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Like A Noise In Dreams

Chapter Text

 

 

It’s late when the phone goes, after normal dinnertime at any rate. Stu isn’t home yet, but it’s not unusual for him to conduct meetings with wealthy clients after work-hours. The firm is keen to win their approval and encourages its attorneys to bend over backwards for them.

 

Stuart’s mother isn’t the world's biggest Tom Irwin fan (the owner of that award is out having dinner all expenses paid with some Egyptian oil magnate), but they get on alright these days, so he’s surprised when she refuses to leave a message with him, simply asking him to get Stu to call her back when he gets in, and hangs up without any attempt at small talk. He would think he’s got on her bad side, except he hasn’t spoken to the woman in weeks. He isn’t stupid, of course, he realises that there is probably some cause for concern and wishes he thought to ask if Stu’s dad, Phil is ok. Tom likes Phil. He is always amazed at how somebody so calm and laid back could produce Stuart. On the other hand, she didn’t sound upset, at least not ‘dead husband upset’, so he tries not to worry and pours out a glass of wine and settles in front of the telly while he awaits his partner’s return.

 

The slamming of the front door startles him awake (he will deny falling asleep in front of the telly – something Stu insists he does every night). He quickly settles his glasses properly and tries to look alive.

 

“Evening” Stu greets him. “Anything on? Or have you no idea?”

 

“I have it’s this...” He squints at...Sarah Beanie? “house... thing? Fine, I was watching The World at War, it changed.”

 

Stu chuckles and kisses him. “Shame I missed it, but it looks like I’m not the only one. Good day?”

 

“Nothing strenuous, meetings mostly. You?”

 

“Yeah. Great.” Stu’s drops onto the sofa, his voice dripping sarcasm “seven hours of paperwork concluded by an evening of chatting up this morbidly boring fat bastard. Took about two hours longer than it should because he tried to eat half the restaurant. He better be paying me a fucking whack. I mean me, personally, as a tip.”

 

Stretching, Tom smiles through a yawn. “Stop grumbling, you got a free dinner out of it, didn’t you? Oh, by the way, your mum rang, she says to phone her back, it sounds urgent.”

 

“Everything alright?”

 

Tom shrugs. “She didn’t say anything to me, just wanted you to call.”

 

Stu’s face contracts with concern and he moves to the phone. Tom goes and puts the kettle on, starting his normal bedtime routine with a cup of tea. The indistinct rumble of Stu’s voice from the next room is relaxing company as he makes the tea, so a sudden silence strikes him like a wrong note. Disconcerted, he makes his way back to the living room just in time to hear Stu ask: “When’s the funeral?”

 

Tom watches him nod and rub a hand over his face before wishing his mum a muted goodbye and hanging up.

 

“Is everything ok?” The idiocy of the question strikes him almost before it's left his mouth. Tom could kick himself, but before he’s even finished berating himself Stu is hurrying down the stairs to the front door.

 

“Stu? What’s happened?”

 

The slamming of the door is the only response and he dithers at the top of the stairs for long minutes, wondering if he should go after him. Instead, he goes to the window facing the street to look for him, but Stuart is long gone.

 

Without knowing which direction he took, following him has ceased to be an option. That is assuming that Tom’s leg would allow him to catch up, and assuming Stu would even accept his company – not a given, considering.

 

Tom puffs out an impatient breath and considers his options. he can’t just go to bed, as if somebody close to Stu hadn’t obviously died and his partner gone missing, nor can he stand at the window all night like some Chekov widow. On instinct, he returns to the hallway and picks up the phone to call Mrs Dakin back but his finger freezes over the numbers as it occurs to him that if it is Stu’s dad that’s died, or even some other relative of hers, it would be something of an imposition to phone up asking for details.

 

He gnaws on his lip while he reconsiders, presses the hook mechanism and redials Posner and Scripps’ home number. He only means to ask if David would please drop him a message if Stu shows up at theirs (something he is in the habit of doing when he storms out of the house).

 

It’s Scripps who answers. It's a testament to how shaken up Tom is that he hadn't considered this possibility, and he's momentarily stuck for something to say.

 

“You heard then?” Scripps asks without a greeting.

 

“Scripps, er…Sorry?”

 

“Oh, it’s you. I said you heard? About Jimmy.”

 

“Um, no I… Lockwood?”

 

“That’s the one.”

 

“Shit. I mean - is he ok?”

 

“Sorry, I thought you knew. He died last week. My mum phoned earlier, I’m surprised Stu's mother hasn’t called yet, the two of them used to be close.”

 

“…No, she has” He pauses, feeling completely off-kilter. “he didn’t tell me anything though, just walked out of the house. How... did it happen?”

 

Scripps grunts. “He got shot. Accident, apparently, friendly fire, whatever it is they call it these days.”

 

“Fuck.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Thanks, we weren’t close, but he and Stu...“

 

“Yeah. I wondered if he shows up at yours, would you ask David to call me, please?” He chews at a jagged edge of his thumbnail. “I’m… worried.” He admits, vaguely ashamed of the admission.

 

“No problem. Likewise, let us know if he turns up at home.”

 

“I will. thanks, Scripps.”

 

“Fuck.” He sighs again, pacing around the living room for something to do.

 

He knows Stu and Lockwood were close when they were kids. He doesn’t know him well himself – didn’t know him - fuck. Lockwood being largely overseas in Germany or the Middle East since graduating they didn’t meet much, but Tom has met him in the capacity of Stuart’s boyfriend a handful of times since school.

 

In the end, he gets to work on alphabetizing his bookcase for something to do. The mishmash of different sizes looks horrendous, he’ll have to put it back later but he keeps working at it. The wait seems interminable.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It can’t be much more than an hour after Stu ran out when the door slams downstairs, signalling his return, and he’s barely through the Cs but it feels to Tom as though a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Before he’s even thought about it his feet have carried him to the top of the stairs.

 

Stu spares a glance towards him before ducking his head.

 

“Alright?” He mutters by way of greeting.

 

And Tom thinks for a moment that Stu will walk straight past him like he’s a piece of furniture, but when Stu gets to the landing he stops and turns weary eyes on him.

 

“Fuck me?”

 

It’s so soft Tom is sure he’s misheard until Stu moves like lightning, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and bringing his face so close that Tom can smell the vintage brandy from the long-forgotten working dinner on his breath.

 

“Fuck me.” He growls.

 

His kiss is hard, the edge of a tooth grazing Tom’s lip, but Stuart’s lips remain still; not so much a kiss as a rough press of mouths.

 

Almost unconsciously, Tom slides his arms around Stu’s frame. He is trembling from head to toe, hips grinding brutally into Tom’s, but the usual telltale bulge of interest is absent.

 

Gently, Tom’s hands retreat from their position splayed against his lover’s back until he can take him by the shoulders and pry him away.

