Nick was worn, tired, the only thing he wanted was a shower and bed, to blot out the last few days, to wake up tomorrow and have everything be normal. And then Stephen knocked at his door.
Anger bubbled up in his gut, at Stephen, at Helen, at himself, coiling and forcing outwards as Stephen tried to make him talk, to listen, as he tried to apologise. Nick felt the pain of his fist connecting with Stephen's jaw, before he even realised he'd hit him.
Stephen looked as shocked as Nick, for a single split second before he toppled right over. His head barely escaped the coffee table, before Nick followed him down, landing over him, awkwardly.
"Just tell me why," Nick said, hand catching in Stephen's shirt.
Stephen shook his head, blinking. "I have a whole list of reasons, mostly revolving about being young and foolish enough to think she loved me, to think I loved her, most of them were probably even true at the time."
Nick snorted, looking down at him, Stephen held his gaze. "Why did you stay after she'd gone?"
"At first, I wanted to help find her... and then when it became obvious that wasn't going to happen... I thought about moving on, getting away from here, from the memories of her, but all my memories of her are so tangled up in you and I... I didn't want to let them go, let you go. I know you probably won't believe me, or maybe you just won't care but you're... everything... to me," Stephen said quietly. "I'm not stupid enough to think... I know you hate me for what I did, I can't blame you for that and I probably even deserve it. I just don't want you to let this... she's manipulated everything and I don't know why and I really, really don't care, but don't let her destroy you. Hate me if you want, fire me, tell me you never want to see me again, but don't let her win Nick, don't..."
"How long have you been in love with me Stephen?" Nick asked plainly, still sitting there, half sitting on top of Stephen, fist caught in his shirt, blood drying on Stephen's lip and it all made sense now. Helen didn't want him, or Stephen. Helen didn't come back through that anomaly to take Stephen with her, she came back to take him away from Nick, the one constant thing he'd had since Helen left, the one person who'd held him up those first dark days, when hope was waning.
Stephen closed his eyes, a short puff of air escaping him in something that sounded like it might have been a choked sob. "I don't know, I didn't even realise it myself until today."
"Helen knew. She knew... that's why she did it, why she came back, to screw with our heads..." Nick grunted. "If she can't have what she wants, no one else can either."
"We'll find Claudia, whoever she was, we'll..." Stephen was hushed by a shake of Nick's head.
"Claudia Brown is... was... someone very special. Strong, independent, a lot like Helen in some ways, but she was loyal, kind, she wasn't selfish, wasn't... but if we try to fix things, we could just make them worse, I can't..." Nick shook his head.
"I'm sorry Nick," Stephen said softly.
"I know," Nick said, shifting slightly. He should really move, but right now, having Stephen trapped, even if he could probably push Nick off him easily, gave Nick a feeling of control. Finally something he could control, in the mayhem of the last week. "I don't hate you. I'm not gonna say I love you, not like you love me, but I don't hate you. And I'm not gonna let Helen destroy eight years of friendship on her fucking whims."
"That's more than I could have hoped for," Stephen said.
Nick nodded. There were more things he could say. More questions he could ask. He didn't doubt Stephen would tell him anything he wanted to know, even if he didn't really want to know it, but all the aches, the tiredness that had slipped away under his anger was back, pressing down on him, as he moved, released Stephen from under him, falling back to sit against the couch as Stephen sat up beside him.
"You should get some ice for that lip," Nick suggested, closing his eyes for a moment.
"It's not so bad," Stephen said. "Nothing I didn't deserve."
"Get some ice for it anyway," Nick told him, Stephen didn't answer, but Nick heard him rise, moving away into the kitchen.
Nick listened to the familiar sounds of his best friend moving around, comfortable in Nick's home and wondered what Helen had possibly hoped to gain. Even taking Stephen away from him wouldn't have pushed Nick back to her. Nick sighed tiredly. Who knew how Helen's mind worked anymore? Nick didn't and honestly, now he wasn't sure if he ever had.