Sangria Tangerine (sangriatangerin) wrote in remixwoconsent,
Sangria Tangerine
sangriatangerin
remixwoconsent

And I Will Always Love You, Act 3: Drifting In Between Part 6

Title: And I Will Always Love You, Act 3: Drifting In Between Part 6
See this post for complete headers (http://community.livejournal.com/remixwoconsent/759.html)

Without waiting for a response, Craig went to the bathroom and inspected the damage in the mirror. His lip was split and puffing up by the second – there’d be a hell of a bruise within the hour. At least one tooth was suspiciously loose. He'd need to make a dental appointment first thing in the morning.

He spat blood into the basin, turned on the tap to rinse it away. He scooped a handful of cold water into his mouth and groaned. The pain was blinding, enough to make him see stars again.

He sat on the edge of the bath, a hand-towel pressed lightly against his mouth, and waited for the dizziness to pass. He didn’t even attempt to think clearly for another ten minutes or so -- he couldn’t bear to consider the implications of it all.

Orlando was practically cowering in the corner of the couch when Craig emerged from the bathroom after about half an hour, now holding a damp towel to his mouth. He’d drawn his knees up and now rested his head against them, his folded arms shielding his face.

Craig sat down beside him, close but not touching.

He said softly. “I love you.”

Orlando raised his head, eyes puffy and reddened. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“Yes it was – that’s why I was afraid to start it in the first place. But we weren’t supposed to keep piling on the pressure ourselves – to keep making it even harder.”

“I want it known that I’m more than just your current fuck.”

“It can’t happen just yet.” Craig deliberately hardened his voice. “Deal with it or leave.”

Orlando flinched. “You’re the only thing that makes sense out of all of this shit. Just being with you – I live for that – nothing and no-one else. In the end, there’s really only one person I wish would treat me as someone worthwhile – and that’s you.”

Craig responded wearily, “I’m trying as hard as I can to make this work, Orlando – I’m doing the best I can. Can’t you simply trust my judgment and leave things be?”

“I can’t stand the fucking lies and secrets. I know there’s more to it than you’re telling me.”

God, Orlando, why do you have to be so bloody perceptive…

Craig rested his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. “There is.”

Orlando’s contrition evaporated in an instant and anger filtered into his tone once more. “Are you going to fucking tell me then, or just leave me dangling?”

“Give me a minute to think and I’ll tell you. Just hold still for a bit – I want to put it in a way you’re going to understand and not go completely apeshit over it.”

A tense silence hung over them for several endless minutes.

“It hasn’t been just your career at stake here,” Craig began slowly, “It’s been mine as well. I know being gay or bi isn’t the big deal here that it is in some other places in the world, and that we’re all pretty relaxed about it. That’s fine if you’re just an average self-contained Kiwi with no great public profile or aspirations. On a certain level, I still have to maintain complete discretion. Certainly not amongst my closer friends and colleagues, not even to any great extent in the theatre community, but when it comes to television and film – well the least said, the better. It’s this bloody global economy thing. The sponsors and advertisers – the odds are that the parent companies are somewhere other than New Zealand and they have to be kept happy. As a rule, they're usually reluctant to have anything to do with a television show or film in which one of the stars is openly gay or bi. It’s not just Hollywood, love, imposing all these stupid fucking rules and double standards and hypocrisy onto you. It’s a local television station imposing them indirectly onto me as well. There’s no official ruling – there never is because it's actually illegal in this country to make life hell for someone because of their sexuality – but it’s just understood that that’s the way it has to be.”

Orlando stared at him, confused. “I thought you didn’t care.”

“I didn’t really, not until you came into my life properly. Until then, it was pretty easy, no great drama to just be cool and carry on as usual. Then – when we happened and everyone started wanting a piece of us – I realized we’d never be left alone, that we could eventually become sort of professional untouchables. I thought we’d probably both better get cracking and start saving for our retirement – our forced retirement. Keep quiet, keep working, keep saving, try to get financially secure – because sooner or later we might have to slink off and hide somewhere, and sit out an indefinite period of unemployment.”

“How long were you going to do this? Keep it all quiet while stashing money.”

“Probably another couple of years – but obviously we’ve only got one year at most.”

Orlando erupted. “You were going to put me on hold for another couple of years for the fucking money?”

“Yeah.”

Orlando hissed, “You bastard!”

Craig shrugged. “Agreed. I can only argue my intentions were good. It was to set myself up financially so that – if worst came to worst – I could tell everyone to go fuck themselves knowing I wouldn’t have to rely on them for a living. It was for the security most of all.”

“Why the hell couldn’t you have told me all this instead of just making out that it was all about me! Money! I can’t fucking believe it!”

“Money buys you independence, Orlando!” Craig’s intention to keep the discussion calm dissolved. “It buys you security and privacy and the ability to tell people where to get off if they don’t like the way you live your life! It gives you –“

“Stop!” Orlando shouted, “Just shut up! I don’t want to fucking hear about it!”

Hadn’t Lij said something along the same lines? '…and privacy costs money, Orli. Once you’ve been a star, it’s like you have to buy your life back again. You have to buy yourself separation from them…'

“Money,” he whispered, “We’re buying and selling ourselves and each other. I can’t believe this is happening.”

He buried his face in his arms again and gave a long shuddering sigh.

Craig watched him, wanted to bridge this chasm of anger by reaching out and touching him. He was afraid to, suspecting that Orlando would simply shrug him off – or worse, lash out again. He realized he’d have to make the approach with words first, before attempting to touch him.

“If you’re still interested, Orlando – if we haven’t completely buggered everything up – I’d like to offer you a compromise.”

Orlando raised his head abruptly and gave a laugh that was brittle and humorless. “You mean we aren’t compromising already?”

