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Black Tulip Fiction
QI Fic: Spoonful of Sunday 2/4 
14th-Jan-2017 05:26 pm
***

Part 1/4 + Header Info





A few days later Stephen is back at the café for a quick lunch in between boring departmental meetings. Alan waves at him from behind the counter, lifting a forefinger briefly in universal ‘just a sec’ gesture and so Stephen goes to find a free table. It’s a busy lunchtime and Stephen manages to squeeze himself into a corner, finding one of the few free tables.  Alan is clearly rushed off his feet and Stephen refuses to pout because he doesn’t have his full attention.  A few minutes later though Alan has placed a large cup of coffee on the table and left him with a sandwich and a muttered “Back in a minute.”

Stephen takes a mouthful of the coffee and looks around. He’s beginning to recognise some of the people here as Alan is building up a regular clientele and Stephen nods to a couple of people he knows. There are a few strangers though and Stephen is a little perturbed to notice in the corner opposite him is a homeless looking guy who is clearly pissed off about something. He’s glaring at Stephen as though Stephen was personally responsible for all the ills that had beset him.
The man has long straggly hair and a beard and is wearing a faded Star Trek t-shirt and jeans. He has a sandwich in front of him and is intermittently taking bites of it whilst giving Stephen a stink-eye. He doesn’t seem to be paying attention to anybody else in the café and Stephen shifts a little uncomfortably.

“Here.” Alan is back in front of him. He places a plate on the table with three cupcakes on it. “I want you to try these,” he tells Stephen. “They’re possibilities for the party.  Let me know which you prefer, if any that is. If you don’t like those I have plenty of other ideas.”

Stephen takes another mouthful of coffee to wash out the taste of his sandwich and bites down into the first mini cupcake.  It’s delicious, topped with a Malteser and with a buttercream topping that he can’t quite place. He glances up and over at the homeless guy.  If anything he looks even more pissed off than he did before. If that’s possible. He’s glaring fiercely at Stephen and bites into his sandwich as though he were tearing a chunk out of some helpless victim. Stephen tries to ignore him but truth be told he’s not used to such open animosity from random strangers.

He licks his fingers and then pops the second cupcake in his mouth. This one he can recognise straight away; strawberry with a white chocolate buttercream topping. It too is delicious and Stephen wonders whether he can ask Alan to make more than one type of cupcake. They’re just the right size, a mouthful of heaven. Stephen picks up the third one. This one he recognises from Alan’s stable of cupcakes that he sells. It’s a carrot cake cupcake and Stephen has had these before.  Truth be told he’s rather partial to them which is why he imagines that Alan has chosen it as one of the options. He pops it into his mouth and chews reflectively on it. He doesn’t want to cause Alan any more work than he needs to so he reckons he should just go for one flavour of the cupcake rather than two or three as he would like. Alan is already doing more than enough for the party as it is.

“So what do you think?” Alan is standing in front of him again, appearing like a jack-in-a-box.

“They were all scrumptious,” he says. “As you jolly well know.” He smiles up at Alan. “But I think for the party being in the summer the strawberry and white chocolate would go down best. What do you reckon?”

Alan puts his hands in the front of his apron. “If you only want one then that’s fine but I can cook more than one type if you liked either of the other two?” He looks eager to please and Stephen hesitates for a moment.

“Well like I said, they were all delicious. What was the topping on the Malteser one?” Stephen asks.

“Malt buttercream,” Alan answers. “It’s an American recipe I found and thought I’d try out.  I substituted Horlicks for the flavouring and it seems to work quite well.”

“It was very nice,” Stephen replies. “Okay, if you’re determined and have time,” he holds up an admonishing finger, “then I’d like a couple of options please. The strawberry and white chocolate and the carrot cake would both work really well.”

Alan grins at him. “See,” he says, “You can be wild and experimental if you really want. Two types of cupcakes it is then.”

The homeless guy is shaking his head and Stephen looks up at Alan. “Who’s the guy over there?” he asks, lowering his voice. “The homeless looking guy in the corner. “

Alan turns and stares, and then he looks back at Stephen. “Homeless guy,” he laughs. “That’s not a homeless guy although he looks like it at times. That’s Bill. He’s got a day off work and for some reason he decided to come stalk my café. I have no idea why he looks as though he’s constipated or some other such thing.  Don’t let him bother you. He’s pretty harmless really.”

Bill! Stephen’s heard much about Alan’s friend who helped him deal with the fallout with his ex, and was the reason Alan had chosen Nottingham as a place to start afresh, but this is the first time he’s seen the man. Stephen wonders why Bill is scowling at him though and somehow he doesn’t really believe Alan’s ‘he’s harmless’.  He suspects from the looks that Bill has been giving him that he’s anything but harmless especially if he were to do anything bad to Alan and he wonders whether Bill is here to check him out.  He lifts his coffee mug to Bill in salute and gets a scowl in return.

“Seriously Stephen.” Alan pushes an errant curl behind his ear. “Ignore him. If he’s bothering you I can always say something to him if you’d like.” He turns and looks over at Bill and gestures at him with his hand, almost as though he’s telling him to calm down.

“There’s no need,” Stephen tells him. He suspects at some point he’s going to make a proper acquaintance of Bill and doesn’t want it tinged with any kind of animosity, well no more than Bill seems to already be harbouring.

“Okay,” Alan says, picking up the cupcake plate. “Well if you’re happy with those two cupcake choices that’s what we’ll go with. Let me take your plate and I’ll get you another coffee. It looks as though this one has gotten cold before you finished it.”

He leaves the table and Stephen takes a glance at Bill. He flashes him a smile and gets a scowl in response but he wasn’t really expecting anything else. He picks up his sandwich and takes a bite.  He needs to head back to the office shortly for a meeting he has scheduled and he can’t be late.


