He found the photograph in the bottom of a drawer, after Stephen's disappearance. In it Stephen was dressed in a dark black suit and Cutter in a traditional kilt. It was their version of a wedding, though that hadn't been as legal then as now; how things had changed.
Cutter rubbed a thumb across Stephen's face. They'd argued, that night. The night he found the photograph, the night Stephen disappeared. One of many. They’d been so full of love before but then, then Stephen's theories had grown more outlandish, creatures “misplaced in time” is how he'd phrased it and Cutter had finally flipped, shouting and saying things that he knew would hurt, hurling words like knives and grimly satisfied when they drew blood. He hadn't been so satisfied to watch Stephen's face crumple though, and especially not when Stephen had turned his back and almost ran out of the house. And he, too bloody stubborn for his own good, hadn’t gone after him.
That was the image that Cutter had imprinted on his mind, the first thing he thought of whenever he thought of Stephen; Stephen's back, hunched over and so obviously hurting, hair just long enough for Cutter to easily run his fingers through and not have Stephen run towards the barbers.
“So many wasted years,” he murmured to himself. There wasn't a day that went by where he didn’t think about Stephen, wonder what had happened. There was no trail, just a map with the Forest of Dean circled on it in red. Stephen hadn't let him in on his secrets, not after those first few attempts to get Cutter to listen were rebuffed so heartily. At the time Cutter had thought that Stephen could take the criticism, see it as an academic exercise, but Stephen was always more sensitive than he let on - he'd taken it as criticism of himself and Cutter hadn't seen it. For all their years together, he hadn't seen the most obvious signs.
He looked back down at the photograph. They should have got it framed, instead of the one they settled on, an arty one that one of Stephen's ex's had taken for them. They'd both professed to love it, but really it was a little weird, all shadowy curves that made Cutter vaguely uncomfortable whenever he chanced to look at it out of the corner of his eye. Why he kept it on display still, after Stephen...well, he could be a sentimental fool when he wanted to be. And he hated change.
He propped the photograph on his bedside table and then sat back on his bed, fully clothed and stared up at the ceiling. He'd kept it next to his bed ever since he'd found it. And now he had the real thing, even if he was in a secure cell back at the Home Office. And everything he thought he'd known about everything was for ever proved wrong.
* * * * * *
“Have you managed to talk to him yet?” Connor asked over breakfast. He'd done the Connor version of dressing up for a meeting – a waistcoat and shirt two shades away from eyeball searing and fingerless gloves. Cutter found it strangely endearing.
“Not allowed,” Cutter said.
“Since when has that ever stopped you?”
Cutter finished drinking his tea and didn't answer. Truth was he wasn't sure that he wanted to talk to Stephen, because he might find out that their life together had been a lie too. And if that were true, what was the point in anything?
“He deserves at least an hour,” Connor said, around a mouthful of toast, “and then you can punch him if you like.”
Cutter snorted. “Idiot,” he replied, fondly. Connor just beamed at him.
Cutter shook his head. Some days he really didn't know how he'd do without Connor. He'd gone from an annoying student with odd ideas about aliens and became Cutter's confidante and research assistant. The students loved him and the Dean most certainty didn't, which just made it all the better.
“He's travelled through time,” Connor said after a moment. “How cool is that?”
Cutter didn't answer for a long time. “Dangerous is what it was. Foolhardy. Selfish.”
“Maybe he couldn't come back,” Connor said. “Maybe this is his first time back?”
“Maybe he just didn't want to see me.”
Connor looked glumly into his mug. “Won't know until you ask him though, will you?” he finally pointed out. Cutter sighed. The boy might have a point.
“Fine. I'll talk to Stephen.”
* * * * *
Lester looked like he'd swallowed a sour gob-stopper days ago and still couldn’t get it to work free.
“You want to talk to your – husband?” he asked, hesitating only a fraction over the word. “The one who disappeared for years and didn't bother to tell you he was back?”
Cutter bristled but tried to keep his temper in check. “I just want answers.”
“Don't we all.” Lester looked up at the ceiling, as if asking for help. When none was forthcoming he nodded. “Very well.” He walked over to the door and opened it. “Miss Brown – take the Professor down to interrogation.”
Claudia stood up and straightened her skirt. “Are you sure that's a good idea?” She looked quizzically at Cutter.
