Pairing: Noel Fielding/Julian Barratt
Warning: Smut (graphic sex scenes)
Length: 10-20k words
Copper Coins by tartpants
There was once a boy. Isn’t there always? As a baby he was golden, he was moulded from butter and gleamed in every kind of light. Sometimes his mother couldn’t remember how she’d come to mother him, only that there was a night, nine months before his arrival, where she’d woken on the other side of a hill. On the underside, that is. The sky there was made of tangled and tumoured tree roots, daisies winking between them like stars. She wasn’t afraid. She closed her eyes and laughed pure, happy notes that rose from her throat like glistening soap bubbles. When she opened her eyes again, she was back in her own bed, her husband sleeping thick at her side. She rolled over and a coin fell from her nightgown. When she picked it up it collapsed between her fingers, oozing chocolate. On her lips it stung—that’s how sweet it was.
The baby grew to be blond and strange and never still. He didn’t look like anyone, anywhere.
He liked the climb the tallest things he could find. At first this was his father, then his Uncle Terry, and later, the trees in the garden—gnarled, ancient things that would, years down the road, give his little brother nightmares with their lumpen faces. The fact that he wasn’t afraid might have been understandable if he never fell, but he did sometimes, flumping to the ground below like a sack of wet laundry; a wail or two and he’d be up again, clicking his tongue and digging his heels into the sides of an invisible pony. When not climbing the highest thing he could find, the boy liked to paint. He used sticks, odd lengths of string, and the pads of his own fingers, but never the plastic-handled brushes that his mother brought home for him. For the paint itself he found her old cosmetics—a cake of blue eye shadow, a nub of lipstick—and mixed them with tiny pebbles, sand, and tizer until he got the sheen just right, then he swathed the colours over white paper, his arms working with a riotous flourish.
His mother often surveyed his art with a semi-troubled eye. Semi because while he wasn’t painting anything truly worrisome, like bloodied and stabbed-up portraits of his classmates, there was something incomprehensible in the scenes he captured. Not incomprehensible the way children’s art sometimes is, a muddle of inelegant scrawls and blocky shapes, but incomprehensible the way certain things in real life are, like black holes. Except black holes are decidedly unsettling and the boy’s pictures were merely peculiar. Her eyes did not know how to decipher them, and she was reminded of a morning when she was a young girl and had left for school, only to find some otherworldly creature waiting at the garden gate. Or so she had thought. It was a small, reddish thing with a crouched stance, but its face was gray and twitchy, moving in wild pinwheels while the rest of it was still. She watched the creature without understanding, frozen in mid-step on the paving stones, until suddenly something unlocked in the back of her mind and she realised she was looking at the neighbour’s cat. He had a freshly-caught dove in his mouth, struggling and flapping to free itself. Staring at her son’s artwork, she hoped something to unlock in her mind and make sense of it, make the fragments come together as a sensible whole.
“What is that you’ve painted, darling?” she finally asked one day.
Her son smiled—he smiled easily and infectiously. “Sonic boom from an aeroplane,” he said, waving his painty fingers as he spoke. “Them’s the sun’s feetprints, he’s all wound-up, all apple-cheeked.”
Well. She probably shouldn’t have asked.
Noel knew he wasn’t like other people, and he had known this for as long as he could remember. He could remember very far back when he wanted to, back to the time he’d first seen the night sky, for example (on the third day of his life, when his mother had carried him outside to fetch the post. The stars had been exceptionally clear—perhaps they had shone just for him), but he didn’t often feel the need to remember many things, and so forgot a lot of them.
He did remember, however, the day he had found out he wasn’t alone.
He hadn’t really minded being alone before. He’d always had his imagination to keep him company, and if he ever got bored of himself there were the leafy imps in the trees—always drunk, they were—or the sand slugs who made habit of hitching a ride indoors on the soles of his trainers. Later, almost too late, came a little brother. Mike was more like their parents than Noel was, but sometimes Noel thought he might be just a little touched. He had heard Mike talking to some coconuts, once; their uncle Terry had brought a bushel back from the Bahamas and they were a mouthy lot. Your hair looky like it a mighty bush, one said, only with his accent it sounded like boosh, not bush. “Shut up,” Mike had said to them, rummaging through a cupboard for the Ribena. “I won’t hear any of you.”
Mike had been six, then, and Noel a gangly fourteen. He had friends bursting from his pockets. People were drawn to him the way meteors were to the moon. They crashed themselves against him, vying for attention, but when the dust of their efforts cleared he remained smooth and unmarked. I know what you’re thinking—everyone wants to believe themselves different from other people, and most fourteen year olds have an uncanny knack for believing just that. Noel never had to fool himself, never had to believe. He saw it announced as fact in his parents’ curious glances, in his teachers’ carefully-measured praise (“a sort of cunning boy, isn’t he?”), in the slack and moistened mouths of girls’ and the awkward shuffling of boys’. A princess doesn’t believe she’s a princess, she just is one, and when others bow to her, she knows it. And so Noel held them, his subjects, at arm’s length like a too-fragrant bouquet. They helped to pass the time, to fill him with liquor and smoke, but their vision was so stunted. They never saw what really swam in their seas and their soups, never noticed what marched across the slippery surface of an apple. They never saw what a terror he could be. In their blinded faces he saw only their awe of him: luminous as honey, it shone from their eyes and spilled over in a mess. He enchanted them, and to hold them in such thrall was to enchant himself in turn.
A too-fragrant bouquet held at arm’s length, yes, but one he’d never dream of letting go. Once a bride, always a bride. He couldn’t help but wonder, in rare moments of honest introspection (very rare) if it shouldn’t all be so easy as this, if he hadn’t earned the fascination of others too easily and without enough trail and torment. Such wonder never lasted long, there was always someone tugging on his shirt-sleeve, some idle pleasure to partake in.
And then came the day when he found out he was no longer alone. Funny, he hadn’t thought of himself as alone until he realized that he wasn’t. Or, rather, that he didn’t have to be.
It was Brighton at the tail-end of the 1980s. The princess and his subjects borrowed a car from someone’s rich old uncle and put the pedal to the floor all the way to the Pier. As soon as the salty air wafted in through the open windows their numb limbs twitched to life as if doused with a tonic. They were awake and looking around, pushing each other out of the way for a better view. Noel had the worst view of all, stuck in the middle with an admirer on either side, so he slid onto someone’s lap. The lap didn’t complain, he was lighter than a bundle of matchsticks. He stuck his head out the window and whooped like a walrus, the wind ravaging his hair this way and that. When the car finally stopped, it stood up like a pair of horns. The lap told him he was devilishly cute.
The Pier was a riot of colour and noise. Noel and his subjects climbed over and into everything, upsetting a rubbish bin, their boots a stampede that sent children scattering. He bought candy floss and stuffed it in his mouth greedily, then held out a toffee apple for a girl who bit into it with a smile. Just before her teeth dented the surface, he saw his own face shining in it, ghoulish and other-worldly. The sight gave his heart a brief halt, but only a brief one. He looped an arm around the girl’s waist and led her on to the Waltzer, buckling their bodies into the car. The car swiveled with their double weight, twirling slowly until they were face to face with the car behind them. Its occupant was a single boy—a man, really, older than Noel by at least five years. He didn’t look comfortable in the least, more like he’d been strapped in against his better judgment and was facing the ride for reasons of building self-control and fortitude. He even looked like someone in need of self-control and fortitude, his hands curled into claws around the safety bar, his features tinged with something feral. His eyes were small and scrutinizing, and they met Noel’s own gaze and held it.
