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Life, Interrupted by alyse [Reviews - 8]
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Category: Primeval > Threesomes, Moresomes and Bitextual (slash and het), Primeval > Het > Abby/Connor, Primeval > Het > Other Pairings, Primeval > Slash and Femslash > Slash
Characters: Abby Maitland, Connor Temple, Jenny Lewis, Nick Cutter, Stephen Hart
Rating: PG-13
Genres: Angst, Character Study, Established Relationship, First Time, Friendship
Warnings: None

Summary: All biological life undergoes a process of evolution. The trick is surviving it.

Pairings: Nick/Connor (past), Abby/Stephen (past implied), Nick/Claudia (past), Abby/Connor (present), Abby/Connor/Nick implied and references to canon relationships



Story Notes:
Written for the Primeval Ficathon for toestastegood, whose prompt was Claudia turning into Jenny wasn't the only change that took place when Nick altered the past at the end of S1. He comes back and finds that in this timeline he has been dating Abby, Stephen or Connor. Non-crack, preferably and who also wanted Abby/Nick, Connor/Nick, Abby/Connor (or a combination of all three!) ::looks at pairing list:: Yep. I might have managed that ::g::

Some of the dialogue in the flashbacks and from the funeral is from the episodes concerned. I just kind of... twisted some of it a bit.

Many thanks to aithine for the beta services and cedara for being alpha ::g::

Spoilers: Set post 2.7


Tick.

There was a clock on the far wall of the break room. Nick had known it was there in a vague way, picking up on the environment around him via osmosis rather than observation, but for some reason he'd never noticed how loud it was.

But then, there'd been no need for him to notice. He'd spent very little time in here, usually only stopping in on his way to or from somewhere else. He had his office at the far end of the ARC, away from the hustle and bustle of what counted as the daily grind of the place; the scientists and soldiers mingling in the break room, exchanging gossip and coffee on an interchangeable basis.

Nick tended to keep himself to himself, locked away in his small, crowded room, trying to puzzle out the mysteries of the anomalies. That meant that on most days the coffee came to him, dropped off by Abby on her way down to the animal pens in the basement or Connor on his way to the high-tech server room to tweak something or other.

Tock.

The clock was battered and there was a long scratch in the plastic dome, running between the two and the seven. Nick stared at it for long moments, trying to make out the faded logo that sat behind the constantly moving hands.

Stephen hadn't brought him coffee. Not in this reality. Oh, he'd been happy enough to pour another cup when Nick did his passing through but he'd never sought Nick out the way that the other two did.

Now he never would.

Tick.

Nick had never noticed the scratch before either, just like he hadn't noticed the slow, steady ticking of it, too loud in a space that was too quiet. The break room was empty and the ARC subdued. The Special Forces guys were still trying to mop up the mess Leek had left, and the scientists were huddled away somewhere, still reeling from the attack on the ARC that had taken out some of their own, and almost taken Lester out to boot.

There was a lot Nick hadn't noticed. He'd been too caught up in Helen, tangled in the strands of the webs that Helen wove with consummate ease.

There was too much he hadn't noticed until it was too late.

Tock.

It made a twisted kind of sense that he'd start to notice these things now, when it no longer mattered.

"Cutter?"

He hadn't heard Abby coming and he jumped when she touched him, even though it was just a brief press of her fingers against the back of his hand where it was resting on the arm of the chair.

No, not resting. His fingers were clenched in the fabric so tightly that it hurt to let go, the muscles of his hand locked into position.

He hadn't noticed that either.

"Cutter?" Abby said again, and he could hear the worry in her voice. When he finally looked up at her, blinking a little in the light that steamed in from the corridor, her eyes and nose were red.

He tore his gaze away guiltily, staring back at the clock like it held the answers to questions he didn't even know how to begin to ask. It was better than staring at Abby, better than seeing past the brittle shell she'd pulled into place around her. It felt almost obscene to look at her, to witness that raw pain. She deserved some privacy at least, and he was too much of a coward not to give it to her.

Abby swallowed and the sound drew his attention reluctantly back to her. Her eyes were damp but her voice was steady as she said, "Lester wants to see you."

Of course he did. It wouldn't matter to Lester that he was the last person Nick wanted to see right then. It wouldn't matter to anyone but Nick. Lester would want answers and Nick...

All Nick wanted was the bottom of a whisky bottle.

Tick.

Abby was still watching him, biting her lip, her face a terrible mix of sympathy and concern, all of it pulled together over the top of a bottomless, empty pit of grief. Nick had nothing that would fill that hole except a brief nod, acknowledging her presence and maybe even her pain. He didn't know any longer. He couldn't even meet her eyes as he pushed himself to his feet, brushing past her without a word.

Her fingers reached out to slide over the back of his hand as he moved away from her, but when he glanced back, still lost for anything to say, she was motionless, staring at the far wall where the clock still measured out the time in molasses-like increments.

He granted her the dignity of silence, and moved away.

Tock.

Connor was hovering in the corridor outside, just around the corner from the break room where he'd been out of Nick's line of sight. He was vibrating with misery, seemingly dithering between entering the small kitchen area or the room where Abby was still standing like a statue, caught up in her own grief. When he looked up and saw Nick, the expression on his pleasant face was stricken and his hands were fluttering nervously by his waist, like he didn't know what to do with them.

His eyes were even more bloodshot than Abby's had been and, when Nick paused, slowing his funereal tread for a moment, Connor's lips parted, quivering a little, like he was searching for something - anything - to say. Like there was anything that could be said.

He couldn't seem to find anything to say, and Nick turned on his heel, heading towards Lester's office, too much of a coward for this either.

-o-

"You believe me?"

Connor smiles, a quick quirk of the mouth that disappears almost as soon as it was there.

"All right," he says. "I'll buy it."

The relief that floods through Nick almost takes him out at the knees but he doesn't let it show on his face, not here where there are eyes watching, all of them belonging to strangers.

Connor's eyes are the same as they've always been - excited and a little awestruck - and the words that escape Nick are brief but heartfelt.

"I could kiss you, Connor."

Connor grins and the sheer familiarity of the expression is almost overwhelming. It grounds Nick, and he needs that right now.

It's good to know that at least something in this messed up world hasn't changed.


-o-

"I'm sorry."

They were the last words Nick expected to hear from Lester and for once they weren't accompanied by Lester's trademark sarcasm. It threw him even further off balance, reduced to searching Lester's face for the kind of brusque not-sympathy he expected.

It was missing. Lester's face was as sombre as his tone, and just as tired.

It made it all too real, silencing Nick. He'd been expecting a battle, had counted on it. Anything to fire him up and push the numbness back, if only for a little while. But now the energy that had been building since Abby had first told him of Lester's summons ebbed away, leaving nothing but the same pit of grief he'd not wanted to see in Abby.

Nick could only stand there, in front of Lester's desk, his arms slack and useless by his side as he tried to hold on to the edge, not topple over.

"Here."

Now Lester's tone had moved towards brusqueness, but the glass of whisky he thrust into Nick's hand was welcome. It burned as it went down, stinging his throat and his eyes, and he swallowed, barely tasting it.

Lester topped up his glass without saying anything and without stinting on the measure. It seemed his normal tight-fisted 'fiscal responsibility' didn't count for once. Maybe without Leek to count every penny...

The thought froze Nick's thoughts in their tracks for a second, a shuddering hiccupping space of a breath in which all he could hear was Leek's screams behind him as he ran, as he...

Stephen hadn't -

Lester put the bottle of single malt back on the desk with a loud clatter and Nick jumped, his heart pounding and his fingers, wrapped around the glass he held, tightening to the point of pain. The whisky sloshed around and Nick stared down into it, trying, through sheer willpower, to make it stop, settle down.

"How are you holding up?"

When Nick glanced up from his contemplation of his drink, Lester wasn't looking at him. Instead he was staring out of the big glass window that made up one wall of his office, his own glass hovering up by his mouth. It was typical of Lester that while his one window was huge and showy, it didn't look out onto the outside world, instead overseeing the floor of the control room.

"Sorry." Lester winced, or came as close to it as he seemed able, but the word was still on the brusque side of concern. "I suppose that was a bit of a stupid question."

"Yes." This time the swirl of amber liquid around Nick's glass was more controlled; his hands had almost stopped shaking. "It was."

Lester nodded, looking away again and, in spite of himself, Nick moved closer, coming to stand beside Lester just to see what had caught his attention.

Connor was down there now, standing in front of the Anomaly Detector with that bloody stupid hat on the back of his head. And the back of Connor's head was all that Nick could see. He had no idea what was going through the boy's mind. He didn't want to think about it.

He didn't want to think about anything.

As he watched, Abby appeared from the corridor, moving slowly across towards Connor, her golden head bowed and her steps leaden. From Nick's vantage point, it didn't look like she said anything to Connor - or him to her - but she came to a stop beside him, also staring up at the detector. A moment - a heartbeat - later, she leant into him.

Connor put his arm around her and Nick's throat tightened.

"It's going to take a lot of fixing."

Lester's voice once again startled Nick back into himself and, as he watched wordlessly, Lester finally brought his glass up to his mouth and took a long swallow. It was only after he'd savoured it for a moment that he met Nick's gaze.

"The detector. Whatever Connor set up, it worked. That's how we found you. But the technical bods say it's going to take a lot to put it right again."

Yes. It would take a lot to make things right, if they could ever be fixed.

Nick watched as Abby's head came to rest on Connor's shoulder and, a beat later, his head dropped down to meet hers, the grief radiating off both their forms. He wondered bleakly if this was how he looked to others, whether he looked just as lost, just as empty, and if so, if that was why Lester was being so careful of him, handling him with kid gloves.