“This one’s a lot different.”

He looked skeptical. “Try me.”

“Okay, first let me tell you something. There’s a special little ritual that goes on here within the gay community. It’s sort of a coming-out thing – technically informal and unofficial – but in the eyes of a lot of people, it’s about as official as you can get. The couple decides on a date – it’s traditionally a Sunday brunch-time thing. They let all their mates know, and anyone who means anything to them, and then they walk a couple of blocks down Ponsonby Road, right through the café district. They walk together and they generally hold hands while they’re doing it. All those who know, along with the inevitable other people who find out, are usually in attendance and sometimes it gets a bit silly – you know, confetti, flowers, a bit of suggestive entertainment – and there’s a fair bit of drinking and snacking along the way – but anyway, it’s sort of a celebration and it can be quite fun.”

Orlando nodded slowly and prompted, “Yeah?”

“It’s supposed to be the public celebration of the beginning of the relationship, and quite often there’s a ring ceremony in there somewhere as well.”

Orlando nodded again. “Yeah?”

“No one with a really high profile has ever done 'the walk' before because it’s been dismissed by a few high-hats as being – let’s see, I think ‘tasteless’ and ‘provocative’ are the most popular adjectives used. Most of us usually just take over a restaurant for an afternoon and do it that way. We’re all wimps, I suppose. Something that public could pretty much kill a career.”

Craig stopped then, eyes meeting Orlando’s. “Shall we do it then? When you come home to stay? Will we go out and attempt professional suicide in the noisiest and most public way possible?”

Orlando whispered, “Could we?”

“One year, Orlando, one year. The time you want to spend in England. That’s what we’ll give it. One year for you to get some theatre work done and then you’ll come back here to stay. And when you do, we’ll walk hand in hand down Ponsonby Road and we’ll do a crawl of all the queer bars and hangouts, just to make sure everyone sees us. I’ll even put a notice in the paper if you like. We won’t just frighten the horses, but probably leave the entire industry completely gob-smacked. Would you like that?”

There was no hesitation whatsoever. “Yes!”

“I’ll ask you again when you come home, but in the meantime, think very hard about it. You have to be one hundred per cent sure it’s what you really want before we go ahead and do it. I mean, sometimes things can seem so easy and right. You have it all planned in your head how you’re going to do it and how it’s going to be – and how you expect other people will react. But sometimes things don’t go the way you think they will but once it’s done, you can’t re-wind and undo it. So when the time comes, make sure it’s really what you want.”

Orlando’s eyes narrowed again and the hostility returned. “That’s twice now you’ve said something like that. Why do you tell me it’s going to happen then warn me that – you dangle it in front of me then almost warn me against touching it. Like us, like the whole deal with us. Why do you fight it all the time?”

“One day I’ll tell you.”

“Why not now? I mean you’re always accusing me of not telling you everything – or of not telling you important things anyway – but you’re never in any fucking hurry to tell me things either!”

“Now isn’t the time, not when you’ll be heading off again soon. We still have a lot of talking to do and some things shouldn’t be said and then left unresolved – left hanging – because there simply isn’t time to deal with them. Orlando, you’ve always thought my life has been relatively free of worry, trouble or anything less than salubrious – well it hasn’t always been that way. Things happened in the past that – well they’ve pretty much determined how things have to be now. I think the same sort of thing applies to you – and maybe one day you’ll tell me the things I don’t particularly want to hear but wouldn’t do me any harm in knowing because they explain things. But now isn’t the time, alright? Not yet, but one day, when we have the time to get past them. Maybe we should do that before we take the walk – get all the crap out of the way before we make a completely fresh and very public start.”

Orlando sighed. “Okay.”

“Will you hang onto that, though? The possibility of a really special day on which you can scream it out to the world if you like?”

“Yeah – alright. Was that the compromise?”

“No, it’s something else.”

Craig held out his hand. Orlando hesitated at first then slowly reached out accepted it. His eyes never left Craig’s.

“What is it?”

“There’s a group of people I’d like to have over tomorrow for a few drinks. Mainly the same people who were at the pub tonight and a few more. I’ll order in some food, make a party of it. They’re my closest friends – my peers – and I love and respect them all dearly. Their opinions and reactions count more than anything. I’d like to introduce you to them tomorrow night – as my partner.”

A glimmer of a smile appeared on Orlando’s lips. “Really?”

“Yeah. It’s only a small group, I know, but they’re all very important to me. And when you come back here to live and work, the chances are you’ll eventually spend a lot of time with them as well. It’s time you all got to know one another.”

Orlando went to him then, crawled the very short distance into his arms and they held one another tightly, both shaken by the shock of what could have been.

They’d come so very close to losing it all.

~*~

“Strictly inner circle,” Craig explained to Oliver the next morning, “I know it’s short notice, mate, but it’s really important. Can you pass it on for me?”

“Sure, I’ll let the others know. There’s a free feed involved, Parks – always guaranteed to get a full house, aye?”

“The ultimate lure for starving actors – why do you think I’m supplying it all? See you around eight then.”

As soon as he’d ended the call, he phoned his dentist and made an emergency appointment for around midday. His eyes met briefly with Orlando’s before Orlando turned away again in an attempt to hide the flicker of guilt.

“Don’t do that, love,” he said once he’d hung up. “Don’t keep avoiding looking at me. I can’t stand it.”

“I hate looking at what I did – I hurt you. I wish I could take it back.”

“You can’t, but you can get over it and let it go. I have already, okay? You do the same or this is going to be a bloody long day.”

Craig crossed the room to him, didn’t hesitate to draw Orlando into his arms and hold him tightly. “I love you – I will always love you. This is just a bad patch, alright? Everyone has them. This isn’t the first for us and it won’t be the last, but this particular one is over and done with.”

