All That and a Packet of Crisps

Cath UK & Angelis

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1- The Date

The world always looks interesting when you're sitting on the top floor of a double decker, watching unsuspecting people going about their business on the pavement below. Theo was enjoying the view, and playing a well-loved game that he playfully liked to call 'spot-the-fag'. This consisted of eagerly eyeing the good looking men walking lower down as the bus rolled past them, trying to guess which of them he could have. A knowing smile played over his mocha lips every time he spotted someone he fancied, traipsing along with his hands full of designer shopping bags.

Friday afternoon was a time for new wardrobes, for fantasies, for the creation of ensembles that would hopefully attract Him. The perfect Look must be found, a Look that would make the wearer the centre of attention, that would coax heads to turn in a rhythmic wave all the way down Canal Street. This time of the evening was ephemeral, not quite real, the time when a million office workers swallowed their excitement as they packed up to leave, and young boys like Theo swallowed dryly, beginning to taste the strange world opening up before them and worshipping it. This was a time of getting-up music and hurriedly set-down glasses.

It was healing time, elastic time, time which wasn't really time at all.

It was time for dreams that had been resurrected from last Friday night over the long, idle moments of the week, and would be resurrected again by this particular hour. Modern miracles and romantic-movie promises, the last shrine of our collective faith as every young, wide-eyed nail-biter in town prepared to get back to the primal ballet of beat-flesh-sweat. But first, the quest for perfection, the resolute set in these young men's eyes as they prepared to become better than their idols could possibly be.

All for a shag. But Theo hadn't quite admitted that, looking down at the beautiful creatures on the pavement - he was too new, too excited, and would probably always be too dreamy. "So many gorgeous gay blokes living in Manchester", Theo thought wistfully. He could hardly wait until he actually got the chance to get close to one of them. Hopefully, this would happen whilst he was still in his twenties, wasn't too disillusioned with the queer scene in general, and still had all his hair.

Theo was looking extremely well that evening, even without the added appeal leant to him by the smile on his face and dreamily lustful look in his eyes. His shiny, short black hair was still wet from the shower, and he'd put on his sexiest black shirt. His lips parted in a small, private smile, as Theo thought about how the shirt brought out his smooth olive skin to full advantage, making it look good enough to eat. Or maybe just good enough to be sensually licked, he thought, reconsidering with a slight shiver.

The shiver was partly because of his excitement- because of his sudden realisation that the idea of being licked by some gorgeous man was, for once, not too far out into the realm of "things that only happen in my mind when I'm alone with a bottle of baby oil".

Indeed, in a few minutes, he would be on a date... and, had he not been brought down by a nasty cold he'd caught off his friend Leo, he would have been perfectly happy.

He fumbled in the right hand pocket of his trousers, cursing himself for having chosen such a tight pair - they showed off his packet to its best possible advantage, but they made it so difficult to properly search for the tissue he felt he desperately needed. He'd stuck a wad of them in there before leaving his flat, knowing he'd probably need them as he'd been coughing and sneezing for the better part of the week. His otherwise elegant nose was - to his regret - looking red and sore from overuse and, though he had briefly considered buying concealer, he'd finally opted not to since he knew it would probably be wiped away a few minutes after having been applied. Besides, he just didn't feel quite man enough to wear makeup in public.

He finally ripped a tissue free from the bundle wedged far into his pocket and brought it to his sore nose just in time.

"Hurassshoo!"

The sneeze exploded out of him painfully, making him lurch forward in his seat.

The old lady seated next to him recoiled in horror, as if he'd just doused her in cold, greasy water, before disdainfully clearing her throat.

"Harrshooo!"

Theo felt the pressure in his sinuses lessen after this second sneeze and blew his nose heartily, making a noise like a bullhorn. The silver haired woman to his right inched away from him, sitting far enough on the edge of the seat that Theo was sure she would fall if he were to sneeze again. The thought made him smile, and he immediately felt yet another tickle brewing in the deep recesses of his right nostril. He twitched his nose again, tried to pinch it shut, but it refused to let him be.

"Heh-ptchooo!"

He tried to stifle it as best he could, but it still escaped him despite his efforts. The woman gave him a sour look, muttered something Theo heard as "no respect for others," and got to her feet. He watched her, sniffling miserably, as she made her way to the bus' staircase.

He couldn't blame her  - this cold was the nastiest he'd caught all year and for a split second, he cursed Leo for giving it to him. He knew this was inevitable every time September rolled around. Before coming to Manchester, he'd never heard of the infamous "fresher's flu" that came with the students' return. The students came from everywhere, bringing with them a myriad of different germs which inevitably conspired and combined until they developed into a compounded cold virus that was potent enough to reduce the entire city to a mass of coughing, sneezing and sniffling individuals. Share and share alike was the students' motto - if Theo had not been feeling as sick as he was, he would probably have laughed outright at this reflection.

Blowing his nose mightily one last time, Theo let his thoughts wander back towards his destination. He was going on a date, he told himself again, marvelling over the excitement that simple word brought on.

To be exact, he was going on his first date - or so he liked to think, as he'd never been on a date with a man before. He could scarcely believe his luck. Two weeks ago, he had been out clubbing with a bunch of friends and had met David, a tall, broad-shouldered, brown-haired Adonis. It had been his first ever night in a gay club and he'd spent all night dancing with this man, exploring David's tongue with his own, feeling waves of desire rise and ebb inside him...

In fact, until the very end of the evening, he'd been feeling both excited and nervous, because he had honestly believed his first night out in the world as a homosexual just might be the night when he found out everything there was to making hot passionate love with a beautiful man.

Things hadn't exactly worked out that way. When the lights had come on in Cruz 101 after their passionate dancing and kissing, David had mysteriously disappeared, leaving Theo and his friends searching for him. As far as he knew, no one had seen him since, not even Jessica who had been the one to introduce them in the first place.

Theo had been both disappointed and relieved. He knew he wanted to get to know David better; he just hadn't felt quite ready to get to know him that well so quickly. At the time, he thought, shaking his head as a wry smile crept onto his features. It was really amazing how much more confident he was feeling a full week later... but Theo had yet to learn that this was the selective amnesia of Friday nights, the capability of even the hardest and most wounded cynic to create an MGM from a few coloured lights, a shag, and, if you were lucky, a phone number. Theo had found the only time and place when the world even started to feel as though it was enough, and he didn't intend to relinquish it, even if that did mean he ended up in drag at fifty singing, 'I'll Know When My Love Comes Along.'

But even a young, optimistic idealist like Theo knew that David would be unlikely to fall into his arms, even though dreams about kissing him again had nudged at him like disobedient little creatures ever since the morning after he'd stood, bereft, looking for David in the crowd. He'd resigned himself to never seeing him again... for about two days. Then, the urge had simply been too strong to resist and he'd emailed Leo to know if he by any chance had David's number.

Theo's query had gone around and finally, Jessica had supplied the number, which Leo had gallantly delivered to him with several dark warnings about Men Like David, even though he knew exactly why such men were so attractive, in spite of their manifest dickheadedness. Still, Theo had hesitated before calling David, dialling and hanging up countless times, and then decided he needed advice from someone who seemed to know the ins and outs of gay men's relationships better than most gay men did themselves.

He called Jessica.

2- The Phone Call

She hadn't recognised him at first; his voice sounded familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. Warm, a light accent, a tinge of humour... yet hoarse and tired-sounding. Who could it be?

"We met a few days ago, in the club? Theo? No, you don't remember me?"

As soon as he said his name, things fell into place.

"Theo!" Jessica gushed, "So nice to hear from you! Did you get my number off Leo? How're things?"

She could hear the smile in his voice as he replied, "Yeah, they could be better. Hold on a sec..."

Jessica held the phone to her ear as she heard the sound of a hand being clamped against the receiver. In the background, barely muffled, she heard Theo sneeze wetly, an unrestrained, "Heh-issshuh!"

Seconds later, he was back and continued talking before Jessica could interject to bless him. "Sorry; I just caught the worst cold ever! Anyway, Leo gave me your number because he thought you could probably help me. I'm calling because I want your advice. You remember David?"

Jessica felt herself grow cold at the very mention of the name. How could she forget? After the stunt the man had pulled the last time she'd seen him, it wasn't likely she'd ever be able to excise him from her memory. A few days later, she had learned the truth about his supposed disappearance from Leo and had been disgusted at what she heard. Not only had he tried to come on to her and most of her friends, including Leo himself and his extremely intimidating lesbian friend Charlotte, but that he'd passed up lovely Theo for a spit roasting session with two strangers.

David had actually tried to contact her, leaving a couple of bland - and, she thought, vaguely sleazy - messages on her answering machine, but she hadn't called him back. If she never saw him again, it would be too soon.

"Yes. Of course I remember him."

Jessica tried as hard as she could to keep her voice neutral. Theo still had no idea what had gone on that night; no one had had the heart to tell him, even though it was now common knowledge in their little group of friends. And beyond, probably, knowing how partial her friend Andy was to spreading juicy gossip to anyone even halfway interested.

(Actually, 'halfway' was being generous. Andy told his antique Batman posters what his friends were getting up to when he ran out of people to call. The beggars lining his way to work knew exactly who was shagging who on the scene, and anyone Andy knew who was introduced to their group generally needed no introductions. Leo, Christiaan, Jessica and Charlotte would usually tense up the minute Andy screamily ushered someone over, knowing that the friend would probably burst out with 'Oh, you're the one who did that thing with the cucumber, aren't you?' or something similar).

