Pairing: Noel Fielding/Julian Barratt
Length: 1-5k words
Notes: Thanks go to tartpants for whipping me into shape over this, and to ailcia for giving this a lookover too. Thanks also go to Morrissey and Belle and Sebastian for providing the excellent soundtrack to the writing of this.
I Know What You Think I Am by alchemist
1. What’s In The Box?
For all that Noel has heard about this bloke, he’s still not quite prepared for it when he finally gets to see him on stage. He’s been hearing about this other stand-up (Julian, his mind helpfully supplies) for a while now; friends mentioning this man who moves like he’s trying to escape his own skin, other comedians mentioning enough similarities between this bloke and Noel to get him a bit spooked.
His interest has been piqued sufficiently that he has made his way across half of London tonight in the most miserable of weather to finally see what all the fuss is about. The venue is the upstairs room of a pub, nothing fancy, just a collection of mismatched tables and chairs, with lighting dim enough to ensure people won’t really notice the black sticky floor or the peeling paint on the door frames. He’s found himself a spot at the bar, a good place to lurk, far enough back so that he won’t get targeted if he’s not laughing, and he’s certainly not laughing now as the compare lurches through some tired old stuff about his nan and some biscuits he bought her. The materials shit as it is, but Noel’s had the dubious pleasure of supporting this bloke a few times already, and has heard the sorry bastard die on his arse with this routine every time. It’s a bitter, twisted sort of comfort to him that at least he’s not the one up there faced with stony silence, but it doesn’t do much for his ego, knowing that he could do it better, that it should be him up on stage and fuck anyone who thinks otherwise.
And if he’s honest with himself, it’s his ego has driven him here as much as any sense of professional curiosity. Part of him can’t actually believe that anyone can do what he does; he’s yet to meet anyone who can keep up with him or even outweird him. It’s made him quite comfortable in his uniqueness, and quite proud of it too, so it rankles him that there might be an intruder out there. He’s only just accepting that yeah, he might be quite good at this malarkey, and the concept of someone doing what he does, and potentially doing it better is somewhat disconcerting.
He’s just finished ordering a drink, muttering in to the glass and hoping the compere hasn’t recognised him, when he realises the audience are applauding, and the man, this Julian character, is introduced.
He watches carefully as Julian slopes around the stage, wary eyes darting around, thin mouth already quirked as if he is secure in the knowledge that he is good, that he is funny, that what he is doing is right. Noel knows this, can appreciate the craft involved, but a quick glance at the audience reveals bemused glances from half the crowd. So that’s what they meant when he was told they had a similar effect on audiences.
Watching the nervy, or at least, the seemingly nervy man on stage, Noel gets an inkling into how his crowds must feel. This Julian is speaking in a soft, non-threatening voice, some Northern accent that he can’t pinpoint precisely, but the words that tumble out in fits and starts undermine that. Noel finds himself already grudgingly admiring the act, the way the man on stage giggles and pulls his hands up to his mouth, coyly trying to hide the sinister things he is saying; the way words are repeated, caught in a net of self-made frustration as Julian hurtles to an inevitable conclusion, desperately turning his mind this way and that, reams of synonyms and antonyms all saying the same thing over and over, faster and faster, turning the screw tighter and tighter and then–
And then it’s gone, he’s sailed off stage, and his set is finished.
Fuck. Noel realises all the ice has melted in his drink. He’s been so caught up in what was going on in front of him that he hasn’t even taken a sip. His head feels odd, pregnant with space and possibility, and he knows he has to talk to this man; he has to before he explodes. He has to tell him that he knows, that he gets it. That he feels the same. And then… well, he doesn’t quite know what is supposed to happen after that but it’s bound to be a good thing, and the urge to speak to Julian propels him off his stool and into the crowd, squeezing his way through bodies fighting to get to the bar towards the strange man who has stolen his mind.
Noel kicks a stone absently as he waits for the night bus. He shifts restlessly, annoyed at how cold the plastic seat is, fucking March, for fuck’s sake, shouldn’t Spring have sprung by now, leaching the heat away from him and giving him nothing in return but a bloody cold arse. He stubbornly refuses to move, determined that now he has sat down he’s going to stick it out. His breath plumes out in front of him, taking with it all the words he wished he’d said twenty minutes ago.
Fine then, be like that, he thinks, already plotting his next encounter with Julian. Standoffish bastard.
3. Oscillate Wildly
He’s not quite sure how it’s happened, but Julian feels faintly used.
It’s raining, in the middle of what is supposed to pass for summer, and it’s raining. It means he can’t open the windows, and the presence of this… other is oppressive, invasive somehow, and Julian doesn’t know what it (he, Noel) wants. If he can work that out, he’ll be halfway to making Noel (him, it) go away.