Orlando gave a half-nod, half-shrug.

“We’re still going ahead with this tonight. I want you to be pleased about it – and happy. I’m doing it for us because we need it, but it’s more for you than me. So will you cheer up a bit please?”

Orlando nodded again and gave the impression that he was making an effort to smile. “Okay.”

“We’re expecting about twenty people for eight o’clock tonight. The place is looking a bit seedy, I haven’t a clue what food to order in, I’ve no idea of the state of the booze supply – and worst of all, Bloom,” Craig touched his lips to the corner of Orlando’s mouth, “I haven’t a thing to wear.”

Orlando gave a little splutter of laughter against his will. “You’re such an idiot!”

“I know,” Craig agreed softly, “Such an idiot for complicating things so much. Orlando, you know that boring Craig Parker chap – the one who’s always so cool and calm, the one who always seems so together, the one who thinks far too much before he does anything and is rarely ever given to wild impulsiveness?”

Orlando withdrew slightly and looked at Craig. “Mmm?”

“He used to be a bungee-jumper, just like you. He used to leap wildly into things without giving half a second’s thought to the consequences. And then he did it once too often. “

Craig pointed to his lip, now swollen and badly bruised. “This is nothing compared to the damage and pain he caused. Now he thinks very hard and very carefully before he does anything, and he always considers consequences, and always thinks about who else might suffer them. He’s an absolutely boring bastard – but he never ever again wants to be responsible for someone else’s pain, not if he can help it. So will you trust him, please, to do this right? Please?”

Orlando stared at him, his brow puckered in puzzlement. “Why do you say it like it was someone else?”

“Because he was someone else, and then he became me. You wouldn’t have liked him back then, Orlando. You’d have hated him – almost as much as I did.”

“Will you ever tell – ?”

“One day, I’ll tell you all about him, but not now.” Craig kissed him gently, ignoring the pain in his lip and mouth. “Let’s get through this day, and enjoy tonight – and make the most of the time we have left, hmm? Let’s not waste another bloody second on this shit. Life’s too short.”

Orlando attempted another smile. “Yeah, it is.”

“And no guilt, Orlando. It’s too unbearable. Just let it go or it’ll fuck up everything.”

~*~

The guests started arriving a few minutes before eight and all were there by half-past. No one hesitated for a moment to ask Craig what had happened to his mouth.

“Walk into a door then?”

“No, actually Orlando gave me a smack in the mouth for behaving like a dick and you’ll be pleased to know I deserved it. I imagine everyone would probably say it was long overdue.”

“Kissed and made up then?”

“Absolutely. Now, go and do what you do best – spreading gossip – and it’ll save me from having to tell everyone myself. And while you’re at it, you might like to pass some trays around so no one’ll go hungry while they’re pissing themselves laughing.”

“Is there a queue we can join here? I've got one or two issues with you.”

“Bugger off, Joel! And make yourself useful and see everyone’s glass is kept filled.”

“Are you two coming out then?”

“No, just among friends for now. I’ll fill everyone in later. Go on through and help yourself.”

“Jesus, Craig, you’re the only queer I know with a revolving door on his closet. In, out, shake it all about! Make up your bloody mind and put this poor guy out of his misery!”

“Does he look miserable to you?”

“Right – so – are you finally going to do the walk of shame then?”

“Hopefully, yes, but not for a while yet.”

“I always knew you were itching to do your own little Hero Parade. I should’ve put money on it.”

“Unless you lose some weight, mate, you could enter yourself as an entire float. Diet-Coke’s in the fridge.”

“Bastard!”

“Love you too…”

They were all friends so there was no awkwardness to get over, no one was at a loss from not knowing anyone. They all literally knew their way around the place from frequent parties and get-togethers in the past, knew where everything was and felt free to help themselves. Craig didn’t even have to bother with playing the polite host after about the first five minutes. The music was kept playing constantly, food was served, drinks were topped up – all without his own input. He was able to circulate freely and simply enjoy watching Orlando easing his way into the fold.

He’d never really doubted it would happen. Though Orlando possessed undeniable star quality, they’d be quick to recognize the lack of pretentiousness and arrogance, and to note the presence of a touch of shyness and uncertainty.

“You’re no better or worse than any of us, and certainly no different…”

“You can’t take your eyes off him, can you?”

Craig smiled, and when he spoke, his voice seemed heavy, as if emerging from a dream state. “No I can’t.”

He turned and acknowledged the man at his side. “Hallo, Marton. When did you arrive?”

“A few minutes ago. I stopped by Tango, found everyone missing, but managed to catch Danielle on her way here.” Marton looked around pointedly. “This is all very family. What’s the occasion?”

“The semi-official induction of Orlando.” Craig pouted his swollen upper lip at Marton. “I procrastinated a bit too long.”

The concern in Marton's eyes was genuine. “Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, in fact it’s probably never been better. I should’ve done this ages ago, mate.”

Marton grinned and nodded. “How’ve you been otherwise?”

“Good. And you? Busy as ever?”

“Very. I’ve been flogging my wares at some of the more up-market indie events.”

“Any interest?"

“I’m pleased with the results so far.”

“And playing your cards very close as usual.” Craig chided, his eyes wandering back to Orlando.

Marton followed his gaze. “How’s he doing?”

Craig sighed. “Mixed. He’s off to England next week, hopefully to tread the boards for a while.”

“Ouch, I’m sorry. Good move on his part though.”

“Yeah.”

“When he gets back, I’d like to use him in something local. Think he’d be interested?”

“I think so. Ask him – but not yet. He’s got his plate full just now. Wait ‘til he comes home and has a bit of a rest.”

“Of course. Any idea when that’s likely to be?”

