“It’s good to see you,” said Luke, his face all earnest and screwed up, just like Clyde remembered. Like some kind of cosmic gerbil, he’d always thought. Sweet and innocent and... He’s just not going there.
“Yeah, well,” said Clyde, his mind racing with all the things he could say, but failing to actually articulate any of them, “It’s good to see you too, mate.”
Lame. He was so lame.
“Are you sure you don’t mind sleeping on the floor?” Luke asked anxiously, “Because I can book a guest room for you, if you want. There’s usually one free.”
He frowned again, and Clyde wanted to stick an arm around his neck and ruffle his hair until he was smiling again. Like it mattered where he slept. He looked around the oak-paneled room that was Luke’s student accommodation in Oxford - it was bleeding huge. Almost a football pitch compared to his tiny bedroom back home, or even Luke’s room at Sarah-Jane’s.
“I think I’ll find a corner somewhere,” Clyde said as he dumped his bag on the ground, “They all this big then?”
Luke looked around like he’d never seen the place before - probably hadn’t, Clyde thought. Probably hadn’t crossed his mind that it was unusually large. Luke’s mind was full of higher... stuff. Equations, formulas, quarks, that kind of thing.
“Christ Church is one of the bigger colleges so they have a lot of space,” Luke said, slowly, as though he was thinking it through, “I could stay in rooms all three years if I wanted to, and not live out at all.”
They stared at each other, while Clyde kicked at the corner of the rug. He didn’t want things to be awkward, but they were, and he didn’t know why - he talked to Luke every week via Skype or Mr Smith. Why did a physical visit make this much difference?
“Come on then,” Clyde said, at last, “Take me out - show me how the other half live.”
They walked into the city centre, which was a stone’s throw from Christ Church, and nothing like Ealing at all. Full of shops, but no red brick in sight; everything was golden stone. Admittedly, sometimes it was pitted from weather or age, or blackened by pollution - although given the historic vibe of the place, it could have been the result of Victorian smog for all he knew. There were crowds everywhere, pushing and shoving, and even when they paused for Clyde to stare up at the clock tower - Carfax, Luke said, which was a stupid name in Clyde’s opinion - there were still people pushing past. It was in sharp contrast to Christ Church itself with its green open spaces and wide steps. The college had felt more like a stately home, not a university. People shouldn’t be living there, not in real life, but they obviously were - lots of tall posh kids with high voices, swaying in the wind like reeds. And loads of them wore scarves, no wonder Luke had taken to wrapping this towelling monstrosity around his neck. It was camouflage, that was all. He reached out and tugged at it as they walked along, and Luke looked at him almost warily, as though Clyde was going to bite, or something. As if.
Luke took them to the Red Lion, which looked like a standard kind of chain pub, but in a weird round building that gave it some interest. But Clyde guessed why Luke had chosen it, the place was heaving with students. Luke held up his student card but the guy behind the bar didn’t even glance at it, just served them a couple of pints, which Luke collected before shouldering their way to a table. He had a funny little half smile on his face.
“Sanjay showed me how to do that, I’d never have had the nerve on my own. They know I’m a student, so they just assume I’m eighteen and never check.”
Clyde waited until the drinks were down before nudging his shoulder. “Nice one.”
He sort of meant it. The fake PASS card in his wallet that Sarah Jane didn’t know about burned a kind of mental hole, but hearing Sanjay’s name caused a different kind of itch. How could you want to punch a guy in the mouth, before you’d even met them?
“Sanjay around then?” Clyde asked casually. Smooth, that’s what he was, smooth like silk, like cream, slippery like Androvax. Yeah, right.
“Yes, he said he’d meet us later - he wanted to let us catch up. Said we must have loads to talk about.” Luke said that with a little kind of happy catch in his voice. Like he couldn’t wait.
“I bet he did,” Clyde muttered into his beer.
There was another pause. This one not quite so comfortable. Clyde felt like there were ants crawling around inside his clothes, like he couldn’t stop squirming. He wanted to kick something viciously, but instead he made do with gently booting the table leg. His beer slopped anyway and he cursed. “Bugger!”
Luke was looking at him, Clyde could feel it without turning his head, but he didn’t want to see him being all reproachful and confused. Clyde was being an arse, after all, but Luke probably wouldn’t get that. Or if he did get it, then Clyde didn’t want to have see how much Luke had grown and changed as a person... without Clyde being there. Or if he was hurt. Clyde especially didn’t want to see if he was hurt.
