Noel shifted in his seat and looked out at the audience. They were mostly dark but he could make out their silhouettes if he strained his eyes. Filming was about to start, the crew were moving in that frantic way that meant they were about to be told they had to stop any second. His heart was pounded strangely in his chest. He could feel Richard beside him, shifting in his seat and fidgeting with his water.
It wasn’t like he was always the picture of calm before these things; the lights, cameras and audiences never failed to make him feel a little nervous. But this was different. This was the first time he’d done any type of panel show since they’d come out. Now he was sitting here, he wondered again why he’d even said yes. They didn’t need the money, and if anything, finding the gap in his schedule had been more trouble than it was worth. But, when the question had come, he’d hesitated to turn it down like he done with everything similar. He’d done Big Fat Quiz for years and it seemed weird to say no.
Julian had been against it of course. They’d danced around him actually telling Noel it was a bad idea for weeks. Noel had pointedly not asked Julian’s thoughts on it, he didn’t want an argument when he was already conflicted about it himself. But that, as ever, really meant they were just putting it off. They couldn’t avoid talking about it forever, and it had come to a head a week before filming.
Noel was fussing in their room. He’d just wanted to figure out an outfit in case he needed to buy something new or get something dry cleaned. But, once he started looking, nothing seemed right. It had been nearly an hour and, if anything, he was more confused than before he’d started. He was overthinking it, he knew he was, but he couldn’t stop it.
“Does it really matter?” Julian snapped eventually, standing from where he’d been pretending to be reading on the bed, while Noel muttered to himself.
Noel paused, a jumper in one hand and a shirt in the other, to look at him. “Yes,” he said. “This bloody filming’s coming up and I need to figure out-”
“If it’s stressing you out this much, you could always pull out,” Julian said, cutting him off.
Noel swallowed down his first couple of retorts. He really hated arguing and he could sense this was a sensitive topic for both of them. “I have to do it,” he said in the end, hoping that would be the end of it. He turned back, placing down the clothes in his hands so he could continue to rummage.
“But,” Julian started again, making Noel turn back to him, “you’re getting films now, isn’t this a little...?” he pulled himself up short, a slightly pained look on his face.
Noel’s jaw tightened. “A little what?” he asked, his voice hard.
“Nothing,” he said, turning away and going to pick back up his book.
“No, go on,” Noel said, tension filling his frame, preparing for the fight that had been looming since he told Julian he was going to do the show. “Beneath me? That’s what you were going to say, isn’t it?” It was the unspoken feeling that had always hovered between them. Noel knew how Julian felt about panel shows, even if he’d never actually said it out loud.
Julian turned back, a flash of annoyance passing across his face. “You said that, don’t put words in my mouth,” he snapped, before sighing and softening his voice. “I just meant, you’re getting loads of other offers. You don’t need to do it.”
“I like doing it,” he said, feeling hot with frustration. “I like doing them. They’re like sparring matches and they keep me agile. I know you shit yourself at the thought of them, but that doesn’t mean that I do.”
Julian looked furious for a moment and Noel knew he’d probably gone a bit far, but he needed Julian angry enough to say what was actually on his mind. “They’re going to ask about us,” he said suddenly, the words bursting out as his voice snapped back to hard and tight with annoyance. They both knew he was right, even though neither of them had been willing to admit it. “They’re going to bring us up on national TV and take the piss.”
“If I go, then it stops us being one of the questions,” Noel said, feeling at first relieved that they were going to talk about it, then annoyed that they even had to, that Julian didn’t just get it. “If I’m there I get to say something back.”
“You’re going to take this,” Julian gestured between them, his eyes almost wild, “and talk about it on a shitty light entertainment show.” Noel tried to figure out what Julian’s expression was. He could see anger there, but also fear.
“No,” Noel said, something like rage filling his chest, “because if I’m there, they have to say it to my face. They have to look at me while they try to turn this into a fucking punchline and then I can tell them to go shit bricks.” He took a breath but now he’d started talking, he couldn’t seem to stop. “I’m not running away, Julian. It’s been nearly fifty years of running away from the idea of people taking the piss out of who and what I am. So, I’m going to go on TV in a fucking dress and talk about the fact that, yes, I do enjoy taking it up the arse and I’m not going to let them turn us into a shitty joke. Fuck anyone that thinks they can.”
Julian stared at him, his face a mask of surprised shock before it morphed into something else entirely. “You’re…” he started, walking toward him and stopping. “I love you.”