“He’ll honor the Rings commitment -- no choice really, not with the sort of contractual noose they have around his neck. That finishes toward the end of next year, officially. He’d originally planned to stay on longer and exploit it a bit more – good money toward his retirement – but I think he’ll just get out as soon as he can.”

“Retirement? But that’s years away!”

Craig shook his head. “No, it’s a lot closer than you think. He’s had enough, just killing time now. He’s going to back out and wind down, have a long rest. But I think that after about six to twelve months, he’ll be crawling the walls with boredom but not exactly being swamped with offers of work. He won’t even consider going back to the Hollywood scene. Then would be the perfect time to make an offer. Something local, something quality.” He turned back to Marton, gave a quick, genuine smile. “He’d be guaranteed of that in a Csokas project.”

“Oh!” Marton looked pleased. “Nice to hear that coming from you.”

“Only the truth. You do everything so well, so easily. I’ve never made any secret of how much I envy you.”

Marton gave him a light elbow to the side. “Says he who has first dibs on the spectacularly gorgeous Orlando. What more could you want?”

Once again, Craig’s eyes drifted back to Orlando, now waggling a finger in Joel’s face and delivering a mock lecture. “Nothing. I have everything.”

“Nice to see you finally moving on again.”

“I know. Took long enough though – “ Craig sighed and shrugged. “Still so many bloody issues I’ve got to sort out, Marton, while he’s away, so he can come back to a fresh start. Even this is a start of sorts.” He indicated the gathering of friends and colleagues. “It took a good right hook to get me just to do this little thing for him. So much more to deal with, and the thought of it scares the hell out of me. I hardly know where to start.”

“You know where I am.”

“Only when you come home again. They see him here, they see him there – that damned elusive Marton Csokas bloke. Your Frequent Flyer tally must be colossal.”

Marton laughed quietly. “It is. But even I’m thinking of staying a bit closer to home now. Feeling a bit of an itinerant. I miss the Motherland a lot these days. I meant it though. If you want an ear or just someone to add some objective input, call me and we’ll get together.”

“Thank you, I’ll do that.”

Marton craned his neck and peered in the direction of the dining table. “Any food left? I’m starving.”

“Probably crumbs over there but there’s plenty more in the kitchen. Help yourself. Oh, and uh – “ Craig leaned towards him and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “If you’re not in the mood for beer or the average top-shelf stuff, there’s a secret stash of single malt in the pantry – middle shelf, left side, right at the back behind the pasta-jar. Don’t tell anyone.”

“I’m astoundingly honored,” Marton murmured, grinning as he walked away.

He let the party flow without interruption until just after ten before summoning up the nerve to call attention to the reason behind it. He knew Orlando was happy enough with things the way they stood now – everyone here understood what the situation was. Now was the moment to make it official.

He caught Orlando’s eye and beckoned him over.

“Okay everyone!” he called above the general chatter, “Now comes the time you’re going to have to pay for your dinner.”

He waited until the conversations dwindled to silence and then smiled wickedly. “Sorry, nothing in life comes for free so you’re going to have to put up with me showing off for a couple of minutes.”

“Only a couple of minutes?” drawled a voice from the back of the room, “This has got to be a record of some sort.”

“I heard that, Nigel, and I’m going to remember it and upstage you next opportunity I get, so be warned.”

He took Orlando’s hand and drew him closer.

“Unless you hadn’t already worked it out, Orlando’s become a serious part of my life. It’s all a bit stop-start at the moment but one day soon, we’re going to make it a very official and permanent thing. Until then, if you don’t mind, we’d like it kept just amongst ourselves. I called everyone over tonight because I wanted everyone – especially Orlando – to know just how important he is to me, how much I love and treasure him, how incredibly alive he makes me feel.”

He paused for a moment and cleared his throat, suddenly feeling a bit too close to mushiness for comfort.

“If anyone ever wondered why I’ve been acting like a hormonal adolescent for the last few years, it’s because I was convinced I’d bored this wonderful creature out of his skull and that I’d never see him again. But someone up there – or something out there – decided I deserved a reward for putting up with bloody Oliver, our late and lovely Kevin, and all those Scared Scriptless shows – and so I was gifted with Orlando. And I’d do it all over again, Oliver, and twice more if necessary – just as long as it was written in the contract that I was going to end up feeling as absolutely and incredibly blessed as I am right now. So – rather than make a boring toast or anything like that, I’m going to retrieve a couple of magnums of champagne from the fridge – thanks Beccs, my love – and my charming partner and I are going to do the rounds with glasses and bubbly, and you’ll all make me sublimely happy and proud if you’d personally welcome him into our midst.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Orlando murmured, once the applause had died away and they were heading for the kitchen to get the champagne. He was looking slightly flushed and deliriously happy in spite of the half-hearted protest.

Craig pushed the kitchen door closed behind them, shutting out the noise of the party. He curled his arms around Orlando’s waist, drew him closer and pressed a kiss against his temple.

“I know I didn’t, but I wanted to. Aren’t you pleased?”

“God, yes! It’s more than I’d ever dreamed you’d do!”

They brought their faces together, lightly brushed lips. “A little taste of officialdom, my love, just so you know for sure that we’re eventually going to do it properly. Probably a bit of reassurance in there for me too – making sure that the people who really count know the score. If the rest of the world writes us off, we’ll still have some wonderful friends.”

“They are. Wonderful, I mean.” Orlando’s face became even more animated, “It’s like I’ve always known them. And a couple of them – Oliver and Michael – they’ve asked me to keep in touch and let them know when I’m back. They said if I was interested in trying out for anything in future, they’d give me a go. God, I can’t believe how it’s all changed so much and everything’s just brilliant again! I mean – “ He hesitated, the joy put on momentary hold, “I mean – after last night – “

“Don’t,” Craig whispered and kissed him into silence. “It’s only tonight that matters, alright? When you go back, I only want you to remember tonight. Later on, after I’ve cleared out the rabble, we’ll add a little something else to make it even more special and memorable. That way, we’ll have one completely perfect memory to hold onto. Nothing whatsoever to do with disappointment, or tension or tiredness or anything else less than absolute perfection.”

