EIGHT a.m. sharp and Nathan was wide awake. He hurried to check his phone, but there was still nothing from Danny. After disappearing last night without a word, the selfish prick hadn’t even sent a message to say he was still alive.
Nathan tried to call him now, and it went straight to voice mail.
He’d probably forgotten to charge it, Nathan thought. Idiot. Unless he’d lost the phone, or had it stolen again…. What if he’d been mugged? What if…? It was useless worrying but Nathan couldn’t help it. Forcing himself to wait for a slightly more sociable hour, at barely 9 a.m., he called Danny’s long-suffering roommate, Janine.
“Oh hi, Nath,” Janine said when she picked up. “I’m just off to class.”
“Sorry, hun,” Nathan told her, wincing at himself for being so pathetic. “I was wondering if Danny was there? He kinda… disappeared. He’s not answering his phone either.”
“Oh really?” Janine’s voice lowered, giving the impression she wasn’t surprised. “Let me check his room. I need to tell him to clean the kitchen anyway. He’s such a pig….”
“Yeah,” Nathan muttered, allowing a small smile. Danny was messy, even by Nathan’s standards.
He listened, hearing Janine knock on a door and call Danny’s name. Then a rattling of a handle and silence.
A few moments later Janine was back on the line. “Nope, he’s not here. Doesn’t look like he came back last night. Although I can’t really tell, his room’s such a mess. But I doubt he’d get up this early and go out, even for uni!”
“Oh right.” Nathan’s hopes fell. “Okay, thanks, hun. If you see him would you….”
“Um, never mind. Have a good day.”
“You too, Nath. Bye!”
Yeah, Nathan thought, making a face at his phone as he ended the call. A “good day” wasn’t really on the cards by the looks of it. Today, Thursday, was his day off, and it looked as though he was going to be spending it on his own. Not how he’d planned it at all. The idea was to spend it with Danny. Nathan had barely seen his so-called boyfriend in a little over a week. It seemed like forever! Danny was a typical party-hard student, a night owl, while Nathan worked two jobs and was stuck behind a bar most evenings. Trying to get any time alone together was nearly impossible, especially when Danny spent most of his days sleeping off hangovers.
Nathan knew Danny was prone to skipping uni, so as a last-ditch attempt to spend time with him, Nathan had suggested Danny come by Tequila Mocking Bar at the end of his shift last night. He'd thought they could go back to his place; Danny would spend the night, and they’d have the whole of the next day together too. Nathan lived on his own in a little bedsit just off St. James Street, right in the heart of Kemp Town. It was so central, he loved it. He just wanted someone to share it with occasionally. He’d even tidied the place for Danny’s arrival and splashed out on choice food from Marks & Spencer’s. Except after hanging around at Tequila’s last night for less than half an hour, Danny had slipped away again.
Nathan stood in his kitchenette, gazing idly at the box of expensive butter pastries he had bought, among other things. He supposed he had two choices: he could decide that actions spoke louder than words and end this pathetic excuse for a relationship now to save himself further embarrassment… or he could eat that whole pack of pastries by himself and mull it over. Nathan started out with good intentions, but unfortunately the pastries won.
It wasn’t fair, he thought, stuffing an apple Danish in his mouth as he sulked in front of the TV. Why did Danny keep leading him on? If only he’d listened to his friends. None of them seemed to like Danny, and they’d all agreed he shouldn’t have bothered with the brash teenager. They’d all said go out with that hunky gym trainer who’d shown an interest. Except Nathan had chosen Danny; the cute and lively nineteen-year-old had been hard to resist.
Now three months on, with Danny’s erratic and often disrespectful behavior only getting worse, it felt like they were going backwards.
Nathan felt like a fool. Being with Danny made him feel ridiculous, like he was old and boring for daring to suggest they ever spend a night in. Nathan wasn’t much older than Danny, just twenty-two. However, since leaving college three years ago, he'd had the joy of discovering when you actually had to work for your money with long hours standing on your feet and dealing with the general public, going out partying after a night’s work seemed less appealing. Especially midweek. Nathan grimaced at the thought.
There was nothing for it. Retail therapy was called for today. Maybe a stroll along the beach afterwards. There had to be some cute guys around somewhere! But first he had to get ready. Nathan shut off the stupid daytime TV program he’d been staring at, turned on his trusty old stereo, and cranked up the volume. If the Cramps couldn’t get him in a good mood, nothing would.
One benefit of living on your own was you could play your music when you wanted and how loud you wanted. He stripped out of his T-shirt and boxers, throwing them to the floor. There was no one to nag about the mess either. But the best bit about living on your own was strutting around naked to your favorite music.
