Smutty packed the last couple of barrier poles into his backpack and rose to face Giles. The man hadn’t taken his eyes off Smutty since he started juggling, and it was both flattering and uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because Smutty had no idea how to interpret the piercing gaze.
“So? What do you think, now you’ve seen a proper performance?”
“I think you’re amazing.” Giles stepped forward and took Smutty’s hands. “Truly amazing.”
That look in Giles’ eyes: it did uncanny things to Smutty’s insides and he wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. Felt like the flying foxes he’d spoken of were now loose inside him, turning cartwheels and somersaults. He tried to laugh it off. “Thought you were going to shit a brick at one point, you looked so fucking worried, mate.”
Giles frowned. “What’s with the Australian accent?”
“Sorry. Takes a few minutes to shake off again. I dunno, maybe because I learnt to fire-dance over there, just feels natural to talk that way. The tourists love it too. It’s not really Aussie, though. More like a mish-mash of Aussie, Kiwi and a dash of Essex.”
“‘S’where I grew up, innit?” Smutty could call up the Estuary English in a moment, although it was impossible to say if that was his real accent, seeing as how he’d spent at least six months of every year of his life travelling the world.
“I thought you grew up in a commune.”
“Yeah, I did. A commune in Essex. What? It’s not all Footballer’s Wives over there, y’know. There were a few of us without the botox and fake tan.”
Giles stared for a long moment, until a smile slowly curved his lips. “I can’t believe I’m seeing an Essex boy.”
Seeing? Smutty had to wonder if Giles meant the same thing he might if he’d ever used that word. Not that he’d ever stayed around anywhere long enough to consider himself as “seeing” someone. Not unless you counted those strangely awkward few months as a teenager when he and Finn had both confessed their attraction to other boys, and made their first fumbling experiments at intimacy. It had destroyed their friendship. Smutty had often wondered if it was that that made Finn run into the arms of mediocrity–he could picture him now, married with two point four kids and an office job, sneaking off to visit a rentboy whenever the lie became too much to bear.
But maybe Giles did mean he was seeing Smutty, because he was still holding his hands tight and giving Smutty that look that made his internal organs do a trapeze act. Then he leant forward and pressed the briefest of kisses to Smutty’s lips.
It was too weird. Too much like what Smutty secretly craved for him to trust it as real. He was misinterpreting. Seeing what he wanted to see. People told him he was always doing that. He knew he had built-in rose-tinted contact lenses and he wasn’t about to make a fool of himself over a mirage.
“How’s about that cuppa you promised me, then? I’m dead thirsty.” It was the fire-breathing that had done it–dried his mouth out and made his palms sweat. Funny it had never done that before. Normally the aftertaste of paraffin had him salivating reflexively just to spit it all out. “Need to wash the taste out of my mouth.”
“Right. Yes. Of course.” Giles dropped his hands like they were hot coals and started off. “It’s this way,” he threw over his shoulder.
“Yeah, thanks, I gathered that,” Smutty muttered, slinging his rucksack over his back and trotting after Giles.
The cafe was one Smutty had never noticed before, tucked away down a side street of designer boutiques. It figured—these were probably the kinds of places Giles thought it was normal to shop at. Smutty had rifled through Giles’ underwear drawer that morning, needing to borrow a pair of boxers as all his were overdue a date with the washing machine, and he’d come to the conclusion that the cost of Giles underpants alone must come to more than Smutty’s entire wardrobe. Hell, if you threw in his collection of pricey cashmere socks, it would probably cover all Smutty’s worldly goods, including the boat.
Which reminded him, after today he’d have enough money to fix Freya and get moving again. He should probably be feeling excited about that.
“Hey, cheer up,” Giles said, turning to face Smutty as he reached the counter. “If you don’t like it we can go somewhere else, but they’ve got great carrot cake.”
“And what makes you think I’m a carrot cake muncher?” Smutty feigned indignation, hands on hips.
Giles gave an impish grin. “I don’t know. The hair? The hippy upbringing?”
Smutty relented. “Okay, I admit it, I love carrot cake, but only if it has raisins and plenty of cinnamon.”