"Since we appear to be on the stupid question portion of the evening, do you know why Stephen was there?"

The question stung but in a strange way it was easier to bear than the awkward, sympathetic silence that had lain between them. The tact - or lack of it - was more like Lester, for all that the words had been delivered quietly rather than with his normal snide pomp and bluster. Nick turned away from what remained of his team - his friends - and turned his attention back to the bottom of his glass but there were no answers to be found there. He'd learnt that when Helen had died. When he thought Helen had died. And now Stephen...

"I can't imagine Leek managing to entice him to pay him a visit," Lester continued, persisting in the face of Nick's silence. "Not unless Stephen somehow figured out where Leek was before we did. Or you managed to contact him and for some reason forgot about contacting us." He gave Nick a searching look, but that wasn't what made Nick answer.

"Helen."

He had no reason to protect her now. And there were others who would need protecting from her, from what she'd become now that she was so divorced from humanity that they were nothing more than rats in a lab to her.

Lester paused, his glass halfway to his lips again as he watched Nick over the top of it, eyes sharp and hard. He didn't say anything, though, more than willing to watch Nick rip the words out of himself, hovering like some vulture, something with claws and teeth and...

Stephen hadn't screamed, not like Leek. Stephen hadn't had time to scream.

"Helen?" Lester prompted and now Nick wanted to scream, more because Lester's voice wasn't snide, wasn't accusing, but instead was even and controlled.

"She called him. Told him we were dead, the three of us. Connor, Abby and me. Told him..." Told Stephen so many lies and left Nick to live with the pain of that. The glass in his hand shook again until liquid sloshed up the sides, over the edge and onto his fingers. The scent of the whisky rose up, cold and burning in the back of his nose, tightening his throat. "I don't know what she told him. Not exactly."

"Ah." Lester's voice gave nothing away and Nick's fingers tightened on the glass until his hand ached.

"She told him you were the one responsible."

Lester snorted. "Of course she did. And Stephen believed her, I presume?"

Stephen had always believed her. And when he hadn't believed her, he'd still believed in her. That had been his downfall.

"And Helen?" Nick had no answer and, after a long moment, Lester nodded. "We'll find her, you know."

The burn of the whisky was easier to handle this time, and Nick drained the glass before slamming it back down on the desk.

"Good."

Lester was still watching him and Nick met his eyes straight on this time, not bothering to hide anything. Not even sure what Lester would see written in his face.

"Go home, Nick," Lester said, his face suddenly drawn and exhausted. "Go home and take those two with you."

Nick glanced back over to the window, down towards Connor and Abby were still huddled together, still lost. The sight of their grief did nothing but add to the yawning pit that was threatening to suck him down into it, and he staggered, suddenly exhausted, putting his hand out to steady himself on the desk.

The wood was firm under his fingers, the grain rough and warm to the touch.

"Don't worry about hurrying back," Lester said, as though he genuinely believed that that would be Nick's priority, be the priority of any of them. "I've asked Jenny to arrange... things." When Nick looked at him blankly, he continued, "We... managed to retrieve the body." Nick went ice cold as the horror of the day once again threatened to overwhelm him. Maybe Lester saw that. Maybe he didn't. Nick neither knew nor cared, but Lester's voice softened as he added, again, "Go home. We'll be in touch."

There was nothing else to say, not to Lester, and Nick settled on nodding, pushing himself away from the desk with shaking hands. His legs shook as well, his whole body wracked and exhausted as he made his way down the concrete ramp to where Abby and Connor were still standing, like statues, frozen and holding each other up.

Connor must have heard him coming; he glanced up, catching Nick's gaze for a second before he looked away again, his face blank, expressionless. It slowed Nick's steps for a moment, unsure of his welcome, unsure if he was up to this, to dealing with Abby's grief on top of his own. To dealing with Connor.

But Connor pre-empted him for once, gently squeezing Abby with the arm he still had around her shoulders until that she looked up and saw Nick, too. She gave him what might have passed as a smile under other circumstances. Connor didn't smile, but he got Abby moving, the pair of them still leaning on each other as they slowly made their way back to the double doors where Jenny was waiting for them.

It was something to be thankful for, Nick thought bleakly as he followed them, Abby looking back over her shoulder to make sure he was still there.

In spite of everything, there was enough of Stephen left to bury.

-o-

"You had me a bit worried, you know. When you came back through the anomaly and were being all weird."

Connor's aiming for nonchalant and missing it by a mile, but his feelings are the last thing that Nick's concerned about. There are too many other things fighting for his attention, too many thoughts flitting around in his head, all of them screaming, all of them wrong.

Connor's still talking, even though Nick's tuned him out, and Nick doesn't even realise it until Connor's stopped and is looking at him expectantly.

"What?"

Connor tries rolling his eyes but he doesn't quite pull it off, not the way that Abby would, and the casual affection he's seen between the two of them, with none of the puppy dog adoration on Connor's side that he's used to, is just another jarring note in this symphony of 'wrong'.

"Look, why don't I take you home, yeah?"

Connor doesn't have a car, and doesn't know where he lives if he did. Nick's so caught up in that - in the horror of that, of all the little things, the subtle little things that are just off-kilter enough to be terrifying - that it takes him a second to spot that the smile Connor's giving him is wrong, too. It's nervous and trying too hard to be cool but there's a warmth there that takes Nick by surprise. The look in Connor's eyes as he leans in, fingers in his fingerless gloves resting for a brief second on Nick's side, shouldn't be familiar, but it is.

It's the look Connor gives Abby when she's not paying attention.

Nick's paying attention. Nick's paying too damned much attention.

"There's no one around now." Nick doesn't get it and Connor rolls his eyes again, this time with something that looks like affection. "You can kiss me if you like."

And it hits Nick like a body blow just how wrong this world is.


-o-

"Are you going to be okay?"

Abby's brow was furrowed and her eyes were tired and still a little damp. In spite of that, she was managing to hold it together better than Connor, who - from the soft, shivering sounds that had reached Nick, sitting as still as stone in the front beside Jenny - had finally started crying in the back of the car. He'd started almost as soon as they'd left the ARC but Nick hadn't turned to look at him or spoken to him. He wasn't sure why except... no words would come. Not then. Maybe not ever.

Jenny had stayed just as silent as Nick but she, at least, had glanced briefly in her rear view mirror. And then Abby had shifted on the backseat, a soft shuffling sound as she presumably moved closer to Connor before a low murmur of comfort rose between, the easy give and take between them making Nick's heart ache.

There had been no such comfort for Nick. Jenny had turned her attention back to the road, her expression unreadable, and Nick had spent the journey staring out of the window, trying to shut everything out.

He was still trying, although it was more difficult now with Abby leaning into the window, her short, neat fingers wrapped over the edge of the door and her face as close to breaking as he'd ever seen it.

"Cutter...?"

"I'll be fine," he said, finally looking at her. Her eyes welled up but she nodded, sniffing it back and blinking rapidly before wiping the back of her hand over her nose and giving him a watery smile.

It disappeared as soon as it came. It wasn't like Abby to be this vulnerable and Nick looked away again, still unable to find the words to offer her any comfort.

Unlike Nick, Jenny had at least got out of the car and now, as he looked over to the driver's side, in search of anything that would distract him from the misery on Abby's face, all he could see of her was her waist and hips, the dark skirt tight around her thighs.

Connor was pressed close to her, his fingers twisted tightly in the back of her shirt. Again, the low murmur of comfort given and taken reached Nick and for the first time, the first time since, his eyes started to sting.

"Look after him, yeah?"

The words were out before he could pull himself together again, before he could pull everything back in behind the hasty façade he'd pasted over the cracks. Abby's lip quivered, her expression back to broken as she nodded. She didn't say anything, though, and Nick would always be grateful for that. It gave him a few, desperately needed seconds to lock everything down tightly again.

"We'll look after each other," Abby said quietly, her fingers finally loosening their grip on the doorframe and brushing briefly against Nick's arm. Her voice quivered, just like her lip had done, and his throat tightened, hard and fast until he thought he couldn't breathe with everything that was rising up to choke him.

And then she moved away, wiping at her face with her sleeve as she lost the control she'd been trying so hard to hold onto, the tears spilling from her eyes and down her cheeks. Connor followed her, glancing briefly back towards the car, towards Nick, and then he did a quick two step to catch up with Abby, the pair of them coming together and heading towards their front door. Nick watched, still numb, as Connor reached out for her, their fingers wrapping. Connor leaned in, his dark hair spilling from under his hat a contrast to her bright head, but both of them bowed down, lost like Hansel and Gretel in the forest of their grief.

The springs of the car settled as Jenny got back into the driver's seat and that gave Nick an excuse to look away, to not watch as they walked through the door. Instead he could stare out of the front window, where it was already growing dark.

The streetlights flickered on, a steady progression along the street, and his eyes stung.

Jenny kept quiet as she slipped the car into first gear and pulled away from the curb. She drove competently, as she did most things, but without flash, all neat, controlled movements, smooth and easy. He watched her mindlessly for a few moments until she stopped at the roundabout, waiting for the early evening traffic to clear, and looked over at him.

"Are you going to be okay?"

Nick grunted, too tired now to keep up much of a pretence, not in front of Jenny. Not when the look she shot him was too like Claudia to stay comfortably on the outside of his defences. "People keep asking me that."

"Yes," she said tartly, pulling back out into the gap between the cars that wove their way around the roundabout and sounding more like Jenny with each passing second. "How dreadful of them to actually be concerned about you."