And held it.
Against his thigh, Noel’s hand opened and closed in a fist, grasping for something more than the indifferent air that filtered around the Pier, smelling of brine and hot grease. Finally, the man shrugged, then looked away. It was hard to say if he was unimpressed or wary. Either would be moot, as either made Noel feel the same way: curiously indignant, and curiously relieved. He was used to being the first to look away, to have the eyes of others’ chasing after his. Now he knew that he, too, could be dismissed. He could be lonely, even while a girl’s warm, brambly hair tickled at his neck.
Then the Waltzer started up and they were sailing over the first smooth curve, and the man twirled away and out of Noel’s life for another ten years.
But he didn’t disappear from Noel’s thoughts. In fact, he occupied them with more weight and clarity than almost anyone else. From then on, whenever Noel walked into a room, whenever he found himself on a train surrounded by blank, anonymous faces, he would look for his among them first: the man on the Waltzer. Eventually, enough time passed so that Noel forgot who he was looking for, only that there was someone out there, someone he was waiting to see and speak to.
To make it easier to find that someone, Noel cut off his hair, gained weight, and swapped his flashy wardrobe for a more pedestrian one. He rolled in a patch of clover until he was lustreless all over, like a stone. He moved further and further from home, shedding free of his subjects as he went. Once old enough to enroll in art school, he painted nothing but boring bowls of fruit, grapes one week and bananas the next. He liked bananas a lot. He spent a lot of time in their company.
People took to frowning at him more and more, as if sensing he was holding back. And so he was, but his methods didn’t completely mask his origins, they only obscured them in curious ways; he might have been a mermaid trying to pass for a sardine, or a devil for a dullard. At night he took to drinking lager in a dark pub full of builders as they glowered at him over their tankards, knowing full well that he didn’t belong. Sheepish, he went across the street to a more appropriate establishment, one with wipe-down surfaces and drinks named after famous media icons. A man writhed and crooned on a stage near the back, singing about mercy.
Noel ordered a Cat Deeley and drank it without enthusiasm. He didn’t think he’d find his someone here. But then again Noel wasn’t good at finding what he needed unless it happened to be right in front of him.
“Want to know how to survive in the night life?”
Noel felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around. It was the singer; close-up, he was even more pale than Noel, like someone raised in the dark by a family of mushrooms. Thinking that the singer was trying to sell him something, Noel shook his head no and started to turn away, but the singer spoke again before he could.
“I’m at your feet,” he said, rolling his eyes. As he spoke, Noel caught glimpses of a silver tongue.
“Who are you?” Noel asked.
In answer, a girl materialised at the singer’s shoulder like an ivory-coloured wraith. “Oh, a new one,” she said listlessly, looking Noel over. She had blond hair that tumbled part-way down her back, making it hard to tell where, exactly, her bedraggled wings began.
The sight of silver tongues and torn wings didn’t trouble Noel much, but the pair seemed much too knowing for comfort.
“Fallen muse?” Noel guessed, studying the girl. She nodded in confirmation; he wasn’t as green as they thought.
“Sue,” she offered, wings twitching.
“And that one?” Noel nodded at the singer.
“I’m at your feet,” the singer said again, in the same grave voice as before. Noel tilted his head in confusion and Sue clicked her tongue, the click of someone who was about to explain something she’d already explained hundreds of times.
“Oh, let me tell him.” This from a small, dark girl who’d been hiding in Noel’s left trouser pocket. She wriggled out, nearly pulling him out of his chair as she did so, then she leapt to her feet, rousing a cloud of angry dust. She grinned at Noel with sharp teeth; her fingernails were equally sharp, practically talons, but both her smile and her handshake had undeniable charm. “This is the boy Corner, the boy with the silver tongue,” she began in a sing-song tone. “Little Chris Corner, sat like a mourner, telling his dirty lies. Once, he tried to steal a pair of elf-ears from an elf by hiding them in a pie. The elf had found him out and cursed him good and proper: he sang nothing but the truth from there on out.“
Noel smiled at the dark girl, then at the boy Corner. “And now he’s at my feet,” he said, not without a certain amount of satisfaction.
“Your joy is my low,” Chris Corner intoned.
“I’m Dee, by the way,” the dark girl said brightly. “Dee’s short for… can you guess?”
“Delia,” Noel lied, and they both laughed.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sue said, looking slightly fed up. “We’re here now, ain’t we? What do you want, then?”
“Someone,” Noel said decisively, then broke off.
“Who?” Dee was running her long talons up and down Noel’s bare arm, but tenderly. She already liked him.
“Sorry. What I meant was… someone to have a real friendship with. You know, like other people have.”
“You could be friends with us,” Dee said eagerly, standing on the toes of his boots. “You’re not so very different, after all. More like us than them.” Noel had the feeling that she wanted to eat him up, and he didn’t think he would have much minded.
“Deedee,” Sue said, tugging at Dee’s hair. “Chris doesn’t have all night.”
“Sorry. Don’t pull my hair!”
Chris ignored the mild bickering, looking Noel over with slightly-pursed lips instead. “Are we pretending?” he asked. “‘Cos I like pretending.”
Dee snickered at the obscure words, and Noel gave both her and Sue looks of helpless bafflement. Dee didn’t bother to interpret—she already wanted Noel for herself. Sue pretended to watch rawheadandbloodybones, who was pinning butterflies to the ceiling, but the weight of Noel’s puppy-eyes finally got to her and she sighed and relented.
“You’re an artist, right? Paint bowls of bananas? Well, you’re probably in the wrong line of work. That’s all he means.”
Noel looked to Chris for verification, but the singer’s face remained expressionless. “It’s the comedy and death of your senses,” he offered.
“Comedy!” Dee chortled, ticking Noel’s side. “Comedy and death!”
“Yeah,” Noel said, jumping a little. “Thems two are a right pair.”
“The alternative to real world,” Chris supplied with a shrug. “Comedy and death.”
Noel squinched his face up. He still didn’t get it. But his time was up, and with the white, wavy light of dreams the three disappeared back into his pockets: Sue and Chris in the right, and Dee in the left—she kicked in her sleep, he could feel it against his hip later, when he’d settled into his own nest of blankets.
The trio of fae didn’t visit him again in the coming days, and Noel wandered the city without plans or intent. He took to the parks a great deal, watching the birds pull worms from the lawn and bite their screaming heads off. Sometimes he threw them bits of crackers and apple, and before long the birds were all singing his name: No-el! No-el! From their beaks it sounded like a Christmas carol. When they got too loud a kelpie would rise from the pond, its oily skin dripping, and banged its hooves together in three sharp thunderclaps. That shut them straight up.