***

Bill stays until closing time, munching his way through two sandwiches and three cookies as he reads The Guardian from cover to cover, scowling at the paper almost as fiercely as he’d scowled at Stephen. Alan sighs a lot but doesn’t say anything. Long friendship with Bill has taught him that it’s best to ignore his occasional bouts of protectiveness. If confronted about it Bill will just adamantly deny having any such mushy feelings and sulk for weeks, refusing to talk about anything but politics and angling.

As the last paying customer leaves – Bill’s saved his hide figuratively and literally enough times that Alan’s not going to charge him for coffee and food, the least he can do without either of them actually having to talk about their feelings on the matter – Bill brings his plate and cup to the counter, neatly folding the newspaper back into its rack.

“Here,” he says, “not terrible.” It’s as close to gushing thanks as he gets.

Alan grins and puts the dirty dishes away, continuing to wipe the display cabinets.

“So,” Bill continues after a minute’s companionable silence. “That was Stephen.”

“Yep, that was Stephen.” Alan fixes Bill with a steady gaze. Any sign of discomfort now and Bill will take it entirely the wrong way. “He’s a good man.”

Bill regards him quietly for a while before nodding once. “I’ll make up my own mind about that in due time,” he says gruffly.

Alan beams at him because this is Bill acquiescing to the fact that there will be a time in the future for him to get to know Stephen because there will be a future where Stephen is in Alan’s life. And regardless of the exact shape of that, it’s enough to make Alan happy.

“Right,” Bill says, clapping his hands together decisively. “I’m off. Got better things to do than hang around here all day checking up on your new special friend,” blithely ignoring the fact that it has been his choice to spend the day in Alan’s café doing just that.

With a wave of his hand he’s out of the door, leaving Alan laughing quietly to himself.


***


Text message from Alan, Friday 17.46
Hi Stephen. What are your thoughts on tartines? I was thinking something like figs with blue cheese and ham?

Text message from Stephen, Friday 17.52
That sounds interesting. I suppose it depends on what type of blue cheese you were intending to use. It would all work very well with a cold fresh white.

Text message from Alan, Friday 18.05
If you say so... I'm just taking care of the food. The drinks are your concern.

Text message from Stephen, Friday 18.13
Yes the drinks are my concern. Also try not to have a coronary before Sunday. That would be rather pointless :)

Text message from Stephen, Friday 18.30
Are you stressing, Alan? Do try not to dear boy. It's just friends after all.

Text message from Alan, Friday 20.11
Shut up with your dear boys you over educated bastard. I'm making a dark and white chocolate cheese cake which is going to be better than 90% of sex you've ever had.

Stephen raises an eyebrow at the phone. "Is that right?" he wonders out loud though there is no one to hear him. "Well they do say the proof is in the pudding…” Stephen grins softly to himself, before answering.

Text message from Stephen, Friday 20.15
I look forward to the cheesecake. And don't even start on over educated bastard. I know full well just from talking to you that university has been part of your life at some point.

Text message from Stephen, Friday 20.18
And stop baking now! It’s past 8pm on Friday and surely time to relax.

Text message from Stephen, Friday 20.37
Alan…?

Text message from Alan, Friday 21.12
Oh my god, fine, the cheesecake is done and so am I!

Text message from Stephen, Friday 21.13
Excellent. Good night, Alan.

Text message from Alan, Friday 21.15
Good night, Stephen.


***


The sun is blazing down as Stephen pulls into the car park behind Alan's shop. The weather is a pleasant surprise as the forecasters had been ominously talking about rain all week. Stephen parks the car right outside the door, it's a Sunday after all and majority of the shops are closed so he's not competing with anybody for space.

He sends a quick text to Alan to let him know that he's arrived and opens up the boot, which thankfully has a lot of room. Stephen leans against the side of the car and lifts his face to the sky, closing his eyes and enjoying the warmth of the sun.

He finds it astonishing that Alan actually agreed to do the catering for him, and not only that but a little guilty at leaving it so late. Alan had looked extremely harried when Stephen dropped in for a coffee on Saturday, not even coming over to speak to him.

There had though been almost constant texting communication; Alan sending random texts making comments about the food and how it was going, or just cursing him.  The last one had been at 11.30pm the previous night at which point Stephen had sent Alan one back telling him to go to bed.  Anything not done by that point could wait and Alan needed to sleep.  They'd been a very short 'okay, night' text received back and nothing after that for which Stephen had been grateful.

His respite is broken a couple of minutes later by a door opening and a rather pissed off voice telling him to "Stop daydreaming and come and give a hand!"

Stephen opens his eyes and pushes away from the car.


***


To say that Alan is stressed is to say that London is a 'nice town': kind of true, sure, but a gross misrepresentation all in all. Late as Stephen had been with his request (and insane as Alan had been for saying yes), it was always going to be busy getting everything done in time. But Alan knows he mostly has himself to blame for the blur of baking and cooking that has been the last 48 hours. Because he hadn't just settled for Stephen's genuine 'anything you sell here is fine' type of menu, oh no, he had to go and try not just to satisfy expectations but to exceed them. In his heart of hearts Alan admits that it's less about securing a good reputation and repeat business and more about impressing Stephen.

Because apparently Stephen's opinion matters way more than it should. Alan tries not to think about that too much. The constant baking and preparation had certainly helped him and now he has trays and cool bags full of food.

And Stephen in his kitchen, looking mellow and smiling in a way that makes Alan scowl. Easy for him, he only has to host the bloody party and talk bollocks about early 18th century literature or whatever it was that he and his work colleagues conversed about.

"Here," Alan says and pushes a cool bag full of the crayfish sandwiches into Stephen's hands. "Start with what’s already ready, I still need to pack the cupcakes. They need to go on top anyway."

Stephen makes a few trips back and forth between the kitchen and the car whilst Alan packs up a ridiculous amount of boxes of cupcakes.