He sighed, lacking the energy to fight. "I'll be fine," he said, ignoring the disbelieving look she gave him and closing his eyes, losing himself in the humming movement of the car.

He would be fine. Eventually.

There wasn't any other choice.

-o-

"This Claudia Brown. What was she like?"

It's the first time anyone's asked. It jars Nick a little when he realises that. Even Connor, who believed him from the first, hadn't asked but then Connor...

He doesn't want to think about Connor. Not at the moment. Connor Temple, his student, yes, but not Connor Temple... whatever he was, is to Nick in this nightmare of a world.

Abby's still waiting for an answer and he tries to give her one, but how do you sum up anyone's life in a few meaningless words? Especially someone like Claudia, who was so many different things.

He tries, and Abby's eyes stay kind. That, as much as the question, throws Nick. Abby has been a little distant with him since he came - not home, not really. For all he knows, this distance between them might be what passes for normal in this reality. He's no idea but he's not taking anything for granted, not any more.

But now Abby's opening up to him, listening - really listening - to him, and there's part of Nick that can't help hoping that maybe Abby will be the one concrete, unchanging thing that he's been hoping for, for all that that isn't fair on her.

"She meant a lot to you."

It's not a question but Nick answers it anyway.

"Yeah."

"Sorry."

"For what?"

"That I didn't know her, and... 'cause you lost her." Abby bites her lip, still watching him, and adds, after a long pause, "I want to believe you. I really do, but it's hard."

It's only when her eyes, still sad, track past him to where Connor is studying the raptors from a safe distance, his body language tense and not just from a healthy respect for something that could eat them, that it hits Nick. Maybe, just maybe Claudia isn't the only reason Abby wants to believe him. Maybe Abby's like the others - for her, it's not the world that's changed. It's Nick.

She gives him a quick smile as she moves away, one that's edging into sympathy. But the real sympathy, the real smile, is reserved for Connor. It's Connor she goes to stand beside, Connor's arm she touches with fingers that are gentle and kind.

If she doesn't believe him, if she thinks that it's Nick that's changed, not the world...

She must think he's become one heartless bastard.


-o-

For the next few days, Nick buried himself in his work, just as he'd done in the aftermath of Helen's disappearance. Then, of course, he'd had hope to cling to, something to keep him going during the dark days and the even darker nights. That hope had faded as time passed and Helen stayed gone, but at least it had slipped away from him slowly, day by day, rather than being ripped from his grasp.

Of the two, that had always been the easier option for Nick.

It was only now that it occurred to Nick that maybe, when it came to Helen, the slow death of hope had been the worst option for Stephen, dragging him down even while it kept Nick afloat. It wasn't an easy thought to live with, for a whole host of reasons. Not all of them were good and not all of them were kind.

He'd always been slow to forgive and even slower to forget, but he was beginning to realise that he'd forgive Stephen just about anything, up to and including sleeping with his wife, if the man would just walk back through the bloody door. But Stephen wasn't Helen. He wasn't going to turn up with a cocky smile as though nothing had changed and nothing had ever fallen apart between them.

There was no hope this time. Nick was just going to have to live with his regrets. All of them. And it was that realisation that made it easier to close his office door behind him and shut some of those regrets out.

But only some of them. There was no option of shutting Jenny out, for example. He'd tried but she wasn't a great respecter of closed doors, especially not when the closed door in question was Nick's. She simply strode into his office as if she owned the bloody place.

Somehow he'd always suspected that about Jenny.

There was no point in her actually breaching his defences but she couldn't seem to pick up on that, remaining either clueless about or indifferent to his irritation. That was another thing he'd always suspected about Jenny. Whatever her reasons, she'd 'just drop by' two or three times a day, eyeing him with her trademark mixture of sympathy and aggression. No matter how many times she 'just dropped by', he couldn't bring himself to care about the arrangements she insisted on 'discussing' with him, especially not when the discussion consisted of her suggestions and his stony-faced silence.

Stephen wouldn't have cared about them either. He'd been thirty-two, for God's sake. No one of that age should have had to think about their funeral, and even if the thought had crossed Stephen's mind, it was a thought that he hadn't shared with Nick. Not that that was a surprise, given how things had fallen apart between them.

So, after painful silences that she'd ploughed through or sat out, stiff backed with her brown eyes dark with something close to anger, he usually simply settled on a basic acknowledgement of her existence rather than agreeing or disagreeing with her. He had nothing more for her than that, not at the moment. Not when he was stretched thin, almost to breaking point.

Jenny, for all her faults and all her virtues, looked too much like Claudia to be anything but another regret to add to the pile.

And still she kept coming back.

"Look," he said, finally breaking his self-imposed silence on the issue and cutting through yet another session of her trying to get him to see reason. "Stephen wasn't, as far as I know, religious. He's got - he had - no family. And he honestly wouldn't care. Really. So whatever you think, I'm sure that would be fine."

Jenny huffed, her expression caught between irritation and sympathy, and Nick had to grit his teeth to stop himself from snapping at her, making this whole situation even worse than it already was.

"Nick -"

"I can't be doing with this at the moment." He rose to his feet with a surge that threatened to send the papers balanced precariously on the edge of his desk flying. He'd never managed to get the hang of paperwork, but then he'd had Stephen -

"Nick -"

""No. Really. Just... no. Okay?"

"Okay." She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly and still watching him like he was fragile. It made him feel fragile and that, more than anything, got him moving, brushing past her as he headed for the door.

"It'll be fine, Claudia. Just..."

His fingers were wrapped around handle of the door - which Jenny, for once, had had the sense to shut behind her before she started pestering him - before it hit him what he'd said. There was a sharp intake of breath behind him and then Jenny, damn her, said, in a voice too steady, too kind for Jenny, "Of course. Just leave it to me. I won't... I'll see to it. And I won't bother you anymore."

Nick fled.

Down in the basement there was the option of coffee without company, courtesy of a small kitchenette area off one of the lesser-used labs. He made for there, hoping to have the place to himself, but it seemed that fate had never been less kind to him than it had these past few days.

Connor was already there, staring down into a cup of something, his expression morose and his body - for once - still.

It was weird to see Connor like that - still. It didn't suit him.

Connor didn't seem to see him at first, and if Nick had been sure that it would stay that way, that Connor wouldn't see him if he backed away slowly, he'd have kept on running because he was a fucking coward. But when Nick shifted position - to move forward or move back, he wasn't quite sure which - his foot scraped on the lino and Connor's head snapped up, his body tensing at the sound, almost fearfully. When he saw that it was Nick, he stared at him for long, quiet moments, but the tension didn't ease from his body

It would have been easier to bear, somehow, if it had. Maybe Connor still considered him a threat. He certainly hadn't been a friend to the lad recently.

Connor cleared his throat. "You okay?"

He let out a snort, wiping his hand over his face tiredly. "People keep asking me that."

Connor shrugged, staring back down into his coffee, or whatever it was he was drinking. Nick didn't think it was important, not when the tension finally - finally - ebbed away from Connor's frame. "Maybe they're just worried about you, Cutter. Maybe they just care whether you're okay or not."

"Jenny said something like that."

"You should listen to her." Connor's voice was listless, not even growing animated when he added, "You haven't seen what the woman can do to a Scutosaurus with a high heeled shoe."

As attempts of humour went, this one fell flat and not even Connor seemed to have the energy to try again.

"I'm fine," Nick said, more to break the awkward silence than anything. It rang hollow even to him but he was still surprised when Connor's snort of disbelief called him on it.

For once Connor didn't pursue it, not pushing at all. Not even looking at him and Nick wondered, not for the first time, if breaking for the exit would be too cowardly, even for him. This wasn't like Connor, not Connor who tried so hard, who was everyone's friend. Connor wasn't quiet and still and maybe even a little bitter.

And he didn't know how to deal with this Connor at the best of times.

But he was surprised to find that he wasn't that much of a coward. He might not care as much about this Connor as this Connor cared, had cared about... he still hadn't figured out a way to think of the way things had changed that made sense, that didn't leave him panicked and furious.

He still cared. Had always cared about his Connor, even if this Connor apparently cared more.

"And you?" The question came out hoarse and he cleared his throat, tried again. "How are you and Abby holding up?"

Connor shrugged. "Abby's... it's hard for her, you know?" He looked over at Nick, his face unreadable. "Or maybe you don't know." There was something buried in that comment that Nick didn't get, something that sounded like bitterness, or grief, or both, and it bothered Nick in a way he didn't want to think about too closely. Connor continued, oblivious, "It's just... it's hard for both of us, I suppose, with Stephen... It just... it hurts."

He trailed off, still not looking at Nick, still closed off and subdued and not Connor. Maybe it was the grief or his seesawing emotions, or maybe he and Helen had more in common than he'd thought, something that kept their marriage going for as long as it had - an unexpected streak of cruelty, the ability to lash out when hurt to hurt someone else worse.

"And what would you know about that?"

That got a reaction, Connor looking up, blinking at him, his face slack and shocked. Nick's hands were shaking and he was so... he was so...

It wasn't even Connor's fault. None of this was Connor's fault, all of it was Nick's but Connor just took it, had always taken it. And now Connor had the audacity to tell Nick that it hurt, that it hurt to lose someone who'd been as much a part of your life as Stephen had been of his, or as Claudia had held the promise of being. Connor, who had flitted from Nick to this girl Caroline and now, it seemed, to Abby going by the way they'd clung to each other these past few days, without ever seeming to do more than a little moping for things lost.

"You're... what? Twenty-two, twenty-three?" It wasn't fair. Nick knew it wasn't fair - any of it. He wasn't being fair and life sure as hell wasn't. And he didn't mean the words to come out so bitter, so full of rage especially when Connor wasn't even the focus, just a convenient outlet. But he couldn't seem to stop, even though Connor was shaking now, the cup jittering in his hand and his eyes wide, almost scared.