One night Noel took the long way back from the park and found himself walking past a small theatre. Beyond the doors he could hear faint laughter. A sharp pinch from his left pocket steered him through inside, where a modest crowd nursed drinks before a man who stood on the stage and told outdated jokes about Margaret Thatcher.
Noel winced. It was bad stuff. But he didn’t leave, instead settling down on a stool near the back and ordering a Ray Cokes. Watching the man onstage, he was pretty sure that this could be nothing but comedy and death.
By the time the final comedian, a man introduced as Julian Barratt, was brought on stage Noel had started on his second Ant and Dec. He nearly choked on the straw when the man, Julian, poked his head out from behind the curtain, giving the crowd a quick study before sauntering over to the mic, moving his arms in an odd, shuffling dance that seemed in complete disagreement with the seriousness on his face.
Noel sat upright. It was the man from the Waltzer. He would have recognised him anywhere, and to see him again, here and now, didn’t smack of improbability, but rather a complete and utter rightness. Everything Noel had ever wanted always came to him, eventually.
Without pause Julian launched into a riff of musical and nonsensical words that stung at Noel’s ears, rambling about lasers and beavers and bags of crisps, then finishing his verbal jaunt with a stiff little “hello, hi,” at the audience, who laughed uncertainly. Their laughter was uncertain for most of the set, though they obliged him well enough when he demanded that they sing. Noel sang quite loudly himself, his voice rising noticeably from the back of the room. He couldn’t be certain, but he thought he saw Julian squint with disapproval in his direction, as if certain that the one voice that rang clearer and truer than all the others could only be taking the piss.
“What you do is you sit on the tube, right? And you sit opposite someone, right? And you stare at them, right?” Julian cupped his hands around his mouth as if sharing a secret with the audience. “And you just mutter things under you breath, like m-m-my mouth is full of stars and they get freaked out, right? But before they get too freaked out you get off the tube, right, and you go down and you sit a bit further along for about three stops, yeah, and after three stops get off, come back, and sit opposite them again. In the interim you put a sort of moustache on? And they go ‘he’s the same and yet different, I, I can’t seem to… ’ and they get really freaked out, right? And at that point they get off, right, you follow them home and just as they see you out their window—‘oh, that’s him from the tube!’—you rush in, kill them…”
At this point Noel burst out in loud donkey laughter. People nearby were turning round to look at him rather than Julian.
“… and you wear their skin as a kind of leisure suit.”
Noel howled in his chair. Julian bounced on bandy legs, gave a smile that might have been more a wince, and ran for the safety of the curtain.
Having finally caught his breath, Noel stirred his drink in thought. He remembered Julian sitting opposite him on the Waltzer, how he had so effortlessly freaked Noel out with no more than a shrug of indifference. With a final chew of his straw, he fetched up his jacket and tossed some coins on the bar, then went to find a spot where he could wait, unseen.
He smiled to himself, and if that smile had been glimpsed by the right sort of person a few hundred years back, he would have probably been imprisoned for being a witch.
Because he didn’t have money for a mini-cab, and because it was too late to take the tube, Julian was walking home. Actually, his share for the night would have covered the cab, but he needed to save it for the rent. He was up to his bushy eyebrows in debt.
Shouldering his backpack, Julian pulled his coat around him a bit more. The zip was busted and the wind was brisk.
“That your leisure suit?” a voice said. A man had fallen into step next to him, grinning from beneath a terrible haircut.
“What’s that?” Julian asked, more than a bit startled.
“Your leisure suit,” the man nodded. “You know, made from your victims?”
Julian slowed a bit. People didn’t usually approach him after his comedy gigs, and if they did, it was just to say “nicely done” in a stiff and polite way that suggested they didn’t quite know what to make of the display they’d just seen. But this man’s enthusiasm and pointed reference to the ‘leisure suit’ wasn’t exactly a welcome change, either. “Uh, that’s just a bit of a joke then, right?” he said with forced laughter.
“You say ‘right’ an awful lot. That a Northern thing?”
“I don’t know.” Julian pretended to look at his watch.
“You a musician, too? I was the one singing in the back.” The man grinned again, and it seemed tinged with madness or something that made Julian equally uncomfortable. “My voice ain’t the voice of angels, sad to say. More like a choir of… what are they? Succubi?” The man didn’t appear to have any idea how off-putting he was—but then again, Julian reasoned, off-putting people never did.
“Incubi. Men are incubi, women are succubi.” Julian stopped. He had to, they were at an intersection.
“Yeah, well…” the man tilted his head and pouted absurdly, like a parody of a supermodel. “I been mistaken for both.”
Now he had Julian’s attention. “What?” He took in the man’s solid frame and short, tufty hair. “In the dark? By blind, deaf… drunken people?”
“Ah, that’s right.” The man sighed and looked down at himself. “Forgot about the glamour.”
“And I’d wager glamour’s forgotten you.” Julian nodded curtly and began to cross the street, not bothering to wait for the signal change.
“Don’t you want to know my name?!” the man called to his retreating back, held at bay by a passing car. He sounded baffled, as if Julian ought to have asked for his name first thing.
“No, sorry,” Julian shouted back. But he wasn’t, not at all.
Chris finally showed up that night, perched and unblinking on the kitchen sink. Noel hadn’t even felt him slip out from his pocket, but then Chris was exceedingly thin.
“Where you been?” Noel demanded, throwing a cushion. “I was a flop tonight!”
Chris said nothing and smoothly dodged the flying missile. Noel returned his stare with interest, his blue eyes locked on black, but Chris didn’t flinch.
“I met him, you know? I met him and I’m pretty sure he hates me. Practically ran into traffic to get away.” Noel scowled and it went all the way to his bones, deep and satisfying.
Chris rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “If we choose devotion over a low life…” he said, smooth as glass.
Noel’s scowl deepened. “And then what? Where’s Sue?”
Chris leaned against the tiled wall and Sue unfolded from his exposed lap, stretching and bright, like a beam of sunlight. “I was having a nap,” she said, mid-yawn. “What you want?”
Want? “His name’s Julian,” Noel said, unblushing.
“Oh.” Sue smiled faintly. “That’s nice.”
“No, it’s not. I gave him a proper freak out.”
“Stop trying to look so ugly around him then. Your hair’s awful.”
“But I don’t want it to be like with the others. I want him to like me as a real person.”
Sue laughed and Dee joined in, suddenly there on the rug, crouched on all fours. “But you’re not a real person, Noel, you’re a pretty, pretty princess,” she said, arching her back like a cat’s. Today she had claws instead of talons.
“But I’m not like you lot, either. Not completely, anyway.”
“You could be.” Dee touched one of her claws to his bad haircut, wanting desperately to barber it up.
“Where did I go wrong?” Noel said hurriedly, watching a snippet of hair drop. “What should I do?”
Sue looked at Chris, who, looking bored, said only “imaginary men.”
It was Dee who followed up this time, resting her head on his knee and giving it a little nudge.
“Do what you do best. Lie. Pretend. Tell a story that makes the whole world shudder.”
