Chapter 1: Eames
”What did you do this time?” Eames asked when his best friend finally emerged from the head teacher’s office.
Yusuf grinned sheepishly. It was becoming an almost weekly occurrence for him to be sent to Mr Miles' office after chemistry, which ought to have been strange considering his aptitude for the subject, but really wasn’t considering who his classmates were.
“I may have accidentally set Nash’s desk on fire," he admitted.
Eames shook his head, but he couldn’t repress a grin.
“Nothing you do in chemistry is accidental," he pointed out. “What did he do?"
Yusuf shrugged, trying to act as if it was no big deal. Unfortunately, Yusuf was a terrible actor and his pretence at nonchalance only served to make Eames suspicious.
“He was being a git," Yusuf said.
Eames narrowed his eyes.
“Nash is always a git," he pointed out, "it’s his default setting. Yet somehow, miraculously, most of his desks remain unburned.”
Yusuf shook his head, obviously reluctant to tell Eames what had happened. It was causing a heavy lump of dread to grow in Eames's stomach. He'd had too much experience of Nash's special brand of twattery not to recognise the signs and they were all pointing in the same direction.
“I know he was talking about me, Yusuf," he said. “Just tell me what he said.”
“It was nothing, really," Yusuf said in what was obviously meant to be a reassuring tone. “He was just regaling his friends with the story about the time he and Peter took you trick-or-treating.”
This was nowhere near as bad as what Eames had feared and he allowed himself to relax slightly. Granted, at the time, being dressed up as a fairy in gossamer wings and a tulle skirt hadn't exactly been an enjoyable experience for a thirteen-year-old boy who was just coming to terms with the fact that he really was a fairy, but his stepbrothers had done far worse and far more humiliating things to him over the years since his father had married their mother. These days, the fairy experience barely merited a shrug of the shoulders, which was all it got this time.
“Come on," he said, slinging an arm around Yusuf’s shoulder. “I’m hungry. Do you think maybe next time, you can wait until after lunch to torture Nash?”
Eames’s life had begun well. His mother was a lovely woman who had moved to the U.S. from Britain to be with the man she had believed to be the love of her life. She had soon realised her mistake, but by then it had been too late.
Fortunately, her husband, while failing to give her the happy marriage she had dreamed of, had given her a beautiful baby boy, who, from the moment of his birth, had become her whole world. Because she had had the child and because she had been a pragmatic and good-humoured woman, she had never felt any regret about the choices she had made and she had even been able to treat her husband with gratitude, if not with respect. The child she had lavished with love and affection, making sure he never wanted for anything, but without spoiling him too rotten.
Sadly, Eames’s mother had died when Eames had been ten years old and without her, the boy’s world had begun falling apart. He had been left in the care of a cold and indifferent father, whom he barely knew and who spent ten months out of every year away on business trips, and an aging nanny, who had only survived his mother by a few months.
Eames had loved his mother fiercely and had naturally been devastated by her death. Therefore, when his father had got remarried a year after his first wife’s death, he had perceived this as a gross betrayal of her memory. This had lead to a number of heated arguments between father and son, which had brought about a stop to all but the most necessary communication between them.
Eames’s new stepmother was a formidable woman named Mrs Cobol, who had been widowed twice before she had turned forty. She was stern and supercilious and she loathed Eames for the mere reason of his existence. He was a reminder that she had not been the first woman in her husband's life. The fact that he had a claim to his father's wealth and future inheritance did not help to endear him to her either, nor did his irreverent attitude. It was therefore fair to say that their relationship was cooler than the Artic ocean.
A month before the wedding, Mrs. Cobol had moved into Eames’s father’s mansion and had begun ruling the household with an iron fist. Eames himself was treated as the lowliest of servants and made, through various threats of abuse and eviction, to take on whatever household tasks Mrs Cobol deemed most demeaning.
The first thing that Mrs Cobol had done in her new home had been to erase all traces that another woman had once lived there. Eames had hurried to hide what he could of his mother’s things in his own room, but everything he could not save had been irrevocably lost in the woman’s purging.
