When Arthur Renault steps onto the rugby pitch, he takes a moment to revel in the first shred of normalcy he’s come by in several weeks. His feet sit familiar and at-home in his tightly-laced, yet worn, cleats--a sense that Arthur himself has been deprived of since he and his mom crossed the pond from Maine to southern England two months ago, and even more so since he began his academic career at Archibald College for Boys. Midway through its seventeenth year, Arthur’s life has taken a few drastic turns, and all he’s thankful for at this point is that he has his own suite in the Ivy House, one of the three dormitory houses, and that he actually managed to sleep the night before rugby trials. When he’d seen the flier for the trials hanging around the common room, something within him had creaked with relief; he’d touched the corner of the poster fleetingly, noting the date and location scrawled across the bottom--Bailey Pitch, Saturday, 10am.
It’s been a week since then and now the relief has transpired into a rapidly thrumming trill of exhilaration. Arthur’s subconsciously convinced himself that these trials are indicative and definitive of how the rest of his year here will go, and as he looks at the cluster of boys on the pitch already, he can’t help but swallow nervously and send up a rushed plea to Saint Anthony before jogging over.
There are two older men in caps and track pants, broad shoulders set sternly, whistles around their necks. One of them, with a scar along his jawline, approaches Arthur with a clipboard. “You here for trials?”
Arthur jerks his head affirmatively. “Yessir.”
The coach, Arthur presumes him to be, holds the clipboard out to him. “Put down your information here, your preferred position there, then start warming up. You have your boots?” He glances at Arthur’s feet. “Good. Here’s a pen.”
Arthur mutely takes the clipboard and the pen, scrawling in his name, year, e-mail, phone number, house, and position--scrum-half.
He ambles to the edge of the gaggle of other teenagers, looking around to see if there’s some sort of routine, but it seems that most boys are doing their own stretches while the coaches wait for more arrivals. There’s a few groups of boys here and there who obviously already know each other, judging by the way they’re horsing around and talking. Arthur drops down alone, long legs sprawling, and begins his stretch, extending one leg purposefully ahead of him, flexing his foot, and reaching to grip the muddied toe of his cleat. He feels the burn of the stretch up the back of his calf and thigh and he smiles.
Once it’s a few minutes past the designated starting time, the coaches (the scarred fellow’s name is Manwarring, and the shorter coach is Taylor) lead them through a series of warm ups--standard drills that leave Arthur loose, breaking a slight sweat, a low drum of anticipation pulsing in the hollow of his throat. Arthur estimates that there are around thirty or forty boys there, which proves accurate when the coaches split them up into two teams--fifteen per team--and there are only a few boys standing on the sideline. Coach Manwarring explains that they’ll try three twenty minute matches with different players in different positions each time. He calls out names from his clipboard, assigning boys positions with specific numbers. A few of the boys he seems familiar with, nodding and slapping their backs as they step out of line and into their places. To one team goes a set of red mock jerseys, the other team left in plain clothes.
Arthur sits out the first round, content to soak up the sun (a rare sight to see, here) while he watches the match progress. The coaches grip their clipboards steady, furiously scribbling notes as they observe. Arthur notices the scrum-half of the red team is about the same build as Arthur, maybe taller, pale with mousy brown hair, and he’s doing an okay job. Arthur’s mouth twists a bit, hoping he’s capable of better than just okay. He hasn’t practiced much since they moved, but he’s stayed in good basic shape.
Watching the scrum-halves inevitably leads his attention to the front line when they reset, which is a fair number of times due in equal measure to scores and fouls, and his eyes keep catching on the red team’s number two--the hooker, the one in the middle of the front line. He tries to force his gaze to follow the set-up of the scrum, to observe the other guys, but it’s difficult. Number two stands well enough at average height but carries more muscle than most boys trying out, his chest broad and thighs thick, defined when they flex as he bends his knees. Thanks to the lack of helmets in rugby, Arthur can make out the defining features of his face, which essentially, from a distance, amount to an incredibly plush set of lips, though the structure of his cheekbones and chin seem uniquely fair to Arthur. Arthur sighs heavily through his nose and glances at the hooker of the plain clothes team, who is decidedly more brutish in the face but too thin in all the places that matter, insofar as hookers go.
Twenty minutes ends, a coach blows a whistle, and the red team beats the plain clothes team by several goals. As they file off the pitch, panting, the hooker of the red team passes near enough to Arthur that Arthur can clearly hear the, “Good to see you, Eames,” that the scarred coach barks happily. Eames. Arthur takes mental note of it.
He doesn’t get much time to dwell on it, though, as his name gets called and he’s assigned as the red scrum-half. He takes the red mock jersey with the fading, white number nine on it being peeled off the brown-haired boy. Arthur slings it over his head deftly, resolutely not flinching at the dampness of it, before jogging out onto the pitch, shaking his arms out a bit. He waits while a coach flips a coin; it lands in the red team’s favor and Arthur’s handed the ball. The skin of it feels good in his hands, and he schools his expression into grim determination as he steps up to the space between the two teams’ front lines. Arthur draws in a deep inhale, and the whistle sounds on his exhale. Immediately, the two teams converge, their interlocked bodies colliding to form a tunnel between them. Arthur squats, an automatic reaction ingrained in him, waits a beat for the motion of the scrum to stabilize slightly, and then in a blur of reflexive pull-push-fling motion, throws the ball down the tunnel.
He straightens up and pivots without confirming which team’s got their hooks on the ball. Adrenaline flooding him, he flings himself around to the back of the scrum, sticking close behind number eight, eyes fixed on the tangle of legs, shifting his weight from foot to foot in anticipation. When the ball gets pushed back to his 8-man’s feet, Arthur hones his focus, already shifting down, forward--he’s perfectly positioned for when the 8-man shoves the ball back, out of the scrum entirely. Arthur’s hands are on it in a flash. Righting himself, he turns and narrows in on the closest back, the fly-half, and whips it across the pitch to him.
All Arthur feels is the vicious, virile sort of glee that rattles his ribcage when the fly-half catches his throw without faltering. The rest of trials pass in a rush of endorphins and sweat. After his initial twenty minutes, Arthur is thrown back into the third match as the plain clothes fly-half. He does well at avoiding tackles, but he gets too nervous under the pressure of leading the backs and isn’t blind to the fact that he misjudges more than one opportunity. When the final whistle for the day blows, he curses inwardly and resists the urge to show his agitation. He’s rarely played as fly-half and is praying to sweet heaven that they were paying more attention to how well he did as scrum-half.
He drags his shirt off over his head and tucks it into the elastic band of his shorts; the air does little to abate the feverish temperature of his body. Boys all around are collecting water bottles and shaking hands, futilely trying to wipe the sweat from their brows with their equally sweaty forearms.
Coach Manwarring, who Arthur suspects is the head coach, calls their attention. “Well done, lads. Excellent turnout this year. The lists will be posted in the house common rooms on Monday morning, but you’ll also receive an e-mail with a practice schedule so be paying attention. Dismissed.” A general murmur starts when the coach has finished speaking, but Arthur decides to save himself the grief of battling social awkwardness. If he gets on the team, he’ll bother to make friends then.
Arthur jogs slowly back to the Ivy House. When he reaches the entryway, he ends up literally running into one of his housemates, a boy named Seth.
“Oh sorry,” Seth says, catching the strap of his backpack slipping off his shoulder. “Uh, what have you been up to?”
Arthur interprets Seth’s quizzical tone as a question to his physical appearance--sweaty, dishevelled, slightly muddy. “Trials,” he answers. His voice sounds rough to his ears so he clears his throat. “I tried out for the rugby team.”
“Rugby?” Seth asks as he steps to the side of the door, Arthur following him. Seth raises a disbelieving eyebrow and pushes his glasses up his nose, an absent gesture. “What’s a Yank like you know about rugby?”
Arthur looks down. “My dad knew a fair bit about it,” he starts, hearing distantly in his mind his father’s own lilting English accent, so seemingly unique to him--that enthusiastic but pristine voice. Arthur’s afraid he’s starting to forget it. “I actually played, you know, in the States,” he adds.
“Really? As in, competitively, or for fun?”
“On a team, competitively. I mean, in a small, local league but, y’know. Serious business,” Arthur cracks a half-smile, his left cheek dimpling.
“What did you play?”
“Well, welcome to the real deal, Arthur,” Seth grins, displaying a gap between his two front teeth that is actually quite discreet, though Arthur had noticed it right away upon meeting him.
Arthur huffs a derisive laugh. “This isn’t the nineteen-hundreds,” he reaches up to scratch his jaw, “pretty sure the two styles aren’t as different anymore.”
“Fairly certain they are,” Seth maintains, cheerful, and Arthur doesn’t bother to ask why Seth even cares so much, because it’s not like Seth cares about sports at all with his Malcolm-X glasses and Tchaikovsky-loaded iPod, his corduroy trousers and argyle sweaters, his vintage wrist watch and his pocket thesaurus.
“Whatever you say, I gotta go grab a shower,” Arthur says, resolving the conversation to a close solidly. Seth salutes him and departs.