Jessica sighed, as Theo continued his "Dear Abby," speech, wondering when this beautiful boy would find out that nothing was sacred.

"Well, you know, it's weird, I've been thinking about him ever since the other night. I know he left and all, but he was really sweet before that and you know, he was the first guy I ever kissed?"

Jessica felt her heart grow soft at the wonder and vulnerability that laced Theo's voice. She abandoned her cynicism, unable to help feeling a great desire to protect Theo from reality, especially when reality was wearing David's Calvins.

"Yeah, I know... So what can I do for you?"

Unexpectedly, on the other end of the line, she heard Theo sneeze again, "Hurresshhh!", as he once more attempted to muffle the sound with his hand.

This time, Jessica managed to bless him before he answered.

"Thanks; well, I'd love for you to rid me of this cold, but I don't think that'll be too easy, so I'll settle for your advice and infinite wisdom instead, babe."

Jessica sighed again. Though she usually enjoyed helping her friends out with their twisted love lives, she sometimes wished she weren't their designated Agony Aunt. She fleetingly wondered if charging for her services was a viable idea before turning back to the problem at hand, concentrating on what Theo was saying.

"Well, I haven't been able to get him out of my head. I even went back to Cruz all alone three days later because I thought I might see him there, you know." Theo swallowed dryly, wondering if admitting to this made him sound pathetic. "Anyway, he wasn't there, and I really want to see him again for some reason. I feel like I need to, you know? So anyhow, I got his number - thanks for that, by the way - but I don't know what to say to him if I call. I'm scared he'll just hang up on me!"

And you'd be lucky if that's all he does, Jessica thought darkly as she listened to Theo begin to cough lightly at the other end.

Then, she felt horrid for having such nasty thoughts; she thought how sweet Theo was, still caring about David even after the man had so unceremoniously ditched him. She wasn't sure what the best way to help him would be: giving him advice on how to call, or telling him to run for the hills?

"Well Theo, you know, about David... I just want you to know that I think you're a really great guy and you could do much better. I mean it - way better. But still, I don't think he'd hang up on you," Jessica took a deep breath, hoping Theo wouldn't catch on to this little white lie, "I just don't know if that's such a good idea, really."

"Well, if I do want to call him, what should I say?" Theo persisted, ignoring Jessica's discomfort.

"Just keep it really light; tell him you enjoyed meeting him and ask if he'd like to do something. You could ask him if he'd like to go for a drink, have a nice meal, go for a G & T in Deansgate Locks, or even just stay in and watch some hot, raunchy porn together..."

She felt relieved when she felt the tension on Theo's end lift, as he burst out laughing.

"That's such a great idea, Jessica," Theo paused, before hastily adding, "I mean, having a nice meal or something."

"Yeah right," Jessica quipped. "Look, Leo's got some great porn from when he was single. I really shouldn't know about this but Clara, that's his flatmate, once asked me to look after it when her mum was coming over from Jamaica."

Theo laughed. "What did you do?"

"Oh, invited all my girlfriends round and raided the off-licence, of course. I particularly recommend that one about the Boy Scouts and the visiting army troop."

"Jessica!" he exclaimed. "I would never have thought you were like that! One of your friends maybe, like Charlotte, or Andy..."

"Oh, darling, I'm not as angelic as all that! Though trust me, Charlotte ranks right up there with Andy as queen of innuendo. Those two... But," Jessica's warm tone dropped a notch, "getting back to my wonderful dating advice then, I gather you and David will indeed be watching "Attack of the Trouser Snake II" on video until the sun comes up?"

This got Theo laughing all over again, partly because he was embarrassed by Jessica's brash assumptions. His laughter degenerated into a fit of coughing, before Theo paused to blow his nose, this time using both hands and hence not muffling the receiver.

"God, sorry, it's just this cold! But anyway, I thought we'd agreed on going to the restaurant, yes?" Theo vainly tried to steer the conversation in a more proper direction, "Though videos could be tempting if things go the right way... no, wait, forget I ever said that. See how quickly your evil influence is rubbing off on me? To think I was actually a nice innocent boy with pure motives when I rang you up!"

"That faded as soon as you set foot in Cruz last week, babe, so don't you dare try and blame your corrupted state of mind on me!" Jessica shot back, smiling into the telephone as she twirled a long lock of black hair around her finger.

"Maybe so, but I'm still feeling innocent when it comes to calling David. It's awful. All nervous-like, and sort of shy, too, you understand?"

"Yeah, I do. So you reckon you'll ring him then?" She wasn't sure why she'd asked; she knew all too well what the answer would be.

"I don't know... Probably... We'll see."

Theo swallowed hard. Grateful as he was for Jessica's help and playful banter, he began to get nervous again as the task of actually calling up David loomed once more before him. He decided it was time to end this conversation.

Shutting his eyes, Theo realized had just one more thing to do before he could hang up.

"Hesshuh!..."

The sneeze had crept up on his so suddenly that he hadn't been able to make any attempts at holding it back or covering the receiver with his hand.

"Bless you!" Jessica exclaimed warmly. "You know, it's going to be some job cleaning up that telephone after we're done talking, eh?"

This got Theo smiling again. "I'm sure I'll be able to manage it. Just got to get to it while it's still wet."

Jessica playfully made an appropriately disgusted noise on the other end whilst he continued, "Anyway, thank you so much for your help. We will go out again sometime soon, you and I, yes? I very much enjoyed meeting you the other night; you were very nice."

"Theo, your subtle compliments are getting the better of me. Stop or I shall have to tell my boyfriend about you and he'll get so jealous he'll break both your legs. No, seriously, of course we'll go out again darling... You know where to find me and the others every Friday night, right? So you take care now and... Theo, be careful, okay?" She hoped he understood what she was referring to.

"Will do. Take care, and see you soon, yes?"

Jessica had been filled with mixed emotions when she'd hung up. She could almost picture Theo picking up the telephone again right after having left her and dialling the dreaded David's number. On one hand, she thought perhaps she had done Theo a favour, boosting his confidence and giving him advice on how to approach the man.

On the other, the man she'd just given Theo tips on how to approach was a total dick.

Jessica groaned softly, feeling as if she'd just helped in delivering Theo, bound on a platter, into David's waiting claws. She tried telling herself that her friend was a grown man and that he would probably encounter a number of David-like snakes as he made his way into the wilds of Canal Street, but she still felt a twinge of guilt. She rested her forehead in her hands, wondering why life couldn't always be as easy as the promised nirvana of Friday nights.

3- Stood Up

It could have been mistaken for Las Vegas, had the evening chill not been so pungent with the mouth-watering smell of curry. The whole of Rusholme, nicknamed "Curry Mile" by the locals, sparkled and glittered with ornaments and neon signs colourful enough to shame a drag queen's headdress. Indian restaurants were crowded side by side along the small stretch of road, interspersed with the odd newsagent or Indian grocery shop. The whole area was buzzing with activity as people walked by in search of the best restaurant, the best deals, the best place to stop and browse.

Andy wasn't in the habit of walking to Rusholme all alone in the evening, but for some reason he'd been fantasizing about devouring a huge, onion-and-garlic-impregnated curry all day. Cravings both overwhelming and irrational had been plaguing him throughout the week for some odd reason, and he'd been swearing for days to anyone who would listen that he had to be pregnant. This latest inexplicable whim served in Andy's mind as a perfect illustration of his latest biologically implausible bit of self-delusion. And it was an interesting conversation-starter, of course, or at least Andy thought so, and that was what mattered.

He had phoned up everyone he could think of to accompany him, but all the people he had tried were either busy or not answering. Looking at his empty refrigerator and the pristine pile of dishes he'd spent so much time washing that very morning, Andy had decided he couldn't be bothered to fix himself anything even vaguely resembling a proper meal. He'd grabbed his keys, closely checked his hair in the mirror, and, reassured that he was as sublimely gorgeous as usual, had set out into the cool evening air, walking the twenty minutes until he reached his favourite Indian restaurant.

He was traipsing along, happily (if tonelessly) singing, "I've got rhythm, I've got music... I've got my man, who could ask for anything more?" wishing it were true, blissfully unaware of the irony involved.

Andy fantasized about meeting a tall, dark, handsome stranger in a dim corner of the restaurant, whom he would promptly seduce and fall into ever lasting love with over the pappadums. He was deep into this reverie, trying to think up witty chat-up lines that didn't involve double entendres, knob jokes or lines from Judy Garland movies, when all of a sudden, he spotted a slender, vaguely Arabic-looking man waiting on a street corner.

"Oi! What have we here!" Andy yelled out, hands flapping in exuberant shooing motions, the fantasies he had been completely absorbed in but a few seconds ago completely forgotten. "Who gave you permission to work this corner, you scally? It's mine! Don't you dare try and steal my customers!"

"Oh, hi, Andy," Theo replied calmly, his voice sounding better than it had all week. "You okay?"

"Of course I'm okay, darling. I was just kidding, obviously. With my looks and charm, I can get customers anywhere. This corner is yours if you want it." Andy sauntered over to the man and put an affectionate arm around his shoulders. "Theo, darling, I haven't seen you in ages! How have you been? Why haven't you phoned? What are you doing here? Why are you looking so pale? And what is that shirt you're wearing; that is so 1997!"

