Nathan sat in a booth opposite Jaymes in a coffee shop at Heathrow airport, enjoying the final minutes before Jaymes' departure. Making small talk, trying to keep the mood upbeat, Nathan wracked his brain to recall the last time he'd flown. Eventually, he settled on twelve years ago, at the age of sixteen, when the school had arranged an exchange trip with another school's football team in Greece. Luton airport back then had been compact and cosy, a poor cousin to the hugely sprawling complex of Heathrow. Jaymes tried to downplay his own travelling experience, but from the tattered labels on his suitcase, Nathan knew he had visited all seven continents at least once.
Today Jaymes seemed distracted, as though his mind was focused elsewhere. Nathan noticed Jaymes' right knee constantly bouncing beneath the table and him not being able to maintain his usual generous smile. Not wanting to ask, he assumed Jaymes was mulling over the complexities of the job he had waiting for him at the end of the long flight.
"Sorry, Nate," said Jaymes eventually. "I know this is tough on you, but it's killing me." Jaymes raked his fingers distractedly through his hair. "I usually can't wait to get on the plane, to get a new adventure started. But things are different this time. And I can't help thinking about the last time I said goodbye to somebody I cared about, and then returned home to find—"
"I am not him, Jay, and never will be. You have nothing to worry about. That kind of thing is not going to happen. Please trust me."
"Do you think I don't know that? But it makes leaving you all the more difficult."
Further out of character, Jayme's eyes had teared up, and Nate felt a moment of hesitation. Up until now, he had been the one in the relationship needing reassurance. How the tables had turned. Without another thought, he got up and went to sit on Jaymes' side of the booth, pulled Jaymes' head onto his shoulder and placed a steadying hand on the twitching knee.
"Remember what you said to me in the Lakes? About me being the one for you? Well, the same goes for me. You're the one, Jay. Nobody in my whole life has ever come close. So think of me as your anchor. I'll be right here when you're ready to come home. And I promise to keep the fridge stocked with beer and chocolate, and the coffee machine ready to start chugging away on demand. I'll even sleep on your side of the bed to make sure it's kept toasty warm for when you come home. How does that sound?"
Nathan warmed inside when he heard a happy chuckle rumble through Jaymes.
"I don't deserve you, Nate."
"Probably not. But you're stuck with me now."
While he had been speaking, a young blond girl dressed in the purple cafe uniform appeared with their drinks. While putting them down on the table, she glanced nervously at Nathan and Jaymes and smiled genuinely, before uttering one single word: adorable.
As soon as she had left, Jaymes nudged Nathan's shoulder.
"You are adorable, you know? She's dead right."
"She's talking about us."
Happily, the exchange seemed to defuse the tension, and they each reached to sample their drinks.
"Should have delayed a day, so I could be there for your semi-finals tomorrow."
"And another week, so you could be there for the calendar launch? Or another month so you could attend the fete? At that rate, you'd never have left."
"Maybe that's not such a bad—"
"We talked about this. You're doing what you love. Which makes me love you even more."
Nathan felt Jaymes relax next to him and smiled.
"By the way, Nate, please thank Grant for doing me a favour and filling in for you today. Again. And Clifton for the use of his car and driver. That was really kind of him."
Nathan hadn't been sure when Clifton first offered. A favour for a favour, he'd called it. Although being able to sit in the roomy back seat with Jaymes, to chat and sit pressed up against each other without any other distraction had been fantastic.
"What time are you meeting him tonight? For your 'live on the red carpet' moment?"
Nathan sighed aloud. Jaymes laughed and squeezed his arm around Nathan's shoulder.
"Thanks for reminding me. Seven-thirty. I wish I could just stay at home."
"Hey, it'll do you good, getting out of the house. And I want a full account of the night, all the stars you bumped into, and what they're like in real life."
Nathan laughed. "Whatever you want."
"And don't drink too much bubbly stuff. The last thing you need is a hangover for your semi-finals. And text me to let me know how you did."
"As long as I get a call from you, the moment you've landed."
"Yeah, best if I text. I arrive at Kota Kinabalu airport midmorning, which translates to the early hours over here. We can video-chat later tomorrow, once I'm settled. So I can show you my luxury digs."
