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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Primeval fic: Two Steps Back (2/3)

December 15th, 2016 (05:43 am)
awake

feeling: awake

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE





-o-


The email haunted him. He’d handled phantom limb syndrome with relative aplomb, but four sentences from Nick Cutter dogged him unrelentingly. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t sleep. He grew withdrawn and sullen, and he felt himself grow tense at the simple act of breathing.


Frustrated, he sat down, opening up the email again.

Cutter--

He stopped, frowning. He backspaced furiously.

Nick--

Vexed, he stopped again, chewing the inside of his lip and scratching an errant itch on his knee. He deleted again.

Cutter--

Then Swami and Gareth came into the room, joking and laughing easily. Frustrated, Stephen slammed his laptop shut and went outside.


-o-


Outside wasn’t much better. He skulked around the grounds, kicking at rocks petulantly with his good foot. When one almost hit David, he winced apologetically. “Sorry.”


David raised his eyebrows. “Something bothering you?”


“Nothing to talk about,” Stephen said.


David laughed. “Somehow I don’t believe that.”


Stephen nodded toward the papers in David’s hands. “You working on something?”


“This?” David asked. “Just some screwed up data from one of our collection points. It looks like one of our instruments needs to be replaced.”


“Do we have what we need?” Stephen asked.


“Sure, but installations has to be calibrated across the network,” David said. “We’ll need to have someone go out to every station. It’s a two week project, easy. I was just going to ask Stuart--”


“I’ll go,” Stephen said immediately.


David looked curious. “You’re not due for another stint for another month.”


Stephen shrugged. “I’d be happy to,” he said.


“I can’t spare Allison,” David said slowly.


“That’s fine,” Stephen said. “I’ll go on my own.”


“I don’t like people by themselves--”


“I’ll take the SAT phone,” Stephen said. “Check in three times a day.”


David’s gaze was skeptical, his eyes flickering to Stephen’s leg.


Stephen’s expression hardened. “I’m better suited for this than Stuart is.”


“Well, you’re probably right about that,” David mused. He regarded Stephen carefully one last time. “You’ll check in four times a day. No exceptions.”


Stephen grinned in absolute relief. “None needed.”


“I’ll need you to go as soon as you can,” David said.


“Give me ten minutes,” Stephen said.


-o-


Back in his room, Stephen grabbed things from his dresser, folding them neatly and packing them into his backpack. He skipped some of the extraneous items -- fewer shirts and pants than normal, since he was going alone -- and kept it as light as possible without skimping on the necessities.


On his way out, he almost ran into Allison.


“Hey!” she said. “David said you’re going to do the calibration.”


“Yeah, just about to leave,” Stephen said.


Allison was skeptical. “Two weeks on your own?” she said. “You sure that’s a good idea?”


Stephen rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re worried about me, too.”


“Hey, this isn’t about the leg,” she said. “This is about the fact that you’re throwing yourself into a dangerous environment in order to avoid writing an email.”


Stephen’s cheeks reddened. “This has nothing to do with that.”


It was Allison’s turn to roll her eyes. “You’re a bad liar,” she said. “The only reason Cutter didn’t work out your secret was that he was even more daft than you are.”


“If you’re just going to insult me--”


“Just be careful,” Allison said. “I’m all for walking away when you need to, but I’m not okay with you running away to avoid the feelings.”


“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stephen said.


“Right,” Allison replied with a snort. “Since you’re the only person who has ever suffered in the world.”


“Well, show me your prosthetic limb, and then we can talk,” Stephen said snidely.


Anger flashed in Allison’s eyes. “I’m beginning to see that the problem just isn’t Cutter,” she said.


“Like I said, you know nothing about it,” Stephen snapped.


“Okay then,” Allison said, throwing her hands up. “Run away, Stephen! But just remember there are some things you can’t outrun, even if you had two good feet.”


Stephen’s face burned, and he ground his teeth together. Maybe he couldn’t outrun it.


But for now, he was sure as hell going to try.


-o-


Stephen set out, moving at his own pace. He pushed himself as hard as he liked, and stopped as little as possible. He walked until his leg throbbed, working until he was soaked through and exhausted. The calibration and set up was tedious, and Stephen double checked his work three times at every site. He went through the checklist, marking each item off and tucking the pencil neatly back in the notebook every night before he went to bed.


