Ashley looked around for Stuart but he was nowhere to be seen. He'd disappeared with Maxine about ten minutes ago after she arrived at the ambulance bay doorway. Was he supposed to wait, or just go home on his own? Maybe he'd give it another five minutes; he was sure that Maxine was working tonight, so she'd have to go soon, wouldn't she?
"What're you doing still sitting around here?" Rachid asked, teasing, "You know, you're actually allowed to go home once your shift ends."
Ashley sighed. "I'm waiting for Stuart."
"Well you'll have a long wait. He left with Maxine a few minutes ago. Saw him getting into her car."
There was a part of him that wasn't even surprised. Of course, there was also another part of him that hoped that since they were dating, Stuart would stop behaving like such a total arse. And especially today.
Rachid sighed and sat down on the low wall, next to Ashley, looking concerned. "Did you two have a barney or something?"
Ashley shook his head. "No."
They had only told Rachid a few months ago, knowing that he'd find out sooner of later anyway. After all, they rode in the ambulance with him every day and eventually, one of them was going to say the wrong thing and give the game away. And while Rachid joked and teased his way through the day, Ashley could see that he was genuinely concerned now. He may not have been completely comfortable with the fact that two of his colleagues, his male colleagues, were sleeping together in the beginning, but he quickly got over that. Curiosity had taken over and he was back to his usual teasing self, even if the teasing was a little closer to the bone. If ever anyone else said a word, though, Rachid was there immediately, on the defence.
"Tell you what," Rachid continued. "Since he's buggered off, why don't we go get a pint? You can tell me what a pillock he's been and I can nod and agree."
It was a tempting offer, being able to have a good complain about Stuart to someone who'd not only listen but buy him beer at the same time. However, he really wasn't in a particularly sociable mood.
"Thanks for the offer, mate, but I think I'm just going to head home."
Rachid nodded. "Okay, but the offer's there if you change your mind," he said, getting up again and hoisting his backpack back onto his shoulder.
Well, it looked as though Stuart wasn't coming back, Ashley thought, getting up to follow Rachid out of the hospital grounds.
Six months earlier
Ashley sat in the pub, nursing a pint that he just really couldn't be bothered to drink and wondering how long he had to stay here before he could leave without seeming like he was being a miserable sod. All around him, his colleagues were having a good time, laughing and joking and occasionally pairing off. It just made him more depressed. He always told himself that he didn't want all that relationship crap to deal with, didn't want anything more than a good shag and none of the messy stuff to deal with in the morning. But lately he'd found himself watching people, couples, and somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered why he couldn't have that. He was a nice bloke, or he tried to be, so why did most of the men he hooked up with turn out to be total dicks?
With a sigh, he forced his mind away from that train of thought. He knew exactly where this had come from; one stupid night when, just for a moment, he'd let himself wonder what if? As it turned out, the one person he liked enough to be able to see himself with didn't want him.
It was all Stuart's fault.
Two weeks ago, Stuart had kissed him. Not just a joking peck on the cheek but a fully-fledged, tonsil-teasing kiss. And it had felt so bloody good as Stuart's arm wrapped around his waist, his other hand on Ash's neck, holding him close as Stuart's thumb stroked slowly over his skin. Stuart hadn't held back, in fact he'd made the first move.
Then, the following day he'd sobered up and apparently put Ashley back into the 'mate' box, treating him no different to Rachid.
Ashley turned at the sound of Stuart's voice, wondering if he'd imagined the nervous tone.
"I was wondering if we could talk."
"'Course you can. You just open your mouth and words come out," Ashley replied, groaning inwardly as he realised just how childish that sounded. He couldn't help it; sometimes Stuart just brought out the five year old in him.
When there was no sarcastic comeback, he looked up at Stuart again. No, this time he wasn't imagining it. Stuart was deadly serious and he looked nervous. Ashley sighed.
Abandoning his pint on the bar he led Stuart out into the beer garden- no more than a small garden with picnic benches for the pub's patrons to use- and then turned to his friend again.
"Go ahead. Talk," he said, still not in the mood to give Stuart any leeway.
