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Festival friends (M/M, cold, one-shot)


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OK, so I don't write much M/M, but I got the idea from a gig I went to recently and it's pretty much written itself in my head ever since. Anyway, I hope you enjoy!

 

And coming up now is a feel-good classic…

Jim sighed and retuned the radio to something loud and meaningless; death metal vocals screaming angst into the void. It still didn’t drown out the argument replaying over and over in his head.

You’re never home.

I’ll do better.

Better’s not good enough anymore. I’ve had enough.

Dan, I—

You’ll what? Apologise? Reschedule? Change careers? It’s over, Jim. I’m done with it all. I’m done with you. Don’t call.

That had been last week, six days ago. He’d spent five of them trying to convince himself that not hearing anything was good, that Dan just needed time to come round, that he’d call tomorrow.

Then yesterday he’d had a text asking him to be out of the flat at a certain time, so Dan could pick up his things without a scene. It had rubbed salt into the wound to realise that he would have been working anyway.

And now Jim Denton was looking down the barrel of turning fifty, with six more December gigs to go followed by Christmas alone in his flat for the first time in five years. The song had finished and he turned the radio off, driving in glum silence as the day faded.

He took a sip of lukewarm lemsip and winced. He’d woken up this morning with a headache and a scratchy throat, a sure sign of trouble not aided by the stale traces of smoke in the car. When he’d first sat down and turned on the engine, a longstanding complaint had risen in his throat, half-formed.

I’ve asked you a thousand times not to smoke in the car, Dan…

But it wouldn’t matter now.

 

The gentle hills of Oxfordshire slowly flattened out into the endless Lincolnshire fields, winter sun hanging bright and low in the sky. Jim caught sight of its reflection as he glanced back and immediately felt his nose sting. Taking a shaky breath, he met his own distracted gaze in the rear-view mirror, mouth falling slackly open, eyelids lowering.

“Heeh…Huh’ASHOO!!...H’ASHHOO!! The loud, wrenching sneezes echoed around the small car and Jim pushed greying hair out of his eyes.

Four and a half hours into the five-hour drive from Somerset to Lincolnshire, on his second lemon and ginger tea from various services along the way, Jim became suddenly aware that something was wrong with his car. Swearing volubly, he pulled over to the side of the road and got out to find a rapidly deflating tyre. Great. Resigned, he pulled on his coat in the bitter wind and opened the boot to find the spare.

He had just managed to jack up the car when a silver Ford Fiesta pulled up alongside him and a man got out. Mid-thirties, with dusty brown hair and glasses. Clean-shaven, wearing jeans, a tasteful maroon woollen jumper and a blue collared shirt.

“Car trouble? Can I help?” He was already rolling up his sleeves as Jim nodded.

“That’s very good of you. I’ve got it jacked up, just need to take the wheel nuts off.”

Together they went to work with a wheel wrench. The wind was freezing but it was hard work getting them to turn and Jim was soon too warm. He was glad he’d got a fresh suit in the car – turning up covered in oil and sweat would not be a good look.

“I’m Stephen,” his roadside assistant offered as they worked. “On my way to a festival at Lincoln for the weekend.”

Jim laughed and Stephen looked at him quizzically. He explained: “I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, there can't be much else going on in this neck of the woods. My name’s Jim – I’m one of the performers there tonight. Jim Denton.” He noted that although Stephen raised his eyebrows in a general way, there was no look of recognition at his name.

“Wow, ok. What time do we need to get you there?” Jim felt a warm glow at his use of the word 'we'.

“Oh, don’t worry, I always leave lots of time. My soundcheck’s not until 6 and I’m not on until 8. Damn!” Jim’s hand slipped on the wheel wrench and he scraped his forearm across the wheel hub. He cradled his arm, which was bleeding from a deep graze. Quickly, Stephen pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket.

“Here, let me. It’s clean.” He tied the cloth around Jim’s forearm, then got up. “I’ve got a first aid kit in the car, give me a sec.” A few moments later he was back, ripping the foil from an antiseptic wipe. He untied the handkerchief and gently wiped the cut. Jim tried not to wince as a sharp pain bit into his arm. Stephen finished cleaning the graze, which had stopped bleeding, and tied the handkerchief firmly again.

