Perfect Tenor (HBTC Novella)

Outside, the air was cold and dry and mildly sulphurous with the smoke from nearby chimneys. That was a big difference between this town and where Byron had grown up. People here still had open fires, and on a dark December evening, with the glow of Christmas lights in almost every window and sounds of muffled merriment from the pub next door, Byron was deeply moved and a little nostalgic. Christmas had always been his favourite festival.

Stepping into the warmth of the pub brought a wholly different sensory experience - the rich, hoppy aromas of cask ales mixed with warm whiskey, the hum of conversations nestled against Christmas pop music, and the sight of Pete Davenport, who was standing at the bar and acknowledged Byron with a smile that set his insides fluttering.

"What are you drinking? Orange juice? Coke? Or can I tempt you with a glass of the hard stuff?"

"How hard are we talking?" Byron asked, the double entendre completely unintentional. He did his best to pretend it wasn't one, but evidently, his face was as red as it felt because Pete grinned at him.

"Bitter shandy? It's a school night, after all."

Byron laughed, still embarrassed, although it helped that over the past fortnight, they'd established they were both more socially awkward than the average person. With minimal chance of interaction at church, that was about as far as they'd got. "Go on," he said. "Not shandy, though. A straight pint of bitter."

"Bitter, OK." Pete relayed that to the landlady - Mrs. O'Shea - who was surly and scary enough to be Mr. Lewis's twin, although perhaps she needed to be, running a pub like the Blue Anchor. According to Councillor Bob, it was a bit rough and as such in an ideal location - next to a church and opposite the police station.

"If that doesn't deter them, they can pop next door and take their chances with the man upstairs," Bob had said with one of his chesty chuckles that could've blown out the votives from the gallery.

Pete paid for their pints and handed one over, eyes trained on his beer. "Does it have to be straight?"

"Eh?" Byron took a sip, letting the dark liquid sit on his tongue, both to savour the taste and figure out what Pete meant.

"A straight pint of bitter, you said." Pete glanced up and away again. A warm bloom of pink spread along his cheekbones. "Peanuts. I fancy some peanuts."

"Oh!" Byron had been wondering how they might initiate that conversation. He'd tried with a tentative 'anyone special?' after their first choir practice, which Pete had answered with a flat 'no', so Byron had left it alone, assuming he'd either hit a nerve or was barking up the wrong tree.

"Do you want any bar snacks?" Pete asked.

"No, I'm fine, thanks." He studied Pete's profile. His ear was pink now, too, and there was a telltale dent in the lobe. "Are both your ears pierced?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Just wondering."

Pete turned to check Byron's ears. "Yours aren't."

"God, no." He shuddered at the idea.

"You don't like piercings?"

"I do on other people. I have zero pain tolerance."

"It doesn't hurt that much."

"Happy to take your word for it." He took another sip of beer, swallowed, said, "No, it doesn't have to be straight. In fact, I'd prefer it wasn't."

"Same," Pete said.

So that was that, then. Byron wasn't sure what to do with it yet, but there was no rush. He wasn't going anywhere.

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