Arthur spends the rest of the weekend finishing up mild first-week assignments from his classes, trying to Facebook chat with his friends in different time zones, and taking up games of pool--snooker, the other boys call it, and it never fails to make Arthur envision Snooki, sadly--with whoever is hanging around the common room with nothing else to do. Arthur isn’t skilled at pool but it gives his hands something to do while he endures the almost-sickening pull at his stomach, the nerves of waiting to find out whether or not he’s made the team.
Monday morning, Arthur talks himself out of jolting from his bed and sprinting to find the list. Instead, he showers, dresses, and consumes a pack of Poptarts--Strawberry Sensation, as his preferred Brown Sugar Cinnamon aren’t sold in the UK--before forcing himself to exit his suite calmly, back pack slung over one shoulder. He makes his way down the short hallway that leads into the open, oval common room, ears already picking up more chatter than is regular for 8:30am on a Monday. He finds a few boys loitering in front of the Announcements bulletin board, but none of them seem too invested in whatever has been pinned up. By the time Arthur weaves through the smattering of couches and tables to the board, they’ve moved on.
Arthur runs a finger down the list, observing each name and number, absently noting the name 'Eames' next to the number two (the hooker position); he spares a thought for those thighs before moving on. He doesn't realize that he's holding his breath until he gets to number nine and follows the ellipses across the page to his name, Arthur Renault, there in plain black text. Arthur exhales, rocking back on his heels, and runs a hand through his hair. "Sweet," he says, breathless, to the empty room. “Sweet.”
When he gets home from class that day, Arthur checks his e-mail, clicking open the one from email@example.com. He downloads the schedule and then wonders why there's even a schedule in the first place--practice is every day, except weekends, from 3-5pm. Not that hard to remember. Still, the timetable helps Arthur fully realize his success, and a different breed of nervousness keeps him up that night.
The first practice goes well, all things considered. Arthur doesn’t take coach Manwarring as the type to make them sit in a circle playing two truths and a lie, and he’s right, though they do go around and at least share their names and position. A few of the guys scoff at Arthur’s accent, but it’s nothing he didn’t anticipate. What he didn’t anticipate is how captivating Eames’ voice is--a tad quirky, a touch casually confident. Arthur finds himself wishing that Eames had a thousand last names so that he would be speaking for much longer. They move on, inevitably, and Arthur’s attention span deflates. He does take notice when the boy who Arthur remembers as being the red scrum-half during the first match of trials introduces himself as the left wing (Arthur doesn’t catch his name). Once he’s noticed that, Arthur notices how the boy seems to be glaring non-stop at Arthur as though Arthur is some kind of abomination.
The left wing persists in shooting him dirty looks all through practice, and either purposely avoids utilizing Arthur as a resource for the back or bodily shoves him aside without cause. Arthur gets pretty fed up but holds his tongue--none of his teammates nor the coaches seem to notice. After awhile, his irritation becomes white noise and he’s able to tighten his focus enough to ignore it.
After practice, they file into the locker rooms, stepping over the variety of messenger bags and jumpers littered across benches. Manwarring gathers them around. “All right, all right, we can’t start the season without captains, can we?” A general murmur commences, a few excited whoops rising above it. Manwarring stands with his hands on his hips and observes them all. “I’ll be taking nominations via e-mail tonight. We’ll put it to a vote tomorrow.” Arthur mentally shrugs, feeling like he hasn’t seen enough from anybody to determine who deserves captain. The coaches retreat to the back office, leaving the boys to shower and change.
“Well we all know Eames will make captain,” one boy with a mane of shaggy blond hair spouts merrily while stripping off his shirt. Arthur recognizes him as number four, the right lock; he’s a head taller than most of the boys and while his stomach is soft-looking, he possesses shoulders and calves akin to Tarzan’s. Arthur averts his eyes just as the boy (Mason, he recalls distantly) goes to shuck his shorts. Laughter had broken out at Mason’s statement and Arthur casts his gaze about until he spies Eames, sitting on the end of the bench untying his cleats. His face is red but Arthur can’t tell if it’s from the exertion of practice or if he’s blushing.
Arthur leans sideways, lightly bumping shoulders with the 8-man, Jack. “Why do we know Eames will make captain?” he asks under his breath. Jack’s eyebrows furrow in confusion for a moment, probably before remembering Arthur is new.
“Oh,” he starts, “Eames was a captain last year and he did quite well with it. Really knows his stuff, yeah? Most of the boys respect him quite a bit.”
“Ah,” Arthur nods. “Makes sense. Who was the other captain?”
“A bloke who graduated,” Jack answers, digging a towel out of his locker. “So it’ll be a bit of a free-for-all this year. You can nominate anybody, but obviously they have to agree to do it.”
“Right,” Arthur says, shaking himself and pulling the hem of his shirt up and over his head.
“You thinking about nominating yourself?” Jack asks.
“Ha. No,” Arthur snorts. “I’m not much of a leader.”
“Whatever you say, mate,” Jack replies, squeezing Arthur’s shoulder before heading off to the showers. Arthur looks down at the shirt in his hands, chewing his lower lip. A wave of nostalgia overtakes him--for the days when he got dropped off and picked up from rugby, no locker rooms involved. The anxiety ratcheting through him is oppressive enough that, in an instant, Arthur’s slung his shirt back over his head. He retrieves his hoodie and shrugs into that as well, picking up his water bottle and shutting the locker firmly. When he pivots away, he makes fleeting eye contact with Eames, who is still sitting at the end of the bench. Arthur doesn’t acknowledge him, heading for the door and beginning to jog as soon as he’s outside.
Arthur doesn’t submit a nomination for captain.
The following morning, Arthur pulls himself out of bed feeling as though he’s scraping himself from under the tire of a semi-truck. He gulps some ibuprofen and a potassium supplement, kneads his shoulders and calves while he takes a blistering hot shower, and stretches out the worst of the aches before heading off to hit the cafeteria before his first class.
He’s standing in the cereal line when he feels a tap on his shoulder. “Hey, it’s the new scrum-half!” Arthur turns, discovering that the voice belongs to Mason.
“Arthur, right?” Mason asks, one eye squinting suspiciously.
Arthur nods. “And you’re Mason?”
“I certainly am,” Mason confirms, pleased, and Arthur wonders if the boy ever stops smiling. “Listen, you sticking around? You should come sit with us.” Mason flourishes a hand in a general direction. Arthur refrains from asking who ‘us’ is, scratching his ear as he thinks fast. He usually just takes his breakfast and goes, because sometimes nothing seems worse than putting your loneliness on display by eating at an empty table in a cafeteria. His instinct is to decline; he’s fallen with resignation into his routine of relative solitude.
But when he opens his mouth, “Um, sure, yeah,” comes out instead of ‘No.’ Arthur frowns internally at his traitorous self.
“Great!” Mason beams. “Just look for my hat.” He points to the neon orange knitted monstrosity atop his head and lumbers off. Arthur spends the rest of his wait through the line envisioning himself sprinting out of the cafeteria with his cereal, but figures that would be a dick move.
That’s how, approximately four minutes later, he finds himself wading through the circular tables. He spots Mason’s neon head easily enough and develops tunnel vision, focusing on the overly bright color until his eyes sting, and then he’s standing at Mason’s elbow. Mason claps him on the back and pulls out the chair next to him for Arthur to drop down into.
Only once he’s sitting does he bother to look around at the rest of the table; he startles to realize Eames is sitting there, at Arthur’s two o’clock. “Look who it is,” Eames says, lips quirking.
“Confiscated him from the cereal line,” Mason says, shooting an exaggerated look of alarm at Arthur’s bowl.
“The horror,” a pale boy with fierce cheekbones and electric blue eyes says. “I’m Robert,” he offers, extending his hand across the table for Arthur to shake; his grip is firm.
“Arthur,” Arthur replies in kind. “Are you American?”
“I am. I spent the majority of my life in Australia though, and then ended up here.”
That sounds like a story more fit for dinner conversation than breakfast so Arthur works another angle. “You...aren’t on the rugby team, are you?”
Robert guffaws. “God, no. I happen to have the misfortune of being this lout’s friend,” he jerks his thumb at Eames, who smiles, a mouthful of waffle bulging his cheeks out. It’s then that Arthur notices Robert’s faint accent; Arthur wishes he had a more exciting accent than the one bestowed to him by Maine.
“You love me,” Eames admonishes without swallowing.
Robert makes a face of repulsion at the sight. “I must be deranged.”
“Anyway, usually a few other fellows join us, but Tuesday mornings are a small crowd,” Mason interjects. “And seriously, you should eat something heavier, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” The first time Mason’s facial expression defers from joy and it’s on behalf of Arthur’s dietary habits.
“I know,” Arthur says, observing Mason’s plate stockpiled with bacon, eggs, toast, and chunks of melon. “I’m just never very hungry before noon.”
“Well get hungry,” Mason says, deadpan, pointing his fork in Arthur’s face. “Rugby takes serious energy.”
“Yeah, Arthur, get hungry,” Robert says with a smirk, fluttering his eyelashes.
Mason leans over to hit Robert’s arm. “Shut up, twat.”
“Ow, Eames, your rugby thugs are beating on me.”
“Hey,” Arthur says, holding his hands up, “I got nothing to do with this.”