“No,” Lester said, “I don't. Do it anyway.” He turned and went back into his office, leaving Cutter standing in the doorway, not entirely sure what had just happened.
Claudia shrugged. “Come on, then.” They went down the lifts to the basement and then walked along a long dark corridor in silence.
“Do you know what you’re going to say to him?” she asked eventually. They'd stopped in front of the cell where Stephen was kept, and Cutter's hands were shaking.
“I don't – I don't know.” Cutter turned away from the door and stared back along the corridor the way they had come. “I've been so angry.”
“Perhaps he deserves your anger?” Claudia suggested.
“I've mostly been angry at myself,” Cutter replied. “I had so many opportunities to listen to him, and every time I turned away from him. What does that say about me?”
“It says there's still hope, for the two of you.”
Cutter turned around and faced the door. “All right then, let me talk to him.”
* * * * * *
Stephen was sitting in a chair, looking completely bored, and doodling with a pen on a pad he had been given. It looked like pictures of dinosaurs, with coordinates scribbled around them. He barely looked up as Claudia and Cutter entered, until he registered that it was Cutter and not some Home Office lackey.
They looked at each other in silence for several moments, Stephen biting his lower lip, looking like he wanted to say something but forcing himself not to. Cutter finally moved to sit down opposite him and Claudia slipped back out of the room. Their conversation was being recorded, but she could at least give them a little semblance of privacy.
“Did you go?” Cutter asked.
Stephen blinked and shook his head. “I don't - “
“Did you go to your funeral?” He snorted. “Well, I say funeral, can't have one of those without a body, can you?”
“Don't “Nick” me, Stephen. You gave up that right when you disappeared.”
Stephen sighed, looking completely unsurprised. Cutter silently cursed at himself – he'd never get any answers like this.
“I didn't, as it happens. I didn't make it back till over two years had passed for you.”
Cutter looked at Stephen, almost willing it to be true. Before he would have said that Stephen was absolutely telling him the truth, but now he wasn't so sure. Stephen sighed again, as if sensing Cutter's mistrust.
“Cutter, look, I know this is – weird. When I went through the anomaly -”
“That's what you call them?”
Stephen nodded. “That's what they're called. I only went through to have a look, to prove to you that my theories weren't crack brained, like you said. I took my camera and some supplies and I went through.” He stopped and looked off into the distance, apparently lost in memories. “It was amazing, Nick, you have no idea. To see creatures that were long extinct walking on the Earth again...But I wasn’t as good at hiding my tracks in those days, and something started hunting me. Despite all my efforts I got further and further away from the anomaly and then, when I eventually lost my tail, I didn’t know where I was. I tried to find my way back, but I never found the anomaly. Even now I don't know if it was just because I got so turned around I didn't know up from down or because the anomaly had closed. Either way, I was trapped.”
Cutter had been leaning forward throughout Stephen's story. It all rang so horrifyingly true that Cutter was mesmerised despite himself. What if he had misjudged Stephen's absence all these years?
“You're telling the truth, aren't you?”
“Of course I am,” Stephen replied. He reached over the table as if to touch Cutter's hand and then withdrew it. “I tried to make it back to you. But – I suppose survival took over. I found other anomalies, travelled back in time, forward too once, though I'm not keen to attempt that again.”
“But you did come back to your real time, you said so.”
Stephen nodded. “And I went to look for you.” He stared away at the mirror where the others were no doubt watching them, making notes about every little detail. “But no matter how many times I thought I could start the conversation, how many things I'd seen, I had no proof, not really. And I was scared.”
“Scared that I wouldn’t believe you?”
“Scared that you would.”
Cutter blinked. “Stephen?”
“I was scared that you’d believe me and want to come through the anomalies too. That you couldn't help yourself. And you'd put yourself in danger and it would be my fault.” He did reach out and take Cutter's hand then, carefully brushing his fingers against the back of Cutter's hand and wrist. “You have to understand, Nick, these anomalies are beautiful and amazing, and they have to be stopped. We have to find a way to stop them.”
Cutter slowly took his hand away and Stephen’s face became unreadable.
“I need to talk to Lester.”
* * * * * *
Lester's office wasn't as impressive as Cutter had imagined it was going to be, stuck in the corner of the Home Office with a staff that seemed absurdly young. Not that Cutter could talk, as he eyed Connor, Abby and Claudia. All of them brought together by circumstances beyond anyone's control. He still couldn’t believe that he'd allowed Connor to talk him into travelling to the Forest of Dean in the first place. If he hadn't this whole chain reaction would never have been sparked off.