Faced with this plethora of questions, Theo looked nonplussed. He sighed and chose to ignore all but the third:

"I'm actually waiting for David."

"Nooooooo!" Andy gasped, bringing his hands to his cheeks so hard and quickly that they actually left red imprints when he removed them. "Are you kidding? You've managed to find the Invisible Man and con him into a date? How did you do it? You simply must sit down with me sometime, have a Shirley Temple, and divulge your secrets of luuurrrve."

Theo nodded and opened his mouth to answer, but was abruptly cut off by an uprising tickly feeling at the back of his nose. He'd been standing in the chilly air for the past half hour, alternately pacing and standing still, shivering the whole time and cursing both David's lateness and his annoying cold. He'd already almost exhausted the tissues in the wad he'd bought and his nose was beginning to feel quite raw. He knew he shouldn't have stayed out so long in the cold, but the prospect of seeing David again would have been enough to convince him to wait there for hours. His nose, however, was protesting mightily and the combination of cold air, exhaust, spicy smells, not to mention Andy's generous dabbing of cologne, was enough to make him lean forward with an explosive "HurASHHOO!...ohhh..."

His nose seized again a second later. He frantically rummaged in his trouser pockets and pulled out the last of his tissues, managing to get it in front of his face just in time to catch a second sneeze.

"HurrrASHHH!"

Theo blew forcefully into the tissue, expelling a wave of cold, as Andy stood a few metres away, exaggeratingly dusting himself off. Theo shot him a dirty look that made Andy break out into a pleased smile. He loved to wind people up.

"You know, you really should consider offering towels with your showers mate. Don't tell me you've caught Leo's cold? And that one tells me his luscious boyfriend's catching it too! What is it with you people; if I didn't know better, I'd swear you're all having orgies where you pass this thing around. And you don't even invite me, you bastards! I really don't want to know what else you're sharing! But don't you dare give it to me - I can't be ill. So many men, so little time, you know."

"Believe me, it's not like I want to be sick. Though right now, there is one person I wouldn't mind giving this plague to..."

"Honey, I know you'd like to give him way more than just that cold." Andy fluttered his eyelashes suggestively and cautiously stepped close once again. "So really, what did you boys have planned for the night? Asides for the rampant sex, that is."

"Well, it was supposed to be a date," Theo replied, smiling at Andy's obvious interest.

There was no such thing as subtlety for his friend when it came to gossip collecting.

"Thing is, I've been waiting here for half an hour and he's not shown up. I think..." Theo hung his head in mock despair, "I think I've been stood up!"

Andy caught Theo's eye and gave him an easy smile.

No you haven't; you were just waiting for the right man to come along and sweep you off your lovely suede-clad feet. And that man is moi - I'm way better looking than David anyway, so you should be grateful. Come have a nice curry with me and tell me all about how you're getting on. Especially with David; I can't wait to hear what you girls have been up to behind my back. God, I can't believe you spoke to him again, after that stunt he pulled last time! Oh, and if you're not doing anything later on, you simply must come down to Cruz, dance with us, and watch me pull. It's Friday night and I have a bet going with Leo that I can get that go-go boy's number, you know, the one with the nicest thighs in the whole world, even if he does wear those white socks and trainers. I think his name is Ben, but I really don't care, with legs like that, it's not his sparkling personality I'm interested in, I must admit. So," he paused at last, catching his breath as he cheerfully linked his arm with Theo's, "curry it is, then?"

Theo nodded, closed his eyes, and then leaned forward to sneeze.

"Hurresshoo!"

Andy forced himself not to let go of his friend as he batted his eyelashes. "I'll take that as a yes."

Realizing that spending his evening listening to Andy's happy if superficial patter would be infinitely preferable to waiting alone with his cold on the corner for a bloke who obviously wasn't going to show up, Theo smiled wanly and nodded.

He needn't have bothered; Andy was already leading him away, avidly scanning the street for talent, telling him about how he had actually seen Queer as Folk's script writer, Russell T. Davies, shopping for crockery yesterday at the Arndale Centre, no really, etc.

4. The Return of David

Leo, Charlotte and Jessica were walking along Princess Street on their way to Cruz 101. They had agreed to meet there for their usual Friday night session of combined dancing and pulling. Charlotte looked stunning, as usual, in a pair of sinfully tight black leather trousers and a low-cut black velvet top. Her hair was an exquisite creation of long black strands piled majestically on top of her head, and artfully applied makeup brought out her full deep red lips, salient blue eyes and stunning sooty lashes.

Jessica was looking just as well in her own way. Substantially younger and a hell of a lot more demure than the glamorous Charlotte, she'd chosen well-worn blue jeans and a small tank top that brought out her svelte figure. Her silky black hair flowed loosely about her shoulders and she only wore her customary shade of deep red lipstick, accentuating the lush lips that were really her best feature.

Leo was his normal gorgeous self. Having gotten over the previous week's dreadful cold with the help of Alexander's delightful ministrations, he was picture of vitality, blue eyes flashing mischievously under his carefully spiked blond hair. He had on his favourite pulling jeans, which as he liked to remind Jessica, brought his packet all the attention it so well deserved, combined with a casually smart white top that highlighted his molten gold tan, kept up with weekly sessions at 'A Sunny Affair' on St. George Street. If a man actually took the time to work out, go jogging four times a week and fry himself on a plank, he might as well have something to show for it.

Alexander wasn't with them, but this was nothing unusual. He was as far from being a scene queen as was humanly possible, even though it was on Canal Street that he and Leo had finally gotten together after seemingly ages. Besides, Alexander had an additional reason for staying home tonight; having looked after Leo for the better part of the week, he had announced earlier that evening that he felt as if he were finally coming down with his lover's cold. Alexander had complained of a mild headache and a perpetually sneezy feeling in the back of his nose, a sure sign he was coming down with something. He had even executed some characteristically proper and efficient sneezes in front of his lover, as if to illustrate his point.

Leo, whose flatmate and best friend Clara worked with Alexander and Charlotte at their PR Company (which Charlotte had renamed The Conspiracy to Undermine All Family Values, as nearly everyone who worked there was a well-placed and moneyed closet case) knew how strict the three were about business, and was perfectly aware that if they could stand up without dropping dead, then they were probably going to work. He knew this, and yet he hadn't been able to help his sudden and strange desire to wrap his capable, stiffly suited lover in a blanket and spoon-feed him chicken soup. He had of course insisted that he wanted to stay at home with Alexander, but the other was having none of it. They had a proper domestic over it that had ended with Leo banging against the door whilst yelling out rather camp death threats, with the old Bulgarian lady down the hall staring at them in incomprehension, Leo rigorously hoping that she'd never have the urge to attempt translating the words 'queeny strop,' 'dickhead' and 'scrotum,' into her own language. Alexander had simply laughed through the imposing piece of wood standing guard at his flat's entrance and told him if that was the sort of TLC he offered, then he'd be better off alone.

Leo had finally given up, knowing Alexander wouldn't really let him go if he felt he needed him, and decided to join his friends instead of sulking on his own, even though that seemed quite tempting. He'd told Jessica about this little scene, but she had only laughed and told him he worried too much; Alexander knew how important Friday nights were to his lover in terms of relaxation and friendship (even though he was no longer single) and just wanted Leo to have a good time. Besides, as Jessica had reminded him, the weekend was just starting; perhaps the idea of cuddling with Alexander and returning the previous week's favour wasn't to be discarded just yet.

As they made their way to their favourite playground, the conversation veered towards different topics, until Charlotte began to express her current disgust with Manchester's dismal lesbian scene and the inbred politics of it all.

"You think your life's complicated because you've found a boyfriend, Leo? Let me tell you, you're getting something wonderful compared to what I've got! I can't go anywhere without meeting my ex, her ex, the other's ex, the one she shagged with her ex, the ex of the ex..."

"Charlotte dear, what do you care? You're married," said Leo dreamily, knowing that this was always fuel to Charlotte's fire, but he didn't care. It continually pissed Charlotte off that she'd settled down at all. "Isn't Ruth meeting us tonight anyway?"

"Yeah, but..." Charlotte's hand flapped like an agitated dove in the air. "That doesn't mean Ruth and I are not still public property to the damn wolfhounds in this city. Everywhere you go, everyone's done everyone else - your reputation precedes you even before you've even made a bloody move! I wonder if anyone's actually keeping notes and passing them on. I've always wondered what my profile would look like..." Her hand made a broad, dramatic sweep in mid-air, "Charlotte Katz: sinister, refreshing yet mildly frightening. Likes pasta, red wine, and children. With a dash of Worcester sauce. Phobias: Birkenstocks and nipple rings. Shags like a minx, but we needn't mention that because you all know this already."

She sighed melodramatically, tossing her head in a way that made her coiffure waver dangerously, before continuing.

"Thank God I'm not on the pull!"

"Yeah, right," Leo and Jessica muttered simultaneously, and then grinned at each other. Charlotte's appetites were legendary.

"I mean, there simply are no decent venues for us on the scene. Take this for example," she indicated the fast approaching doorway to Cruz with a long white finger. "Every other Saturday, the lower floor is supposed to be women only. You'd think that would be good, no? Do you know what they call it?" She shot Leo and Jessica a look filled with righteous anger. "They call it 'Fussy Pussy'."

Charlotte paused for emphasis, and then repeated the offending name, her tone dripping with sarcasm. "Like any self-respecting lesbian would ever set foot in a place called 'Fussy Pussy'?"