Julian was getting used to seeing Noel at his gigs. It didn’t mean he liked it, though. He didn’t like it at all, actually. The man, Noel (he’d been forced into introductions on their second meeting, when Noel had insisted on buying him a pint and Julian, still in debt, hadn’t been quite able to refuse), showed up every week or so, always galloping over with a teeth-baring smile stretched across his odd, pointy features. He quizzed Julian excessively on his material: what inspired him? Who were his favourite performers? Did he ever get nervous? If the questions hadn’t been so comedy-centered, or had been more personal, Julian would have had an excuse to tell the man to get lost. As it was, he fought to remain patient and polite.
Julian didn’t consider himself an unkind person. He could be a bit quick to judge, no doubt, but that was the way of someone who had to fight for recognition that he wasn’t sure he even wanted in the first place. Julian wasn’t sure he wanted a lot of the things that he fought for. It occurred to him sometimes, in a troubling way, that maybe he simply liked to fight. He lived with a constant tension under his skin that prowled through him like an animal, and he wanted to devour something that he couldn’t put a name to. His mind, which was well-read and tentative, even gentle, often blanched in shock at the wild cravings of his heart.
Something about Noel—he didn’t know what—made this divide between mind and body even more pronounced. Listening to his rambling chatter, Julian was torn between telling him to shut up and being completely enveloped in the alluring web of his words. In the end he tried mostly to ignore him.
“Why do you come round here anyway, Noel?” he finally asked one night, finding Noel lingering behind yet again. “You can’t like my material that much. It hasn’t changed once in all this time.”
“Checking things out. Sizing things up,” Noel said coolly, chewing hard on a mouthful of ice. His breath steamed a little.
“Oh, hadn’t you guessed? I’m in comedy, too.”
Julian stared. Something twisted like a splinter in his chest, and he wanted to hit Noel in the face. Maybe call him Eve Harrington, while he was at it. But who really ever answers their heart’s desires? He kept his mouth good and shut, and smuggled his fury away.
You should never tell a lie unless you believe it. If the lie cannot be believed, then it’s best to soak the lie in spices first: fragrant, foreign spices that set the tongue stinging and make the eyes weep. This will distract the person you’re lying to just enough for them forget what they are meant to believe in the first place.
Julian remembered Noel’s words two weeks later when Joey Spinoza didn’t show up for the gig. He’d gone out for Chinese and had carelessly chomped down a half-order of cursed duck eggs. No one knew that at the time, they only knew that people had paid for two hours of comedy, and now there would be a ten minute gap. No one had any extra material to stretch things out.
“Noel,” Julian said, reluctant.
Noel was parked by the bar, fishing olives out of the garnish caddy and studding his finger tips with them. “All right?” He sucked one of the olives free, and Julian hesitated a beat more before speaking.
“Joey’s not here and we’re coming up on the interval. You have anything prepared?”
“What? You mean me, go on stage?”
“You said you were in comedy.”
Noel chewed on the end of his thumb, considering. “Yeah. Yeah, I reckon I could do.”
“Really?” Julian said bleakly. He didn’t know why he felt bleak when Noel was agreeing to do them a favour.
“Ain’t a problem. When do I go on?”
“Right before me.”
Noel bit the last olive from his pinky finger and gave Julian the once-over. “You gonna watch me, then? From backstage?”
“Yeah. No. I don’t know, I might be…” Julian floundered for some excuse, “… drinking some water.”
“Oh, yeah. Fillin’ up your gullet. Drowning the vocal-cord bandits.” Noel was smiling, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Yeah,” Julian said. “But I’m sure I’ll hear some of it, right? So… good luck.” He pretended to give Noel a playful punch on the shoulder, but it came off weak.
Noel did not, of course, have any material prepared, but he wasn’t worried. Jokes were nothing more than another type of lying, and he’d once out-lied a pirate who liked to root through his parents rubbish bins, looking for his sea-legs. Pirates are notorious liars, and they hardly ever admit defeat. But Julian didn’t know this. He didn’t know about pirates (nothing about the modern day ones, anyway) and he didn’t know that Noel had once out-lied one, so as he watched Noel go onstage he prepared himself for Noel to choke.
Noel practically scrambled over to the mic, though, clearly not a bit shy, and chirped his hellos to the audience. “I love birds, you know? Little feathery nincompoops. Ah, they’re lovely.” Noel’s voice went wistful as he spoke, and Julian thought this was a weird way to start a set, talking about how lovely birds were. Then again, Julian started his own sets by going on a riff about beams and lasers.
“There were quite a lot of them in my garden, which is good, so what I do is I bond with them… I feed them, but that’s standard, you know, so I take it further. I like to read to them as well. Nothing heavy, just pamphlets. And I sing to them with my huge ruby and emerald encrusted harp, it’s huge, about thirty foot tall. Massive! And there’s cobras on the side, keepin’ people at bay… and I get out a small stool of ice and I play them a haunting ballad. And they all come down as I’m playin’, and they land on me! They land on my head and on my torso, they land on me hips and my shins, and I sing to them.. ‘oooh my plasticine beak, my plasticine beak… ‘ Cos I wear a plasticine beak, you know? Thing is, some ginger cats moved in down the road, yeah? And they started stalkin’ my birds. That’s not on, is it? So what I did is I decided to dress up as a bird myself, yeah? I rolled around in a child’s paddling pool full of feathers… only problem being that in my plan to save birds, I sacrificed three thousand for my costume…”
The story built and built, layers stacked like legos or pancakes, and as it went higher Julian’s smile became less brittle until his mouth finally just hung there, slack and gawping.
“… and we filled some hammocks with porridge and it was a brilliant party. And it turns out it wasn’t really a barracuda, it was a ginger cat disguised as a barracuda, dressed as a ginger cat, disguised as a barracuda, dressed as a cat… just gettin’ smaller and smaller, like Russian dolls! Till he was about the size of an orange pastille and someone ate him, haha! Ahh, marvellous times. Anyway, that’s it for me.” Noel gave a little wave and jogged off stage, directly at Julian, who hurriedly picked up his jaw so that Noel wouldn’t see that he’d dropped it.
“You’re up, small eyes,” Noel said. The audience was clapping hard at his retreating back.
“Me?” Julian repeated, though he hadn’t forgotten that he was next. He just suddenly wished that he weren’t.
Later, after he’d managed to get through his own set with minimal blunderings, and had accepted the mild-mannered applause of an audience who was clearly thinking about someone else (the same someone Julian was thinking of, in fact), Julian stopped feeling so impressed. He’d never seen a newcomer charm a crowd so easily, and it annoyed him. It annoyed him almost as much as the fact that he’d nearly been charmed himself.
And yet he had been. The story had seemed almost real, coming from Noel. Not a joke or an oddity, but something magical that threatened to tug at the corners of his breath and run away with it.
“What did you think?” Noel asked, following him home again. It was raining, but Noel had on a plastic shirt of some kind, and the rain was bouncing off it and hitting Julian in the face. This didn’t help lift his mood.
“It was okay.”
“Really?” Noel sounded bright and hopeful, which caught Julian off guard. He’d expected smugness.