“You know the Doctor visited, right?” he asked, finally.
“Yes,” said Luke, “Mum called me. Another alien race trying to kill him and steal the secrets of time. Did the Shansheeth really look like giant vultures? I sometimes wish I could study more than just maths, but there’s just not enough hours in the day. I really want to do a comparative biological study into standardized physical forms across the universe.” Clyde looked at him, at his face so animated, looking wistful and excited all in one go, before swallowing down the stupid lump in his throat. Luke must have thought he didn’t understand though. “I’d like to know why so many aliens look like Earth-based animals,” he explained.
“Sure,” said Clyde, “I get that.” He did, but he knew Luke would think he didn’t. Maybe the gulf between them was really there, and not just in Clyde’s paranoid mind? “I meant, did you know that the Doctor was different? Changed. He looks like a completely different bloke now.”
But Luke was nodding. “The Doctor regenerates when damaged, and the new body is fully healed. It’s the Time Lord’s version of cellular renewal This will make his eleventh incarnation as far as Mum and Mr Smith know - I wish I could have seen him again.”
Luke took a swallow of his pint. The liquid was bitter as it ran down his throat, in more ways than one. “You will someday. He’s bound to be back. He can’t seem to leave this planet alone.”
Luke smiled, and Clyde felt like he’d dodged a bullet. As though things were getting to be normal again between them, as though he’d just been making normal conversation, rallying Luke round like usual.
He took a breath that felt like lead in his chest. “People don’t need to change bodies to change though, do they? Sometimes it’s other stuff that changes them. So it wasn’t that weird to see the Doctor all different, because he felt the same somehow. Different mannerisms and that, but the same fundamentally at heart, his values, his self. Sort of. Do you know what I mean?”
And even as he was explaining it to Luke, Clyde thought he could see things clearer himself now, what he was leading up to. What he needed to ask.
“Look...” he said, and then suddenly Luke was on his feet waving frantically.
“Sanjay, Sanjay! Over here!” He looked really excited.
It was too late.
“So what do you do, Clyde?” Sanjay asked later, as they strolled up St Giles looking for a kebab van, “Where are you planning to go for uni?”
Clyde was incredulous, although he suspected it was more likely coming across as sullen. He couldn’t help that. Why did this wanker want to know anything about him?
“Oh, I don’t know yet, there’s loads of places.”
Sanjay had a long sensitive face, warm brown eyes and a bizarre taste in garish jumpers. “My Nana knits them,” he’d said back in the pub, and he and Luke had laughed. Clyde wondered if Luke had even mentioned that he didn’t have a grandmother, or not one he’d ever met, although he supposed that wasn’t quite true. Personally, Clyde didn’t think meeting your grandparents in the past via a time fissure really counted.
“But aren’t the UCAS applications due in soon?” Sanjay looked surprised, and concerned for him. He did actually seem to be an ok sort of bloke, which did make sense, because Luke wasn’t going to hang around with bastards, now was he? Clyde bloody hated him anyway.
“Clyde’s an artist, he does fantastic pen and ink drawings and colours them too. He’s won competitions.”
Clyde supposed he shouldn't be so surprised by the pride in Luke’s voice, but he still was.
“You’ll want Balliol or Magdalen college then, if you want to concentrate on fine art,” said Sanjay, seriously, as though he actually gave a crap. Or believed that Clyde really was going to Oxford. Clyde laughed. “Nah, mate, not enough up here. “ He tapped his forehead. “Oxford’s right out.”
“I just need to get...” said Luke suddenly and disappeared into a shop that turned out to be the Oxfam bookshop, when Clyde looked up. He was left standing like a lemon on the pavement with Sanjay. Who was looking at him like he was some kind of puzzle he had yet to figure out.
“I don’t know if you realise how much Luke’s been looking forward to this visit,” Sanjay said, slowly, at last, “It’s all he’s talked about for weeks now. I obviously understand if Oxford’s not what you have planned, but I think you should talk about it with Luke. He’s been acting as though your coming here was a foregone conclusion, and it obviously isn’t. No Oxbridge candidate I know could be this blasé about their application.”
Clyde opened his mouth to disagree, and then shut it again. Rani wanted to go to Oxford to study politics or journalism or whatever, and she’d been working on her application for ages.
“It’s not that... I just can’t... Look, he’s my best mate!” Clyde knew he wasn’t expressing himself very well. “But I...”