In some ways, it was liberating. It was as good as he’d felt since losing his foot.


But the long moments of silence were filled with doubt, and he stayed awake at night, writing a thousand emails in his head.

Cutter, I’ve missed you. All the things I’m doing are thanks to you, but it feels wrong not sharing them with you. Maybe I could come back soon.


Nick, I can’t believe how long it’s been. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime. Sometimes it seems like no time has passed. I could take a holiday in London.


Cutter, I’m sorry. I hope Helen hasn’t been giving you too much trouble. I have a hard time believing there’s anything to miss about me, but I think of you and the team often.


Nick, maybe it’s time to come home. Things could be like they were, before any of this happened. I want that. I really want that.

And the time stretched on.


-o-


He made his calls like clockwork, and he didn’t miss that it was Allison who answered every time. She didn’t ask many questions, but he could hear the hint of worry in her voice.


He wanted to tell her he was sorry, that she was probably right about most of it, but the words didn’t come.


Nothing came.


All Stephen had was the work -- and the silence that filled it.


-o-


On his second to last day out, Stephen tripped, throwing himself down a hill. He tumbled, coming to a jarring stop at a bottom. He groaned, breathing through the pain as he tried to catalogue his injuries. Nothing seemed to be broken, though the myriad of aches and bruises were more than a little uncomfortable.


When he checked his leg, however, he frowned.


His prosthetic was gone.


Panic flared, and he looked around. He found his back and his scattered belongings--


But no foot.


Without his foot, he was as good as dead. Without his foot, he was stranded and alone. Without his foot--


He’d been stupid. He’d been careless and reckless. He’d been so set on doing this by himself that he hadn’t done it right at all. He was doing nothing right. He could push himself and he could work harder, and for what? To alienate the people who cared about him and make a mess of whatever life he had left?


He didn’t even know what he wanted anymore.


He just knew that without his damn foot, he was going to be stuck going nowhere.


Then, he saw it. A piece of the reflective markings on the back of his shoe caught the light, and Stephen saw his prosthetic up the top of the hill. It was caught where he’d tripped, jarred between some tree trunks in the brush. He was used to not feeling sensation there, but usually he was more careful where he stepped.


His heart rate began to settle, but the humiliation didn’t abate. Because this was his own stupid fault, and now he was going to have to crawl up the hill and put his foot back on -- assuming it hadn’t been damaged when he tripped.


It was slow, arduous work. His hands were dirty and scraped by the time he reached the top, and everything ached when he finally wrenched his foot free and rolled up his pant leg to reattach it.


He could see now, what he’d done. In his haste, he’d been leaving his prosthetic on too long. The straps had loosened. One wayward step, and he’d nearly cost himself everything.


Collecting himself, he set out for the last stretch, limping and weary. It occurred to him that he had set out to do this his own way.


But now, on his way back, he didn’t even know what that was.


-o-


When he got back, Allison was the one who greeted him. She was subdued, though, and Stephen was all too aware that she was watching him carefully as he unpacked. He did his best not to show it, but some of the bruises and scratches were impossible to hide.


Still, she said nothing.


Finally, Stephen turned and sighed. “You can say it, you know.”


Allison blinked innocently. “Say what?”


“I told you so.”


“Why?” she asked. “You going to tell me what happened?”


Stephen glowered. “I don’t think you need the details.”


“Probably not,” she said. “Did you even decide what you were going to write in your email?”


Stephen glared at her. “What do you think.”


-o-


Still, Stephen tried. When he was showered and settled, he sat down with his laptop, propping it open on his lap. His fingers were poised over the keys, ready to type.

Cutter--


It’s been a long time. Too long, maybe. I think the distance has probably been good for us, but sometimes I’m not so sure. It’s strange being away. And even stranger to think about Helen. Whatever she’s up to, I think it’s safe to say it’s probably no good. But you know that better than I do.


For what it’s worth, I’m still sorry. For everything. I’ve thought of a hundred ways to tell you that, but none of them are enough. None of them even make sense.