“There you go. Should be ok. What do you play?” Jim couldn’t tell if it was his imagination, but it seemed that Stephen continued to hold his arm a little longer than necessary, lingering over the touch without making eye contact.

 “Oh, I sing and play guitar, so no harm done on that score. Listen, let me buy you a drink later, after my set. Say thank you properly. Come and find me at the merch table about 9.30, alright?”

Stephen looked up and smiled. He had a lovely, open smile, the sort that Jim couldn’t help returning, even in the middle of December, in the muddy middle of nowhere, in the middle of a messy breakup.

“Alright,” he said, “I’ll hold you to that. But first we’ve got to get this wheel changed.”

They talked more as they carried on. Stephen was a long time folk fan and secondary school English teacher in a run-down Birmingham comprehensive. This was his first time at the Lincoln festival, but he'd been to Shrewsbury, Southwell, and Cambridge before. Jim was a singer-songwriter from Somerset, been working at it for fifteen years. He’d started writing protest songs as a young man but the need to make some money had got in the way for a while. Now he was lucky enough to be able to support himself with his music, although it was often hand-to-mouth. Finally, to Jim's slight disappointment, the wheel was ready and Stephen straightened up, wiping his hands on a cloth, then handing it to him to do the same.

“Well, I think you’re roadworthy again,” he observed. “I guess I’ll see you at the festival.”

Jim nodded. “Thank you so much for your help - come and find me for that drink.”

“Will do.” They’d become awkwardly formal again, now that the easy camaraderie of the crisis was over. Jim thought about shaking hands, but in the end both men got into their cars and drove off.

A large hotel complex wasn’t the first place Jim would have imagined for a folk festival, but in the middle of December he was glad it was all inside and there was plenty of accommodation that wasn’t tents. After navigating a confusing array of car parks, he found his venue and quickly sound-checked with the crew. They showed him into a dressing room where he could clean up and change, and got him some saltwater to gargle on his request. He tried to assess his looks in the mirror objectively. Smart floral shirt, black waistcoat, jeans. Scrubbed up pretty well. A few too many grey hairs and some bags under his eyes, but in a fair light he would pass for forty. Maybe. He rolled his sleeves up, then thought better of it as it left Stephen’s makeshift bandage exposed – no need to go for the pity vote. He hoped his voice would hold out for the set. He’d certainly performed with worse, but he didn’t want to let the audience down.

Jim felt an unfamiliar shock of nerves as he heard his name announced. He rarely found performing nervewracking any more, but tonight felt particularly loaded. Whichever way you looked at it, he’d chosen his career over Daniel. If he couldn’t do it well, what was the point of that sacrifice?

In fact, the set went fine, his voice held out, his jokes got laughs, and he was even invited back for a cheerful Christmassy encore. Overall, a good night. Jim was riding high on relief and adrenaline as he made his way out from backstage to sell merchandise.

“I’ll take one of these new albums, please. Signed, if you wouldn’t mind.” Jim looked up from where he was handing out change to see Stephen standing smiling at the front of the queue, holding out a tenner.

“Of course. No charge. In fact…” Jim passed him a ten-pound note from the cash box with the album. “I’ll be done in ten minutes when the next act starts. Why don’t you get them in? Mine’s an ale.”

“See you there.” Still smiling with a mischievous glint in his eye, Stephen went off. Jim turned to the lady next in the queue, heart pounding. The rest of the merch session went by in a blur, and as the strains of the next band began, he hurriedly packed away his remaining albums and went to join Stephen at the bar.

“There you go.” A pint was pushed towards him as he settled onto a stool at the back of the room. A five-piece indie folk band was in full swing, but the spot they’d found was relatively quiet.

“Thanks.” Jim took a sip and began to relax. The cold liquid was harsh on his sore throat, but welcome nonetheless. The room was overly warm and sticky from all the people. Stephen had taken off his jumper and rolled up his sleeves to reveal muscular forearms. Jim was just about to break the silence when instead he had to turn away and sneeze.

