Over the next couple of weeks, things much stayed the same. Although even Nick could see the visible progress that Stephen was making, it didn't seem to be fast enough for Stephen.
By the time the weekend rolled around, it was as though nothing had damaged Stephen's upper body at all, but he kept squeezing that stress ball as if he would explode if he didn't. By Tuesday afternoon, he was able to stay standing if Nick or Paul, the physiotherapist, lifted him into a standing position and let go. When Nick woke him up Wednesday morning, Stephen could flex the toes on both feet easily, but still couldn't command enough power to move his legs properly at all.
"Just have some bloody patience," Nick said. "It's like it's wearing off. Like drugs do. If this carries on, you'll be back to normal in no time."
Stephen, though, was not a man made for patience. He never had been. Nick had always been surprised that he had the patience for palaeontology at all, because he certainly didn't in any other aspect of his life. And when it came to having his active lifestyle hampered, what little of Stephen's patience that did exist promptly died.
After the episode outside the hospital, Stephen hadn't shown any real further cracks, but Nick noticed that he seemed...well, depressed. He talked even less than usual, and often he would stare blankly at the news on the telly and show no reaction at all to the stories, even when it was on things that he knew the reality of.
The pain that lanced through Nick's chest at seeing Stephen like that surprised him with its intensity. It was the same pain that had shot through him almost nine years ago when, after one particularly bad row with her, he'd realised that his marriage to Helen was failing. A pain that was somehow sharp and anxious, but dull and defeatist at the same time. An oxymoronic sort of pain.
Nick didn't want to know what that meant, but he had the feeling that he knew anyway.
Nick went in to the university again on Thursday morning, and came back just in time to see Stephen haul himself upright out of the chair, something he had so far refused to try.
"Good," Nick said, coming into the living room and surprising Stephen, who stared at him as if he'd seen a ghost. "Now take a couple of steps."
"I...don't think I can," Stephen said.
"I'll catch you," Nick promised, dumping the two carrier bags of marking. "Now come on. Two steps, and you can have a beer."
"Promise?" Stephen demanded.
"Yeah," Nick said, standing about two feet from Stephen and taking his hands, placing them on Nick's own shoulders and cupped Stephen's elbows reassuringly. "Look, I'll even help. Come on. Two steps."
It took an agonising two minutes, in which Stephen's scowl looked as though he were facing down the gorgonopsid again, and his hands tightened on Nick's shoulders to the point of being painful, before his right knee finally bent and he managed to take a single, wobbly step towards Nick.
Later, Nick would blame the mutual relief at that visible proof that Stephen could do this without Paul and Julie-Judy-whoever. He would blame it on the evidence that Stephen's progress wasn't limited to the physiotherapy rooms. He would accuse the sickly joy in the room of making him take that step of his own, as he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Stephen's cheek.
And the atmosphere froze.
"Shit, sorry, I'm..." Nick began to burble hurriedly, but the sharp squeeze of Stephen's hands on his shoulders shut him up.
"If that's my reward," Stephen said slowly, "then I'd much prefer a proper kiss. That's real incentive."
For a long moment, there was silence, as two shades of blue examined each other's faces for a joke, for reality, for something without a name. Eventually, Nick leaned forward again and brushed a second kiss, soft and shy, over Stephen's lips instead.
"You mean one of those?" he asked, his voice a whisper.
"Yeah," Stephen said.
"Well," Nick said, the atmosphere beginning to warm up again, "you have to take the second step if you want another one, don't you? I said two steps."
The second step came maybe a minute later, jerkier than the first, but a longer stride, and Nick's arms slid around Stephen's back to hold him upright.
"Very good," Nick said, beaming. "See? You can do this. I said we'd get through this."
"Mm," Stephen said, clinging to Nick's shoulders. "Where's my second kiss?"
Nick gave it, surer than the previous one, though still with the hesitancy of finding a footing in new territory, then he guided them down onto the sofa bed and frowned at Stephen, unsure of what he was quite doing.
"What does this make us?" he asked.
"I don't know," Stephen said frankly. "Whatever you want."
"And if I want you to stay here, even when you're better?" Nick probed.
"Okay," Stephen said.
Nick frowned a bit longer, then leaned down and kissed him again, almost confidently now, and wondering how he'd gotten away with this earth-moving change.
"And if I want more of these, all the time?" he asked, his lips hovering above Stephen's.
"Okay," Stephen said again, and pressed up to kiss him back.
By the time Nick found out that Helen wasn't, as he thought, still running wild through the past, but now with Lester, being 'asked nice questions in the name of the Queen, Cutter', Stephen didn't need the wheelchair anymore. He point-blank refused to use the cane, though, which meant that Nick had to stick close to him in public, and he wasn't allowed to go anywhere near an anomaly or any animal bigger than a domestic cat until he could run.
Nick suspected that Stephen didn't use the cane because he wanted more of Nick's attention. Honestly, in the sudden eruption of Helen back into his life, Nick welcomed the distraction and the need to be preoccupied with something, even when that care was becoming less and less necessary.
As the paralytic effects of the venom had slowly dropped away, so had the angry red of the wound site. The white scar and the odd dent that it left in the line of Stephen's shoulder caught Nick's eye whenever it could, and reminded him of what he'd nearly lost - or, more to the point, what he'd nearly lost before he'd found the courage to reach for what he'd really wanted out of that.
"I hate that scar," he told Stephen after the last ever physiotherapy session, when Stephen stripped off his sweat-soaked shirt and exchanged it for the clean one Nick had brought him.
"I'm not fond of it myself," Stephen said.
Nick pressed a kiss to it before Stephen could get the fresh shirt on, and dodged the swat aimed for his head.
"Are we going to tell the others?" Stephen asked, as he pulled the shirt down.
"Don't care," Nick said. "Up to you."
"Let's see if they figure it out on their own," Stephen mused. "I'd like to see Connor trying to work out something not related to Star Wars or Jurassic Park."
"You might be waiting awhile," Nick warned as they headed for the car, Stephen still walking with a very slight limp.
Stephen snorted, grinned, and agreed.
"I might go for a run tonight," he said, looking up into the clear blue sky.
"You can run around like an idiot tomorrow," Nick said. "You've got other things to do tonight."
"I'm sure you can figure that out."
In the space of two to three weeks, everything had changed for them, and irreversably so. There was no going back now, and as Nick started the engine and watched Stephen stretch his long legs into the space available, he knew he didn't want to go back. This had changed - and would change - everything, and at the same time, everything was the same.
Wherever they ended up, he'd always have Stephen. And now more than ever.