"Just how many cupcakes did you make?" Stephen asks in the end. Alan says nothing, just sending him a look.  He looks harried and tired and there's cupcake icing on his face that Stephen wants to reach out and wipe off.  But he doesn't.  Alan finally finishes filling the boxes and then he rests his elbows on the counter, head down for a moment.

Stephen's fingers itch to stroke over the back of his neck, to press his fingers into Alan's shoulders and massage the tension out of them.

"I'll put these in the car," he tells him instead.  "Go and have a shower and get changed. You look exhausted."

Alan sighs, straightening up. He's not too bad, mainly because he'd taken Stephen's advice (order really) last night and actually gone to bed, but he'd still been up since 7 this morning, finalising stuff. Stephen is right though, Alan needs to clean up (he has a horrible feeling he's got frosting in his hair). He can't serve all this beautiful food looking like a bum.

"Double pay," he says, pointing a finger at Stephen. "Maybe triple if any of your work mates get drunk and I have to talk about bloody Marlowe and who he may or may not have been spying for."

With that he turns and takes the stairs up to the shower, black trousers and white shirt already ironed and waiting on his bed. He's going to look like a waiter, there's no helping it, but at least it's better than a filthy baker with dough on his face.

Once the cupcakes are put away carefully in the boot of the car Stephen takes a quick look at his watch. They really do have plenty of time and it's not as if they actually have a lot to do when they get back to his. He's already been up himself for a few hours, putting the final touches to everything, making sure the trestle tables were set up in the conservatory for the food, blinds down to make sure it didn't get too warm.  He's already spread linen table cloths and got out glasses and plates, so really all they need to do is finalise the setting up and then he hopes they will have time to have a quick break for a drink and a sandwich before people start arriving.

If he'd thought of it he would have suggested that Alan actually shower at his, though considering the mental images that produces, it’s perhaps for the best that isn’t the case.

Going back inside, he wipes the crumbs down from the counter whilst waiting for Alan. "You don't need to do that," a voice behind him says making him jump a little.

Stephen turns around and nearly catches his breath. Even though Alan's outfit is simple – plain white short sleeved shirt with the top two buttons undone, and black trousers – it's the most formal that Stephen has seen him and he... Well, he likes it. "I'm so sorry," he says trying to get his mind back on track, which is hard as Alan's hair is damp from the shower and his hair is curling into his neck.  "You could have showered at mine, I never thought.  Do you want to bring some spare clothes with you so that you can change afterwards?"

Alan is kind of glad that he hadn't had to shower at Stephen's because being naked in his bathroom, in his house would have done nothing to calm his rattled nerves. "Oh, um yeah okay, thanks... I'll just go grab something." Stephen's suggestion is a good one and Alan knows that by the end of the day he'll be wanting to get back to jeans and t-shirt.

He's back in no time, bag in hand, locking the shop after the two of them. "Wow," Alan says when they're outside, his eyes going wide at the sight of the silver Chrysler. "You weren't kidding. You could probably have your whole garden party on the back seat of that thing."

"Aye, yes." Stephen feels a little embarrassed at the size of his car, almost wanting to say that he's not compensating for anything because he isn't.  "I can't abide tiny small cars," he tells Alan. "Bit difficult to get comfortable in them and much as I'd like a Bentley I honestly can't afford one on my salary." He grins at Alan. "This was the closest I could get. So just chuck your stuff on the back seat, move my rubbish out of the way, and we can get going."

Alan does as he's told, moving Stephen's 'rubbish' (three bags full of books) out of the way and putting his rucksack of clothes down. He gets in to the front and immediately sinks into the luxurious seat, stretching his legs to their full, admittedly not impressive, length. "Oh yeah, Bentley or not, this sure beats my old Ford Escort."

Stephen smiles in that way of his that says he's feeling almost apologetic for his wealth and privileges, which Alan finds both ridiculous and, god help him, kind of adorable.

The trip is relatively short and uneventful. Stephen is a careful driver so Alan doesn't even have to worry about the state of his cupcakes (much) and they get to their destination without an incident. Stephen's detached house in West Bridgford comes as a no surprise to Alan. It's more or less as he expected; grand without being ostentatious, and indeed surprisingly cosy inside from what Alan can glance as they make the several trips to take the food from the car to the conservatory at the back. He hopes he'll have a chance to have a better look at some point but for now he settles on being grateful that Stephen has thought to set up tables ready.

"When do you want the food to be served?" Alan asks. "Because I don't want to unwrap stuff until just before. And would you have room in your fridge or pantry for the sweet stuff for now? I don't really want to leave it in the warm for that long." He may be fussing over the food a bit but... Can't be helped.

Stephen smiles at him; frazzled Alan is quite entertaining to watch. "There's a chest freezer in the garage if that will help, or you can use the fridge in the kitchen. There's plenty of room in it - whichever works for you. And Alan, calm down would you. At this rate you'll be having a heart attack before anybody gets here and who would I have then to serve the food?" He grins at Alan to show him that he's just joking.

"You mean you don't have a pair of pretty slave boys stashed in the cleaning cupboard?" Alan snarks back, but he gets Stephen's point and takes a deep breath. "Okay, okay, I am zen. Now show me the way to this freezer," he says, grabbing the cheesecakes that will suffer no harm from little extra cold.

"Pfft," Stephen waves a hand in the air. "A couple of slave boys would take up way too much of my time and energy. Maybe when I retire. Come on, I'll show you around the house and where you can dump your clothes. Once we've done that we're both sitting down and chilling out with a rather nice glass of Chablis and some sandwiches don't you think." He doesn't bother to wait for Alan's answer simply picks up a tray as well and heads towards the freezer.


***


The guest start trickling in just after midday, some alone, some with partners or friends, but all clearly either academics or professionals. It's not that they're obnoxious or unpleasant or anything – Alan can't imagine Stephen putting up with that – but they are all so very clearly from a different world from the one he usually inhabits. It's somewhat a relief that most of them ignore him, very politely of course, assuming – correctly, Alan sternly reminds himself – that he's here in the staff capacity.