Mrs Cobol had two sons, one from each of her previous marriages. The oldest, Peter, was four years older than Eames. He was a serious and intelligent boy, who Eames thought might have been sympathetic had he been raised by a different mother. Unfortunately, he had inherited his mother’s greed, her cruelty and her manipulative manners, which effectively cancelled out any amiable qualities he might have had.
His brother Andrew, who told everyone but his mother to call him by his father’s surname, was only a year older than Eames. He was nowhere near as intelligent as his brother and his mother, although he liked to pretend that he was. Instead he was a whiny, spoiled and arrogant brat, whom nobody liked, but many tolerated, due to his mother’s and stepfather’s wealth and influence. He was also the biggest hypocrite Eames had met. He liked to mock Eames for being such a “flaming queer," but it was he who had been caught repeatedly stalking the players on the school football team or - as he liked to call it - "showing them his appreciation".
Mrs Cobol and Peter liked to act as if Eames did not exist, both to Eames himself and to their many acquaintances. The only exception was when they needed some dull and preferably dirty task done. Andrew (or Nash, as he was usually called), on the other hand, had made it his life’s mission to make Eames's life as miserable as possible. At home, he, like the rest of the family, treated Eames like his personal servant, making him clean his room and run various errands for him. In school, he and his friends liked to make fun of Eames and to think up all the small ways in which they could make his life more difficult, pushing him into lockers, hiding his things and mocking everything he did and said.
In the beginning, when Nash had first begun attending the same school as Eames, he and his friends had attempted a campaign of organised bullying, meant to turn all their school mates against Eames, but his mother’s upbringing had given Eames the sort of confidence that makes one impervious to that kind of treatment and they had soon given up, choosing instead the more subtle approach of making him a social leper.
By the time Eames started high school, they had all but succeeded. Eames still had two friends, a strange, but sweet boy of mixed heritage named Yusuf and the head teacher Mr Miles’ daughter Mallorie. To everyone else, he was invisible. Most of the time, this did not bother him.
In fact, his friends often accused him of exacerbating the situation by acting the way he did, avoiding if possible all large gatherings and potentially social situations in which he could be forced to speak with people other than his friends. This was not due to some excessive shyness on his part, but more as a strategy to make his life easier. As long as no one noticed him, Nash seemed to forget him also.
There was also the way he dressed in Peter's old hoodies and jeans, which were too big for him, and wearing a pair of old-fashioned glasses with brown plastic frames that covered most of his face. It didn't help that Yusuf was his hairdresser, which meant that his hair was generally too long and unevenly cut, obscuring those parts of his face that the glasses failed to cover.
Eames could probably have done something about this, but he knew that Nash would make sure that any attention he attracted could only be negative, so he did his best to keep his head down and looked forward to the day when he could escape his "family"'s clutches.
“I know that there’s something you’re not telling me," Eames told Yusuf when they were sitting in the cafeteria, having lunch.
Yusuf shrugged, trying and failing to act nonchalant.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes, you do," Eames said. “I know you. You’re not one for overreactions. Nash’s story was not enough to warrant setting his desk on fire. Buggering up his experiment, yes, and making him look even more of a prat than he usually is, but not burning his whole bloody desk. That sounds more like a diversion.”
“Who says I did it intentionally?”
“Mate, we already went over this. Just tell me!"
Yusuf didn’t reply. He suddenly became very interested in his chips.
“Yusuf," Eames said, dragging the name out.
“Who else was listening?”
“No one.” The answer came a bit too quickly to be convincing.
Eames waited. Yusuf sighed.
“I don’t know," he said. “Cobb and his gang were there, but I don’t know if they were listening.”
Eames felt his stomach sink. It was at times like these that he didn’t feel as indifferent as he’d like about his situation. Apparently, his feelings showed on his face, because Yusuf hurried to add,
“I’m really not sure how much they heard. They weren’t laughing or anything. Besides, you know what he's like. He was probably too focused on keeping up his perfect marks to pay attention to anything else.”
Eames nodded, but he still felt strangely hollow. It was ridiculous, really, how worried he was about what a boy he didn’t even know thought about him, when it was highly unlikely that the boy in question ever thought about him at all.
Eames’s eyes strayed across the cafeteria to where Cobb was sitting at a table with his friends. Mal was sitting at his side and opposite her sat the object of Eames's affections and anxieties.
