Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index
Stuart leafed through takeaway menus without much interest, trying to decide if he was hungry enough to bother ordering in, or if he should just have something at the pub before heading to Babylon.
It was a dull spring Saturday, heavy with the threat of rain, and he'd had to go in to work in the morning for a phone conference that had stretched on pointlessly for nearly three hours. It had all been up to the accounting people to straighten it out, but he was the client contact so he'd had to attend and make the occasional unhelpful comment just to let them know he was there.
So he was already in a foul mood when the bell sounded. He punched the intercom button and barked, "What?"
"'S me," Vince said.
"Could've called first," Stuart said crossly. "Where've you been all day anyway?"
Vince didn't take him on, though. There was just intercom static for long seconds, and then he said, "Can I come up?"
Stuart buzzed him in and returned to his perusal of the menus with a little more enthusiasm. They could split some Chinese or something.
The knock made him frown in puzzlement. "It's open," he said loudly, and continued in more normal tones as Vince entered, "obviously. I did expect you after I buzzed you in, fancy that. Even if you didn't call. So where've you been?"
He glanced up when Vince didn't answer, and shoved the menus back into the drawer at the look on his face. "What?" he asked.
Vince parcelled it out between reluctant pauses. "Peter's in hospital. He's been feeling ill, and.. they checked him in, and... he got tested, and... he's positive."
"Well. That's fantastic, isn't it." Stuart blew out a slow breath; times like this he almost wished he smoked. Gave you something to do with your hands, anyway. "Fuck. What about Danny, is he all right? I told you I had him, didn't I? Christ. That was stupid. You should've said something to me that night. I was off my head."
"Danny's fine, he doesn't have it." Vince paused. "Mark does."
"Mark? Well. Poor bastard. Haven't even seen him in a year, at least," Stuart recalled, "not since Peter dumped him..."
"Yeah," Vince said. He was just standing near the door, still in his jacket, his arm across his body, hand gripping the sleeve at the elbow.
All of a sudden Stuart realised why he looked so pale.
The silence limped on for much too long.
Stuart finally dragged a hand through his hair and said, "You want a drink?" as he moved to make one for himself.
"Whatever you're having," Vince said.
Once his hands and eyes were safely occupied with mixing gin and tonics, Stuart said, "You're all right. You just got tested in January, you've been tested, what, twice since then."
"Yeah." Vince looked down, and seemed to notice that he was still wearing his jacket. He shucked it off and folded it over his hands carefully. "I went in for another one again this morning. Just in case."
"What, you knew this morning? And you didn't phone? It's fucking--" Stuart had to lean back to see the clock-- "six o'clock! What've you been doing all day?"
"I was at the hospital," Vince said, "and then I took care of some stuff for Peter, I mean, Danny's in a state, you can imagine--"
"Not really," Stuart muttered, going into the freezer for ice. He stared bleakly into the wafting fog inside. "What happened to those little ice cube trays I used to have?"
"The housekeeper put them away in the cupboard when you got the icemaker put in."
"I don't want this ice. I want those little ice cubes. You want ice?"
Stuart held out one of the drinks. Vince came into the kitchen to take it. He took a long swallow, and then set it down and reached up to open the cabinet, dug past a coffee grinder and an infuser, and pulled out the small ice cube trays. His jacket still hung over his other arm.
"Give me that," Stuart said, with an impatient motion at the jacket.
"I've got it," Vince answered, draping it over one shoulder. "I can't stay, I told Mum I'd take her out to see Peter. Visiting hours'll be over soon." He started filling up the ice cube trays.
"So you had time to phone Hazel."
"You know she's fond of Peter."
"Did she go with you to the clinic?"
"No! I didn't tell her, and don't you go telling her either," Vince glared at him seriously.
"Oh come on. Like I would," Stuart said.
Vince gave him a weighted look as he put the ice cube trays into the freezer.
"I just gave you the idea," Stuart answered the unspoken accusation, "I didn't tell her, did I?"
"Stuart, what the hell was I supposed to do, you standing right there saying Go on, go on?"
"What? I wasn't even there!"