Orlando leaned back and searched his face intently. “Are you drunk?”

“Yes, but not much. Why?”

“Just checking. I’m holding out like hell for that extra little something later on,” Orlando’s grin was pure perfection in itself. “Don’t drink too much champagne between now and then, right?”

“And what about you? You’re looking a bit squiffy yourself. What if neither of us can get it up?”

“We’d better share one glass between us.”

They heard the swish of the door opening, a muffled “Ooh!” and a quiet retreat. Seconds later, the sound of Joel’s voice penetrated the walls, “No one go in the kitchen! They’re hard at it against the fridge!”

Craig groaned and buried his face in Orlando’s shoulder. “I forgot to warn you about their occasional lapses into bad taste when they’ve had a few.”

“I can live with it, but only as long as I get you as part of the deal.”

~ * ~

They arrived at the airport an hour prior to the departure of Orlando’s flight at nine o’clock. They found a space in the parking lot not far from the terminal entrance. For a few minutes they sat in silent darkness, and contemplated yet another separation.

“Six weeks,” Craig said, “Only marginally better than six months but still – I hate these goodbyes.”

“Not many more of them left,” Orlando murmured. “Two more, maybe three, then never again. Not without a fucking good reason anyway.”

“Call me as soon as you find out where you’re staying. And let me know your schedule for the premiere – “

“Fuck their schedule. I’ll make my own.”

Craig sighed. “Don’t antagonize them, Orlando. Just play the game a bit longer. You owe it to Pete and the crew if no one else. Just keep that in mind, please.”

“Okay. But if I’m ever made to choose again, it’s me. It’s us.”

“Maybe.”

“Not maybe!” Orlando turned in his seat to face Craig directly. “Us first, and I don’t care who it pisses off, Craig. Us first from now on.” He reached out and touched his fingers lightly against the still slightly swollen lip. “The second I did this, I thought it was over, that I’d killed us. I think even before I did it, we were so close to – losing it and even then I couldn’t stop it.”

“It’s alright, we got through it.”

“No, you got us through it. Maybe one day you won’t. Maybe one day you’ll just walk away.”

“Orlando, what’s – “

“Do you still love me?”

“Well that’s a no-brainer.” Craig kept his voice deliberately light despite a sudden surge of anxiety. “Of course I do. Haven’t the last few days convinced you beyond doubt?”

“What if one day I’m not me any more? People change all the time.”

“Oh boy, you’re in a mood tonight, aren’t you?” Craig muttered. “Look, when that lovely face of yours has collapsed in a screaming heap of wrinkles, Bloom, and all that wonderful hair’s gone and you’re starting to look like Gollum’s ugly cousin, I’ll still love you, insatiably and unconditionally. One day you might be even more obtuse and irritating than you are now, but I wouldn’t give a flying fuck because you’d still be essentially you, good and bad, for better and for worse. Didn’t I tell you once that you’d disrupted my life, stopped it being too comfortable and complacent? I’d never want to go back to how it was before you.”

“Have you ever hated me?”

“Never, not for a single second, even when I’ve been completely pissed off with you.”

Orlando nodded and started chewing absently on his bottom lip.

“What about you?” Craig prompted.

“Hmm? What about me?”

“How about when my chronic laziness stops me from working out and I finally surrender in the battle of the bulge and let it all hang out? When my hair’s all gone, and most of my teeth have fallen out – or been knocked out – and I’m just a fat, bald, cranky old bastard who still tells bad jokes but people no longer laugh politely – do you think you’ll still love me?”

Orlando grinned. “Yeah, why not? With a bit of luck, I’ll be blind and deaf by then anyway, so it won’t matter will it?”

“I can see I’m going to have to learn to cope with spite as well.”

“Why are you such a smart bastard?”

“I wasn’t always, love. I’ve had one or two wake-up calls and reality checks along the way. What we have – it’s so good, despite the occasional shitty bit. There’s strength in it – I know we give it the odd battering now and then – but it seems even when either of us threaten to end it, it stays rock solid.”

“I know. I love you. You’re important to me, more than anyone or anything else. I’d give them all up in a second – everyone and everything else – but not you.”

‘…you can get a bit too clingy, Orli… You’ve got to learn not to hold on so hard…’

Orlando licked suddenly dry lips, and he said with a forced little laugh, “Christ I'm starting to sound bloody clingy.”

Craig looked at him oddly. “Clingy? You?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re about to board a plane and head to the other side of the world for a year, Orlando. If anything, you’re not clingy enough. What about me? I don’t want to let you go so does that make me too clingy?”

“No, you’re not clingy enough either.”

“Right, then when you get back, we’ll latch on and cling to one another as though our lives depended on it. How’s that?”

Orlando smiled, the little niggly voice now hushed. “Sounds wonderful.”

“Of course, in order to make ourselves a bit more interesting and to provide a little space, we’re both going to have to maintain a skunk of stubborn independence – just a little one.”

The smile widened to a grin. “Skunk?”

“Yes, you know, a stripe down our backs, of stubborn independence. That way, you get to spend some days surfing and I get to spend some nights writing.”

“A skunk of stubborn independence," Orlando repeated, enjoying the phrase, "You have such a brilliant way with words. So occasionally you’re going to be racing up and down the beach having anxiety attacks while I mess about on a surfboard, and other times you’re going to be tapping away at the keyboard ignoring the fact that I’m having a go at your leg.”

