Some people Gareth's age no longer enjoyed their birthdays. Speaking to them, he always had a feeling that the reason for this was that they didn't particularly enjoy their lives either.
He was going to enjoy *his* life for as long as he could. Only problem with that was that people expected him to become drab and boring like them. He would have expected to be spared all the "settle down" comments, but no. And all those little hints from nosy busybodies that his friends were so much younger than him. He *liked* the twentysomethings. They knew to value the important things, like a good whiskey and entertaining company.
He told the nosy ones that of course he was going to settle down – it was just a question of finding the right male model. But he rather suspected that the love of his life, should he find him, would be another leftover from the party of youth, a class clown who wouldn't mind being upstaged from time to time.
He was surprised to find, during the course of his birthday party, that he simply could not take his eyes off the new Scottish fellow. Whenever he tried, went off somewhere to fetch a drink or something to eat, he heard that soft but distinctive voice and had to return to his staring.
There was nothing remarkable about the Scottish fellow, really. Charles had brought him – good old Charles, straightest boy you ever saw and yet drawing in the men like flypaper. This one was good-looking, but Gareth could see prettier boys any day of the week. Funnier too. Though he smiled from time to time, the Scotsman had yet to laugh or crack a joke. He didn't even talk all that much.
And then those calm eyes met his, and he had to walk up and ask, "Matthew, wasn't it?" even though he knew very well that it was, just to hear that voice again.
Matthew smiled. "I know."
"Well, of course you do," Gareth said heartily. "It's my party, after all. Tonight, I am the centre of the universe."
There was something about Matthew's smile that was a tad disconcerting. There was no way to tell what the blasted man was thinking. "Are there times when you are not?"
"Not the centre of the universe?" Gareth opened his arms wide. "No, I always am. It's a heavy duty, but it is mine to bear."
"That's what I thought," Matthew said. There was a pause before he continued, "We have met before, you know."
Gareth stared at him. "We haven't. I would have remembered."
"I doubt you remember much of anything from that night. Querelle, last month. You were fairly pissed."
"Oh." He wanted to ask, what did I do? What did *we* do? But he had as a policy to never express uncertainty in his drunken behaviour, nor apologise for it. And so he simply said, "Well, then I must remedy my lapse in memory by getting to know you all the faster now. Shall I get you a drink?"
"Please," Matthew said, holding out his glass for Gareth to take.
They got their drinks and spent some time talking, time that turned into hours as the party went on. People would come up to them from time to time and stand around for a while, believing themselves to be participants in the discussion even though they were no such thing. Their words would be listened to, taken into consideration, used as a starting point for new topics, but they were prompters reading cues off a sheet, that was all. The conversation – nay, the entire party – belonged to Gareth and Matthew alone. Matthew was the perfect counterpart, really, not a fellow wit, but someone who'd listen, hold his speaking, and then at the right moment say something utterly to the point.
There was no doubt about it. This was, as those Coca-Cola ads put it, "the real thing".
Waking up the next morning, Gareth unusually enough felt old, and it had nothing to do with the hangover. He shuffled around his empty apartment, picking up trash and eating leftovers. It had occurred to him, sometimes during his sleep, that Matthew was twenty-seven. A very mature twenty-seven, granted, certainly more mature than Gareth himself, no one you had to feel like a cradle robber for taking into bed.
The only trouble, as Gareth saw it, was that the bed was only a minor part in what he wanted with Matthew. And at twenty-seven, there was no reason you should thank a man of forty for wanting to "settle down" with you. He shouldn't think, just because Matthew had enjoyed *one* night in the exuberant company of Gareth the Magnificent, that he would be anywhere *near* ready for the long term.
In his experience, life didn't work that way. And love – good Lord, how far had he sunken to use that word – most *definitely* didn't work that way. He would have to take it slow, let things progress naturally before blurting out unasked for emotions. And even so, in the end he'd call himself lucky if he got out of this with a shag or two and a broken heart.
He found himself accepting three party invitations that very morning, all to take place in the next two weeks. His head, still not recovered from the night before, ached mightily at the thought of more alcohol, but never mind that if he could see Matthew again.
Two of the parties, he found as he went to them, were from this point of view a complete failure. The third was a success, and Gareth found himself drawn into a lengthy conversation with Matthew again, about nothing and everything, the words an excuse to stand there. Some of what was said and done would count as flirtation under anyone's definition, but they didn't take it any further than that.
After a few more social occasions, he started to learn the pattern. Querelle was an unsafe bet – some weeks Gareth would be there (always on a Wednesday or Saturday), more often he would not. As for parties, any larger crowd of people that included Charles or Fiona would most likely have Matthew as well.
Gareth was starting to feel a kinship with Fiona. Before, he had enjoyed her cutting edge humour, but now he was starting to notice other things: how her gaze lingered at Charles, and how sometimes she got that impatient look, as if she was just waiting for old Charlie-boy to open those baby blues wide and discover what was in front of him. Gareth could have told her that wouldn't happen – he was oblivious and would *remain* oblivious; in twenty-four years, living next door to Charlie would be exactly what it was now.
In comparison to poor Fiona, he supposed he was making progress with Matthew. They gravitated towards each other at parties and gatherings, and the flirting had reached the level where it was only a time before "friends" became "friends with benefits."
"Tell me," he asked Matthew, at a wedding party of all blasted places, "which one of the men here would you take home, had you the chance?"
Matthew pursed his lips, thinking. "In theory or reality?"
"Is there a difference?"
"Oh, absolutely. In theory, I might go for him." He nodded towards – of all people – Charles's baby brother, who was no more than a year or so above legal age. Dear God, were his tastes *that* young?
Gareth forced himself to a benign, careless smile. "And in reality?"
"In reality, I never try anything with a man who has his tongue *that* far into a woman's mouth."
"Ah well, that's a point in my favour, then," Gareth said, keeping his voice light.
"One of many."
Gareth's breath caught in his throat, and he glanced over at Matthew, who was still watching the people mingling.
"And what would the others be?"
Matthew looked at him and smiled. "Well, there's the waistcoat, for one thing."
"Granted, it is a fine waistcoat," Gareth agreed.
"And the way you sound so pompous when you're lying."
"I *never* sound pompous!"
"That's what I'm talking about," Matthew said with a light gesture.
"I thought we were listing my *good* points here!"
"As far as I'm concerned, that *is* a good point." Matthew grinned and moved closer, so that they were only inches apart.. "It's very distinctive, very you. Like the beard." He stroked Gareth's beard to accentuate what he was saying. "Or the smell of your cigars..." He leaned closer still. "Do they *taste* as good, I wonder?"
"Do you want to try one?" Gareth asked, his eyes fixed on Matthew's lips so close to his.
"No, I think I'll just try this."
Matthew's hot breath tickled Gareth's face, and he moved closer still until the tip of his tongue touched Gareth's lower lip, following its contours, softly probing inside.
"Am I to understand this," Gareth said when he got his mouth to himself again, "as a wish to take *me* home? Realistically speaking?"
"Speaking any way you like," Matthew said, slipping his hands around Gareth's hips.
"I see." Well, here was the chance then. Friends with benefits – or something else altogether. He dared the jump. "And for how long?"
Matthew smiled as if he had just been waiting for that question, and his voice was warm as he answered: "For as long as you'd like."