“Yeah,” Eames says, and starts to say something but visibly changes his mind halfway through and begins something else. “Speaking of which, how did you come to be such an excellent scrum-half?” Eames is stabbing a piece of his waffle with his fork as he asks this, and Arthur chews the inside of his cheek nervously. He can’t tell whether Eames is making fun or not; his tone is neutral enough to go either way.
He brushes an errant hair away from his forehead, suddenly extremely conscious of everyone looking at him. He can hear Mason next to him, chomping away like a cow. “Uh, just, my dad was English?” Arthur doesn’t know why he phrases that like a question and awkwardly clears his throat before moving on. “So I guess it was just always kind of, there. In my life. We watched the games on TV together and everything and I started playing in middle school. I mean, junior high, or...whatever you guys call it.”
“Was?” Mason asks around a mouthful of melon and it takes Arthur a second to realize Mason is inquiring about the tense used in reference to his father.
“Jesus Christ, Mason,” Robert mutters, wiping his mouth with a folded napkin. “A little tact, that’s all I ask.”
Mason shrugs, his eyebrows mimicking the motion. “Sorry,” he says defensively. “Just forget I asked,” he says to Arthur, apologetic. “I don’t have a brain-to-mouth filter sometimes.”
“Sometimes?” Robert mouths to Eames.
“No, no, it’s all right,” Arthur says, not wanting the situation to escalate. “I mean, I said it, right?” He darts a gaze around, forcing a smile. “It’s not big a deal, really, it’s not...” Arthur swallows, peering down at his cereal and giving his spoon a feeble stir. He looks back up, bracing himself. “My dad just died a few years ago. That’s all.” He’s relieved when Robert and Mason both drop their heads, murmuring their respects and sympathies and not asking any questions. Arthur’s a tad unsettled to find Eames staring at him, bold.
Arthur’s face must show his confusion because after a moment Eames seems to snap out of it, his eyes widening and then falling away from Arthur entirely. “But...so, yeah, it’s really cool that you still play,” Eames fumbles, bringing an apple slice up from his plate to bite crisply through. “I mean, we definitely needed you.”
“Really?” Arthur asks, the pressure that was locking his chest up beginning to ease. He almost kicks himself at how eager he sounds, and stuffs a spoonful of cereal in his mouth to prevent more words from coming out.
“Oh yeah,” Eames and Mason say in unison. Mason beckons for Eames to continue while he picks through the last of his bacon. “Nash was not very good,” Eames says delicately, and from his tone Arthur takes it that’s an understatement.
“Feel bad for the backers now,” Mason giggles, an unexpectedly high-pitched sound. “They’ve got to pretend to incorporate Nash.”
“I dunno, haven’t really seen what he can do as the left wing--” Eames starts but Arthur cuts him off, waving his plastic spoon.
“Wait! The left wing is Nash, and you’re saying he used to be the scrum-half?” he demands. Eames nods. Robert looks bored.
“Oh man,” Arthur says, leaning back into his chair and grinning. Eames’ eyebrows are furrowed together as though he’s missing out on a joke. “Yeah okay, that makes sense, then, sorry. That kid was totally glaring...fuckin’ fireballs or something at me all through practice yesterday.”
Mason huffs, laughing a little underneath it. “What a wanker,” he says dismissively. “Don’t worry about him, Arthur, nobody really likes him. We’re all us convinced he’s got to be the bastard of Manwarring to be on the team.”
Arthur cups his hand over his mouth, smiling too broadly to hide his dimples otherwise. “That’s awful,” he says through his fingers. “The man looks like he eats steel for breakfast.”
“Probably,” Eames says. “In any event, forget Nash. He’s a tosser.”
“A-bloody-men,” Robert says, pushing back his chair and standing. “I have got to get a move on to class,” he announces, dusting crumbs off his shirt. He picks up his tray, still flecked with remnants of croissant and jelly, a half-eaten banana laying on the side. “See you lot later, then. Arthur, it was good to meet you,” he says, tipping his head.
“Yeah, nice meeting you,” Arthur says in turn, watching Robert collect his bag off the back of his chair and saunter away.
Eames snaps to attention. “Oi, Robert!” he calls. “Steal some toilet paper from those bathrooms, we’re out!” And so goes Arthur’s first legitimate Archibald social experience.
Eames gets made captain. Manwarring reads off the candidates and all the boys write their votes down and slip them into Coach Taylor’s hat. Arthur votes for Eames without hesitating, peeking out at Eames as he writes, staying hunched over his paper like he’s scribbling out some great secret. Eames wins by a veritable landslide, and the runner-up, the fly-half whose name is Brandon, becomes the other captain by default. That practice feels charged, though Arthur’s not sure that it really has as much to do with captain votes as it does with the storm clouds reigning overhead, promise of a thunderstorm imminent. Their energy runs high with the smell of the oncoming rain steeping in their heaving lungs.
Then again, Arthur’s not sure if the boys are especially pumped or if Nash is just being an exceptional dickhead today. He can’t quite understand why nobody else sees it--the way Nash ignores Arthur even if Arthur’s his only option, or, when he seems to remember Arthur’s existence, the way he purposely trips Arthur up and refuses to come to Arthur’s aid. Arthur grits his teeth and glares holes in the back of Nash’s skull but keeps quiet; this is rugby, there’s no room for whining.
On his jog home, the rain starts to fall.
At the end of the week Coach Taylor (who Arthur has finally determined is more of a coach to the back while Manwarring coaches the scrum) issues their uniforms--kits, he calls them. Arthur collects the pieces which include one gold and black striped polo, which is some sort of industrial cotton with the stiffest collar Arthur’s ever felt in his life; standard rugby shorts; and gold and black striped knee-length socks topping the ensemble off. It’s only a couple articles of clothing, but it makes Arthur gleeful--just a little bit--opening the folded polo to trace a finger over the thick number nine stitched into it. Their first game is in two weeks and Arthur finds himself looking forward to getting the clean, pressed uniform dirty.
The practices turn out to be similarly formatted to those of Arthur’s team in the States--they alternate the days between scrum scrimmages and back scrimmages, which proves to be useful to Arthur as his position divides him relatively evenly between the two. When on the field, Arthur doesn’t see much of Eames beyond the tip of his nose, the top of his head, and the crushing grip of his fingers round his prop’s shoulders as Arthur prepares to throw the ball.
After practice is another thing, though. With Eames being the more exuberant captain, he usually rallies the team around him in the locker room; half the time he’s shirtless, sweaty, flushed, very frequently bruised, and sometimes bloody. He delivers his pep talks with gusto that’s not of the typical Prozac-esque ilk, but instead more a genuine enthusiasm mixed with a quiet pride for his team. Arthur can’t take his eyes off Eames during these brief talks--is grateful that he has an excuse not to--studies the infinite amount of shapes Eames’ mouth makes as he talks, the bottom row of Eames’ teeth crooked yet endearing.
Breakfasts in the cafeteria continue in the same fashion, more or less, but the rest of the days save for Tuesdays there are a larger number of guys at the table, ergo, the talks turn less personal and more looks like fucking rain, and Battlefield over Halo, no, you’re wrong, I’m right, and Manwarring had a right stick up his arse yesterday. At first, it makes Arthur feel isolated, but after a few days, he finds it comforting--he can pipe up with his two cents whenever and the boys will engage, or he can recline and eat his cereal and simply be entertained. On any given morning, he winds up next to someone different at the table, and the day he winds up next to Eames he says nearly nothing at all, just focuses on chewing as quietly as possible and reveling in the smell of what is most likely Eames’ deodorant, making sure to nod and smile at all the appropriate times.
At the end of the preseason Eames ushers the team aside. “Party tomorrow night, boys,” he whispers, “Brandon nicked Taylor’s keys to the clubhouse.” Brandon delivers a cocky smirk on-point. “Bring a bit to chip in; Jack’s smuggling in the booze.”
“Smuggling them birds from James Allen, too,” Jack adds, waggling his eyebrows, and that’s that, really. Arthur spends the day of the party with a nervous sweat on his palms. He Skypes with a friend back home, explaining that a clubhouse is essentially a locker room with some common rooms or office spaces attached.
“So you’re going to a party in a locker room?” his friend asks. “Sounds gay already,” she teases, sticking her tongue out.
“Very funny,” Arthur says flatly, but in truth, he’d been thinking the same thing.
He spends awhile convincing himself that he doesn’t have to drink, but he makes a beeline for the alcohol as soon as he’s inside the clubhouse--one of Eames’ props, Danny, had opened the door to him and practically scooped him inside with a giant gorilla-arm around his shoulders, already smelling drunk. Arthur surveys the bottles set gracelessly upon a card table in the corner of the locker room--there’s a handle of vodka and rum each, a fifth of tequila, a few two-liters of soda, some strange fruit juice concoction, and under the card table is a cooler brimming with various shitty beers. Without preamble, he mixes himself a rum and coke; his cash is ready in his pocket for whenever he finds Jack. He hears music and chatter coming from the next room so he takes a sip, braces himself, and meanders in.
Most of the team is already present, give or take a backer, and Arthur quickly counts a dozen girls as well. Mason spots him first. “Arthur!” he cheers, turning from where he was watching a game of beer pong that’s been shoddily arranged. A few people call out greetings to him but there are a couple pairs of eyes totally fixated on the game, a few people deep in conversation, and there’s a moderate circle of death going on. Arthur is not the most exciting thing in the room. The music, coming from an iHome that’s wedged safely into a corner, is some dubstep breed that causes Arthur to lament internally.