In fact, this doesn’t even make sense. This whole bloody email. It used to be so easy, but nothing’s easy anymore. Sometimes I want to go back to the beginning. Sometimes I wish this had never happened. Sometimes I just want to--

Stephen sighed, rubbing his hand over his eyes. This wasn’t it. This didn’t do it at all. What was another apology? And why was he talking about Helen? Why was he still bringing up all the same problems that Cutter said he was ready to let go of? What if Cutter hadn’t wanted any of this at all?


What if?


Eyes burning, Stephen highlighted the email and promptly deleted it.


-o-


Life went on. Nothing was different. Gareth and Swami played jokes. David applied for grants. Rachel planned her wedding.


Back in London, Stephen wondered what Nick was doing. He wondered about Abby and Connor. He wondered who was their sharpshooter now, throwing themselves in the line of fire when cause presented itself. He wondered if they missed him.


He wondered if they were better off without him.


Every night, he opened the email.


And wondered.


-o-


Another week passed, and Stephen’s turn collecting samples came back up again. This time, Allison was the one who reminded him. “But I’m sure we could trade,” she suggested.


“No,” Stephen said. “I just...sort of lost track of things.”


Allison nodded. “I’ve noticed,” she said. “We all have.”


Stephen let out a heavy breath. “I’m sorry--”


“You don’t have to apologize to me,” she said.


“Yes,” he said. “I do. You’ve been nothing but nice to me, and I was a jerk.”


“Well, yeah,” she said. “But what are ex-girlfriends for if not to get mad at every now and then?”


Stephen chuckled softly. “You’ve been too nice to me.”


“You’re a good person, Stephen,” she said. “I just wish you believed it.”


“I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Stephen said, shaking his head.


Allison rolled her eyes. “You think this is news to me?”


“And you still think I’m a good person?”


“Well, let’s just say you’re the best ex-boyfriend a girl could ask for.”


“Somehow, I’m not sure that’s a compliment,” Stephen said.


Allison grinned. “Beggars can’t be choosers, love,” she said. “Now pack up -- we’re going to be late.”


-o-


In the field, their rhythm was back. They worked well together, effective and efficient as they went about their tasks. It was quiet and amiable, and Stephen was reminded how grateful he was for Allison’s company.


They took turns cooking, and at night they slept side by side on their cots. Most nights, the sounds of the Congo lulled him to sleep, but others, when the doubts still haunted him, he found rest elusive.


Tossing, he tried to settle more comfortable, but his legs felt heavy and listless no matter what he did. His foot twitched and his calf spasmed, and he grunted in discomfort as he sat up, swinging his legs to the side. He’d like to pace it off, but without his prosthetic on, walking would be more trouble than it was worth.


Not that lying in bed was going very well for him.


In the stillness, Stephen was still contemplating his options when Allison’s voice surprised him. “You okay?”


“Yeah,” Stephen said. “Just...can’t sleep.”


“Still writing emails in your head?” she asked.

He turned back to look at her.


She shrugged. “You’ve been muttering Dear Cutter in your sleep,” she said. “I’ve tried not to listen, but it’s sort of hard not to.”


Stephen was too tired to be embarrassed. With Allison, there was no point in hiding anyway. He sat back, bringing his leg up to rest on the cot, his good foot still on the ground. “I just can’t work out what to say,” he said. “We left on good terms, but so much has happened.”


“From what you said, Cutter sounds like he’s ready to move on,” she said.


“He thinks he is,” Stephen said. He shook his head. “But I slept with his wife.”


“Almost a decade ago,” Allison countered. “And she turned out to be a crazy bitch, so it’s not like it was a huge loss for him.”


“But it’s still a betrayal,” Stephen said.


Ten years ago,” Allison reiterated. “At some point, you’ve got to take his overtures at face value.”


“But I know Cutter,” Stephen said. “He wasn’t ready to let this go.”


“Back then, maybe,” Allison agreed. “But you’ve been gone a year. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all.”


Stephen smirked. “That didn’t work for us.”


Allison clucked her tongue. “I love you more now than I ever did back at university,” she said. “Not all love is romantic, as you know.”


“I just don’t know how to look him in the eyes,” Stephen said.


“Well, then it’s a good thing this is just an email,” Allison replied coyly.


Stephen gave her a look. “It’s not that easy.”


“Maybe not for you,” she said. “But that’s just because you’re set on making it so damn hard.”