"You're not a self-respecting lesbian," Leo said calmly, checking his hair in a nearby car window before they entered Cruz. "Last Friday you got up on the go-go boy's podium, put the drag queen's wig on and sang 'Hot Stuff' extremely off-key."

"I was drunk," Charlotte muttered, paying her four pounds entrance fee, but then she turned a beautiful smile on them both, abruptly mellowing as she walked down the stairs. "Ah, fuck it. I can have who I want, anyway. I don't need a bunch of club-owners to tell me where I can get it!"

"Well," Leo said, patting her on the backside as he went down after her, "'it' should be down there, waiting for you, so keep your G-string on... Oh look, there they are!" he cried, pointing towards their friends who were stood near the stage, an easy smile spreading across his beautifully curved lips.

Jessica and Leo exchanged eye-rolls as Charlotte and Ruth flung their arms around each other at the bottom of the stairs. Ruth was a beautiful, clear-eyed creature with waist-length honey-blonde hair, slighter and lighter than Charlotte, in a delicate silver dress that, although it was made of some rough, tinselly material, made her shine like an angel next to her dark-dressed lover. As they broke apart, Charlotte cradled Ruth's tiny hand in hers and kissed it so tenderly that Jessica - suddenly overcome by the pure eroticism of the moment - couldn't quite help a shiver.

Stood next to Ruth was Theo. Jessica gave him a wink, blowing him a kiss which Theo mimicked catching and pressing to his heart. Then, she promptly sauntered up to Andy, who hadn't even noticed their arrival. He had his back turned to the others because he was busily attempting to make eye contact with a sexy ginger bloke stood next to the bar. Leo might have recognised the man had he taken the time to get a proper look, but instead he exchanged proper greetings with Theo and Ruth. Meanwhile, Jessica pressed herself against Andy's back and at the same time covered his eyes with her hands.

"Guess who?"

"Um... Martha Stewart? Jenny Jones? No wait, I know that voice... It's Madonna!"

Jessica giggled and let go as Andy turned to face her and scoop her into his arms. They both squealed excited hellos, fawning over each other and exchanging well-deserved compliments, as Leo's and Theo's eyes turned towards the ceiling. Charlotte and Ruth, arms around each other, also gave Andy their ritual hugs while he cooed over their outfits, which were spectacular, no divine, darlings.

Tapering off, Jessica finally got a proper look at Theo. She couldn't help but notice that Theo's nose looked sore, and his skin didn't have its usual vibrant sheen. She was about to ask him why he wasn't home in bed after seeing him considerately turning asides to sneeze a heavy wet "Hurrshoo!" into his cupped palms, when Leo interrupted.

"Now now, you fluff bunnies, don't get too excited," Leo laughed. "It's not like you didn't see each other yesterday."

"Oh, Leo!" Andy howled, "that was more than ten hours ago! Just because you're boring and stay in all the time with that boyfriend of yours doesn't mean the rest of us don't have lives. You're going to look gorgeous in white walking down the aisle, you know, and you must let me help pick out your dress. Jess and I can be bridesmaids; the two of us in lavender would be stunning. But what I really want to know is," Andy leaned in close to his friend as he opened his eyes wide for better effect, "Leo, does Alexander sleep in that suit?"

Pulling a face, Leo made as if to smack his cheeky friend.

"Okay, okay, I was just winding you up. Alexander is a total doll and if he wasn't already yours, I'd fancy the pants off him. What I meant was, loads of things have happened since yesterday, you know me, so much action, it's hard to keep up!" Andy rolled his eyes as if stating the obvious to a wayward child. "But even though my life is more twisted and exciting than an episode of Eastenders, my stories will have to wait - have I got gossip for you!"

Charlotte raised her beauty-parlour eyebrows. "Can't say I was expecting that, Andy. You should just hire a skywriter to tell the whole world, you know..."

Though Jessica laughed at Charlotte's remark, she had a feeling this would somehow involve the mysterious phone call she'd gotten off Theo a couple of night before and shot Andy a look that invited him to be subtle. That word, however, was not part of Andy's vocabulary.

"Theo got stood up for a date!" he exclaimed at the top of his voice, making the object of that sentence cringe and look away, troubled. "With the infamous David!" he added, giving Jessica and Leo a conspiratorial wink.

"With David?" Leo asked Theo, incredulous. "How did you-"

Noiselessly, Theo's hand quickly made its way up to his nose just in time to pinch his nostrils shut. The rest of him doubled forward in a silent sneeze and, when he opened his eyes tiredly a few seconds later, Jessica thought again that her friend really didn't look very well. Theo shook his head and smiled at her, seeming to will her to stop worrying, conveying the message that he was fine. Having had the cold for several days already, perhaps he was getting over it.

"Bless you," she said, brushing Theo's arm with her hand in a caring gesture.

Andy had been oblivious to it all, his attention fully focused elsewhere.

"Oh be still my hyperactive heart!" Andy interrupted suddenly, pointing an intentionally trembling finger the far end of the room. "Speak of the devil!"

All eyes turned to follow his finger. A broad shouldered figure was hunched over the bar, ostensibly alone, staring at an achingly gorgeous raven-haired barman who was amusing himself by twirling a liquor bottle over a waiting glass, artfully mixing drinks as if he'd been born knowing how to make a production of it.

"There he is, there he is! Either that's David, or else, I've finally taken one pill too many," Andy shrieked, jumping up and down like a jack-in-the-box.

"Like you even need drugs to hallucinate, Andy," Ruth muttered, eyeing her flamboyant friend with a sigh.

"Here we go again," Leo sighed, taking her arm and Charlotte's in preparation for what he knew was going to follow. "Come on, ladies. Let's get this over with, shall we?"

Ruth looked at him sideways as Charlotte disengaged at her end. "I don't think so sweetheart; whatever catastrophe Andy is getting himself into, he can do it on his own. Char and I will stay right here and have a chat, okay?"

Leo shrugged and let go, preparing to follow Andy without the two women. Sometimes, we wondered why he kept on acting like a concerned father in spite of it all.

His eyes alight and his smile acquiring a distinctly maniacal quality, Andy grabbed Jessica's and Theo's wrists and pulled them towards the far end of the room. The sheer weight of them kept him from sprinting, but Andy was fully intent on helping the night's events unfold. The quicker the better, for then they could move on to more action. Action that would revolve around him, assuredly, whenever that go-go boy deigned to appear! "Never enough" was Andy's motto, and in this, at least, he was remarkably consistent.

"Are you sure that's him? His hair's not that colour, and I don't see his little blond friend," Jessica protested as they neared David's location.

"Oh yeah, Destiny, bless her. I'd forgotten all about that mad bimbo!" Andy replied casually, his eyes still on the man at the bar... and, by now, the stunning barman behind it. "Though at the rate she was going last week, she's probably having babies as we speak! Let's just hope they take after their fathers."

"Hush!" Theo said, his hand jerking to break free from Andy's grasp, presumably to run away and hide. Or maybe it was just another sneeze coming on.

"Hi, my name is Destinyyyyyy!" Andy shrieked as he tapped the object of his interest on the shoulder to attract his attention, batting his eyelashes in a hilarious imitation of the absent blonde.

"What?" The other turned, surprised to find himself confronted with this improbable foursome.

Leo, stood wisely behind them, gave Andy a swift kick in the leg. Andy's leg, being as pliable as the rest of him, simply bent forward before bouncing back, Leo's intent just barely acknowledged.

"I said, hi, my name is Andyyyyyy!"

"Oh yeah, I remember! Hello!"

Jessica took in the figure of the man all of them had made such a fuss over last week in open-mouthed amazement. At first, she could hardly believe it was really him; had it not been for Andy, she wouldn't have spared him a second glance, much less recognized him.

In a word, David looked atrocious. His hair, spiked, was dyed an improbably shade of bright neon pink which made his normally rich complexion appear yellowed and gaunt.

The effect was heightened by a sequined canary yellow shirt, which the man had paired with black and white army fatigue pants.

Though each was horrible enough when taken in separately, when assembled, they were really staggeringly hideous. Jessica wasn't sure whether she should be gagging or clutching her sides in laughter. She considered asking him whether he'd lost a bet, but held politely back. Andy, having no such inhibitions, plunged in with his customary tact:

"David, you look stunning! Wherever did you find that shirt? Move over Austin Powers! And the hair! Now that, bay-bee, is very shagadelic. You know most people probably couldn't achieve that shade if they'd tried? It's like... like strawberry ice cream on acid, that's what! David, I am so jealous. I mean, we all know my hair's fab, but yours, oh! It's all that and a packet of crisps. Jess, the man has the best possible taste!" he shrieked, Kenny Everett style.

As if Andy's Camp-as-Butlins tirade and the exaggerated movements of admiration that accompanied it weren't enough, David's surprised, pleased expression sent Jessica over the edge. She promptly turned away and walked towards the restroom, in order to be able to enjoy a proper hysterical fit of laughter. She knew David would wonder at her sudden rude departure, but it was preferable to dissolving into helpless giggles right there in front of him.

"Sorry mate," Leo lied to David with a remarkably straight face, "I'm afraid the girl has had a few drinks already. You know how women are, half a pint and they'll be spending the evening in the loo."

"Yeah, sure," David replied, oblivious, eyeing up Theo.