“Yeah, well, it was a bit of a ramble, wasn’t it? You want to keep the audience with you. But there were some… some amusing bits,” Julian said carefully.
“Think so?” Noel looked amused himself, and Julian suspected he knew precisely how well he’d done, and precisely how much Julian had enjoyed it.
“Noel?” Julian stopped walking and took a deep breath, turning to face the other man. Noel smiled. “Just leave me alone, if you don’t mind.”
“Why is this so hard?” Noel asked, curling around a pillow. Dee was with him; they’d spent a few hours making a tent out of some old sails, and now they were inside the tent, lounging around.
“What’s hard? We’re just lying here.”
“Julian,” Noel sniffed.
“Right now? How do you know?” She propped her chin into her palm and gazed at him.
He laughed. “No, not that. I mean that I can’t shake the feeling that somewhere, deep down, he hates me. He tries to be friendly sometimes, but mostly I think he’d like to throttle me.”
“I know I’d like to throttle you,” Dee said, putting her paws to his neck. Like Dee herself, they were soft and fuzzy, with more than a hint of hidden sharpness.
“Thanks,” Noel said, sighing a little. Dee was using a venus fly trap as a purse—it had already caught a lot of flies and he could hear it buzzing around their feet somewhere.
Dee watched him pout for a minute, then sat up and drew her knees to her chest. “Did I ever tell you about my great Uncle Hobgoblin?”
Noel shook his head.
“He made stuff. Like a statue of Bluebeard who came to life and pinched women’s bottoms. He made that.”
Now Noel nodded. Everyone had heard of the statue of Bluebeard.
“One day he was feeling chuffed so he made a looking-glass. A mirror, you know? And the mirror was magic so that if there was anything good reflected in it, it was shrunken down to, like, pea-size, and anything bad or ugly was magnified and looked worse than ever.”
“It pulled focus,” Noel said, and Dee nodded.
“Someone stole the mirror from him, and then someone stole the mirror from that thief, and then someone stole the mirror from the second thief, and so on. Everyone fought over it. There was a terrific rabble. They wanted to take it up to heaven to see if the angels were really devils in disguise. And a few thought to visit hell to find out if there were any demons with halos.” This last part she smiled at, knowingly. “Eventually, they were so busy fighting over the mirror that they dropped it, and it broke into a million tiny pieces.”
“That’s a pity,” Noel said, twisting the corner of his pillow. “A mirror like that sounds dead useful. Moreso than the usual ones.”
For some reason Dee looked a little sad now. “You can still find fragments of the mirror lying around, tinier than fleas. Sometimes they get inside the heart of a person and distort everything he sees, so that the most beautiful things—” here she pressed a paw to his chest “—seem ugly and wrong.”
“Yeah?” Noel whispered. “How do you get the fragment of mirror out once it’s there?”
Dee shook her head and rested it against his chest, her eyes filling with sea-water that spilled out and rolled down her cheeks sideways. Noel didn’t know if she couldn’t tell him, or wouldn’t.
He drifted off then, and woke up to find Dee vanished. He could feel her in his pocket, though, and his shirt was still a bit damp. He stared into the canvas cathedral overhead and tried to figure out what had woken him up. It was probably that person pushing at the door buzzer.
Noel stumbled out of the tent and spoke into the intercom. “Yeah?”
Noel knew that halting voice at once.
“Is this Noel? It’s Julian, Noel. I was a tit earlier. I’m sorry.”
Noel slumped against the wall next to the intercom. “You came all the way out here to apologise?” he asked, not bothering to keep the smile from his voice.
Silence for a moment, and then finally a sheepish “yeah.”
Noel didn’t reply, he just buzzed Julian up.
“This is weird,” Julian said after he’d entered. He was referring to the tent.
“A friend and I made it,” Noel said, shrugging. “Do you want to go inside it? You can, but if you do you can never leave.” He tried not to grin too hard. It seemed to unnerve Julian when he did.
“Um, I really don’t know,” Julian said, circling around like a weary dog and then finally dropping into a bean-bag chair. The way his knees poked up out of it looked a little silly, and also a little cute.
“Cup of tea?”
“Yeah, okay.” Julian was relieved at the offer, and Noel went into his poky little kitchen to get the kettle going. By the time he brought out two steaming mugs, Julian looked a little less anxious.
“All right, then,” Noel said, blowing on his brew. “Shall we get down to business?”
Julian tried to sit up right, but it wasn’t easy since he was in a bean-bag. “Business? What do you—”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” Noel said, smiling through the veil of steam between them. “To see what kind of madness our heads come up with when we throw ‘em into the same orbit, right?”
“Yes, maybe. But maybe that’s a bad idea.”
Noel scowled, just slightly. “You’re the biggest waffler I ever met. You must be Belgian.”
“And I’m better if I’ve been dressed in strawberries and cream,” Julian said carelessly. He was startled at how easily the words slipped out, as if some part of him were answering Noel before the other part had made up its mind on how to answer. It was as easy and as uncomplicated as breathing or blinking. “Shouldn’t this be harder?” he finally asked.
“You’re making it well hard enough, yeah?” Noel rolled his eyes.
“You’re really a comedian, then? That wasn’t your first night on stage or anything, was it?” Julian’s lips hovered over his mug, but he didn’t drink.
“Nah, I’m really a cryptozoologist.”
Now the lips twitched into something like a smile, getting the hang of things. “Ah, yes… you study the mythical and elusive peanut whale?”
“Peanut whales, sure. And chupacabra. He’s cross-cultural, right? Sort of like Antonio Banderas.”
“Ah ha, but Banderas is Spanish, if you please. Chupacabra is Mexican.”
“Mexico? Spain? Don’t matter much, ‘cept I like the one where they wear those giant scratchy blankets as ponchos. Ponchos get me in a good mood, you know?”
“Are you never not in a good mood?” Julian asked, looking serious now.
“Only about as often as you are,” Noel shot back. Julian let out a laugh. Then he laid back into the bean-bag and looked fully relaxed for the first time since Noel had met him. It changed his face into something younger, and in profile his eyelashes were very long, beating like delicate spiders against his eye sockets.
Weeks passed, then months. Eventually, months turned into years. The moon got dumber and dumber.
Noel wished he could say that he and Julian got something-er and something-er. Like closer and closer, maybe. Or fonder and fonder. They did get better and better, that much was true, but improving as comedy partners didn’t seem to translate into improving as friends. For as much time as they spent together, Julian still jumped when Noel came into the room, shying away whenever Noel’s body threatened to breathe the same air as his own. It would have been fine if he’d been like that with everyone, but he wasn’t.
Noel stopped rolling in clover, and the iridescent sheen came back to his flesh in no time. Pockets of baby fat disappeared from his cheeks, leaving his face as lean as an elegant jackal’s, and his hair grew into an artful kind of post-punk headdress. Everyone else gazed in awe at his transformation, but Julian shook his head and said he looked like a spook. Noel was almost glad; the more Julian pulled away, the harder Noel tried, and he wouldn’t have tried at anything in his whole long life if it hadn’t been for Julian.