He took a deep breath, feeling his fingernails cutting into his palms, so tightly were his fingers curled. It helped, the little pain distracting from the bigger one, and he moderated his tone enough to add, less angrily this time. "You... you can't understand, Connor. I'm sorry, and I know you miss Stephen too, but you can't understand how I feel right now, you really can't, and I hope to God you never do."

The silence stretched out between them for long heartbeats and then it snapped, suddenly, hitting Nick straight between the eyes.

"You're right. What would I know about it?" The words were spat out furiously, Connor's voice climbing, stopping just short of shouting. "What would I know? I mean, it's not like I've ever had my best friend die in my arms, or anything, because of me, because of what we do here, right? Or had you conveniently forgotten my mate Tom?" He was panting, his face distressed, contorted with anger and grief as the words rushed out of him. "And wasn't like I woke up one morning and all of a sudden someone I lo-, someone I cared about, someone I thought cared about me, disappeared to be replaced by someone who is a fucking stranger and doesn't feel anything. I mean, that never happened, right? Right?

"Damn it, Cutter!"

His cup hit the wall with a crash, shattering on impact, shards flying in all directions. Nick could only stare, shocked, at the place it had struck, a pool of brown liquid seeping over the counter and beginning to drip off the edge.

It was instinct to turn and move towards Connor and apologise, instinct to try and offer some comfort the way he had when Tom had died, several lifetimes and a whole world away, but Connor's outstretched hand, palm facing him and fingers shaking, stopped him.

"Don't." Connor's voice was shaking, close to shattering as well. "Just... don't, Cutter. Don't."

The sound of rapid footsteps in the corridor echoed towards them, and it was easier to move in their direction instead, putting some distance between himself and Connor by putting himself between Connor and the entrance to the alcove. If he'd been a weaker man, he'd have convinced himself that it was to shield Connor from prying eyes while the man fell apart, but Nick wasn't that weak. Not weak enough to lie to himself. Just weak enough to protect himself at Connor's expense.

The face that appeared around the corner was Abby's, scared and determined both at once and his heart went out to her, the fierceness in her when she realised that it was Connor she'd heard. Even if that fierceness was at least partly aimed at him. She skirted around him, giving him a look that had him taking a step backwards, clearing out of her way as she edged towards Connor.

"Conn?"

Connor's hand came up again, warding off Abby and her concern, and she slowed, giving him the space he needed, treating him as cautiously as she did any skittish animal. Unlike Nick, she wasn't stupid enough to try and touch him. Not yet.

"Conn?" she repeated, keeping her voice low and steady. "Is everything okay?"

He laughed, the sound harsh and fractured, and she flinched. The sorrow flickered momentarily on her face, but she stuck to her reassuring, non-threatening stance, the thing that made her so damned good with animals.

Nick took another step away from them, his back hitting the counter with a thump. The wetness started to seep into his shirt but he didn't flinch, frozen into place by Connor's words, Connor's pain.

"I can't," Connor said brokenly, and she nodded as though she understood, reaching out to him slowly, her fingers touching his trembling ones, which just started to shake harder. "I can't... I need..."

"Okay." And she moved back away from him, letting him past. Their eyes met for a moment and Nick couldn't tell what passed between them, just that something did. Then Connor was gone. This time it was his frantic footsteps echoing back to Nick, and growing fainter by the second.

That left Nick alone with Abby, who stood, tense and silent, for long moments staring in the direction in which Connor had fled.

"Are you okay?"

Abby asked the question without looking at him but there was genuine concern in her voice. It was only when he didn't answer immediately that she turned to look at him, her face drawn.

He took in a deep, shuddering breath. "I'm..."

The words caught in his throat, surprising him, and he had to take several more, unsteady breaths to catch hold of his control again, staring at the ceiling so she wouldn't see the wetness in his eyes.

She waited for long moments until he was feeling steadier, saying nothing until he finally looked at her, blinking away the moisture.

"I'm fine," he managed to get out and her smile was both bitter and sweet.

"No," she corrected, the same gentleness in her voice talking to him as there had been when she'd been talking to Connor. "No, you're not. None of us are fine, Cutter. But, you know, that's kind of okay anyway."

Her smile deepened fractionally, still staying just on the bitter side of sweet, matching the sadness in her eyes, and she was too young to look that old. He managed to dredge a smile up for her from somewhere, and it probably mirrored hers for the bitterness, and the sweet that went with it. She was good people - she and Connor both.

"I hurt Connor," he said, and it struck him, hard, how wrong it was - how wrong he'd been, that it had taken so long for such a simple realisation to sink into his thick head, for him to know it in his heart instead of just viewing it as another intellectual conundrum.

"Yes," she agreed, nodding slightly. "You did." She watched him for a long moment and then said, "I'm glad you realise it. I was beginning to think you'd never manage to get your head out of your backside."

It felt good - so damned good - to laugh, even one that was as short and sour as the one he let out now.

"I'm surprised you didn't just beat it into my thick skull."

This time her smile was deep enough to dimple her cheek. "I thought about it." She seemed to hesitate for a moment, her smile fading away again, and then she added, softly, "He's gotten over it. He has." Like that was what Nick was worried about. "It's just... it's hard for him at the moment. Especially finding out about Caroline..." She trailed off, shrugging a little helplessly. She looked tired again, her eyeliner smudged around the edges so that he wondered whether she'd been crying somewhere where no one could see her.

"What about you?" he asked, cursing himself for not asking sooner when she looked surprised at the question. "How are you holding up?"

She gave another one of those lost little shrugs, and a faint smile that had nothing to do with amusement. "I'm okay," she said. "Surviving. It's you we've been worried about."

There was no mistaking the surge of bitterness that welled up in him at that but it wasn't aimed at Abby. It wasn't aimed at anyone but himself, and maybe a little at fate and her cruel vagaries.

"I'm... going to be okay."

"I know." There it was again, that gentleness; he'd never needed to be on the receiving end of it before now. "It's just..."

"Hard," he completed and she gave him another smile, this one tinged around the edges with sadness.

"Yeah," she agreed, and then she seemed to give herself a mental shake, looking around the kitchen. "We'd better clear up this mess. Don't want the domestic staff complaining again." When Nick didn't say anything, she clarified, with a slightly sheepish look, "There might have been a late night incident with the microwave and marshmallows. It wasn't my fault. I told Connor to put them into the hot chocolate after he'd heated it up, and Stephen agreed -"

She broke off suddenly, biting at her lip, and this time he could have sworn that there were tears welling up in her eyes as she looked away hurriedly, her fingers clenching into fists. But when she looked back, her eye makeup was no more smudged than it had been, and her mouth was set and steady, and she moved briskly towards the counter.

"No," he said, for once reaching out to her, his fingers gently wrapping around her wrist and stopping her as she reached for the cloth in the sink. "I'll clean up this mess."

"Yes," she said, stepping back to give him room and giving him a long and steady look at the same time. "I know you will."

-o-

"I..."

Connor is pale and nervous, twisting his hat between his hands. Under other circumstances it might be funny, having Connor look like a naughty schoolboy, but under these circumstances it's anything but.

"I'm... I'm not going to make a big deal of things." Connor finally gets the words out in a rush, looking anywhere but straight at Nick, not meeting his eyes. His gaze skips over the corkboard behind Nick's desk, adorned with the same sort of clippings he remembers from before; skims over the papers on the desk. Finally settles just past Nick's right ear.

Connor's eyes are too bright, and Nick settles one hip back on his desk, leaning awkwardly. The soft hum of conversation in the recesses of the ARC reaches him and Connor could at least have closed the door behind him if they're having this conversation.

But Connor's voice is low and he's not breaking down yet, which is just as well because Nick's not sure whether he could comfort Connor the way he has in the past. His hugs and occasional affection might be misinterpreted, and he has no idea how to deal with that.

"I know..." Connor continues. "I know that things are different for you now and... and I know that that... that that means me and you are different now, too, and..." His voice cracks just a little and Nick wants this to be over. He's never considered himself a cruel man and this is a little too much like pinning live insects to a collection board for his comfort. "And I'm not... I won't make things more difficult for you, okay?"

Nick waits for a few seconds, not sure whether or not he's supposed to answer. Not sure how he's supposed to answer. He finally settles on, "Okay," and that seems to be all that Connor needs because he nods, fast and shaky and with eyes that are still too wet and bright.

"Okay," he says, and then he backs out of the office, stumbling slightly but at least this time closing the door behind him. Nick sighs and closes his eyes.

So much is still wrong - with someone with Claudia's face but not Claudia's heart running around the place like she belongs here, and this whole bloody building, which is just wrong in ways he doesn't want to quantify, not yet - but at least he can console himself that the whole Connor situation has been resolved.

He can't say that he's disappointed.

He can't.


-o-

The day of the funeral itself dawned bright and fine, with a bitter nip in the wind that was entirely in keeping with the ice in his veins and with Connor and Abby's cold, pale faces.

The two of them were sticking together, on Nick's left. They weren't touching but they never strayed more than a few inches from each, staying silent all the while. They hadn't moved far from Nick either, orbiting him all morning like dark, mute moons. Even their clothing matched. He wondered if they even knew that the purple they both wore was, at one time, the colour of mourning, if that was why they'd done it. He couldn't imagine them co-ordinating, comparing outfits, but he could imagine the pair of them dressing together this morning in silence, unconsciously mirroring each other then just as they were doing now.

