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15 February 2008 @ 11:45 pm
Stage Directions, Fry and Laurie, PG  
Title: Stage Directions
Author: valderys
Fandom: RPF - Fry and Laurie
Pairing: Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie
Rating: PG for language
Word Count: 2,855
Notes: Written for buckle_berry, as part of her lovely fannish Valentine Card Exchange thingy. Also, this is a coda to my own A Soupy Twist, written for Yuletide last year. I find it mildly ironic that the coda is longer than the fic :)




Well then, thinks Hugh, there could be easier ways of doing this. Exit, pursued by a bear. That would be easier.

Jo, I have loved you all these years, and I adore the kids, but I love Stephen just as much. What do you mean, you know? You know about the hot sweaty shower sex we used to have in the bathroom on Staircase 9? No, I didn’t think so. Ow.

That would be easier than this.

Well. It is possible that he might be exaggerating, a tiny bit. But he’d much prefer to face the bear, than Jo when she’s angry. Given the choice, of course.

But that is also somewhat part of the point – choice. He’s had so many choices, really, he’s been paralysed to point of picking none of them. Although doing nothing is also a choice in itself. He isn’t fooling himself that much, now is he?

The sun beats down, as it always does here. Hugh feels himself too tall. Too ungainly. Too pale and English. Even the smog is tougher than he is, here in LA. Everything is larger than life, when he’s been used to being that. Larger than almost anything really, other than life. Other than Stephen.

Everything comes back to that, doesn’t it? In the end.

Hugh stands stubbornly in the sun, feeling sweat starting to prickle under his arms, across his back. His baseball cap and sunglasses hide him, but not enough. He doesn’t want to move. It’s not real until he takes the five steps needed to put him in the shelter of the air-conditioning. Cushioning him under another artificial layer.

The sun beating down is real. The slightly salty, slightly baked smell of his skin, that’s real. His own cowardice and reluctance. That’s fucking real.

Hey, keep it real. They say that all the time here. Hugh wonders if anyone other than him finds that ironic. In Hollywood.

Stephen would.

Hugh wouldn’t even have to say anything, just raise a comically exaggerated eyebrow or two. Corrugate his forehead in the way he’s been doing for years, on tv, off it. Back in Cambridge, the sight of Hugh trying for lugubriousness, or comical astonishment, would cause Stephen to pour forth a torrent of scathing abuse. Hugh’s lips curve at the memory. He misses it. Who would have ever thought he’d miss being called a second-rate hack?

He misses the bite of Stephen’s wit. He misses Stephen’s bite. He misses...

Well. Perhaps he ought to actually deign to take those steps into the airport?

***


It’s darker in here. His sunglasses are unnecessary – pretentious, even. Hugh keeps them on. Hollywood is full of pretension, never let it be said that he doesn’t learn from his surroundings.

The room is echoing, huge; full of glass and chrome. It’s cool too, almost cold. He’s beginning to get goosebumps, and the shiver he feels when he looks up at the Arrivals board is due to that as well. Of course, it is.

His plane’s landed then.

Hugh stands there for a moment before walking to the appropriate barriers. He feels like a lump, like a crass immature idiot, but what else is new? He feels greedy somehow too – there are other people affected, after all. Not only Jo, there’s also Daniel. Hugh finds himself smiling again, he supposes that Daniel must be quite used to Stephen jetting off at a moment’s notice by now. Hugh certainly was.

He still feels selfish for having asked Stephen to come at all. It’s only an awards show, after all. Ok, the Emmy’s, but even so. It’s not like they haven’t each of them received awards before. But not for serious work, a little voice in the back of Hugh’s head whispers. Nothing that mattered.

Then he feels the regular twist of self-disgust, because nothing’s ever good enough, and even though he knows that’s not what people really think, he can never quite believe it.

There are people coming through the gates now, a trickle at first, then a small flood. Hugh cranes his head with everyone else, it’s automatic, even though he’s taller than most, and Stephen won’t exactly be difficult to spot. He rubs his hands together, and the skin is dry and papery. Older.

He blinks, because there. There he is. Hugh debates for a furious second about whether he should wave like some stupid tourist, and he raises an arm abortively, even as Stephen moves effortlessly through the crowd. It’s a little like watching an elegant cruise liner slide into dock, large and sleek, and yet without visible means of propulsion. Crowds just part for Stephen, they always have.

There’s a moment then. Pure stillness. In the centre of the maelstrom. Hugh wants to laugh, he wants to fall at his feet. He wants to... apologise.

Then Stephen tips his head down a little, and his lips quirk, just a touch. It’s that schoolmaster’s look of his, reproving with a hint of sly ridicule. Hugh wants to punch him in the arm, like he used to, before they became the Establishment. When they were young. It wouldn’t be appropriate though. He wants to do it even more.

