Giles pulled up on his driveway and killed the engine. Smutty had been uncharacteristically quiet on the journey back, but perhaps he was just getting himself centred before his fire juggling performance, or whatever it was he needed to do.
“Do you need a hand getting your things together?” Giles asked.
“Huh?” Smutty twisted to face him, his face marred by a frown.
“Your juggling kit. Whatever it is you have to take with you. I’ll drive you in.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“Right. Because you’re going to walk the ten miles in time to catch the tourists, are you?”
“I… yes, okay. Cheers. I can pay you back later when I’ve worked a couple of hours.”
Giles snorted. “Money’s about the one thing I don’t need.” He’d checked up on the new offshore account Fabian had set him up with, and had to concede his investments were growing very nicely indeed. “Tell you what, how about you let me buy you a coffee later, instead? I know some great cafes in Bath.”
Smutty squinted. “Coffee?”
“All right then, a bunch of twigs and flowers or whatever sorry excuse for tea it is you like to drink. I know this place that does the full range of herbal muck.”
“Mmm, you’re spoiling me with the twigs.” Smutty’s lips twisted in a momentary half smile as he opened the door, but he settled back into his seat and fixed Giles with an inscrutable expression. “You don’t need to seduce me, Giles. I’ll put out anyway.”
Giles groaned at the memory of Smutty sprawled on his bed last night. He’d looked so debauched, fingering himself while he begged for Giles to get on with it and fuck him stupid. “Yes, I think we’ve already established that. Many times. But maybe it would be a treat for me to be able to have a drink with you somewhere in public.”
He waited while Smutty appeared to mull it over, a small crease appearing between his eyebrows as his hands unconsciously played with the leather covered gearstick.
“Are you out?” Smutty asked. “I don’t want to have to pretend we’re just friends. It bugs me, having to be that careful about what I do.”
“Yes, I’m out.” Giles sighed. He doubted he was as out as Smutty was. “You’re not going to want to hold hands over the table, are you?”
Smutty made a sound somewhere between a chuckle and a bark. “You should see your face! Nah, not my style, mate, but I might want to kiss you at some point. I just hate having to be conscious about how I’m behaving. Bath’s not the kind of place you’re likely to get your head kicked in for snogging a bloke in public, anyway.”
“Probably not,” Giles conceded.
“So that’s an okay to any possible public displays of affection, then?”
“Just how affectionate a display are we talking about? I think the staff at Bonghi Bo’s would draw the line at a full on grope.”
“Not if I do it under the table.” Smutty waggled his eyebrows, the very image of some kind of mischievous fire sprite. Giles knew every eye in the place would be on them anyway, what with the way Smutty looked, but screw it. He wasn’t going to be ashamed of being with him, even if his table manners were atrocious. That was hardly Smutty’s fault–he hadn’t exactly had a normal upbringing.
“What am I letting myself in for?” Giles asked with a sigh, but smiling right into Smutty’s laughing eyes.
“Cool. I’ll go grab my kit, then. I’ll only be a minute, if you want to wait here.”
Smutty’s “minute” turned out to be more like ten, but when he returned around the side of the house with a large rucksack thrown over one shoulder and a grin that outshone the sun, Giles’ frustration vanished. Christ, he was starting to lose it, wasn’t he?
It was getting harder and harder to imagine a life without Smutty in it.
Giles stood in a shady spot outside Bath Abbey, watching the man he’d spent the last week with turn in someone he barely recognised. Someone who spoke with an Australian accent and worked the crowd like a born raconteur, all the while quite literally playing with fire.
“But Kun Man Gur, the rainbow serpent, was so angry with the flying fox he blew out a stream of fire that burnt the land.” Smutty punctuated his story by taking a quick swig of from his flask, then holding one of the flaming torches to his lips.
