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Primeval fic: Two Steps Back (1/3)

December 15th, 2016 (05:40 am)
hopeful

feeling: hopeful

Title: Two Steps Back


Disclaimer: I own nothing.


A/N: The next fic in what I’m calling the Making Strides Verse, follows after the events of The First Step. This serves as a fill for my homesickness prompt on hc_bingo. This is mostly unedited.


Warnings: Lots of OCs and canonical character death.


Summary: After leaving the ARC, Stephen moves on with his life. He’s just not sure where he’s actually going anymore.


PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE





-o-


Stephen narrowed his eyes, glancing only briefly at the ball as he dribbled from one foot to the next. Then, he lifted his gaze, eyeing the obvious gap in the defenses of the opposing team.


He hesitated, bracing himself as he pivoted, but despite his trepidation, the move was expert and seamless--


And entirely unanticipated.


Sensing his gap, Stephen drove hard, lengthening his stride as he took the ball between the defenders and saw the impending goal. The goalkeeper set his feet, and a fresh set of defenders from the backfield converged on him, blocking his path.


But not blocking victory. With all four defenders moving toward him, that left his teammate on the right wide open. He dribbled a few more paces before stopping hard and drawing back his foot and letting loose.


The impact reverberated up his calf and thigh, and the ball soared perfectly across the pitch, right into Allison’s purview. She took three quick dribbles before kicking low and hard to the left, and the ball slipped by the goalkeeper to win the game.


Allison threw her arms up, and Gareth stormed down, lifting her up and spinning her. Taylor and Swami weren’t far behind and David clapped him on the back. “Nice pass, Hart,” he said.


Stephen grinned. “Credit’s all Allison,” he said, nodding to her as she approached, all smiles.


“No, it’s not even fair,” Andrew, one of the defender’s on the other time complained.


Allison made a small pfft, thwacking Andrew upside the head. “You can’t blame us that you can’t play defense,” she said, before turning and beaming at Stephen. “Some people just know how to win.”


“All I did was make a pass,” Stephen said.


“I still say it’s not fair,” Andrew mumbled. “I mean, you’ve got Hart. He’s practically bionic.”


“Oi,” Allison said with a glare. “Only you would consider a footless man lucky.


“It’s not a big deal,” Stephen said, trying to intervene.


Andrew reddened with a scowl. “Still.”


“Still,” David said with a wicked grin. “He’s got enough of a foot to kick your arse.”


-o-


Back at the compound, Stephen filled his water bottle, using the first bit to douse himself down before downing the rest. Central Africa was hot, and even after a month, it still took some getting used to. He wasn’t complaining, though. The sweat on his forehead was a welcomed change from the air conditioned office he’d left back in London.


Even so, he crashed heavily into one of the chairs in the mess hall. The compound wasn’t much, but it was acceptably furnished and Stephen had always been a man of simple pleasures. Carefully, he lifted his foot with a wince, rolling up the pant leg to massage his calf, trying to work out one of the sore spots.


Behind him, Allison pulled her own bottle of water from the fridge. “Is it still pinching?” she asked.


Stephen looked closer, testing the harness that attached the prosthetic to his leg. “Just a bit,” he said.


“You’ve only had it a few months,” Allison pointed out. “Most people are still getting the basics of walking. You’re already playing football.”


“Well, it’s designed for activity,” Stephen said, pulling his pant leg back down and flexing the mechanical joint.


Allison chuckled. “You know, Andrew might be right,” she said.


Stephen gave her a quizzical look.


She took a drink before continuing. “I think maybe you are lucky,” she said. “I mean, look at you. A year ago, you lost your foot in a freak accident. Now, you’re running around the pitch in central Africa, happier than I’ve seen you since University.”


The assessment was positive, and it was accurate, too. Stephen was happy. He was doing conservation work, living and breathing in the field. He was with good people, making an actual difference in the world.


Yet, the realization of his own contentment brought an explicable pang of regret. Because he knew there was another group of people, also doing good work. They were also good people, and the difference they made would be one that most people would never even know about.


He wondered what they were doing. How the ARC was operating. He wondered if Cutter had accepted a replacement, if Connor had managed to track the anomalies. He wondered what creatures Abby had found and catalogued. He wondered if Helen had ever come back.


He wondered.


His calf spasmed, and he put pressure on his foot, abruptly getting to his feet. “Yes, well, this isn’t all about being happy, though,” he said. “Do you think those samples are ready for analysis?”