“Well, okay,” Stephen said. “You tell me, then. What should I write?”


“I don’t know,” Allison said. “But it’s not about what I think. It’s not even about what Cutter thinks. This should be about you. What do you want?”


The question made him stop. He’d thought about a lot of things. He’d penned countless emails in his head, all trying to find the right thing to say.


The question of what he wanted…


Hadn’t even crossed his mind.


He looked at Allison. “You know a lot about this sort of thing.”


Allison shrugged, still lying on her bed. “It’s not hard advice to give,” she said. “I’m not so good at living it.”


Stephen studied her for a moment. “Did you ever wonder,” he started, “why we didn’t work?”


Allison laughed, shaking her head. “We were always better friends,” she said. “But it just seemed like the right thing to start dating.”


Stephen smiled. “I was never very good to you.”


She sat up. “And I was never very good to you,” she said. “We both know it was never about that, though. I told you, it’s easy advice in theory. Not as easy in practice. It’s taken me nearly a decade to realize I don’t need to live in anyone’s box.”


“What boxes could you possibly have?” Stephen asked. “You’re doing everything you love. You follow your heart. Honestly, you’re sort of my hero right now.”


Allison rolled her eyes. “Do not say that,” she said. “Trust me.”


“You know,” Stephen ventured. “You can tell me, if you want.”


Allison made a face. “I think we have enough on our plate dealing with you,” she said. “We’ll handle my problems when we’ve finally got you so you don’t mentally implode at the name Cutter.


Stephen laughed. “I suppose that’s fair.”


“That’s sanity,” Allison said. “Now, go to bed. You can write that stupid email when we get back home.”


Stephen settled back his cot, hoping not for the first time that Allison was right.


-o-


No more running, Stephen decided. When he and Allison got back, he sat himself in front of his laptop. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, but he was done trying to pen the perfect email.


He was just going to write.


Whatever happened next would take care of itself, one way or another.


Ready, Stephen took one last breath before opening his email. Methodically, he scrolled through the junk mail and the standard work notices that he’d missed while he was gone. Then, he saw an email from Connor.


That was a curious turn. Of everyone back home, he’d left with the least trepidation regarding the younger man, and over the months, he’d received a few goofy forwarded emails about conspiracy theories and scientific advancements that Connor always huffily complained were a moot point, given the scope of the anomaly project.


His curiosity got the better of him, and he opened the email to scan it before writing his note to Cutter. The first line was different, though. There was no forwarded message. There was no silly introduction of an overabundance of emoticons.

Stephen--


I wish I didn’t have to be the one to tell you this, but I reckon there’s no one better. Now that I’m doing it, I don’t even know what to say. There’s no way around it, though. Stephen, I’m sorry.

Stephen’s heart stuttered, his stomach went cold. His chest tightened and his breath caught.

I’m so, so sorry.

For the second time in Stephen’s life, he knew what it was like to lose part of himself.


-o-


When Allison found him later, he was curled up on his bunk. He’d taken his foot off, left it haphazardly at the foot of his bed while drawing his knees up toward his chest and trying to breathe.


“Stephen?” she asked, obviously concerned. “I got worried when you never came out for dinner. Is everything okay?”


Stephen didn’t know what to say. Stephen wasn’t even sure he knew how to speak. All the emotions pulled deeply on him, and he felt more broken than he ever had in his life. It was impossible to even grasp. It was almost too much to even believe.


She tread lightly by his side. “Stephen?”


Stephen swallowed, pain swelling in his chest. Part of him wanted to cry, but no tears would come. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t blink. He couldn’t be.


“Stephen, you’re scaring me,” she said, a hint of urgency now. “Is this about the email?”


With a shuddering breath, Stephen forced out the words. “I never wrote the email.”


Behind him, Allison sighed. “We talked about this--”


Stephen shook his head, still unable to look back toward Allison. “It’s not like that.”


“Well, then, what--”


“He’s dead,” Stephen blurted, the words harsh and horrible on his tongue. His throat constricted and his head ached. “Cutter’s dead.”


Allison stopped, words failing her for a moment. “But -- how?”


“I got an email,” Stephen said. “It happened about a week ago. There was an incident. He was shot.”