 

“You don’t want this.”

 

“You do though.” Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, Stu glances down pointedly, before pressing bodily against him again.

 

“Fuck me. Hard. As hard as you like, don’t hold back. I’m begging you.”

 

Hating himself for the visceral reaction Stu’s words spark in his gut, he shakes his head. Any hope of getting his breathing back under control is futile, but he tries to appear as calm as he can.

 

“We don’t do that.”

 

Stu unbuckles his belt and goes to work undoing his fly.

 

“What?”

 

Tom feels sick.

 

“Listen” Taking hold of Stu’s shoulders again, he holds him at arm’s length. “We do something - it’s because we love each other, we trust each other. We don’t do it because you want to punish yourself for – I don’t even know what.”

 

It’s a shock when Stu grabs him by the shirt again and shoves him, hard, and Tom only just catches himself before he overbalances.

 

“I’m telling you I want it. I need to feel something!”

 

It’s even more of a shock, if that’s possible, when Tom shoves him back.

 

“I said no!”

 

Before he even knows what he’s done Tom is blinking in surprise at Stu who is suddenly several feet away, bracing himself against the hall table, which he only just avoided crashing into.

 

The tension in Tom snaps like a rubber band. Their harsh breaths are suddenly loud in the deep silence of the house. He draws a breath to beg for forgiveness but before he can get the words out Stu’s face crumples. He’s in Tom’s arms in half a second.

 

“It’s ok.” Tom is whispering when his brain catches up with events.

 

Great guttural sobs break against his chest while the sight of Stuart’s strong shoulders shaking with emotion threatens to fracture something inside him too.

 

“It’s ok.” He says over again against the soft dark hair.

 

Gradually the sobs quieten down and the shaking subsides. The quiet presses in on them as Stuart catches his breath wetly against his shoulder.

 

Afraid to make even the smallest movement, his hand eventually, cautiously makes its way to the base of Stu’s skull, stroking a soothing pattern with his thumb.

 

Stu’s face is flushed when he lifts his head, probably more from embarrassment than the tears because he won’t meet Tom’s eye. He wipes his wet cheeks on his sleeve and mumbles something Tom can’t quite catch.

 

“Hey.” Tom puts a hand on his shoulder and tries to look reassuring.

 

“Sorry.’ Stu croaks.

 

Definitely embarrassed.

 

“No need. I’m sorry, about Lockwood.” He fastens his trousers hastily, feeling oddly disrespectful at Lockwood’s name on his lips.

 

Stu nods.

 

“God, your jumper.” He almost manages a laugh. “Sorry, it’s gross.”

 

“It’s fine, it doesn’t matter. Come inside.”

 

Stu follows him meekly into the living room where Tom pours them both a drink and sits him down.

 

“Did you want to talk about it?” He asks after a few moments of tense silence.

 

Stu shakes his head and brings his hand up to rub at his forehead.

 

“I feel like I’m in a dream, you know? Need to snap out of it.”

 

Tom’s hand twitches against his thigh in an aborted gesture of comfort. “We could still do it if you wanted. The other way, though, that’s my condition. If it’s what you need.”

 

Stu still doesn’t look up. Just shakes his head again.

 

“Nah, in the mood I’m in I’d probably end up hurting you.”

 

“It’s ok. Like I say: if that’s what you need.”

 

Stu huffs a humourless laugh.

 

“Don’t be stupid! That’s not what I want.”

 

He clicks his tongue. “Yeah, funny how that works.” He doesn’t mean to tease but he’s slipped into his usual sarcasm before he realises it.

 

They must be broken together, because Stu manages a small but genuine laugh this time.

 

“Dick.”

 

He bumps Tom with his shoulder and gives a wet sniff.

 

“Tell me about him?”

 

“Jimmy?”

 

“Yeah, why not?”

 

“You knew him.”

 

“Not well. Not like you.”

 

“He was just Jimmy, you know? Up for anything, always there for you, always a laugh. I meant to call him, did you know that? Last week I thought I haven’t spoken to Jimmy in months. I nearly put it in my fucking planner because I was busy this week with that boring bastard. If I’d just fucking done it.”

 

Tom doesn’t say I’m sure he knew or it’s the thought that counts or any of that trite shit – avoids the clichés he can’t stand. For a moment he wishes that he could just guiltlessly trot them all out, even though personally he despises it and knows Stu wouldn’t appreciate it – but just sat there saying nothing, he feels so pathetically helpless.

 

“He taught me how to kiss, did you know that?”

 

“What?” Tom tries not to giggle, he really does.

 

“When we were eleven. The girls loved him, he was always a step ahead in everything… and I was desperate to catch up.”

 

“Do you mean the two of you spent – what – an afternoon snogging?” Tom’s eyebrows nearly vanish under his fringe.

 

“Something like that. Then we went down the park and played footie. He just didn’t care what anyone thought, you know? That was what was amazing about him.”

 

“So I have him to thank for your technique, huh?”

 

Stu smiles. “Not really, he was rubbish. Used his tongue like a propeller.”

 

“Yeah, well like I said your technique.”

 

That coaxes another unattractive wet snort of laughter from Stu and earns him a playful shove.

 

“Fuck!” Stu growls, as reality hits him again. He takes a gulp of whiskey and rubs his forehead. 

 

“He was wasted on the fucking army. Could have been anything.”

 

Tom nods agreement, remembers Lockwood as incredibly bright and quick to learn, even by the standards of that class.

 

“He only joined to help pay for uni. Because his fucking useless dad’s been out of work since the seventies and his mum couldn’t pay for it. I know he liked it and he didn’t have to stick with it” He argues, as if Tom had offered these points as a counter-argument, rather than simply sitting in terrified silence. “But he never would have thought to join up otherwise. I told him he’d make a mint in finance or law - that he was at a mug’s game. In it for the adventure, he told me, liked the discipline, all that shit.”

 

Tears roll down Stu’s cheeks as he speaks and he pauses every few sentences to angrily brush them away.

 

Tom aches to hold him again, but sits statue still, afraid that if he moves or speaks he’ll stop the flow of words that Stuart desperately needs to get off his chest.

 

“They didn’t care about any of that though, why should they? They only need someone who’ll do what they’re told: a disposable body. Doesn’t matter if they’re bright or funny or kind or anything. Just someone to stand in front of a gun. It wasn’t even one of the other side – it’s not even a fucking war! Just some twat who can’t fucking aim!”

 

The anger rolls off Stu in waves.

 

“Would you like to hit something?”

 

“Yeah, I’d like to hit the fucker who shot him.”

 

“Other than that.”

 

Stu lies back, shaking his head, the tears dripping onto his white starched collar.