Allison rolled her eyes. “I didn’t mean it as an insult,” she said. “It’s okay to be happy. After what you’ve been through, you deserve that much.”


Stephen finished the last of his water, running a hand through his damp hair as he started back out of the cafeteria. “I know,” he said shortly, before giving her a brief smile. “Now back to work.”


-o-


Work was time consuming and tedious. It required a great deal of time and attention, and the only reason they played so hard on the pitch while samples were setting was because the rest of their time had to be spent in front of microscopes and computer screens.


It wasn’t exciting work, and it certainly didn’t pay well. The team lived off of whatever grants they could muster, and even then, the perks were minimal. You had to love this kind of work to make it on the job, which was exactly why Stephen found it so refreshing.


In a sense, it reminded him of the ARC, where everyone did what they could. But the ARC had a wide range; the conservation team kept things close to the vest. Everything was grand and cutting-edge with the anomalies. Here, the strides were minimal and measured, but no less important as far as Stephen was concerned.

Beside, it was better than the pencil pushing he’d done in the interim. Leaving the ARC had been the only option, but he hadn’t been well suited for much while getting acclimated to his prosthetic. Lester had arranged for him to transfer to a low level position within Home Office, where his job had mostly been to check paperwork and respond to emails. It had paid the bills and kept him adequately busy, but it had been dreadfully boring. As soon as his doctor had cleared him for long term travel, he’d taken Allison’s offer to join her team in the Congo.


Which was how he’d ended up here. The team wasn’t too large -- without counting local support staff, there were only a dozen people on site at any given time. Some of the other researchers found the company limiting, but Stephen appreciated the intimacy of it. The ARC had been large and sprawling -- so much so that he’d often felt lost. Here, there was nothing to get lost in -- except his work.


And get lost, he did.


Stephen had always been good in the lab -- much better at running tests than he ever had been at studying or teaching. He often preferred the grunt work, and had been more than happy to let Cutter to the extrapolating and publishing. While the jaunts with the ARC had let Stephen use his tracking and sharpshooting more often, he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed the lab.


Then again, Stephen hadn’t realized a lot of things.

Now, it seemed, he had no choice.


-o-


Remote as the work was, it wasn’t necessarily quiet. He’d spent years as Cutter’s right hand man, and while he had endured more than one of Cutter’s caffeine-inspired scientific breakthrough with long-winded and excited yelling loud enough to echo down the halls, much of that time had been passed in amiable silence. He and Cutter had learned each other’s nuances, and they had been able to work in close proximity without needing to use words.


That had been one of the biggest changes when they got involved with the ARC. The relative quiet of Cutter’s lab had been traded for Connor’s rambling and Abby’s reflections. He’d found the change welcomed at times, but he hadn’t been there quite long enough to know whether he thought the change for the best or not.


Now, after a few months with Allison’s team, he’d come to conclude that silence had its perks. Not that he didn’t enjoy company from time to time, but the team here was so isolated that they bickered and chattered like family -- at least, the way Stephen imagined family to be. As an only child, he’d never had much of it himself.


Andrew was the loudest of them all, and his off-beat commentary and often randomly brilliant insights reminded Stephen of Connor. Gareth and Swami were practical jokesters at heart, and sometimes Stephen found it remarkable that they got anything done with the way they carried on in their corner of the lab. Prasuna liked to sing -- always just slightly flat -- and Sam chewed his nails relentlessly. The others -- Rachel, Stanley, Stuart and Cedric -- told stories about home and what they missed most.


David was in charge, and he kept a loose watch. His style was laid back, and he tended to take a wait-and-see approach. When Stephen had questions, David rarely had answers, but merely asked Stephen what he thought.


At first, Stephen found it frustrating. But over time, he started to wonder if this was how life worked, outside of Cutter’s lab. Eventually, he found it somewhat liberating -- when his solutions mattered and his ideas held credence.


There were many things he missed about Cutter, but maybe there were a few things he didn’t miss, too.


-o-


At night, David made a point to be the last one out of the lab. He could smell dinner across the compound, but Stephen found himself lingering by his samples, trying to chart a few more cross-comparisons before checking out.


David stopped at the door, hand on the light switch. “Closing time, Hart.”


“Yeah, I’ll just be a minute,” Stephen said, furrowing his brow as he checked his numbers.


“That wasn’t a reminder,” David said.


Stephen looked up, a bit surprised by the sternness in David’s voice.


David gave him a steady look. “It was an order.”


“But I’ll just be a minute,” Stephen said. “I swear, I just wanted to--”


“It’ll keep,” David said.


