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Primeval fic: Five Times Nick Looked After Stephen (1/1)

June 3rd, 2013 (07:36 pm)
enthralled
Tags: , ,

feeling: enthralled

Title: Five Times Nick Looked After Stephen (And One Time Stephen Returned the Favor)

Disclaimer: I do not own Primeval.

A/N: For kristen_mara on her birthday. I hope this is enough Nick/Stephen angst, hurt, and bonding to make your day special! With thanks to lena7142 for her super helpful beta.

Summary: Stephen Hart was more than a student. He was more than a lab tech, too. He was more than a colleague or a partner. He was a friend.



1.

Nick made a face, looking over the file for the third time. He furrowed his brow, trying to process the salient facts. Finally, he gave up, putting the file aside and looking at the young man squarely. “Stephen Hart, then,” he said.

The lad nodded gravely, his blue eyes not meeting Cutter’s gaze.

Cutter sighed. The Dean had been patient, but it had been six months. Whatever had happened to Helen, it wasn’t about to un-happen, and life, apparently, had to go on. Helen’s classes had been reassigned, and even if her favorite art still hung in the house and her notes were all over the lab, her students still needed someone to look after them.

Most of them had quit already -- transferred out or changed their specialty. That just left this one.

Cutter sized him up again. Stephen Hart was vaguely familiar to him -- he’d seen the lad in the lab more than a time or two -- but he had to admit, the name didn’t ring any bells. Helen inspired many students, but she took to few, and Cutter couldn’t remember one she valued enough to actually introduce to him.

Not that he would have remembered. Cutter had little interest in being inspirational. He was too busy trying to make sense of his own handwriting to be bothered.

But this one -- seemed different. With his eyes downcast, he looked younger somehow, as if he didn’t know why he was here or if he belonged here at all. If he’d been a true follower of Helen’s, her disappearance would be especially hard to take. Helen elicited total devotion; to lose that...

Cutter cleared his throat. “So you’re still interested in evolutionary zoology?” he asked, trying to sound conversational.

Stephen’s eyes flickered toward him. He shrugged. “I was nearly done with my thesis.”

Cutter nodded. “Right,” he said, trying to remember. “Something about...migration patterns--”

“Of therapods,” Stephen clarified. “In the Permian.”

His eyes lifted this time. There was something unexpected in his gaze. The lad was bright, but timid somehow. He clearly wanted to be here, or he would have left.

But as Stephen faltered, Cutter reconsidered that. Maybe Stephen Hart had no place else to go.

Some students were like that. If they had no family, if they didn’t make friends easily -- sometimes study could be an apt distraction. And Helen always had been good about eliciting loyalty from her students.

Suddenly Cutter pitied him. Stephen Hart was the only person on this planet who was in a worse position because of Helen Cutter. And that was saying something. Helen had left Cutter with a mortgage, a soiled reputation, a mess of research, and an unresolved marriage.

She’d left Stephen Hart with nothing.

“Look,” Cutter said, leaning forward just a little. “I’m not nearly as...invigorating as Helen--”

Stephen stiffened.

“--but I have the research going to help you finish your thesis,” he said.

Stephen didn’t look up.

“Plus,” Cutter added. “I’ve got several trips lined up this year. Stay on with me, and we can go on them together. I don’t suppose you’re any good at tracking, are you?”

Stephen looked up at this, slightly cautious. “A bit,” he admitted.

Cutter grinned. “Perfect, then,” he said. “So should I tell the dean?”

Hesitating, Stephen appeared uncertain. “I’ll understand if you don’t want to take me on,” he said finally. “With...your wife...”

Blowing out a breath, Cutter sat back. “I only study the past,” he said. “I live in the present. At least, that’s my goal now.”

Stephen eyed him warily.

Cutter rubbed his hands together. “I may need some help with it, though,” he said. “What do you say? You think you can help?”

Finally, Stephen nodded. “Okay.”

“Good,” Cutter said.

He didn’t know how to go through Helen’s files; he didn’t know what to do with her things; but if he could help this one student make sense in the wake of her disappearance, then that was a place to start.

2.

The first few months after Helen’s disappearance were agony.

The next few years, however, flew.

Life was full; it was invigorating. Nick researched and he taught; he was published and he got grants. He flourished, and he knew it was largely because of Stephen Hart.