Connor had too much gel in his hair, slicking it down like he'd come in from the rain and hadn't realised it yet. Abby's skirt was far too short for a funeral and her bare legs were too pale, goose-bumped from the chill autumn wind. They both looked like children dressing up in their parents' cast offs. Only their grief was adult, thick and heavy, weighing them down.

Nick stuck to black and grey. It was easier that way.

He wasn't alone in that. The rest of the graveside mourners - and there were too few, fewer than he'd expected - were friends of Stephen's, those who had been able to wend their way back from far-flung climes in time to make it, and people from the ARC, including Lester's security teams. It was easy to spot the latter - they wore their black suits like they wore them every day and they probably did.

Connor's Caroline was also there, somewhere behind them. He hadn't recognised her when she'd turned up at the church looking like she was turning up at a photo shoot, but then he'd only ever seen her on a grainy monitor before. But Jenny had set him straight, her tone a mixture of anger and admiration as she whispered a hasty and damning identification of her in his ear. Without that, he'd have gone on believing that she was simply another one of Stephen's exes - she was pretty enough for that, with a certain style that didn't say 'Connor', but then Nick supposed she hadn't been dating Connor because he was her type.

Nick didn't know why she was here. Guilt, maybe, or a sense of respect for someone who had died to protect people like her. Whatever the reason, Connor and Abby simply ignored her and Nick was happy to take his lead from them. There was no reason for him to approach her; she was just another face in the crowd and the ones he cared about - the ones he really cared about - were standing right next to him.

As funeral services went - and Nick hadn't been to many, thankfully - this one was fairly traditional. Church first for the service then the graveyard for the burial itself, all nicely subdued and carefully conservative. And dull, which was a weird way to celebrate the life of someone who had lived the way Stephen had.

Stephen would have hated it. All it needed was for it to start raining as they lowered his coffin into the ground and they'd be able to tick off every single cliché. He could imagine Stephen pointing that out, the laconic drawl in his voice and the amusement sparkling in his eyes, and something inside him twisted even more tightly until it threatened to snap.

Abby was watching the coffin as it descended into the earth, her face expressionless and her fingers flexing, reaching reflexively for Connor's hand but never quite connecting. Connor was staring down at the ground, his gaze several inches from the edge of the pit and his face just as empty as Abby's.

Nick stared at the tree line instead, wincing as the coffin hit the bottom of the pit with a dull thud. It sounded strangely hollow and that echoed in the hollowness inside Nick; he'd been right about there being little left of Stephen to bury. He could only hope that it wasn't something that had occurred to Abby or Connor. Neither of them were children, but they both deserved to be spared that.

When the first shovelful of earth fell onto the coffin it also hit with a dull thud. Connor looked up at the sound, his eyes staring off into the distance, wide and unfocused, and a deep shuddering breath escaped him. Abby swayed closer to him, still not making contact, her face waxen but holding it together, barely. Nick should...

There was no 'should', nothing he could do to make it better for them. All the three of them could do was endure. With Stephen having no family, they were it: him, Abby and Connor. The three of them left behind while Stephen, damn him, rushed ahead.

Then Abby stepped forward, into his line of sight, laying the lily on Stephen's grave. There were others already lying there, brilliantly white against the dark dirt but Nick had never liked lilies. They were too waxy looking, too redolent of neatly embalmed death and funeral homes, neither of which had anything to do with Stephen. He had no idea who had put them there. He'd zoned out as they'd started filling the grave and yet here it was, a neat mound with a bundle of clichés on the top, and he had no memory of the time passing.

He covered that by watching as Abby stepped back, her hand this time making contact with Connor's, a brief brush of fingers that Connor acknowledged with a look.

He envied them that, their ability to communicate without words, especially now, when he couldn't find any. But it helped that Connor was close, just a matter of inches from him, and that Nick, like Abby, could simply reach out and touch him if he'd wanted to. If he'd dared. And that Abby was just beyond Connor, just an arm's length away. The three of them together, all in a neat line with Jenny on his other side, silent and strong.

When the funeral service was finally over, he let Abby and Connor get ahead of him, slowing his steps for a moment to observe, with mingled sadness and pride, how they moved together, still unconsciously mirroring each other, side by side, strong together. No one had ever intended them to be soldiers, least of all Nick, but they were stepping up into the gap left by Stephen as though it had never occurred to them that there was another option.

He slowed his steps even further as he caught sight of the girl, Caroline, approaching them and Jenny slowed hers, too, matching him stride for stride and watching the scene in front of them with narrowed eyes. He got what Connor had meant now, the fierceness in Jenny that he'd refused to see before. The protective, loyal instincts that had come out under pressure and showed no sign of disappearing again. He sure as hell wouldn't go up against her unless he had to and he hoped to God he'd never would.

He was too far away to hear what Caroline was saying, but Abby and Connor barely acknowledged her existence, letting their silence speak for them. As stonewalling went, it was effective, but he didn't miss Connor's raised eyebrow at Abby as they peeled away from Caroline and continued walking back towards the exit, their steps once again synchronised.

It was the first animation he'd seen Connor show all day.

As they walked, Abby's hand reached out, stroking along Connor's fingers, and if he hadn't already suspected that they were moving beyond simple friendship, that touch - comforting and possessive both at once - would have told him.

It ached a little, leaving him feeling like a tired old man, lost and left out. Cast adrift, maybe. They were suitably morose thoughts for a graveyard, where he was surrounded by weathered headstones, consigned to the past whether they realised it or not.

"Drink?" Jenny asked. It started him out of the fugue state he'd drifted into, but he had no answer for her, and he could hear the rueful amusement in her voice as she finally answered for him. "Another time then."

It wasn't fair of him, and maybe it was about time he started being fair to the people who cared about him, whatever reason they had for that. He stopped walking, turning to look at her. She was wearing her hair down and her makeup was more subdued than usual. She looked as much like Claudia then as she'd ever done.

Maybe that was why he said, "Maybe another time." Maybe that was why she smiled.

Stephen would have told him it was a bad idea, but then Stephen - for all of his faults - had never had a problem calling Nick on his bullshit.

He was going to miss that. As infuriating as it could be - as Stephen could be - he was going to miss that like mad.

-o-

There must be a point where the pain of betrayal no longer bit but if there is, Nick hasn't reached it yet.

He's not sure what hurts, what infuriates, more - seeing Stephen with Helen or Stephen not turning up when they needed him. He left the three of them on the M25 with nothing - nothing - to use against a bloody mammoth of all things but Abby's ingenuity and some nifty footwork on Nick and Connor's part...

There's no forgiving Stephen this time, not when it's the fate of the world hanging on it. This isn't about Helen, not entirely. His marriage can't even begin to hold a candle to what's at stake here. Why can't Stephen see it?

"The world changed. We can't protect anyone until we know why the anomalies appear and what they mean."

Stephen snorts and Nick's body tightens in response, ready for Stephen's rebuttal. And it comes.

"It's always your way or nothing."

"That works for me."

There's a long, raw silence, filled with anger and resentment and it's not just Nick who feels it. He's not stupid enough to think that Stephen's calm and rational and unaffected, no matter how mask-like Stephen's face stays. He turns away before he can say anything else, even though there's no recovering from this. Not now, not with a second betrayal.

"No wonder she turned to me."

Nick turns back, slowly, his heart thudding so hard that the rushing in his ears drowns almost everything else out. Everything but the sound of Abby and Connor arriving, the pair of them hovering at the window rather than entering, sensing the tension in the room and, sensibly, keeping a safe distance.

"She turned to you," his voice shakes with the effort of keeping everything in and his fists by his side, "because you were young enough and stupid enough to buy everything she was selling. Or didn't it occur to you that maybe that's why professors aren't supposed to sleep with their students?"

As soon as Stephen's mouth quirks bitterly, Nick realises that he's made a tactical mistake. He doesn't need the way that Stephen's eyes slide to Connor or the angry contempt in them when Stephen looks back at him to tell him that.

And that's it. That's the last straw and it's Nick that breaks. He lets fly, knocking Stephen off his feet, splitting his lip. It's savage and unconscionable and wildly, gleefully irresistible, and it's just the sort of thing that Helen would appreciate.

And that is what stops him from landing a second blow.

He turns abruptly on his heel again, heading out the door, snapping out, "Connor," as he does so.

Stephen's in the past. There's a whole host of other things that they need to deal with, starting with figuring out who the hell is behind this whole thing and how Helen fits into it.

Unlike Stephen, he's not quite stupid enough to believe she doesn't.

Connor has to trot to keep up with him, casting the occasional look back towards Abby. When Nick stops and looks at him - just looks at him, saying nothing - Connor swallows, nervously. It's not until Nick is turning back towards the Control Room that he speaks.

"I wasn't your grad student." Nick stops short again, and Connor starts to look a little panicked. "I mean, when we... I wasn't your grad student. Not any more. Not like Helen and... Stephen." He trails off in the face of Nick's silence and, when Nick still says nothing, he continues, sounding a little hurt, "I'm just saying."

"Connor..." And just like that, Connor flinches and Nick - still seething, still wanting to hit something - has to soften his voice, keep it low and light and not let any of that show on his face. This isn't important to him, not right now, but Connor...

It could be important to Connor and Nick needs Connor on side. That's not fair but then what about this whole thing is?

"Right now, we need to get cracking on figuring out what the hell Helen is up to, okay? Everything else is going to have to wait."

Connor hesitates and then nods, short and jerky.

Nick's already on the pointing of setting off again when Connor has the last word, so quietly that he's not even sure that Connor means for him to hear it.

"I just didn't want you to think it was the same."

There's no answer to that, and so Nick doesn't give one. He just keeps moving, leaving the problem of Connor trailing in his wake.