Alan watches Stephen greet and converse and laugh, clearly enjoying himself and clearly in his element. He seems to genuinely like most of the people there, which is good Alan guesses, since he has to work with them. Alan keeps mostly to the kitchen and the conservatory, slowly unwrapping and arranging the food, making sure everything is ready.

By one o'clock Alan counts seventeen people mingling in the garden. He waits until he can catch Stephen's eye and then gives a meaningful nod and smile, inclining his head toward the conservatory. Stephen seems to get the message as he smiles in return. Alan slips back, taking his place behind the long table.

Stephen waits a few minutes to allow Alan time to sort himself out and get comfortable and then he turns to his guests. "For those of you who might like something to cushion your drinks food is about to be served in the conservatory. Please avail yourselves." He takes a mouthful of his G&T and watches as some of the guests start to drift inside. So far it's going well and he has no doubt that it will continue that way. The weather is gorgeous for a change, the sun showing no signs of disappearing behind a cloud, and having seen just how much food Alan had made he doesn't think there's any chance of people going hungry.


***


Alan is there really mostly to make sure the trays don't stay empty too long and explain what's on offer. All of the food is 'help yourself' variety so Alan keeps up the kind of small talk he does with his cafe customers, pointing out that the sandwiches have crayfish in case someone is allergic but the quiches are vegan (yes really, no butter used) and agreeing that the weather indeed is lovely.

The best part is when people start coming back for seconds, more lively now and full of compliments. Alan beams happily, relieved that the food is going down well. Stephen drifts in finally himself too, obviously having waited until all his guests had been fed. Alan narrows his eyes at him a bit. "Were you waiting to see if anyone keeled over first before you dared to come and have a taste?" he jokes.

"Oh absolutely," Stephen answers. "One should always have tasters don't you think?" He smiles and passes Alan a beer. "I figured you might be getting a little thirsty by now. So..." He peers at the food that's laid about before him, pleased that so much of it seems to have already been eaten. "What do you recommend?"

Alan grabs the bottle gratefully and takes a long swallow. It's warm, even with the conservatory blinds down and talking always makes him thirsty. "Okay, start with the gazpacho and a bread roll, then sample at will," he says. "Everything's good," Alan knows this with bone-deep certainty, "but I think you'll like those tartinis best. Remember, the ones I texted you about, with the figs, ham, and Roquefort."

He watches as Stephen does as instructed, waiting for the reaction. Somehow it matters more than the rest of the party put together.

Stephen does as instructed and takes one of the cups of gazpacho. Foregoing the spoons he takes a mouthful. "Oh that's lovely," he tells Alan before taking another sip. "It really is delicious, the flavour’s just right." He tries the bread roll next which is just how he likes it, soft and grainy. "Good," he says through the roll dipping it in the soup. "This is really good Alan." Alan is beaming now and Stephen can't help but smile back. He tips his head back and drains the cup, wiping it clean with the last bit of the roll before putting it down.

He almost wants to ask Alan to put him together a plate of things but doesn't, instead choosing to just pick at the food whilst he chats to Alan. "So everybody seems to be enjoying your food," he tells Alan. "Not that it's any surprise."

"Yeah, it's... I'm glad," Alan says, unaccountably bashful now in face of Stephen's compliments. He picks up one of the filo wraps and stuffs it into his own mouth for something to do. "So should you be, considering what it's costing you," he adds, deflecting.

"Whatever it’s costing me is worth it Alan," Stephen tells him. "After all look at them. They're thoroughly enjoying themselves and the food. It's a good thing that you made so much.  So..." He turns to look out of the conservatory doors. "Has everybody been alright with you?"

Alan blinks, surprised by the question. "Everything’s fine, Stephen," he tells him. "I'm a big boy and can take care of myself. Go out and talk to your guests." He makes shooing motions with his hands. "The food and me will be here after they've gone."

Stephen snags a few more things onto his plate, but goes, leaving Alan to look after what he came here to look after in the first place.


***


A couple of hours later, Alan is tidying the remnants of the cakes and other sweet things, transferring everything onto same plates and taking the dirty ones into the kitchen. The dessert had been a success too and he'd been glad to have made so many cupcakes as almost everyone had come back for seconds. He'd made coffee and tea too, but most of the guests had opted for more wine. It seems these academics sure knew how to drink and let loose. There's music drifting from the stereo perched on the open window and Alan can see some people already dancing.

He smiles, pleased that Stephen's party seems to be a success. He hasn't had a chance to talk to the man himself again, but he's put aside one of the cheesecakes when it became obvious Stephen was too busy socialising to do more than snag some biscuits and cup of coffee.

"Hello there," a voice says behind Alan and he turns to find one of the guests by the table, perusing what's left. "I've come to see if there's a tasty tart left for me." He's drunk and clearly finds his own joke amusing as he laughs at himself.

Alan rolls his eyes but keeps smiling. "Sure, there's some of the tartinis left." He offers a plate to the man who takes a long time to select one, which is probably because he keeps looking at Alan more than the food.

Stephen is on his way back from the bathroom when he hears Alan talking to one of the guests. What actually stops him though is the tone of the other man. It's... leering almost, mocking. Stephen stops just before the door at an angle so he can see in, but he can't be seen. As he suspected the man, Brad, isn't one of Stephen's guest, hadn’t been invited by him. Rather he’s been brought along by Tony, who works alongside Emma.

"So where did the Professor find you then?" Brad asks. "I must say he has good taste. You're almost as pretty as one of your tarts!" Stephen stiffens at the words and waits to hear just how Alan responds.

Alan isn't sure whether to laugh or get indignant. He got a few 'pretty boy' comments in his late teens but he thought he'd overgrown that a while ago. Besides, the man isn't that much older than him, he's certainly younger than Stephen by the look of him. Vainer as well, judging by his slicked back hair and the diamond cufflinks.