He goes to Mason’s side because he hasn’t a clue what else to do. Mason slings an arm around his neck. “I’m up next,” Mason says, gesturing at the table that’s already splattered with beer. “You want to go?”
“Uh,” Arthur says, “no thanks, I’m good.” He ducks his face into his red plastic cup and sips, observing from over the rim of it that it’s Brandon and their inside center man, Clayton, versus Eames’ other prop, Rupert, and Jack. Essentially, back versus scrum. Arthur wonders if the competition between the two halves of the team never ends.
Jack and Rupert end up losing, and while Mason hollers for someone to join him facing off Brandon and Clayton, Arthur wanders over to give Jack his money.
“Oi, thanks mate,” Jack says, tucking the money away. He slants a pointed look at Arthur’s cup. “Enjoy,” he grins. “Sit down, play a game, grab a lady, relax,” he slurs, shoving Arthur’s shoulder in a playful manner as he goes by.
Arthur tries to tell himself that he’s not looking for Eames as he more thoroughly sweeps his gaze about the room, but gets distracted when a boy stops the dubstep abruptly. “Thunderstruck!” the boy cries, raising his cup as he selects the song. “Everyone get your arse in a circle, cups full!” Arthur shrugs; why the fuck not? His cup is still full so he sidles into place, a girl with blond hair and a gold, shimmering miniskirt one one side and Rupert on the other.
The AC/DC song starts, crackling loud as the circle hurriedly finishes forming. “I’ll start!” says the same boy, raising his voice over the general chatter and music; Arthur is now able to identify him as Carsen, their full back.
“Wait, wait!” the girl next to Arthur cries. “I don’t know how to play!”
Arthur leans over to her. “It’s kind of like waterfall in circle of death; every time they say ‘thunderstruck’ in the song, the next person starts drinking and can’t stop until it’s said again, right? And there’s like, a few times where there’s huge guitar solos in between so people end up getting fucked,” he says.
“Oh thanks,” the girl giggles, looking up at him. “You’re American!”
Arthur leans back into his own space. “Yeah,” he says.
“Wicked,” the girl grins and Arthur raises one eyebrow skeptically. He’s relieved when Brian Johnson sing-screams the first ‘thunderstruck’ and the game begins.
Arthur gets off easy the first two times, but the third time it’s his turn is right before a long solo. He grimaces and slugs down his rum and coke, head tilted back and throat struggling to work past the carbonation, the rest of the room cheering him on. When his turn ends, he breathes laboriously, his cup empty. He wipes his slick upper lip and excuses himself from the circle, seeing as he’s got nothing left to drink.
He makes his way to the locker room. When he gets back to the card table of drinks, he mixes another rum and coke, a bit more heavy-handed with the rum this time, and is screwing the cap back onto the handle when someone brushes against his shoulder. “Shit,” he swears, steadying his hand before setting the handle down firmly.
“Sorry,” an amused voice chuckles. Arthur turns to find as he suspected upon hearing that voice: Eames, who has the air of someone fresh in from the outside. Arthur reconsiders the cup full of mostly-rum in his hand.
“Uh,” he says, drawing it out while he casts about for something intelligible to say. “Hi.” A beat. “You...are kinda late.”
Eames’ amused expression strengthens, biting his lip as if not to laugh. “My apologies, I had to wait around for Robert to preen himself.”
Arthur looks around for Robert but doesn’t see him. Something ugly curls in his gut. “Oh, I didn’t know we could bring, like, plus ones,” he says, aiming for neutral.
Eames wrinkles his nose. “Plus one? No, I mean, he’s a bit involved with a girl who’s here tonight so I had to bring him, didn’t I? Gotta help a guy out.”
The coil of tension in Arthur’s stomach dissipates. “Oh yeah, right, ‘course,” he says and looks down at his cup. “I think I need some water,” he mumbles.
Eames laughs at that. “And waste? I think not. Drink up, I’ll join you, and then you can have a water.”
Arthur tries not to judge Eames when Eames scoops a beer out of the cooler. “I’m trying not to judge you,” he says aloud, squinting one eye.
“What can I say? I’m a beer guy,” Eames shrugs, popping the tab on his beer and lifting it to his lips.
“Interesting,” Arthur says, even though it’s really not. He swills down a big gulp from his own cup.
“Yeah?” Eames asks, a smirk turning his mouth mischievous. “Has my alcohol preference revealed some pertinent information about me?”
Arthur shuts his eyes for a second. “Stop. No more big words.” Eames’ face distorts with vague perplexity. Arthur wants to kiss him. Instead, he says, “It’s your accent. It makes everything sound more...big. Scholarly. I can’t deal with it.”
“Sorry to have caused you distress,” Eames chuckles, glancing down when Arthur licks a bit of his drink off the rim of his cup. Arthur wants to say that Eames has no idea what kinds of distress he has caused Arthur--on and off the field, in and out of his daydreams, wreaking havoc on his shower routine.
But he doesn’t. Instead, he says, “Thunderstruck.” Which, truly, is fitting anyway.
“Pardon?” Eames asks.
“We played Thunderstruck. You missed out.”
“Well, let’s make sure I don’t miss anything else,” Eames says, and he pushes Arthur lightly in the direction of the other room.
Several hours pass in a warm, rushing daze of alcohol and games which range from more beer pong to black jack. Arthur feels most comfortable when wedged between Eames and Mason, but makes a point to not be clingy, having a conversation with Clayton about the class they share and at some point dancing with the same blond he stood next to for Thunderstruck. A few feet from him, Robert is dancing with a petite, porcelain-skinned brunette girl, though Arthur isn’t sure it constitutes as dancing if you’re mostly just swaying side-to-side in lip-lock. When the blond girl starts getting handsy with Arthur, he extricates himself to take shots with Jack, trying to ignore the sweat on the back of his neck from worrying about what the guys might think of him brushing off a legitimately attractive girl. Chances are, he tries to soothe himself, that the guys aren’t even watching him closely enough to notice.
Two shots and a game of quarters later, Arthur knows he’s reached his limit. He’s been trying to intermittently sip water, but admits to himself he wasn’t too dedicated to the cause. He pours water into his red cup and nurses it on a couch until Brandon taps his shoulder from behind. Arthur twists his neck to look up at him. “You look bored, wanna smoke?” Brandon asks.
Arthur doesn’t really smoke, but he feels a bit like a lame sitting duck. He gets up and only slightly stumbles after Brandon, who goes out a side door. Mason, Eames, Robert, and Robert’s “dancing” partner are already outside, leaning against the brick wall coolly. Arthur tries to slouch just as effectively but doubts his ability to look that suave. It’s cold outside, and Arthur forgot a jacket; his skin erupts in goosebumps and he spares a second to marvel that he can’t feel it.
Brandon passes him something obviously hand-rolled, and Arthur takes it precariously, because he was honestly just expecting a pack of Marlboros or something. “What’s it?” he asks.
“Spliff,” Brandon answers easily, confirming Arthur’s sneaking suspicions. Arthur can feel his face clear of confusion and he watches idly as one by one the boys light up, passing the lighter down the line. Arthur is so distracted by the sight of Eames smoking anything at all that he nearly drops the lighter when Brandon palms it off to him.
Arthur alternates drags of the spliff with sips of his water. His neck lolls a little bit, and Arthur suddenly doesn’t trust it enough to hold his head up, so he presses his skull back against the brick wall to give it something solid to rest on. He feels all right; content even, he assesses. He is tired though--heavy from the day, but loose from the night. He shouldn’t stay much longer. Maybe just finish the spliff and leave.
“Good night, everyone?” Brandon asks conversationally and the group collectively hums. Robert reaches to loop an arm around the girl at his side and pulls her close. Arthur’s eyes follow the slope of Robert’s arm down to the girl’s face; he realizes she’s staring at him and he cocks an eyebrow in silent question.
“Sorry, I don’t think I’ve met you before,” she chirps. “I’m Ariadne.”
“You’re American,” Arthur gapes.
The girl smiles. “So are you.”
“I’m Arthur,” Arthur says.
“Arthur and Ariadne, the Americans,” Eames says. “What alliteration.”
“Sorry,” Arthur says. “You’re just the first American I’ve talked to in awhile.”
“Hang on,” Robert pipes up. “I’m American!”
“You don’t really count,” Arthur counters. “You’re more Australian.”
“Whatever, like I’d want to be associated with America anyway,” Robert scoffs, taking a drag.
“I feel like long-lost kin,” Ariadne says, refocusing on Arthur. “We should hug or something.”
“We should,” Arthur nods and moves forward, careful to hold his spliff aside as he bends down to hug her. She’s tiny in his embrace; he knows he could break all her bones but would prefer to wrap himself all the way around her, like a blanket. He shakes himself out of the thought to pull back quickly enough--he doesn’t want to alarm Robert.
“How touching,” Robert says dryly, and Arthur’s relieved that he’s spent enough time around the other boy to understand that tone of voice as joking, further confirmed when Robert presses a fluttering hand to his heart in mock, exaggerated compassion. Arthur’s possessed by the childish impulse to stick out his tongue at Robert, so he does. Robert’s eyebrows jump, and then he shakes his head, smiling slightly with those gorgeous fucking cheekbones of his. Arthur wishes he had those fucking cheekbones.