And he'd never have found out what had happened to Stephen.
“Professor Cutter, are you even listening to me?”
Cutter startled and looked over to where Lester was addressing him. “Of course I'm listening.”
The look Lester gave him in response to this could have curdled milk. “Your – Stephen – do you think he's telling the truth? Are the anomalies dangerous?”
Cutter huffed a laugh of disbelief. “Are they dangerous? Some force we don't understand has ripped the fabric of space and time to shreds and we have absolutely no idea how to stop it from happening again. I'd say dangerous isn't the word.”
Lester rolled his eyes. “A simple yes, would have sufficed.” He looked over at the others and his expression became ever more despondent. “Tempted as I am to bring in a full scale army battalion, the Prime Minister, in his infinite wisdom, would rather this operation remain as off the books as possible. You will have a small budget and any expenditures must be approved through me. Miss Brown, you're in charge.”
Claudia's eyes widened a fraction. “Surely Professor Cutter - “
“Professor Cutter is lucky I'm allowing him to have anything to do with this project,” Lester interrupted. “As are Sid and Nancy.” He waved in Abby and Connor's direction. Both of them looked a little shell-shocked. “Captain Ryan and his team have agreed to stay on for your protection. You are to study the anomalies, and find a way to stop them.”
“And stop any dinosaurs that come through them?” Claudia asked.
“Yes, yes, that too.” He waved a hand in dismissal, as if he had already mentally moved on to his next problem.
Claudia looked uncertainly around the room a moment, before ushering the others out.
“What about Stephen?" Cutter asked, before Claudia had fully closed the door behind them all.
Lester looked up, almost sympathetic. “He'll stay here. Unless you have somewhere else for him to go?”
Cutter didn't reply.
* * * * * *
“I could stay at the Home Office. It was certainly more comfortable than where I've been sleeping lately. I don't have to stay here.”
“It's your home, too,” Cutter replied and headed off to the kitchen.
He really wasn’t sure what had possessed him to invite Stephen back to his house. Stephen would have been safe at the Home Office. Well-treated. They weren't going to torture him or threaten him. He'd already proved he was willing to work with them – submitting without complaint to all sorts of medical and psychological tests and answering each of their questions as politely and as fully as he seemed able.
Cutter absently went about making the tea, aware that Stephen hadn't moved away from the front door, nor put his bag down. Claudia had gone out and got him a few supplies – toothbrush and toothpaste, a few sets of shirts and underwear - after Cutter had told her that most of Stephen's things had long been disposed of, so he didn't have much to carry. He never did – Stephen's motto had always been to travel light, even when they were hiking through the Amazon.
“Tea?” Cutter called out, above the sound of the kettle boiling. He turned around and waited and finally Stephen put his bag down and followed him into the kitchen.
“Tea would be great. The Home Office don't seem to have mastered the art.”
“I suppose you haven't had much of it where you've been, either?” Cutter asked.
Stephen hesitated a moment before sitting down at the kitchen table and watching Cutter. Cutter was surprised, as he reached inside the fridge for the milk, that he now recognised that expression on Stephen's face, the one that had been nagging at him all day. Stephen was watching him as if tracking a wounded animal.
The idea startled him so much that he stepped backwards and hit his head on the fridge door as he tried to turn around too quickly.
“Are you all right? Stephen asked, jumping up.
“I'm fine,” Cutter replied. He tried to rub at his head and not drop the milk jug until Stephen took it out of his hand.
“Let me look,” Stephen suggested but Cutter stepped away from him. “Or not.”
“You can't expect me to trust you.”
There was a ghost of a smile on Stephen’s face. “Yes, I can.” He sat back down at the kitchen table. “There was a time you would have trusted me no matter what.”
“Aye,” Cutter replied. “And that time has long passed.”
* * * * * *
It was Stephen who had been the tracker, the environmentalist, the one trusted to get him out of scrapes in jungle and academia alike. But even so, Cutter had picked up a thing or two. And although the walls of his house were thick, he could still sense that Stephen was lying awake in the spare bedroom. No doubt staring up at the ceiling. Just as Cutter was.