Sanjay didn’t wear glasses, but Clyde got the feeling he really should be staring at him from over the top of a pair, like Sarah Jane did sometimes with her reading glasses.
There was a frown, before Sanjay pursed his lips. “I know I only met Luke this term, and I’m not his ‘best mate’ as you put it - but I do like him, a lot. I think he deserves better, but what do I know? Perhaps your friendship is always like this.” Sanjay paused, and Clyde scuffed at the pavement with his trainer, because he couldn’t bear to look at him. He’d only just met the bloke and already he could see straight through the hypocrite and fraud that was Clyde Langer. Slowly, as though he had only just thought of it, or as though he was almost feeling his way, Sanjay said, “To me, it feels more like you’re trying to break up with him, after an unsatisfactory long distance relationship. But that’s a crazy analogy, I’m sure.”
Clyde stood gaping like a fish, but he couldn’t - quite - bring himself to deny everything, although Sanjay had misunderstood the problem. Eventually, he managed, “You’ve got it all wrong. That’s not...”
Sanjay held up his hand. “Look, it’s not me you have to convince. I’ve already stuck my oar in and I’m regretting it already. It’s none of my business. But I’m the one who has to listen to ‘Clyde says this’ and ‘Clyde says that’. Just, I’m getting a little tired of Clyde says... I think you should tell him, that’s all. If he’s not your ‘best mate’ anymore.”
Clyde looked up then, at this bloke that he hated, who wore his Nana’s jumpers even though they must be the least cool things ever, and who had such kind eyes. “It’s not that easy,” said Clyde, at last, “But I will talk to him. I want to.”
Sanjay nodded, as though there was nothing more to say, and maybe there wasn’t, before turning briskly on his heel and walking off towards St Mary’s and Broad Street. Clyde didn’t feel bereft, he didn’t, although it was a little awkward when Luke came down the steps of the bookshop, looking surprised.
“Sanjay, he had to... go,” said Clyde, fumbling for words. But then, he’d been fumbling his way through this - badly - ever since he’d got off the train.
“Alright,” said Luke, and was it Clyde’s imagination or did he look faintly pleased? Great. Luke was happy Clyde wasn’t pissing off his friends. Fantastic start.
“Let’s get something to eat, yeah?” he suggested, which is how they ended up in G&D’s with toasted bagels and twenty different flavours of ice cream.
Clyde looked round at the cheerful decor, with its wooden tables, and pictures of cows everywhere, and wondered how this had become his life. Possibly the most important moment ever and he was staring at Daisy the Friesian. Just brilliant.
“So what is it?” Luke looked determined, his jaw set, as though he was ready to face torture and not the choice between mint choc chip and tutti frutti. Clyde wanted to hug him, to feel his slim body crushed safely in his arms, and nearly blushed. He was letting himself have these thoughts more and more often, and it was dangerous, he knew it was, but he couldn’t seem to stop.
“Go on,” said Luke, “I know there’s something up. What’s so bad that you couldn’t tell me online? An invasion already so advanced we can’t stop it? Shape-shifters? Mind control? Oh no, is Mum ok? Is that why she didn’t come herself? What about Rani? Should I get the car?”
He looked dazed, as though the litany of disasters parading through his mind was so bad it was paralysing. Given Luke’s brain, Clyde supposed it could be. “It’s nothing like that,” he said quickly, “It’s...”
He stopped. How could he tell his best mate that he’d missed him. More than missed him. Wanted more than Skype calls could ever offer. Wanted more than friendship even? He couldn’t even articulate it properly in his own mind.
“Look,” Clyde said, “You know how Rani’s father always goes on at me? Stares at me? Thinks I’m going to corrupt his precious daughter, as though my stupidity is going to rub off on her or something?”
“He doesn’t really, Clyde, you just think he does.” Luke was smiling then, a little turn up at the corners of his lips. Barely a smile at all unless you knew him. Like Clyde did.
“Not the point. You see, I want you to know that all I’ve ever done is kiss Rani on the cheek a couple of times, and maybe hugged her, and I know that Sarah Jane, and Mr Chandra, and my mum, and everybody, thinks we’re only going so slow because her father’s the headmaster. That we’re together but we’re keeping it quiet, or that we want to be but we’re too shy, or uncertain, or some bollocks like that.”