"All that day," Vince revised, "you kept saying I should tell her--"
"I was drunk. We were both drunk. You know I'm not going to say anything to Hazel." Stuart looked down to see the drink in his hand, untouched. Poured half of it down his throat and said, "You should've phoned me."
"I knew you'd be at work, you had a meeting."
"Vince. You phone me about every single tiny fucking trivial little thing that ever happens ever," he said evenly.
"It doesn't matter," said Vince uneasily. "I wasn't there half an hour--"
Stuart finished his drink, set down the glass with a clunk. He tried to catch Vince's eye and couldn't, and said anyway, "I would've gone with you."
"Doesn't matter," Vince repeated, pulling the jacket off his shoulder and folding it over his hands again.
"Why don't you ever ask me for anything?"
Vince shrugged with an almost apologetic expression.
"You never ask me for anything." Too much, but his throat hurt and all he could do was keep talking. "Am I your friend or not?"
"I ask you for things, I--" Vince glanced up at him and looked away just as fast. "I'll ask you for something now."
"All right," Stuart agreed readily.
"You could drive me over to pick up Mum, and out to the hospital. My car's been--"
"I'll do it," he snapped, "I don't need a fucking reason."
"Well." Vince crossed his arms, clutching his jacket against his chest. "Thanks."
"I'll get my shoes on," Stuart said, and headed into the bedroom. He was aware of Vince following a distance behind, waiting for him in the hallway.
He knotted the laces of the first shoe and stalked lopsidedly back to the doorway and looked out at Vince, the other one still in his hand. "It's all right," he said angrily, "because it was only the one time, right? And you're always careful."
Vince didn't answer him, looking somehow sullen, almost rebellious, as well as abashed.
"Oh for fuck's sake," Stuart said. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."
"They're my friends," Vince defended weakly, but he looked sick when he said it.
"I never want to hear another word from you about being careful, or going off with strangers or anything, not another word," Stuart growled. "Jesus Christ, Vince."
It wasn't until Vince grimaced and batted away the shoe that he realised he'd been poking his friend in the chest with it. "All those times you and Hazel practically backed me up into a corner and hit me over the head-- it only takes once! Be careful! Jesus Christ."
Stuart tugged the other shoe onto his foot and stomped out the door, leaving it wide open, and charged up the stairs to the roof.
He leaned against the railing into the breeze, eyes squeezed shut, just letting the cool damp wind brush across his face.
The sun was low in the west when he stepped back and took a seat on one of the benches near the anemic little ornamental garden. It was lower still, just beginning to touch the horizon, when he heard the access door to the roof open and close.
Vince stood awkwardly nearby for a long moment. When Stuart didn't say anything he sighed, and dropped onto the other end of the bench, leaning forward, elbows on his knees.
"It's stupid, I know it was stupid," he said. "I put off telling you cos I knew you'd give me shit over it too. It's not like I haven't been telling myself the same things all day."
"How are they anyway," Stuart asked flatly.
"Mark's okay. Peter... not so good. It's full blown. And he was never the picture of health to begin with."
"Maybe that's cos..." Stuart clenched the edge of the bench, digging his fingers in. "He could've had it for years."
"Suppose I should send him flowers."
"No, don't," Vince replied, "he's allergic."
"Yeah, I know."
"That's not funny," Vince laughed shortly, shaking his head.
Stuart got up and returned to the railing, leaning against it hard, feeling the metal ridge bite against his waist. The wind was picking up as the sun sank.
Vince moved to stand beside him. "Gorgeous view up here," he commented, his hands moving restlessly over the rail. "Of course."
"Feel that wind."
"It's getting a bit chilly, actually."
"Nice and fast," Stuart said. "It's like flying."
"Aren't you cold?"
"No." He stood back from the rail and smiled suddenly. "C'mere," he said, grabbing Vince's hand.
"Here. Up here." Stuart led Vince to the corner of the roof. The wind came up right in his face here, just perfect. He stood Vince in front of him and kicked the back of his shoe. "Up, up, up. Put your foot right up here--"
"Oh my god. You are kidding, right?"