Together, they both found success—it came quickly and without warning, and it had nothing to do with Noel’s gifts of enchantment. Rather, it had to do with the unique chemistry that came from two brains bubbling in the same vat; all either man had to do was utter a single word and the other would glimpse how that word fit into the bigger story, how its symmetry was in symmetry with all the other scraps and pieces. Sometimes, it didn’t even take a word. A look would be enough. And it was in those looks, heated and laced with meaning, that Noel invested the currency of his feelings.
Somewhere, Julian must feel for Noel what Noel felt for him. If he didn’t, Noel would have faded into nothing by now, like foam in a churning tide. Instead, he kept trying.
But because he tried, he sometimes tried too hard.
Like when he happened upon Julian taking a nap in his bean-bag chair (Noel’s bean-bag chair, but he’d come to think of it as Julian’s). They’d been up late making plans for the television show they’d just been signed for, trying to crowbar their radio material into a new and unfamiliar format. Noel had gone into the kitchen to ring up the producer and had ended up talking to him for a good twenty minutes or so. Helped along by a good quantity of gin, Julian had gone down for the count, his head lolling into his shoulder in a way that looked painful.
Noel kneeled down and tried to help adjust his friend’s neck, lifting his head up so he could shove a pillow beneath it. As he did so, he was hyper-aware of the contrast between Julian’s hair and his whiskers; against his palms, one was soft and wispy, almost as fine as a child’s, and the other sharp and biting. It was like Julian himself, who alternated between being the most important person in Noel’s life and the most aloof, distant stranger he’d ever called a friend.
Holding Julian’s head in his hands, even for a moment, seemed a type of gift. It held all of Julian’s dreams, all his deepest memories and secrets, and it had his eyes, which saw Noel as no one else did, and his mouth, the keeper of his smile. Noel looked at Julian’s mouth for so long that pretty soon, his own mouth wanted a look, too. He leaned closer, harboring his breath.
“What are you doing?” Julian’s eyes were open and looking up at Noel as no one else did. That is to say that they were filled with suspicion. Mistrust mingled with a bit of reluctant curiosity.
Noel pulled back. “Nothing.”
“You looked like you were going to kiss me.”
“Who do you think you are, Sleeping Beauty?” Noel laughed, but his hands were still curled around the back of Julian’s head. He tried to remove them without Julian noticing, which was, of course, impossible.
“What are you doing? Touching me while I sleep?” Julian was sat up now, his tone more astonished than accusatory. “Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know, Ju. Why do people usually do that sort of thing?” Noel asked lazily.
Julian shrunk back, his smile definitely hidden behind his mouth now. “You know… you’re freaky, Noel. I don’t know why you do half the things you do, and I don’t know how you’re able to do them.” He was struggling to stand now, the bean-bag impeding his escape. “I won’t say I’m sorry I met you—”
“What?” Noel interrupted, startled.
“—but sometimes I wonder if I will be sorry, one day.” He was stood up now, looking down at Noel from an impossible height, his expression a little mournful. “You ever heard of Robert Johnson?” he asked.
“Was that one of the American presidents?”
Julian shook his head. “He was a blues guitarist. One of those who get credited with the invention of rock-and-roll.”
“Oh,” Noel said. Julian was an expert all that blues and jazz stuff, but Noel knew full well that rock-and-roll had been invented by accident by a grave-robber named Swagger. Later, in the 60s, he changed his name to something only slightly less obvious.
“Yeah, and he was so good some people think he must have sold his soul to the devil to get that way.”
Noel gazed up at Julian; he could feel how angelic his face looked right now. “What’s your point, Julian?”
“Just that sometimes I feel the same way with you. We’re so good… you’re so good. And yet…”
“Are you calling me the devil?”
“No.” Julian looked away, and seemed to shiver. “You could be. But then again, so could I.”
“Sometimes people are good together because they just are, Julian. It has nothing to do with magic or devils or souls.”
Julian went stone-faced then, and Noel could something sharp twist in his heart, glinting cruelly. “Of course it has to do with souls,” he said, the words frosty. “It has everything to do with them.”
The next morning, Noel went to the park for the first time in a long absence. The birds were all strangers to him there, and rawheadandbloodybones had scared most of them away, anyway. He was still up to his old tricks, still chasing butterflies and sewing their wings together.
If Noel were a real cryptozoologist, he would have studied humans. They were the strangest creatures he could think of, what with their fear to take what they wanted, their sheer terror in the face of happiness. To Noel they might as well have been mythical.
“My princess, do you only like the easy and the snow blind?” Chris was crouched by the pond, throwing squashed cockroaches in for the kelpie.
Noel grimaced. If he really was a princess, he was one without a kingdom. And he could never climb into his own pockets with Sue, Chris, and Dee, no matter how tempting that might be; he was too human himself, now, at least in thought if not in actual presence.
“None of us are what we once were,” Sue remarked, wise to his thoughts as usual. She was sat on the bench beside Noel, smoking a pixie stick that let off a sweet, pinkish smoke. “Fallen muse, remember? And little Chris Corner, sat like a mourner, telling his dirty lies.”
“And Dee?” Noel asked. Dee was in the pond, trying to mount the kelpie’s slippery back.
Sue smiled. “No one knows. An angel, or a demon.” They both watched Dee for a while, not surprised to see that the kelpie had taken a shine to her.
“I want to know what Julian really thinks of me,” Noel finally said. “I think I could handle him hating me so long as I knew it was the truth.” He spread his hands, studying them. “That it’s not some fragment of a lie, poisoning him against me.”
“Ah, the truth,” Sue said, saying the word as if it didn’t taste good. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
Noel considered, but not for long. He was used to knowing what he wanted, and straight away at that. “Yeah.”
“Well.” Sue hopped off the bench, crushing the pixie stick under her shoe. “We can give you three things—one of them might reveal the truth. The truth that you want, that is. It’s a pretty subjective thing, after all.”
“‘Course it is. Were those people who said the earth was flat lying?”
“No.” It was true that the earth was flat. It was also round. And it went around the sun and the sun went around it. Sometimes they crashed into each other.
Chris walked towards them, kicking a few errant leaves away. He held out his hand to Noel and a coin appeared in the centre of his palm, like a magician’s trick. No surprise that it was a bright silver. “Do you wanna be a sailor?” he asked, and Noel saw him grin for the first time, lurid and beautiful. Without hesitation, Noel took the coin. It vibrated in his cupped hands, like an angry bee.
Then, Sue coughed into her hands, delicately disgorging a second coin, this one a little bigger, and golden-coloured, like her. She passed it over.
“This will make you love again,” Chris said.
Noel had a coin in each hand now. Sue called for Dee, who came ashore dripping water, reeds tangled in her hair.
“Give Noel your thing,” Sue said to her.
Dee wrapped her arms around herself and stomped her feet, water spraying all three of them. “Haven’t got it,” she said.
Noel tried to catch her eye, but she was avoiding it. “Please?” he asked. She lifted her arm and waved hard to the kelpie, ignoring him.
Chris put a hand on Dee’s shoulder. “You captivate but you hold no weight at all,” he said, pulling a ragged weed from her hair.