It might be the weather, it might be the strange events of the evening that are still unfolding, but Julian acknowledges that he is feeling unusually peeved tonight. Not only did the chatty bastard next to him essentially hijack his gig (and then proceed to fucking well steal the crowd from under his nose, the clever talented little swine), he’s now essentially hijacked his car, though his methods were somewhat subtler in the latter instance. Rather than wowing the crowd with incredible leaps of logic and imagination, all Noel seemingly did was smile weakly and look forlorn as he made to leave for the bus stop in the pouring rain.
Watching him walk away had been like looking at a sodding pit pony bracing itself for yet another shift down the mine. As a rule, Julian quite likes ponies, so with a sigh he had offered him a lift home without thinking what he was doing.
Despite Julian’s awkward mood, the journey gets more comfortable as they go. They’ve talked endlessly, well, Noel has, and Julian has chipped in when required, offering agreement or asking for directions through the back streets of East London. He catches glimpses of Noel from the corner of his eye as he drives, and it’s all a blur of hand gestures and fidgeting, indistinct movements just adding to Julian’s confusion about just who this man is. He remembers the first time he saw him, Noel, this boyish eager face hurrying towards him, words already falling from his mouth. He’d been confused then, too; Noel’s jumbled features all looming at him in his excitement, and had just…walked away, thinking he was just a crazy from the audience, yet another kid who wanted to do stand-up and thought he was the bees knees. Julian knows he was cruel to do it, but he didn’t think he’d ever see him again.
But sure enough, there Noel was, lurking at the side of his next gig, and the one after that, and the one after that until Julian started looking for him, felt unsettled until he’d located him, and when Noel made another attempt to start conversation, Julian talked back. He told himself it might make Noel go away, but he realised soon enough that wasn’t the case. And he’s actually glad now, despite being confused, because Noel’s something to be deciphered, and Julian loves a challenge. Even a challenge that has him driving miles out of his way because he wasn’t able to speak without thinking in his presence.
The pop of a seat belt is incredibly loud, and shakes Julian from his reverie. They’ve pulled up into a car park near some flats as Julian was directed, and Noel is peering sideways at him, and Julian knows, he fucking knows what’s coming, can practically see the cogs turning.
“You can come in if you like.” Oh god, here we go… “The thing is though, you can never leave.”
Despite himself, Julian barks out a laugh – the sound of my fate sealing, that – and his hands move of their own accord to the keys in the ignition, turning them and making the engine splutter to a halt until all is quiet, a silence frayed around the edges to match the dull static hiss in his mind.
His body seems to be in rebellion tonight, for as well as his hands moving of their own volition, he can hear the words tumble out of his mouth and out into the air without any conscious effort.
“Yeah, that’s alright, I will come in. I don’t have much on.”
Noel grins that sharp grin that Julian has already come to recognise as trouble, and tumbles out of the car.
He climbs out of the car after him, looking up at the squat block of flats they have parked in front of, and hopes that there aren’t too many stairs. And that his car doesn’t get stolen. Checking he’s locked up the car properly, he turns around to find that he’s alone; Noel already vanished through the heavy metal door of the entrance. Sighing, he follows him through in what he hopes is the right direction.
The hallway is small, all cold tiled flooring and too harsh lighting. Julian starts towards the lifts, wondering how the fuck he is supposed to know where to go, if there is a special button marked “press to reach insanity”, when Noel’s voice floats down the stairwell next to him.
“Oi, this way, I’m only on the second floor.”
He’s looking down over the rails at him, and Julian raises an eyebrow at him, making sure that Noel knows he better not be messing around. Noel simply laughs in response and turns his back, trusting Julian to follow him. And Julian is left with no other option but to do exactly that.
As he catches up, Noel turns around as he starts shaking off his jacket.
“Sorry,” he mumbles around the damp cotton as he fights with a sleeve, “didn’t mean to leave you behind. Just wanted to get out of the rain, this jacket’s new and I don’t want it bleeding dye all over me.”
Obscurely soothed by this explanation, Julian just smiles in reply and carries on following. True to his word, Noel turns off when they reach the second floor landing, and battles with a truly huge bunch of keys before unlocking the plain wooden door in front of him and ushering them both into the flat.
Hitting the lights as he walks through the short corridor, Noel points out where the bathroom is and, somewhat bizarrely, the bedroom, and then they are in the living room, chairs covered in paper and paints and the kitchen beyond. Julian’s quite impressed.
Noel punches some buttons on the stereo system, and music softly pours out of the speakers. It’s something Julian doesn’t recognise, woozy and as dark as a heartbeat, and despite the low volume it echoes inside his head. Somewhere during the journey up the stairs and through the double-locked doors Julian finds he’s agreed to a drink so he slinks through the swing doors into the kitchen area and watches Noel fuss with a bottle of gin. The tonic already poured into tumblers glows faintly in the fluorescent light and just adds to the unreality of the evening.