His expert gaze didn't miss a single detail; the reddened nose, the vague pallor, the faintly bleary eyes... David felt a surge of excitement in realizing that Theo had a cold.

And then, as if to confirm what was already a conviction, the man's features contorted. Before he could stop it and under David's watchful eye, Theo leaned aside to sneeze powerfully, an explosive "hurr-ESSH-ooo!" which rang out loud and clear even through the din of the music around them.

Theo flushed violently as his right hand made its way to his face just in time to stifle a second sneeze, no less potent than the first, which once more made the slender man bob forward from the force of it. When that was done, he sniffed heavily, looking slightly dazed as he clumsily reached for the napkin he'd stuffed in his trouser pocket earlier on in case he needed it. He really hoped the cold tablets he had taken before coming out were going to kick in soon, or else he'd be seriously tempted to just plug up both nostrils with the napkin and let his nose flood away.

David smiled hungrily. Perhaps he had been wrong to skip that date earlier on; the results might have been more interesting than he had expected! This bloke definitely had a pleasantly powerful sneeze; if just those two had been enough to send his thoughts spinning, he wondered what a few more would do. And maybe, just maybe, it wasn't too late to try and patch things up with Theo. He took a deep breath, and did what came naturally: he lied.

"Hey, I'm really sorry about earlier. I'll have to explain... It was my neighbour; she broke her leg falling off the roof, and I had to go help her get to a hospital. There was blood everywhere, I'm telling you..." he prattled, staring hungrily at Theo's cold-stricken nose.

"Oh please, don't let us stop you having a heart to heart! This is better than Ally McBeal!" Andy cried, delighted, sensing that incredible gossip was in the making. Then, his attention wavered as he spotted a muscular figure walking past at the other end of the room. "Leo, guess what, I've just seen that go-go boy coming out of the back room, and he's looking so fit! Come on, we have to go chat him up right now!"

Before he could groan in protest, Leo was pulled off into the crowd, leaving Theo and David alone. He turned to signal their destination to Theo a few seconds later, but try as he might, he couldn't see the two men.

Leo shrugged and followed his hyperactive friend into the sea of strangers, knowing Theo, like Charlotte, Ruth and Jessica, would probably have no trouble catching up with them once he was ready to do so. Knowing Andy, Leo reckoned they'd spend the whole night right next to the go-go boy's podium, where he would have to do his best to stop his intrepid friend from climbing on top of it to dance flirtatiously right next to the poor boy.

5. Talking Things Out

As the friends disappeared, leaving them behind, David gave Theo a good, long look.

The man really was good looking; too bad he hadn't been able to make it to their rendezvous earlier. Though he did feel regret about standing Theo up, there were no accompanying feelings of guilt; one of his friends had stopped by his flat and the climax he'd gotten out of that little encounter was still giving him shivers as he recalled it. By the time he'd remembered about Theo, it had been ten o'clock, much too late to even make an attempt at calling him to cancel, so he'd decided just to get ready for a night out. Besides, he'd been fairly certain he'd see Theo here anyway; the man made a habit of coming to Cruz on Friday nights, and with that story about the neighbour and the hospital, he was above reproach. Could anyone really hold altruistic humanitarianism against him.

"Look, about earlier," David began, "my neighbour really did-"

Theo unexpectedly cut him off, grasping his wrist. "I can barely hear you in here. Let's go outside and talk, okay?"

David nodded and allowed Theo to lead him up the steps and out of the club. One of the bouncers gave him a conspiratorial wink as he went by, but David subtly shook his head. "Not this early," his amber eyes seemed to say.

They walked over to the parking lot that was adjacent to the club and David perched his lean frame onto one of the huge cement blocks that lined it.

Theo merely stood in front of him, crossing his arms in front of his chest in a defensive position... or maybe just because he was feeling cold. Probably the latter, because as David watched, Theo cupped his hands in front of his mouth and sneezed explosively twice, loudly and richly, "Hurressh!... Hurresshooo!"

David didn't miss a single detail, the slightly glazed look beforehand, the irritated and harsh drawing of a shaky breath, the slowly rising hands that moved simultaneously as his eyes slowly squinted shut, the wrinkling of Theo's nose and drawing up of his lush upper lip before his hands covered them... All those details were exquisite and made his heart pound. He felt flickers of arousal and fought very hard to repress a smile. It wasn't time for anything of that kind just yet.

David cleared his throat and widened his eyes in a look of concern he hoped appeared genuine. "Look, like I said, it's my neighbour, she-"

"Oh cut out the bullshit, David," Theo plunged in with all the subtlety of a bulldozer, rubbing a hand against his nose to quell the itch that lingered there because of the piquant night air in spite of his previous nasal explosions. "I don't care about your story; if it hadn't been your neighbour, it would have been your mother's cat falling our of an aeroplane. I'm not stupid, you know."

"Fine," David replied, striving to sound casual. "You don't have to believe the truth if you don't want to. But at least, please believe me when I say I'm very, very sorry for not showing up. I can make it up to you if you like; we can just ditch this club and go back to mine to... talk."

"My coat's still in there, and I don't know if I want to leave this early. What I want to know, actually, is why you're always running away from me. You didn't show up tonight, last week, you disappeared when the club closed... And you knew I really fancied you. What kind of game are you playing?"

David swallowed dryly. He knew exactly what to say to that; he only hoped it would go down the right way. "Okay, you want to know what happened last week?"

"Yes, I do," Theo replied evenly.

"Fine. Right. This is sort of embarrassing, but here goes. You know how you told me last week you'd never, um... gone home with a guy before?" David looked Theo straight in the eye as he asked the question.

Theo remembered this only too well, and was now a bit embarrassed at his naivety in admitting to it. However, embarrassment of another sort quickly came to replace it and he held up one slender finger, motioning for David to hold on. The fact of the matter was that he needed to sneeze, now of all times. Here he was, trying to determine where he stood with David, and for some reason his nose wouldn't let him be. It was probably the cold tablets, come to think of it, breaking up his congestion and making his nasal passages more sensitive to irritants as a result, but it was still annoying.

Theo froze, feeling the sneeze welling up inside him as David stared at him with more than a hint of hunger inside his predatory amber eyes. It started as a fiercely burning tiny itch at the back of his nose, but quickly spread, slick and mobile as heated oil, throughout his nose. Though he desperately didn't want to sneeze like this in front of David, Theo really didn't have a choice: this tickle was monstrous.

"Huh... HurAHSSSHOO!!"

Before he could catch his breath or do more than open his eyes for a split second, another sneeze engulfed him, bending him at the waist.

"HurrSSHHOOO!"

Theo quickly felt a third one coming on and used a hand to pinch his nostrils shut. Perhaps stifling it was the answer.

"HEPT-ooo!..."

And another,

"HMTT-whoooo!"

Keeping his eyes closed, Theo experimentally let go of his nose. Feeling nothing more than mild discomfort and the tickle receding, he decided he was safe for the time being and could resume his conversation with David. When he looked at the man again, Theo couldn't quite make sense of what he was reading on the other's sculpted features. For some reason, he looked... mesmerized.

He shook his head as David quietly blessed him. What had they been talking about? It only took a few seconds for Theo to remember: he'd been asked whether he remembered telling David he didn't have much experience.

"Yes, I remember saying that," Theo replied at, cocking his head to the side as he used the index and thumb of his right hand to rub at the bridge of his nose, trying not to blush.

David had been entranced by this display on Theo's part. If he'd been vaguely aroused before, he now had a pleasant erection in full bloom. He was glad he'd chosen baggy trousers to wear out tonight, for once, as they were rather handy in terms of concealment. Nonetheless, he decided to pretend nothing special was going on just yet. If he could just play this out in the right way, then maybe he'd get to enjoy Theo's cold in a really satisfying manner later on tonight.

"Well, neither have I." David paused for emphasis, allowing time for this fact to sink into Theo's mind. "And I feel really stupid about that now, but I panicked. We spent all night dancing, and I'm still pretty new at this. I thought you kissed so well and I could just tell you wanted more, so I... I guess I just felt overwhelmed. I'm sorry, I know just leaving like that was wrong, so I was thinking, maybe tonight if you're still up to it, we could maybe try again, take it nice and slow..."

David hung his head and ran a hand through his ludicrous shock of pink hair, as if suddenly shy, feeling proud of his delivery. He waited, certain he would feel Theo's arms around his shoulders any second, perhaps even the guy's lush lips on his cheek, which most definitely did not help his erection subsiding in the least. He sat poised on the cold cement for a few moments, expectant, when all of a sudden, against all odds, he heard Theo burst out laughing.

The smaller man was holding his sides, shaking with mirth, his grin seeming to take up half his face. David just sat and looked at him, nonplussed.

"Oh my God! You think I'm really stupid, don't you?" Theo choked out, trying hard to regain his composure and failing. "David, you are so full of shit you squeak! I can't believe it - 'I'm pretty new at this'? What, do you think I'll believe that for a second? I'm not blind David - I've seen all those men flirting with you- they know you very well. Leo's warned me off you, and it's not because you're so...inexperienced, believe me. And I know you can lie like the Devil; just ask my friend Jessica. I think you're just a selfish bloke who thinks he can have everything he wants. But not this time, no way. And for fuck's sake, get yourself some taste. Or a mirror."