Nathan stepped into the bathroom, twisted the shower dial behind the curtain, and waited for the water to heat up. He caught his reflection in the mirror, which reminded him he still had makeup to take off. His artfully applied eyeliner that was supposed to be barely smudged was well on its way to looking more like Alice Cooper after a long, hard night. Nathan snatched a facial wipe from the overcrowded shelf of beauty products and started smearing away the black kohl and silver glitter, swaying with the music
“I say buzz, buzz, buzz…,” he sang along to Human Fly, tapping his finger to the three nodding-head figures on his shelf: a vampire, a zombie, and a werewolf.
“Dance, my little minions!” he told them as they nodded back at him. He considered one drawback of living by yourself was that you sometimes talked to inanimate objects.
In the shower, Nathan’s mind wandered. He used his black, bat-shaped sponge with the bobbly eyes to work up a lather with fresh peppermint shower gel and idly soaped himself, thinking things through. He knew that if he were being honest with himself, there was no point in chasing after Danny anymore. That realization stung, badly. It was hardly like Nathan wanted to be joined at the hip; God, he so rarely had a day off anyway! But it would be nice to share that time with someone else. He'd thought that person could be Danny, but obviously he was wrong.
When he heard the message alert on his phone, the infamous voice clip of the New York Dolls singer David Johansen proclaiming “When I say I’m in love you’d best believe I’m in love, L-U-V!”
Nathan practically launched himself out of the shower as he ran, dripping wet, into the next room.
Lucky the place was carpeted, or slipping and breaking his neck would have been a strong possibility. He managed to reach his phone safely, grasping it in soapy hands to see….
A friendly message from his sister.
How disappointing. Nathan trudged back to the shower. Who was he kidding anyway? Whatever he had with Danny, it was well and truly over. Nathan shampooed his hair roughly, taking out his aggression by removing the pomade from last night. Maybe it was time to stop dyeing his hair. Wasn’t there research to suggest that it damaged brain cells?
He’d been dyeing and cutting his own hair for years, since he was in school. His naturally brown locks had been every color of the rainbow by now. Lately he had settled on black, getting into pomade and quiffs like a ’50s greaser. Though today, as Nathan sat on his bed feeling fed up, he didn’t use any product and just combed his hair back. It kept falling into his eyes, but he wasn’t in the mood to fuss around with it.
He toweled off, not even glancing at his vast array of body lotions or cologne. A quick spray of deodorant was all he could be bothered with. He pulled on his favorite black baggy cutoffs that showed off the tattoos on his calves, his acid green Converse shoes, and a T-shirt with a drooling cartoon zombie on the front emblazoned with the words, “Must Eat Brains.”
Usually Nathan would throw on a couple of necklaces and as many weird and bizarre bracelets as he could find scattered about his bedroom, but he wasn’t in the mood. He stuffed his keys and wallet in his pockets, hooking the wallet chain onto his belt loop. He paused to grab a studded belt, mainly to keep the cutoffs from sliding off his slim hips. He knew he looked like a skaterboy gone wrong, but that was no excuse for his trousers to fall down.
A pair of sunglasses with multicolored rainbow frames were the final touch, and he was ready to face the world. Not that it really mattered, he thought, leaving his bedsit behind and shuffling out into the street on his own.
It wasn’t even 11 a.m. yet. Kemp Town was, very much like Nathan, always slow to wake up in the mornings. Most of the daytime establishments were only just unlocking their doors, flicking signs round to say “open” while the cafés and delis stuck their sandwich boards out on the pavement.
Nathan turned towards the town center and walked downhill. It was a warm day again, which was surprising for May. He’d thrown on an old army surplus shirt in lieu of a jacket, thinking he’d tough out the expected breeze, but it was too warm even for that. He took off the army shirt and looped it through his belt to hang at his hip. The sleeves of his zombie tee were already nonexistent; Nathan lopped the sleeves off almost everything he owned. He usually ran a high body temperature anyway, and working behind a bar was always hot.
Although he was the first to admit he also liked to show off the tattoos on his arms. He had designed them himself, and even the tattoo artist had been impressed with his drawings. Lots of colorful monsters and classic horror icons all squeezed together in an orgy of ink. The tattoos went hand in hand with his music tastes.
Usually, when he had to walk anywhere, Nathan would plug in his earphones and blast himself with his extensive catalogue of songs. However today, as he was up early and the town was so quiet, he didn’t feel the need. It was peaceful; the distant hum of town only faintly heard all the way up the hill. Kemp Town was like a little continental village in the summer. A world away from Brighton’s noisy center and nicknamed Camp Town for its abundance of gay bars, lesbian bars, and everything-in-between bars, not to mention the boutiques.
“Continental” was perhaps a tame word for Kemp Town. Nathan smiled as he walked past his favorite: a pet shop with a difference. A cursory glance in the window told you it was a pet store, but a longer glance saw matching dog collars and outfits for the owners as well.
Maybe he should get a dog, Nathan thought. He had instant fantasies about leisurely strolls in the park and meeting handsome, eligible men out walking their dogs. He could get a black fluffy poodle, like Elvira! If he really thought about it though, it wouldn’t be fair. He worked unsociable hours with no time for dog walking.