Stuart nodded, opening his mouth to speak and then closing it again. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and paced a couple of steps as though trying to find something to do while he worked out what he was going to say. Eventually, he stopped fidgeting though he wouldn't meet Ashley's eyes.
"I fucked up. I shouldn't have done what I did and I know it was stupid but the whole thing freaked me out. Now it feels like I've lost you, my best mate, and I don't like it." He finally glanced up at Ashley. "Forgive me?"
So there it was. He no longer had to imagine the rejection; it had been spelled out for him. Still, he couldn't do the same to Stuart.
"You're forgiven. Look, let's just forget what happened-"
Stuart's eyes widened. "No! That's not- Unless you want to."
Maybe he'd drunk more than he thought, because Stuart was starting to confuse him.
"I don't want to forget it," Stuart insisted. "I didn't know what to do so I ignored it. I ignored you. I've never kissed another bloke before- never wanted to- but I wanted to kiss you. I still do." He paused, frowning as he studied Ashley's expression. "Didn't I say that? Oh fuck, you thought I meant… Ash, I'm sorry."
It was the sorry that did it; Stuart didn't say it very often but, when he did, he meant it.
"Give me another chance, Ash."
This time when Stuart kissed him, Ashley knew that things would never go back to normal.
Ashley unlocked his front door and went inside, looking forward to going to bed and watching crappy TV for a while. Of course, if Stuart hadn't ditched him then he could be having an early night with him instead…
He heard Stuart's quiet greeting and looked through toward the kitchen. Stuart was dressed in a suit- a suit!; Ashley didn't even think he owned one- minus the tie, and was leaning casually on the doorframe. Only then did Ashley notice the table, set out with plates and cutlery, with a candle in the centre. There were even serviettes.
"What's all this?" he asked.
The smile on Stuart's face dropped slightly. "You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you? Six months, Ash."
Ashley knew how long it had been. They'd always joked that once they hit the six month milestone it would be the longest relationship that either of them had managed. The one time he'd mused aloud over whether or not they should mark the occasion, Stuart had just told him to stop being such a girl and changed the subject.
"I thought you didn't do such things as anniversaries?"
Stuart's cheeks pinked slightly. "I don't. I mean, I've never really had one before."
"Well you're bloody lucky I didn't take Rachid up on his offer of a pint after work. Since I thought you'd buggered off with Maxine…"
"Ah." Stuart smiled self-consciously. "See? I knew I'd be crap at this."
Ashley couldn't stay annoyed with him, not after all the effort he'd gone to. "You're doing just fine," he said, clenching his fingers in the lapels of Stuart's jacket and pulling him closer for a kiss.
"So, what's for dinner?"
Stuart beamed as he ushered Ashley to the table. "Home made lasagne with a side salad." When Ashley looked surprised, he sighed. "Fine! Max helped. She made the lasagne," he admitted. "But I cut up the salad."
Ashley had to smile as he said that, the pride in his voice at being able to help. He should have guessed, really; Stuart's idea of a meal came in a box with microwave instructions on the back.
"So how did you convince Maxine to make dinner for you?" Ashley asked as they took the dishes away afterwards. It had been delicious; he made a mental note to tell her thank you the next time he saw her. He saw Stuart frown and added hastily, "I mean, help you make it."
"I asked her for a recipe and she said maybe it would be better if she helped. I'm not that bad at cooking, am I?"
He was, but Ashley wisely kept quiet.
"I just wanted to do something nice for you," Stuart said, putting down the plates in his hands and turning back to Ashley. "Ash, I know I don't talk about stuff like this very often, but I love you. 'Think I have for a while but I didn't really know how to say it. And I'm not expecting you to say it back, I just wanted to tell you."
For a moment, Ashley just stared at him. He hadn't expected to hear those words from Stuart, but that didn't mean they weren't welcome. He knew that the dopey smile was on his face but he couldn't stop it from widening.
"I love you too," he said, cupping Stuart's face with his hands and kissing him softly on the lips. He glanced around the kitchen once more, to the remains of dinner and then to Stuart in his suit. He smiled at Stuart.
"You are so getting lucky tonight."
As the other man beamed and set off toward the bedroom, Ashley laughed, hurrying to catch up. That was the fastest he'd seen Stuart move all day.