Dee bit her lip. “I know.” Her frown was fierce. “I know that!” She twisted her ear and the third coin fell from it. “Here,” she said, thrusting out her hand. Noel had to pry it from her clawed fingers, cutting himself in the process, but he didn’t mind. He understood.
The third coin was copper and greenish with age, unremarkable in almost every way. “I know you love to take a risk,” Chris said, pointing at it.
“Thanks,” Noel said, standing up. He started to slide the coins into his pocket, then realised that once there, there would be no more room for Sue, Chris, and Dee. The coins were small in size but fat with magic. Uncertain, he kept them curled in his palm, where they chittered together in discord.
Chris glanced at Noel’s pockets, then moved his eyes back to Noel’s face. “You want an ending to your screenplay life,” he said, shrugging.
“But I…” Noel began, then stopped. Swallowed. “Yeah, I do.”
Chris stepped forward and pushed the hair away from his fathomless eyes, then leaned in and pressed his lips to Noel’s right cheek. At the same time, Sue dipped in and kissed the left one.
“Bye,” she said, a wing reaching out to touch his shoulder.
And then they were both gone, and only Dee was left, all lovely fire and fury. She jumped into his arms and embraced him, nails digging into his back. “You’ll miss me the most,” she said.
“I will.” He would.
And because he would, her kiss also hurt the most, stinging like nettles against his lips with a sweet pain that he’d never, ever forget.
Noel put the first coin, Chris’s silver one, in Julian’s morning coffee. It floated for a moment, then, with the briefest shimmer, dissolved like so much cream. He delivered the mug himself, bringing it over to where Julian sat (in the bean-bag, per usual). They were supposed to be writing, but they always got off to a slow start. Forcing things out didn’t really work, they had to wait for the wind to take them.
“Right. Mind if I take a shower while you’re drinking that?” Noel asked. “I ain’t had one yet.” Truthfully, he didn’t want to watch while Julian drank down the coin. He didn’t know what it would do to him, for one, and for two, it felt like a bit of a dirty trick to sneak something into his mate’s drink.
“Go ahead,” Julian said, tapping his biro against the lip of the mug.
Noel took his sweet time in the shower, deep conditioning his hair and using a loofah until his skin tingled all over. The longer he dallied, the more nervous he became; nervousness was not an emotion he was well acquainted with, so before it could get much worse he turned the water off and groped for his towel.
When he pushed the shower curtain aside and stepped on to the rug, he was surprised to see Julian standing right there in the bathroom, blinking in the steam and still clutching his coffee mug.
“Ju!” Noel said, quickly swathing his towel around his waist. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?” Julian asked, his voice strained and almost a shout. “My coffee’s gone cold!”
Noel winced at the shoutiness, not to mention the manic look in Julian’s eye. “Oh… um, I can make you more?”
Julian sat the coffee mug on top the toilet tank with a heavy thunk, then came towards Noel in a smooth, predatory move, his hands outstretched and ready to grab. “I’m gonna tear you up,” he growled.
“What?” Noel backed into the wall, almost slipping in a puddle as he did so. “Calm down, yeah? It’s just cold coffee!”
“Come here!” Julian made a lunge for the towel, then gave it a single, sharp tug that caught Noel unawares. The towel flew from his waist and the moist air shocked him, surrounding him all at once like that. “That’s better,” Julian said, nodding.
“Julian, look,” Noel said, raising his hands to ward his friend off. “I think I’ve made a mistake… You’ve got to—”
“Eat you up,” Julian interrupted, his warm, clothed body suddenly pressed against Noel’s naked one. His smile was exceptionally sharp.
“Uh, uh,” Noel said, his mouth gulping like a fish’s. “Are you sure this is… what are you going to do to me, exactly?”
Wordlessly, Julian scooped Noel up, carrying him as easily as he would a girl. In his arms Noel felt like a wet, boneless thing, and despite the fact that he was quite scared, the electricity in Julian’s eyes had leapt over to him and had set his heart, and other parts, all a-flutter.
Once in the bedroom, Julian sat on the bed and dropped Noel into his lap, belly-down. “Now, I’ve always know you were a dirty, bad thing,” Julian said, his hand barely slipping over the rise of Noel’s bare rear. “Dirty… bad… dirty… bad… “ His fingers tapped a light rhythm with each word, then he stopped and buried his fingers between Noel’s buttocks, the middlest finger curling inward and making Noel squirm. Squirming hurt a little, though, what with his swelling penis trapped between his body and Julian’s sturdy right leg. He tried to lift his torso to relieve some of the pressure, and as he did so Julian made a “tsk” noise, then removed his hand and brought it down with a heavy, stinging smack. “Bad!” he barked, then spanked him again, the pressure pounding Noel’s hips into Julian’s thigh and creating a rocking, painful friction that made Noel gasp more than the spanking itself. Julian caressed his stinging flesh, almost gently, and the contrast of his cool hands against Noel’s warm skin made Noel shiver. Also making him shiver was Julian’s sudden silence, which left Noel with no idea of what the other man would do next. And what he did was spank him again. Noel yelped out loud this time, though there was more pleasure in the noise than pain. The spanking continued, and before long Noel was lifting his arse to actually meet each smack, and the force of Julian’s blows sent his hips down again and again, aching cock meeting with rough, scratchy denim until he arched his back and came with a yowl, Julian’s final blow driving the last spurt out of him.
“So,” he asked, leaning in to breath hot breath over his back. “You like?”
“Yeah… yeah…” Noel said weakly, his fingers clawing at the collar of Julian’s shirt.
Julian’s teeth showed like a shark’s then, and Noel knew that by the morning’s end he’d be bitten by every last one.
Noel fed the second coin, Sue’s gold one, to Julian three days later. By then he was bruised and exhausted, all water and strength wrung from his body, leaving him no better than a rag. It wasn’t that he hadn’t enjoyed the relentless shagging, and the fine mix of pleasure and pain that came with it. It wasn’t that he didn’t want this version of Julian that took took took with complete disregard and abandonment. It was that he was fucking tired. He felt like he’d been turned inside-out; now his bones were on the outside and they were going to break at any moment.
“Water,” he’d gasped from beneath Julian, who, though spent, was still wriggling inside him. “We need water.” Julian had grunted in agreement and flopped over onto his back. Noel tripped towards the kitchen, his vision blurry, and poured two tall glasses full. Sue’s coin was under the silverware tray, and when he dropped it into the water along with some ice, it cracked apart, making the water smell sweet. He could only hope Julian didn’t notice.
Julian took the sweet water without comment and drank deeply, droplets running down his chin and bare chest. With his back to Julian, Noel sat on the end of the bed and drank from his glass, waiting for something to happen.
First there was nothing, just a sigh and a slight shift of the bed as Julian fell onto his back again.
Noel remembered how Julian said he might be the devil, and for the first time, he wondered if he was, feeding his friend bits of poison like this, all for his own selfish reasons.
Maybe that’s the only truth I was meant to discover, he thought, pressing his lips to the rim of the glass.
Along with the word came a hand, feathering down the length of Noel’s spine.