Stephen’s mouth opened in protest.


“Stephen, you’ve moved to the Congo to devote your life to science and conservation,” David said. “You work hard all day and barely take your lunch break. You give more than enough to this job.”


Stephen found himself unable to speak.


“There’s more to life,” David said with a nod of his head. “Time to find it.”


With that, David flipped off the light, leaving Stephen in the dark. After a moment, Stephen put his pencil down and started out after him.


-o-


When he’d first been fitted with the prosthetic, Stephen had found himself an object of unwanted attention. People would stare at him, and he could sometimes hear small children ask what happened to your leg? Stephen wasn’t ashamed of his injury, but he took no pleasure in being the center of attention for it, even when well intentioned.


He’d handled it as well as could be expected, and he found that wearing pants usually made it easy enough to avoid. He answered questions as honestly as he could without violating the Official Secrets Act, and generally found that if he didn’t make a big deal out of it, no one else would either.


Until he moved to the Congo.


Living in such close quarters with a dozen other people made such things as privacy somewhat impossible. It was only a matter of weeks before personal boundaries were obliterated and Stephen found himself doing stupid human tricks in the cafeteria.


“I still say it’s not fair to let Hart play,” Andrew said loudly. “I mean, he’s literally made of metal.”


“One leg,” Gareth countered.


“Not even,” Swami added. “It’s a foot.”


“It includes the ankle joint, though,” Andrew said. “Doesn’t it?”


Stephen’s cheeks burned, but he nodded. “Yeah, it was a clean amputation above the ankle.”


“See,” Andrew said smugly. He looked at Stephen. “I’ll bet you can do some wicked tricks.”


Stephen made a face. “Why would I want to?”


“Because you can!” Andrew said.


“Oh for goodness sakes, Andrew,” Allison said. “You’re so immature.”


“No, I’ve read about the technology,” Andrew said. He nodded at Stephen. “I’ll bet you know all the specs to that thing, don’t you?”


Stephen’s blush deepened. “It’s not interesting--”


“I have heard they’ve made great advancements,” Stuart chimed in.


“Gives people a full range of motion,” Stanley added.


“And you seem really natural on it,” Stuart said.


“See,” Andrew said. “So tell us. What is it like?”


Stephen felt flustered, his chest constricting with the nonstop barrage of questions. He looked briefly at Allison, who gave him a look of resolve. She’d be his exit, if he wanted. He’d be within his rights to walk away. His teammates weren’t being callous, but they weren’t being particularly sensitive either, but this wasn’t about being politically correct.


This was about owning something. This was about being himself.


He took a breath, and shrugged. “It’s just like a foot,” he said. “One is flesh and bone; the other is metal and plastic. I don’t want to do spectacular things. I just want to do normal things, you know? When I lost my foot, I could have lost everything. But the prosthetic -- that metal and plastic -- it’s my second chance. Which I guess means more to me than anything.”


It wasn’t a fancy answer. It wasn’t as exciting as Andrew might have hoped or as insightful as Stuart and Stanley might have craved.


But it was the truth.


Not the easiest thing in the world, but Stephen figured there was a first time for everything.


-o-


In general, Stephen liked the team, but he spent most of his time with Allison. They were far past the idea of romance, but none of the things they’d liked about each other had changed. It was possible, maybe, that Allison might want something more, but Stephen found the idea of a relationship more than he could bear.


Besides, she was the one who had helped him get this far. She knew more than the rest -- about his falling out with Cutter, about his affair with Helen, about how hard he’d worked to stand on his own two feet again.


Even so, she didn’t know everything, and Stephen no longer harbored the false notion that true intimacy was possible with lies of omission.


That was a lesson learned the hard way, and he reminded himself of the risks every night when he took off his prosthetic and every morning when he hobbled to the shower without it.


-o-


The compound was their home base, but it wasn’t their main collection site. The bulk of their samples came from the heart of the forest itself, and the team had a network of outposts scattered throughout the region. In order to keep their data fresh, they always had a team or two in the field.


It was these stints that Stephen looked forward to most. He liked working in the lab, and he’d come to appreciate meals with his team or a pickup game of football, but being out in the Congo--


Well, that was why he’d asked Allison to get him a position on the team. The field had always been Stephen’s calling. His travels with Cutter had always been the highlight of his job, and the only reason he’d signed up for Helen Cutter’s course in Evolutionary Biology had been the practical applications of collecting data. He’d been a term away from dropping out and trying his hand at Greenpeace at one point.