True, he’d taken the lad on as a favor in the start, but he’d quickly discovered they were a good team. Stephen’s attention to detail helped anchor Cutter’s wide scope, and when Cutter was so engrossed in the nitty gritty, Stephen was able to handle the big picture with ease. In the lab, Stephen knew where Nick kept his papers. In the classroom, Stephen at least remembered to show up when Cutter got lost in his research.

And in the field...

Stephen was invaluable in the field. It took some time, but it became plain early on that fieldwork was where Stephen was most in his element. He made a decent academic, but his passions were outdoors. He loved nature and animals, and during the long nights when they were camped out on expedition, Stephen talked about environmentalism and how they had to save the human race from itself.

He could track, and he discovered more things than Cutter could have hoped to on his own. And when things got dangerous, Stephen was damn handy with a gun.

Over those six years, Stephen Hart was more than a student -- the lad never did finish his thesis, anyway. But he was more than a lab tech, too. He was more than a colleague or a partner.

He was a friend.

The best friend Cutter could have asked for.

He was trustworthy; he was loyal; he was insightful; he was reliable.

So when they both overslept one morning during a remote dig, Cutter was more than a little surprised. Groggily, he turned in his sleeping bag, squinted over to where Stephen was still curled up in his own sleeping bag. Frowning, Cutter grappled for his watch to check the time.

His eyes widened. “Stephen,” he said. “I thought you were going to wake us at dawn. We’ll have missed the best light already.”

Grumpily, he pulled himself out of his sleeping bag, rifling through his pack to find a clean shirt.

“This is likely to put us behind,” he grumbled, sniffing one of the shirts. He sighed, taking the one he was wearing off and hurriedly putting on the other. “Our funding depends on this discovery.”

When there was no reply, he looked back at Stephen, who hadn’t moved.

Annoyed, Cutter balled up his dirty shirt and threw it at the other man. “Of all the days to be lazy,” he muttered.

It was a direct hit, but Stephen still didn’t move.

That wasn’t just unusual -- it was downright unheard of. Stephen was a neat freak, and he often objected to Cutter’s lack of hygiene during digs.

No, something was wrong.

His chest tightening, Cutter approached the younger man. “Stephen?” he asked. “I know I tell you to ease up, but this is not the time--”

His hand clasped Stephen’s shoulder, and the younger man moaned. Cutter’s stomach churned as he got a good look at Stephen’s face, and saw that it was flushed and sweaty. The climate was hot, but this wasn’t about the heat.

Cutter ground his teeth together, jostling Stephen again. “Stephen,” he said, more insistent now. “Wake up.”

Under his touch, Stephen moaned again, his brows knitting together in something like distress.

With trembling fingers, Cutter reached out, turning the younger man on his back. Stephen rolled lifelessly under his touch, his head lolling to the side as Cutter felt the heat radiating off his lab tech. Gently, he swiped his hand across Stephen’s brow, collecting the sweat and feeling the raging fever.

He swore. “You could have told me you were sick,” he muttered crossly, because Cutter didn’t really do scared. He didn’t really do emotions, which was why Stephen was so well suited to be his mate. With Stephen, he’d never had to do emotions -- the younger man was more closed off than he was.

But here Stephen was, feverish and unresponsive -- and they were alone, miles from civilization, with no resources.

And Cutter didn’t know what to do.

He had a PhD. He was an expert in his field. He had pioneered theories and spoken at seminars. He was published and well respected, and the go-to man for a vast number of paleontological questions.

And now Stephen was sick, and Cutter didn’t know what to do.

It could be malaria. Even yellow fever. It could be West Nile Virus or a respiratory infection. It could be an infected wound -- not that Cutter remembered him being injured in particular, but Stephen was the stoic type and Cutter wasn’t always attuned to such things. Then again, it could even be nothing more than the common flu.

It could be anything, but with a fever this high and no resources to treat it, it could get serious -- and fast.

It could kill him.

Cutter’s mind worked numbly.

“Stephen,” he tried again, cupping the flushed cheek. “Come on, Stephen. Wake up for me.”

Stephen’s face creased, and he whimpered, trying to pull away.

It was uncomfortable to see him that way, but Cutter refused to be deterred. Setting his jaw, he shook his head. “I need you to wake up now.”

Fevered as he was, Stephen would have had every right to keep sleeping. But Stephen never questioned Cutter, and he always did as he was asked.