Jaymes had already told Nathan about the threadbare accommodation usually accompanying his trips, with usually four or more to a room. Not that he spent much time in them, anyway.
"Photos too, please. I'm going to buy a couple of small clocks for the kitchen; one with London time, the other with Malaysian. So I know when to call you."
Jaymes sighed and kissed the top of Nathan's head.
"Still wish I could put you in my case."
"Me too. But it's already checked in."
Arms around each other's waists, they strolled to the departure section of the airport. For a change, according to Jaymes, there was no long queue of travellers waiting to head through to immigration control, and they enjoyed a lengthy hug goodbye before Jaymes released Nathan and disappeared into the bowels of the airport.
Nathan stared at the empty doorway. When a stream of people pushed past him, he moved out of the way and stood one side of a shop window, opposite the departure portal, feeling self-conscious and inconsequential. On the way there, he had planned to stay longer at the airport, to find a viewing gallery and watch as Jaymes' plane took off. Overwhelmed and confused by the number of signs and volume of people milling around, he had almost given up on the idea. But Jaymes had promised to send him a text message as soon as he was on board, so Nathan wandered around until he found an information desk where two airport staff—one male, one female—stood chatting. Nathan waited before interrupting, amused to overhear their topic of conversation.
"…an absolute dream, if you ask me. Did you see him on horseback in Prince in the Snow? Thighs to die for. Or between. Whatever works."
"You're just gushing 'cause he bats for your team. Don't you find him just a little plastic? A bit too good looking?"
"Are you kidding me," said the man, before nodding his head to somewhere behind Nathan. "Look at him over there, sultry and smouldering. He's pure sex on legs."
Nathan turned startled, fully expecting to see Clifton striding towards them. Instead, he realised they were referring to a huge poster suspended above the shops advertising the pilot episode of Candlelight, the new television thriller starring Clifton O'Keefe and Helen Monash. In the advertisement, Clifton strolled purposefully down an archetypal English country lane, with his co-star, Helen, just behind his right shoulder and looking equally stern.
"Sorry, sir, excuse my colleague's appalling taste. Can I help you with something?"
With the help of the woman, he discovered a reasonably quiet bar on a mezzanine level, one overlooking the external airport complex. And even though he had no idea which runway Jaymes' plane would take off from, he installed himself at a small table by the window and ordered a toasted sandwich and a pot of tea, determined to make them both last.
When his order arrived, he sat back in his chair, sipped his drink, and thought back on the incredible year. So much had happened. Getting photographed almost entirely naked for a team calendar, reconnecting with Cliff, his childhood sweetheart and now a famous film and television star, meeting a cousin from Melbourne he never knew he had, and finally finding out the fate of his mother. But the best part had been meeting Jaymes, the catalyst for this new, improved version of Nathan Fresher. Jaymes had somehow unlocked something in Nate and made him feel wanted, even when they weren't together. Last night, they'd made love the whole evening, each of them taking turns to memorise the other's body, to brand each curve, each muscle, each groove into memory for the lonely nights to come. Instead of being melancholy at missing Jaymes, Nathan recognised he had someone who would always be there for him, someone not far from his thoughts, someone whose mere existence could make him smile even when he was working thousands of miles away. As though hearing his thoughts, Nathan's phone beeped with a message.
Jay: About to close the doors. Miss me yet?
Nathan snorted aloud. Jaymes' telepathy seemed to be working well today.
Nate: What do you think? Of course. Safe trip, Jay.
Jay: Gonna miss you too. But I'll be home before you know it.
Nate: I'm already crossing off the days.
Jay: Just got told to turn off my phone. Love you baby. Will txt when I get to KK.
Nate: Love you too. Come back to me soon.
Nathan fixed his gaze outside the airport window. Eventually, he picked out the distinctive design on the tail of a plane, one that had to be Jaymes' flight. Hiking in a deep breath, he heard the muffled sound of engines roar and watched as the implausibly large jet aircraft trundled slowly down the runway, nose tilting up, before gliding almost in slow motion into the air. Moments later, the plane had breached low hanging clouds and disappeared into the daytime sky.