Honestly, is he for real? Alan keeps his face neutral, stepping away to continue tidying. "I run a cafe," he says, keeping it short, hoping the man takes a hint. But no, apparently he's two drinks past propriety.

"A cafe owner," Brad throws his head back and laughs. "Well, well, well... Stephen really is roughing it. But seriously, I do hope he's paying you for your work today. Unless you just do and give him whatever he asks."

In the doorway Stephen stiffens. This isn't the first time that Tony has brought Brad with him to a party and Stephen thinks he may have to speak to him about this going forward. He's not happy about what he's hearing, and what's basically being intimated at.

Alan grits his teeth, because, well, that's just not on. He doesn't really care what some random twat at a party thinks of him but what he's saying is pretty insulting to Stephen. "And am I take it that you're such close friends with Stephen that you know what he might ask for?" Alan says, regarding the guy coldly, all pretence of politeness gone now.

The man blinks. "I didn't think so," Alan continues. "Because a close friend would surely not imply what you've just been implying. I think perhaps you should help yourself to a cup of coffee from a thermos over there and join your friends at the party," he suggests, before turning his back.

That turns out to be a mistake. Moving quickly for a guy that drunk, he reaches across the table and grabs Alan by the arm, spinning him around. "You don't get to tell me what to do, you ignorant piece of rough trade."

Alan is honestly so surprised that his mouth just opens silently, which gives his assailant time to continue. "Although I'm sure 'baker' counts as 'skilled worker' so why don't you show me what else those fingers of yours can knead besides bread dough. I'm sure you've had plenty of practice with Ste–"

That's as far as he gets before Alan finally moves. He fists both hands in the guy's designer shirt, circling around the table while dragging him along and then finally physically pushing him toward the conservatory door. "You've no idea just how rough and trust me you don't want to find out," he growls, seriously angry now. "And as for putting my fingers anywhere near you, well... I had rather chop this hand off at a blow, And with the other fling it at thy face," he quotes, relishing the look of astonishment on the man's face before he finally shoves him through the doorway. "Tell people that the buffet is closed," Alan shouts after him, all but slamming the door shut.

Out of sight, Stephen takes a deep breath and straightens up. He'd managed to stop himself from going to Alan's rescue, sure that he wouldn't really appreciate it but it had been hard. What he'd just witnessed and heard had made his blood boil. How dare Brad speak to Alan like that, and to intimate that Alan was his piece of rough. Ugh! Although Alan quoting Shakespeare at Brad had been amusing... And also hot.

Stephen unfurls his fingers from the fists they'd made and rubs his hands together before stepping into the conservatory. Alan is standing against the door, back pressed to it and head down. He's breathing heavily and Stephen coughs, not wanting to surprise him.

Alan's head snaps up and he stops himself groaning from dismay when he sees Stephen standing there, face like thunder. Perfect. The only thing making that little encounter any worse was the fact that it clearly hadn't gone unwitnessed. Alan straightens up, feeling a bit shaky from the adrenaline spike, and rubs hands over his face. "Is it too much to hope you've just walked in this second, heard nothing and are only here for the cheesecake?" he asks resignedly.

Stephen shakes his head. "I'm afraid not," he tells Alan. "Unfortunately for Brad, I heard and saw everything." Alan's face drops and Stephen steps closer to him but still keeping a distance not quite sure how Alan will feel about anybody close to him right now. Alan looks as though he's about to bolt at any minute.

"Are you alright?" Stephen asks.

Alan blinks at Stephen's kind tone, so in contrast to his face which is still pinched in anger. "Yeah, yeah, I'm..." furious, mortified, afraid of having screwed up, "...fine. Look, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have lost my temper with one of your guests like that. It's just... What he said, and I... you wouldn't, I know that, and..." To his humiliation Alan realises he's rambling and with effort he bites down on his tongue to shut himself up and makes himself walk back to the tables and pick up where he left off, transferring leftover food back into containers. Too bad his hands feel too clumsy for the task, trembling slightly. Alan kind of feels like flinging the cupcakes at the wall in frustration.

Alan is quite clearly shaking and Stephen watches as he puts the cupcake boxes back down on the table before starting to stroke at his own arms. Stephen doesn't even think that Alan realises what he's doing. And now he doesn't hesitate; stepping closer to Alan he puts his hand carefully on Alan's arm.

"Hey," Stephen says. "Alan, you haven't done anything wrong okay and if one of my guests is being a dick to you, you're within your rights to say something to them." Alan stiffens first at the touch but then he seems to calm, stilling his repetitive movements and Stephen runs his hand slowly up Alan's arm until he’s gripping Alan's shoulder. Alan shivers and turns slightly toward him and there's nothing more Stephen wants to do right now but pull Alan into his arms.

"Come on," he tells him. "I think you need a stiff drink."

Alan nods, a tad jerkily. It's just... It's been a long time since someone's touched him like this; with kindness and comfort. Bill isn't exactly a huggy type of guy and Alan hasn't exactly been getting physical with any dates (because really, there haven't been any) since the whole thing with Fil, so it's only natural that he's feeling a little... touch-starved. Nothing more to it.

At least that's what he tells himself.

"Yeah, okay." Stephen definitely doesn't seem angry at Alan, which makes the knot inside his chest loosen up considerably. "A drink would be good I guess."

Stephen is still looking at him with something unreadable in his eyes and for a moment Alan thinks he's going to... But no. He gently steers Alan toward the kitchen, hand still on his shoulder, not letting go until Alan is sitting at the table.

The loss of that touch feels more acute than Alan wants to admit. Instead, he wraps his hands around the tumbler of whisky Stephen puts in front of him. "So, I take it that guy wasn't a close personal friend then?" he asks.