“Do you want ice?” asks Noel, looking up from where he’s sloshing generous measures of gin around, licking sparkles of alcohol from his fingers.
Suddenly, Julian has the incredible urge to run, to slam the door and never ever look back. Instead he nods mutely and listens to the delicate crackle of the ice cubes as they are turfed unceremoniously into his glass.
The music has faded slightly now, and it’s quiet save for Noel’s distracted humming. All the easy banter they enjoyed in the car, even in the club beforehand, has evaporated now. Clutching his drink to his chest, Julian slides into a chair at the kitchen table and wonders if it ever really was easy. The first time they met, Julian had been wary of this moon-faced starry-eyed creature who seemed so eager to claim that they were one and the same. But now that they have spoken several times, performed on stage, possibly even become friends, Julian sees that Noel might have been right, that they are indeed closer than he likes to think and that might be worse. Oh, they’re not precisely the same (they would never have got even this far if that were the case), but the conversation this evening…Noel had crystallised the nebulous thoughts in his head, made them diamond-hard and real and exciting. They had both cited the same influences, claimed to hate Vic Reeves for getting there first, both even delighted in the way that words felt and sounded and the reactions they caused when used in unexpected way. Julian now recalls the one giddy moment when they had spoken in unison, finished a sentence together and he had taken his eyes from the road to catch Noel’s gaze, remembers seeing the same spark in Noel’s eyes that he knew was in his own.
Now that he thinks on it, the whole evening has been like that; snapshots, the flash of a strobe burning images in his mind. There’s no coherency to these pictures, it’s like deciphering a child’s scribblings, and yet the fact that somehow it’s still making perfect sense, that it was inevitable that he should end up here, is worrying.
Noel is sat across from him now, slouched in the hard-backed chair, sipping delicately from his drink and pausing once in a while to the lick the rim of the glass. It belatedly occurs to Julian that it’s probably his turn to speak, as if this is some kind of game that he’s not learned the rules to yet.
“Nice place, this,” he offers, glancing about. And it’s true; it is a nice flat, all soft lighting and splashes of colour. If it was a half-arsed attempt from his subconscious at flattery, then it seems to have worked. Noel’s face lights up, and he lurches into speech, leaning across the expanse of scarred wood between them in earnest.
“Yeah, I fell on my feet with this one. Used to belong to a uni friend of mine, and I sort of snuck in and sort of took over when he went to South Africa. By the time the landlord found out I was technically subletting he didn’t give a shit cos I had been here for months already and always paid the rent on time.”
Julian’s gaze is held all the while by smiling eyes, and he can’t help but smile back, even if that strange constricted feeling his chest is giving him the urge to run again.
Noel’s enthusiasm lures him back into conversation eventually. They discuss Noel’s time at art college, Julian’s musical talents, and before he knows it, Julian finds himself back in the living room, firmly ensconced on the sofa with Noel sat cross-legged next to him, already on his third drink. Julian wishes he could have another as well, but he’s got to drive back across the city and he doesn’t really fancy having an accident. If nothing else, he’s not finished paying for the bloody car yet.
Still, Noel’s easy demeanour is relaxing him, which he finds amusingly perverse when he thinks of how unsettling he found it earlier, and his face is beginning to ache from laughing and smiling. He’s tired, as much from the gig as from the rapid switches in mood he’s gone through this evening, and this sofa is, as Noel proved by bouncing on it several times, very comfortable indeed. He lets himself drift, nodding and replying when it seems Noel needs a response, eyes narrowing to contended slits.
He’s aware of Noel tailing off, and the music in the room suddenly seems louder, so he shakes his head a little to clear off the fog of sleep. Noel’s just looking at him, round eyes widening slightly when he realises Julian is staring back. His face is stuck in a rare moment of stillness, the normally mobile mouth pursed thoughtfully. Julian’s about to ask him what the matter is when he snaps out of whatever it was and is up and moving, as if Julian dreamt the quiet moment. He smiles at Julian and runs a hand through already artfully mussed hair.
“Sorry, was I boring you?” he asks, picking at a stray hem on his t-shirt. “I’ve never quite managed to grasp the fact that my interest in animal jokes far outstrips anyone else’s.”
He doesn’t wait for a response. In a quick fluid movement he springs off the sofa, briefly using Julian’s thigh for stability before sauntering off to the bathroom.
That’s all it is. An innocent touch, the casual splay of fingers across denim, and it’s like Julian is seeing everything through a heat haze, Noel shimmering and rippling as he walks away. Fuck. Oh fuck. Once more, he wishes he could have another drink.
He sits rubbing his hands slowly up and down his thighs (not to see if it’s still warm from his touch, no, not that) and stares rigidly ahead until Noel floats back into his field of vision. He’s bending down close to Julian, an amused smile playing across his face, head tilted to one side like a puppy that’s – no, Julian firmly stops any line of thought that might lead him to thinking Noel is endearing.