 

“No, I’m past that. It’s just shit.” He takes a deep breath, Blows it out again. “You know how people say to workaholics ‘You’ll end up killing yourself for people that will replace you tomorrow’? That’s exactly what Jimmy did. I want to punch him right in his stupid dead face for being such an idiot. He only had to do five fucking years! He could have left ages ago and we could be meeting in the pub right now instead of talking about his fucking funeral!”

 

He huffs a sigh of irritation. “Stop sitting there like a rabbit in the headlights. I’m not going to fucking explode!”

 

Tom forces his voice to stay calm and even. “What do you want me to say?”

 

“I don’t know. Just leave me alone for a bit would you?”

 

Nodding, Tom leaves the room without a word and retreats to his study, telling himself that the feeling like he’s been punched in the stomach is selfish and unhelpful. It doesn’t work.

 

He casts around the papers on his desk for something to do and comes up short, turns on the computer only to stare blankly at it for a few minutes before he remembers his phone call to Scripps.

 

This time it’s David who answers, which is the first time anything’s gone his way since he got in from work.

 

“How is he taking it?” David asks, once he’s been informed of Stuart’s safe return.

 

“He’s bouncing between the grief stages pretty rapidly. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Wants to be left alone right now.”

 

“That’s all you can do then.”

 

“Yeah.” Tom agrees miserably.

 

“At least you know he’s not been eaten by wolves in Richmond Park.”

 

“Or got into a pub fight,” Tom mutters.

“I think the wolves are more likely, I can’t see Dakin willingly doing anything that might mess up his hair.” He breaks off to yawn loudly. “Anyway, I’m going to say goodnight.”

 

Tom glances over at the time and almost does a double-take.

 

“I had no idea it was so late. I’m sorry.”

 

“No need. I will sleep soundly in the knowledge that we won’t be invaded by Dakins any time soon.”

 

Tom wishes him goodnight and hangs up, the nagging guilt at waking his friend easily offset by how much the brief chat has lifted his spirits.

 

He’s just contemplating making up the spare bed because he has work in the morning and isn’t sure whether Stu’s instruction to leave him alone means that his presence in their room will be unwelcome, when there’s a soft tap on the door and Stu pops his head around the frame.

 

“Hi.”

 

Stu doesn’t respond, but stands just inside the door, swollen eyes fixed somewhere around Tom’s shoulder. Belatedly, he realises that he’s still wearing his snot stained jumper.

 

“I was thinking of going to bed.”

 

“Will you come to the funeral?” Stu asks, talking over him.

 

“Of course, if you want me to.”

 

Stu nods, still not meeting his eyes.

 

“I’m gonna take the day off tomorrow, phone Tony, see if he wants to arrange anything. He’s his best mate - was.”

 

To the best of Tom’s knowledge, Stu has never taken a day off work before.

 

“Do you want me to stay with you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Can I get you anything?”

 

“No!” He snaps.

 

Tom tries not to let the hurt show on his face, not that it matters since Stu is still staring at his damp v-neck. He dredges his mind for the correct way to ask a tetchily grieving person to move out of the way of the door and comes up short.

 

Instead, afraid of seeming insensitive, he hovers next to his desk, taking in Stu’s lost expression and puffy eyes while trying not to look like he’s staring.

 

Eventually, Stu’s face softens with something like regret.

 

“Sorry, I’m no good to be around right now. You go to bed.”

 

Tom fakes a smile and hurries out of the room, as calmly as he can. Stu’s hand catches his as he passes.

 

“I love you.”

 

The words catch him by surprise, it’s not that he doesn’t know it, but for Stu to say it unprompted is extremely rare. It’s not that he feels unloved, but sometimes he needs to hear it, and when he does ask to hear it aloud the experience is often accompanied (not to mention somewhat spoiled) by Stuart grumbling about how insecure Tom is, and it’s been the subject of a few fights in the past.

 

Tom bites back the urge to point any of this out and, instead, plants a reassuring kiss on his forehead. It’s more than likely just Stu realising how much of a shit he’s being.

 

“Goodnight.”

 

“Hey” Stu catches at his sleeve. “You have a go at me.”

 

Tom sighs, desperately wishing he could make a point about it without ending up qualifying for the dickhead of the year award.

 

“I love you too.”

 

He doesn’t sleep well, tossing and turning for hours before he manages to drift off. Even so, he has no memory of Stu coming to bed.

 

When the sun comes up in the morning he wakes to soft, familiar snores. Beside him, black hair peeks out of the top of the duvet in all directions. Tom sags with relief. If he had more faith in his own luck he would think that the events of yesterday were a bad dream. Shame he doesn’t.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The funeral itself is a typically grim affair. Flowers from his old school friends surround the flag-draped coffin, swamped by the many others from friends Lockwood picked up throughout his short life.

 

Tom doesn't need to be told which lady is his poor mother, even if it weren’t for the strong family resemblance her grief marks her out. She sits in the front pew of the church for most of the service, folded over her handkerchief, silenced by the force of her tears. She is flanked by three men Tom guesses are his brothers, they don’t look as much like her as he did, though.

 

All of the old class are there, all looking so different from how he remembers. He wonders how he must look to them. Old and crippled, no doubt.

 

Timms, who smells strongly of drink when he passes, does a poetry reading, which, astonishingly, he carries off beautifully. Tom is cynical at funerals, in his experience most of the things people say about the deceased are exaggerations at best, but even he wells up a bit.

 

Stu doesn’t cry at all, just looks solemnly towards the front. All of his grief seemingly dealt with when he got the news.

 

Glancing around, Tom remembers the last service they were all at, in a darkened school hall rather than a church: Hector’s memorial. Funny, by rights the next one should have been his - that is assuming Dorothy Lintott’s family wouldn’t get in touch with her ex-pupils - and after all, he tells himself, why should they?

 

As the vicar drones on about suffering, Tom finds himself wondering if she’s even still alive, he recalls that she was retiring ten years ago. Actually, that only makes her his mother’s age, so she’s unlikely to be dead yet, she was wise enough that she seemed so much older. Now he’s started thinking back, the memories flow back easily. He remembers starting at Cutler's and meeting her for the first time, and wishing his mother were more like her. He can admit it now, he had leaned on her like a little lost lamb when he started, and not just for help with work.

 

A further discreet glance about the cold chapel reveals her sitting stiffly in the far corner. A smile creeps across his face at the sight of her. She looks just the same. He should have realised she wouldn’t miss this.

 

Stu elbows him in the ribs and he looks to the front again.

 

 

 

The flat that makes up the Lockwood family home is too small for the wake so it’s down the local. It’s a subdued affair with his army mates on one side of the bar, family on another and his old school friends trying to drink themselves to death, unnoticed in a quiet corner.

 

Not wanting to intrude on anyone’s grief and not knowing most of the people there, Tom spends most of the wake chatting to Stu’s parents, which is fine up until Mrs Dakin asks whether Tom knew Jimmy at all and he reminds her that he used to teach him.