That wasn’t the whole story, and even the tidbits Connor had provided probably didn’t do it justice. Stephen didn’t know how much was covered by the Official Secrets Act and how much Connor was just sparing him the details.


Stephen wasn’t sure it mattered.


The only thing that mattered was that Cutter was dead.


He’d been able to live without his foot, but he wasn’t sure he could live without Cutter. He wasn’t sure of anything at all.


“Oh, Stephen,” Allison said, sighing as she sat heavily on his bunk.


He said nothing. He did nothing. There was just nothing.


Hesitating, she laid next to him, curling her body around him and draping her arm across him. She pulled him closer, burying her head into the back of his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she murmured softly.


Her arms were warm; her embrace was comfortable. The solace she offered was tempting, but Stephen was too empty to cry. He was too numb to grieve.


Because he was here, alive and well.


And Cutter was dead.


Stephen could make sense of a lot of things, but he didn’t know how to make sense of that.


-o-


Time passed. Stephen wasn’t sure how much time -- he wasn’t even sure how it was possible for time to go on. It didn’t make sense. Cutter was too smart to die. Cutter was too vitriolic to die. Cutter was too everything…


How could the universe be that cruel? To spare Stephen and take Cutter? It should have been Stephen.

It should have been Stephen.

That had been his job from the start. It was why he’d stayed on as Cutter’s student -- because the other man had needed the help. And Stephen had owed him that -- and so much more. And then, when the anomalies had started, Stephen had never left his side, putting himself in harm’s way to protect his friend.


He’s thought Cutter would be better off without him. He’d been so sure that Lester wouldn’t leave the team vulnerable. After Ryan’s death, after Helen’s revelations with the Future Predator -- Stephen had just assumed security would get better.


He’d counted on someone else to be there to watch Cutter’s back.


But that was his job.


It had been the only job he’d ever been any good at.


And he’d failed.


-o-


At some point, Allison brought him food. Stephen didn’t taste it and could barely bring himself to chew. He sat languidly on the bed, too spent to even put his prosthetic back on when Allison cajoled him to the shower. She helped him undress, steadying him until he found his balance before leaving him be.


He stood there, under the flow. The water pressure was unrelenting, and the heat was scalding -- the way Allison had always favored it. He closed his eyes, letting it wash over him.


He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. He wanted to rage and to fight and to protest.


But it was too late. And Stephen’s energy was spent.


When Allison came back, Stephen was still standing there, his skin wrinkled with gooseflesh under the tepid deluge.


She helped him out and dried him off. She settled for a pair of boxers before helping him limp back to bed. When she laid him down, he didn’t fight, staring blankly at the far wall.


Lingering, she ran her hands through his damp hair. She hesitated as if to speak, but thought better of it. On her way out, she flicked off the light, plunging Stephen into darkness.


And Stephen slept.


-o-


In the morning, Stephen woke stiffly. His body ached, and his tongue felt heavy. Sitting up was a chore, and his head felt woollen. For a moment, he fancied that it’d been a dream. A terrible nightmare.


But the cold, hard emptiness in his chest was still there, and he knew that fantasies had never been meant for him. Stephen was awake, and Cutter was still dead.


He sighed, pushing himself off the bed shakily. He limped toward his dresser in some vain attempt to find a shirt. Awkwardly, he staggered trying to get it on.


With that much done, he wasn’t sure what to do next. There was work to be done, but Stephen couldn’t actually remember what it was. He couldn’t think of anything except who was going to clear out Cutter’s house or try to make head or tails of his office at CMU. No one would know what was important and what wasn’t.


He should have been there.


He should be there.


The emptiness solidified, and he reached down, bracing himself on his dresser as he picked up his bag. He unzipped it, methodically putting as many pieces of clothes as he could fit. He was packing all his underwear when there was a knock at the door.


He looked up, and Allison peaked inside. “Hey!” she said. “You’re awake.”


Stephen nodded, vaguely remembering her ministrations from the night before. “Yeah,” he said. “About last night…”


She came in. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “But if it’s all the same to you, I would prefer it if you fed yourself this morning.”


“Sure,” Stephen said, then hedged. “But after that, I’m going. I’ll talk to David, see if I can’t get a ride back to the airport. I know it’s sudden, but--”


“But I’ve already talked to him,” Allison said with a gentle smile. “He said to take as much time as you need.”