"No, he most certainly wasn't." Stephen is actually surprised at how angry he is right now. He hovers close to Alan who is looking rather lost and without thinking about it his hand comes to rest on Alan's shoulder again, fingers curling to touch the back of his neck. "I'm so sorry Alan," he says. "You shouldn't have had to put up with that although I do think he was rather surprised at you quoting Shakespeare."

Stephen's touch and his question are both unexpected but they shake something loose in him and Alan feels himself relax, slumping lower in the chair. He even laughs a little, thinking of the guy's face. "Not your fault," he says, tipping his head back to smile Stephen. "Although I do desire we may be better strangers," he quotes again, delighted at the way it makes Stephen's eyebrows climb up. "Him and I of course," Alan clarifies. "Not you and I." And well, that was a bit more than he meant to say and he turns back to the table, taking a sip of the whisky to hide his face for a bit.

There's something about Alan's smile that makes Stephen feel warm inside and he automatically smiles back.  "You have a nimble wit. I think ’twas made of Atalanta’s heels," replies Stephen. He steps back from Alan because if he doesn't he suspects he might just not stop touching him, and not only does he have to get back to his guests he also needs to speak to Brad.  Or Tony.

"Just chill out Alan, take your time and when you're ready, if you are okay with it, I'd like you to come outside as my guest. So, I'm just going to go and have a word with Brad right now. With a thief to the gallows, for though he go as softly as foot can fall, he thinks himself too soon there."

Alan barks a laugh at that, shaking his head. "Show off," he tells Stephen, though he says it with fondness. "Don't hang him where the neighbours can see at least."

Stephen just hums noncommittally so guess the jury is still out on that one. With a final clap on Alan's shoulder he leaves the kitchen, heading back out to the party.


***


Stephen steps back outside into the warmth. It seems an age since he went inside even though he knows that it can't be more than half an hour that's passed.  Both Emma and Brad look up as he comes out and Stephen wonders who might have witnessed Alan telling Brad to get out.

He pours himself another G&T at the drinks table but before he can head toward Brad, Emma has stepped up next to him and placed a hand on his arm.

"It's going well today isn't it?" she says. "The weather has been kind to us and the food is fabulous. Where did you find your caterer? He's very good."

He shrugs her hand off. "Yes he is... Very good. I'm pleased with the food. Would you excuse me please, Emma." He's not normally rude to Emma, who is a good friend but right now he wants to speak to Brad.

"I'm not sure what Brad did, Stephen, but do you really think you should speak to him right now?" she asks.

He turns around so he's facing her and lowers his voice. "He... he…" Stephen can barely get the words out. "Look, suffice as to say he insulted Alan, who even though he's catering for me, is still a guest in my house and I won't put up with that." His voice is clipped now but he doesn't care.

Emma sighs a little to herself. Brad is an arse who has a tendency to hit on everything that moves. Last Christmas gone Emma had to forcibly remove his paws from her backside. She doesn't really know what Tony sees in him to be honest but they've been sleeping together on and off for years, both equally unbothered by whoever the other sees on the side.

She doesn't remember seeing Stephen this angry for a while though, not since one of his research students got falsely accused of cheating a couple of years back. It's clear to anyone with eyes that the young caterer is clearly more than a random acquaintance to Stephen. "Okay, but do you think Alan would appreciate it if you make a massive scene and draw even more attention to the situation?" She'd been close enough to see Brad tumble out of the conservatory with some help from Alan's hands, but she's pretty sure that no one except her had paid much mind to the incident, if they'd noticed it at all. "Why don't you let me have a word with Tony while you stay here and try not to spontaneously combust?"

She has a point and that's what really annoys Stephen. Alan really wouldn't appreciate it if Stephen made a scene. Which he's likely to do. He still can't forget the way Alan was shaking after the encounter with Brad, and all Stephen wants to do right now it hit something or someone. Which is a completely alien feeling for him.

"What did you see Emma?" he asks.

"Not much," Emma says. "Just noticed Brad paying more attention to Alan than his food throughout the day so it wasn't any surprise to see him slipping back to the conservatory to try and catch him alone." She shrugs. "It was a surprise though – and a pleasant one – to see him practically fall out of there, looking like someone had hit him in the head." She grins wickedly. "Please tell me that Alan actually did that. Because it was about time someone did."

It's a delightful image but unfortunately not one that Stephen can verify. "Afraid not," he replies. "Brad made some rather unpleasant comments to Alan." And doesn't that just make Stephen grit his teeth, especially the ones about Alan being Stephen's boy. "And then he tried... Well let's put it this way: He didn't take kindly to Alan telling him to back off. He did however rather surprise Brad with his use of Shakespeare. After all, why would some piece of ‘rough trade’ like him know Shakespeare." Stephen’s voice is a little bitter and he downs his G&T in one go.  "I want Brad gone from here, Emma. I've asked Alan to come outside as my guest and I don't want Brad here when he joins us. If he does."

Emma's eyebrows hike up and her grin gets possibly even wickeder. "Shakespeare, eh?" she asks. "Bet you liked that..." She raises up a placating hand when Stephen looks like he's about to start defending his intentions or something. "Now, now, I'm just saying that Alan sounds like an interesting guy. I must have a chat with him when he joins us." She plucks the empty glass from Stephen’s hand and sets it down. "Go talk to the Millers, I think they're planning to leave soon and were looking for you earlier to say thanks. I'll go and find Tony. Don't worry, Brad will be departing soon if he knows what's good for him."

She turns to leave but gives one more piece of advice: "And stop downing G&Ts like they're water, doubt Alan will be impressed if you get as drunk as Brad." It's a low blow but one Emma reckons will ensure Stephen doesn't try to relive his wrestling days by tackling Brad to the meticulously cut lawn.

"Interfering female," Stephen mutters although everything that Emma is saying is right, which makes it even more annoying.

"I heard that," she tells him over her shoulder. "Go and be sociable Stephen. This is your party, after all."