“Lie down with me.” With a gentle sort of embrace, Julian pulled Noel down into the bed and tucked the smaller man against his chest. Noel stared at Julian’s profile, watching his eyes flutter and close, and wondered at the tenderness and satisfaction he saw there.
Julian had fallen asleep, and soon Noel had, too. They slept a thick, dreamless sleep, like girls under an enchantment, and when they woke, they were still pressed together like two spoons in a drawer.
“Hey, look man, I got this watch for ten dollars. That’s like, six pounds or something? It’s a swatch, remember those?”
Rich thrust out his thick wrist and Noel looked at the watch with interest. Its face looked like a hopscotch grid. “Pretty good,” Noel remarked, swirling his drink around. It was a Noel and Julian this time, a drink that Julian had invented out of scotch and orange squash. “I want to get myself one of them old-timer pocket watches. A big repeater, you know? Then paint it with—”
“Noel!” Julian’s voice rang out above the crowd and the music, and Noel cringed a little. “Noel, where’d you go?” Julian asked, hurrying to his side.
“We moved closer to the band,” Rich explained, draining his coke with a loud slurp. They were out celebrating their first rehearsal for the television show and had ended up at one of those shitty clubs where the speakers crackled with feedback. A pair of singers were leaping around onstage, doing more screaming than singing.
“I couldn’t find you,” Julian said, ignoring Rich. “I was worried you’d left.” He put a protective arm around Noel’s shoulder and pulled him closer. Rich shook his head and looked away.
“Ah, nah. Right here, under your nose,” Noel said, giving Julian’s arm a little pat and trying to duck.
“Why are you pulling away?”
Noel shrugged and forced a laugh. “Bit hot in here, innit?”
“Stay close to me.” There went the arm again, lassoing Noel and reeling him in.
Noel sighed. He supposed this was love. That’s what Julian kept calling it, anyway. About a hundred times a day: I love you. I love you, you know that? Do you love me? I love you.
He’d sort of begun to miss violent, brutal Julian. He’d heard so many sweet nothings by now that they were just that—nothing.
“I love you,” Julian whispered, nosing into his hair. Rich moved a few steps away.
“Ju, look,” Noel began, struggled out of Julian’s suffocating embrace. “I’ve got to go to the toilet.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No!“ he snapped, and Julian’s face immediately crumpled. “Look,” he said, trying to be delicate, “I might be a while, if you know what I mean.” He clutched at his gut, hoping to get the point across.
“Yeah, okay. I’ll wait here, right?” Julian nodded uneasily.
“Sure. I’ll be right back.”
Noel tried to give him a re-assuring smile. “Of course.”
Once in the gents, Noel leaned over the sink and splashed cold water on his face. The final coin was in his pocket, pinching at the side of his hip. Despite Julian’s hovering, he trusted Noel completely… it would be so easy to slip it into his glass of Noel and Julian.
But what would happen after that? After that, Noel had no coins to feed him, and he’d already fed him two and had come to regret it.
He pulled the coin from his trousers pocket and rolled it between his fingers, studying the tarnished copper. Holding it up to the light, he saw with some surprise that it was the only coin he could see his reflection in—his strange, other-worldly reflection—it looked beautiful on one side, and ugly on the other. Beyond the coin’s surface, he saw himself and Julian on the Waltzer, strapped in separate cars that whirled this way and that, spinning a trajectory around each other. Eventually, they would crash. It was just inevitable.
Without thinking, Noel put it in his mouth, where it sat like a stone. It was salty at first, then a bit sour. Finally, it sloshed around in his mouth like runny chocolate.
“Noel?” Julian’s quiet footsteps echoed across the tiles and Noel spun around. “You were taking so long, I wanted to check to see if you were okay…”
Noel watched him with wide eyes, the coin melting over his tongue. “We have to be in the same car, Julian,” he said, swallowing. “We have to be the same.”
“What are you on ab—”
Noel closed the distance between them and rose to his toes, pressing his lips to Julian’s in a kiss. Julian made a soft sound in his throat and opened his mouth beneath his, his tongue tasting like his last Noel and Julian. The soft sound turned strange as something rose from his chest, scraping a sharp path up his throat and passing between them. It bit into Noel’s tongue, fighting to save itself, but Noel swallowed it down, same as he had with the coin. Then he gasped and pulled away, tumbling to the dirty floor hard, as if he’d been pushed. As if something had been in such a hurry to flee his skin that he’d stumbled.
Coughing and coughing, like a man who’d nearly drowned, he hugged himself and felt the thing burrow inside him, changing him, and changing the whole world with it. Both he and the world shuddered.
“Noel? Jesus, what are you doing on the floor?”
Noel looked up, blinking and letting go one last cough. Julian had his hands on his hips, his stance hassled, impatient, and maybe a bit worried.
“I fell?” he finally said, voice husky.
“Yeah, well, you look stupid down there.” Julian took told of Noel’s hands and pulled him to his feet. He brushed him off once, tentatively. “All right?”
Noel managed a smile. “Yeah, think so. How are you?”
“Fine?” Julian said, quizzical.
“You’re not… you know… hacked off at me?”
“Huh? No way.” Julian broke out into a grin, then messed up Noel’s hair. The gesture was affectionate and natural.
“Heh,” Noel managed. He had a taste in his mouth, like a strange, faraway memory, but he couldn’t place what it was. For a second he thought he could, but then the thought itself was strange and faraway, like the last, clearing cobwebs of a dream. “Want to buy me a drink?”
“I thought the next round was on you?” Julian said, giving him a poke as they left the toilets together.
“The men of the hour!” Dave announced, raising his pint glass as they approached.
“Oi! The next round’s on you, right Dave?” Noel said, giving a winning smile.
“Yeah, right, I don’t think so,” Dave snorted.
“So who was this band?” Rich asked, watching the musicians clamber off the stage. “They’re kind of hot.”
The musicians were two girls, one dark and the other brighter than gold. They trouped by while carrying a xylophone and guitars, an impossibly lithe man helping them. At Rich’s words, the man paused. “Robots in Disguise,” he said. “Sue, give the man a demo.”
The blond girl balanced the xylophone on her hip and rummaged around her rucksack. “Here,” she said, handing a CD over. For some reason, she handed it to Noel, who was thinking it sort of remarkable that she could rummage about and balance a xylophone at the same time.
“Thanks,” Noel said, his fingers touching hers. Something about that touch made him look up with a start, only to find that all three newcomers were staring at him, something like amusement in their eyes.
“Do I know you?” he asked. For some reason, a weird line from a movie ran through his head. I had a dream and you were in it. And you were there, and so were you.
“Not yet,” said the other girl, the dark one. She reached out and gave him a pinch. “But we’ll be seeing you.”
“Who were they?” Julian asked, watching them leave.
Noel shrugged. “I dunno.”
“Gonna listen to that CD later?”
“Yeah, I reckon.”
“Yeah? Want me to come over later and… ah, listen to it with you?” His hand came down to squeeze Noel’s elbow with more than a little insinuation.
Noel smiled and met Julian’s eyes. The answer was yes. It was always yes.