Surprised, Stephen cocked his head. “But the work--”


“They can handle it, even with two people down,” she assured him.


“Wait,” Stephen said. “Two?”


Allison shrugged. “I’m going with you,” she said.


“Allison, I can’t--”


“You aren’t,” she said. “I’m insisting. You’ve been through too much on your own. I’m going to be there for you, as much or as little as you need me.”


“But the work--”


“Will wait,” she said. “If anything, this is a reminder that people always come first. Even ex-boyfriends.”


Stephen sighed. “Allison--”


She stepped closer. “We all need a crutch sometimes,” she said simply. “And there’s no shame in it. Let me do this for you.”


He looked down, shaking his head. “I still don’t know why you’re doing this for me.”


“You were my friend before you were my boyfriend,” she said. “And at this point, I think you should know you’ll be my friend pretty much for the rest of your life.”


“Thank you,” he said, lifting his gaze again. “I don’t -- I can’t--”


She reached out, squeezing his arm. “I know,” she said softly. “Now come on.” She moved back toward the door. “I’ve got breakfast waiting for you, and you’re going to have to hurry if we’re going to make our flight.”


Stephen gathered a breath. “Okay,” he said as Allison disappeared. He finished the last of his bag and then hobbled back to the bed, collecting his prosthetic and sitting heavily to put it on. Over a year ago, he’d left home.


Now, after everything, it was time to go back.


-o-


The flight back was crowded and rushed. Stephen found it hard to get comfortable, squeezed into a middle seat with strangers on either side. Allison had got them tickets on the soonest flight, but they hadn’t been able to get tickets together. If he craned his neck, he could see her at the back of the plane, but there was really no point to trying.


Instead, he tried to rest, closing his eyes to block out the ambient sounds as best he could. It didn’t work, and about an hour in he could feel a Charlie Horse start in his calf. He winced, reaching down in the cramped space to work it out but it didn’t do much good.


He felt sick most of the way, his stomach unsettled. It would be easy enough to blame on the turbulence, but Stephen knew better. He finally let his head loll to the side, half jamming his prosthetic under the seat in front of him to stretch his leg out, staring out the window numbly.


When he’d left, he’d been so hopeful. He’d thought it for the best. He’d thought walking away with his head held high was the best thing for all of them.


It shouldn’t have been a surprise to find out he might have been wrong.


-o-


They landed late, and Stephen felt tired and achy as they gathered their luggage. He was drowsy as he followed Allison out of the terminal, until a cool burst of London air hit him right in the face.


The familiar scent was startling, and he sobered quickly.


Allison looked up at him. “How’s it feel to be back?”


Stephen swallowed, shifting his stance. “Let me get back to you on that one.”


-o-


By the time they got out of the airport and into the city, Stephen was having trouble keeping his eyes open. Fortunately, Allison did all the hard work, organizing the cab and getting the loaded up, and when the car finally stopped, she nudged him.


He squinted, looking through the window. “Is this still your flat?”


Allison laughed airily. “My parents still harbor the fantasy that I’ll want to get married and settle down here.”


Stephen arched his eyebrows. “Not happening?”


Allison’s laugh sounded like a bark as she opened her door. “Not like they think it is, anyway.”


Stephen climbed out his own door, moving around back to gather his things while Allison paid the driver. “You sure they won’t mind?”


Allison looked at him as the driver climbed back inside. “If they think I’m staying here with my boyfriend, they’ll be ecstatic.”


“They still think we’re dating?” Stephen asked.


Allison flushed. “You’re not the only one with secrets, Stephen,” she said, picking up her pack. “Only some of us are still hiding.”


“Well, you could always lose a foot,” Stephen said. “That worked wonders for me.”


This time, Allison laughed out loud. “I’ll keep that in mind.”


-o-


Allison didn’t use the flat a lot, but it was comfortable and well accommodated. They didn’t have much in the fridge, so Allison went to get some carry out while Stephen got himself acclimated. The amenities of London were strange to him, and tried watching TV, but found the sounds garish and the lights over-stimulating.


When she got back, Stephen realized he was hungry and nearly devoured his entire serving of Indian food.