“Thanks…” says Hugh, as his version of hello. “For coming,” he amends. It doesn’t help. He stands awkwardly, his hands in his pockets. It’s ridiculous.

It’s Stephen who moves first. He wraps Hugh in a hug as natural as weeping, which is to say, not natural at all. Hugh stands stiffly, unable to understand – they’re in public. In an airport, for god’s sake. Where anyone could see. The fact that everyone else is conducting their own version of this time-honoured ritual is not the point. The fact they’re in California, home to air-kissing, and doing lunch, makes it more, not less, odd.

Hugh doesn’t let people touch him here. He doesn’t dare. His life is filled with beautiful people, and after his… accident in South Africa, with Audrey, he can’t risk it. He’ll burn up like tinder, he’ll lose it. Lose everything.

Stephen hasn’t understood this. Hasn’t got the memo. He’s not letting go. He’s so solid, so real, that Hugh can’t push him away. Instead, Hugh allows his reluctant arms creep up to hug Stephen in return. He lets himself inhale deeply, his mouth brushing the edge of Stephen’s jacket collar, and the familiar scent makes his head swim, like he’s snorted the really good coke, only better than that. It’s like all those stupid memories roll over him from nowhere – he can smell river water from the Cam, sunshine on the Edinburgh pavements. He can taste cigarettes smoked lazily in bed, wine on their lips at a wrap party. He can bloody well feel all their years together – more than he’s had with Jo.

And one more thing. It appears that Stephen, great, unflappable, solid, fragile Stephen, is shaking. Only very slightly, but Hugh can feel it. Perhaps this isn’t so much a display, as it is a lifeline of sorts. It makes Hugh frantic, it makes him guilty. He’s glad. That he’s here in this stupid airport, that he swallowed his pride, and… And asked.

“Thanks,” whispers Hugh, “For being here…”

“You great arse,” says Stephen, turning his face into Hugh’s neck, his breath warm on his skin, his lips brushing Hugh’s ear. “You giant, unbelievable, fucking great pain in the arse.”

Hugh smiles, deep in the wonder of it all, wondering if Stephen can feel it, feel him, knowing that he can, of course he can, he always could. Wondering, how in the name of God, could he have given this up? Knowing, even as he thinks it, that it’s all part of his pattern, his self-destructive kick, that his own tendency towards analysis is not allowing him get away with it, and for once, that it might be a good thing.

It’s almost natural, the moment when they part. As though nothing else for years has felt this normal, and Hugh finds he’s still smiling, and that so is Stephen, and that he seems to be missing out on such a simple thing here in LA. He can’t remember when he last smiled just for the joy of it – his character, House, doesn’t smile at all. He smirks, he grins ironically on occasion, but he doesn’t honest to goodness just smile, and Hugh seems to have gotten out of the habit. Is it really that bad, here in LA?

“Come on,” he says, and hitches a shoulder, “Let’s find a cab.”

Stephen reaches out, as though he can’t quite let go, not completely. Leaves a large warm hand lingering on his arm. “Lead me to the fatted calf then, if you must.”

Hugh swears Stephen’s eyes are twinkling, and wants to protest that it’s not Stephen who’s the Prodigal Son, that he didn’t do anything wrong. He knows Stephen wants him to object, probably loudly, and he refuses to do so, not in public, but he does bump into Stephen as he tugs him forward, and Stephen’s smile turns fond.

“I’ve made a reservation at the Hilton,” says Hugh, “But there’s always Chez Laurie, if you don’t mind roughing it.” His voice is almost steady, the slightest uncertain edge well hidden. His heart is beating fast.

“I…” says Stephen, and stops, drowned out by a sharp piercing female cry. An impossible voice, calling, “Hugh!”

Time is sticky, and Hugh can feels each breath he takes, far too many of them, in the few seconds it takes him to turn around, in the ice age that surges and melts in that aeon. “Jo,” he says, “I didn’t… I wasn’t… I didn’t think you could come.”

“Jo. How lovely,” murmurs Stephen, even sounding sincere, and holds out his hand. Manners impeccable as ever, since he’s not drunk, or making a point, or feeling like lashing out at the Man, or any of the other reasons that sometimes causes… lapses in Stephen’s behaviour. The fact that Hugh can process all that means he’s not quite thinking normally either.

Jo shakes Stephen’s hand, and Hugh bends down for a kiss, automatically. Jo’s skin is soft, and softly scented, with an undercurrent of sweat from the plane.

“I left a message on your machine, but your mobile was turned off, you silly.” Jo’s smiling too, with her mouth open, her teeth bright and shining. “And then I managed to get an earlier flight, which was most convenient. I slept nearly the whole way. Isn’t that lucky?”