 

“Of course you did.” She says, unsuccessfully hiding her widened eyes by taking a sip of her watered-down vodka tonic.

 

After that, the atmosphere becomes a little awkward. They sip their drinks silently for a while.

 

“Stuart knew him well, of course, and we did when he was little. They were great friends, I expect he’s told you.”

 

Tom nods.

 

“Of course, in those days we were both busy working a lot with the business, so we didn’t know him as well as we’d like, but Margaret, his mother, used to mind Stuart sometimes so we know her well.”

 

Tom bites back a smirk at how, even in these awful circumstances, she finds a way to mention ‘the business’, their business, the reason why they’re richer than everyone else here, with the possible exception of their only child. Normally when they meet Stuart's family Tom plays a private game of guessing how many times it can be shoehorned into the conversation. Today though, it just strikes him as tasteless. She probably doesn't mean it, though.

 

“Such a shock.” She continues.

 

He glances over at the group of friends, the seven of them looking so incomplete. Even worse is how calm and sombre they all are. Other than their exam Tom doesn’t remember seeing them so collectively humourless. Even when Hector died, there was chatter.

 

“It’s horrible.” He agrees.

 

“How is Stuart taking it?” Asks Phil.

 

“Oh, you know Stu.” Tom hedges, thinking that were their positions reversed he would want anything shared with his partner to be kept strictly private.

 

“I wish the pair of you had stayed with us. You must tell him you can stay tonight if you aren’t going straight back.”

 

“Thank you, Mrs Dakin”

 

“It’s Julie, you know it is” she pats his arm.

 

Tom smiles. “Thank you. I think it was important for the group to all stay together.”

 

After several tantrums about having to stay overnight in Sheffield, that even Tom is psychologist enough to see were more to do with venting pent up rage about Lockwood, Stuart had agreed surprisingly easily that they should all stay at a hotel together. 

 

Last night he didn’t see him at all, in fact, he was surprised to find him sober, and without a trace of a hangover at breakfast. He detects Scripps’s hand somewhere, but doubts the same will be true this evening.

 

A tap on the shoulder startles him round to find Dorothy at his elbow.

 

“Tom? I thought it was you. Fancy seeing you here.”

 

He could almost cry with relief at seeing a friendly face that isn’t torn up with misery. Not that Stu’s parents are unfriendly, but there is a certain pressure that comes with constantly trying to appear good enough for their son, not to mention the ever-present worry that they see him as some sort of creepy gay-converting cradle-snatcher.

 

He greets her with an Italian cheek kiss that she looks horrified at. Clearly something he’s picked up from living in London then, or more likely the BBC.

 

She turns to Mr and Mrs Dakin with a smile.

 

“How lovely to see you again, such as shame it’s under such dreadful circumstances. You don’t mind if I borrow Tom do you?”

 

She steers him away by the shoulder, without waiting for a response.

 

“I didn’t expect to see you here.” He says as she leads him to the bar.

 

“I saw it in the paper, terrible. I sent his mother a card and was immediately invited. I think she’s glad of any support, memories, anything of him. Such a bright boy.”

 

She shakes out a cigarette from the packet clasped loosely between her manicured fingers, lights up and holds them out to him.

 

He eyes it, wistfully. “I’m supposed to be giving up.” 

 

“Oh, not you as well. Don’t disappoint me by making me the only dinosaur here.”

 

Slightly sheepishly he plucks one out of the box just as they are descended on by the group of ex-Cutler’s-boys, led by David.

 

For a moment he is dizzy with deja vu amid the whoops of “Mrs Lintott!” until Stu rests his hand at the small of his back, anchoring him in the present once again.

 

“You don’t mind if we take Dakin out with us tonight, do you, Tom?” David asks. “Only it’s a mates thing.”

 

Stu’s objections are drowned out, but Tom is flattered that his partner seems to want him along, all the same.

 

“We’ll get him home safe, I promise. He just worried you’d object to being stuck in the hotel. It was Scrippsy’s idea to ask if you mind, only he’s too much of a coward to do it himself.”

 

David levels a fond glare at Scripps, who blushes and looks away.

 

Tom rolls his eyes.

 

“I’ll stay at the hotel with the other wives, it’s fine.”

 

“Are you sure?” Stu asks, eerily uncertain in himself.

 

“It’s fine.

 

“I won’t be out long.”

 

“Whatever.” Tom grins.

 

He can feel Dorothy’s eyes searing into him even as she chats to Rudge and Timms.

 

“You ok?”

 

Stu nods but tightens his arm around Tom’s waist anyway.

 

“I said you ought to come too,” Stu mutters.

 

“I don’t want to. He was your mate. Besides, I have enough experience of provincial hotels to get by.”

 

“Tom and I will be busy catching up anyway,” Dorothy interjects, as the rest of them trickle away.

 

Stu flashes her a grateful smile and smoothes his hand across Tom’s back.

 

“I’ll let you know when we’re off. Don’t go without saying bye.”

 

“Of course not.”

 

He eyes the fag balanced next to the glass of cheap red in Tom's hand, and plucks it out of his fingers.

 

“You’re s’posed to be giving up.”

 

He takes a drag off it and hands it back before joining the others, leaving Tom standing in embarrassed silence in the beam of Dorothy’s all-seeing gaze.

 

“I’ve missed something, obviously.”

 

Tom vainly tries not to look self-satisfied.

 

“You and Dakin?”

 

“About six years now.”

 

“Not ever since school then? No, I suppose you wouldn’t have. Besides you wouldn’t have lasted six weeks before he got bored, not in those days.”

 

Tom has never felt that the events of ten years ago were a blessing in disguise to such an extent as he has in the past ten seconds.

 

“You don’t disapprove?”

 

“Why should I? It’s none of my business.” 

 

Anyone else might have meant it sulkily, but not her. He really has missed her.

 

“I did think it odd that you would know his mother, I only saw her at one parents’ evening over the entire nine years he was at the school – He was about eleven I think, the childminder was in bed with the flu – I do remember that because she complained bitterly. I’ve never met the father before.”

 

“She’s perhaps not the most maternal but she’s alright. They both are”

 

“I assumed you’d become caught up in conversation by serendipity. I’m sorry if my rescue attempt was ham-fisted.”

 

“Not at all, I was feeling a bit awkward.”

 

“Are they not the accepting type?”

 

“Oh,” He laughs nervously and looks down at his drink. “it’s not that – they’re very nice.”

 

She gives him the sort of look that gives Tom the impression that she knows what he had for breakfast. It’s not a feeling he likes.

 

“Do you miss teaching?” He asks, just to change the subject.

 

“Not at all! I have a mini camper. I’m off around the continent three times a year. I recommend retiring. I miss some of the boys, though. It looks as if you don’t have that problem.”

 

“You make me sound revolting.” He downs the rest of his glass, trying not to grimace at the taste.