Luke had stopped looking at him. He was stirring his ice cream in its little paper tub, the brown of the chocolate melting into swirls with the cream of the caramel dream. His voice was lower than it normally was, a little rougher. “I think that too. That you’re together, I mean. I asked. But it’s ok.” Clyde shook his head frantically, because that was the kind of thing he meant, and he wished Luke would look at him, because he was trying to explain.
“But that’s just it!” he burst out, grabbing at Luke’s arm, the wool of his jumper warm under his fingers, “People think that - but I don’t want you thinking that. Not you. Because it’s not true!” This was all going wrong. He’d known it would - he was utterly crap at expressing himself, unless it was with a joke. He should have got Rani to do it, but that would have been all kinds of wrong, and ruin the point he was trying to make besides.
Clyde looked wildly round at the ice cream café for some inspiration. The murmur of other people’s easy conversation came back to him as though they hadn’t a care in the world. Daisy the cow just looked at him pityingly.
“Luke, have you ever seen me with a girlfriend?” Clyde asked suddenly, desperate to try something even more stupid.
“No.” Luke still wouldn’t look at him. “You’re always with Rani.”
“And with you! For pete’s sake!”
“I’m your best mate.”
Clyde ran his hands over his head, digging the nails into the scalp. He was so frustrated, he could punch a wall. Luke didn’t get this kind of stuff, people stuff, relationship stuff. Of course not, Clyde had always been the one to teach him, to show him everything he needed to know. But right now he couldn’t do it, because he didn’t know. And Luke smelled so good, all warm like the café, like cinnamon bagels... This wasn’t cool. None of it.
“Best mates don’t get jealous of their mate’s new friends, ok? Best mates don’t kiss their supposed ‘girlfriend’ on the cheek. I’m seventeen, not twelve. Michelle back at school is going to have a baby before she even sits her exams and Hari is going to be a dad. At seventeen. I don’t have girlfriends, Luke. Ok? I should, but I just... Don’t.”
He’d bottled it. Fallen at the last hurdle, and cocked it up. Just like his Dad - no follow through.
Clyde sighed. At least he’d tried. “I missed you, ok. More than I ever knew I would. I promise I didn’t know. Before you left. I didn’t know I’d miss you like that.”
“Like there’s a hole in the pit of your stomach, and every time you swallow it’s like you swallow a stone?”
Luke didn’t sound like he’d turned into a pod person, but Clyde looked carefully for tell-tale signs anyway. It was just Luke as usual, skinny and tousle-haired and impossibly dear. He was looking a bit quizzical but that was all.
Cautiously, Clyde said, “Like when you get more and more excited the closer you get to the weekly Skype call, and you can’t stop grinning, but you can’t say why, even though everyone thinks you’re going mad?”
Luke nodded, like they were discussing the weather.
“Or,” he said, “Like when you can’t stop talking about someone even though no-one else knows them and you know you’re boring everybody?” Brightly, just as though Clyde was describing how to play Grand Turismo 5, or anything else he’d carefully explained throughout Luke’s life.
“Just like that!”
“Good,” said Luke, “That’s what I thought.” And then leaned over and kissed him.
It wasn’t the best kiss in the world. It was a little off center, and a little too hard - Clyde’s bottom lip stung a little from the collision. In fact, Clyde had had better snogs from girls at spin-the-bottle parties, or behind the gym during double maths, before he’d finally figured out that those same girls didn’t exactly float his boat and anyway he’d started chasing aliens instead.
It didn’t matter. Of course it didn’t. Clyde caught handfuls of Luke’s jumper in his fingers and dragged him closer, chair-legs scraping across the wooden floor, until they were chest to chest, as close as they could be, and Clyde could feel Luke’s heartbeat thumping rapidly beneath his palm. He moved their mouths, sliding Luke sideways, tipping his head slightly until he could nudge open his lips with his tongue. Luke tasted of caramel and chocolate, sweet and soft, all heat and breath and such life. Clyde could stay here all day, just kissing Luke, feeling that empty hole beneath his breastbone gently closing up, feeling Luke’s fingers tentatively cup the bones at the base of his skull and scrape at the short wiry hairs there. Listening to the tiny noises Luke made, as their tongues slid slickly together, tentatively stabbing at each other in the best duel in the world. It didn’t matter that Luke had no idea of what he was doing, because Clyde did, and Luke was learning, as fast as ever, and Clyde was teaching him, like he was meant to do, like he’d thought he never would again, and it was fantastic, the best job in the world. He never wanted it to stop.