He's getting good at that.


-o-

For a second Nick had no idea what had woken him. He lay still in his bed, his heart pounding and the nightmares still clinging to him, slicking his skin with sweat.

It took him a moment too long to clear the cotton wool from his brain and kick start it into operation, and in the back of his mind he could hear Stephen's gentle mockery about his reaction times, comments about him being an old man. They were familiar insults, ones so ingrained into him from countless fieldtrips that he didn't even need Stephen to summon them up.

That was just as well.

The dull light of morning was streaming through a crack in the curtains and his feet were cold where he'd kicked his covers off in the throes of reliving Stephen's death over and over in his dreams. His muscles ached, less from the cold, he thought, and - no matter what Stephen had said on numerous occasions - he wasn't old enough for his body to start letting him down, not yet. So that meant - judging by the heap of covers on the floor and the way his pyjama bottoms were twisted around his legs - that he'd been tossing and turning all night, his body re-enacting those things his mind couldn't seem to let go.

And yet, for some reason he didn't think that any of that had woken him.

Then he heard it again, a soft clattering coming from downstairs, and he froze, his heartbeat starting to race again as he strained to hear more, his breathing quick and shallow.

Just on the periphery of his hearing he thought he could hear footsteps. They were faint, barely there, barely heard over the sound of his own breathing. He'd think that it was his imagination if he wasn't already painfully aware that not even his imagination could conjure up many of the things they were faced with every day.

He didn't think 'thief' the way that anyone else living on his street would have done and, for once, his first thought on waking wasn't about the conspiracy that had cost Stephen his life. His first thought was 'Helen', and there was no warmth in it. There was no fear, either, just a sense of inevitability.

She never had known when to quit.

His golf clubs were standing in the corner of the room, in spite of him not playing for years. He thought long and hard, still listening out for sounds of movement, before reaching for one. If it was Helen, he wouldn't need it. If it wasn't... he'd faced off worse things with less but there was no reason to be stupid about it. Even a golf club was better than nothing. And working with Stephen on the anomaly project had finally taught him how to move quietly, even if he'd never manage the kind of cat-like tread that had been Stephen's trademark.

It meant he could go hunting, stealing quietly down the stairs - a middle aged man in his pyjamas, holding a golf club.

Under other circumstances, that might actually have been funny.

The noise was coming from the kitchen, and the door he'd shut firmly last night was ajar. He took a deep breath, his free hand slowly pushing the door all the way open and his grip on his golf club tightening.

It wasn't Helen and it wasn't something from the past or future, and he had no idea whether to be angry or relieved.

Connor stood there, looking entirely at home as he unpacked one of the various carrier bags scattered all the way across Nick's kitchen - dumped on the counters and sitting forlornly on the floor. There was enough food in them to feed an army, and the word 'overkill' sprang to mind.

He dropped his arm and let the golf club swing down to his side with a soft swoosh. That finally got Connor's attention and he turned, starting guiltily when he saw Nick standing in the doorway.

"Shit," he said, the word coming out of him in a shocked gasp, and then he winced apologetically. "Sorry."

Nick spread his hands helplessly, the golf club weaving drunkenly as he did so. Connor's eyes followed it, still guiltily. It was too damned early in the morning to be dealing with the surrealism of the whole situation.

"Connor. What are doing here?"

"Um," he said, and then he smiled, a nervous little twitch that clawed at Nick's insides and yet, strangely, managed to settle him at the same time. There was a tin of baked beans in Connor's hand and Connor glanced down at it before looking back at Nick, his smile this time a little more hopeful. "Abby was worried you weren't eating properly," he said, waggling the tin at Nick even more hopefully.

"Abby...?"

"Yeah." Connor seemed to feel he was on firmer ground now, and was slipping back into his more usual, chatty persona. It did Nick's heart good to see it. More than good. "Don't know why she got the idea into her head but, you know..." He trailed off, shrugging helplessly. "I think she's just worried about you."

Abby and apparently everyone else at the ARC. Nick sighed and turned to prop the golf club back up in the corner, where it was out of the way and where he could prop it without wading through the sea of carrier bags that surrounded Connor. "I suppose asking you how you got in wouldn't get an answer, would it?"

His voice sounded gravelly to him, echoing in his ears, so God only knew how he sounded to Connor. He wiped his hand over his mouth and chin, then up to rub the sleep from his eyes before staring at Connor, who had gone silent again.

Connor shoved his hand in his pocket and pulled it out again, keys dangling off his outstretched finger. He treated Nick to another nervously twitchy smile. "You never asked for them back," he said.

"That's because I didn't know that you had them."

The words were barely out of his mouth before he regretted them, and he gave himself a mental kick, kicking himself harder when Connor flinched, looking anywhere but at him.

"Yeah, well..." said Connor, flushing blotchily, the way he always did when embarrassed, and it was weird how Nick knew that. "I suppose that was another thing you forgot about." The words hit home, probably a lot harder than Connor had intended. "But you'd better have them back now."

The keys clattered against the kitchen counter. When Nick continued to look at him rather than them, Connor coloured uncomfortably, shifting in position. "I just..." he said and then his flush deepened, the corner of his mouth twitching with irritation now rather than embarrassment. "Come on, Cutter. It's not like I could just suddenly announce one day 'Oh, by the way. You know that bit where we definitely weren't dating in your reality? Well, here are your house keys that you definitely didn't give me when we definitely weren't dating. Can I have mine back now?'"

For a split second of insanity, Nick wanted to give them back, wanted to put his keys in Connor's hand and curl Connor's fingers around them and insist on Connor taking them, keeping them, if only to wipe away the look of misery that was settling back onto Connor's face as if it had never left.

Before he could do anything that stupid - or that brave - there was another clattering sound behind him and he tensed, fingers twitching for the makeshift weapon he no longer held. Connor, however, didn't flicker and that, more than anything, clued Nick in to who it was behind him even before he heard Abby's soft, "'Scuse me."

He shifted to the side, letting her past. She had even more carrier bags, which she dumped down onto the floor next to Connor before turning to look at Nick, pushing her hair back off her forehead so that it spiked up.

She looked better, just as Connor did. Not happy but there was something different in her face, in her stance. It took Nick a second to place it - she wasn't happy, no, but she, like Connor, was resigned to Stephen's loss, settled with it and keeping busy with things in a way that Nick wasn't. Shopping, talking. Loving. The business of living.

They were moving on, he realised with a pang. Moving on and leaving him behind.

"Hey," said Abby after a long pause where she just looked at Nick. There was nothing judgemental in her gaze but Nick shifted a little anyway, conscious of his hair sticking up, the sleep in his eyes, his whole rumpled professor demeanour. "You okay today?"

He summoned up a smile from somewhere, sheepish and standoffish at the same time. "I'm fine. You?"

She nodded, looking more like Abby than she had over the past few days. "You look like crap," she said bluntly. "Which is pretty much like we all feel, so I suppose there's nothing that can be done about it." In spite of her words, she narrowed her eyes at him thoughtfully, weighing him up and apparently finding him wanting before she turned back to Connor, Nick dismissed from her thoughts, at least temporarily.

"This stuff needs to go in the fridge," she said. "I'll get the rest out of the car."

"Jesus." Nick didn't apologise for the outburst, in spite of Abby's raised eyebrow and Connor's brief flirtation with a smile. "How much did you actually buy?"

Connor seemed to give the question some serious thought, his brow scrunching up and his lips parting as though he were about to answer, but it was Abby who smiled and Abby who said, "I stopped him buying the kitchen sink. Just."

"Hey! We just didn't know what you had in and what you didn't, so..." The last was directed at Nick, rather than Abby, who was already heading out of the door. "Most of it's stuff that will keep or freeze anyway, so I don't know what she's complaining about." Connor's voice rose to make the final point. She ignored it, but not before Nick had glimpsed the small smile on her face as she stalked past him.

That left him and Connor alone, sucked back into that awkward silence. "I'll... um... I'd better start putting this stuff away."

"Connor -"

Now that he had Connor's attention, he had no idea what to say. He started by settling for a simple, "Thank you." That got him another smile, brief but genuine, and it was amazing how something as simple, something requiring as little effort on Nick's part as that could go someway towards making Connor feel a little better.

And it was amazing how important making Connor feel better was becoming to Nick. That dawning light of realisation got Nick moving again, edging closer towards the counter, mirroring Connor's position in leaning against it.

It brought him closer to Connor, closer than he'd been for a while and that alone spoke volumes about what a bastard he'd been.

"How're you holding up?" The question was genuine, heartfelt, and Connor's face warmed up.

"I'm okay," Connor said. "I'm... I miss him." Connor stopped there, his eyes tearing up. He tilted his head back, but not before Nick had seen it and the sight - and Connor's simple admission - brought a lump to his own throat.

"Yeah."

"It's Abby I'm worried about. Well." Connor gave another one of those smiles, one of the ones that melted away almost immediately. It was a little watery around the edges, and Nick could sympathise with that. "Abby and you."

"You don't need to worry about me, Connor. I'll... I'll cope, you know?"

"Okay." Connor nodded a couple of times, not meeting his eyes, and then turned to put the tin of beans he still held into one of the overhead cupboards. It went straight into the right place and a quick glance around the kitchen told Nick that this wasn't a fluke. The lid of the bread tin in the corner was raised slightly from the bread that had been shoved in, and there was new kitchen towel on the rack, something he always forgot to do until he needed it. A place for everything and everything in its place, and it seemed like Connor knew all of those places inside out.

And Abby must have known that. Why else would she leave Connor to put the shopping away while she brought it in?