Nathan sat there, his gaze frozen to the spot in the clouds, the vanishing point, waiting for something to happen. Maybe he expected a massive wave of abandonment to overtake him, or a bolt of lightning to illuminate the sky and strike the tarmac, just—something. But nothing came. And why should it? Just like someone going to work in the morning, Jaymes would be coming home. Maybe not today, but he would be coming back to him. Even though he'd said so, deep inside, Nathan knew the truth and instantly felt the warm comfort of certitude. Leaning back, he inhaled a deep breath and held on. But his mind had not quietened. Waiting in the wings, a measured voice of a woman sounded out, told him to stand up, get moving, take control, and get busy. Even though the voice came as a bucket of icy water over the head, the effect startled him in a positive way, empowering, invigorating, as he released air from his lungs.
After paying up and texting the driver, he noticed a spring in his step as he made his way to the carpark. Tomorrow, he would rally his teammates, and they would play their best game of the season. He would also ensure a full turnout on Tuesday, not just the players, but their family and friends. Tuesday would be a knockout.
Outside in the car park, the air felt fresh on his skin, and despite the distinctive and all-pervading stench of aviation fuel, Nathan made his way with a positive stride through the rows of parked vehicles, to the waiting Lexus. As he approached, the driver lowered the automatic front window, nodded once, before opening the sliding back door. Smiling to himself at the opulence, he almost missed the long pair of tracksuit wearing legs inside the back, sitting on the far side.
"Thought you could do with some friendly company right about now?" came a familiar voice.
When the door of the car had fully opened, the handsomely grinning face leant into view.
Nathan faltered a moment, but then regained his new composure. Clifton's company might be a good distraction, keeping him from any melancholy thoughts. He settled in the back and clicked his seatbelt in place, as the door of the car slid closed. With a quick word from Clifton to the driver, the vehicle moved soundlessly forward, navigating the labyrinth of the carpark.
"I'll go home first, change for tonight."
"No need. I've got plenty of clothes back at my grandparents' house. You and I are still around the same build. What shoe size are you? Nine?"
"I'm nine and a half, but a couple of those are loose, so they'll fit you fine. And I have the perfect Armani black tie combination. You'll rock the look. I, on the other hand, have to wear another Alain Pouchard creation, part of a commercial arrangement. Bit of a bore having to put on the same designer for every public event, but the two-year sponsorship is insanely lucrative."
Nathan peered over at Clifton as he talked and studied him, really studied him. Maybe he'd missed the signs the first time, been starstruck by his old flame, but Clifton's confidence had begun to resemble arrogance. Had the unflinching exterior, the overconfidence, been a simple acting job designed to impress his audience? Back at school, he'd known the shy, almost introverted kid who had apparently only joined the football team to please Nathan. But Nathan knew nothing about Clifton O'Keefe, the movie star. Maybe he ought to correct that particular oversight.
"I've never asked, Cliff. Do you ever get involved in other types of work? Charities, or other causes?"
"Are you kidding? Not unless I absolutely have to. Giorgio usually steers me right on those types of gigs. If it means getting airtime—Comic Relief days or something resembling Live Aid—or an event that will get me in the good books of my fans, then he'll usually stick my hand up and volunteer me."
"But surely you're the face of some charitable organisation or another?"
"God, have you been speaking to Raul? I do whatever Giorgio tells me to do. And anyway, at the moment most charities won't come near me."
Nathan wasn't so sure. After Clifton's sexual exploitation as a college student, now out there in the public domain, surely there would be plenty of anti-bullying and anti-trolling organisations happy to have him as their spokesperson. Maybe he needed to work on Clifton.
"So here we are. Two lonely, good looking guys separated from their loved ones. What could we possibly do to pass the time and make us both feel better?"
"I thought you said Raul was coming home tonight?"
"He flies tonight but doesn't land until tomorrow morning around six-thirty. And we've got three hours until hair and makeup arrive. Two, before we need to shower and change. Any suggestions?"
"Want to hear mine?"
Nathan looked across at Clifton, his brows furrowed.
"I'm not sure. Do I?"
"Relax, Nathan. Just hear me out, okay? Before you decide."
Nathan took a deep, steadying breath before staring out the car window.
An hour in Clifton's grandparent's temperature-controlled jacuzzi sipping on glasses of appletini, followed by a simultaneous manicure and massage by professionals Clifton had magicked up, and Nathan felt positively rejuvenated.