 

“It was unintentional, I assure you. I only mean they seem to like you.”

 

“David’s a good friend. Scripps and I get on grudgingly, he and Stu are still joined at the hip. Most of them I haven’t seen in a decade. Timms called me ‘Mr Irwin’ earlier.”

 

“Poor Timms, I think we can excuse him a certain lack of tact.”

 

“I met Lockwood a few times since. I know he and Stu were close growing up. He took one of my favourite photographs actually.”

 

“Of the two of you, I presume you mean?”

 

Tom nods.

 

“How revolting.” She smiles. “At the risk of appearing forward, would you like to come back to mine for a drink? It can’t be much fun sitting around a hotel by yourself, waiting for drunken youths to return.”

 

Tom laughs again, thinking of the drab cigarette-scented room with the narrow twin beds that awaits him back at the hotel. “Thank you.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Tom’s evening, though he hates to admit it, is pleasant, if not bizarre. After an unexpected home-cooked dinner at Dorothy Lintott’s, he finds himself ensconced in an armchair for the evening, feeling more and more as if he’s stepped back in time, but through a lens, somehow. Everything the way it used to be, and yet not. No Hector, and now no Lockwood.

 

“I’m amazed!” she says, filling his glass with wine superior to what had been available at the wake, and settling down on the sofa with a glass of whiskey.

 

“If I’d had to put money on one of them taking the other bus, I’d have picked any of them before I picked the illustrious Mr Dakin. I must say I envisaged him having gone through his first marriage to some bimbo already, and well on the way toward another.”

 

“I’m trying to find a compliment in there somewhere.”

 

“Good luck, there isn’t one, but no criticism either. I was wrong, that’s all.”

 

Laughing to himself, Tom shakes his head. “He’s not gay.”

 

“Oh I know, I remember! The headmaster’s secretary, not a secret in the place.”

 

She gives a quiet chuckle.

 

“He died as well, you know?”

 

“Felix?”

 

She nods. “Last year. Cancer. All gone now.”

 

“You’re still here.”

 

“And for tonight, so are you.” She fishes out the packet of cigarettes.

 

Sheepishly, he takes the offered smoke and after lighting it she tucks her feet up on the sofa, takes a long drag off hers and exhales up to the ceiling.

 

“Fancy Dakin chiding you for smoking. How the tables have turned.”

 

“It’s out of fashion to be unhealthy.”

 

“But of course, God forbid! So go on then, how did the pair of you end up so revoltingly domestic?”

 

Tom tells her about filming in Oxford and running into Stu in the coffee shop, about Scripps’ absurd plan of inviting him to their new years eve party and then badgering him until he agreed to come only so he and Posner could lock them in a bathroom together.

 

He doesn’t tell her about the large amount of practically-anonymous sex they ended up having just hours after they met, or how he thought that would be it for him and his pathetically pining heart until Stuart cornered him into standing up for what he wanted. He figures he looks sad enough already without the details.

 

“You’re happy together?” She looks almost worried for him until he assures her that, yes, they’re both happy, thank you.

 

“What about you? Is there a...” he mentally crosses his fingers and prays he’s read the situation right “man?”

 

She snorts.

 

“Oh, men haven’t held any interest for me in years.”

 

“Ah” Damn

 

“The folly of youth” She twirls her old wedding ring around on her finger, before easing it off and depositing it on the coffee table. “It’s only to add a veneer of respectability” she explains.

 

He smiles, oddly embarrassed about being let in on this personal secret.

 

“There was a woman – “ she pauses to think. “Goodness, three years ago now. But I’m certainly not looking, and to be honest, barely interested if opportunity knocks. I much prefer life on my own.

 

“Besides, I tired of the revolting stuff that you so clearly enjoy these days at least twenty years ago.”

 

“Revolting stuff?”

 

“Canoodling, meaningful looks, grinning to yourself when you think about it. Revolting.”

 

“Sorry.” Tom tries to appear unembarrassed.

 

“Don’t be silly. Besides, I can see you aren’t at all. My ex-husband put me off romantic affairs for life. That’s why Hector and I always got along so well: I had no time for it, and he had no time for anything else.”

 

She smiles, sadly.

 

“Do you miss him?”

 

“Every day.”

 

 

*

 

 

Scripps attributes his unacceptable level of soberness to spending most of their night out looking after Timms, who goes missing early on. He finds him sitting on the floor of a toilet cubicle, resting his face on the seat and sobbing. He refuses to go back to the hotel, or indeed the bar, and falls asleep on Scripps’ shoulder, trapping him for the best part of an hour, until eventually Crowther discovers them and frees him.

 

He later has a competition with David about whether this is worse than having Dakin cuddling him and crooning a song he made up that went: ‘Sweet Posner, back in the day, you never could convince me I was gay; if you maybe wore glasses I’d have fancied your arses’ into his ear.

 

“I only have one arse,” Pos protests “and I do wear glasses now”

 

Dakin presses a hand to Pos’s lips “Shhhhhhh.” He whispers “It’s a love song”

 

They make it back to the hotel just after three, in two groups, with Dakin and Posner, who is looking after him, sharing the first cab with Crowther; and Scripps and Akthar following with their respective charges of Timms and Rudge.

 

Crowther, who stopped drinking when he got to respectably merry, goes straight to his room, refusing to get drawn into a legal discussion with Dakin, who Posner dutifully deposits at the door of his room.

 

“Will you be ok if I leave you here now?”

 

Dakin sways a little but nods confidently and digs out his key. This is enough for Pos, so he heads to his and Scripps’ room.

 

Dakin starts getting into bed before he realises he’s still fully dressed. Forgetting about the stupid single beds he leans back in the process of trying to remove a shoe, and falls backwards onto the floor, bringing the table lamp on top of him with an almighty crash. Turning the light on to work out what in the Hell just happened he discovers that Tom is missing.

 

Once he’s satisfied himself that he is definitely in the right room he returns to the lobby, bruised and confused, to find the second cab has arrived and that Scripps and Akthar are trying to diffuse a situation where Timms is becoming increasingly angry with the cab driver about ( at least from what Dakin can gather from the shouting) his decision to charge extra for cleaning because Rudge threw up in the back.

 

Rudge at least makes a very cheerful drunk and meanders over to him, grinning. “Wassup?”

 

“Can’t find Tom”

 

“Dumped you, is it?” Rudge sighs without a trace of humour. “It’s a sad day. Come here”

 

Dakin breaks free from the consoling hug enough to reach the desk and ask if there were any messages left for him.

 

The wary night porter on duty hands him a slip of paper and disappears into the back.

 

He moves it back and forth in front of his face until the letters make sense to his alcohol fogged brain.

 

“'Mr Irwin spending the night with Mrs Lintott'” He reads aloud, only slurring slightly

 

Still clinging to him, Rudge tries for a wolf whistle, fails, and lets out a loud “Oooooo” instead, which he follows with a noisy laugh and a smelly belch right into Dakin’s ear.