As usual, Arthur looked more as if he belonged at some sort of corporate meeting than in high school. He wore a pair of dark grey slacks, a striped light blue shirt and a yellow tie. His dark hair was slicked back, somehow sharpening his boyish features into something manlier, and his ramrod straight back and perfect posture set him apart from the slouching boys around him. He should have looked ridiculous, pretentious and vain, but because he was Arthur and Arthur could never do anything less than perfectly, he simply looked beautiful instead.
"You really should try talking to him sometime," Yusuf said softly.
Eames shook his head. This was a discussion they'd had many times, especially since Mal had begun dating Dominic Cobb, Arthur's best friend. She had offered to introduce them several times, but Eames had always declined. He knew his best friends meant well and that he'd probably have given them the same advice if they'd been pining as pathetically after someone, but he simply couldn't bear to set himself up for more humiliation. He knew he was being a coward, but he'd rather be invisible to Arthur than face his rejection.
"Nah," he said. "He's probably dead boring. No one has a posture that straight without a stick up their arse to maintain it."
This won him a snort of laughter and made Yusuf drop the subject in favour of making dirty innuendos. Grateful for the reprieve, Eames happily joined in, forcing himself to keep his gaze from wandering back to Arthur. It didn't do to dwell on the impossible.
A week later they were once again sitting in the cafeteria, discussing Nash's latest mishap in chemistry - somehow his solution, contrary to what it said in the instructions, had turned pink and had reacted so violently that it had overflowed the test tube. Nash was now walking around with a spot on his otherwise beige trousers that was almost as pink as face. The teacher, Mr Simmonds, had not been happy.
"Apparently, with all his failed experiments this year, he is unlikely to pass the course," Yusuf said with mock sympathy.
Eames was grinning so widely that his face hurt. He had already overheard one argument between Nash and his mother, where Nash had tried to blame Yusuf and Mrs Cobol had told him that she wasn't interested in excuses. She'd made him scrub all the floors in the mansion as punishment, a job that Eames knew from frequent personal experience took four days to finish if you began every day straight after school and continued until midnight. He couldn't wait to see what punishment Nash would receive for failing the entire course.
"But surely they know it isn't entirely his fault?" he said, trying to remain reasonable, despite the childish glee that made him want to giggle and clap his hands. "Otherwise Mr Simmonds wouldn't have sent you to Mr Miles so often, would he?"
"True," Yusuf agreed, "but apparently, even taking that into account, Nash has failed enough without my help. It is beginning to seem as though my involvement has been largely unnecessary. Take today, for instance. If Nash hadn't been so busy trying to chat up your dream boy over there, he wouldn't have made such a mess of his experiment. The only thing I did was change the colour, the rest was all his own doing."
For some reason, Eames didn't feel as much like giggling and clapping his hands anymore.
"Nash fancies Arthur?" he asked quietly.
Yusuf paused in pouring vinegar over his chips to give him a sharp look, before groaning.
"Oh, come off it!" he said. "You can't possibly feel threatened by that naff git. I know you're insecure, but this is taking it to extremes."
Eames shrugged, but was saved from having to answer by Mal sitting down at their table, practically bouncing up and down in excitement.
"Eames, mon cher," she said, air kissing his cheek in accordance with her French maternal heritage.
"Mal," Eames returned the greeting, dutifully turning his head to let her kiss his other cheek as well.
"There's a party on Saturday," Mal said. "We're going."
Eames frowned at her. He was used to Mal ordering him about - always in his own best interest, of course - but she knew about his home situation.
"I assume you're talking about you and Dom," he said, "or you and Yusuf, because I know you can't mean me."
"Of course I mean you, silly," Mal replied, stealing his bag of crisps. "This is your chance."
"My chance at what?"
Mal rolled her eyes, as if he was being deliberately dim.
"Arthur, of course," she said. "It's his party."
Eames blinked at her, waiting for some indication that she was joking. Not that he truly believed she was, but one could always hope. It quickly became clear, however, that she was being perfectly serious. Nor did she seem inclined to elaborate.
"Arthur's party?" Eames said.