“Lucky…” echoes Hugh, feeling dizzy from his own height, looking down so far, into depths so murky he’s not sure he even wants to negotiate them.

“The children are old enough to look after themselves for a day or two, Hugh, really. This award’s important. To you. To your career. I had to come.”

Her eyes slide sideways to Stephen.

Hugh wants to say. It wasn’t important enough for you to come when the storm clouds were lowering. The kids couldn’t be left when I was tapping the bathroom mirror with a razorblade in one hand and vicodin in the other – method acting can only be held responsible for so much. He wants to say – where were you?

He hadn’t even realised he was angry. It’s probably better than the guilt.

“The Hilton’s fine, Hugh,” says Stephen, oddly gentle. “I’m sure these old bones can rough it despite the paltry four stars.”

“Umm. Yes. Of course. Shall we go then?”

Hugh picks up Jo’s bag, grabs the handle of her wheeled suitcase, and heads out into the heavy sunshine to find a taxi. Keeping it real.

Of course, reality can be a complete bitch, sometimes.

***


There’s a silence in the cab. It’s odd, really, because they are all three of them articulate by profession and inclination. Jo takes his hand and Hugh squeezes it gently, trying to gain back some momentum, to lose the feeling of possession, of being smothered. The air-con makes everything too chilly. He’s grateful for his sunglasses.

Hugh’s already rattled off his zip code, since this taxi is shiny and modern, and has TomTom, or the equivalent. He thinks, Stephen would be proud of me. Then he stares at the back of Stephen’s head, at his greying hair, and wonders if he’s smiling. He squeezes Jo’s hand a little more.

There’s a moment when the taxi draws up outside his apartment when Hugh thinks Jo is going to say something, but instead she presses her lips together, as Hugh collects her bags and lets her in. He puts the keys down on the side table. She stands with her hands on her hips as she looks around, but Hugh doesn’t fall into that particular trap. She’s been to the apartment before, she made him change, said the hotel room he was in was too impersonal. The mismatched furniture and dull curtains look a little sad, but are hardly a surprise. Instead, Jo looks at the unopened bottle of aged cognac on the coffee table.

Hugh’s turning to go, the remnants of that dull anger still smouldering, when she says, “Wait. Please.”

He swings round, realising he’s bracing himself. Stupid really, because it’s not as though they’ve ever been physical like that; violent or out of control. No, Stephen was the one who coped with that, who held him and held on. Used to be.

Jo walks towards him, reaches up, and fusses with his collar. Hugh has the feeling it used to be easier for her when he would wear a shirt and tie. Hugh has a feeling a lot of things used to be easier. She huffs a bit, and her eyes crinkle, but it’s that small expression of exasperated fondness she uses on the children that finally gets through. Hugh hugs her, a proper hug, because he loves her. He does. He truly does, even if he’s not entirely sure he can live with her any more. And Jo laughs, a tiny spurting giggle, and pushes him away.

“Honestly. What are we like?” says Jo, and somehow that’s enough. Marriage is all about forgiveness, after all. The small ones and the large.

She picks up the bottle of brandy, weighs it in her hand for a second, and then thrusts it at Hugh, until it bumps his breastbone.

“I’ll see you later,” she says, “Won’t I?” and Hugh nods, because there is a shade of uncertainty in her voice, and that makes it true.

Sometimes, he wishes they weren’t all quite so fucked up.

He escapes then – a choice freely offered and taken, and not leaving a battleground, which is more than he could ever have hoped for.

Exit a messenger, with his head and his own two hands.

***


In the cab, Stephen has moved into the back, the better to stretch his legs. He’s not looking nervous, as such – Hugh sometimes thinks nerves were bred out of him at prep school, along with the fear of confined spaces and most forms of shyness.

Stephen still looks surprised to see him. Hugh doesn’t bother pointing out that the cab is waiting none the less.

Hugh slides into the back, the coolness of the air-conditioned interior sliding over him like a wave. The Hilton isn’t far, and the driver doesn’t even check with them before setting off. He’s glad someone’s confident about this.

The slight hum of the engine is soothing, or wants to be, and Hugh shifts slightly on the warm leather. He’s still clutching the bottle. It’s almost a shock when Stephen leans over and pulls it out of his hands.

He eyes the label as Hugh eyes him, and slowly an eyebrow raises. “I’m fonder of Courvoisier XO, than Hennessy, myself,” says Stephen, “But not a bad choice, Hugh, not at all.”

“Jo...” says Hugh, then almost stops. “Jo, made me bring it.”

He watches Stephen’s agile fingers turn the bottle this way, that way. The light catches and glows at certain angles, a honeyed promise.

“That was kind of her,” says Stephen, and Hugh thinks, was it? He supposes that it was. He realises that he never really expects kindness from anyone, has a hard time recognising it for the gift it is.