Perhaps a goldfish…?
He wouldn’t need a damn pet if his so-called boyfriend was ever around. Nathan scowled at the thought of Danny. This was it; this was definitely it. He was going to dump Danny if he ever saw him again… and move on.
Nathan took a left down a side street, toward the sea front. He just wanted to check one place Danny might have gone. Not that he was a stalker or anything….
Ignoring the scenic view of the seafront and Brighton Palace Pier, Nathan walked along the main road, passing row upon row of guest houses and clubs. He had taken a detour to Rainbow’s, the second bar he worked in. Rainbow’s overlooked the sea, but it was also on the main route into and out of town. The major pitfall of that was any mess left behind by Brighton’s nighttime revelers. As Nathan approached the bar, he could see one of his colleagues, Stuart, currently attempting to mop the latest mess from the front steps.
“Who left their calling card?” Nathan asked.
“All right, Nath,” Stuart greeted. “Oh, who knows, it could have been anyone walking up the road after closing. Only just spotted it now.”
“Lucky you,” Nathan said. “You weren’t working last night, were you?”
“Nah.” Stuart gave up on the cleaning and leaned on his mop. “Been on days. Why?”
“Oh. Just looking for Danny. I was going to ask if you’d seen him?”
“Ain’t seen him for a while, babe,” Stuart said. “Which is fine by me!”
“Yeah, he’s a charmer,” Nathan agreed. “He ditched me again last night.”
Stuart rolled his eyes. “Then tell him to get lost. Honestly, Nath, you could have your pick if you weren’t so fussy.”
“Excuse me, weren’t you the one saying only the other day that there was zero choice around at the moment? I believe your words were ‘There’s no one I’d want to do in here without at least two paper bags. One for me and—’”
“One for them,” Stuart finished with a smile. “Yes, I know. Well, what can I say? There may be a dry spell at the moment for fresh talent, but I’m not as fussy as you. When the going gets tough, the tough lower their standards.”
Nathan laughed. “Oh really? And who said you were tough?”
It was a tease. Stuart was well over six foot, towering over Nathan, with the gym-toned body to go with his height. He still bristled at the remark. “Look who’s talking! You can barely open a beer bottle on your own.”
“Slight exaggeration there, Stu.”
Stuart shrugged. “Anyway, I’m gonna go get a scraper or something. Unless you want to do something useful and clean this vom for me?”
“Pass!” Nathan made a face. “I’m not even working today. I just…well.”
“You’re just being pathetic looking for a nonexistent boyfriend.”
“Kick a guy when he’s down, why don’t you?”
“Sorry, Nath,” Stuart grabbed his mop. “He’s an idiot. Get rid. You wanna borrow this sick-encrusted mop to slap his face with?”
Nathan smiled again. “Sounds like a plan, Batman.”
“All right, Robin,” Stuart said. “Come by later if you want, when we’re open and clean.”
Nathan left the steps of Rainbow’s, retracing his path down the same alley to get back to St. James Street. He liked Stuart—they were good friends—but after those blunt words, he was left feeling even more deflated than before.
What was he thinking? He really was being pathetic, wandering around asking if anyone had seen his boyfriend. How cringeworthy! All right, so things were definitely over. It certainly looked that way… but it didn’t stop him wanting to know where Danny was.
However, he could probably guess. Going by past experiences, it was more than likely that Danny had ended up in bed with a random stranger somewhere, drunk as a skunk or high as a kite.
Nathan ambled across St. James Street slowly, as there was virtually no traffic, and down to George Street. He was still sulking, and he knew a chocolate crepe from Bon Bon’s Café would go down a treat. Never mind that he’d already started the day with all those pastries….
He stood in the doorway of Bon Bon’s as he waited for his crepe to be made, gazing out across the street. He wasn’t used to seeing Kemp Town so quiet. On a normal day off, he would have lain in bed until at least noon, maybe watched a film while wrapped up in his duvet. But the thought of spending yet another day off by himself was a little depressing.
Nathan texted with one hand on his phone at lightning speed, checking if any of his friends were around today. It was doubtful; whenever he had time off, he could guarantee everyone else would be on opposite shifts. Pretty much all his friends, gay and straight alike, also worked in bars or pubs. Including Gary, the very-hot-yet-sadly-straight strapping Welsh man. He smiled as he thought of Gary. Yeah, it was a real shame he was straight. Still, he was the only eye candy Nathan knew that was nearby and likely to be up this early.
When his crepe was ready, he wandered out of the café, wolfing it down. He paused at the end of the street. On the corner—right next to Bon Bon’s—was a pub called The Jury’s Verdict, so named because there was a courthouse just across the road. It was a dark and dingy little old man’s pub. Nothing that would normally attract Nathan, but this was where Gary currently worked. And it was almost opening time.