But they were in an ice cream café. In public. And Clyde liked showing off, but he wasn’t an exhibitionist, whatever Mr Chandra thought. The heat running under Clyde’s skin was getting restless, wanting more, but they were in public, and there’d be time for that, he knew there would be now. He pulled back from Luke, feeling his lips tingling, as though he’d been in a cold wind for too long and had come inside to a suddenly roaring fire, only so much better than that. He couldn’t stop grinning, like he’d been fixed that way by some kind of alien glue gun, and Luke was the same. His eyes were shining like the stars, and Clyde decided at that moment that if he never got to leave the planet again, it didn’t matter, not if he could have this, Luke in his arms, and looking happy, so bloody brilliantly happy, and knowing it was Clyde who made him that way.
So it was a shock when instead of soppily gazing into each others eyes for a while, or whatever, Luke immediately reached down into his backpack and got out his laptop.
“If you’re changing your Facebook status already, then I’m telling you, that’s a bit creepy,” Clyde said, only half-joking, and wondering if he should be worrying about coming out before Luke innocently told the world, or before he’d even decided what it meant to be out in the first place.
Instead of answering, Luke stuck his hand on Clyde’s thigh and squeezed, and the possibilities of that kept Clyde’s mind off-balance long enough for Luke to boot up. “I’m only telling Maria,” said Luke, “I thought she ought to know.”
“What? Why?” Clyde asked, suspicious, but aware that although Luke could be random, it was never without purpose.
Luke turned to him and looked solemn for a moment. His lips were all pink and Clyde had a wild urge to kiss them again, before joy bubbled up in his chest as he realised that he could - that he’d be able to kiss Luke whenever he liked.
“I had to talk to someone - someone who knew us. Someone who knew all about Sarah Jane and... what we do.”
And Clyde wanted to kick himself, because he’d been so selfish, he’d been so scared all this time, so wrapped up in his own misery and heartache, that it hadn’t occurred to him what Luke might have been going through, what with leaving home, going to Oxford, and wrestling with fancying his oblivious best friend.
Then Luke’s smile spread across his face again, like the sun coming out, light and shade chasing themselves across his impossibly beloved features, and Clyde suddenly wanted to sketch him, to capture him in this moment, in a ridiculous burst of sentiment.
“It’s alright,” said Luke, “She was wrong, because she thought you liked Rani too. That’s how I knew how I felt when you asked. Because I’ve been telling her.” His face clouded again and Clyde’s heart squeezed in his chest. “You do feel like that, don’t you? You do like me. This isn’t a... fling? Or a phase? Or an experiment? Or...”
Clyde took him by the shoulders, feeling the thin flesh and the bones under them. “Luke, mate - this is me. Do you really think I’m even capable of masterly emotional manipulation? What you see is what you get.” He swooped in abruptly to peck him on the lips, as Luke still seemed uncertain, and instead he came up laughing. That was better.
Luke said, “Good.” He looked determined. “Then you’re coming to Oxford next year, and you and me and Rani will all be together again. I think we should rent a house - I don’t actually have to live in Christ Church all three years. It’s better for a young person’s growing sense of independence if I don’t, according to Fitzhugh in the University Survival Guide. And then I don’t have to worry about hiding K9 either, which I know he’d prefer too, and if Mum needs us I can always drive us down...”
“Woah, hold on,” Clyde held up his hands, already missing the feel of Luke under his fingers, but knowing he had to get used to it. They’d only just found each other, and already he had to burst the bubble Luke was living in. This was the part he hated about being Luke’s best mate, he had to tell him that Santa Claus didn’t exist, over and over again.
“I’ll visit, as often as I can, you know I will, but I can’t come to Oxford.” Clyde took a deep breath, trying to ignore the swooping sense of loss. “I’ll never get the grades. I’ll be lucky if I scrape any A levels, ok? You’re the brains, and Rani. Not me.”
But Luke was smiling. “I’m just the way the Bane made me - boy genius, remember? I’m meant to solve problems, and to come up with solutions. Here.”
He rummaged in his backpack and pulled out a leaflet. Fine Art, it said in vibrant colour, new undergraduate courses available at Oxford Brookes University.
“There are two universities in Oxford, “ said Luke, “There have been for twenty years.”
He dug his spoon into his ice cream, and licked at it happily. “It’s only a mile away.”