Flames rolled out of Smutty’s mouth in a blast of heat and Giles recoiled, stepping on the foot of the woman behind him. “So sorry,” he mumbled, before turning back to the performance. Smutty was juggling the torches again, sending one leaping high above the others that whirled between his hands. And all the while he continued telling his strange little tale of Aussie talking animals to the audience that had gathered around the fragile barriers they’d constructed earlier. The crowd must have been about ten deep by now, and Giles calculated that if they all left Smutty as little as a pound, he’d have made at least a hundred from a mere twenty minutes of work.
Not that it was easy work. Giles watched the sweat rolling down Smutty’s chest, the flames licking at his fingers. His body was smeared with sooty marks and his voice sounded distinctly raw since the fire-breathing stunt. He wasn’t going to hurt himself, was he? Giles watched keenly for any sign of exhaustion or impending disaster, but all he saw was a man perfectly at ease with his movements, his body gliding almost effortlessly, muscles rippling in synch with the flickering of the flames.
The story ended with the creation of the desert, and the flying foxes temporarily chastened. With his last words Smutty fell to his knees arms outstretched, catching the remaining torches as they spun down towards him. He bowed his head for the burst of applause, then rose, grinning widely, as the tourists continued to cheer.
“Just put the torches out,” Giles muttered underneath his breath. Seeing this many people so close to the flames made him twitchy–especially when some of them were children, and the only thing holding them back was a lightweight barrier constructed of posts and rope that had all come out of Smutty’s backpack. He breathed a sigh of relief when Smutty extinguished the torches in the bucket. Coins were already starting to fly through the air towards the battered old top hat on the cobbles. Many were missing their target, but Giles noticed a couple of people bending over the barrier to place bank notes in there as well.
Smutty glowed with the exertion and attention, and Giles also flared into warmth as he watched him crouch down to talk with the children, setting them all giggling with something he said. Smutty’s hands were constantly on the move, Giles realised, like birds flapping around him, but perfectly controlled and graceful.
When Smutty rose again Giles managed to catch his eye and mouthed “coffee break?” hopefully. Smutty had said he’d need a good break after his first performance, and Giles was parched just from watching him. Giles dreaded to think what the state of Smutty’s mouth must be like after that little stunt. His overactive imagination conjured up a horrific vision of blistered gums and tongue, but the way Smutty smiled and shook his head at him didn’t suggest he was in any kind of pain.
Wait a minute–shook his head?
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, thank you for your generosity,” Smutty began, in a hoarse voice. “I’ve had a request for an encore, so I’d like to show you something from my ancestral homeland, New Zealand. The Maori people have a traditional weapon called poi, and while theirs aren’t usually on fire, I like to think a few flames improve just about anything.”
Giles groaned as Smutty pulled another contraption that looked like an instrument of torture out of his backpack. A tennis ball sized metal cage with the wick inside, strung onto a long chain that ended in a rubber coated grip. And a second one to match. Smutty drenched both the wicks with paraffin and touched a match to them as they lay on the cobbles. Nodding like he was satisfied with the way they blossomed with sooty flames, before settling down to a more controlled blaze. What the hell was he going to do with those? Giles had to fight the urge to stride through the barrier and throw Smutty over his shoulder then march him off to the coffee shop. The man needed to rest, damn it. It was dangerous, playing with fire.
But when Smutty began spinning the poi, Giles forgot to worry. This was completely different to the torches which spun leapt high into the air–this time the flames were attached to Smutty’s hands via the chains, but somehow that gave him even more opportunity to make them dance. Fire whirled around Smutty’s body in wheels and spirals. One moment he had his arms outstretched, his hands making tiny motions while the poi raced and darted in a mesmerising pattern each side of his body. A slight adjustment to his limbs, and the poi spun in front of Smutty, weaving in and out of each other’s orbit in a way that just didn’t seem possible. Giles had to tear his eyes away from their blinding display to concentrate on Smutty. He hardly seemed to be moving at all, but Giles could see the strain in his body and the intensity in his expression.
Smutty’s eyes gleamed with reflected fire, with a dark excitement, that stirred up something inside Giles. Something wild and painful. Something unlooked for.
As his heart squeezed tight, Giles’ stomach lurched.
He had the horrible feeling he’d just fallen in love.