Nathan peered in one of the large windows of the pub. Spotting Gary drawing up the blinds, he held up the remains of his crepe and extended his tongue, waggling it around in a tease while trying not to grin. What stopped him was the look on Gary’s face; he stared back wide-eyed, like he was panicked. Nathan noticed even through the glass that his eyes were bloodshot. Nathan frowned, pointing with his free hand towards the front door. Gary dashed off to open it, as Nathan hurried around the corner to the little stone steps.
Gary swung open the pub door looking very much the worse for wear. Either he’d been crying, which was unlikely for Gary, or he was coming down with something.
“What’s up with you, Gaz?”
Gary was still staring back at him. “I haven’t slept!”
Nathan raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that usually a good thing?”
“No!” Gary said, retreating back into the pub.
Concerned, Nathan followed, closing the door behind him. Gary had been in the process of getting the pub ready for opening, but Nathan could see half-finished jobs everywhere he looked.
“Come on, then; let’s hear it,” he told Gary as he hopped onto a bar stool to finish off his crepe.
“I shagged this girl,” Gary began, while Nathan grinned. “But afterwards, she would not shut up!”
Nathan had to spit out his mouthful of crepe so he could laugh.
“I’m serious!” Gary complained. “I kept saying, 'I’ve got to go to work in the morning,' but she kept talking! I’ve never known anything like it.”
“And why,” Nathan asked, still snickering, “did you not just leave? I assume you went to her place?”
“I didn’t want to be rude!” Gary wrung his hands through his hair. “And I do want to shag her again….”
“You’re kidding, right? Who was it?”
“Susie. Blonde hair.” Gary cupped his hands in front of his own broad chest as he said, “She’s got massive knockers. You know her?”
“Er, no. Can’t say I pay much attention to boobs, mate. Apart from you. Hah!”
Gary groaned. “I’m so tired! I maybe got an hour or two tops, and then I had to come here.”
Nathan looked around at the dark, empty pub. “Well, no offense, but why are you bothering? It’s hardly like anyone’s gonna break your door down. Just nip up to bed and catch a few extra.”
Everyone knew that Gary lived upstairs on his own. The pub was so quiet, along with most of the pub trade recently, that the area manager insisted Gary was the only live-in staff.
“I can’t,” Gary sighed. “My boss keeps doing spot checks, driving past on his way round town. If I’m not open, he’ll go mental.”
The way Gary said “mental” in his Welsh accent was so cute.
Nathan sighed to himself before offering, “Well, seeing as I’ve got nothing else to do for a couple of hours, why don’t I open up and you catch some sleep?”
Gary’s desperate eyes homed in on him, not daring to believe it was a real offer. Nathan tried not to laugh at the state of the man.
“Really?” Gary whispered.
“Yes, really,” Nathan said. “I was only gonna go into town on my own. It can wait a bit. You owe me, though!”
“Oh, thank you!” Gary was elated. “I don’t know what to say! Are you sure?”
“Yes, sure. Now get upstairs.”
“Do you think you can manage—”
Nathan got up and pushed Gary through the staff door at the end of the bar. “God, I know my way around a bar. I’m sure I’ll cope. Besides, no one’s gonna come in this early, are they? You only get, like, two customers in the evening at the best of times!”
“True.” Gary nodded, finally relenting and dragging himself upstairs. “Sometimes you get the people in suits from court over the road….”
“Yeah, no worries!” Nathan called up.
“Oh, and my friend might drop in!” Gary was saying, though Nathan could barely hear him.
“No worries,” Nathan repeated, shutting the staff door and getting to work. He was alone in the pub on a bright sunny day. Damn his good intentions.
Still, Gary was a friend. He’d been one of the first friends Nathan made when he moved to Brighton, working together behind a bar. Nathan liked Gary a lot, not only because he was a good guy, but also because when he got drunk he would take off his shirt and flex his biceps. If Gary was very drunk he would let you feel them too. Who didn’t want a friend like that?
Nathan sighed. A friend was a friend. But first things first. He unwound a wire from his pocket and hooked up his music player to the pub’s stereo. If he was gonna work here for free today, he’d be listening to his own music. He wasn’t worried about waking Gary, it was a tall building, and Gary’s bedroom wasn’t the floor directly above the pub, but the one above that. Luckily the pub’s stereo system was powerful enough to sound good even at a low volume. Nathan shuffled his music selection onto random and began to ready the pub.
He’d never worked here, but he’d worked in a lot of pubs. This set up was relatively simple. The Jury’s Verdict wasn’t much bigger than his bedsit, to be honest. It smelled a bit musty, as old pubs did. Nathan opened the windows and then the door, propping it open with the traditional sandwich board. It was then he noticed the chalk drawing in pink of a crudely drawn cock with the words, “Get hot man love here all night! Ask for Gaz!”