“Regression suits you, Arthur,” Eames teases and Arthur turns his gaze to Eames but finds he can’t keep it there for fear of acting on other, less-PG impulses. Eames looks too perfect, moonlight throwing half his face into relief, wreathed in lazy smoke from the spliffs, posture languid from intoxication. He’s too perfect and Arthur swallows against an uprising of panic. He shuffles back to his place on the other side of Brandon, sucking the last possible drag out of his burnt-down spliff in order to keep himself from speaking.
A peaceful silence falls over them; Robert is the last to finish his spliff and he flicks the ashy stub from his fingers in a manner suggesting that it had personally offended him.
“I better go,” Arthur says, breaking the quiet and pushing off the wall. “Thanks for the smoke, Brandon,” he nods and Brandon smiles, offers Arthur a cheesy fist-bump that Arthur’s sure wouldn’t be happening if they were sober.
He’s halfway through the door when he hears Eames also bid farewell. The party has dissolved into couples and triples making out so Arthur doesn’t bother saying goodbye. He idles in the locker room under the pretense of looking for something, a scarf he’ll say if anyone asks him, and cheers to himself when Eames comes through the doorway. “Let me walk you,” Eames says with purpose.
Arthur snorts. “What?” As if it’s not exactly what he’d been hoping for.
“You’re ten sheets to the bloody wind, Arthur, let me walk you home,” he says, firm but not unkind.
Arthur shrugs. “Okay.” He’s too tired to put up much more of a fight, which he suspects would be futile anyway.
They bustle out into the chill, and Arthur’s mind goes inconveniently blank. He thinks of all the dazed people they’ve just left behind, twisted up in each other. “Should we have helped clean up?” he wonders aloud.
Eames stuffs his hands into his jean pockets, causing his shoulders to curl inward a bit, making him appear brooding and restrained despite his easy, open face. “No worries,” is all he says to that. “Saw Danny got with your blond bird.”
Arthur barely follows the jump. “My...blond...oh. The girl I was dancing with?” He turns his head to see Eames nodding. “Ah, no, we just had a dance.” There’s something derisive and dismissive in his tone that he can’t help, or maybe doesn’t have the energy to hide.
“Not your kind of woman?” Eames prods.
If it’s not the alcohol, or the pot, or exhaustion, or just the sheer presence of Eames, then Arthur doesn’t know what it is that makes him start to snicker uncontrollably. “I’m sorry,” he bites his lip, hard, in vain. “I don’t have any kind of woman, really.”
Eames’ eyes are hidden by the dark. “Not picky?” Eames asks and Arthur calms his hysterical giggling.
He concludes he’s entirely off his rocker because the next words out of his mouth are, “No, just not into women.” The effect is immediately sobering. Arthur’s steps falter, and in turn, so do Eames’. “Oh, shit,” Arthur whispers, small with shock and horror. He can’t seem to make anything else come out of his mouth--not a ‘just kidding!’ or a ‘tell anyone and I’ll kill you’ or anything. Eames is silent.
Tentatively, Arthur resumes their pace without looking at Eames. He tucks his own hands into his pockets now, shoulders climbing to his ears. He is grateful for the fact that Eames does, at least, fall into step with him instead of bludgeoning him over the head. Arthur’s fear curdles in his stomach and he decides a terse, direct front is the only way to progress. “That gonna be a problem?” he asks, going for gruff though his voice betrays him and cracks in between ‘pro’ and ‘blem.’
“No, Arthur,” Eames responds immediately, softly. “It’s not a problem.”
Arthur swallows and grits his teeth, not sure whether he’s relieved or skeptical. “Good,” he says, and runs a hand through his hair. He’s no longer content, though still heavy and tired, colored by new anxiety. Arthur suddenly empathizes with every cornered dog that’s ever had its hackles raised, which is ridiculous because it’s just him and Eames, out in the incredibly open college green.
“It really isn’t, you know,” Eames interrupts Arthur’s stream of consciousness. “It’s not a problem.” There’s something overwhelmingly certain in Eames’ voice; Arthur wants to believe it’s sincerity. “So are you excited for our first game?” Eames asks after a moment, bless him, and Arthur pounces on the topic.
“Yeah, a little nervous.”
“Well that’s typical, innit?”
Arthur shrugs. “As long as Nash doesn’t fuck me over.”
“He’s given you trouble?”
All the complaining he’s wanted to do about Nash is boiling up. He runs his hand through his hair again. “No. Yes. Every day.”
“How have I missed this?” Eames asks, incredulous.
“Because you’re not looking?” Arthur provides, as if obvious. Eames’ awkward silence should be tell-tale, but Arthur’s not in his right mind and he doesn’t catch it. “Anyway, I just hope he gets over his like, hatred for me or whatever by the time we play the game for real.” Arthur’s nervous fingers, which have already migrated from his pockets to his hair, are now picking at a chapped bit of his lip idly.
“Yeah,” Eames murmurs under his breath, sounding vaguely distracted. “I’ll be keeping an eye now.”
“Don’t,” Arthur groans. “I didn’t, I don’t want to start shit or anything.”
“Never fear,” Eames grins at him--Arthur catches it by way of lamp post light hitting the white of his crooked teeth. “I can be very discreet.”
“If you say so,” Arthur assents with a mite of sarcasm, because he’s rarely seen Eames do things discreetly. Not to say that Eames whores himself out for attention’s sake, but just that he has a natural tendency to do everything with purpose and strength, and maybe a bit of flare. It’s nothing Arthur doesn’t like.
They reach the Ivy House, their conversation trailing off comfortably. “Take care, then,” Eames says once Arthur’s at the door.
“Eames?” Arthur says, uncertain. Eames pauses in his departure, blinking at Arthur. “Just...thanks.” Arthur doesn’t know what he’s thanking Eames for, but he thinks it’s probably everything.
Eames smiles, a warm, full thing that makes Arthur’s breath hitch. Eames inclines his head. “Nothing to worry about, Arthur.”
The first game is home-field. In the last twenty minutes of it, when Arthur is trying to get the ball out from Jack’s feet, Jack nails Arthur in the face with his cleat. They end up winning, and Arthur joins the huddle of celebration on the field with blood dripping from his nose, cheek stinging and eye swelling.
“I’m so, so sorry about that, mate,” Jack apologizes fervently afterwards, wincing as he tentatively peels back a piece of gauze to look at the torn up skin around Arthur’s nose; below Arthur’s eye hangs a crescent moon of bruises. He does not feel pretty.
“Not your fault,” Arthur breathes out through his mouth. “Hazard of crowding behind the 8-man.”
Jack half-smiles and lets the gauze slip back into place. “A bit, yeah,” he agrees, rueful.
“It’s a badge of honor!” Mason declares, coming over and jostling Jack’s shoulder. “Now you’re really one of the team. Howsit feel?”
Arthur doesn’t feel like speaking so he flashes a thumbs up. Mason laughs.
His injuries are relatively minor, in the grand scheme of things, but Arthur tries to exercise a little more caution during practices the following week. The scrimmages are low-contact, save Nash, who seems to be tackling Arthur with all his might whenever he thinks he can get away with it.
The coaches might not be watching Nash, but Arthur finds out that Eames is. Nash comes at him from behind and knocks him down even though Arthur is not in possession of the ball--Manwarring blows his whistle to reorganize after the goal’s been scored but Eames uses the opportunity to soldier past his teammates and cause a debacle. “Nash!” he bellows, ripping out his mouth guard, and all the guys snap to attention, eager to see the drama unfold. Arthur mourns for whatever discreetness Eames had claimed to have.
Nash steps out, his upper lip curling. “Problem, captain?”
“Yeah,” Eames seethes, volume lowering as his proximity to Nash increases, though the anger in his voice does not diminish. “I have a bloody problem. You appear to have redirected all your attention from the plays today to trampling Arthur every chance you get.” Nash opens his mouth to protest but Eames jabs him in the chest with an extended, accusatory pointer finger. “That’s the third play you’ve screwed the back over on because you’re not where you’re supposed to fucking be.” He leans in close to Nash, feral and sweaty. “Get your head out of your arse before I kick it in there permanently, and stay the fuck off of Arthur.” He backs up and stares at Nash darkly, and for a second Arthur thinks Eames is going to spit at Nash’s feet, but he just spins on his heel and resumes his place.
“Everything under control, Eames?” Manwarring asks in a drawl that suggests boredom.
Eames doesn’t spare him a glance but says, “Yes coach.” His eyes find Arthur’s across the field and he nods his acknowledgment. When Nash turns around from the spot he’s been dressed down in his gaze is livid--boorish and fierce and it lands on Arthur at once. Arthur goes back to the game and ignores the pain in his head.
Arthur expects the atmosphere of the locker room to be tense after such a practice, but it’s full of the usual frivolity. Arthur recalls that no one on the team likes Nash and it suddenly doesn’t seem so strange.
Arthur’s gathering up his stuff when Mason calls out to him. “Arthur! Come have a coffee,” he says, shrugging his shirt off.
Arthur makes a face. “I stink.”
Mason rolls his eyes. “So take a shower.”