Always.

Stephen’s dark eyelashes fluttered, and he blinked a few times before looking blearily up at the roof of their tent. He stared vacantly for a moment before his eyes tracked lazily toward Cutter.

He looked weak -- he looked helpless -- and Cutter felt unduly out of place. This wasn’t his job. He wasn’t a protector. He was the absent-minded professor, and Stephen was his loyal companion. A Watson to his Sherlock, and in his own brilliance, Cutter still found himself completely at a loss.

“The dig?” Stephen finally asked, looking more than a little confused.

“Might have to wait,” Cutter admitted. “You’re sick.”

Stephen seemed to struggle with that. “Thought it was nothing,” he murmured finally.

Cutter’s eyebrows went up. “So you have been feeling sick?”

Stephen hummed a little, eyes starting to close.

Cutter shook him. “Hey,” he said. “How long have you been sick?”

Stephen blinked a few times. “About...a week,” he said distantly. “Haven’t thrown up in a few days.”

“When did you throw up?” Cutter asked incredulously. “We’ve been together every waking moment.”

“Getting the water,” Stephen said. “Supply runs. It was worse when I moved...”

Cutter was gaping. “And you didn’t say anything?”

Stephen’s eyes were sliding shut again. “Didn’t want to bother you.”

“Well, good job with that,” Cutter replied tersely. When Stephen didn’t respond, he shook the younger man again, but this time to no avail. “Damn it, Stephen. Come on. Don’t do this.”

Don’t leave me alone. Don’t leave the decisions all to me. Don’t make me do this without you.

Because Cutter needed Stephen -- more than he’d wanted to admit. He didn’t know what the best choice was -- stay and try to fend off the fever -- or go back and risk ruining the dig.

But really, he needed Stephen. Not just on the dig or in the lab -- but in his life.

Which made the decision rather easy, in the end.

“Okay,” he said, letting out a breath. He nodded to himself. “Okay.”

Without any further hesitation, he unzipped Stephen’s sleeping bag, throwing it open. Making sure his keys were in his pocket, he hoisted Stephen into a sitting position. The younger man was limp under his touch, and his head dropped back, almost causing Cutter to drop him. He fumbled, drawing him close until Stephen was slumped against him, his sweat-soaked face against Cutter’s shoulder.

Awkwardly, Cutter tried to get to his feet without dropping Stephen. It was hard work to heft him up, and Stephen’s gangly limbs were cumbersome to carry as he cradled Stephen to his chest and got his legs beneath him. Stephen mumbled incoherently against Nick’s chest, and Cutter ducked out of the tent and carried Stephen into the daylight.

Their campsite was tidy -- thanks to Stephen -- and Cutter felt a pang of regret as he looked at their carefully stowed equipment. It was a day’s drive back to civilization. Leaving the equipment out this far unattended -- well, there was no telling what would happen. They could lose everything.

He looked Stephen, unconscious in his arms.

Suddenly everything didn’t seem so important.

“Come on,” he said to Stephen, not sparing the equipment another look as he started toward their car. “Let’s get you out of here.”

Stephen didn’t reply, and his breathing came in ragged gasps between his parted lips. His body was listless when Cutter deposited him in the passenger’s seat, buckling him in as best he could while his body slumped. He ran a hand over Stephen’s face once more, the scalding fever cementing his decision, before he ran around and climbed behind the wheel.

“It’s going to be okay,” he promised, stealing a look at Stephen as he put the car into gear. “I can promise you, I will make sure everything is okay.”

3.

When Connor Temple told him about the mystery at the Forest of Dean, Cutter went to find Helen. He wasn’t sure what he really thought about his wife anymore -- or if she was really still his wife, were she alive -- but over the years, he’d been most frustrated by not knowing. After all, his entire career was dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of the past, but the biggest unknown existed in his very own life.

He’d already pored over her notes -- with Stephen’s help. He’d already charted her last movements -- with Stephen’s assistance. He’d combed through every theory he could think of, left no stone unturned, because Cutter had to know.

For better or worse -- those had been his wedding vows. Somehow, they were still applicable here.

So when he heard a voice in the tunnels, he knew he could never walk away. She had haunted him in a way ever since she disappeared. But after the Forest of Dean, her presence had been stronger, almost palpable. She flitted in and out of his consciousness, evading him like a ghost. Maybe he was imagining it.