But now here he was. It had taken him almost ten years and cost him his foot, but he was finally doing what he’d always wanted to do. Here, he was as much a part of the world as it was a part of him. It didn’t matter where he’d come from. It didn’t matter if he had a foot or not. He was just one part -- a small, practically inconsequential part -- of a much larger story.


A much better story.


There was no fight; there was no struggle. There were no lies or conflicts.


There was just the truth of the wilderness, rugged and unforgivingly beautiful -- and Stephen had never fit in anywhere, but he fit here.


Stephen had many regrets, but he didn’t regret this.


-o-


The solitude appealed to him but he was never truly alone. For safety reasons, they paired off for remote work, and no one had complained when Allison insisted they go together. She let him work mostly in silence, and she never complained when he let the conversation lapse, sometimes for hours at a time.


The quiet understanding was the best gift Stephen could ask for.


“Thank you,” Stephen said one night under the dark canopy.


Allison cocked her head. “For what?”


Stephen looked out, nodding. “This,” he said. Then he shrugged. “And everything. I was never very good to you.”


Allison swatted her hand through the air. “You’re my friend,” she said. “This is what we do.”


“You’ve done more for me than I could ever do for you,” Stephen said.


“You lost your foot,” she said. “I don’t believe in letting the universe kick people when they’re down. Besides, you’re not a total loss for me.”


Stephen looked at her quizzically.


“Having someone to call my boyfriend kept my parents off my back for years,” she said with a small grin.


Stephen tilted his head.


Allison sighed. “They hold out hope that I’ll do normal things someday,” she said. “Settle down, get married, have some kids. They don’t understand that this is my life. This is all I want it to be.”


“So, wait, you were using me?” Stephen asked with feigned hurt.


“Completely,” she said. “So when you called up and said you’d lost your leg, helping you out was the least I could do.”


Stephen laughed. “I still don’t think that makes us even.”


Allison shook her head. “I don’t think the universe works like that,” she said. “Fair and not fair. Things just...happen. Sometimes they’re good. Sometimes they’re bad. That’s why I don’t believe in mistakes. In nature, mistakes are just a starting point for something better.”


Stephen’s smile faltered and he looked down, eyes on his leg. “Maybe not all mistakes.”


Allison’s hand closed on his arm. He looked up, meeting her earnest gaze. “All mistakes,” she said. “And you’re living proof.”


“The miracle here is all about the science,” Stephen said.


“I’m not just talking about your foot,” Allison said.


Stephen bit the inside of his lip, but he didn’t have a reply.


After a moment, Allison sighed again, getting to her feet. “I’m going to bed,” she said. “Don’t stay up too late.”


He watched her go, listening as she hunkered down on the cot in their small shelter. He waited until her breathing evened out, until it was one sound among many. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, listening to the rising cacophony outside, letting it transform him, take him from himself until he wasn’t a man without a foot, he wasn’t the man who’d slept with his best friend’s wife.


He was just a man.


And that felt better than anything.


-o-


The distances were long, and the routes were remote. They traveled by jeep as long as they could, but reaching the remote stations still required extensive hiking through difficult terrain. It would be taxing under any circumstances. With a prosthetic foot, on the other hand--


Stephen winced, lifting his leg and kicking slightly at the knee. The muscles twinged, and Stephen could feel the brace cutting into the skin of his calf, starting to chafe with the sweat. He resisted the urge to reach down and adjust it, though. Because he didn’t want to let Allison know he was hurting.


“Stephen?” Allison asked. “You okay?”


“It’s nothing,” Stephen said quickly, taking another step and gritting his teeth to keep from showing any pain.


For all the good it did. Allison swore. “Why didn’t you tell me it was hurting?”


“It’s fine,” Stephen said, pushing on even as Allison trailed after him now.


“Like hell,” she said. “You’re practically limping.”


“Well, I am missing a foot,” Stephen told her curtly, pushing air out through his nose.


“That’s the point, Stephen,” she said, reaching up and grabbing his arm.


He stopped abruptly, turning hard with his face flushed and nostrils flaring. “I’m not an invalid,” he said gruffly. “If I’m going to be here, I’m going to do the job, just the same as everyone else.”


Allison didn’t flinch in the face of his anger. But she also didn’t ignore it, either. “But you’re not everyone else,” she said. “You are missing a foot, and you’re still getting used to your prosthetic--”


“I’m fine,” Stephen insisted, jerking his arm away.