“I must thank Jo,” says Stephen, “For her consideration.”

And the sincerity there is honest, and heart-breaking, and totally Stephen. Who always understands more than he should, who’s barely complained of his treatment over the years, who’s been given to Hugh, again, when he knows – he knows – he doesn’t fucking deserve it.

Abruptly, Hugh reaches over, takes the bottle out of Stephen’s questing, ever-moving fingers. The glass is warmer than it was, and Hugh feels the back of his neck heating up, wonders at his own temerity. He leaves his own hand there in its place.

“No, thank you,” he says, and turns his palm down, lacing their fingers together. He hears Stephen’s breathing hitch, and clutches harder. Hugh knows he’s a silly old fool, but sometimes, just occasionally, even he doesn’t want to look the gift-horse in the mouth.

They enter severally, but exeunt together. No need for more direction.
 
 
 
Sarah: FryandorLauriemorganmuffle on February 16th, 2008 12:15 am (UTC)
I want to review this but I can't quite find the words, I wish I could follow Hugh's lead and stick to more physical cues *g*

It's hard to read a story that has Jo there too, and even harder when he loves them both and they all seem to understand but then again it also feels much truer and therefore the ending has that much more emotional punch.

*is rambling*

I really liked it!
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 17th, 2008 12:18 pm (UTC)
I'm awful that way - I find it hard to ignore the partners, because generally, in affairs, they're very much on the mind, even if you don't talk about them much.

So, yes, realism, but also angst. Still, they are two of my major buttons, so perhaps it's not so surprising :)

Thank you, hon!
Nesscryforthemoon on February 16th, 2008 01:51 am (UTC)
That was lovely. :)
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 17th, 2008 12:18 pm (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed! Thank you!
Che Gorillaaxmxz on February 16th, 2008 03:34 am (UTC)
Sad as hell.
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 17th, 2008 12:19 pm (UTC)
In a good way though? Right? Right? *grin*
Peak in Darien: Stugh - stephen smokepeak_in_darien on February 16th, 2008 05:07 am (UTC)
That was really interesting. I liked the way you brought it round with the "exit" theme.
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 17th, 2008 12:21 pm (UTC)
I'm glad - I was looking for a theme to tie it all together, and I thought - well, everything's a performance, isn't it? Particularly for those two. So. Well.

Thanks!
willdew: jeeves slashwilldew on February 16th, 2008 10:20 am (UTC)
WELCOME TO RPS SLASH MASTER CLASS
...okay, so I'm not going to ask you to make funny noises at the microphone or wave the audience in. But...! Utterly poetic. And awesome.
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 17th, 2008 12:22 pm (UTC)
Re: WELCOME TO RPS SLASH MASTER CLASS
*adjusts glasses on nose* Ahem. The subject of today's talk will be... No, but seriously, thanks a bunch!
Maggiemagnetic_pole on February 16th, 2008 01:39 pm (UTC)
Here via buckle_berry. I love the way you've sketched out the undercurrents here. Lovely! M.
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 17th, 2008 12:23 pm (UTC)
Being able to write about a moment or two in excruciating detail - I'm your gal! :) Thank you!
my wings are like a shield of steel: i'm a raw philistinebuckle_berry on February 16th, 2008 01:51 pm (UTC)
yep. still in love with it.

rec here.

thank you once again, lovely.
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 17th, 2008 12:25 pm (UTC)
Yay! So happy you liked it, and thank you for the lovely rec, aww...
ariadna_ariadna on February 16th, 2008 07:24 pm (UTC)
God. This was... this was... this was sweet and sad and soooo real. I'm in love with your fic <3
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 17th, 2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
That's lovely of you - thank you so much!
the Legs, the Nose and Mrs Robinson: fry & laurie quotematildabj on February 17th, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)
Awesome. Beautifully written. *doffs cap*
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 18th, 2008 11:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you, hon! Ooh - Scotland, not long now!
Famous Mortimer: H/S Bluenotatracer on February 18th, 2008 06:26 am (UTC)
I hope you write more.
Valderys: Fry and Laurievalderys on February 18th, 2008 11:30 pm (UTC)
I will certainly try! It's a pairing I love, so I do hope I get bitten by the bug again!
Educated Guesser: f&l lovecheekbones7 on February 23rd, 2008 11:25 am (UTC)
i enjoyed your observations which both warmed my heart and saddened me, here as in "a soupy twist".
i hope u intend to write more and explore their emotions and hopefully desire for each other :)

my favorite lines were:

"Hugh sometimes thinks nerves were bred out of him at prep school, along with the fear of confined spaces and most forms of shyness."
"most forms of shyness" made me laugh out loud.

"And the sincerity there is honest, and heart-breaking, and totally Stephen. Who always understands more than he should".