Smiling, Nathan got a cloth and wiped it off. No doubt one of Gary’s drunk mates had scrawled that. Grabbing up the chalk, Nathan paused as he thought about what to write. He didn’t want to get Gary in trouble, so it had to be safe. He settled for, “Open, ready, and willing! Food served.”
Then he dusted his hands and went back inside to finish setting up.
“Food served” was an exaggeration. Gary had done a deal with the Indian takeaway next door; he had a few copies of their menu, and they delivered whatever was ordered straight into the pub. The smells from there made Nathan hungry. Exotic spices, naan bread baking with cheese….
If he thought about it too much, his stomach would lead him there.
Seeing as he’d already had a whole box of pastries and a crepe all before 11 a.m., he thought he should probably skip lunch. Nathan had always been skinny, but the sad reality of being over twenty-one meant that he couldn’t eat what he wanted all the time, especially when all he wanted was naughty food.
AFTER having been open an hour with only one customer, a little old man in the corner, Nathan was bored. He was also dying to eat; the delicious scents from the Indian next door were just too tempting. But he had a plan, and he hoped the results would be doubly bountiful: he was going to clean the place from top to bottom. Behind the bar was a pigsty. Gary had obviously been getting slack. So not only would Gary be pleased enough that he’d allow Nathan to touch his biceps, but all that work would have burned off enough calories to cancel out a chicken balti and a peshwari naan.
Nathan decided to do it regardless. There was a funky smell coming from one of the pumps on the bar, and it was interfering with the pleasant food smells from next door. He cleaned hard, working up a sweat. It was hot behind this bar, same as any other, from the myriad fridges and cooling devices pumping out warm air all day. It was an old bar too, stuffy and cramped.
Still, he did himself proud. After the amount of cleaning and sorting he'd done, Gary would owe him a striptease! Nathan wiped his brow, then ran next door to order his Indian lunch. He knew it was naughty to leave the pub unattended, but the till was locked, and the only customer he’d had was still asleep in the corner. Nathan was a maximum of two minutes, paying and rushing back the three steps into the pub, rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of food. He checked his phone again only to see that none of his friends were awake yet or they were all ignoring his plea for company.
Oh well. Midday was early if you did bar work.
However, to the rest of the world, it was lunchtime. With a sinking feeling Nathan watched a gaggle of people emerge from the courthouse across the main road, looking both ways for a chance to cross.
Don’t you dare come in here.
A few of them hung around the court, lighting up cigarettes. Most of them continued down the hill to walk into town. Annoyingly, a handful of them came into the pub at the same time Nathan’s lunch arrived. Plastering on a smile while swearing inside, Nathan served the customers, hoping for quick and easy drinks. They were all dressed up in smart suits, so were likely over there for court appearances.
Nathan wondered about the possibility of these people having interesting cases, but it was doubtful. He knew it wasn’t a crown court, so they were probably just parking tickets or something equally boring.
He whipped up their drinks in record time, used to working behind a busy, modern bar. Also, he wanted his lunch, dammit.
A middle-aged couple were the last to be served, and they ordered Bloody Marys. Nathan cursed silently and frowned as he searched through the stocks of liquor and mixers. He couldn’t find where the Tabasco sauce was hiding.
He turned back to the bar ready to tell the couple “Sorry, pick something else” when in walked the hottest, most gorgeous man he’d ever seen. Tall, dark, and handsome didn’t even begin to describe him. Nathan loved tall men, but tall and broad? What a treat! This one was in a suit, as were most of the other lunchtime customers, which made it hard to judge exactly how broad he might be under that suit jacket. Nathan tucked that little thought away for now, eager eyes taking in the rest of the man.
The eyes that met his were such a deep brown they looked almost black. Nathan loved them instantly and even felt a little jealous. While the man’s skin was light, his hair was dark, and not like Nathan’s synthetic blue-black; it was a natural color. Dark hair was another of Nathan’s favorites. This guy’s hair was short but not that short, in slightly messy waves that made Nathan’s hands tense with the urge to run his fingers through it.
So far all the major boxes had been ticked. Tall, yes. Dark, yes. And handsome?
He was simply gorgeous. A perfect face, those dark eyes, and a strong jawline dusted with dark stubble. Not enough for a beard, which was fine, as Nathan wasn’t keen on beards anyway… but maybe just enough to tickle. He definitely wouldn’t mind that. Especially that bit of stubble above those full lips….
Nathan became acutely aware that he was staring. He blinked, turning back to the older couple and tried to form words. “Um, sorry, er… there’s no Tabasco sauce….”
“Try over there,” another old man who was propping up the bar barked at him, pointing towards the far end of the shelves. Nathan looked and miraculously found the Tabasco sauce.
“Come here often, do you?” He teased the old man with a smile but received only a mumble in reply. Nathan worked fast mixing the Bloody Marys in case the gorgeous younger man got bored and left.