It was easier to ask, "Why are you worried about Abby?" with his brain on automatic pilot than to delve into that further. "I mean, I get why you'd... I'm not phrasing this very well, am I?"

Connor turned to eye him again, that slight crease back between his brows as he worked his way through whatever revelations had struck him. He had no idea what those could be, not until Connor asked, slowly, "That was different for you, too, wasn't it? Abby and Stephen?"

"Abby and Stephen what?"

Connor gave him a look, one that was equal parts embarrassment and incredulity. "Abby and Stephen," he repeated, emphasising the words pointedly, and it finally struck Nick what he meant.

It made a weird kind of sense. He'd been aware of Abby's crush, of course, at least in his... reality, for want of a better word. So, yes. It made sense.

And it meant that Stephen had been an idiot, throwing it all away for Helen of all people.

"They were over a while ago." Connor's words dragged him away from the pool of regrets he'd been drowning in - his own and the ones he felt on Stephen's behalf. "Abby and Stephen. But... well. They were still mates."

Nick opened his mouth but was saved from saying anything - anything stupid or otherwise - by the clattering that rose from the hallway again.

"That's everything." Abby dropped the last carrier bag on the floor with a thump, glancing between the two of them as she rubbed her fingers, smoothing out the red and white ridges where the handle of the carrier bag had bitten into her flesh. "What?"

"Nothing -"

"Cutter didn't know about you and Stephen."

He'd have glared at Connor if he could, if he thought that Connor could take it. Connor shrugged apologetically but there was little apology in the brown eyes that met his.

"Oh," Abby said slowly, rolling the sound in her mouth and letting it out on a slow breath. Her eyes locked with Nick's and there was no apology in there either. "Yeah." She hesitated, her face thoughtful, before adding, "It had been over for a while. Since before you... well, before you came back through the anomaly and found everything different, I suppose."

It was an interesting choice of words - 'you found everything different', not 'you went completely insane'.

"I'm..."

"If you say you're sorry one more time, I'm going to make you eat Connor's cooking."

"Hey!"

Abby smiled again but didn't take her eyes from Nick. She tilted her head thoughtfully, like a bird, watching him. "Actually, he's a good cook, but I don't suppose you remember that."

It wasn't said cruelly, but the blood rushed to his face anyway. Abby's face was already scrunching up apologetically before Connor's second "Hey!" even registered.

"Sorry," she said, looking it. Then she turned to Connor, still with that vaguely apologetic look on her face. It softened into something else as she added, "I left your laptop in the boot. I wasn't sure whether or not you wanted it bringing in."

Connor rolled his eyes, as though that was a completely stupid conclusion for Abby to come to, and at least some things hadn't changed. He huffed and started heading towards the door, pausing only to ruffle Abby's hair as he passed, the easy familiarity of the gesture bringing a lump to Nick's throat.

The keys were still sitting on his counter, discarded in a heap, and Nick's fingers reached for them. They were cold to the touch. They would have been warm when Connor pulled them out of his pocket.

"Connor..."

Connor paused in the doorway, looking back at him, his expression quizzical. It was easier than Nick would have thought possible to step over the shopping, to catch hold of Connor's wrist with the same gentle touch he'd used to excavate the past from the ground, and to bring Connor's hand up. Easier than he thought to drop the keys into Connor's outstretched palm and - with the fingers of his other hand - curl Connor's fingers around them.

"Lock the door when you come back in, okay, Connor?"

Connor's hand was warm in his and Connor swallowed, his face - as changeable as Nick's own moods - swinging back towards tearful. He nodded, though, swallowing back the tears and giving Nick another shaky smile before slowly pulling his hand free and leaving the room.

Connor was smart, even if he was still a little clueless about people. But perhaps he knew Nick better than Nick thought. Maybe it was about time Nick started to entertain that possibility.

He wasn't sure that Abby would be as understanding, but when he turned to look at her again, she simply looked back, calmly, before nodding. Then she did something that completely unexpected, throwing Nick completely. She walked up to him and put her arms around him, holding him like he was something fragile.

She was small enough that she fitted underneath his chin, her body tight against his and her hair tickling against his skin. She may have been crying again, but if she was, she kept it low key. The shuddering he felt could have been her breathing or could have been her grief, kept tightly under wraps.

"Thank you," she said.

"I'm so sorry, sweetheart," he said by way of an answer to that, pulling her in more tightly and holding her like his life depended on it. She nodded against his chest, smelling like Abby: all talc and leather and strength.

And then she let go, taking a step back, her pixie-like face resolved, with the strength of her character written clearly on it.

"I miss him," she said, unconsciously mirroring Connor, even in Connor's absence. "I mean... it was over. It's been over a long time but..." Her lip quivered a little and she clamped down on it, taking a deep breath. In spite of that, her next words came out a little shakily. "I miss him."

Somehow Abby's grief, although better contained, was more difficult for Nick to bear than Connor's had been, and he had to swallow, hard. He didn't protest when Abby reached out for him again, curling her fingers around his the way she had reached out for Connor during the funeral.

"So," he said, pushing the grief and the pain back and trying to focus on the present, the future. Pushing himself to move on the way that Abby and Connor were trying. "You and Connor..."

It wasn't quite a question - he wasn't sure that he had the right to ask that or that this was the right time - but Abby nodded anyway, her expression serious. And then, as though that wasn't answer enough, she added, "Yes."

Nick echoed her nod, finding it in his heart to be glad for her, for both of them. "Good."

Her fingers tightened for a second before slipping away and maybe it was that that compelled Nick to add, "You know... before. It was always you. For Connor, I mean." The words were failing him - he'd spent years using words to instil a love of his chosen field into serried ranks of youth, face after face reflecting it back to him, but they were failing him now and he wasn't sure that Abby understood. "In... my world, I suppose."

She nodded again but her face wasn't clear any more. It was still serious, a small crease between her brows. "Here it was you," she said. "But..."

He waited for more but she disappointed him in the best way possible, moving towards him again for another hug, this one harder, like she could press the words she couldn't find to say into him another way. Her chin was resting on his shoulder this time rather than her head being buried in his chest and it dug in sharply, a pain that reminded him that he - both of them - were still alive.

"This whole world," she whispered. "Everything. The anomalies, the things we see coming through. They're amazing, Cutter. Terrifying, yeah, but amazing, too, you know?" He nodded, her hair scratching against his stubble, the back of his throat stinging. "With all of these possibilities, with all of these wonderful things, did it never occur to you that the heart is capable of wonderful, amazing things, too?"

She finally let go, stepping back again, and his arms felt a little empty. His heart, too. Her eyes were red, the tears welling up in them and, as he watched, they spilled over and rolled down her cheeks. "You know, for a smart guy you can be remarkably dense sometimes."

He couldn't help but smile at that but it was more like a wince - reflexive, coming deep from inside him, and it hurt at the same time as it helped. She was as smart as Connor in some ways, especially when it came to people. But she shouldn't need to be this old and the look in her eyes was as ancient as anything that had ever come through an anomaly.

"Yeah. I'm beginning to get that."

She nodded, a faint smile on her face, rising and disappearing as her hand came up to wipe at her face, smudging her mascara.

"I loved Stephen," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "I... I still do, I suppose. But I love Connor, too. And he loves me. I know that. We're the same in so many ways, me and Conn, and different in good ways, and neither of us are very good at stopping loving someone. And that's okay. It really is." He thought, in some strange way, he got what she was saying, even before she continued, "It's not like love's something that's going to run out."

He laughed, a choked off sound, and she didn't elaborate. Instead she raised one small, callused hand and placed it on his cheek, which did nothing to help with the lump that was growing in his throat by the second, threatening to choke him.

"Do me a favour, Cutter?"

He nodded, shakily.

"Go and have a shower." She stroked her fingers over his cheek. "And a shave. And do something about your hair. It's worse than Connor's at the moment."

And this time when he laughed, it was deep and heartfelt. And if it started to sound like a sob half way through, she didn't call him on it.

-o-

"Does anyone really know what the natural order is any more?"

He doesn't have an answer for Stephen. There aren't any easy ones, and he's never really believed in things being too easy anyway. He stares down the stone steps, past the police line to the hustle and bustle beyond the plaza. Claudia - Jenny - is down there somewhere, organising things and bossing people about even with her hair wet and dripping, and her clothes stained by exploding prehistoric worms.

He has some sympathy. For the worms. Right now it feels like his head is going to explode, too.

"Talking about the natural order," and it's the stiffness in Stephen's voice that tells Nick that the subject is about to change on him abruptly. "Connor... He's a good kid."

As segues go, it's exceptionally badly executed and Nick doesn't have any patience for it.

"Don't go there, Stephen, okay?"

"I'm just saying..." Stephen spreads his hands helplessly, leaning away from him. "I think... he's a good kid and he deserves better than this."

"It's really none of your business."

"Okay, but tell me something. Is it the 'he' in the sentence that's bothering you or the 'kid'?"

"Stephen."

The warning is clear in his voice, but when has that ever stopped Stephen when he has a bee in his bonnet?

"If you're going to end things with him, he deserves to be told to his face. Not..." Stephen waves his hands vaguely. "Not like this, not with you pretending it never happened."

"It didn't happen."

"Because of this Claudia Brown person?" Stephen's voice is now sceptical and while on the surface Nick can't blame him for that, he can't help but feel a certain amount of resentment anyway. "The one who looks just like Jenny Lewis?"

Nick's head is aching, and his clothes are stiff with water and dirt. He doesn't need this. He doesn't need to be lectured by Stephen, of all people.

"Yes," he spits out, then, "No. Not 'because of'. It just didn't happen, Stephen. All right?"