“No thanks to your own hard head,” she snapped. “Come on, be realistic. You know that the conditions out here can make it hard to attach the prosthetic. And you know what they told you about how long it might take to build up calluses and get used to the nonstop pressure.”


Stephen’s chest felt inexplicably tight, and he shook his head. “I can do this,” he said, letting his voice drop low.


Allison’s gaze softened. “I know that,” she said. “But you can do it without rubbing your calf raw. And you can sure as hell do it after taking a minute to catch your breath and check your leg.”


It was so calm and so reasonable, that Stephen suddenly felt stupid. He swallowed, furrowing his brow awkwardly as he looked down. His shoulders slumped, his anger abating.


“Besides,” Allison added, “I used to make this hike with Stuart. Do you know how long it took us? That man stopped every half hour. I never got any sleep on those hikes because we got in so late that we had to work through the night just to get it all done. And don’t even get me started on Andrew. Complain, complain, complain.”


Stephen’s lips quirked into a smile.


Allison cajoled him. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s take a breather. And then you can race me on the last leg.”


“Okay,” Stephen relented, shifting his weight down to sit on a rock. “But you better not let me win.”


She snorted, slinging her pack down and sitting across from him. “I wouldn’t dare,” she said. “I sort of thing you might be bionic now, too.”


-o-


Stephen rolled up his pant leg, checking the prosthetic. He loosened it, letting the tender skin breathe. He doused it with water, rubbing his fingers over it to assuage the assaulted nerves. Then he stretched it out, taking steady even breaths and closing his eyes. The moment was suspended, and Stephen was suddenly very aware of himself -- his strengths, his weaknesses, his capabilities and limitations.


Had it only been a year?


Could it really have been that long?


He wondered what Cutter was doing. He wondered how the ARC was developing. He wondered about Abby and Connor. Even Jenny Lewis and Lester. He wondered if they missed him -- if anyone really remembered him at all.


Wearily, he opened his eyes, looking around the forest. Allison was wiping herself down with a handkerchief. Sometimes it was easy to pretend that part of him wasn’t missing. He could still walk and run and work, after all. But his foot was still gone. And the metal and plastic could do everything he needed it to -- and more -- but it wasn’t him.


That part of him was back with Cutter and the others.


That part of him was something he didn’t know if he could ever get back.


Sighing, he worked to reattached the prosthetic. He bound it snugly, moving it gently before getting to his feet. “Okay,” he said as Allison looked up at him. “Let’s go.”


-o-


The work with Allison’s team took most of his time, but after several weeks, Stephen found himself in need of something to do. After all, without some sort of alternative pursuit, he would be forced to play cards in the cafeteria or watch movies in the lounge. He wasn’t necessarily opposed to such recreation, but he found that if he didn’t have some time on his own, he started to feel restless.


Picking up his studies, then, had been a natural choice. He wasn’t a natural student necessarily -- and he didn’t take great pleasure in literature by any means -- but he was good at solitary pursuits, and he was tired of having unfinished business. He’d mostly abandoned his degree when Helen disappeared almost a decade ago, and while he’d learned a lot working for Cutter, the man had never been particularly good at teaching. Stephen had spent more time worrying about Cutter’s academic future than his own, and his languishing degree was evidence of that.


He had CMU transfer his records, and with Allison’s help, he looked over the updated requisites to complete the work.


“If you wanted to finish what you started, it shouldn’t take too long,” Allison said. “A few remote courses and then another term to finish your thesis. You could pull it off in a few years.”


Stephen considered this, but then realized he’d have to talk to Cutter about having his work transferred to him. Even if he talked to one of the other Teaching Assistants, it would require Cutter’s signature, and Stephen wasn’t ready for that.


“What if I did something different?” Stephen asked. “Scrapped the topic and started with something new.”


Allison chewed her lip. “It’s possible,” she said. “But you’d need to get a new advisor. And you’d basically be starting from scratch. It’d take you years.”


It had already taken him years, though. And he’d started from square one in everything else in his life, so why shouldn’t his degree be any different? This was going to be his, in the end. Not Cutter’s, his. It was going to carry his name -- and no one else’s.


“I think I still have a few contacts back in the department,” he said.


Allison raised her eyebrows. “You certainly aren’t going to make things easy on yourself, are you?”


Stephen smirked. “Why start now?”


-o-


It was the little moments Stephen missed.


Sometimes, when he was nursing his first cup of coffee, he could hear Connor talking about comic books and cult TV shows, slipping in brilliant scientific insights on the side. When he was out in the trees, he would go very still, watching the animals carefully from a distance, thinking about how much Abby would have loved to see it.