Maybe not.

It wasn’t like him not to find out.

Traveling through the tunnels, he hardly cared about the creatures still on the loose. The team would be back to secure the area -- it would be fine. He may never get another chance with Helen...

Then he saw it -- a figure. His heart raced and he surged forward, hesitating when he saw the dark form was masculine and too tall and--

Stephen.

Stiff and miserable on the floor, his lab tech’s grimy face was unmistakable and scrunched with pain. He knew without asking what had happened -- Stephen had got Abby out and come back for him. Cutter had been looking for Helen; Stephen had come looking for Nick.

Cutter’s stomach churned guiltily. It hadn’t been his intention to get separated, but he hadn’t tried so hard to get back.

Then again, he hadn’t had the motivation then.

He had it now.

Getting Stephen up was no easy feat, and when his only words were about Helen, the mix of emotions was almost overwhelming. Helen had been here; he could go see her, if he wanted.

But Stephen needed help. The pest controller had died, and if Stephen had been inflicted with the same venom--

Then it could already be too late.

Nick wouldn’t believe that, though. He couldn’t. This was Stephen. Helen could wait; Stephen couldn’t.

By the time they got to the surface, Stephen was slumped heavily against him and Cutter was all but carrying him. He slung Stephen onto the stretcher, and watched him go uncertainly.

“Tell them about Helen,” Stephen said -- his last, pain-filled words before he was taken away.

Claudia came up beside him. “What was that about?”

Cutter shook his head, because he didn’t know what to say. “He must be hallucinating.”

“He sounded quite lucid to me,” Claudia said knowingly, her eyes pinning Cutter critically.

She was right, of course. And so was Stephen. There was something more to this -- something about Helen. The questions were pressing in on him, and the thought of answers was ever more within his reach.

She’s waiting on the other side of the anomaly.

Cutter just had to go through. Cutter just had to find her.

He watched as Stephen was loaded into the ambulance, Abby not far behind. When the door closed, Cutter had to grit his teeth together. It should have been him -- he was the one who had wandered the tunnels. He was the one who had seen Stephen through everything else. If it hadn’t been for Cutter, Stephen wouldn’t be here at all. He’d be safe and healthy.

Now he might be dying.

Cutter let out a breath.

Stephen was dying.

Helen was waiting.

Cutter’s priorities had never been more clear. “We need to get this place secure,” he ordered.

Claudia balked. “That’s what we’ve been doing.”

“We need to contain the creatures, though,” Cutter said. “We can send the spiders back through, but I think we should try to keep the centipede around.”

“So you want to send more people down there?” Claudia asked, eyebrows arched.

Cutter looked at her. She was beautiful, he realized again. And good and capable. “My best friend was just bitten by one of those things,” he said, not unkind but firm, because surely she’d understand that. “He went back down for me.”

“Against orders, too,” she said.

“If the positions had been reversed, I’d have ignored you, too,” Cutter told her frankly.

She pursed her lips. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

He smiled slightly. “I have some respect for the chain of command,” he said. “But not when the people I care about are involved.”

“I didn’t realize Stephen was so important to you,” she observed.

Cutter pressed his lips together -- the fact was, neither had he. But seeing him injured on Cutter’s behalf -- knowing that it could be life or death -- thinking about Helen finding him and leaving him--

Cutter had never been more sure. “Now you know,” he said flatly. “So don’t try to stop me.”

She blew out a weary breath. “Let’s at least ramp up our reinforcements first,” she said. “And that’ll give you time to hear from the hospital to see how Stephen’s doing.”

Her tone was sensible, but there was a hint of compassion in her eye. “Thank you,” he said genuinely.

She shrugged. “The only way to keep you two from doing something idiotic behind my back is clearly to let you do it in front of me,” she said. “Consider it the lesser of two evils.” Then she nodded. “Now go. Find out how Stephen is. We’ll plan the rest from there.”

He wanted to thank her again, but there’d be time for that later. When Stephen was okay.

And Stephen had to be okay. Cutter would do whatever he had to do to ensure that.

Everything else -- Claudia and Connor and even Helen -- would just have to wait.

4.

It was tempting.

The present was a mess; the future was terrifying. Even his own past was riddled with lies and betrayal. His wife had used him; his best friend had lied to him for years. The woman he loved no longer existed, and a good man had died protecting him.