David just stared at Theo open-mouthed, feeling heat flare up on his cheeks. He'd been certain, so certain that he'd be able to play this off to perfection; to have been so neatly circumvented was something that hadn't happened to him in a long, long time. And had he really heard a jab at his taste in fashion? Before he could get his mind around it properly, his attention snapped back to Theo, who was still telling him off.

"You know what? When I first met you, I really liked you. I thought you were so nice, and I know my friend Jessica did as well. But that was all lies, wasn't it? Because that's all that comes out of that pretty mouth of yours: just a bunch of lies. Well, you can find someone else to dupe tonight, because I'm done with you. I'm pulling someone who'll be worth it. I'm new at this, so I might as well have fun and not waste time on some guy with a ridiculous hairstyle. David, you can just fuck off!"

"Now hold on," David started, feeling a red hot sheath of anger rise up inside him. How dare that insolent little man talk to him like that? And what on earth was wrong with his hair? Even Andy had told him the bright pink suited him! "Who do you think you are? I just try to come clean with you, and that's how you react? I think if one of us is going to fuck off mate, it ought to be you."

David jumped down from the cement block and stood in front of Theo, almost a full head taller than the latter. Was this going to turn nasty? Without thinking, he adopted a combative stance.

It was lost on Theo, who simply turned aside and let go a sneeze so strong that it was almost painful in it's intensity.

"Huh... Huh!... HURRSSSHOOO!!"

Doing this, however involuntarily, Theo had struck a potent blow to David's Achilles heal. Instead of another harsh comment or even a slap, all the other could do was to grudgingly bless him as he felt his fading erection begin to blossom anew.

"You know what?" Theo replied, sniffling heavily and looking suddenly tired as he gave David his most winning red-nosed smile, "That, my friend, is exactly what I'm going to do. And now that the air between us is clear, we can both go back and get on with business."

Incredulous, David stood there as Theo's arm linked with his own and began to pull him back towards the club. This guy was really amazing! Not only had he seen straight through the lines David had been feeding him, he'd actually had the courage to tell him exactly how he felt.

David, assuming the air was clear between them and everything would go back to normal, broke out into a smile. Perhaps he really had underestimated Theo. This little domestic, far from leaving them at each others' throats and filled with unresolved bile, had actually cleared things up and they now knew exactly where they stood. Paradoxically, David's interest in Theo was now kindled anew, more so than previously and not just because of his cold and admittedly stunning sneezes; the man had a depth he'd not previously suspected. David now saw Theo more as an equal than as a pawn, an admittedly rather rare occurrence.

He looked into Theo's smiling eyes as they re-entered Cruz 101, ignoring the doorman's sly grin, and thought maybe this time, things just might progress differently between the two of them. As David was trying to come up with a suitable strategy, Steps came on and he felt Theo's arm letting go of his own. The smaller man made a mad dash for the dance floor to join his friends in a cheerful frenzy of perfectly timed choreography. Through flashes of lights and moving arms and legs, David caught a glimpse of Theo bending over to sneeze as he made his way towards his friends. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.

David smiled, slowly, and lazily made his way next to a different corner of the dance floor where he could stand and look at the talent to his heart's content. Theo could wait; there were so many men there for the taking. So many, many men... Like that one there, in the corner, leaning forward. What could he possibly be doing? David decided to go and investigate.

6. The Go-Go Boy

"Love's Got a Hold On My Heart" was blaring out from the speakers around them, and Jessica was happily dancing away. For the past few minutes however, she had been futilely casting about for Theo. Leo had advised her to give it up; he believed the pair was probably making floorboards creak in one of their respective flats by now, but Jessica disagreed. After what had transpired (or failed to transpire) between David and Theo earlier, she was almost certain the latter would be sensible enough to find a new object of interest.

"There you are!" Jessica cried, relieved, when she finally spied Theo. He had returned at last, and was dancing energetically, grinning like a Cheshire cat beside her. "We missed you!"

Then, it struck her that there was something wistful about Theo's smile.

"Hey, are you all right?"

"Yeah. I just had a talk with David," Theo confessed, not pausing his dance as he leaned towards her. "I think everything's cool between us now."

"You have to tell me about it," Jessica replied, her eyes widening with ill-concealed excitement.

Sometimes, the role of Agony Aunt was not so much thrust upon her as actively sought, and she could sense that there was definitely some top quality gossip to be had here. Though not quite as mad for it as Andy was, Jessica did enjoy a spot of gossip as well. To be fair though, it was obvious that Theo wanted to talk, and Jessica used this excuse to convince herself that she wasn't solely doing this out of ravenous curiosity. She took his hand and led him off the dance floor to a relatively quiet corner at the back of the club, leaving the others to dance without them.

"Oooh, looks like something's going on there! Better clear the chill-out room, people, Jess and Theo are giving it a go! The vixen's gone and turned another Cruz man around, oh, the tragedy!" Andy cried delightedly as he eyed the retreating pair. "Well, I'm glad they're leaving - more room for me!"

With that, Andy launched into an admittedly impressive series of dance moves, clasping his hands and working his shoulders as he flirtatiously strived to make eye contact with every single man around him at the same time.

Charlotte rolled her eyes and lit a cigarette, flicking back a stray lock of long black hair. "Andy, you know you'd have better luck if for once you actually focused on just one man, don't you?"

"With my looks, who needs luck?" Andy replied. "The thing is, since every bloke in here is dying for a piece of me, I have a hard time choosing who I like best!" He paused for a moment, framed in a stray beam of light that enveloped him in a sheath of white, making him look like a chosen man ready to ascend above the rest. "Don't laugh at me, woman; it's true! Thing is," he worked his eyebrows up and down suggestively, "I'm going after Ben the go-go boy tonight. You can tell if a bloke's good in bed by watching how he dances, I know that because I read it in Cosmo, and that Ben can dance!"

All eyes turned towards Ben who was, indeed, dancing away, smiling and oblivious on his podium, surrounded by a crowd of admiring onlookers as if he were king of the world. But as the song ended, the hiatus in the sound caused by people catching their breath was sharply interrupted by a truly earsplitting blast of music from the street outside, as Eminem inquired of the clubbers if the real Slim Shady would please stand up.

Immediately, cheers went up and the dancing started again just as a teasing voice came seemingly out of nowhere right next to Andy.

"Andy, please stop drooling! The dance floor will get all slippery, and then how am I supposed to dance?" he inquired, in a suave, gently accented voice.

"Christiaan!" Andy cried, delighted, turning to face him. "I swear, Leo, this place is becoming more of a hole every week - no standards at all, they'll just let anything slither in."

Christiaan smiled at Charlotte, who was being embraced by Ruth's lithe, silver frame.

"Well, we know what you're after tonight, sugar," Charlotte coolly said to him, exhaling a blue drift of smoke from her cigarette.

Leo took a look at Christiaan's tight white t-shirt and burst out laughing. In bold black letters, the front of it read "You have money, you can have me!"

"You could be subtle and just advertise in Boyz like everyone else, y'know," Leo said disapprovingly, his tone contrasting with the sparkling smile he bestowed upon his friend.

"Poor sod," Ruth gave Leo a playful look, "you completely missed the point. Or friend doesn't want to be a rent boy; he wants a sugar daddy. Isn't that right, babe?"

But she wasn't looking at Leo by the time she'd finished. Charlotte's immense, darkly lined blue eyes were hungrily scanning the bar, searching in a way that would have put Andy to shame, even though she could feel Ruth's reproving glance coiling itself round her shoulders like a warm- and not entirely unpleasant- snake. Realizing she'd been in the act of Actively Looking Around, Charlotte gave Ruth a slight half-smile and shrugged. The other, however, did not smile back and everyone felt tension growing.

Something had to be said and fast.

"Shagging rich, liver-spotted, wrinkly old men covered in gold chains with hair coming out their ears and nostrils," Andy screamed, "eeeeew! Christiaan, love, you have absolutely NO class! I respect you!"

This had the desired effect. Ruth's stony fašade returned to something approaching mellow.

"Well, I'm tired of being a poor student, so I thought I'd give this a go. You never know, I just might get lucky!" Christiaan exclaimed, giving Andy a wink.

Somehow, it wasn't as light-hearted as he'd intended for it to be. Everyone knew that despite the fact that he was often embarrassed by the flamboyant loudmouth's untimely (and generally extremely voluminous) outbursts, Christiaan had an unrequited crush on Andy. Though he might kid around about finding a rich older man, everybody present noticed desire heavily lacing the look he gave Andy as he said it. Everybody, that is except Andy himself, or perhaps he simply chose not to.

"And if you do," Andy replied, oblivious, "we're sharing, babe. I want money too! My cravings for expensive jewellery are just getting completely out of hand!"

Ruth and Charlotte burst out laughing and Andy, pleased at his success, decided to push it completely over the top.

"It's the bloody diamonds, you know, Leo's always telling me the last thing I need is another diamond, but all those ads keep saying they're a woman's best friend, and we all know that if it's on telly then it has to be true. I think Christiaan's on to something here; I should get me a rich suitor as well, and then he can buy beautiful sparkling things to adorn my already precious body with" Andy informed the group, rendering the whole conversation totally devoid of what little sense it originally possessed.

Then, as if suddenly inspired, he paused and shrieked, "Oi! Any rich people here? Someone please adopt my friend! We want diamonds!" at the top of his voice.