Noel felt all the frustration and anger drain out of him at Julian’s look of such open affection. Then he was being pulled into a rough hug. He buried his face into Julian’s chest and closed his eyes.
“You’ve always been so much braver than me,” Julian whispered, like a confession, into his hair. “I don’t want you to think you have to protect me.”
“But I want to,” Noel mumbled.
“You’re a cockney bitch,” Julian huffed, the teasing note thankfully back before either them started to cry, “you just want an excuse to cut someone up.”
“You better believe it,” Noel said, pulling back so he could look up. “They better just try something, I’m going to come at them.”
Julian cupped his cheek, a smile on his face. “I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
“Love you,” Noel said, nuzzeling into his hand.
“You too,” Julian said, and dropped a kiss onto his forehead.
It was like Noel could still feel where Julian’s lips had connected with his skin, even weeks later and under the tonne of makeup they’d applied to him before sending him to set. It calmed him as the the set quieted and the cameras started rolling. They started easily enough, introducing the panel and team names. Noel could feel himself slink back behind a wall of forced clam, a technique he’d picked up from years of stand up, it was comforting but also had the strange side-effect of making him feel like he wasn’t really there. Maybe that was for the best.
He felt better the moment he got the first laugh out of the audience. It wasn’t like he’d thought he was about to be lynched, but he’d been sure that the dynamic would change. But, it didn’t seem to have. He said the words as they formed from whatever strange part of his brain that kept his jokes and the audience laughed. Just like they always had. He held himself tight and tense anyway, there was no way he was getting away with nothing at all happening.
He knew the moment it was about to happen, Jimmy turned to him, a look of amused calm on his face. “So, you been up to much this year? Anything big happen in your lives?”
The audience laughed. It sounded a bit tinny under the ringing in his ears.
“Yes, actually,” Richard said immediately, taking the focus for a moment, giving Noel some time to think of something to say, “I actually bought some new glasses. They are almost identical to my previous ones, but they have a slightly different hue to the black. It threw me into a tailspin, the likes of which I have never known.”
A wave a gratitude and affection washed over Noel. It wasn’t like he’d not come up with something to say, he had. He’d even run it by Julian, but he appreciated the gesture, and the moment to gather himself. He sat back and forced his mouth into a cheeky grin and face into a study in calm indifference. Don’t show weakness. That was the key. People only cared if you did.
He let the jokes about Richard and his year play out around him, waiting.
“And how about you, Noel?” Jimmy said. “Anything new with you?”
“What?” Noel said, looking surprised. “I made a film, it was pretty popular, not sure if you saw it.” He let his breath take on a breathy quality like he was about to giggle, even as his heart was pounding and his stomach was clenching in knots. The audience cheered and there were a few screams of approval. He relaxed slightly. At least there were some fans in who would be on his side. If things turned nasty, maybe they’d rush the set and stage an intervention.
Jimmy nodded. “I saw it. It was good. But, I have to say that I was surprised, “ he started.
Noel’s stomach tightened. Here it was. “Oh yeah? Did you have problems following the plot again?”
Jimmy laughed. “No, I was just surprised. I mean, I’m used to seeing you on TV,” he said, slowly building the foundations of whatever was about to come carefully. “You’ve done a lot of TV and that’s how I think of you. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, you did a film. I just had no idea that you liked both.”
The audience roared with laughter. Noel let out a huff of breath that sounded almost entirely like a laugh. “Well, Jimmy,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “if you had the chance to do both, maybe you would too. Some of us are just more desirable to both mediums.”
“Oh,” Jimmy said, “I bet you are. And do say hello to the other medium when you see him.”
The audience laughed uproariously and Noel giggled. That would be the joke then. That Noel was flexible and liked both. That he could handle. He relaxed in his chair and allowed himself to calm down slightly.
Jimmy looked over at him before they moved on and gave him a little nod. Noel smiled back, feeling oddly fond and immensely relieved.
“That could have been worse,” Richard whispered after they cut. “Well done.”
Noel grinned, feeling almost silly about how terrified he’d been. He thought of Julian waiting at home, probably pacing around the flat, and wondered if he’d have a chance to text him, let him know it was fine.
It was fine. Now it was out and acknowledged he felt totally fine. Better than that, he felt good, almost proud. Perhaps he could work in some jokes himself. He had a few prepared; the usual stuff, make sure he’d said everything himself before anyone else had the chance to. He could drop them in now, knowing the audience would come with him and the other guests weren’t out for him specifically. It might even be fun, something new to talk about, now he didn’t feel like terror was clawing at his throat.