Stephen fills his glass up with tonic and ice and heads over to Tamara and Val Miller, both of whom he's rather fond of. He keeps a keen eye on Emma whilst he's talking to them, and is rather pleased to see that she is taking no nonsense from Brad, and is slowly but carefully manoeuvring him to the exit. Tony catches Stephen's eye and sends him an apologetic smile and before Brad can say anything more, Tony has steered him out of the back gate and out of the party. Emma wanders over to join them and they're soon engaged in a chat about next year's students and what the new term might entail.


***


Alan stays at the table for ten more minutes, slowly sipping the drink. It's helping, but he knows it's mostly Stephen's words and touch that have calmed him down. Eventually, he gets up and finishes up packing away the food, putting all the leftover things in the fridge. Thankfully, there isn't much, which is convenient as Alan suspects he'll have to take a taxi home from here. Stephen isn't drunk by any means but he's certainly not fit to get behind the wheel again tonight.

Finally, Alan runs out of things to do. He could stay here, knows Stephen wouldn't mind, but it feels a bit cowardly, so in the end he grabs himself another beer and ventures outside into the afternoon sun.

The party is more or less winding down, for which Alan is grateful. Some people have already left, among them, he's happy to see, Brad. He hovers in the conservatory doorway for a short while, unsure because he doesn't know anyone here except Stephen who seems to be deep in conversation with a group of people and Alan doesn't really feel like interrupting.

He's saved by a smiling couple who come over, complimenting him on the food again before drawing him to the discussion about his cafe. It doesn't take them long to ask if Alan would be interested in catering their son's 18th birthday party.

They aren't the only ones who have similar questions and by the time Alan's made it to the Stephen's end of the garden he has three business cards in his hand with promises to call people to talk about details.

"This is all your fault," he tells Stephen, frowning in mock dismay. "I was perfectly happy with my small cafe, just me and the espresso machine, and now it looks like I have to hire people to cope with that and all this catering lark." He waves the business cards accusingly at Stephen before stuffing them into his pocket. "I'm counting on you to pass your work-seeking students my way," he adds.

Stephen beams at him, pleased to see that Alan has finally come outside and that people have been complimenting his food. Alan looks a lot more relaxed and he's lost that tight expression around his eyes. "Dear boy," Stephen tells him, clinking his glass against Alan's bottle. "It’s only your own fault for being so good at what you do. And you're assuming rather a lot to think that my students actually want to work, aren't you? Most of them are lazy layabouts. I'm astonished they even manage to get their essays in on time."

"Oy," Emma elbows him in the side and Stephen exhales slightly in surprise. "Don't put the students down like that. They don't all adhere to the stereotype. At least mine don't! Hi!" she says, turning to Alan and putting her hand out before Stephen can answer. "We haven't been properly introduced. I'm Emma, and for my sins not only do I work with Stephen but I've also known him for the better part of twenty years."

Alan likes Emma instinctively, she'd been one of the people who actually appeared to see him rather than a faceless serving boy behind the food earlier. "Nice to meet you," he says, shaking her hand. "In that case... Perhaps you can help me with something I've been wondering about Stephen here." He leans closer, lowering his voice and ignoring Stephen's half indignant, half amused huffing next to them. "Has he always been such a tremendous snob about his coffee, or is this something he's developed recently?"

Emma throws her head back and laughs. "Oh, I like you," she tells Alan. "And yes, he really has always been a tremendous snob about coffee.  You know," she throws a mocking glance at Stephen, "he and I shared a flat together at university. He didn't care what he ate as long as there was coffee and woe betide you if you took the last cup. He could be an absolute nightmare. The one time I was foolish enough to do that I had to stay away for at least three days to wait for him to calm down."   She grins at Alan.

"But who could stay mad with a woman as lovely and smart as you?" Alan asks, putting a hand to his chest and laying on the charm. Emma laughs again and even Stephen rolls his eyes, still trying to explain that he is not in fact a snob about coffee alright, he just knows what he likes and...

Alan and Emma blithely ignore his protests. They stand there chatting for a while. People are starting to make a move though and Stephen leaves to make sure everyone is alright, to say his goodbyes and presumably accept thanks for a good party.

Alan feels himself relax as the number of people decreases, and his gaze keeps drifting to Stephen no matter how many times he pulls his attention back to the conversation he and Emma are having.

Alan’s distraction doesn’t escape Emma’s notice. It's interesting observing how his gaze tracks Stephen around the garden even though he's obviously trying not to. But then Emma has found the whole afternoon interesting. Stephen has been waxing lyrical about his new coffee shop for a while and there has been mention of Alan, the new owner. At first Stephen had been incensed about the coffee shop being taken over, but then after a few days he’d quietened down, and then after a couple of weeks had started going in pretty much on a daily basis.

Having now met Alan, Emma can completely understand why. Alan is totally Stephen's type although a little younger than normal. It's been a while since Stephen was in a relationship, though he and Emma have even shared the same boyfriend before now although thankfully not at the same time. From the way that Alan is tracking Stephen's movements it would appear that Stephen isn't the only one interested and for that she's grateful.

"So... Stephen spends an awful amount of time in your coffee shop," Emma says, casually.  "I barely see him these days unless it's at staff meetings. Should I be blaming you for that?" She smiles to show there's no malice in her question.

"Oh, um what?" Alan's attention snaps back to the conversation and when Emma's question registers he can feel himself blushing. There's an implication there that he doesn't quite know what to do with. "I don't know, I guess you can blame the coffee and maybe the carrot cake. He does seem particularly fond of that."

"Oh, I'm sure that must be it," Emma smiles and takes a mouthful of her Pimms. "I'm sure you make amazing carrot cake Alan, and Stephen has always liked baked goods." She's not lying; after all it was a love of baked goods, Shakespeare and the Goons that had first gotten Stephen and Hugh together. But that's not a tale to mention to Alan right now. If this goes the way that she thinks it will there will be more than plenty of enough time for Alan to meet Hugh, and Ken. Emma has wondered over the years what might have happened between them all if Stephen hadn't been so resolutely monogamous.