“At least you’ve got your appetite back,” Allison mused.


Stephen felt suddenly self-conscious. “I hadn’t realized how long it’d been.”


“It’s good,” Allison said.


Stephen slowed his chewing, feeling inexplicably guilty.


“Hey,” Allison said. “Don’t.”


Stephen looked at her, confused.


“You’re feeling guilty,” she said.


“How did you--?”


Allison shook her head dismissively. “For most of the time I’ve known you, you’ve had two emotional responses to everything: guilt and frustration. Both of which you cope with by getting really quiet and obstinately determined.”


Stephen furrowed his brow. “Then how do you tell them apart?”


“Context,” Allison said with a wry smile.


Sighing dramatically, Stephen picked up one of the beers Allison had brought back, taking a swig. “I just…,” he started, putting the bottle down and shaking his head. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”


Allison’s smile faded. “I know,” she said. “I never knew him like you did, but he was always so…”


“Alive,” Stephen said, smiling sadly at the irony. “I mean, when I first met Helen, I thought she was the most remarkable person I’d ever met. But then I met Cutter…”


“Did you ever tell him that?” she asked quietly.


“Tell him what?” Stephen said.


“How you felt about him,” she said.


Stephen sat back, gritting his back teeth together. “I don’t think I even knew how I felt about him,” he said. “All this time that went by, I’m pretty sure I still don’t know. He was...my best friend. And more than that. He was sort of the center of my world. Everything he did, I did. I didn’t have anything apart from him.”


Allison didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, she took a steady breath. “Did it make you happy?”


Stephen let out a harsh breath. “Sometimes, yeah,” he said. “I mean, there were times when it was just Cutter and I. When we were off in the field on some remote study. Or when we were working late in the lab. And we were just...in tandem. Perfect harmony. And I thought it couldn’t possibly get better.”


“But?” Allison prompted.


Stephen’s shoulders fell. “It was a lie,” he said. “Everything I told him was a lie, and most of what I told myself was a lie.” He sat forward again, sighing heavily as he ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t even know what’s the truth anymore.”


Allison sat forward, tilting her head down to look at him. “That’s a good place to start.”


“What?” he asked.


“Admitting that you don’t know,” she said. “Honesty. I mean, we’re talking about baby steps here, but I think they’re important.”


Stephen’s face contorted. “He’s dead, Allison,” he said. “This isn’t about me.”


“It is about you,” she said. “I mean, if you came back for him, you’re a little late--”


Stephen stiffened.


“I didn’t mean it like that,” Allison said. “I just -- you gave him everything. You gave him your entire life. And I’m not going to sit here and say he wasn’t worth it or something, but I just don’t know if you ever even asked yourself that. Because you deserve happiness just as much as he did. Whatever penance you feel like you owed him, you paid it. And then some.”


The emotions were hard to control, and Stephen felt his throat tighten. He shook his head. “He wanted to work through it,” he said hoarsely. “And I walked away.”


“I know,” she said. “Because that was what you needed. And that’s okay.”


“But he died,” Stephen said, his voice cracking. He inhaled raggedly. “He’s gone…”


Allison fell quiet. “I know,” she said finally. “I know.”

-o-


They finished dinner in silence. Allison excused herself to her room, and Stephen made himself as comfortable as he could on the couch. He took the time to take off his prosthetic, letting the skin breathe, propped up on the coffee table.


He didn’t bother with the TV again, but turned on his laptop, picking up Allison’s internet signal. He logged into his email, opening Connor’s email and typing out a quick reply for more information. Connor replied quickly -- almost unsettlingly fast -- and they quickly set up a time to meet tomorrow to discuss things.


Stephen then went through the rest of his new messages, deleting most of them without even looking. He filed away the work related items and flagged the ones from school, but after a few more minutes he found himself back at Cutter’s email.


He opened it, and though he knew the words by heart, he read them again.


The invitation was still there. Cutter had taken the initiative and reached out. Cutter had wanted to make things right.


Cutter died trying to make amends.


And Stephen let him die unrequited.


Guiltily, he turned the laptop off and settled back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. He wanted to sleep -- he wanted the vast nothingness of the unconscious mind -- but he wasn’t sure he wanted to wake up in the morning.


Because Stephen let Cutter die.