A few people turned to look, but by the time they did, Christiaan had already disappeared, running to hide from Andy before anyone could guess they were friends. For about the thousandth time since he'd met Andy, Christiaan wished God had been a little bit less generous in the vocal chords department when his friend had been born

Andy's eyes fastened once again onto the nearby podium where go-go boy Ben was gyrating in a most suggestive and inviting manner. Then, he sighed; for all his outward exuberance, he could be shy when it came to approaching men. He knew he had to talk to Ben at some point - Leo would never let him live it down if he didn't - but he just wasn't sure about the best way to do it.

Oh, bugger it, Andy thought. Might as well go for the gold.

"Leo," he said to his friend, "prepared to be amazed and astonished by my pulling prowess."

"What?" Leo replied, not understanding what his friend meant.

"You see him?" Andy was very unsubtly pointing to the object of his desire, as his other hand fluttered down to rest on a hip that was lasciviously and theatrically pushed forward.

"Yeah. We always watch Ben. Ben is paid to be watched by we unworthy creatures."

"Speak for yourself!" Andy retorted, tossing his head.

He gave his friend a meaningful smile and dashed off.

"You do know he could be legally classified as dangerously insane, right?" Ruth leant over and casually asked Leo.

"Oh aye," Leo replied just as calmly. "But then again, wouldn't nights out without Andy be boring?"

"Not necessarily," Charlotte gave him a saucy smile. "There's always Jessica. That one's a right drama queen fit to shame anyone off Dawson's Creek."

"This," Leo said thoughtfully, "is very true."

As if on cue, Jessica reappeared with Theo at her side.

"Miss me?" she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at Leo, Ruth and Charlotte.

"No!" the three of them cried simultaneously.

Theo punctuated this with a rather light (for him), "Hurrresshoo!"

The five of them laughed and then relaxed, beginning once more to move to the infectious beat of Madonna's "Ray of Light."

Friday night went on.

7. Watch The Hair

There he was, that gorgeous bare-chested god of well-toned sinuous muscle and firm, lightly furred thighs. He was swaying to the beat, egging on the crowd, making a production of his energetic dance moves and letting his eyes roam easily over the throng as he smiled to faces he fleetingly recognised. He'd been working in Cruz for months, and had by now lost count of all the drinks that had been bought for him, all the shag tags hopeful men had left him and all the men he'd ended up going home with. If he was to spend all his Friday nights in here, Ben thought, he might as well get a few added benefits out of it.

He looked down and spied a nice looking fellow with close-cropped sandy hair, carefully spiked, gazing at him out of friendly round brown eyes. Unlike the rest, he wasn't swaying to the music but only pointedly staring. Lights swirled across his features, highlighting the observer's straight nose, high cheekbones, smooth-shaven chin and deadly serious expression.

Curious, Ben waved at him, trying to incite him to dance. The stranger only kept on looking, unmoving, a small smile making the corners of his well-defined lips draw upward a bit. Ben tried again, smiling broadly. Just what was this guy after? He leaned down to speak to him.

"Are you all right, mate?"

"Fine!" Andy replied, looking right at him.

"Why aren't you dancing?" Ben asked.

"Just because," Andy replied, mustering the courage to speak his mind even though for once in his life, he was feeling as if he might faint because he was so nervous at the idea of finally talking to this man he'd been desiring for weeks, "dancing is only a way to try and get people to notice you, and tonight, it's not working for me. When I was dancing out there earlier, you didn't look at me twice because I was just like everyone else, an insignificant insect, twisting and squirming, playing a worthless game that no one here ever really seems to win because they all come back to play week after week. Dancing's a way to escape from grey, boring weeks, to release pent up energy, to make yourself over and make others think you're beautiful because of the way you move. It's a way to try and rise above it all, to find someone else to connect with, to experience something better than your boring reality. Tonight, and all these Friday nights, they're an escape, an excuse to forget who we really are, to forget what we want and what we don't have, to convince ourselves that we're happy. And usually, the dance and the games are enough, but right at this moment, I'm sick of it. There's just something missing."

Ben shook his head and pointed at his ears.

"Bit deaf mate. Music's too loud! What?"

Andy grinned and shrugged.

He touched Ben's cheek in a flirtatiously limp-wristed gesture before yelling, "I said, nice legs!"

Ben smiled back, this time nodding in understanding. "Thanks! Hey- I saw you out there - you can move as well as I can!"

Andy blushed bright pink; without knowing it, Ben had just given him what he considered to be just about the ultimate compliment. Leo and Jessica liked to poke fun at the flamboyant way in which he moved on the dance floor and, lurking at the back of his mind, there was always the idea that perhaps he didn't move quite as well as he thought he did. Coming from an ultimate authority on the subject such as Ben (whom Andy viewed as being only a little bit inferior to God himself... or maybe not), being told he was a good dancer did wonders for his self-esteem.

"Well, help me out then!" Andy cried, smiling invitingly at Ben.

The gorgeous man leaned down, grabbed Andy's wrist and pulled him onto the podium. The crowd around them went wild, and Andy basked in that glory until he felt like his heart was going to explode. This was like something out of his wildest fantasies! It was the sort of thing he wrote about in his journal when he was alone at night and no one could catch him pouring his heart out in all its overdone and overemotional glory. Here he was, framed by sound, light and adulation, dancing with the most gorgeous man in the club. At that moment, Andy felt bloody fantastic.

Seductively, he raked a nail across Ben's chest, enjoying the feel of the man's smooth, glistening skin. The go-go boy smiled and drew Andy near. He pressed his groin against Andy's, grinding and gyrating more than a little bit suggestively against him, letting the other feel his hard flesh as he swayed and rocked sensuously. Groovejet took over, and Ben decided that his dancing partner was definitely handsome in his own right. He reached over to draw him even closer, brushing a warm hand along the back of his head.

"Watch the hair," Andy muttered, his eyes half closed, lost in his enjoyment of the moment.

Ben, not having heard, leaned forward to kiss Andy on the lips. Andy couldn't believe his luck; instead of kissing Ben back, he simply froze stock-still, completely overcome by this (in reality) completely unexpected turn of events. Here he was, on a podium, being kissed by a man which most of the other blokes in Cruz would only ever touch in their dreams. Ben finally broke it off and laughed.

"You okay?"

"Fine, fine! Um, let's try that again?" Andy said, barely above a whisper.

Ben grinned and leaned in close again, this time aiming his exquisitely well-defined lips at Andy's forehead for a kiss that was more affectionate in nature. Doing so, he ran his fingers through the other's artfully spiked hair, mussing it affectionately as his mouth made contact with Andy's warm forehead. By some strange turn of events, one of hairspray-coated spikes on Andy's head brushed against the opening of his left nostril. Before Ben could even think of trying to hold it back, a sneeze burst out of him, a light, catlike "heh-tshhh" that sprayed fine mist onto the top of Andy's head.

"What are you doing?" Andy shrieked, pulling back sharply, visibly panicked. "My hair!"

"What?" Ben asked, slightly embarrassed, his eyes narrowed, obviously very confused. For the first time that night, he moved out of sync with the music.

"My hair!" Andy repeated. "I spent hours on it before leaving, and now you've gone and ruined it! I knew it, I knew this was too good to be true! I'm dancing on a podium with a gorgeous go-go boy, everyone's wishing they could be in my place, and my hair is ruined! This is worse than that scene in Carrie! Oh, the humanity!"

The last syllable of 'humanity' dissolved into a high-pitched wail as Andy promptly disengaged from Ben's arms, jumped off the podium and raced across the dance floor to the men's room. Breathing hard, he pushed past the men queuing up at the entrance, tears in his eyes threatening to spill onto his cheeks. Only the thought of his body glitter being washed away kept him from giving in and he opened his almond brown eyes as wide as he could to force the moisture to stay in. At last, pushing past people, he reached the mirror and positioned himself proprietarily in front of it, wincing as he looked at the spikes on his head.

"Your hair looks fine, you know."

It was Christiaan, once again appearing out of nowhere in back of him.

"No it doesn't! It got sneezed on! Look, the third spike on the right is crooked!" Andy moaned as fussed over his hair, wetting his fingers under the tap and trying desperately to straighten it again as the other men in the room looked over, amused.

"Andy, stop it. Your hair looks like it always does - and it should, the money you spend on hair gel. Really, it's fine. What's wrong with you, anyway?"

"My hair doesn't always look like this! Don't tell me that!" Andy begged, still absorbed in trying to redress another mutilated spike.

"Poor darling. Bless," A low, throaty voice crooned near him.

Andy turned around and was confronted by one of the most glamorous creatures he'd ever seen, stepping out from a stall at the rear. The six foot four (with spike heels) drag queen displayed a splendid wig, all flowing black locks interspersed with silver filaments. Her lips and eyelids were lavishly painted a creamy pastel blue and an artful touch of rouge brought her exquisite cheekbones all the attention they very much deserved. She carried herself proudly, enveloped in a daring black evening gown that showed up the padding she obviously revelled in flaunting, and as she sashayed over to Andy, he couldn't help but exclaim,

"You are a goddess. I'm totally speechless. Will you teach me the art of applying makeup?"

The drag queen burst out laughing. She got the distinct impression the astonished boy before her wouldn't be at all surprised if the next words out of her mouth were "take me to your leader".

"Bless," she said again. "Honey, I heard you in there - I don't know why you're so upset over your hair; it looks fine to me. However," she paused, looking in her evening bag, "I thought this might help.

Andy's eyes literally shone when she handed him the small can of hairspray.