Craig gave a snort of laughter. “And you have such a unique way with visuals!”

He consulted his watch. “We’d better make a move and get you checked in.”

Without hesitation, Orlando crawled across the console, squeezed past the steering column and wrapped himself around Craig.

“Don’t worry about me, okay? You’ve given me the biggest happy-love fix I’ve ever had – it’ll last forever! I’ll be back in a few weeks and we’ll have a fantastic couple of days at the premiere. Then I’m going to go over to England and work my arse off, do some good stuff and make it really count. Then I’ll come home and spend the rest of my life loving you. Could you handle that?”

“I’m sure I could get used to it.” Craig murmured, halfway through pressing a dozen little kisses against Orlando’s mouth as they squeezed in the last words, the ones that would be remembered the longest. “I love and adore and worship you, Bloom, always have and always will. Please take care, keep me posted about everything, come back to me happy so we can start forever.”

“Forever,” Orlando echoed, “’Til death do us part. That’s how I want it to be – forever. Pour toujours. Together for always – ‘til death do us part.”

~*~

He’d deliberately chosen a night flight, finding it easier to nap without the distraction of light from outside and the movements of other passengers fidgeting from boredom and restlessness. Daytime flights always seemed longer and more tiring.

On this particular night, unable to sleep, he simply slouched in his seat and set his mind adrift, hoping that a gentle contemplation of the nicer things about the last few days might crowd out all thought of what he was returning to.

He’d mentally erected a wall around the recollection of the events immediately preceding the party – why would he want to go back to that other night, now that it was all over and done with? The ugly memory was now safely contained and well hidden from the scrutiny of his mind’s eye, locked away in just one of many little walled-up enclaves of pain that dotted the landscape of his life.

Dominic resided in one of those miniature tombs, bricked in and buried forever. So was Maya, so was Andre, so was Sean, and so were countless nameless faces he remembered only as mouths and a few minutes of pleasure.

In his worst nightmare, he’d seen them all digging their collective way out, consolidating and forming an army of sorts. He’d seen them coming, and like the scene on the battlement of Helm’s Deep – so very dark, cold, wet, lightning and thunder, terror – he’d been incapable of doing anything other than standing there helplessly and watching them approach, inevitably and unstoppably.

He’d told Craig about that nightmare once, and they’d both wondered aloud at how and why that scene had become so deeply embedded in his subconscious. He hadn’t told Craig that it was a different army altogether from the trilogy army, that it was an army of memories, of fears, of people, places and events, approaching him with the sole intention of destroying him.

Craig had held him, and in the darkness, he’d whispered a paraphrasing of a favorite poem:

‘There is a strong wall about you to protect you:
It is built of the words I have said to you.
There are swords about to keep you safe:
They are the kisses of my mouth.
Before you is a shield to guard you from harm:
It is the shadow of my arms between you and danger…’


Orlando had found scant comfort in the words. He hadn’t told Craig either that he’d seen him down there with the rest of them – Craig or Haldir, one or the other, perhaps both of them or a combination of the two – and that his love was suddenly being wielded as a lethal, dual-edged sword.

“Orlando?”

He flinched and blinked. He’d been staring out the window into blackness and experiencing one of those odd waking dreams that could seem so intensely and disturbingly real.

A man was leaning across the unoccupied aisle seat with a polite half-smile on his face. “I didn’t realize you were going to be on this flight. Could you stand some company? I’ve ended up next to a snorer.”

Orlando forced himself to smile in return. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks. I’ll just go and grab my things.”

The man left him, and Orlando could feel his heartbeat rising to a hard gallop and a cold sweat breaking out over his body.

‘Wait it out and let it pass, love,’ Craig whispered, ‘don’t fight it, it’s not an enemy…’

‘I’m afraid of the dark, I’m afraid of the blanks and the emptiness and the nothing, I’m so afraid…’

‘Try to help yourself out of it, fill the emptiness with things you know…’

‘I’m in a plane and it’s flying to LA. I left Auckland – I left you – and when I get to LA, I’ll see Lij again. I met Oliver and Joel, Michael and Nigel, Rima and Heather and Danielle and Rebecca and – ‘


In a matter of seconds, the kaleidoscope of faces and places gently eased themselves into a recognizable order, and he was able to smile properly once Marton had stowed his briefcase in the overhead bin, and settled himself into the adjoining seat.

“You looked as though you were about to nod off,” Marton said, “For God’s sake don’t feel you have to make conversation if you’d really rather sleep.”

Orlando shook his head. “No, it’s alright. I was just day-dreaming a bit. How long are you going over there for?”

“Only in LA for an hour or so and connecting to New York. There for a week and then off to base myself in London for a few months.”

“Really? So am I, but for about a year.”

Marton nodded. “So Craig was saying the other night. Anything lined up yet?”

“No, not yet,” Orlando shrugged, “Thought I’d see what was on offer first.”

He glanced at Marton and was surprised to find himself the subject of an intense scrutiny. He grinned. “What?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Okay.”

“Why are you giving it up? Craig mentioned that as well.”

“I’m tired of it,” Orlando replied slowly, “Hollywood – no, not just Hollywood, but the whole bloody world – “ He broke off with a slight shake of his head. He took a deep breath and exhaled shakily, expelling the last vestige of the panic attack. “I don’t feel very safe any more.”

“Because of the fame thing? The recognition and attention?”

“Mmm.”

“I think the world out there in general isn’t a very nice place, but it tends not to impact too much on a person unless that person in turn has made an impact on the world. I think of fame as being a bit like a speeding car hitting a solid brick wall.”