Arthur looks down at the towel he usually uses to wipe the sweat out of his face and finds he has no excuse. “Yeah, okay,” he says, strangled. He drags his shirt off, careful around his head, and steps out of his shorts as the dread rolls over him in tidal waves. He wraps the towel around his hips and turns away from the locker, bracing himself.
He hones in on a free shower head and doesn’t breathe until he’s standing under it, turning the faucet. He faces the green tile of the wall the whole time as he pumps the all-purpose soap from the dispenser on the wall and into his palm, running it over his skin and through his hair as quickly as he can. When he finishes he grabs his towel from the accompanying hook and secures it around himself. Even with his efficiency, he’s one of the last out of the showers--he can tell by how many feet there are left standing around. He doesn’t raise his eyes from the floor.
He sees Mason almost finished dressing at his locker and hurries to do the same, swapping towel for the pre-practice clothes stuffed inside his bag. His sweater bunches against the bridge of his nose for a moment and he hisses, reaching up to pull it out and down quickly. His hair is still dripping water down his back so he ruffles it with his towel harshly. When he straightens up, Mason’s leaning on the locker next to his. “Ready to go, princess?” Mason teases.
Arthur manages a semi-steady glare as he wads his towel up and shoves it to the bottom of his bag. “Ready.” When they exit together, Eames is waiting outside. He pushes off the wall and falls in line with them.
“Oh,” Arthur says. “You’re coming too?”
Eames raises an eyebrow. “That all right with you?”
“Yeah, obviously,” Arthur huffs, dropping his eyes. “I just didn’t know.”
“Yeah,” Eames says. “Robert’s gonna meet us there.”
Compulsively, Arthur checks his back pocket for his phone and wallet. He freezes when he feels one but not the other. “Fuck. Uh, hold on guys, I must have dropped my wallet in the locker room.”
Mason and Eames stop beside him. “Go on,” Mason says and Arthur turns around and jogs back to the building.
When he gets inside, he instantly spies his wallet on the ground, right in front of his locker. “Motherfucker,” he curses under his breath, hurrying over. Just as he bends down to retrieve it, he’s slammed sideways into the locker and held in place there.
“This is convenient,” a voice wheezes in his ear. “I was just thinking about you.” Arthur turns his head to see Nash, up close and personal, face twisted in an ugly scowl. “Thinking about what a bloody fool you made of me today,” Nash snarls.
Arthur wants to snort that it’s not his fault Nash wasted time and energy prowling Arthur during practice but he sees Nash’s arm raise, preparing to strike. Instinctively he ducks his head and tries to jab at Nash’s torso with his elbow but Nash is pressed too close, too confining; Arthur doesn’t have enough leverage to make an impact. Nash’s fist hits a couple inches above Arthur’s ear, forcing Arthur’s head into the metal locker again. Arthur yelps but adrenaline kicks in and he drops into a crouch. Nash’s balance goes haywire and he stumbles, grunting when his shoulder meets metal. Now at the level of Nash’s knees, Arthur lunges off the lockers and into him, arms circling his legs tight as they both go falling.
The ground hurts, but not enough to deter Arthur. He snags the fabric of Nash’s jeans and pulls himself up over him, pinning Nash’s biceps with his knees. Before Arthur can hit him back, Nash spits in Arthur’s face and Arthur reacts on instinct, curling inward and cursing a blue streak indignantly. Nash uses the moment to dislodge Arthur’s knees, but when he reaches up to push Arthur off, Arthur grabs his wrist and twists it. Nash’s gasp of pain turns into a growl and with his free hand, the left one, he backhands Arthur in the face. It’s not powerful as it would be if it were with his right hand, and from a better position, but it’s enough to jar Arthur.
“Get the fuck off me,” Nash hisses as he finally shoves Arthur backwards. “Fucking faggot.”
Arthur’s on his back but quickly levers himself up on his elbows, pulse speeding, legs ready to kick but Nash isn’t making any sudden moves. Arthur’s muscles wind tight and tense, ready to strike, but they both just stare at each other, hatred outlined with wariness. Finally, Nash drops his eyes. “Fuck this,” he mutters. He stands up slowly, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He sidesteps Arthur swiftly and leaves.
Arthur closes his eyes and swears, fully feeling the new ache in his head. He sits up and gingerly dabs the remnants of Nash’s saliva off his face with his jacket. “God damnit,” he says, voice trembling. Collecting himself, he stands and shuffles over to his wallet, forgotten in the fray.
When he gets outside, it takes until he’s about ten feet away from Mason and Eames for them to realize something is wrong. “What the fuck happened?” Eames asks, aborting his I’ve-been-standing-here-forever-and-I’m-bored stance and striding forward to close the remaining distance. He looks so alarmed Arthur wishes he could melt into the ground.
“Nothing,” Arthur tries, knowing as he says it that it’ll fail.
“Oh man, Nash just came out here, he didn’t--did he do that to you?” Mason splutters. “And he just slinked off like the greasy fucking tosser he is, I bet he hasn’t gotten far--”
“Mason,” Arthur says, weary.
“--I’m gonna rip him limb from bloody--”
“Mason,” Arthur presses, rubbing his temple.
“Mason!” Eames slaps Mason’s chest with the back of his hand lightly. “Shut the bloody fuck up for a second.” He turns his attention back to Arthur. “You got in a fight with Nash?” he asks, eyes narrowing as if trying to peer into the recesses of Arthur’s psyche for the truth of the matter.
Arthur sighs. “He picked it,” he says.
“What the fuck!” Mason veritably explodes. Arthur experiences acute guilt that the only time Mason isn’t radiantly jubilant is because of Arthur’s well-being.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” Arthur grumbles.
“A big deal? Of course it’s a big deal,” Eames swears. “We’re a fucking team, and he’s roughing you up because he got a bit of his fucking ego bruised? Fuck that.” Eames turns his face away, glaring out into some middle-distance, his jaw grinding. “I have got to talk to Manwarring.”
“No,” Arthur says sharply. “You don’t have to do anything.”
“I’m your captain,” Eames bites. Even though Arthur knows Eames’ anger isn’t directed at him, it burns a little.
“And my friend,” Arthur adds. “You’re my friend, and I don’t want this to be some huge ordeal.”
“Friends don’t let friends go unavenged,” Mason asserts.
Arthur tries to hold on to the vestiges of his patience. “I don’t need to be avenged. If I want vengeance I’ll go get it for myself. I’m not some invalid because I got a bloody nose.”
“That’s not what I’m trying to say,” Mason says, palms up as if gentling a skittish animal. “Arthur, I know you can hold your own, I’ve seen you play haven’t I? That’s not what it’s about. Me and Eames, we’re your... your, fuck, your crew or whatever you Americans call it.”
“Okay, look,” Eames says. “You don’t want it to be a big deal, that’s fine. But I do have to talk to Manwarring.”
Arthur gives up. “Whatever,” he says. “I’m going home, I look like shit,” he says disdainfully. “Give Robert my regards.”
Arthur adjusts the strap of his bag, hefting it further up his shoulder, and they let him go.
The next day, Nash is not at practice. Arthur buries his suspicion for the time being, letting the physicality of it all subsume him. He focuses on why he loves rugby--the brutal fist of adrenaline that catches him in the ribs every time he’s handed the ball, the siege of bodies, the frantic give and take of strategy, the satisfaction of tackling, of scoring. Arthur loves it when everything falls into place and loves it just as much when he has to fight tooth and nail. He loves that rugby isn’t mindless, like track or cross country or swimming--isn’t something he can zone out in the middle of because if he does he’ll get ripped to shreds on the cleats of another player. His movements can’t be the product of sheer rote memorization; every action has to have a plan behind it, however thoroughly thought-out it may or may not be.
When the hours are up and they’re all trudging--worn but well-worked--back to the locker room, Arthur reflects on climbing into the passenger seat of his dad’s car, red-faced and triumphant as his dad praised him. He’s thrown from the pleasant memory as he passes from the dim light of dusk into the florescent of the locker room, blinking as his pupils dilate.
The absence of Nash reoccurs to Arthur and he heads over to Eames, who sees him coming and passively sips water from a paper cup. “Good practice,” Eames comments, swiping at a bead of water that’s escaped his mouth, eyeing Arthur with an expression Arthur can’t define. Arthur recalls the reflection of his own hideously battered face in his bathroom mirror that morning and almost leaves but resolves himself, squaring his shoulders.
“Where is he?” he asks, quiet enough not to draw attention, pinning Eames under his determined stare.
Eames takes another sip of water, humming, and diverts his attention to the gross floor. “He is...off the team.”
“Off the team?” Arthur echoes faintly. It’s not as though he liked Nash, not as though he’s sympathetic towards him. Still, somehow, the statement, and the reality behind it, slips under Arthur’s skin and festers where it sits, irritating him. “You got him kicked off the team?”
“Manwarring told me it was my team. Mine and Brandon’s. We made the decision together, to cut him.”
“So Brandon knows too?” Arthur grits his teeth. “And now the team is down a player.”
Eames fingers the edge of the flimsy paper cup. Arthur almost feels bad for the tone of his voice--confrontational and scornful--but not quite. “It’s not as if he made any great contributions, Arthur.”
“That’s not the point,” Arthur says, low and critical, pulling at a curl of his hair in agitation.