When he deposited the drinks on the bar he saw Mr. Handsome was still there, waiting patiently for his turn. What amazing eyes….
Nathan held out his hand absently to the older lady who was brandishing her purse, his eyes never leaving the younger man. He was perhaps older than Nathan was, but it couldn’t have been by much. It was hard to tell when someone was dressed in a suit. Maybe mid to late twenties? Maybe—
“But you didn’t say how much the drinks are?” the older lady reminded him, demanding his attention.
Nathan had to restrain himself from throttling her. Instead he smiled politely and turned away to the till. He couldn’t even make a face at her with his back turned since most bars, including this one, had mirrors along the shelves. Her beady little eyes were tracking his every move. He rang up the Bloody Marys.
“Eight pounds sixty, please,” he told her, holding his hand out again.
“How much?” the older lady griped. “That’s outrageous!”
“I know, hun,” Nathan tried to say as nicely as he could. “But I can’t do much about that, I’m afraid.”
“Well, it’s very steep,” she muttered, but still handed over a tenner.
Nathan snatched the note before she changed her mind, rang it through, and gave the change back to her, ready to turn away and—
“Oh, have you got any cheese and onion crisps?” asked the older man who was with her.
Nathan glared but smiled at the same time. “Let me have a look,” he said between gritted teeth and disappeared under the bar. Taking a deep breath, he fished out the crisps and popped up again, placing the packet on the bar.
“Cheese and onion,” he declared. “Do you want me to check how much they are first?”
“Oh, yes please.”
Nathan had been joking, but now he’d offered…. Well, if the old man didn’t buy them, he’d just have to explain to Gary about the error on his till later.
“Seventy pence,” Nathan said, his eyes skimming over the couple to the gorgeous man next to them, praying he wouldn’t leave. There was a faint smile on the guy’s lips.
Nathan smiled back, pleased that he didn’t seem to be in a hurry or on the verge of leaving.
“Oh, seventy pence?” the older man said. “That’s ever such a lot for a packet of crisps….”
Waiting two beats to remain calm, Nathan said, “Pretty sure I can’t help that either, mate. Sorry.”
“Oh well… oh all right, then.”
“Twisted your arm,” Nathan muttered, still smiling tightly.
When the couple finally had everything they wanted, they shuffled off, leaving Nathan to drink in the visual feast of the man now in front of him. He was very good looking. His dark eyes simply danced as he smiled back.
“You’re a lot more patient than Gaz, you are,” the man said in a voice that was both resonant and soft at the same time. There was the barest hint of a Welsh accent. “Is he about?”
“Um….” Nathan tried to think of the best response. If he said Gary was busy sleeping, this gorgeous creature might leave.
“Um, he’s just upstairs,” Nathan said, which was the truth after all. “What can I get for you?”
It was on the tip of his tongue to offer something more suggestive, but he decided against the flirty banter for now. If this man was asking for Gary then it was likely he was straight as a ruler, and there was no point scaring away the only decent bit of scenery Nathan was likely to get today.
“All right….” Mr. Handsome frowned slightly in thought as he scanned the pumps at the bar. “Let’s have a John Smith’s.”
“Sure,” Nathan answered, dying to add on a provocative line about pumps but thought better of it.
He didn’t miss the opportunity, however, to drape himself against Mr. Handsome’s would-be pint glass and work that pump seductively. Pulling pints like this had always seemed amusingly suggestive to Nathan. He just hoped Mr. Handsome was appreciating his hard work; that pint barely had a bubble of foam on it.
The smile he got when Mr. Handsome received his pint was worth the effort.
“Very nice,” he commented.
Nathan was sure he was only referring to his drink, but he smiled back all the same. He almost said “Have it on the house,” then remembered he wasn’t behind his own bar. Nathan rang it through the till and held his hand out for the money. He felt a spark of electricity when Mr. Handsome’s fingers touched his own.
Wow, calm down, Nathan told himself, throwing the money in and slamming the till shut. He took a deep breath before turning back and busying himself at the bar, finding small jobs to do that would keep him close by. He was elated to see that Mr. Handsome had sat down on a bar stool almost directly opposite. He seemed relaxed and friendly, not to mention gorgeous….
“So I haven’t seen you working here before?”
Nathan was pleased that he'd kept the conversation open. Although the man might just feel sorry for him on his own. After all, the only other customer sitting at the bar was the grizzly old man at the far end. The other meager customers of the pub were sitting at the tables, muttering about how loud the music was today.
“Yeah, I’m not really working,” Nathan said. “I mean I am, but I’m just doing Gaz a favor. I work in another bar.”
“Oh right.” Mr. Handsome frowned. “I thought you said Gaz was upstairs?”
“Yeah, he is…. He just had to do something,” Nathan thought fast. “He’ll be down soon.”
“Ah, right.” Mr. Handsome nodded. “I’m Auryn, by the way.”