Getting dressed together in Clifton's bedroom afterwards, trying on one bowtie after another, laughing and throwing socks at each other, giggling like school kids, and Nathan finally remembered why they had been best friends.
In the jacuzzi, Clifton had given Nathan the rundown on the evening, about what to expect. Although the dinner event would be much smaller than those of the usual award ceremony season, explained Clifton, Nathan still might be approached by the media, so best to be prepared.
"The Evening Chronicle Film and Stage Awards, and in case they ask you, I'm up for the Breakthrough Performance Award for the lead role in Tangerine Smile."
"Cliff, I didn't see the film. What should I tell them if they do ask me?"
"Okay, a quick synopsis. My character, Stevie O'Neill, of Irish descent, and recently returned from active overseas service with the British army. Stevie now works in Borough Market on the family fruit and veg stall, with his father and two uncles, together with his sister who has cerebral palsy, who they take along because she loves being with them. The four men always work late on a Saturday evening, and Stevie is told that one of them heads to a local cafe a few streets away to buy snacks and teas to keep them going until closing. They toss a coin, and Stevie loses. Stevie suspects his uncle has used a double-headed coin he has often boasted about. As he grumbles and is about to leave, his sister gives him a smile with tangerine peel in her mouth, something they'd often do with each other for fun, which makes him laugh. Anyway, as he's standing in line in the cafe, he notices three men outside, arguing urgently together with one guy clearly in charge. Eventually, a white van pulls up, the side door opens, and they all pile in. With his military training embedded in him, Stevie still sees danger everywhere and makes a mental note of the number plate. As he finally gets to the front of the queue, about to place his order, an explosion from outside rattles the cafe window. Amid screams and confusion, Stevie pushes back against the rampaging crowd until he reaches his family's stall, but finds nothing left standing, and only part of his sister's torso lying beneath her overturned wheelchair. The rest of the movie is Stevie trying to find the three guys he believes killed his family, something the police put down to an act of terrorism, but which turns out to be far more personal and sinister."
"Not a musical, then?"
"Maybe next time," said a grinning Clifton. "So if they ask you for your favourite scene—"
"I'll tell them the opening sequence after the bomb goes off. And if they ask me who's my favourite actor, of course, I'll tell them it's you, and that your performance is not only award-winning but nothing short of Oscar-worthy."
"Good man. In which case, you're now up to speed."
Nathan could not believe the fuss in getting ready for a night out. Hair washed, cut and styled by professionals, nails and teeth checked and fussed over, attire assessed by Clifton's image team, tweaking one thing or another. He only drew the line at having makeup applied, something Clifton seemed to take for granted. In the car on the way, Nathan relaxed again, the cocktails still in his bloodstream. Clifton's mind appeared to be otherwise occupied.
"To be absolutely honest, there's so much competition this year, and what with everything else that's gone down for me recently, I'm unlikely to win. So although I've got a simple acceptance speech—just in case—I've mainly practiced my brave, happy-for-the-winner, expression, just in case anyone is filming."
"Your day will come, Cliff."
"Oh my God, you really are Raul. That's exactly what he would say."
"You do know what a great couple you two make, don't you?"
"Of course. And I do love him, Nathan. But now with kids coming along—I don't know—it feels as though the world is closing in, as though everyone expects me to grow up. And I'm not sure I'm ready for someone to call me dad just yet."
"Ah, so that's it. Peter Pan syndrome. Polly, my teacher friend, tells me that most of the dads at her school seem to revert back to childhood once kids appear on the scene. Yes, of course, they have to shoulder the new responsibility, but they're also given liberty—encouraged even—to play with their kids, especially once they're up and running around on their own two feet. Child psychologists reckon fathers who associate with their kids from an early age, are far more likely to maintain a healthy bond throughout their lives."
"Thank you, Freud. So do you think I'll make a good father?"
"I think you'll make an awesome father. I hope you realise that Raul is going to spoil them rotten and cave in instantly whenever they ask for any tiny little thing—"
"Yeah, well, that's not going to happen."
"Which is why you guys are the perfect parenting double-act."
Clifton sat smiling, appeared to be digesting Nathan's words
"In the meantime," he said, staring out the window. "I still haven't done everything I want. Not quite. There are a couple of things I need to get out of my system before I take the next grown-up step."