There'd been no question of sharing a bed again. Truth was Cutter had got used to spending his nights alone. There had been a chance once, maybe twice, when he could have taken someone to his bed, could have made another life for himself. But the sad thing was that since he had realised that a wife and kids was never going to make him happy, it had only ever been Stephen.
Stephen who could be brilliant and infuriating. Who made him question his own beliefs like no one ever did. Who could reign him in when he let his mouth get ahead of his sense of self-preservation. Who could make him come so hard he saw stars. Who was best friend and confidante and confessor all in one. It had always been and would always be, Stephen.
Now he just had to decide whether he could live with that.
* * * * *
Breakfast was as awkward as Cutter had feared it would be. This had clearly been a mistake and he would talk to Lester, suggest Stephen stayed at the Home Office from now on.
“I spoke to Claudia,” Stephen said, breaking into Cutter's thoughts. They were the first words he'd said other than good morning. “They're arranging for me to stay in a safe house. Until, well, until.” He shrugged.
Cutter nodded and when he looked up he realised that Stephen had tears in his eyes.
“It really is over, isn't it?” he asked, but stood up and walked out before Cutter could say anything in reply.
* * * *
It wasn't until Stephen risked his life to save Connor's – allowing a giant bug to get close enough for him to steal its venom – that Cutter began to think of Stephen without his heart constricting. It was a foolhardy thing to do, but it was just the kind of bravely idiotic move Cutter had grown to love about Stephen. Stephen had never really cared about many people, but those he did care about he cared for deeply, and somehow their motley crew – Connor, Abby, Claudia and Ryan – were now included in Stephen's circle of friends.
“Thank you,” Cutter said.
Stephen looked up from where he'd been reading next to Connor's bedside. “I didn't hear you come in.”
Cutter raised an eyebrow. “That's not like you. Must be a gripping read.”
Stephen smiled softly and held up the book for Cutter to get a better look. The Importance of the Herbivore by Professor Nick Cutter.
“Just catching up on what I've missed.”
Cutter nodded, unsure of how to react. “The publisher picked the title,” he said after a moment. He sat down on the other chair by Connor's bed, feeling strangely skittish.
Stephen's smile widened. “I had a feeling.”
“Have the doctor's said anything – about Connor?”
Stephen put down his book and concentrated on Cutter. “They said he's definitely improving. Won't be long before he's awake, now.”
“Good.” The silence between them stretched on.
Stephen's fingers twitched, as if wanting to start reading again but not wanting to appear rude. Cutter shifted in his seat, wondering if he should leave.
Connor's snuffled whine made that decision for the both of them.
“I'll get a nurse,” Stephen said, slipping past Cutter, their bodies brushing against each for the first time since Stephen’s return. Cutter found himself flushing, but Stephen's face was inscrutable. He could hide his emotions when he needed to, something Cutter had never been any good at.
“What hit me?” Connor mumbled.
“A giant bug,” Cutter replied, “just like one of your fridge magnets.”
* * * * * *
When the creature barrelled for him, Stephen froze. Cutter had never seen that before, that rabbit in the headlights look, not from Stephen. If Ryan hadn't been right there, throwing Stephen to the ground, there's no telling what might have happened.
He found himself running to Stephen and pulling him into a hug before he'd really thought about the consequences. Stephen stiffened and then slowly returned the hug, breathing hard.
“What the hell was that?” Claudia asked, and by her tone it wasn't just the creature she was talking about. Stephen had been so calmly competent about the anomalies, tracking, explaining, sharing his knowledge, that they had all just taken it for granted that he would calmly accept whatever was thrown at him. Somewhere in all of that, they had forgotten that Stephen was human too.
“Right now I don't care what it was,” Ryan said, dusting himself down. “What concerns me is we're it's prey. Get in the cars, we need to fall back to a secure position. Now!”
They all did as he said. It had taken a little getting used to, but they had all become comfortable with following Captain Ryan's orders; he only had their safety at heart, and his quick thinking had saved all of their lives more times than they cared to admit.
They regrouped in Abby's office at the zoo. Well, her missing boss's office, anyway.
“So, that thing have a name?” Ryan asked Stephen.
“I don't know. I mean -” His voice shook a little and he leaned against Cutter. “I just call it a future predator.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Connor said.
“It isn't,” Stephen said. He took a deep breath and Cutter slowly rubbed his back. “I told you, that I went to the future once? Well, those things have taken over.”