It was tempting to just leave it all behind. To stay in the past -- to explore and discover and find his own way. In truth, he’d never understood why Helen was drawn to this lifestyle so much. But standing in the past, the anomaly behind him, it was so damn tempting.

And of all the people to change his mind -- Stephen.

He wasn’t surprised to see the younger man; he wasn’t even surprised that he didn’t come grovelling or begging for forgiveness. That wasn’t really Stephen’s way; they’d always been able to communicate without saying anything, which was what Cutter had liked so much about him from the beginning. Stephen had understood him.

Of course, Cutter hadn’t understood him.

The devotion -- could have been guilt. The years of following quietly -- could have just as easily been his own form of penance.

The problem was, Stephen was right. Not about the affair or the lying -- but who was Cutter kidding? None of that had been Stephen’s idea. That didn’t make it alright and it didn’t make it easier...

But Stephen was right.

They went back together, but somehow it was still Cutter in front, Stephen a step behind -- the way it was supposed to be. They would work out the rest when they got back; they would talk about Helen, about the lies, about where this left them now.

But when Cutter looked back, Stephen was only halfway through the anomaly, face pained as he struggled--

The raptor.

It had him by the foot -- it was pulling him back. The anomaly was fading and Stephen was being dragged into the past -- permanently.

It was tempting.

Stephen had lied to him. Stephen had slept with his wife.

It would be a fitting punishment. If Stephen was looking for penance, trapped in the past would certainly do it. Stephen had forsaken his future, maybe. It would make things easier -- they wouldn’t have to talk, they wouldn’t have to forgive.

It was so damn tempting.

Stephen was straining, face pained as he yelled. Stephen would die, and Cutter would never know. Cutter would never understand--

His chest clenched in terror and he reached out, grabbing onto Stephen with every ounce of strength he had. Abby and Connor joined him, and they pulled, yanking Stephen through, the raptor still attached to his foot.

They had to pull harder. Cutter couldn’t let the past destroy them both. And there was no mistaking it now -- losing Stephen would destroy him. He didn’t know how to make things right with the other man, but letting it fall apart would never let any of them move forward.

And Cutter was ready to move forward.

With Stephen.

He gritted his teeth, pulling one last time and Stephen came through just as the anomaly closed, chopping the raptor off at the neck. The lifeless head fell to the ground as Stephen stumbled to his feet, supported by Abby and Connor on either side.

The adrenaline peaked. Then Cutter was left with the difficult truth. He couldn’t live without Stephen, but he didn’t know how to live with him either. Their past together didn’t close so easily as a fading anomaly. It was still there, ever present between them, nagging and relentless.

Stephen was breathing heavily, and as he tried to get his feet, he faltered. His leg gave out and he would have fallen if not for Connor catching him. Abby yelped, and Cutter found himself moving instinctively, helping lower Stephen to the ground.

“I’m okay,” Stephen hissed.

Cutter ripped at Stephen’s pant leg, working at the laces of his ruined boot. He winced while Stephen grimaced, and Cutter shook his head. “You’re a liar.”

Looking up, he met Stephen’s gaze. The younger man’s eyes were bright with pain -- both physical and mental -- and Cutter looked back at the foot. The sock was rapidly soaking up blood, and Cutter tried not to think about blood loss, muscle damage or possible contamination. Hell, who knew what that thing had in its mouth. The infection alone...

Cutter clamped his mouth shut. He forced himself to breathe. “Let’s get a medical team here--”

Stephen shook his head. “I’m okay--”

“No,” Cutter said sharply. “If we don’t get this looked at, we could lose your foot.”

Stephen’s eyes were wide, face paling. “Cutter--”

Cutter steeled himself, averting his eyes. “We’ll take care of it,” he said, stripping the sock off. “We’ll make sure--”

“Cutter,” Stephen said again, voice breaking just a little.

Looking up, he met Stephen’s eyes again and they sat, gazes locked. There was so much. Apologies and explanations; questions and answers. Regret and absolution.

“We’ll take care of it,” Cutter promised, because it was all he had.

Because, ultimately, there was no other choice. If the wound festered, Stephen would lose his foot.

If the wound festered, they’d all lose everything.

5.