"And your other foot here, and hang on a second." Stuart found his own footing on the bottom railing just behind Vince and braced himself against the vertical struts. "Here we go. Come on. Arms out--"
"Stuart, you hated that movie."
"If you don't let go," Stuart threatened into Vince's ear, "I'm gonna bite your fingers."
Vince sighed and released his death grip on the rail. "Do you see those tiny little screws holding this thing down in the concrete? That's all that's keeping us both from pitching right over the edge and down five stories, do you realise that?"
"Up like this," Stuart said, lacing his fingers through Vince's, their arms outstretched. "Here we go. Feel that wind? We're flying."
After a long moment standing like that, he felt Vince relax and lean into the flow of the air rushing past them.
Stuart closed his eyes and put everything out of his mind, just to feel this, give himself over to it, just for a second. Just a little while.
The slightest mist of rain began to fall. Through the refracting drizzle, the sunset was magnificent.
"Aren't you meant to be singing 'Come Josephine In My Flying Machine'?" Vince asked.
"No," Stuart said. "And I'm not gonna drown, either." He felt a smile curl up one side of his mouth. "I'll draw a picture of you in the altogether, though, if you like," he murmured, letting go of Vince's fingers to wrap his arms around his waist.
Vince chuckled, bringing his arms down, hands resting lightly over Stuart's. "What I want to know is, why do I have to be Kate Winslet?"
Cos you can't draw a straight line, Stuart meant to say, or Cos I'm the king of the world, or Cos I get all the worship and you get all the respect. But it came out as, "Cos you're going to live to be a hundred, as well."
Vince's hand tightened over his, and all in a rush Stuart felt a full-body shock of desire that didn't quite center in a hard-on, just hit him hard enough to make him grit his teeth and scowl into Vince's shoulder. It wasn't the thrill of sexual excitement, but something far more fierce and painful.
And sort of desperate and not really pleasant at all. If anything, he felt a bit sick with it.
It just made a perverse sort of sense that he'd suddenly want Vince so badly just now, at the one moment in his life when Vince was absolutely, no question, guaranteed to turn him down.
Sod it anyway. He squeezed Vince close and kissed his cheek lightly, and moved on to nuzzle at his ear.
Vince shifted forward a bit, fidgeting. "The rain's getting worse."
That was true. The mist was starting to condense into droplets that were falling faster all the time. At the last possible second, Stuart kept himself from making some atrocious come-on line about getting wet. "So?" he said instead, letting the word flow out in a hot breath against Vince's skin.
"So, you're not even wearing a jacket. And I asked you for a favor. There's a perfectly good roof over at the hospital, if that's why we're still hanging about here," Vince said.
"Visiting hours are probably already over," Stuart said against his neck.
"Nah," Vince said. "They go until nine." He dropped from his perch on the railing and out of Stuart's grasp, shoes scuffing on the cement, and turned around. He looked up at Stuart, still standing balanced on the rail. "C'mon," he said. "I did ask."
"Yeah," Stuart said, jumping down, smiling grimly. "You did."
"I'm not worried really," said Vince as they got into the lift. "I bet I test clean for AIDS, but then they'll tell me I've got cancer."
"You always think you've got cancer," Stuart said tiredly. "You've been saying that since we were fourteen."
"I bet I've had cancer since we were fourteen. The kind that's terribly slow and tricky to diagnose--"
"The kind that affects your brain," Stuart supplied.
"Could be," Vince answered without a trace of pique.
Then they were side by side in the Jeep, and everything felt more or less normal again.
"I'll drive you," Stuart said as he started it up, "but I'm not going in."
Because he couldn't trust himself not to break Peter's head against the wall. "Don't like hospitals," he answered brusquely.
"All right," Vince said.
"Actually, when we get to Hazel's, let's just switch off driving. You can drop me at Babylon and take the car. I'll get a cab home."
He could feel Vince glancing at him, wanting to say some word of caution, and having no ground at all to stand on. And despite everything, he had to grin darkly.
"Don't worry," he said, drawing the words out with all due malice. "I'll be careful."
Almost Never Chapter Index