 

“Shut up, you twat. The only person less likely to be getting any action in that scenario is Jimmy.”

 

That’s when Timms, now finished with the cab driver, punches him on the nose.

 

Thankfully Tony is easily subdued and starts crying halfway through apologising. Akthar holds him easily at the other end of the lobby. Dakin is less easily calmed.

 

“Jesus fucking Christ Tone!” Dakin cups his bleeding nose.

 

Scripps keeps him back – not that he’s afraid of things kicking off but the porter has called the manager, who eventually makes himself heard long enough to kick them all out.

 

“Why am I being kicked out? He just punched me in the fucking nose!” He screams, blood still dribbling between his fingers.

 

Tony rallies his anger to shout about him disrespecting Lockwood and the shouting starts again.

 

 

*

 

 

Dorothy leans forward to top him up.

 

“You’re a celebrity now, I hear.”

 

Tom scoffs. “Hardly.”

 

“I watch your programmes from time to time. I rather enjoy them. Hardly what I’d call history, but highly entertaining and well done in their own way.”

 

“Journalism.” He muses

 

“Precisely.”

 

They sit solemnly for a moment in the shadow of Hector.

 

“Stuart says I’m a whore.” Tom grins after a moment.

 

She smiles indulgently. “Well, he would know. He enjoys watching you as well, no doubt.”

 

“He does.” Although admittedly not always in the context Tom would like.

 

“I knew him since he was eleven.” Dorothy sighs into her drink. “Gone now, just like that.”

 

Tom sits silent, not knowing what to say. It’s a recurring problem. He never really knew Lockwood, not personally. Naturally, he’s sad the poor man died so young, but he isn’t grieving.

 

“What was he like?”

 

“Very quiet at first, shy, picked on a bit in the lower years. He gained confidence, of course, as the years went on and being bright he quickly outgrew the bullies. Being friends with Dakin helped the confidence I think.”

 

“And Stuart?”

 

“Honestly, a cocky little shit from the start. The same as ever, I expect.”

 

He smiles fondly, unable to deny it.

 

“He isn’t the first student of mine to have died but there was something about him that makes it all so awful, so full of life, perhaps.”

 

 

*

 

 

Stu takes a taxi to his parents’ house alone. Scripps had tried to go along to make sure he got in safely but Dakin finally managed to shake him off just as he got into the cab. It does occur to him though, as his father opens the door half asleep, that a bit of Scripps-style diplomacy might have come in handy.

 

His dad is grumpy about being woken in the middle of the night and his mother comes downstairs (once she’s been assured that it isn’t burglars) only to get herself in a flap over his bloody nose.

 

All in all, he’d planned for a better night, even for the night after his oldest mate’s funeral.

 

After apologising for what feels like the twentieth time, he scolds his mother for fussing and shrugs off her concern with the promise that it’s fine, that it looks worse than it is and, of course, he’ll try not to get blood all over the sheets. He lets her make up his bed and after washing his face he curls up under the duvet and cries.

 

 

*

 

 

“I’m afraid it’s only the sofa. The spare room is really a junk room these days, not even a spare bed. There’s only my sister to cater for normally, and I try to discourage her from staying as much as possible.”

 

Tom grins. “Honestly, it’s fine. It’s bound to be better than the hotel.”

 

Dorothy hauls an armful of bedding out of the airing cupboard and starts making up a bed for him on the couch.

 

“You won’t be missed, I hope.”

 

“I left a message with the desk – they’re all still out apparently. They’ll all be pissed as a stoat, so I doubt Stu will even notice.”

 

“Hopefully you’ll be comfortable.”

 

“I don’t doubt it. I spend half my life in hotels these days, this is pure luxury compared with some of them.”

 

“Ah yes, the glamorous life of a TV historian. Do help yourself in the morning, I get up rather late nowadays.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Tom is momentarily stumped when he arrives at the hotel in the morning and is told that the party he’s looking for was evicted last night.

 

The manger appears a moment later with a glint in his eye to suggest that, as a representative, perhaps Tom would like to take responsibility for the bill. The wine has made his brain sluggish, but he manages to think up a lie about only being there for a business appointment and escape. A clean pair of pants, a toothbrush and a paperback hardly seem worth a hotel bill for eight people so he gives his overnight bag up as lost and goes in search of Stuart. There are only four or five places he could conceivably be, so unfazed, he starts with the hotel car park.

 

The car is where they left it when they arrived yesterday morning, and a quick peek through the tinted windows reveals no sleeping Stuart, so he scribbles a note on the back of an old receipt and tucks it under the windscreen wiper in case Stu should come back before he manages to track him down. This done, he fishes out his address book and goes to find a taxi rank.

 

Half an hour later he rings the bell to the Dakin family home his stomach turning with apprehension, he is anticipating a lengthy and shame-faced explanation to Stu’s parents about leaving their grieving son alone so that he could catch up with an old friend and –somehow- having lost him. He isn’t looking forward to it.

 

Mrs Dakin opens the door in her dressing gown and slippers but before he’s even uttered a ‘hello’, she ushers him inside as if he’s expected.

 

“It’s Tom” she shouts over her shoulder, then turns to him, her voice once again a normal volume. “Phil’s just gone to the hotel to find you.” She says by way of greeting.

 

Embarrassment washes over him at putting them out, but it’s forgotten before he can apologise because Stu appears behind her, his nose and eye bruised and swollen.

 

He blinks in shock. “What happened to you?”

 

“I’ll put the kettle on.” Mutters Mrs Dakin and leaves them together. Tom concentrates on the bouncing ears of her pink bunny slippers rather than Stu’s nose, which is making him feel queasy.

 

The slippers disappear at the end of the hall and he clears his throat. “Rough night?”

 

“You could say that. I’ve got your bag in the car.”

 

And fuck but Stu’s voice sounds rough and thick.

 

“Right. You want to tell me what happened?”

 

Stu shrugs and looks around him before he answers. “I made a joke, Tony didn’t think it was funny.”

 

“OK. Do you need to see a doctor?”

 

Stu narrows his eyes, as far as he can. “Don’t be soft, it’s only a punch on the nose. You’ve had one before, surely?”

 

Tom adjusts his glasses. “Not since I was twelve.”

 

“The other boys mean to you?” Stu asks, his voice spiteful.

 

Tom doesn’t rise to it, he knows Stu doesn’t really want to hurt his feelings, and if it helps ease the poisonous feelings inside of him, then he doesn’t mind him trying. So he just nods in acknowledgement.

 

“They were a bit.” He gestures to the sitting room. “Shall we sit down?”

 

Stu just shrugs again, his hands jammed into his pockets. He doesn’t move from where he’s blocking the hall.