At the venue in the heart of London, rows of freshly cleaned cars pulled up spilling equally polished guests onto the pavement, but the event seemed nothing like the grand scale of the ceremonies Nathan had seen on television. Very few fans turned up to catch sight of the celebrities, and the press waited inside, not out, taking pictures of people against the ceremonial backdrop, a long plastic hanging complete with logos of the sponsors showcased along one wall of the spacious corridor leading to the main auditorium.
Even dinner seemed uneventful; a three-course meal of bland tomato soup, grilled chicken, and lemon sorbet. Once the meal had finished, and coffees had been served, the award ceremony began. By ten o'clock, Nathan wished he had only been invited along for the edited highlights. Apart from Clifton's name being called out as a nominee, Nathan had heard of nobody. As Clifton predicted, he didn't win the award in his category but produced a convincing suck-it-up smile for the other eight guests gathered on his table. During a break, several people came up and spoke to Clifton, one or two whose names Nathan knew, but many he didn't. Apart from sharing a few words in between courses, Clifton spoke very little, and at one point, Nathan wondered why Giorgio had not been invited. Until the awards came to an end and many seated got up to stretch their legs and mingle. Giorgio appeared out of nowhere—possibly because he'd been relegated to a table further from the stage—and nodded to Nathan before whisking Clifton away.
Nathan continued to sip his coffee at the almost empty table, feeling completely out of his depth, while people chatted loudly behind and around him. A couple of times, he checked his phone, hoping for a message from Jaymes but calculated the times and realised he would still be in the air. Just as he'd popped his phone back in his pocket, and decided to escape the party, to leave Clifton a text message and find his own way back home, someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"Nathan Fletcher?" came a voice Nathan would rather not have heard, the tone making Nathan's spine stiffen. "It's Lawrence, Lawrence Cotterbourne. Remember me? We met at the cast party for Candlelight?"
"Yes, of course. Hello, Lawrence," said Nathan, turning awkwardly in his seat, shaking Lawrence's hand over the back of the chair and trying to sound genuine.
"Lovely to see you again. Who brought you?"
"I'm here with Clifton O'Keefe."
"Really? No Jaymes?"
"Jaymes is in Malaysia."
"Oh. Is he now?" Lawrence's innuendo was plain, his attitude bordering on supercilious, as though he had won a long-standing argument. "So how are sales of your naked calendar coming along? After all that free publicity, I sincerely hope they made you the centrefold."
Clearly, Lawrence had been waiting to make this overloud pronouncement, which caused many heads in the vicinity—possibly those of reporters, who could tell?—who had not previously noticed Nathan, to turn. Nathan quickly scanned the room to see if he could spot Clifton, to send out a silent distress signal, but he only spied a sea of black evening suits and low cut evening dresses.
"Only, I noticed it had gone on sale already. Bet it's selling like hotcakes. Or should I say, hot buns?"
Having dealt his blow, Lawrence quickly moved off several feet away, singling out one of the female rubberneckers, who assessed Nathan with renewed interest. Lawrence clearly knew her because Nathan could make out snippets of his one-way conversation, executed in a ridiculous theatrical tone.
"……featured in HuffPost online, darling……absolutely starkers……runs his own baker's shop……yes, sweetie, a real-life baker……photo was molten, laid out on a baker's table……but somewhat unhygienic, if you want my honest opinion……arrived tonight with Clifton O'Keefe…… anybody's guess……wonder if anyone told poor Raul."
Nathan felt his usually dormant temper begin to prickle and then spike. In the past, he might have sat by, unruffled, done the noble thing, and chosen to tune out Lawrence.
But not anymore.
Standing abruptly, he moved with polite but assertive speed through the wedge of people standing nearby until he came face-to-face with the woman, whose bright blue eyes widened on his approach. Without acknowledging Lawrence, he faced her head on, her attention immediately drawn to him.
"Sorry, you are?"
"I'm talking to her, Lawrence, not you."
Nathan heard a couple of hissed intakes of breath, and sensed the conversations around them reduce in volume.
"Madeleine Manners. I work for the Chronicle."