Eames’ face clouds. “Well it’s done,” he says. “He won’t play again.”
“Fine,” Arthur says, but it’s not fine, and he leaves without another word.
Arthur spends the next week avoiding Eames as much as possible and trying not to over-analyze why he’s doing so. Sometimes friends just get on each other’s nerves, he rationalizes. Sometimes you just need a break. He’s not convinced that needing space from someone should feel so miserable, should be so distracting, should take so much energy. He’s not fooling himself into believing all he wants from Eames is friendship and that’s part of the problem here, isn’t it? Instead of dwelling on it, Arthur puts his nose to the grindstone concerning his projects for his design and technology courses. Eames doesn’t pursue interaction with him during practice or afterwards, and Arthur lets it be.
They win their next game despite being down a man but the victory leaves Arthur semi-hollow, replaying in his mind last week when he jumped up and down next to Eames after they won, the front of his jersey stained with blood and feeling so alive.
Arthur’s walking from the library to his dorm when someone catches up with him. “Too cool to eat breakfast with us these days?” Robert asks, voice light, regarding Arthur with a piercing blue eye from beneath a shock of perfectly combed brown hair.
“Hi Robert,” Arthur says.
“Hello yourself,” Robert responds, reaching up to adjust the scarf around his neck. “Where have you been, then?”
Arthur watches the red cobbles pass by under their tread. “Around,” he answers.
“Oh come off it, Eames told me you two had a row,” Robert reveals breezily.
Arthur glowers, tucking his chin in towards his chest. “We didn’t have a- a row,” Arthur insists.
“What would you call it then?”
Arthur’s nostrils flare and he suppresses a groan. He’s having trouble comprehending where Robert gets off coming to interrogate him. “I don’t know? Nothing happened.”
“Yeah, except now you’re not eating with us and Eames is moping around like a complete sod.”
Arthur’s attention snags on that--that term, ‘moping’--but he refuses to show it. “Well I don’t know what to tell you, because I’ve done nothing to him.”
Robert is relentless. “He says you’re pissed because he got Nash kicked off the team.”
Arthur rounds on Robert, a saccharine smile pasted on his face. “Well then, you know everything you need to know, don’t you?”
Robert stops and rolls his eyes at Arthur. “Don’t be a git,” he admonishes. “Why won’t you just talk to Eames about it?”
“Because I don’t want to,” Arthur says. Because his attraction to Eames is overwhelming and he needed an excuse to get away. Because he didn’t want to get anybody to get kicked out of anything. “I can fight my own fucking battles, I don’t need Eames getting a boner over white knighting,” he hisses on impulse.
Robert sways, eyebrows hoisting themselves nearly to his hairline. He whistles sharply, the way one does when they’ve seen someone wipe out badly. “That sounds like it’s been stewing,” he says, still having the gall to flash a grin at Arthur. Arthur keeps his gaze level, eyes hooded, jaw tight. Robert sighs. “Look, Arthur, he only did it because he cares for you.”
“I asked him, as a friend, to let it go,” Arthur’s voice is taut and barbed. “And he didn’t do that for me. So excuse me if I don’t want to--if I don’t feel like--” Arthur stutters and closes his eyes, blood pounding at his temple. “I just don’t have anything to say to him right now.”
Arthur opens his eyes to the sight of Robert scrubbing his face tiredly. “Why are the gay ones always so dramatic?” Robert moans. “And before,” he begins quickly, “you say anything, just don’t. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you’re not, but I’ve seen the way you look at Eames.”
Arthur’s initial reaction was to assume Eames had told Robert, and for a moment he experienced an all-consuming fury. But it sounds as though Eames has not told Robert, that Robert has deduced it on his own. Rage withers, and Arthur’s subsequent fear scatters. He studies his shoes. “Have I...really been so obvious?” he whispers, eyebrows knitting together.
Robert takes a hesitant step forward. “No,” he says, but Arthur can’t tell whether he’s being truthful or just being kind. “I just have practice. Everybody falls a little bit in love with Eames, well, most anyway. He’s just that way, you know? Open. Charismatic. Why do you think he leads your rugby team so well? You meet Eames and you want him to be your best friend, you want to be his confidant, you’re immediately inclined to trust him. Some--” he pauses, daring to tilt Arthur’s chin up and look him in the eye, “--more than others.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Arthur asks, twisting out of Robert’s grip.
Robert shrugs. “It’s been awhile since Eames has looked at anybody the way that you look at him.” He retreats out of Arthur’s personal space, digs into his jeans and pulls out a pack of Dunhills; he taps one out and perches it between his lips with fluid familiarity. He surveys Arthur with the air of one checking out livestock, and Arthur feels as though he’s wavering at the edge of some great precipice as he waits for Robert to light up. Robert takes a deep drag and sighs the smoke out, holding the cigarette aside between two fingers. “He’s looking now, Arthur.”
“What?” Arthur asks, blindsided.
Robert smirks cheekily and then turns to go. “That’s all you’re getting from me. Oh, come around mine tonight. Peck House, room 106. Just a small get together, no worries, but if you don’t come I’ll hunt you down and drag you in.”
“Farewell,” Robert calls over his shoulder, long legs carrying him away easily.
“What the fuck?” Arthur mutters in his wake.
“I’m not fucking going to Robert’s,” Arthur tells himself as he showers. “I’m not going to Robert’s. Who does he think he is?” he asks his shampoo bottle. “Honestly.”
“I’m not going to Robert’s, Eames will be there,” he says as he dresses himself. “Not going,” he tells his reflection, idly pressing at the edge of a fading bruise, brushing his fingertips over the scabs on his cheek.
“Just shut up, I’m not going,” he grits out to his calculator as he pores over his homework. He looks up and glances at his clock--it reads 8:30pm. “Jesus fucking Christ, fine,” he relents angrily.
Arthur’s never been to the Peck House, but he knows the way there well enough. He kicks a rock out in front of him as he walks, trying to expel his aggression before he arrives at Robert’s.
When he gets there, he raises a hand to knock at the door but suspends it there, giving himself once last chance to walk away. I’ll hunt you down and drag you in, he recalls Robert’s voice. Arthur seriously doubts that Robert could do anything of the nature. Arthur could just leave.
Then the door opens and Robert’s right in front of him. “Oh hello, Arthur,” he announces. “So glad you decided to join us.”
Arthur spares him a half-hearted glare but allows himself to be ushered into the suite. Ariadne’s on the couch and she waves at him cheerfully; Arthur waves back, hoping that a meteorite will fall from the sky and crush him. Mason is sprawled out on the floor, head on a sofa pillow. “Arthur!” he greets with his characteristic face-splitting smile.
Arthur leans over and looks down at Mason, whose eyes are red. “Hello, Mason,” he says, offering a grin born of a rush of fondness for the perpetually merry boy.
“It’s good to see you, Arthur,” Mason nods sagely.
“Good to see you too.”
“Take a seat, then,” Robert says. “We’re about to play some cards. Let me get you a drink. Brandy or whisky?”
“In what?” Arthur asks.
“Brandy,” Robert decides, and slips away to the kitchen.
“Right,” Arthur replies futilely. “Brandy.” And then, at last, he turns to the presence just to his left that he’s ignored so far. He looks at Eames for a beat, assessing. “Hey Eames,” he says.
“Arthur,” Eames replies, tipping his head. Arthur chews his lower lip and then shuffles around before dropping down to sit on the floor, in between Mason’s head and Ariadne’s knee, across from Eames. Probably not the wisest choice, but anything else would seem unnatural.
“What are you guys playing?” Arthur asks, gesturing to the pile of cards.
“We haven’t yet,” Ariadne explains. “But we agreed on shithead.”
“Sounds solid,” Arthur says, rubbing his hands together. Robert returns and settles a hot mug into Arthur’s hands. “What is it?” Arthur wonders aloud, blowing at the steam rising from it.
“A bit of this, a bit of that,” Robert answers, aloof, taking his seat next to Ariadne.
“Just tell me how much alcohol is in it, ass.”
“A pinch,” Robert sniffs. Ariadne elbows him in the side. “Oh for fuck’s sake, just a shot’s worth,” he grumps.
“Thank you,” Arthur says crisply, and hazards a sip. It’s definitely coffee-based, but there’s some chocolate going on there too. He can taste the brandy, but just enough to warm him. “It’s good.”
“Of course it is,” Robert says, and picks up the cards to deal. “Now let’s play shithead.” So they do; several rounds, in fact. Arthur doesn’t win, but card games have never been his forte. The game leaves little room for personal interaction--something Arthur’s thankful for. He sneaks a peek at Eames a few times, observing how tired he looks, noting that he doesn’t expend more effort than it takes to participate in the game. A twinge of guilt takes up residence next to the brandy-coffee-chocolate mixture in his stomach.
“I can’t take anymore,” Ariadne exclaims after she loses a round. “I’ve got to take a break. Smokes, babe?” she asks Robert, who nods and stands, offering a hand to pull her up from the couch.
“Mason, Arthur?” Robert asks, fishing his pack out. Mason says yes at the same time Arthur says no. “Eames?”
“Nah,” Eames says, and Arthur suddenly wishes he had said yes. Neither of them speak as the other three shuffle out the door, wrapping scarves around themselves and slipping into their shoes. The door snicks shut behind them and the silence roars.