 

Tom looks at him, unsure of what to do for what seems like an age while Stu’s expression rapidly oscillates between miserable and angry.

 

Running his hand through his hair Tom lets out a deep sigh.

 

“Sod this” He mutters under his breath, and then, so Stu can hear: “Look, punch me if you want” and in one smooth move he steps into Stu’s personal space and puts his arms around him.

 

Stu’s whole body stiffens before he goes almost limp against him, bringing an arm up to return the hug, his face turned to keep his sore nose from pressing against Tom’s jacket. He breathes in the comforting scent of him, mingled with something else, half-forgotten but no less comforting. Above him, Tom does the same against the top of his head.

 

Tom lets go first and it’s only embarrassment that keeps Stu from clinging on to him steadfastly.

 

“Come on, come out of the hall,” Tom tells him, because Julie is obviously watching through the chink between the kitchen door and the jamb – in her defence he is fairly convinced she thinks he can’t see her.

 

Inside, Stu collapses onto the sofa, all the brittle snappishness gone out of him, and she appears as if by magic with the tea tray.

 

“Thanks Mum,” Stu mutters.

 

She rolls her eyes. “You know, that’s the first nice word I’ve heard out of you all day. I’m going to get dressed now Tom’s here to keep an eye on you. Answer the door if the bell rings”

 

“I can’t -"

 

“It’s your own fault you’ve got a black eye.” She scolds, but Tom catches the look of worry she throws over her shoulder as she leaves the room.

 

He puts his arm back around Stu and pulls him against him and Stu goes with no more resistance than a rag doll.

 

“Dorothy’s well.” He says to break the silence.

 

“Who?”

 

“Mrs Lintott.”

 

“Oh. Good. Did you have a nice time?”

 

“Yeah, drank too much, stayed up too late, just chatting.” He bites his lip, eager not to sound like the trip has just been a pleasant stay with an old friend for him.

 

“Yeah?” Stu asks glumly. “What about?”

 

“Lockwood and Hector mostly, and you.”

 

“I miss Totty sometimes.”

 

“She’d be glad to hear it, I think.”

 

“She was like a Gran.”

 

“Less pleased to hear that I think.”

 

“I don’t know anyone who’s died before,” Stu confesses, quietly. “My grandparents were gone before I was old enough to know them and… well, that’s it. Just Hector, not someone who’s ever really meant something to me… Sounds gay.” He mutters.

 

“Nothing wrong with that.” Tom kisses his hair.

 

“That’s not what I mean, it sounds… childish then, wet if you prefer.”

 

“It doesn’t.”

 

“Sure?”

 

“I’m an expert in what’s gay.”

 

Stu gives a little half-smile and tucks his head under Tom’s chin.

 

“Maybe you should see Timms before you go. Clear the air.”

 

“Yeah,” Stu says glumly, sounding more resigned than anything.

 

“Call Scripps, let him sort it.”

 

The front door bangs and Stu sits up straight, breaking free from the hug, and wiping his face.

 

His father enters and unceremoniously chucks the keys to the car into his lap, before turning to Tom.

 

“How are you, Tom? You found him then. Woke half the street at four o’clock this morning. I was all for sending him on his way to sort things out as soon as the hotel opened up, but for some reason, his mother wanted to keep him." 

 

He turns his attention back to his son. “You’re still too pissed to drive, I expect?”

 

“Dunno,” Stu mutters to his lap.

 

“That’s a yes then. Better stay til after lunch, at least.”

 

“I’ve got work tomorrow.”

 

“Right well you better call in sick then, cos I don’t think you’re going anywhere today.”

 

Despite being able to see through the transparent attempt to look after his son without talking about it, it's a bit awkward being caught in the middle of this re-enactment of Stuart’s early teenage years, and he doesn't see this line of persuasion ending well. Without wanting to get involved, Tom rather feels Stu has been through enough for one weekend without any further pressure being added, and his sympathy is strengthened by his gory appearance.

 

“Call Scripps.” He pats Stu on the back and excuses himself before he gets dragged into it.

 

Julie corners him as he emerges from the loo. Faintly, he can hear Stu talking on the phone downstairs.

 

“How’s he seem to you, Tom? I can’t get two words out of him unless it’s snapping to mind my own business.”

 

She passes a hand over her tired face and for a moment Tom is afraid that she might cry. However absent a mother she may have been when Stuart was young, there’s no doubting how much she loves him and he has a bizarre urge to offer her a hug too.

 

“He’s alright, really” He reassures her “He’s just taking it hard right now. They all are, it’s a shock. He just needs some space.”

 

She gives his arm a comforting squeeze, even though he suspects it's she who needs the comfort.

 

“Take care of him, won’t you?”

 

“Whenever he lets me.” He chuckles.

 

She doesn't laugh, only wraps her arms around herself and forces a smile.

 

As soon as Stu’s done on the phone he announces his intention to go back to bed and orders Tom to come too. It’s hardly polite, especially as the only time they’ve stayed over Julie made up separate rooms, but Tom is utterly knackered and agrees with very little remorse.

 

So it is that Mrs Dakin finds them both an hour later, curled up together on top of the covers of Stuart’s old single bed, fully clothed and fast asleep. Stuart’s bruised face nestled against Tom’s chest, and an arm slung across him as if to hold him there, steadily drooling onto his shirt while Tom’s hand cradles his head protectively.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The morning after the funeral Scripps receives an uncharacteristically subdued phone call from Dakin, his voice thick and nasal. Timms must’ve really whacked him.

 

Dakin wants to part with the lads on friendly terms. He wants Scripps to organise things: That’s about the gist of it. Personally he isn’t so sure it’s a good idea, particularly if it’s going to involve a pub, but like he always does, he shives aside his own misgivings and promises to do what he can.

 

Putting the phone down with a roll of the eyes, Don apologises again to his mother for waking her so early when they came in.

 

She dismisses his apology just like she did the previous one.

 

“I’m pleased to have you both here, love, you know I am. You’re so busy nowadays, this is a nice treat” she smiles, patting his back.

 

He kisses her cheek and takes the cups of tea she’s made for them upstairs.

 

“Everything alright?” David yawns, rubbing his eyes and collapsing back against the frilled floral guest pillow.

 

“Yeah, just Dakin ringing. He wants to – he wants me to organise a meet up later”

 

David groans and pulls the sheet back over his head.

 

“I curse the day you ever set eyes on that man”

 

“You can’t blame me for something like Dakin. Not like he wasn’t your school friend too” He chides, sitting on top of the covers beside him.

 

“Yeah, but it’s your fault we’re still friends. After I got over him, I would happily have taken the embarrassing secret of my crush to the grave, and gone out of my way to never set eyes on him again”

 

“Really?” Scripps grins, ear to ear.