And he missed Cutter’s familiar clutter, and the simple patterns they’d fallen into after so many years side by side. He woke up some mornings, thinking about Cutter’s early lecture. At the end of a term, he wondered who was entering the grades.


He missed Cutter, his Scottish brogue and his gruff concern. He missed the man’s unexpected humor and his disorganized brilliance. He missed the trust in his eyes, the friendly pats on the back, the way they’d been so comfortable in each other’s spaces, almost two halves of a whole.


But those halves had been unequal, and two broken people could never make a whole. Fondness was friendship, and memory wasn’t a life.


Still, there were times he missed the wanton sound of an anomaly call, and that rush of adrenaline, the feeling of anticipation that everything was about to change.


And hardest of all, he could still hear Cutter’s invitation to come back, twinkling like an anomaly, just begging for him to go through.


Stephen knew better, though. He knew what happened when people went through anomalies. Going through, after all, was easier than coming back.


-o-


Stephen thought a lot about the past, even though he tried hard to keep his mind in the present. He was working on his degree, but even that was more of a present concern rather than part of his long term planning. Allison’s team, however, was always looking toward the future.


David talked about funding, about securing new grants and expanding his work. He wanted to set up another compound, create more interior testing sites. He thought, if they could collect more samples, they could make new discoveries and keep their work going for years.


Andrew talked about going back and finishing his degree. He was applying to universities all around the world, looking for the most exciting doctorate programs he could imagine. This work was just short term, a stepping stone. To what, he wasn’t sure, but he was pretty sure it was going to be better still.


Prasuna wasn’t sure, but she did know that she didn’t want to go back. Her family was starting to look at suitors in an arranged marriage, which meant she had to keep working and keep working hard. If she never went home, they could never pair her off.


Stuart had a daughter, ready to start university next year. Rachel was engaged to a man who lived in South Africa. Stanley wanted to get back to see Manchester United play a game or two. Even Allison, who had no ambitions outside of conservation, wanted to move to Asia to study the rainforests or to try a stint in Antarctica because she hadn’t been there yet.


“What about you, Hart?” Gareth asked finally, when the conversation lulled.


Stephen shrugged, doing his best not to blush even if the hair on his neck prickled with the unwanted attention. He could show people his leg; he could talk about science; he was even good for a game of football -- but questions about himself were almost unbearable.


It made him regret coming sometimes. But they meant well. And they were good people. If Stephen couldn’t handle a little innocent conversation, then he didn’t belong anywhere.


“Haven’t thought much about it,” he replied honestly. “All the plans I thought I had changed after my accident.”


“But you can do anything,” Swami said. “I have seen you walk. You’re more athletic than almost anyone I know.”


Stephen smiled. “If it were just a question of physical therapy, I’d be all set,” he mused. “But it changed more than that, I think.”


“Well, that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?” Allison interjected. “We can’t change the past, but the future -- well, that’s whatever we make it out to be, right?”


David lifted his water bottle. “Here, here.”


The others joined in, tipping their bottles together and taking long swigs. Allison held his gaze and inclined her head, until he lifted his own bottle and took a drink.


-o-


As the weeks went by, Stephen started to invest more heavily in his studies. One of his old contacts had paid off, and with a new advisor, he was able to take a few classes remotely, organizing a few items as independent studies to boost his credit hours.


The work was harder than he remembered, though there had been a reason he’d asked Helen for extra help -- and it hadn’t all been his crush on her. He’d needed it to pass the class -- he’d spent most of his time during his undergraduate years moving from one major to the next, dropping out of degree paths when the work got over his head.


It had been a moot point with Cutter -- at that point, he hadn’t been worried about his degree -- but now that he was committed to it, he was determined to do it right.


If he could learn to walk after losing a foot, he could certainly pass a few online courses.


He worked. He studied. He did his papers late at night in the lounge, sometimes waking up with a crick in his neck and his stump propped up on an ottoman.


“Man, that’s just weird,” Gareth commented as he came in one morning while Stephen sleepily put his prosthetic back on.


“It’s not comfortable to sleep with,” Stephen muttered.


“I just don’t even think of you like that,” Gareth said. “You don’t act...I mean, you don’t seem--”


Stephen looked up with a smirk. “Crippled?”


Gareth blushed.


“It’s okay,” Stephen said, tightening the last strap and getting to his feet. “For what it’s worth, I try not to think of myself as crippled either.”