“Yeah – sometimes that’s what it feels like – except that I’m never sure whether I’m the car or the wall. Sometimes I think I’m the car and I’m being driven by someone or something else, totally intent on making me hit the wall as hard and fast as possible. And sometimes I think I’m the wall and I can’t change and can’t move – and I can see this thing just heading straight at me and it’s going to hit me really hard.”

Marton whistled softly under his breath. “Oh, Orlando, you’re in the wrong game, mate.”

“No I’m not,” Orlando argued, “I love acting. I always wanted to do it. I just didn’t expect or want the rest of it. I want Craig’s life – I love how he can have that, and his career, and still be happy. That’s what I want. His life in Auckland is wonderful. It’s not such a huge place and sometimes it seems like everyone’s friends. It’s lovely. Now can I ask you something?”

“It’s only fair.”

Orlando first looked around to make sure there was no one close-by who might be listening in on the conversation, and then he leaned toward Marton, lowering his voice still further until it was just above a whisper.

“I overheard someone at the party the other night saying you’ve as good as got an Oscar nomination for some little low-budget film no one’s even heard of. Most people don’t even know you’ve done anything other than a small part in Rings – but you’ve managed to achieve some kind of greatness – and yet you still have your own life, and the whole fucking world hasn’t moved in on you. Okay, so you might not get a nomination and if you do, you might not win but you’re almost at the top now, up with the best of them. The same person said you were considering coming back to New Zealand permanently. Why? Compared to everywhere else, it’s still so small and insignificant. We're both thinking of giving up shitloads of opportunities just to go back. So what's your excuse?”

Marton considered his answer for a moment. “In regard to the nomination, I’ve picked a good year to establish my credentials. I honestly don’t have much competition. No one’s planning to make any real effort because they’re expecting Return of the King to win everything simply to make up for the relative lack of interest in the last two episodes. I think they’re all wrong actually. I don’t expect King to break any records in terms of awards won. I think it’s the minnow having the nerve to take on the shark that constantly pisses them off and makes them determined to slap us down. I hope I’m wrong because we deserve so much – Peter in particular. His balls should be declared a Kiwi national treasure – his and Richard’s.”

“And Fran?”

“Hers too.”

Orlando snickered softly, wondering why he’d never before noticed how likeable the man beside him was. He’d always imagined Marton Csokas to be rather dour and aloof – but then he’d never spent more than a few minutes at a time in his company, and never really been close enough to appreciate the perpetual gleam of humor in the dark eyes.

Must be a Kiwi thing, he decided, they’re always so much more than their first impression.

“As for heading back to New Zealand,” Marton continued, serious and thoughtful again, “Probably for the same reason that Craig, Peter, and a few others have resisted the lure of overseas bucks and chosen to stay, and no doubt the same reason why you want to make it your home. We’ve all been to the top of the mountain – or pretty close to it – and discovered that the view from up there isn’t necessarily any better than the view from lower down. It’s merely different.”

“In what way?”

“The people, for a start, your fellow climbers. Don’t you find, Orlando, that the higher you climb, the more wankers you find yourself tripping over?”

Orlando grinned. “Yeah.”

“Alright, let’s be honest. We’re all wankers in this business so if there’s no escaping one another, why not hang around with the wankers you know and love? We’re a different breed in the Antipodes – we aren’t rigidly straight-jacketed by convention, morality and good taste, and we have a proud and healthy intolerance of pretence and pretentiousness. Some fascinatingly ugly films have come out of New Zealand and Australia. They mightn’t have been particularly successful – most of them come and go completely unnoticed – but the merit in them is undeniable. The way I see it, there are two types of film – and the same could be said of theatre productions. The film or play as pure entertainment made for the sole purpose of being profitable. And then there’s the film or play as a form of social document or cultural snapshot. They’re usually produced on a shoestring and the subject matter is often regarded as unpleasant or barely relevant. The cast are usually either emerging or unrecognized actors – though some of our best and brightest are quite happy to take on a really good role without even expecting to be paid for it – and the finished product rarely turns a profit, no matter how damned good it is. We’re so good at making that kind of film, Orlando. It’s where my heart is, it’s what I personally want to do. I’ve always believed that there’s more to a production than simply turning a profit, and that there’s more to acting than stardom. If you’re determined to pursue quality, you have to be where – “

Marton stopped abruptly and watched Orlando struggling with what appeared to be an overwhelming attack of emotion. He asked gently, “Are you alright?”

Orlando nodded forcefully and kept his face averted. “Yeah, just – hang on a minute.”

“I just really wanted to hear someone say that,” he admitted eventually, lifting his head again, the threatened tears contained. “That there’s more to this business than the obvious bullshit!”

“What do you think it’s about?”

“I think in Hollywood, it’s all about desperation. Not art, it’s got nothing to do with art in any way really. Just – desperation.”

“In what way?”

“To be perfect. In every way.” Orlando forced a laugh. “I don’t want to be perfect, Marton. Just good.”

“Perfection is an illusion, Orlando. You reach out to grab it and end up with a handful of nothing – because the definition of perfection changes constantly. It wasn’t perfect yesterday, it is perfect today, but it won’t be tomorrow. The notion of ‘good’ is something more tangible – it implies quality and something lasting. If it was good yesterday, the chances are it’s good today as well, and it’ll still be considered good tomorrow and long after.”

“That’s so true,” Orlando murmured, nodding again, “I really want to be good.”

They lapsed into a companionable silence, seats now reclined as the cabin lights were dimmed. Orlando turned on his side facing Marton and drew his knees up close to his body. It was one of the advantages of flying First Class – the bigger seats allowed you more room to get comfortable.

Seeing Marton hadn’t yet closed his eyes, Orlando asked, his voice still discreetly lowered, “How long have you known him – Craig?”

“Years. Did he ever tell you how we met?”

“No.”