“Auryn,” he said again. “Like aw-rin, right? It’s Welsh.”
“Yeah, I guessed that. I can hear your accent. Just a bit, I mean,” Nathan babbled. “It’s nice. Not as strong as Gaz’s…. Not that his isn’t nice. Oh, you know what I mean.”
Nathan tried to read his look, caught in those dark eyes. Auryn seemed perfectly calm, and the faint smile seemed genuine. Nathan decided the best he could do was to keep talking.
“So are you from Denbigh as well?”
“Ah yes,” Auryn smiled. “Good old Denbigh. I went to school with Gaz and his brother, you know.”
“Really? Any stories?”
Nathan decided that he really liked looking at the man in front of him. When he caught himself staring at Auryn for slightly too long he tried to snap himself out of it. “Um, so any you’d care to dish? Dirt on Gaz is always good.”
Auryn waved his hand as he took a sip of his pint. Placing the glass back on the bar he said, “Oh, I don’t want to talk about Gaz! I’d much rather talk about your amazing T-shirt.”
Nathan glanced down to remind himself what he was wearing. Oh right, the Must Eat Brains one.
“This?” he grinned like a fool. “That’s just me in the morning.”
“Zombie fan?” Auryn asked.
“Yeah, big time.”
“I liked that Walking Dead. Did you watch that?”
Nathan blinked in surprise. “You mean, The Walking Dead? Are you kidding? I love it!”
“Yes, I thought they did a pretty good job. Lived up to the comics, and you don’t get that often.”
“You read comics?” Nathan asked in disbelief.
“Now and again. I’m a bit of a nerd, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sure I could outnerd you!” Nathan was confident for once he was right.
“Oh really? Well, that depends in what area. Are we talking TV, films, comics, or computer games?”
Nathan was surprised. He’d lost already. “You’ve outnerded me! I don’t do computer games.”
“That’s a pity.” Auryn said.
Nathan’s heart skipped a beat. “I, um,” he stammered, looking away and fumbling with a glass, pretending to clean it. “I’m not anti-gaming or anything. I just… haven’t before.”
“So, you are game?”
“For most things, yes.”
Nathan felt heat rising in his cheeks as soon as he’d spoken. Slipping into flirty banter happened all too easily, and usually it didn’t faze him. Today, however, was a different story.
“That’s good to know.” Auryn took another sip of his drink, eyes still on Nathan.
Staring back at him, Nathan’s mind stumbled over what to say. He wanted to say something witty or clever.
There were flirting, right? Or was this all in his head? It was so awkward trying to chat to guys outside of gay clubs. That, and Nathan’s uncanny ability to always fall for the straight ones anyway….
Auryn placed his pint on the bar and eagerly suggested, “Korean horror films!”
“Er, what about them?”
“You said you’re game for most things? So, what about Korean horror films?”
“Well, yeah!” Nathan replied. “Have you seen Dark Water?”
“Yes! We had a water tank like that back home. I tell you I couldn’t go near it again after watching that.”
Nathan laughed. “I’m not surprised! They’re the kind of films you think are fine to watch, but the creeps catch up to you when you least suspect.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“Experience hiding behind the sofa? Er, yes! I love it!”
“Some of the computer games I play are like that,” Auryn said. “I have to peek around the sofa with my controller to keep playing!”
“Really?” Nathan thought that sounded silly and automatically made a face. When he remembered he was trying to impress the guy, he instantly wiped the skeptical look away. “I mean, surely they aren’t as good as films?”
“It’s like being inside a film!” Auryn looked excited now. “We’re going to play on Saturday with Gaz—why don’t you come?”
Nathan almost dropped the glass he was pretending to clean, mind reeling at the invitation. He tried in vain to keep his hopes from rising at the thought of someone actually inviting him out.
Gaz, he told himself. He’s friends with Gaz and has blokey, video-game nights with other straight guys. Nathan smiled wryly. It would be like his teenage years all over again, crammed into a stale-smelling room with a bunch of boys, watching them absorbed with their video games for hours and desperately wishing someone would pay attention to him. He’d told himself ages ago to stop pining his time away with straight men.
Although the thought of sitting close to Auryn and watching him all night was almost enough to make him waver.
“As tempting as that sounds,” Nathan said as he carefully stacked glasses, “I’m working Saturday.”
“Oh.” Auryn sounded disappointed. “Not here, no?”
“No, I’ll be at my actual job. I think Gaz has a girl in for Saturdays.”
Auryn nodded absently. “Yes, I’ve seen a girl here sometimes.”
“Yeah.” Nathan moved away from Auryn and the bar, walking out onto the pub floor. The fussy, older couple had shambled off, and Nathan went to retrieve their glasses and empty crisp packet.
He also wanted the few moments away from Auryn to think.
There was one thing on his mind…. Well, apart from how gorgeous Auryn was, there was one other thing on his mind. Namely, whether the man was straight. Or bi, Nathan thought, sneaking a glance over his shoulder at him. Bi he could work with.