Once his tray was loaded with carrot cake and a pot of sencha tea, Smutty gazed around properly. It might be a tad on the pricey side, but the place wasn’t posh like he’d feared. With the Indonesian carvings covering the walls, ethnic fabrics and Buddha statue in the small courtyard garden, it felt comfortable. Smutty could imagine sitting in that courtyard with his mum and catching up on her latest travels. Starlight would probably joke about the place being run by trustafarians—hippies with a trust fund to fall back on—but she’d appreciate the decor and atmosphere.
“Can we sit outside?” Smutty asked.
“If you want to. It’s getting a bit nippy, though.” Giles led the way through the French windows and held the door for Smutty.
“You landlubbers,” Smutty said as he walked past, shaking his head. “Lost all contact with nature, you have. You’ve gone soft.” If he weren’t holding his tray with both hands, he’d have emphasised the last word with a squeeze of Giles’ incipient love handles, but perhaps it was best he didn’t. He didn’t know him well enough to joke about things like that.
Giles raised his eyebrows. “I haven’t noticed you complaining about the hot and cold running water and comfortable bed.”
Smutty selected a table next to a small fountain and sat in the teak chair. “Nah, but I reckon we should spend a night on the boat soon. It won’t be that long till she’s fixed and I’m on my way. You don’t want to miss your chance to fuck me on there, do you?”
But instead of the salacious grin Smutty had expected at that suggestion, Giles looked like someone had just taken away his favourite toy. “You’ll be going? When?”
“I dunno how long it will take me to get the part ordered but I doubt anywhere will have it in stock, and I reckon I’ll need at least a day or two to get the engine fixed, so… I should be here another week maybe. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you in the lurch. You’ll get your garden all tidied before I go.”
“That’s not what I was thinking.”
“Oh, well, you’ll get plenty of chances to stick your dick into me too, so no need to panic.”
Giles’ glare could have cut through steel. “Do you have to be so crude about it?”
“Gods, chill out mate. I’m just being honest. Can’t see the point in dressing sex up with pretty little euphemisms.”
Giles stirred his coffee, looking down at it as if the answers to the riddle of life were written in the milk foam. “It’s not dressing it up, it’s giving what we do together some respect. Some meaning beyond the physical mechanics.”
Smutty pondered this. Was Giles trying to tell him something, or was it just his repressed upbringing winding him so uptight he couldn’t cope with a bit of earthy language? Maybe he’d never know. Giles wasn’t exactly forthcoming with personal details, although perhaps that was no wonder, seeing as how his ex had been a total shit to him.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Smutty sipped his tea and tried to regain his equilibrium listening to the fountain.
“So we’ve got another week together?” Giles asked. “You can promise me at least that long?”
Smutty nodded. “Yeah, I can promise if that makes you happy.”
Giles gave him a long, level stare. “I’m not happy, but I’ll just have to make the best of it, I suppose.”
They finished their tea in silence. As Smutty rose to leave, Giles laid a hand on his arm. “Tomorrow. Would you like to go out somewhere with me? We could spend the day somewhere. Wherever you like. There are some beautiful National Trust properties round here. Stourhead is stunning at this time of year.”
Giles wanted to take him round stately homes? That was just… weird. Touching, but Smutty didn’t want to read too much into it right now.
“I need to do some work on the garden, get it ready for the plants coming on Monday.”
“But you’d have time to come out for dinner with me, wouldn’t you? Please?”
Smutty laid a hand over Giles’ and squeezed. “Yeah, I’d like that. Just make sure it’s not so posh they take one look at me and slam the door in our faces, okay?”
“They’d have to deal with my lawyer if they did,” Giles growled. “No one gets to treat you like that. Not ever. You hear me?”
“Uh, yeah, okay. Not much I can do about it if they do, though, is there? Not unless you’re volunteering to be my personal bodyguard.”
Giles gave a sad smile. “I would if you’d let me.”
Smutty stared into Giles’ eyes, trying to work out what exactly was going on in that mysterious head of his. Then the French doors opened and a chattering family spilled out, the children tearing around the space whooping. The moment broken, Giles headed back inside. Smutty huffed and picked up the trays. Bloody posh people, just assuming those of Smutty’s class would clean up after them.