-o-


At first, Stephen thought about how his life used to be. But then, hours went by when he wasn’t reminded of the ARC. Days started to pass without thinking of London as home. Cutter was an intermittent thought, passing idly through his mind when he was busy with other things.


There was a lot to do, after all. There was always data to process, and countless tests to run. Stephen was good at making sure all the files were in order, and he found himself working late with David to make sure they hit deadline.


His classes took even more time, filling his odd hours and keeping him up late. He ate and drank on the go, keeping active with games on the pitch and turns out in the trees. There was no time for the past; the present kept him busy enough.


Sometimes he was so busy that he almost forgot what started this at all. He didn’t think about Helen, and he didn’t think about anomalies opening and closing at will, tearing holes through the universe with implications he could never begin to understand.


But then he’d be hunched over his laptop, working on his latest paper, before scratching at a wayward itch on his leg. When his fingers hit metal, the memories came back and he wondered how he ever forgot in the first place.


-o-


When he got his first set of grades back, he found himself disappointed. They were passing marks, but nothing spectacular, and while that had never bothered him before, this time he felt like he had something to prove.


He worked harder. The more time he spent studying, the harder he worked out. He became ruthless on the pitch sometimes, driving himself harder even when everyone else knew it was just a game.


“You’re internalizing,” Allison told him one night as he toweled off after a game.


“Excuse me?” Stephen asked, still working on catching his breath.


“You’re turning everything inward again,” she said. “You used to do this when we were dating.”

“We’re not dating anymore,” Stephen replied.


Allison’s gaze narrowed. “And for good reason,” she reminded him. “But this isn’t about us.”


“Then what is it about?” Stephen asked sharply.


“It’s about you,” she said, not backing down. “You’re looking for approval in all the wrong ways.”


Stephen’s brow wrinkled. “What are you talking about?”


“You think because you got a few mediocre grades and have a prosthetic leg that you need to work harder and be better than everyone else,” she said. “Like you have to earn something.”


“I do,” Stephen said. “We all do.”


“Sure, but you’re missing something pretty simple,” Allison said. “You already earned it. If you’re going to be part of this team, you have to stop trying to win something. The only person you’re competing against is yourself, and I’m pretty sure you’ll never be happy with the impossible standards you’re setting.”


Stephen set his jaw. “And what would you have me do?” he asked. “I’m 34 years old, Allison. I have no degree. I have no foot. The only reason I have a job is because I begged my ex-girlfriend to take pity on me. I have nothing to show for my adult life.”


Allison lifted her chin. “I’m sorry you see your time with us so poorly,” she said. “Because I see a man who lost more than most people could ever imagine and started to put himself back together. I see a man who is stronger than any other person I’ve ever met. I see a man who could do anything if he stopped thinking about what he isn’t doing. Make your choices, Stephen. And stop being a jerk because deep down you still hate yourself.”


-o-


That night, Stephen lay awake in bed, trying to sleep. His mind was racing, though, and every time he managed to get comfortable, his leg would throb. It happened from time to time, but had happened less since he moved to the Congo. The pain was entirely psychological, a deep ache in a foot he didn’t have, which made it impossible to get rid of.


He worked his fingers into his stump, pulling at the healed flesh so hard that it brought tears to his eyes. Nothing helped, though. The ghosts of his past were just too strong. It was his leg -- it was the ARC and Cutter -- it was everything he didn’t have, everything he’d never have.


It was the worst pain Stephen had ever known.


-o-


At dawn, Stephen was propped up outside against the wall of the cafeteria, looking across the grounds of the compound. He had dozed lightly in the early hours, leg outstretched with his stump exposed. He was watching the sun come up when Allison sat down next to him.


For a moment, they sat in silence before Allison took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” she said.


Stephen shook his head. “It was my fault,” he said. “You’re right about me. All of it.”


Allison sighed. “Not really,” she said. “I mean, that’s just you at your worst. And we all have our worst, and I’ve got no right to judge.”


He turned his head to look at her. “No, I needed to hear it,” he said. His shoulders slumped. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time.”


“Hey,” she said, nudging him. “You’re doing much better than I ever would in your situation. I’d probably still be moping around about the fact that I didn’t have a foot and you don’t even think twice about it.”


Stephen looked down at his leg. “I’m not sure what it says about me that losing my foot is the least of my problems.”


Allison laughed sympathetically. “You’re not the only one,” she said. “We all have problems. For most of us, it’s just not as obvious.”


Stephen sighed. “Every time I think I’m getting somewhere, it’s one step forward and two steps back.”