"All right," says Stephen mildly, and he settles back, sitting with his clasped hands hanging between his knees and with his elbows resting on his legs. He looks like he doesn't have a care in the world but Nick has known Stephen for far too long to be fooled.

He knew Stephen, anyway. Before. He's not sure he knows this one, the one who slept with his wife.

"You know..." Nick's voice comes out low and mean, just the way he feels. "I think you're a fine one to be telling me about how to manage my personal life."

Stephen nods, still not looking at him, like Nick's just made an interesting scientific point that Stephen is mulling over, one he'll take his time to weigh up before coming to any conclusion. Not like Nick has just ripped into him.

"That's a good point," he finally says, reinforcing the illusion, and he rises to his feet, slapping his palms against his trouser legs as though that will do anything to get the dirt out of them. He moves down a step or two before he finally turns to Nick and looks at him, almost at eye level now. His expression is serious, no amusement in his eyes, just a kind of rueful bitterness or maybe even regret. It's difficult to tell with Stephen. He's always been too bloody good at hiding the things that are important.

Like Helen.

"Maybe..." Stephen says the word quietly but there's no missing the intensity in his tone, and that gets Nick's attention just as much as the hand Stephen leans in to rest briefly on his shoulder. "Maybe I just don't want you making the same kind of mistakes." He squeezes Nick's shoulder lightly before he lets go.

Nick watches as he walks away, jogging down the steps easily, again looking - from the rear at least - as though the man didn't have a care in the world.

Stephen doesn't look back, and Connor and Abby have disappeared entirely. That leaves Nick sitting alone on the cold, stone steps.

Nick's starting to get used to it.


-o-

Most of the shopping had been neatly put away by the Nick came down to the kitchen, towelling his hair. There was no sign of Connor but Abby was standing by the sink, staring out of the window, a cup in her hand. The kettle was humming softly, coming to the boil. The teapot stood next to it, steam gently rising from the spout.

"Connor tells me off if I don't warm the pot," she said off his look. She placed her cup carefully down on the counter, next to the tea pot, and gave him a smile as though she was inviting him to share her amusement at Connor's foibles. She made it easy to respond to it and Nick couldn't help but smile back.

"Where is he?"

"In the living room," she said. "He's working on something, so it's my turn to make a fresh pot. Go on through. I'll bring you a cuppa through when it's had time to brew."

He hesitated, torn between doing what she'd said and not leaving her on her own.

"Are you...?"

"I'm fine, Cutter." This time the eye rolling was aimed at him, but there was genuine affection as well as exasperation in Abby's expression. And then her voice - and her face - softened. "We're going to be fine, Cutter."

He believed her. "When did you get so smart?"

She snorted, turning her attention back to the complex business of making the perfect cup of tea. "Like I had a choice hanging around you and Connor?" And, just in case he'd made the mistake of thinking that she'd given him a compliment, she added, "One of us needs to have some common sense."

He couldn't argue with that, not without losing, and he was starting to figure out that sometimes, when it came to Abby, and to Connor, it might be best to simply give in and go with the flow.

Connor was seated on the floor when he entered the living room. He was curled up cross-legged, leaning against the sofa, with his laptop balanced in his lap. His long fingers were tapping away at the keyboard, moving so rapidly that they were nothing but a blur, and there was a frown on his face but it was the right kind of frown. It was the frown Connor wore when he was working, figuring things out, making things better, and it warmed Nick's heart to see it.

Connor looked up when he realised that Nick was standing in the doorway and gave him a brief, "Hey." He didn't look entirely comfortable, but there wasn't the skittishness there that there once had been. That had been there for months, if Nick was honest with himself for once.

"Hey," he offered in return, moving over to settle himself on the sofa. He pushed one of the cushions out of the way so that there was room for him between the arm rest and where Connor was resting against it and then he leant forward to peer at the screen, his leg pressing into Connor's side. "What are you working on?"

"Oh." Connor pressed a few buttons again, and the familiar layout of his database popped up on the screen - T. rex this time, with a picture of a snarling behemoth that certainly hadn't come from life. "I'm trying to tweak the search parameters, to make it easier for... well, I suppose the other teams to be able to identify what they're dealing with quicker than we can do now. Most of it's up here." He tapped the side of his head, inadvertently pushing his hat up. "And... well, now that Lester wants more teams not every team is going to have a palaeontologist on it and even if they do, it'll be quicker if we can ask some pertinent questions and have a list of options pop up."

He'd lost Nick completely - had he been so out of the loop he hadn't even realised that Lester was thinking of additional response teams? It made sense, he supposed, but still... Connor was confusing him, but then that was nothing new. "Like?" He leant in closer as he asked the question, resting his hand on Connor's shoulder to steady himself, and Connor didn't even twitch.

"Well, look," he said, pulling up yet another screen, this one with neatly labelled text boxes. Connor's dress sense - or lack of it - didn't extend to his coding. "If you fill in what you can, then it will narrow down your options. The more information you can input, the closer you get, but I'm having difficulty in coming up with programming strings that will not result in eliminating the right answer. Like this one." He pointed to a box labelled 'length'. "I mean, prehistoric creatures don't come in one size fits all, and for some of them we may only have two or three fossil exemplars, but is that the full size range? What about juveniles? What about human error? I mean, one of these comes heading at you," he switched back to the first screen and T. rex loomed, appropriately terrifying even at a laptop screen's resolution, "you're pretty much thinking 'pretty bloody big and oh my god look at the teeth', not 'well, I think that's about 12 metres long'..."

He paused to look back at Nick, awkwardly angling his neck to do so, and grinned.

"Then there are those of us who are old school and might say 'forty feet' instead."

"Smart arse," said Nick, squeezing his shoulder gently.

Connor's smile softened slightly, becoming a little flustered. He turned back to his machine, clearing his throat, and continued messing about with various keys as he flicked back and forth between screens.

"So," Connor continued, clearing his throat again. "I've got to take account of those two different measurement systems and I've got to include a margin for error, without making the whole thing useless. And then I've got to figure out a way to include those things we have some evidence for from the fossil record but where it's not conclusive in the search, so we can narrow it down without, again, giving the wrong answer, so I need to base it on some kind of cloud search, one that'll give possibilities, not certainties. Figure out some way to rank them so that the greatest possibilities are given more prominence. I'm trying to build... well, I guess something like one of those things you see on Bones or CSI, you know, where they narrow faces down and get their suspect."

Connor stared back down at the screen. When Nick turned his head to look at him more closely, Connor's face was right there, in profile. He was chewing at the side of his lip, thoughtfully and his hair was falling into his face as he carried on, oblivious of Nick's observation.

"And since it was originally based on Access, it means I've got to rewrite the whole thing, including the underlying code. But it will be worth it," he reassured Nick, and then he turned his head, blushing slightly when he realised how close Nick was.

"Yeah," said Nick. "Some things are, Connor."

For a long moment Connor stared at him uncertainly before he looked back at the laptop. He went silent, but he leant into Nick's touch, just a little.

There was a sound by the doorway as Abby pushed it open with her hip, three cups balanced in her hands. For a second, Nick thought she was bound to tip them but she managed to keep them steady as she made her way towards Nick and Connor, on the sofa. She handed the first, singly held cup to Nick, and he let go of Connor's shoulder to take it from her. Then she retrieved one of the two mugs she held in her other hand to pass it down to Connor.

Connor didn't look up as he took it from her, his entire focus now back on the screen in front of him as he muttered to himself. The database had disappeared and now there were simply lines and lines of confusing letters and numbers scrolling up and down the screen. Nick sat back on the couch and left Connor to it.

There was room on the couch on the other side of Connor for Abby to fit in but she settled on the arm next to Nick instead, leaning over him to peer at the screen with a look of confusion on her face that matched Nick's. When she sat back again, he caught another waft of scent from her hair, fresh and sweet.

She was an island of warmth next to him, where his arm pressed against her side, and he shifted slightly, giving her more room, and felt her settle against him more comfortably, a pleasant, heavy weight.

Connor shifted as well until he was resting against Nick's leg rather than the sofa, just as warm, just as pleasant. His head was now resting on Nick's thigh, near where Nick's hand lay loosely against his leg, and the long strands spilling from under his hat were dark against the paler fabric of Nick's chinos. When Nick shifted his fingers, just slightly, he could touch it.

It was silky under his fingertips, the stiff gel from the funeral just a memory, and Nick sank back, letting the deep sofa cushions pillow him. Abby shifted again, minutely, silently, and her fingers brushed over his head, tangling soothingly in his hair.

-o-

"For once in your life, forget about the past."

Nick knows Stephen's right and, in spite of everything, Stephen's voice is kind, the expression on his face understanding and as close to affectionate as Stephen will ever let show.

In spite of everything.

"You're right," he admits and then, when Stephen's smile threatens to get cocky, he adds, "Just don't overdo it, you know. You haven't been right for a while."

"Yeah, well." Stephen's hand settles heavily on Nick's shoulder. "There's a time for everything, Nick."


-o-

He closed his eyes, listening to the sounds around him, familiar and comforting: the clacking of the keyboard as Connor continued to work; the sounds of the city, the world, around them, muted and at a safe distance.

And the things that weren't as familiar, but just as welcome: the sound of Abby's deep, even breathing next to him; the feel of her fingers in his hair, not moving but resting there like they belonged; the weight and warmth of Connor against his leg. The feel of the pair of them bracketing him, keeping him grounded, keeping him steady.

The old clock on the mantel piece, his grandfather's once and now his, unhurriedly ticked out the remnants of the day, slow and steady, gently moving time along and taking them with it.

Nick let go.

The End






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