“Did you hear a word of that?” asks Noel.
“What? Sorry, no, I…” Julian stutters, “No, sorry.”
“I said, do you want to stay for another? I know it’s late, but you have your car and everything, so…”
Trying to scrape together enough dignity and composure from his stunned brain to answer properly, Julian clears his throat and takes a deep breath. For a second he’s worried that he might accidentally agree, that he will stay, and then…
“Sorry, yeah, you’re tired. You don’t have to. I was joking when I said you can never leave, you know.”
Noel has interpreted his silence as a decline, and Julian is relieved to find that he doesn’t have to stutter anything out and humiliate himself further by making up an excuse.
“Yeah, I should be off really. I’ve had a long day.”
He stands and stretches as he speaks, feeling vertebrae snap and crackle back into place. He picks up his coat from where he draped it in the corner, but before he can say his goodbyes, Noel is scrabbling around the floor amongst the piles of paper, gesturing for him to wait.
He finally finds what he was looking for, and hastily scribbles something in the corner of one page before carefully tearing it off and ushering Julian ahead of him into the small corridor.
Reaching around in the cramped space, Noel unlocks the door, and turns to face Julian, taking his hand.
“My number, yeah? You should give me a call, it’s been good talking to you.”
As he presses the piece of paper into his hand, Noel curls his fingers over Julian’s, and it’s as if something weakens inside Julian, making him sway forward slightly, bringing them almost chest to chest, still touching hands, Noel staring up at him with limpid eyes, a smudge of skin and brightness. It would be quite easy to lean closer still, and his free hand twitches, lightly brushing Noel’s hip, and Noel’s tongue darts out to lick at the corner of his mouth, breath falling hot and warm against Julian’s skin. Yeah, it would be easy to do that, but Julian can’t quite work out how he got here, feels like he’s been given the answer to something without even knowing what the question was, and all of a sudden it’s too hot, too much, and he jerks his hand back, stuffing the paper into his pocket.
Drawing in a sharp breath, Noel steps back, perplexed, fingers pulling at his hair distractedly. He keeps opening his mouth as if he is searching for words to say, but for once he can’t seem to find any. Julian wants to apologise, or to say something amusing, a gentle lie about getting back to a girlfriend even, to make it seem like it – whatever it was – had never happened. But he knows that Noel would recognise a lie from him, he’s seen too much of the truth already, so instead he just slides along the wall towards the door. Still, the urge to say something is just too strong, the memory of how pleasant it was to have Noel pressed against him too fresh in his mind, so he searches for something, anything to offer up.
“Look, I can’t promise I’ll call–”
Noel’s eyes slide away, looking past him, and he interrupts so quietly that Julian has to fight to hear him despite being stood so close.
“I know you won’t promise. But it might be nice if you could at least pretend you’ll consider it.”
For one fleeting second it’s as if Julian can still feel warm dry skin against his own, and he feels regretful. The uneasy truce they’d reached over the course of the evening has all but disintegrated, and it’s his fault. A momentary loss of control, and he’s utterly destroyed the moment. Now there is nothing to do but leave.
“Anyway, I’d best be heading off.”
“Sure, I’ll get the door for you.” Noel slips past him without touching, and fiddles with the locks again, his smile glassy and brittle.
Julian wants to try and regain some sense of equilibrium here, but has run out of words to offer, so he tails off lamely instead. Noel opens the door wider and steps back.
“See you, then.”
The door clicks hollowly behind him, and his footsteps echo too loudly down the empty staircase.
Hello? – Hi, is that Noel? – Yeah – It’s Julian – Thought you weren’t going to call me? – Like I told you last night, I don’t have much on – That’s what can befall a man when he likes jazz, you know, destroys all hope of a social life – And I suppose you’ve got a terribly busy diary, have you? – Oh, so-so, y’know, I always keep a few slots free for do-gooding, emergency hair-washing nights, stuff like that – You wash other people’s hair as a good deed? – Don’t be so literal, you…ponce – hah! That’s a case of the pot calling the kettle a homosexual, isn’t it? – Yeah, alright, what do you want? – Well, I don’t know if I should ask now – Fuck off, come on – See, now you’re getting aggressive and I’m even less sure – Julian – Well, if you can find time in your hectic schedule – I’m sure I can clear a day or two, though I might need a week if you want your hair washed – You’re going nowhere near me – Julian, what do you want? Cos if you’ve just called to torment me and have a go about last night again, then can we pretend you’ve already done it and just end the call? – It’s not about last night at all – Oh – Well, it is in a way – C’mon, don’t wind me up – I thought you liked me being creepy – Look, if this isn’t about last night then – Noel, shut up – do you want to write a television show with me?