Auryn was still at the bar, seemingly deep in thought as Nathan brought the glasses back. Stalling for time, Nathan lined the dirties up in the glass washer, making himself busy.
There was a pretty good gambit for opening conversation up toward sexuality, and he intended to find the right moment to slip it in. He’d done it before, and this time would be relatively simple, seeing as Auryn was originally from Wales. The trick was to casually ask questions about why the other person had moved to Brighton and enquire about how they coped with the uninspired jokes of “Have you turned gay yet?” that were often encountered. Usually, that would work a treat. Depending how they reacted, Nathan could tell if they were poker straight, relaxed straight, possibly ambiguous, or gay.
An ambiguous answer might need further probing. That’s when he could mention where he worked; the name Rainbow’s kinda spoke for itself even if you hadn’t been inside the infamous gay bar.
Plan set in mind, Nathan was psyching himself up to ask the question. Auryn beat him to it, snapping out of his concentration with an excited look and said, “Did you hear apparently they’re making Crossed into a film.”
“What?” Nathan was drawn in immediately. “No way! Where’d you hear that?”
“Yeah, they’re talking about it online. I hope they don’t muck it up, I loved that comic.”
“It’s ace,” Nathan agreed, as they quickly descended into a discussion on the ins and outs of zombie comics and everything in between.
As the time ticked by, they moved onto films, the conversation flowing so steadily that Nathan kept missing his opportunity to get onto the topic of Auryn living in Brighton. I’ll ask in a minute, he kept thinking, easily distracted by Auryn’s beautiful smile and the way his eyes lit up when he was describing a scene in a film, comparing it to one of his computer games.
The rest of the customers in the pub started to file away, leaving their empty glasses. A couple of them said thank you as they exited, but Nathan barely noticed. He did notice however, that Auryn didn’t ask where Gary was again. In fact, he didn’t mention him at all. They were too busy talking about films now, trying to outdo each other with random factoids and trivia.
“Here’s a question,” Auryn asked in all seriousness. “Which were more scary, the deranged zombie officers from the dream sequence in An American Werewolf in London or the evil Nazi zombies in Dead Snow?”
“Ooh, tough one.” Nathan frowned in thought. “I’d have to say the dream sequence zombies, 'cause they just came outta nowhere.”
“Good point. But a stampede of zombies are a lot more fun to kill.”
Nathan laughed. “Yeah, in your computer games! I’m talking about reality!”
“Well, yes, but if you’ve ever seen Gaz on a drunken rampage, in reality as you call it, you do get a bit of practice wrestling zombies.”
“Hah! I wouldn’t even dream of trying to stop Gaz in full charge. Back at The Hob when we used to work there, we’d send him in to break up the bar fights.”
“That’s why we call him Gazilla. Have you known him long?”
“Yeah, kinda.” Nathan leaned into the bar without thinking, bringing himself closer to Auryn. “We worked together, and I liked the band he used to play in.”
Auryn nodded. “Yeah, Gaz has been in a lot of bands. You like all that punk rock then? I suppose you’re mates with Tazz and the others?”
Nathan smiled, but it was a nervous one. Auryn was describing one of Gary’s friends, a very colorful and loud staple on the punk scene in Brighton. But like Gary, also very straight.
This seemed like as good a time as any, Nathan thought.
“Um, a bit, yes,” he ventured. “You could say I’m with a different crowd.”
“Oh right?” Auryn looked at him, glancing again at Nathan’s tee shirt. “I wasn’t sure. I mean you dress like them.”
“Yeah, that’s not quite what I meant,” Nathan tried to explain. “I spend time in places they wouldn’t go. Like the bar I work at….”
“Hm.” Auryn glanced at his watch, then jumped up in surprise. “Oh shit, that’s not the time? I’ve got to get back to the office. I told my boss I’d only be half an hour.”
“Oh,” Nathan said, disappointed. “But it’s only—” He glanced up at the clock behind the bar, seeing it was well after one. “Ah.”
“Where is Gaz, then?” Auryn asked. “Tell that lazy git that I was by, would you?”
“Yes, sure,” Nathan said, trying to sound upbeat. “He’ll be down later.”
“Okay, thanks. Tell him I’ll be back for another when I’ve finished work. Oh, and thank you for the unexpected chat, Nathan. It was nice to pretend I was one of the cool kids.”
Nathan tried to answer but found himself tongue-tied. Instead he smiled, fighting the urge to blush.
“You gonna be here later?” Auryn asked. “I’ll be back around six. I’d like to talk with you some more.”
Surprised by the direct statement, Nathan felt his hopes soaring to the skies again.
“Oh, yeah probably,” he answered, as calmly as he could. Yes! Anything you want!
“Great. See you later.”
“Bye,” Nathan said, almost to himself as he watched Auryn disappear.