 

“Of course” David smiles innocently, taking a sip of tea. “so you see it’s all your fault we won’t get to lie in until twelve and then enjoy a peaceful Scripps Sunday roast”

 

“We can still have Sunday lunch” he smiles into the shell of David’s ear before kissing his cheek. “Mum’s extended the invitation”

 

“Really?”

 

Scripps nods. “She’s sent Dad to the corner shop for a nut cutlet for Akthar and everything.”

 

“...But he’s not vegetarian”

 

“I know, I did tell her but she says she wants to be prepared, just in case she cooks the wrong thing”

 

David sighs happily “Mmmm roast beef and Yorkshire puddings”

 

Scripps takes the tea away and places it on his side of the bed, just out of reach. “No lie in though, I have calls to make”

 

“Why do I have to get up?” He pouts, flopping off Scripps's arm and onto the mattress face first.

 

“Because.” Scripps tries not to laugh. “You’ll go back to sleep and wake up grumpy. Up!”

 

“Monster! Let me have my tea”

 

“Come and get it” He laughs, moving it to the chest of drawers, just as David makes it to the edge of the mattress.

 

 

*

 

 

Tom’s first impression of the Scripps family home is one of warmth, in every sense.

 

Mrs Scripps greets Stuart with a motherly hug and shakes Tom’s hand.

 

“Lovely to meet you at last,” She says after welcoming them inside “I’ve heard a lot about your wonderful teaching”

 

He glows a little with pride until he risks a glance at Scripps who is shrugging and, judging from his face, genuinely confused. Probably not from him then.

 

His ego doesn’t have much time to smart before she shows them through into the dining room, where there is a fire burning in the grate, a steaming pot of tea on the table and a candle burning for Lockwood on the sideboard. The picture that sits beside it is one of him in the old school uniform - younger than when Tom first met him, but probably not by much. In it, he is flanked by Scripps and Posner and has an arm slung around each.

 

“Poor love,” She says, following his gaze to the picture.

 

In spite of all the loving preparations, the meeting is predictably painful. Stuart selects a seat at one end of the table and Timms chooses to sit down at the other.

 

They both look badly worse for wear – Stu bruised and swollen, and Timms with his pale tear-stained face obviously nursing a truly spectacular hangover.

 

Tom sits next to Stu, who finds his hand beneath the table. He gives it an answering squeeze and Stu doesn’t let go until they’re done.

 

Scripps notices this with a stab of sympathetic pain for Dakin, who must, he knows, be really suffering to do anything so obviously vulnerable practically in public.

 

The apology, when it comes, is like one they’ve all witnessed many times, albeit rarely in the past twenty years: shamefaced and hurried, without intonation and with both parties looking everywhere but at each other.

 

Dakin clears his throat. “I’m sorry for what I said”

 

“Sorry about your nose” Timms almost talks over him in eagerness to have it over with.

 

For all the childish insincerity of its appearance, Scripps has no doubt that they both regret what happened. But then, maybe he’s just an optimist.

 

Posner rolls his eyes at the feebleness of it, but keeps his opinions to himself.

 

Timms leaves immediately after his blurted apology, offering a lukewarm handshake to Dakin and mumbling a short goodbye to everyone.

 

Only Dakin, Irwin and Akthar stay for lunch, with Rudge leaving straight after Timms. Crowther already went home that morning, telling Scripps on the phone that he didn’t feel like sticking around to babysit grown men. Scripps envies him being able to make that call, although deep (deep) down, he knows he wouldn’t be without Dakin.

 

 

*

 

 

Mrs Scripps’ coking is legendary, and everyone but Stuart is jovial enough now that the funeral is done with. He doesn’t manage much to eat and talks even less.

 

Scripps, David and Akthar share stories about Lockwood, all of them hilarious, rude and stupid,

 

“Like the valentines day in year eight when he wrote ‘Lucy’ on his chest in lipstick for this girl he fancied and on the way to school he met her at her bus stop and told her he had a valentine for her, then ripped it open in front of the whole queue of girls, only to find out her name was Lucille and he’d misheard” Scripps remembers, tears of laughter streaming down his face. “She was really angry! Like unreasonably so”

 

“And when he found that pound and bet it on a dog race, and won a hundred quid” Akthar laughs “when he wouldn’t tell his mum where it came from, cos he knew she wouldn’t approve, she decided he must have stolen it and absolutely leathered him! Then she gave it away to charity”

 

“Have you been round to his mother?” David pauses in his laughter to ask Mrs Scripps. “How did she seem?”

 

“She’s not well. I took the family a pot roast and a shepherds pie. Likely she’s not looking after herself and they’ve got enough on their plate with organising the funeral. It’s not much I know, but you do what you can” She says, shaking her head regretfully.

 

“Excuse me” Stuart stands suddenly and doesn’t return for five minutes. When he comes back to the table his face is pale and he puts his knife and fork together.

 

Nobody says anything.

 

 

*

 

 

They start off for London mid-afternoon. Posner and Scripps decline the offer of a lift, so the journey is quiet. Stu sits in the passenger seat with his eyes closed, although Tom can tell he isn’t sleeping,

 

When he comes to Hector’s corner he takes longer than he needs at the junction, looking again and again before he pulls out, his hands suddenly slippery on the steering wheel. Once he’s turned the corner he can breathe again, unexpectedly giddy with relief. He isn’t sure he has enough faith to attribute his brain wave to conquering the awful place but whatever the reason, his thoughts seem to come clearer now, and with a flash of inspiration, he stops the car outside the church at the bottom of the road.

 

Stu lifts exhausted eyes in disinterested curiosity but doesn’t question it, simply follows Tom’s lead and gets out of the car.

 

He takes his hand again as they enter, which is unexpected, but Tom doesn’t comment on it, just leads him along the nave to the south transept, where there’s a wrack of votive candles burning.

 

“Tom”

 

“Something my Gran taught me. It’ll help”

 

“I don’t believe in it” He sounds so lost. When he turns to Tom his eyes shine with unshed tears.

 

“It doesn’t matter. It’s like a birthday cake, just hold whatever you want to say in your mind and light one” Tom holds out 20p to him

 

With hands that shake almost imperceptibly, Stu takes it and drops it in the box, selects his candle and positions it in the front centre socket. He takes a taper, closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, just holding it for a long moment before setting his jaw and putting it into the flame, waiting patiently for it to catch. Bits of flaky ash flutter to the floor as the newly lit taper trembles in his hand. Once Jimmy’s candle has caught he stands back, staring into the flame he’s created, his hands folded respectfully in front.

 

Tom stands still and quiet beside him and waits, breathing in the smell of the smoke from the extinguished taper that loops around them in the stuffy air, commingling with the old smell of damp stone, and letting the flickering lights imprint themselves on his retinas.

 

They stand for long minutes in silence, until Stu blows out a long shaky breath “Okay” He says.

 

Tom puts a comforting hand between his shoulder blades, and they walk out together.