It was a whirlwind when it came together. One lie after another, a string of betrayals, and Cutter realized that the depth of Helen’s deception went further than he ever could have predicted. When Stephen showed up after everything, Cutter had assumed the worst in him. Everyone else had let him down, after all, and Stephen’s track record wasn’t so good anymore.

But then he realized -- Helen had used Stephen. Again.

And the stupid bastard had believed her.

Because Stephen was stupid enough to still love her, because Stephen wanted to think there was still something good left in her, because Cutter had fired him and left him alienated and vulnerable and so badly informed.

This wasn’t Cutter’s fault -- but he certainly hadn’t helped matters.

When the choice had to be made, Cutter knew it was going to be him. Helen would never sacrifice herself, and Cutter doubted he could watch her die, even after everything. And Stephen --

He’d thought he’d known for sure. He’d been frantic to save Stephen’s life more than once. He hated the lies; he hated the history; but he couldn’t hate Stephen. Even after all this, there was no one he trusted more. Stephen would handle Helen now; Stephen would lead the team. Stephen could do it.

Stephen would.

But Cutter had misjudged Stephen, probably from the start. He wasn’t a reserved, uncertain student; he was a drifting lad who’d been seduced by his teacher. He wasn’t a dutiful, obedient yes-man; he was a conflicted and faithful friend who spent eight years trying to undo eight weeks. He wasn’t a belligerent traitor; he was a desperate man, trying to rebuild the shambles of his life.

He didn’t follow orders blindly; in fact, Stephen didn’t always follow orders at all, which Cutter remembered when he turned around and ran into Stephen’s fist.

On his feet again, Cutter knew it was too late. He begged and he ordered and he pleaded, but it was too late. One week ago, it might have worked. Six months ago, he knew it would have. But Cutter had been passive/aggressive; Cutter had been too busy sorting out his own issues to bother with Stephen. Stephen had been such an apt scapegoat, and there was always going to be time to fix it.

Until there wasn’t.

That day, Cutter watched as his best friend got ripped to shreds. He watched as the predators tore into him, taking him apart piece by piece. Stephen’s blood painted the floor, dripped from ravenous fangs as Stephen’s screams peaked and faded.

Cutter was still slumped against the door when Special Forces finally arrived, just minutes too late. He was curled up, tears on his face when they blasted the door open and went inside. He didn’t flinch when the gunfire started, and didn’t move until it was over, until someone called out, “We need a medic in here!”

At first, Cutter thought he must be imagining. He’d watched Stephen die; he’d seen the death of his best friend--

Still, as the medic ran by with a stretcher in hand, Cutter stumbled to his feet. The men at the door tried to stop him, but Cutter barely noticed, pushing and thrashing until he broke through the line and saw--

Blood.

It coated everything, bright red and grotesque. And there were pieces of flesh strew about, maybe a finger and--

Stephen.

On his back, Stephen looked small, surrounded by soldiers and the medic. His shirt was gone, the large slashes in his chest gory and messy. The gash in his stomach was oozing, the sight of tangled intestines was hard to miss.

He was missing several fingers and one of his hands seemed to be partially severed. His legs had fared better, it seemed, except for the right one, which was just gone above the ankle.

Cutter didn’t know how he could be alive, but the medic pressed a bag over Stephen’s face and went about starting an IV. They didn’t linger long, and another medic arrived, working to lift Stephen up and transfer him to the stretcher, whisking him toward the exit.

For the first time in his life, Cutter found himself trailing after Stephen. At the ambulance, he grabbed one of the medics. “Is he going to be okay?”

The man looked grim. “It’s hard to say.”

“I need to know,” Cutter said, all but pleading. “Please.”

The man’s countenance wavered. “If he survives, he’s going to have a long road ahead of him,” he said. “He’s going to need a lot of help, someone to look after him the entire time. In cases like these, sometimes the support of those around you means more than any medical prognosis.”

Cutter looked down at Stephen’s slack face, ghostly pale beneath the blood as he was rolled into the open back. “He’ll have that,” Cutter promised, refusing to look away. “He’ll have everything he could need, and then some.”

The medic nodded, climbing inside. “You coming?”

Cutter pulled himself up and found his spot next to Stephen. “There’s no place else I belong.”

And One Time Stephen Returned the Favor

The months that followed were hard. The mess Helen and Leek had made was extensive, and the intensive overhaul at the ARC was a massive undertaking. Cutter stopped trying to control that outcome -- Lester added a new security presence with Nick’s consent and when he introduced Danny Quinn as a second in command, Cutter recognized it for what he was. Cutter was being replaced, in a way, because his new job was helping Stephen.

