dead certainty that he was completely lovely and wonderful, he'd wind up one of those sad invisible old men, like Bernie and that lot, still haunting the clubs while the young people brushed by, unseeing.
He turned, examining his silhouette critically. Quite slender, that hadn't changed. Shoulders angular, a sinuously muscled build, classically V-shaped torso, nice curvy waist and tight grabbable arse. The sharp slate-grey suit was Dolce & Gabbana, beautifully tailored, expensive as all hell, and it showcased his frame magnificently. Stuart nodded slowly. He'd never been quite as tall as he might've liked, but aside from that he was still satisfied with the well-tended machine of his body.
He tucked his head down and examined his face again, trying to see himself objectively. He'd once been told he had an inscrutable black Irish stare, and he'd quite liked that, though the bloke had been pissed at the time and had, if memory served, passed out in the cab on the way back to the flat, never to actually darken Stuart's door. His wildly curly dark hair was, thank god, neither thinning nor greying, and it looked good; a bit mad, like always, but that was good. He liked to look a little mussed, as if he'd just come from a heaving squirmy threesome and was halfway on his way to the next one.
Still, those lines.
He was still slim, built and well-turned-out, but he was on the far edge of young, and getting farther every day.
When he resumed his seat in the cinema, Vince leaned over and whispered, "This time I know you must've had a shag. You've been gone ages."
"Saw someone from work," Stuart lied. "A client. Had to give him a line of bullshit before I could peel myself away. What happened?"
"Take too long to explain. She's talking about leaving, though. Scully is."
"'S a big deal, yeah? They worked together five years, plus they're obviously in love."
"Not a bit of it. Isn't Mulder meant to be queer?"
"He's not supposed to be."
"Why wouldn't he've shagged her already then? I thought he was meant to be queer. Christ, that ruins the show for me."
"Shhh," Vince said. The bloke and the redhead stood opposite each other in the hallway; Stuart snuck a look at Vince, who was suddenly enthralled.
"What's happening?" he demanded.
"Sh! They might be going to kiss!"
"Is that all?" Stuart studied the man and the woman onscreen, who embraced, parted, then slowly drew nearer each other. "Why doesn't he just lay one on her?"
Vince kicked his foot.
A bee stung the woman and suddenly she was falling over like a drunk.
"What's that about, is she allergic?"
"Shut it! Tell you after," Vince said.
"I don't know why he didn't just kiss her. Can't think it was the director being kind to the gay demographic, sparing us a couple of straight people snogging all over each other for a change."
"They're partners. And they've been friends for five years. You don't just up and kiss a friend after five years."
"Why not?" Stuart asked. "How long've we known each other, thirteen, fourteen years? I wouldn't hesitate to lay one on you if I thought it needed doing."
"Piss off, I'm trying to watch this," Vince growled at him, kicking his foot again.
Stuart blew out a long breath in annoyance and settled into his seat to take in the rest of the film, but his thoughts stayed on his reflection. Even a brief shot of the secret agent bloke in a flimsy hospital gown didn't cheer him up.
As soon as the lights came up, Vince launched into full-on industrial strength nattering, bouncing on his toes. "That was really good! Much better than I thought! Mind you, it doesn't fit with where the show left off, not really, but the plot was good enough and it all seemed to come together well. The show hasn't made that much sense in years. I'm glad they didn't let them kiss, that'd ruin the series. Cor, it's still another couple of months to the season premiere. D'you think I can use your computer to look up what happened on the American fan sites?"
Vince was looking around as he spoke, and sort of waving his hands limply. Stuart finally realised that his friend had popcorn grease all over his hands, and was keeping an eye out for napkin dispensers as he wittered on: "I dunno, though, I don't want to spoil it-- but it's a long time to wait. That's what I really hate, I'm always tempted to read about the episodes before they come over here, especially during the hiatus. You probably didn't have the slightest idea what was going on, with as much as you missed. D'you want to see it again? Cos I wouldn't mind to see it again. There's another showing in half an hour."
"Nah," Stuart said, "that's all right. We'll go out to lunch and you can have a grand time telling me the whole plot, start to finish. You would have done anyway, even if I had seen it all."
"Probably," Vince said, smiling in wry concession, and absently stuck his hands into his pockets to wipe his greasy fingers off on the lining inside.
Stuart shook his head, laughing a little. He wasn't sure if it was the gesture he found funny, or the wave of affection it drew out of him, all unwilling.
"What?" Vince asked, not really paying attention. Stuart was sure he probably hadn't even realised what he'd just done anyway, so he didn't answer, just smiled fondly and scrutinised his friend.
Vince still looked essentially the same as he had in school, the bastard. He'd lost his awkward elbows-and-knees-akimbo thinness of those days, become straight-backed, compact, gently muscled. And his sandy nothing-colored hair was different, of course, spiky instead of parted on one side and plastered down. There were two smile creases under his wide blue eyes and a worry line between his brows, but for the most part, he seemed largely untouched by the passage of time.
"What?" he asked, Stuart's gaze having lingered for so long that even Vince had to notice.
"Nothing," Stuart said. Then, "You haven't changed much since school days. Put you back in a uniform, you could go through again."
"You're daft," Vince answered. "The other day at lunch, some young lad asked me if I wanted a senior's discount."
"Give over. You still look about sixteen, you cunt," Stuart said as they left the cinema lobby and headed across the car park.
"Fewer spots these days, I hope," Vince replied cheerfully.
"Nah-- it's just that now, they're liver spots," Stuart grinned.
"Fuck off," Vince answered amiably. "You're the one thinking of being a dad."
"Christ, when you put it that way..."
"How does that work, anyway? You're not actually going to shag her?"