 "You must come by and taste it yourself," Alan says, grateful that Emma's accepted her diversion. "Carrot cake on the house," he promises.

"Why is she getting free cake and I have to pay for it?" Stephen asks, appearing at Alan's shoulder and pushing a glass of something frosty into his hand before passing a similar glass to Emma.

"Because she didn't make me cater her garden party on two days’ notice," Alan says, sniffing at his glass. "What is this? Is this... That's ice cream," he says accusingly. "I didn't realise we were about to have such an intimate experience after all."

"What?" Emma giggles. "What are you talking about?"

"Ah..." Stephen can feel himself flushing a little that Alan remembered the conversation. "This isn't exactly ice-cream," he tells him. "This is a cocktail. There’s alcohol in it so it doesn't quite fall within the intimate experience category. That's the difference... Do you see?"

"I offered to make ice cream," Alan explains to a laughing Emma. "He said it was, and I quote, an 'intimate experience'."

"I bet," Emma snorts, sipping at her cocktail and watching with delight how flustered her friend is looking.

"And you," Alan continues, turning back to Stephen, "are the only man I know who claims that adding alcohol to something actually leads to less intimate experiences. Usually, it's the other way around." He takes a mouthful of the weird ice-cream and champagne concoction and groans appreciatively. "Fuck," he sighs, "that's so good I wouldn't mind getting intimate with it."

Stephen's face goes through at least three separate expressions before settling back to flustered. Emma doubles up in laughter.

"Do you know how much I hate you both right now?" Stephen says and pokes Emma. "And you Madam can stop laughing otherwise I'm going to tell Hugh and Ken that you haven't been behaving."

Emma snorts. "Like they'll care. You're damned lucky that I didn't bring them along with me today but they were, and I quote, 'doing manly things'."

"Manly things..." Stephen raises an eyebrow. "Right! I'll believe that when I see it. I think the last time that Hugh did anything manly was rowing at university. Anyway..." He flicks his fingers. "We were discussing the intimacy issues of ice-cream and alcohol." He turns his gaze back to Alan. "I'm sure that it depends on quite how much alcohol that a person has as to whether they become intimate or just physically incapable don't you? After all: ‘it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.’" He grins at Alan.

"You need to stop quoting Shakespeare," Alan says solemnly. "Mainly because I'm running out of comebacks and will have to switch to Monty Python quotes next."

"You," Stephen points his finger at Alan. "Have many layers - which does not surprise me at all – and  if you do feel compelled to start quoting Monty Python, then by all means. But I will then feel compelled to respond in kind." He tries to make it sound threatening but it comes out as fond instead.

"Bring me a shrubbery!" Emma exclaims and cackles. Her phone starts ringing, playing a tinny version of Sexual Healing. "Hello boys," she answers, smiling, walking away a bit to take the call.

Alan puts two and two together, his high estimation of Emma going even higher. "Just how many boys does she have?" he asks, and then after a few second's consideration: "And how many girls?"

Stephen glances over at Emma who's talking animatedly on the telephone, her face lit up as she talks to Hugh and Ken. "Two," he tells Alan. "She has two boys. Well, men really - it's been a long time since either of them were boys. Years in fact. And no girls. They don't need anybody else in their triumvirate." His smile is a little sorrowful as he thinks about Hugh and what he wasn't able in the end to give him.

"So..." Stephen takes Alan's glass out of his hand. "Let me get you another of these. Can't have you with an empty glass."  He heads back to the kitchen before Alan can say anything.

There's a story there, Alan thinks but doesn't press. He doesn't know Stephen that well yet really, despite it feeling like they've been friends for years.

"Right, I'm off," Emma says once she’s back. "That was Ken; he and Hugh are a couple of blocks away and will be picking me up. They're..." She hesitates there, uncertainty flickering briefly over her eyes, and Alan can understand that, she doesn't know him that well yet either.

"Your partners," he finishes for her, smiling. "I gathered. They are clearly very lucky to have you."

Emma smiles, relaxing when Alan doesn't comment on her unusual home arrangement further. "Thank you," she says. "You are dreadfully sweet and," she kisses his cheek, "it was a pleasure meeting you. I'm sure we'll be seeing much more of each other in the future."

Before Alan has a chance to more than blink, Emma departs with a wave, going in search of Stephen to say her goodbyes.

Alan looks around, realising that he's on his own in the garden now, the last of the guests must have left while they were chatting. He glances at his watch, surprised to see that it's well past six pm. It could well be time he thought about getting home as well.

Stephen finishes the cocktail by pouring the champagne over the ice cream and the liquors. He omits the grated nutmeg that the recipe calls for - he's never particularly liked that part, finding it gives the cocktail a strange texture. It's then that he hears the step behind him. Turning his head he's not surprised to see Emma.

"You off darling?" he asks.

"I am," Emma agrees, putting her empty glass in the sink. "Hugh and Ken are picking me up, they should be here in a few minutes. So no need to make a third of those." She nods at the two glasses Stephen has finished off. "It's been... an interesting party, as always." She grins. "But lovely of course. And it was great to meet your new... friend, finally. I can see now why you're spending more time in his cafe than you do in your office."

Stephen doesn't respond to that, he knows full well that this won't be the last he hears of this from Emma, but he's pleased that she likes Alan. Emma, Hugh and Ken are the closest thing he has to family and he knows exactly how they can be if they don't like his partners. They'd loathed Cieran and made it pretty damned obvious as well. Not that Alan is his partner of course, he quickly reminds himself, but it would be nice to have that potential.

"Bye darling, I'll see you three for dinner next week?" He leans over and kisses her.  "I'd better get this back to Alan now before it melts too much.”

Emma departs with a wink and Stephen picks up the drinks, heading back out.




Continue to Part 3/4

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QI - alan
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