“He totaled my car in a studio parking lot.”

“God, he didn't, did he?"

Marton grinned impishly. “Oh alright, a slight exaggeration. He bumped into mine and put a small dent in the lower front fender – but it was a new car, my pride and joy, and that tiny dent seemed a lot bigger at the time.”

“You must have been completely pissed off.”

“I was at first but he was so upset and apologetic – and he was even more irresistible back then. He was only about twenty, and had all that hair, those wonderful eyes, that classic nose – he was so darkly seductive and it was no huge secret that half the industry wanted him in their beds. I’d have had him in the back seat of my brand new car if he’d been willing. Are you shocked?”

“No.” Orlando smiled slowly and hugged close a glow of pleasure and pride. He thought he detected a lingering note of admiration and affection for Craig in the older man’s voice.

I bet Craig could still have anyone he wanted – but he loves me.

He added teasingly, “I take it he wasn’t willing then?”

“No. I think most people adored him for the fact that he didn’t spread himself around. He always did have a touch of class.”

There was another lengthy silence which Orlando was again the first to break. “Will you be glad when it’s all over, Marton? The One-Ring circus.”

“I’ve never really thought about it, but then it didn’t change my life to any great extent. It was a small part of it in comparison to the impact it had on yours.”

“Mmm.”

Marton turned his head and looked directly at Orlando, and in the muted light, Orlando returned his gaze unflinchingly. Though it remained unacknowledged, both were acutely aware of something significant passing between them in that momentary silent exchange, and recognized it for what it was – an unspoken agreement to trust one another.

“I made a short documentary,” Marton explained quietly, “About a bunch of damaged kids invited off the backstreets of Sydney to experience and participate in all aspects of live theatre. Two of them have incredible natural talent, Orlando, and because of that doco of mine, and the attention it's received, they’re going to be approached very soon and they’re going to be taken by the hand and lead into your world with the kind of fame, attention and money they’d never ever have imagined for themselves. I think that at some stage, they’ll probably ask my advice. What should I tell them?”

“Don’t do it,” Orlando whispered without hesitation.

“Has it been so hard?”

“Yes.” His voice caught in his throat and he cleared it quickly. “If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would, Marton. But I wouldn’t have signed anything first, anything that stopped me from walking away from it when I really wanted and needed to. For me personally, it should have ended in New Zealand at the wrap-party while I was still able to – “ His voice trailed away with a sigh. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, I think I understand. I’ve already rehearsed what I was planning to tell them anyway. Want to hear my little speech?”

“Mmm.”

Marton turned in his own seat so that he was facing Orlando, and they leaned toward one another, Marton’s voice low and almost conspiratorial in tone, as if the possibility of what he had to say might shatter forever the illusions of some naïve unsuspecting eavesdropper.

“I’d tell them that everything to do with this business is transient – the looks, the talent, the fame, circumstances and other people – none of them last. I’d warn them that they’re going to encounter so much shit out there and that they shouldn’t read it, listen to it or believe in any of it, because none of it’s important. And when it’s all over and suddenly they’ve got to go back and try to live a relatively normal life again, whatever’s left is all they’ll have to work with. So if they’ve ruined their health, alienated all their friends and blown all their savings, their lives after fame aren’t going to be worth a pinch of shit. And I’d warn them that it’s just as easy to have those things taken from them as it is to simply throw them away. I’d beg them to decide right from the start what things they value most and to hang on to them for dear life. But to be prepared to lose them anyway.”

“God,” Orlando murmured, “You don’t think much of it, do you?”

“On the contrary, I love it. In parts, it’s ugly and dangerous and dark. To some people it’s rather fun, to other people it’s intimidating. To me personally, it’s a bit of both but – even though I’m cautious at times – I’m certainly not afraid of it.”

“I am.”

Marton nodded slowly. “I know.”

“Where’re you staying?” Marton asked as they disembarked at LAX and prepared to go their separate ways.

Orlando shrugged. “I don’t know yet. A hotel I s’pose.”

“I bought a loft out in Venice about six months ago. I’m hardly ever there. It’s there if you – “

Orlando cut him off abruptly. “Thanks but no, for the same reason I can’t go back to the place I was renting. Lij is there. People find out and start fucking assuming things. If I stay at your place, the same thing could happen.”

“I understand,” Marton said, his voice tinged with regret. “I’ll no doubt see you in Wellington then. Going to be a bit of a bunfight, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Orlando sighed, “But the sooner it’s over and done with, the sooner I can head back to England and start doing some serious work.”

Marton pulled his wallet from his pocket, opened it and extracted a business card. He handed it to Orlando.

“Just in case we don’t get a chance to catch up at the premiere, I’ll give you this now. You can use any of these numbers or addresses to get in touch with me over in England. I’ll be more or less based there until the middle of next year. We’ll get together if you like, and talk some more.”

Orlando smiled and nodded, genuinely happy about the possibility. “I’d like that. I might need to consult with you about a few things.”

“Feel free. I’ll make the time.” Marton checked his watch. “I’d better get moving.”

Orlando looked beyond Marton into the distance and sighed. “It’s just for another year. It’ll pass.”

“Quicker than you realize. Take care of yourself, Orlando, and please stay in touch. I mean it.”

Orlando booked into a hotel and later, after a few hours’ sleep, he went out and bought some more clothes, even though he possessed masses of them. They were spread around the globe – some in Auckland, some in Raglan, some at his flat in London – and Lij had sent his LA clothes on to his mum’s place.

Once again, he’d arrived somewhere with virtually nothing.

‘I have a pot-plant life, no permanent location, no opportunity to put down roots. The portable Bloom… all I am is what can be picked up and relocated…’

It felt as though he’d slid all the way down the snake and arrived right back at the start.
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