If the recovery for the ARC was hard, Stephen was torturous. He spent the first three weeks after the attack in the ICU, barely held together with stitches and kept alive by machines. He underwent a number of substantial surgeries, first to repair the damage to his abdomen and to reattach his hand and one of his fingers. They started on some of the more cosmetic fixes for his face, but when the infection had turned to sepsis, all efforts had been diverted to keeping Stephen alive.

His heart stopped three times: once, in the ER. Twice, in the first surgery. The third time was in the second week, when the infection settled deep in Stephen’s blood and all measures to counteract it were failing. Cutter had been in the room for that one, barely cast aside as he watched the medical team struggle to save Stephen’s life.

Stephen survived. How, Cutter wasn’t sure. In the bed, Stephen looked like a shell of his former self. His skin was wan and sunken, his frame too thin under the hospital sheets. This had taken everything Stephen had, but Cutter couldn’t give up on him. He’d looked away too many times, he wouldn’t do it now.

He never left. It was Jenny who worked it out with the hospital staff, and Cutter only showered and ate when Connor and Abby showed up to take turns with him. The hours were long, and life became a surreal pattern of hoping and begging for Stephen to live.

Cutter squeezed his hand around Stephen’s languid fingers, and promised he’d never leave. If Stephen stayed, Cutter would stay. No more questions asked.

After three weeks, the worst of the infection passed but the doctors started talking about the long term prognosis. More cosmetic work would need to be done, and Stephen was a good candidate for a prosthetic leg. His skin was still a patchwork of scars, but his hair was started to grow back from where it had been shaved to put in the stitches on his scalp. They said it was lucky that his face had been spared the worst.

Watching Stephen, Cutter hardly thought the younger man looked lucky.

He would need months of recovery; he’d have to relearn to walk. He would be in chronic pain, possibly for years. His abdominal wall would likely never regain its full strength, and Stephen would probably never been able to run, track or shoot the way he used to.

And with the three times his heart had stopped, brain damage was still a possibility.

In truth, it was grim, but Cutter hardly listened to it. Stephen had to survive, and no matter what the rest of his life looked like, Cutter would be there.

He slept slumped in chairs; he knew the doctors by name. He joked with the nurses, and memorized Stephen’s chart down to every minute detail.

Cutter would always be there.

They extubated Stephen; they reduced his sedation. Stephen started moving more, making small noises in his sleep. It was just a matter of time, the doctors promised.

Then, one day when Cutter opened his eyes, Stephen was looking at him.

For a second, Cutter thought he was dreaming. But when he blinked, and Stephen’s eyes were still open, he found himself gaping. “Stephen,” he said, almost stuttering. “You’re--”

Stephen’s brows knitted together. “Awake,” he said.

Still gobsmacked, Cutter fumbled for something intelligent to say. “How do you feel?”

With effort, Stephen licked his lips. “Like I got ripped to shreds,” he said, far too keenly.

Cutter winced.

Stephen closed his eyes for a moment, taking a steadying breath. When he looked at Cutter again, he smiled. “I screwed up.”

“This wasn’t your fault,” Cutter said.

Stephen chuckled. “I trusted Helen,” he said, his voice sounding strained. “I think that makes it totally my fault.”

Cutter shook his head. “She’s a liar,” he said, vehemently. “You -- you’re a hero.”

Stephen looked incredulous. “I’m an idiot,” he said. He laughed again, this one sounding like a grimace as tears came to his eyes. “I didn’t expect to survive.”

“Well, you nearly didn’t,” Cutter told him. “Which is to say -- I’m -- sorry, Stephen.”

Stephen shook his head.

“You went in there for me,” Cutter insisted.

“A little,” Stephen said. “But I went in there to die. I -- expected to die. I never wanted to wake up again. I wanted this to be over.”

Cutter felt his heart start to break. “Stephen--”

But Stephen’s eyes were locked on him. “I’m sorry for doing that to you,” he said bluntly. He swallowed. “I’m sorry for doing this to you.”

Cutter frowned. “Doing what?”

“This,” Stephen said. “You’ve been living here, haven’t you? Like you owe me something.”

“Well you nearly died for me,” Cutter reminded him.