“Can they be killed?” Ryan asked.
“Same as anything, bullet to the brain will do it,” Stephen replied.
“Right,” Ryan said. “You lot stay here. We'll deal with this.” He motioned for two of his men to stand guard and then headed out.
“I could help...” Stephen started to say but Ryan shook his head, not unkindly, before shutting the door.
Cutter snaked his arm around Stephen's waist and leaned his head against Stephen's. “I can't lose you again.”
“I'm sorry.” Stephen turned around so they were face to face. “So sorry.”
Cutter pressed a kiss to Stephen's forehead.
“I'll go rustle up some tea,” Claudia said, pulling Abby and Connor with her as she left.
Stephen pulled back a little and shared a smile with Cutter. “How did this become our life?”
Cutter shrugged, his fingers moving underneath Stephen's shirt, rubbing gently against his skin. “It's not a bad life though, is it?”
Stephen swallowed hard. “It never was.”
“You mean that?”
“It was never -” Stephen stepped away and Cutter's hands fell to his sides. “It was never about not wanting to be with you. Never. I just, I just thought I needed something else, something more, some truth I thought I could find. But all I really wanted was for you to tell me you believed me, and have it be true.”
Cutter closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I can't change what happened. We both made mistakes. We both said things that we didn’t mean.” He opened his eyes. “Well, I certainly did.”
“My mum always said, after she and Dad had had one of their epic rows, that you only aim the lowest blows at the ones you love the most. I guess we proved that tenfold.”
“Your parents are divorced,” Cutter said, fighting a grin despite himself.
“I didn’t say it was a perfect analogy,” Stephen replied. He smiled, then started to laugh. Cutter joined him.
“Oh, Stephen. What am I going to do with you?”
“Just promise me you’ll be careful,” Cutter said.
Stephen looked at him, confused. “What -”
“When you go after Ryan. Make sure you keep yourself safe.”
“I'm not -” Stephen paused and then nodded and Cutter knew he had been right. That nervous energy he'd noted as Stephen's body was pressed close to his was unmistakable. Stephen didn't like sitting around if there was a chance that he could help, and in their present predicament Ryan and his team could certainly do with Stephen's skills.
“I'll be careful,” Stephen promised, then pressed a chaste kiss to Cutter's lips, before heading out the way Ryan and his men had left.
* * * * * **
“He'll live, just. You were all bloody lucky.”
Cutter nodded but wasn't really listening to Lester's rant. It was the same one he'd given them yesterday, only now he was using less swear words. All Cutter was really interested in was the man lying unconscious in the next room.
“Does he have any family?” Claudia asked, once it became clear that Lester had run out of steam.
Cutter felt bad that he didn’t know. That he hadn't asked.
Stephen came up behind him, and gently squeezed his arm. “I think Ryan mentioned a brother, once? Must be in his records.” He looked pointedly at Lester who sighed and went off to do whatever it was he did when he wasn't hassling them.
“It could have been you,” Cutter said, a thought that he could no longer keep inside.
“But it wasn't,” Stephen said firmly. “Ryan saved my life.”
Cutter nodded but couldn't quite turn to face Stephen, not just yet. Stephen seemed to understand and moved away to sit with Claudia who was busy perusing that morning's paper. The story they'd gone with was a military exercise gone wrong. No one seemed to be questioning it, just making noises in Parliament about the cost of budget cuts on the nation's forces.
After a few minutes Cutter sat down next to Stephen and they waited, together.
* * * * * *
The ARC wasn't the Home Office, but they decided they could make it work. With better resources, more military support, Captain Ryan given a freer reign to hire and fire, more knowledge of the anomalies and how they worked, they could do anything they put their minds to. They could do what Stephen had always wanted, stop the anomalies from spewing forth their chaos.
That was the idea, at least.
The reality was that people still died, and dinosaurs did what they'd always done – hunted, fed, survived. They made progress, and they made mistakes. They argued and they laughed and they did the best they could, somehow. A new reality for this new age where time was more tangible than it had ever been.
Stephen moved back into their house, and it became a home again. They fought and argued still, that would never change. But they talked more too and eventually that love that had never really died was rekindled. They got married, officially this time. They made a life, or something very like it.
They protected others from the nightmares they were plagued with.
They made it work.