“I need a drink of water,” Eames says and stands, striding into the kitchen. Arthur plays mental ping pong with his options before rising from the floor, quietly following Eames.
Arthur leans a hip against the counter top and is about to speak but Eames, who’s idling in front of the tap, beats him to it. “I’m sorry,” Eames says in a rush of breath. He looks down at the sink, drums his fingers on the Formica. “I’m not sorry for what I did, but...I am sorry for upsetting you.”
Arthur picks at his lower lip too harshly; peels a bit of it away and tastes blood. He licks over it carefully before speaking. “I don’t see how you can separate the two,” he says, because apparently just a mutual apology is too difficult an obstacle for him to surmount.
Eames picks a lint off the front of his shirt. “Okay. Well. I’m not sorry that I told Manwarring, because it needed to be done, and I’m not sorry that Nash got kicked off the team, because he’s an asshole. I am sorry that the way in which these events proceeded offended you.” He shifts his weight forward onto his hands, palms bracing on the lip of the counter. “I’m sorry for the way it happened. Does that make more sense?”
Arthur is forced to concede the point. “Yeah,” he swallows. “It does. And, look. I mean, I’m sorry too. I didn’t...have to be such a brat about it,” he mutters,eyes falling to the floor. He catches Eames’ neutral shrug in his peripheral.
“People keep asking me why you haven’t been at breakfast lately,” Eames says slowly.
“And what are you telling them?”
“That I don’t know why. I, uh, didn’t think you’d want everyone to know.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says, looking up. “Good call.”
Eames rotates slightly, opening more of his stance up to Arthur. “At least I did something right, yeah?” he asks smoothly, but Arthur can hear the threads of desperation holding the question together.
“Yeah,” he says, struck by the sudden vulnerability Eames is emitting. “Yeah.”
“You look good, Arthur,” Eames says, motioning at his face. “Since the last time I...well, you know. It’s healing well.”
“Thanks,” Arthur says, reaching up to drift the pads of his fingers over the scabs. “Stings like a bitch, still,” he confides and that, at least, gets a small chuckle out of Eames. The tension loosens, beginning to break up and dissolve. Arthur offers a small smile and Eames moves forward, setting his plastic cup of water down.
“You should smile more, you know,” Eames says.
“I do smile,” Arthur replies, affronted.
“Yeah, no, your whole smile. You have dimples, you know.”
“I didn’t realize,” Arthur says. “No idea, honestly, dimples you say?”
Eames is close enough to swat his shoulder. “Shut up,” he laughs.
“Okay,” Arthur agrees, nerves producing electric currents under his skin. Eames shoots him a weird look.
“Right. Come on, then, let’s pick out a movie to watch when they get back.”
Eames selects one right away, Attack the Block--some alien movie--and Arthur doesn’t have the heart to tell him he despises alien movies so he just agrees and they relocate to the couch. “For fuck’s sake,” Eames says, checking the clock. “How long’s it take to smoke a cigarette?”
Mason, Robert, and Ariadne return shortly after. “We are not watching Attack the Block,” Robert attempts to dictate.
“Oh yes we are,” Ariadne undercuts him, gleefully grabbing it from Eames’ hands and going to put it in.
“Please no,” Robert pleads, but he’s rendered helpless in the face of Ariadne. “I had to get this movie for my British Cinema course. Let’s not and say we did.”
“Robert shut up,” Mason says. “It’s got aliens. It’s the highest rated British film this year. We can’t not watch this movie.”
“You’re all twats,” Robert mumbles, “The lot of you.”
“So be it,” Ariadne says and presses the play button, darting to turn the lights off before settling in Robert’s lap.
Arthur spends the first fifteen minutes too fascinated by the warmth of Eames sinking into his arm and thigh to pay attention to the plot. When he eventually tries to follow along, he just ends up baffled and wondering why national security is not on top of this alien problem.
Another fifteen minutes and Mason is snoring. Arthur snorts when he hears it, and then glances to the side to see Ariadne’s completely turned around and absorbed in making out with Robert. “Well,” he whispers in Eames’ ear. “That failed.” He can feel it more than hear it as Eames laughs.
Eames turns his head towards Arthur, bends back to get his mouth near Arthur’s ear. Arthur’s pulse accelerates. “You wanna escape?”
Arthur grins, giddy in the dark. “Where to?” he asks.
“I know a spot,” Eames murmurs and then he’s off the couch. They bid adieu to Robert and are out the door before Robert can break the suction between his and Ariadne’s lips, leaving Mason to be dealt with.
As soon as they’re outside they laugh together, bumping shoulders. Arthur’s not entirely sure what’s so funny, but it feels good to laugh, and Eames looks happier than ever, so Arthur can’t bring himself to care about the semantics of it.
“Where are we going?” Arthur asks, breathless, and Eames grabs his forearm, just above his wrist.
“No place you haven’t been before,” Eames says and he pulls Arthur into a run. Arthur gives up on specificity.
They end up on the rugby pitch. “Of all places,” Arthur pants, bending over a bit as he sucks in air. “We spend how many hours here a week, and you haven’t gotten your fill?”
“Why do you talk so much?” Eames asks, flopping down onto the cold, damp ground. He reaches up and pushes at the back of Arthur’s knee, inciting Arthur to join Eames in the grass. They lie back in unison, eyes on the star-speckled sky above them.
“I guess this is pretty,” Arthur relinquishes the compliment with a bit of sarcasm. “It’s just stars.”
“You are not the romantic I pegged you for,” Eames mutters. “Can you see any constellations?”
“You pegged me as a romantic?” Arthur asks, pushing himself up on one elbow and tilting his head to better see Eames.
Eames makes a dismissive gesture. “Maybe.”
“Maybe stars are just not my idea of romance,” Arthur dares to flirt, feeling his skin becoming hyper-sensitive.
Eames rolls his neck to look Arthur in the eye. “No? Then what?”
Arthur stays quiet a moment, flitting his eyes over the contours of Eames’ face, as if he could derive a certain truth from the thickness of his eyelashes, or the way his lips are parted. He can’t. “Who’s asking?” he hedges.
“Maybe I am,” Eames replies, words weighted, searching Arthur’s face in equal measure.
“Are you?” Arthur asks, moving to press his fingertips against the skin of Eames’ upper arm in imitation of someone tip-toeing. He doesn’t miss how Eames trembles.
“Yeah,” Eames confirms, gravel in the dips of his syllables, “I am asking.”
Arthur can’t help the smile that graces his face, then, dimpling hard enough to hurt. His fingers traipse from Eames’ arm to his chest, tapping a light tattoo against Eames’ collarbone. “Snow,” he says. “I think snow is romantic.”
Eames shifts, his fingers coming up to smooth across Arthur’s eyebrow, then down the side of his scraped cheek. “Well, you’re going to have to wait for snow. What can I do in the mean time?”
Arthur rolls, vanquishing the space between them easily, resting his weight partially along Eames’ ribcage. “You can kiss me, Eames.”
Eames smiles. “Get down here, then,” he requests, even as his hand is straying to the back of Arthur’s head, pulling him down. It’s a fraction too light for Arthur, their first kiss is--hesitant and shy despite their banter. Arthur cannot even begin to verablize how tired he is of being hesitant and so disposes of further conversation in favor of biting his way into a deeper, hungrier kiss. Every couple of seconds they have to stop because they’re both smiling too hard to continue, so Arthur gives up and places a line of smile-shaped kisses down Eames’ neck before coming to the collar of his shirt. He tucks his arms into himself, then, and rests his head above Eames’ heart, calmed by the thudding rhythm of it.
Eames takes the time to rub his hands up and down Arthur’s back, fingers tripping over the knobs of his spine through his shirt. “Hey,” Eames rumbles gently after a few minutes. “It’s getting cold.”
“No idea what you’re talking about,” Arthur lies even as he shivers.
“Do I have to carry you? Cinderella style? Is that romantic?”
Arthur scrambles off Eames, scowling without any bite to it. “Please never liken me to any Disney princess ever again,” he says, standing up and swiping the grass and dirt from his knees, dusting the bum of his jeans off.
“Fair enough,” Eames says, lifting himself from the ground as well. “Anything else?”
Arthur closes his hand around Eames’, draws him in as they begin to walk. “Tell me we’re going to win the next game,” Arthur says, cheeky.
Eames huffs a laugh that’s more breath than sound and swoops down to plant a kiss on Arthur’s good cheek. “We’ll win all the games, darling.”
Their team plays the season undefeated, all the way to districts. When the final whistle of the final game blows and the score is in their favor, Arthur screams, throwing his arms up in the air. Every last iota in his body aches but it doesn’t stop him from sprinting down the field to where his team’s converging on the trophy. Everyone is cheering, laughing, bouncing around one another and hugging. Arthur’s blood sings when he gets a hand on the trophy, touching the base of the golden cup. When he looks up from marveling, Eames is standing across from him, hand on the other side of the cup, utterly beaming with the joy of their accomplishment. Arthur wrinkles his nose as he smiles full on, sticking his tongue out playfully--Regression suits you, Arthur. Arthur reaches over to grab Eames’ shoulder, shaking him ecstatically, and then Arthur’s got his hands on everything he wants in the world.