“Because you nearly died for me,” Stephen said.

“You don’t need to look out for me,” Cutter protested.

“But that’s what I’ve been doing!” Stephen said, his voice almost breaking. “Since the beginning, why do you think I came to your office? Why did you think I didn’t transfer?”

Cutter’s frown deepened. “I just thought you were lost--”

Stephen shook his head. “You were lost,” he said. “I’d slept with your wife, and your career was about to be in shambles. I couldn’t see you lose everything.”

Cutter’s face scrunched up. “What?”

“And in the field -- why do you think I stopped getting my degree?”

“Because you liked fieldwork,” Cutter said.

“Because you needed someone out there with you,” Stephen said. His eyes were bright now, his face flushed and his body shaking. “I wanted to leave, but I never knew how to do it without making it worse. Because I couldn’t tell you what happened. I’d invaded on your marriage enough. But I couldn’t leave; I didn’t know how to leave. Cutter -- I’m sorry.”

The words broke off with a stifled sob, and Stephen turned his head away as the tears started to fall. It was a silent, broken cry, and for a long moment, Cutter didn’t know what to do. He’d seen Stephen through everything, but he’d never seen him like this. Broken -- literally and figuratively -- and yet, stronger than he’d ever known.

Stephen had stayed for him. Stephen had chosen him, just as much as Cutter had chosen Stephen. Cutter had looked out for Stephen -- just like Stephen had looked out for him.

And Cutter couldn’t walk away now.

With an even breath, Cutter reached out, putting a hand on Stephen’s arm. The younger man flinched, trying to pull away, but Cutter held fast. “Stephen,” he said, voice low and confident. “I know you’re sorry.”

Stephen shuddered a few more times before turning back with tear-stained cheeks toward Cutter.

“But you need to know, I would have gladly gone in that room for you.”

Stephen shook his head. “It was my mess--”

“Our mess,” Cutter corrected.

“No,” Stephen said stubbornly. “I need to have my mistakes. I need to make it up to you.”

“Fine,” Cutter said. “Then get better.”

Stephen stopped, his forehead creased. “What?”

“Get better,” Cutter said flatly. “You looked after me in the cage room. I’m looking after you now. So you need to get better and take your turn again.”

“I slept with your wife,” Stephen reminded him. “I lied to you.”

“And then you stayed,” Cutter said. He sighed. “You stayed.”

Stephen blinked, clearly surprised. “And that makes it better?”

“I don’t know,” Cutter admitted. “But I’ve been here for a month by your side.”

Stephen paled. “A month? Cutter, you don’t owe me--”

Cutter shook his head. “I owed you the first week, maybe,” he said. “And you maybe owed me the first year. After that, it was my choice, just like it was yours.”

“This recovery -- it’s going to be long, though,” Stephen said. He glanced down at his body, which was still covered in bandages. He stared at the spot where his leg should have been -- but wasn’t. “Isn’t it?”

Cutter shrugged. “You gave me eight years,” he said. “Let me give you eight more and we’ll see where we are then.”

Stephen looked hesitant. “I won’t blame you if you walk away.”

“No,” Cutter said. “But I’d blame myself. Unless you don’t want me to--”

Stephen tilted his head. “Cutter, after all this, you really have to ask?”

“No,” Cutter said. “But maybe I needed to say it.”

Still, Stephen was adamant. “I know I just woke up, but I’m not stupid. I saw those creatures eat me alive. I know...” His voice broke, but he swallowed hard, pushing on. “I know what they took from me. I’m not going to be the same man I was. No one should have to sit there while I struggle with that.”

Cutter just scoffed. “You think that matters to me? That I’ll be bored? That I have something better to do? This is a fresh start, Stephen. We’re on the same page; we’re equals--”

Stephen cringed.

“I mean it,” Cutter insisted. “No more lies. No more guilt.”

“And you think it’ll be that easy?” Stephen asked.

“No,” Cutter said. “But I think it’s that important.”

Stephen’s blue eyes were still wet, and he still looked weak. But he nodded with resolve unlike Cutter had ever seen before in him. “I think I can live with that.”

Cutter just grinned. Because as long as Stephen lived, Cutter was pretty sure he could deal with the rest.

Comments

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: July 1st, 2013 12:40 am (UTC)
stephen happy

I had fun with the turnaround at the end :) Thanks!

24 Read Comments