"There really is a God!" he exclaimed, reaching out to take it before turning back to the mirror.

Within five minutes, his deft fingers had redressed the drooping spikes and he was spraying and impressive and unnecessarily voluminous cloud of hairspray around his now restored work of art, most of which actually landed on the men surrounding him.

Strangely enough, no one complained. If one person should have, it was the drag queen, as she was stood directly behind Andy and consequently got quite a healthy dose of hairspray inadvertently directed right at her. When Andy was finished, he looked in the mirror, and broke out in a pleased smile as he contemplated his gorgeous, well-repaired coiffure.

When Andy was finished, he handed the spray back to the drag queen with a dramatic flourish.

"You," he breathed, "are a angel. Honestly. I consider myself to be forever in your debt."

Right in front of him, standing about a head taller than he, was the drag queen. Though Andy was holding the can of hairspray out, she was in no shape to take it from him just yet. Her face was screwed-up expectantly in an incredibly tight pre-sneeze expression. Her lush pastel blue lips were drawn up to reveal rather horsey teeth, and her eyes, which were lined with a stunningly long set of false lashes, were tearing and blinking so rapidly the latter seemed in danger of falling off. Her chest was rising up and down dramatically as her whole body tensed, preparing to expel the massive dose of hairspray she had inadvertently inhaled as a result of Andy's exertions.

As Andy watched, things seemed to go in slow motion.

The drag queen's eyes shut definitively. Her hands fluttered near her face in futile flapping motions. Her powdered nose wrinkled up as her blue upper lip, incredibly enough, curled even higher. Her head reared back, black-and-silver wig wobbling dangerously, as she took in a massive final breath.

"Hah... Ahhh.... HASSSHIEEEEEEWWWWWW!"

Everyone was stunned in the aftermath, including the queen herself. One glance in the mirror revealed that her hair was now incongruously short, brown and mussed. She looked in front of her to find a tangled mess of black and silver filaments lying in the sink. Thankfully, no water was running. Not a sound was heard except for her harsh gulp as she pitched forward to retrieve her headdress, smoothing it out with professionally fast practiced speed, promptly putting it back on her head.

Blushing furiously, she faced the small crowd that was looking at her utterly gobsmacked.

"What the hell are you all staring at?" Despite everything, she hadn't lost her dulcet tones.

"Bless you," Andy said, almost shyly. Every other man in the room promptly repeated this in subdued tones.

The drag queen decided perhaps her best course of action would be to pretend nothing had happened. She reached out, took the can of spray, and gave it a murderous glare before smiling benevolently at Andy. Christiaan laughed softly in the background, elbowing a tall man that stood next to him.

The drag queen leant over to peck Andy on the cheek, amazingly enough managing to do so without smudging her perfectly painted lips. "Look at him," she said, addressing the other men present before turning back to Andy. You're that cute, you shouldn't worry so much about your hair. And that probably goes for me, too."

Truer words had not been spoken to Andy all evening.

The drag queen washed her hands, checked her makeup, gave herself a seductive smile that was only slightly spoiled by a nose that had acquired a slight pink tinge and then glided out, a few men clapping as she flippantly tossed her head and made her exit. Andy stood motionless, for once awed into silence at such a genuine display of human kindness and such a spectacular sneeze.

"What would we do without the queens," the man next to Christiaan said to Andy. "Hi, I'm Ray."

Andy, still dazed over his near capillary catastrophe, extended his hand as if in a trance.

"And I'm Britney Sp-," he suddenly snapped out of his reverie. "I mean, I'm Andy."

He pumped the man's hand, giving him an appraising look. He was tall, with sandy hair and brows, striking blue eyes and a chiselled jaw. Looks a bit like Brecken Myers, Andy thought, wondering whether he should have a go at pulling him. Then, his eyes flickered over to Christiaan's, and he saw the other give him a proud, proprietary smile.

Andy immediately backed away. "Oi! Christiaan, you bastard, you've pulled! If I weren't still overcome by the fact that I just almost kissed Ben the go-go boy - which puts me miles ahead of anyone in this club tonight - I'd be totally jealous."

"You what?" Christiaan asked, not believing his ears.

"You mean you didn't see me? God, I thought everyone in the world was watching me! Okay, good. Never mind. I absolutely wasn't dancing on that podium with Ben and he didn't kiss me and I didn't run away from him like the biggest tart the world has ever seen because the bastard sneezed all over my hair."

A bit of light went out of Andy's eyes as he recalled the closure of his intense moment of seduction. Why couldn't Ben have heeded his advice and been more careful? Some people! Andy thought with a trace of vindictiveness.

Christiaan started laughing again. "Right. Shame Ray and I didn't see any of that. It'll teach us to stay in the women's loo talking the night away!"

Andy grew thoughtful. "Maybe it's not too late, though, I could always go out again and..." His smile brightened anew and he glanced at his watch. "I'll leave you two lovebirds on your own. Be good. And Christiaan, call me tomorrow, I'm sure I'll have some good gossip for you. I'm going back out there right now! It's only one thirty; the night's still young, lots of people left to worship me. Maybe I can even have another go at Ben!"

With that, he threw his friends a mischievous smile and danced his way out of the bathroom, leaving Ray and Christiaan behind. His hair repaired, he was feeling once again confident and full of energy, ready to pull the whole world. Andy didn't even notice when a short, dark haired figure left the queue of patiently waiting men to follow him back into the wilderness of Cruz's interior.

8. Back to Kansas

Andy found his way back to the dance floor and quickly spied Theo, Leo and Jessica dancing together in one corner. Upon seeing him, they waved and motioned for him to come and join their circle.

"Hiya! I'm back! Did you see that? I pulled Ben the go-go boy!"

Leo struggled not to laugh. "No you didn't."

"Yes I did. Okay, so I suddenly felt the need to use the loo, but no matter. I won the bet; I still pulled him."

"In your dreams, darling," Charlotte replied, strolling up with Ruth out of seemingly nowhere. "The reason why we know you didn't pull Ben is because somebody else just did!"

Leo casually pointed with his little finger to the middle of the dance floor where the crowd was thickest. Andy craned his neck and strained to see Ben through the swarm. It took him about thirty seconds, during which he could hear Leo and Jessica giggling like naughty school children, before he finally did.

God he was gorgeous. He was swaying to the rhythm of Kylie Minogue's "Breathe", clad only in jeans and a pair of shoes, someone's arms partially obscuring the perfect planes of his back.

"Lucky bastard, whoever he is," Andy sighed wistfully.

"Look closer," Jessica couldn't resist chirping.

Andy did as he was told. He kept his eyes on Ben and a few seconds later, he turned around and Andy got a good look at who the gorgeous man's dancing partner was.

Theo.

Amazed, Andy turned back to his friends. Seeing their expectant leers at what they thought was the most exciting turn of events of the evening, he decided he couldn't just say that he was happy for Theo. Putting on a suitably outraged expression, he camply shrieked,

"I put on a coat of Oil of Ulay on my skin every night before I go to bed you know, that's why my skin is so gorgeous, and for what? So I can be upstaged by Theo? Serves them both well, mind, shows how little taste that go-go boy has, I'm probably better off without him. Hah - the bastards can go right ahead and sneeze all over each other, good luck to them. Now where's that sexy barman gone?"

Before anyone could say a word, Andy had disappeared into the crowd in search of new quarry. The short figure that had followed him out of the bathroom, the same one that had lurked in the background while Andy was delivering his spiel about Theo and Ben, swiftly followed him off the dance floor.

When Jessica glanced towards the bar a few minutes later, she gasped in surprise as she spied Andy locked in what looked like an intense snog with a short, vaguely Italian looking stranger. From the look of things, the man was a good kisser, because he and Andy were very much engaged in sensuous oral exploration. Jessica watched, poking Leo's side to get him to look over too. Just at that moment, Andy's hand unceremoniously rose to slap away the other man's, which had ominously crept up to hair-level.

Charlotte lit another cigarette and gave Leo and Jessica a crafty smile. Perhaps it hadn't been the go-go boy as he'd originally planned, but Andy had definitely pulled tonight after all. All eyes were on Andy and Theo, the two ostentatiously lucky ones, as the group kept right on dancing.

After a few dances, they watched as the Italian-looking man gave Andy a brief kiss on the ear, motioning towards the bathroom, and handed him some money for drinks. As he was waiting at the bar for his customary Smirnoff Mule, shaking his arse for the benefit of the delicious and lucky men queuing behind him, he became aware of a familiar presence at his side.

Christiaan was strangely silent. His dark blue eyes reflected the teeming life of the club- the jagged shine of bottles, the distorted faces around him, the lights- but it all seemed to mask a great, heavy stillness in him, a stillness so profound that Andy felt his usual camp patter dying on his lips.

"Andy," Christiaan said quietly, "I'm going home."

"What?" Andy's brows furrowed, and he immediately cursed himself for opening up to the possibilities of wrinkles. "Home? What do you mean? That bloke you pulled, what's his name, he's gorgeous, and it's hardly even two yet!-"

"No, I mean..." Christiaan looked away from him, "home."

Andy stared at his friend's face, wondering if he could possibly mean what Andy was beginning to think he might.

"I'm going back to Finland," Christiaan said, so quietly that Andy could barely hear it - but he didn't have to.

For once in Andy's life, he couldn't think of anything to say.

The two men stood, still and silent, while the rest of Friday night surged around them.