Stuart aimed a withering look at Vince. "Do I know you? Of course I'm not going to shag her. It's artificial insemination. There's nothing to it, really. It's just a wank. Well, several of them actually, but it's not like I'd have to go out of my way. Just do it into a test tube instead of a tissue for a couple of weeks, hand it over, and there you go, it's done."
"And they'd trust you to do that? I'd half expect you to just collect spunk from all your shags til you had enough. Mix it up like Frankenstein, hand it over and let Darwin sort it out."
"God, that's brilliant! I hadn't even thought of that, but I'm doing it now, definitely--"
"Stuart!" Vince looked mortified to have arrived at such an evil notion well in advance of his notorious friend.
He laughed. "Oh, calm down. I wouldn't. Probably. Anyway," he said as he unlocked the Jeep, "I could've had a kid any time, could've done starting at twelve, if I'd been straight, god forbid. There's little teenagers all over the place with babies of their own. And I won't really be a dad, I'm not going to raise the little bugger, I'm just chipping in with some spunk. Not like I can't spare any. And the whole thing's bloody expensive, but I'm not hurting for money either, so why not?"
"Why, how much is it?"
"It's something like three thousand quid, each try, and Romey says sometimes it takes two or three tries. That's for artificial insemination. If that doesn't work they do in vitro, that's around six or seven thousand."
Vince whistled. "Expensive."
"And that's just to get started," Stuart agreed. "But I'm doing all right. It won't even put a dent in my 'fuck you money' fund."
"I didn't tell you about that? No, I didn't, it was Sandra I was saying that to. I socked a bunch of money away in these mutual funds and stuff. I reckon when it gets up there to where I can live off my savings for a few years, I'll just keep going in to work as usual, you know, but the first time someone gives me shit, a co-worker, a client, anybody, I'll just be able to say outright, 'Fuck you!'-- and if they fire me, so what? It'd be so worth it."
"You're mad," Vince said, belting himself in. "What about when your money runs out? You'll have to work again eventually--"
"Who cares, I'll think of something."
"But if you're going to have a kid, you can't just go getting fired from your job, you'll have to support the baby."
"Vince, I'm having a moment here, my own private sort of Doctor Whovian vision, and what're you doing? You're ruining it. What you're meant to say is, 'That sounds brilliant, Stuart, completely and utterly brilliant, you daring intrepid devil, you.'"
"Fuck you," Vince said easily.
"See, now doesn't that feel good? Don't you wish you could say that to anyone you wanted, whenever you liked?"
"I thought that's more or less what you do as a matter of course."
"Not just yet," Stuart said. "But I will. Anyway, if we do wind up doing this thing with the baby, that just means the 'fuck you' fund will have to be a bit bigger before I can implement my master plan, that's all."
Vince shook his head. "Stuart Alan Jones, Junior. I'm not sure the world is ready for that."
"It's a laugh, isn't it? And I don't mind the idea, you know, perpetuating the line. It's like the next best thing to living forever."
"I imagine it's a pretty distant second place," Vince said drily.
Stuart rapped his knuckles on the steering wheel. "Where are we going for lunch? I want Italian. Let's go to Paolo's."
"Sounds good. That's the place with the lemon desserts, right?"
"Yeah, I love those, aren't they good?"
"Yeah, they're great. And that stuff I had last time, that was excellent, like, some kind of fish with tomato basil cream sauce..."
"God, I'm starving now. I didn't get any of that popcorn."
"That's cos you vanished for half the film."
"No, Vince, it's cos every time I went for the bucket you elbowed me out of the way like a defender. I'm surprised you didn't just tip the whole thing straight into your mouth to stop me having any."
"I know I offered you some. Plenty of times."
"Twice. You passed it to me twice and yanked it right back both times. Face it, Vince, you're a popcorn hog. Oh, sure, you seem like a nice enough bloke, but once the lights go down, look out! No one else is getting a single kernel unless they defy death to get past your poky elbows and pry the bucket out of your miserly grip."
"All right," Vince laughed, "next time, I promise, you'll get all the popcorn you like. I'll shower you with popcorn. I'll bury you in popcorn. I'll sculpt your likeness in popcorn and you can eat the whole thing."
Stuart giggled. "Did you hear that story Alex was telling last time he was up, about the bloke who had the love doll specially made up that looked just like him?"
"Stuart, I told you that story. Alex told us while you were chasing after that Kelly or Carl or whatever his name was..."
"Well don't look at me, I don't know."
"And I told it to you the next day."
"I had such a head that day."
"I've been telling you for years not to drink red wine. Gets you every time."
"But how do you know it's the wine?"
"Fourteen years I've known you, and every single time I've ever seen you drink red wine, you complain about getting a headache. I'm thinking that's a pretty solid indication that you're allergic to red wine. Happens to lots of people. It's sulfites, or histamines, or something like that. What gets me is that you keep going back to it, time and time again, and you never believe me when you're bitching about your migraine and I tell you it's the wine."
"I like red wine."
"I keep telling you, you can have it without the headache if you just take some aspirin or something before you drink it."
"Do you have any aspirin on you?"
"Yeah, think so."
"Great, we'll have a cabernet sauvignon with lunch and try out your theory, and you can tell me why that red-haired woman wound up sealed in an ice cube with a yard and a half of umbilical cord rammed down her throat."
"Well, I showed you the first episode, right, so you know, like, how they met and all?"
"Oh, Christ, you're going to sum up the whole bloody show for me, episode by episode, aren't you."
"Might do," Vince said without a trace of apology. "You want to hear it or not?"
"Yeah," Stuart said, smiling a little. "I suppose I do. Go on then. Tell me everything."
Almost Never Chapter Index