There was no chance it could ever work out between the two of them, was there?
Smutty walked down the path through the orchard, acutely aware of Giles following behind him. Every twig snapped underfoot and rustle of grasses teased his ears. Giles hadn’t spoken much since they left the cafe, and had disappeared upstairs to his studio for a couple of hours. After grilling some veggie burgers, Smutty had to get his attention by banging on the door announcing “grub’s up”. The meal had been strange–tense would be the wrong word, but Smutty could feel the weight of Giles’ gaze on him while he ate, yet whenever he made eye-contact, Giles found something fascinating to stare at on the tabletop. Giles didn’t even complain about the lack of meat in his food.
Still, Giles had agreed to accompany him down to the boat for a change. They hadn’t been there together since that first night, and Smutty wanted one more set of memories to carry away with him. He’d been too tense that first time–worried that Giles would use his physical advantage to force him into more than he was ready for. Now there was trust between them. More trust than he’d ever placed in another man.
As they left the shade of the apple trees Smutty schooled his face into a tight smile and tried to call up his habitual good cheer. Strange the way it seemed to have deserted him. He had what he wanted, surely? He had his freedom, he had enough money to repair Freya’s engine, and he had a few more days of great sex to look forward to before he headed off down the canal.
Giles’ hands landed on his shoulders, and Smutty jumped. He must have been standing there for some time, just staring into the twilight.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather spend the night on a comfortable bed?”
“My bed’s not that bad.”
“If you say so.” Giles paused, his thumbs kneading the muscles in Smutty’s neck. “You’re younger than I am. My old bones find it harder to cope with a mattress that thin.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have spent the night here before, remember?”
“No, I mean, how do you know you’re older than I am? I’ve never told you my age.”
Giles’ hands stilled. “You look younger, you act younger. You can’t be older than your mid twenties, surely? I’m thirty-two.”
The sound that escaped Smutty’s lips was more of a bark than a laugh, sharp and devoid of humour. “I’m thirty-five.”
“You’re joking.” Giles moved to stand in front of him. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“Nope, ‘fraid not. I’m just one of life’s eternal drifters. Never wanted a proper job. Never wanted to settle down.”
Giles’s eyes seemed to glow in the dusk, reflecting the washed out blue of the sky. Smutty tried to decipher the emotion pouring out of them; was that wonder? Giles’ fingertips brushed along Smutty’s cheekbones and round to his temples, the gentle contact making Smutty’s eyes water. He blinked hard, trying to clear his vision. Stupid fucked-up emotions. He was meant to be enjoying tonight, not getting tearful for no good reason.
“Your skin is so smooth. How can you be older than me? I’m already getting lines.” Giles’ forehead creased, emphasising his point. Strange how on him, they were sexy. Giles rocked the distinguished look, and Smutty had a sharp longing to see his hair sprinkled with grey.
“Clean living? Devil may care attitude? I don’t know. I expect I have my dad to thank for that. You don’t see many wrinkled Maoris around.”
Giles nodded slowly. “So you’re an older man.” A faint smile played over his lips.
“All right, no need to make a big deal of it. Age doesn’t matter, does it? I still feel like a big kid inside.”
“Maybe you’re ready to grow up and settle down now. You don’t want to spend your whole life drifting along, do you?”
“Why not? Do you have a better suggestion? I’ve got nothing but this boat.” Irritated, Smutty gestured towards Freya. “I’ve never held down a proper job. The best I can hope for is to get on benefits and get stuck in a council flat in some dodgy neighbourhood full of junkies. I don’t have a cushy inheritance to fall back on like some people I could mention.” As soon as the words spilled out of Smutty’s mouth he regretted them, but Giles didn’t flare into anger like he’d expected.
No, Giles kept staring, that look of wonder slowly changing into something wary, yet resolute.
Giles swallowed, and Smutty watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down. He should lick him there. He should grab him and kiss him and pull him onto the boat. He should change the mood to something he could deal with, before Giles went and said something he didn’t really mean.
Smutty wound an arm around Giles’ neck to pull him close, but Giles wouldn’t move.
Giles swallowed again, his jaw working hard.
“Stay,” Giles said. “I want you to stay. Here. With me.”