"Nice to meet you, Madeleine," he said, reaching out and shaking her hand. "And from what I overheard, I guess you already know who I am. While I apologise for interrupting, I'm sure you want some validation on what your—uh—acquaintance here has been spouting. Either he has an overactive imagination, or a penchant for salacious and, frankly, libellous gossip. So, for the sake of keeping things civil, I'm going to run with the former. For the record, Raul knows about me being here with Clifton tonight and fully approves. He'd be here himself, if not for being out of the country attending a charity function in San Paolo. In fact, it was Clifton's mother who asked me to accompany Clifton tonight as a favour to them both."
By now, within the close proximity anyway, Nathan could almost hear a pin drop.
"As for the calendar, this is something most of our village football team agreed to do as a part of Crumbington's upcoming fête. Nothing explicit, you understand, just a bit of fun, and the proceeds will go to a local charity; St Joseph's school for physically challenged children. In fact, we're having a calendar launch party in the village hall next Tuesday, if you'd like to attend. And despite the ordeals he has been through recently, Clifton—together with his husband, Raul—has agreed to open and attend the day of our fête. Because that's the kind of generous, big-hearted person he is and, in turn, our village community fully supports him, supports them both. So if you want a story with a positive spin, one that could give us a boost with some upbeat publicity, then I would be eternally grateful if you focus on that particular angle."
Nathan turned to leave, but then a thought came to him.
"Of course, if you're simply looking for dirt, then I suggest you ask Lawrence to give you an account of the cast party in Oxford for Candlelight, which took place at the house used in the series and was arranged by the two wonderful gentlemen who own the property. Yes, there's nothing particularly gossip-worthy about that, but Lawrence might be persuaded to give you intimate details about his own little private party-within-a-party in the upstairs cloakroom, which allegedly has become something of a tradition with him and his buddies. And if you need any corroboration, I'm sure Giorgio Costello, Clifton's manager—who happened to stumble in on them and shut them down before the police were called—would be more than happy to provide details."
Madeleine's unwavering and humoured smirk gave Nathan the impression his revelation was old news to her. Finished now, he turned his attention to a pale-faced and pouting Lawrence.
"Lawrence. Over to you."
Without a backward glance, Nathan strode off through the crowds, heading to the restroom. With annoyance still bubbling in the pit of his stomach, he needed to escape the circus. After washing up, he texted a message to Clifton and made to leave.
Outside the bathroom, however, Giorgio was waiting for him. As soon as he exited, Giorgio singled him out, his arms folded, a grim look on his face. Nathan didn't care. If Giorgio wanted to berate him for what he had said, then so be it. He would do the same again, without changing a word.
Instead, Giorgio's face transformed into his trademark toothy grin. Without asking permission, he took Nathan by the elbow and led him to a quiet corner of the hall.
"I've contacted Clifton's driver, asked him to wait out front to take you home. By now, I'm sure you've had enough. But Clifton's still doing the rounds, networking, and won't be finished for at least another hour. So I'll take over the babysitting duties from you."
While they talked, Giorgio had been peering out at the guests, his gaze sweeping the room like a secret service agent. Finally, they came to rest on Nathan.
"As for you, Nathan Fresher, you are full of surprises. I've no idea what you said back there to Madeleine Manners, Editor in Chief of the Chronicle, but the whole room is abuzz. Says she wants to have a word with me later about Clifton. And something about coming to your calendar launch next week. So I'm guessing that must be your doing."
"Did she ask you anything about Lawrence the asshole?"
Giorgio snorted, and for the first time, Nathan thought Giorgio might even be enjoying himself.
"No comment. But let me just say, thanks for the referral. Now, go on home, before you cause any more trouble."
Nathan didn't need telling twice, and once again began to leave.
"Oh, and before you go. Tell your committee to expect an exceptional turnout for both the calendar launch and the fête. Sounds like Madeleine's going to make sure The Chronicle covers both."
After thanking Giorgio, Nathan strolled down the hall corridor, walking on air and feeling every bit as important as the roomful of celebrities he had just left behind.
And right then, an impossible idea came to him. Impossible in the sense that, in the past, he would have shrugged off or laughed the idea away. But now, he stopped for a moment, let the idea form into something tangible, considered the immediate pros and cons, before tucking the proposal into a pending section of his brain, ready for further analysis.
Something had definitely changed.
Because right now, everything felt like a possibility.
Thanks for reading.
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