Allison grinned. “There is a bright side, though.”


Stephen looked at her. “Oh?”


“You’re taking steps,” she said. “Not bad for a guy without a foot, huh?”


Stephen chuckled. “No,” he said. “I reckon not.”


-o-


Stephen worked. He studied. He played football and spent time with the team. His grades improved, and he had fewer issues with his leg. It wasn’t always easy, but it got better.


After losing a leg, he’d learned to walk.


Now he just had to learn to live.


-o-


Then, Stephen got the email.


To be fair, he got lots of emails. He traded regular emails with people at the compound in order to keep track of the data and paperwork. With the courses he’d been taking, he’d spent a lot of time in correspondence with professors and librarians, trying to get access to more recent literature for his studies. There was the usual junk mail, and the occasion note from one of his mother’s cousins, who was, as far as Stephen could tell, his only remaining relative.


But this email was from Cutter.


At first, Stephen could scarcely believe it. He thought he’d misread or perhaps looked into some old messages he’d kept for the scientific information. But it was new -- and dated today.


For a moment, Stephen didn’t know what to do. He stared at the name and the address and felt at a loss. He and Cutter hadn’t parted on bad terms, but they had been decided. More than that, they had been Stephen’s. Cutter had wanted him to stay -- had damn near begged him. Stephen had insisted, however.


Over a year later, sometimes he couldn’t quite believe he’d done that. There were times when he would give anything just to go back and take Nick up on the offer of absolution.


But it never would have been that easy. If losing his foot had taught him anything it was that the past was not to be ignored. It would come back -- and it would leave you less than you were before. He’d left with the hope not just of walking -- but of being a better person for it all.


He couldn’t have done that with Cutter. With Cutter, things were difficult and messy. There were too many emotions, too many secrets, too many glaring truths. With Cutter, he was still 22 years old, reeling from the loss of his first love and the stunning guilt of how wrong he’d been. He’d only stayed on Cutter’s service to make it up to him -- as a form of penance for sleeping with his wife.


It was only all these years later -- and a foot less -- that Stephen saw how foolish he’d been.


Things had changed, though. Stephen had changed. Cutter had let him walk away -- but not without hope.


Hope was a powerful, transformative thing. Hope let a crippled man walk.


Hope.


Stephen clicked on the link.


-o-


It was a simple message, which was really just like Cutter. Brilliant as he was, the man was horrible with technology, and he had no affinity for computers. Which was really the only reason Stephen did -- someone had had to use one between them, and while Cutter was jotting notes on napkins, Stephen was frantically typing to transcribe it all in some coherent fashion.

Stephen--


I had the misfortune of working with Helen recently. She asked about you. It was none of her business, but I sort of wish it were mine. How are you?

It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t need to be. It was simple; friendly; casual.


And more.


The reference to Helen was telling, but Stephen detected no malice in the tone. It was possible, then, that Cutter had forgiven him for that. That maybe once the shock of the revelation had worn off, Nick had decided he hated Helen more than Stephen. The enemy of an enemy.


More than that, Cutter was trying. Cutter was reaching out. All the time that had passed, and Cutter was still thinking of him.


It was the best feeling in the world.


It was also the most terrifying.


The idea of it was tempting. Going back, being Cutter’s right-hand man. Starting over with no more secrets.

But Stephen wasn’t sure he could go back. He wasn’t sure he’d fit at all. Or if it’d be like a prosthetic limb, functional but unnatural.


Did he want that?


Did he even know what he wanted?


And what would he even say to Cutter? How could he possibly just reply, like nothing had happened? How could he ever put all the regrets and hopes and fears into a single, simple email?


All these steps forward, and suddenly Stephen was back at square one.


-o-


Most of the time, Stephen was a man of action. He didn’t care to be indecisive, and most of the time he saw no reason to waffle.


Unless a Cutter was involved.


Nick and Helen Cutter had the peculiar ability to make his rational mind lose its focus. They made his emotional stability plummet until he was nervous and giddy all at once. When it came to a Cutter, Stephen was a mess.


He spent three days staring at the email. He reread it when he was entering data. He memorized it when he was supposed to be studying. He knew it by heart, and he said it like a prayer before he fell asleep each night.


He sat down every few hours, determined to reply. But as he sat, fingers poised on the keys, no words came. Nothing came.


In the entire time since Stephen had lost his foot, he’d rarely felt lame. But staring at the blank computer screen, his cursor mocking him, he felt more crippled than he ever had before.