H’ESSHOO!!” He quickly dragged a handkerchief out his jeans pocket as he took a sharp breath in. “Heh!...H’AASSHOO!! H’ESSSHOO!!” Shuddering with each violent sneeze, he dabbed at his nose.

“Bless you.”

Embarrassed, Jim turned back. “Sorry. Bit of a cold,” he said sheepishly, pocketing the handkerchief.

“You wouldn’t have known.” Stephen nodded in the vague direction of the stage.

“That’s kind of you to say.”

“I’m serious.” Stephen met his gaze earnestly. “You were fantastic out there. Do you write all your own material?”

“Yeah, that was all mine. I’ve done tours with some covers before, but what with the new album and everything, I’ve got a lot of material that I’m happy with at the moment, and I think it hangs together well on its own.”

“It was great. Some of your stuff is very moving, actually.” Stephen looked down, blushing. The band on stage’s drummer thumped on behind them, oblivious.

“Thank you.” Jim grinned. “You certainly know how to make friends with musicians. We’re basically egos on legs.”

Stephen laughed and drained his pint. “Another? My round?”

“Go on then.” Jim was starting to feel the alcohol in his system, but he wasn’t willing to cut short their conversation. He turned to watch the band for a while – they were pretty good – but had to sneeze again.

Heh’ASHHOO!!” He felt in his pocket for his handkerchief, nose still itching furiously. “Heh’ESSHOOO!! H’ASHOOO!!

“Bless you. Here you go.” Stephen had returned without him noticing. As Jim turned to take his pint their hands touched and they let the touch linger a little longer than necessary. Then Stephen settled into the seat next to him, both watching the band in silence.

“You should write a song about teachers you know,” Stephen opined after a few moments.

“Should I?” Jim raised his eyebrows.

“Sure. We’re unsung heroes as well. You’ve got your lefty protest songs about nurses, firefighters, immigrants. I think it’s time we had one.”

“Maybe I’ll write you one. Not a lot of rhymes for OFSTED, though.” Stephen laughed, leaning back on the bar. He looked utterly at home in his own skin, just enjoying his evening. Jim envied him – he was carrying too much baggage to feel comfortable with anything right now. Not to mention…

H’ESSHOO!!” The sneeze caught him by surprise and he rubbed his smarting nose with the back of his knuckles.

“Bless you.” There was a pause. “Do you want to dance?”

Jim was taken aback and almost answered no out of reflex. But the beer was relaxing him, and Stephen was waiting for a reply. There was a sizable crowd of people dancing below the band, some even older than him.

“Go on then.” Heart hammering in his chest he trailed Stephen to the front of the audience. Could he even remember how to dance? Could he dance with someone who wasn’t Daniel?

Apparently he could. After a couple of awkward self-conscious minutes they were mingling happily with the rest of the dancers, occasionally brushing shoulders and hands as they swayed to the beat of the music. Jim cast appreciative glances in Stephen’s direction – his slim waist moving confidently with the rhythm, the smooth lines of his chin and cheekbones picked out by the spotlights. The band started a song with a slower beat and Stephen caught Jim’s eye. Without speaking, without even thinking about what he was doing, Jim put his arms around Stephen’s waist and felt Stephen’s hands tighten on his back as they swayed together. Feeling Stephen’s body warm and near, Jim pulled him closer, breathing the scent of him, their heads against the other’s shoulders. Not quite ready. The band played a few more bars and they moved in time, ignoring everyone around them. Eventually, Jim lifted his head. They were very nearly the same height; Stephen had perhaps half an inch on him. But as he felt Jim’s movement, he turned his face towards him and their lips met, soft and warm, comforting and exciting, all at once. Jim’s mouth opened and he took the kiss deeper, pulling Stephen towards him savouring this pure moment, without a thought for what might come after.

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I really enjoyed this. It’s lovely to read about a more mature couple. 

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  • 6 months later...

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