"To which you think we - as in you and I..."
"... and Yusuf are going."
Mal simply smiled serenely at him.
"You do realise that there's no chance Yusuf and I are invited. Arthur doesn't even know we exist."
"Of course he does," Mal said, brushing off his objection with an elegant wave. "Besides, I'm inviting you. As Arthur's best friend's girlfriend, I'm allowed to bring anyone I like. Not that invitations matter. We all know the whole school is likely to turn up anyway. It's impossible to keep these things quiet."
"Fine," Eames conceded, "forget invitations. I still can't come."
Mal frowned at him, while Yusuf looked away sadly.
"Why not?" Mal asked. "If this is because you're too shy to talk to Arthur..."
"No, it's because I've a witch of a wicked stepmother, who won't let me leave the house on weekends and certainly not to go out and have fun."
"Oh, is that all?" Mal said, as if this was nothing. "I've talked my parents into inviting your stepmother over for dinner on Saturday. That way, you'll have no trouble sneaking out. Of course, she'll find out about it afterwards, especially since Nash is going, but what is she going to do? Ground you? Make you do housework? Beat you? We both know there's nothing she can do that she wouldn’t do anyway, except throw you out and if she does, you can stay with me. Come, Eames! Won’t you at least try to have some fun for once?"
Eames shook his head, searching for another excuse and coming up blank. Not that anything he could have said would have made any difference, not when Mal had clearly already made up her mind. Besides, he was helpless to resist her puppy dog eyes.
"I've nothing to wear," he tried meekly.
"Don't worry about that," Mal said happily, clearly taking this as a concession. She kissed his cheek, properly this time, as she rose to leave. "I'm sure papa has something you can borrow. A samedi alors!"
She walked off, her head high and her hips swaying, to join her boyfriend, who stood waiting for her by the cafeteria entrance. Eames watched her helplessly, feeling a sense of impending doom weigh down on his shoulders.
"A party," Yusuf said, oblivious to his friend's dark forebodings. "Nice! I hope Ariadne will be there. It’s time one of us got a love life."
Saturday came, as Saturdays are wont to do, immediately after Friday and Eames still had not managed to get out of going to the party. He had tried pleading, threatening, bribing and, as a last resort, reasoning with Mal - the last being utterly futile, since Mal was anything but reasonable when there was something she wanted - but nothing had worked. Both Mal and Yusuf, the traitor, were adamant. Apparently, they'd had enough of Eames's (in his opinion) stoically manful yearning and were determined to crush his dreams by making him confront their main object.
"I don't understand where this sudden insecurity is coming from," Mal had told him over the phone on Friday night, as he was making a last desperate attempt to get out of going. "I have never seen you this frightened of anything before."
"I'm not frightened," Eames had protested. "I just don't want to go."
Of course, Mal had ignored this.
"What do you think Arthur's going to do to you?" she'd asked. "Is it just the fear of rejection or do you actually think he'd publicly humiliate you? Because I can promise you, Arthur isn't like that. He's the sweetest lamb."
Eames had been unable to repress a snort at that. Arthur's temper was infamous. Even the seniors preferred to avoid him when he was in a mood. His tongue was sharp as a sword, he knew three forms of martial arts and he had been known to reduce freshmen to tears with just a glare. Eames, of course, found this unutterably sexy, not that he'd ever admit it. It would just constitute further proof of how far gone he really was.
"Fine," Mal had conceded, "so maybe that wasn't entirely true, but he's really nice, Eames. He'd never do anything intentionally to hurt or humiliate anyone. The worst that will happen is he'll turn you down. Maybe you'll become friends and he'll have the chance to get know you. Once he sees how wonderful you are, he'll fall as madly in love with you as you are with him. You just have to give him a chance."
Eames had had to smile at that. Mal liked to pretend that she was all rational and pragmatic, but she was the biggest romantic he'd ever met. He knew that she was hoping that he'd get to experience some sort of epic fairytale romance with Arthur, similar to what she had with Dom, that would make him as happy as she was and would in part make up for his miserable family conditions. In the face of all her well-meaning hopes for the party, he had found himself unable to continue resisting and by the end of their conversation, he had given in to the inevitable.
Now he was standing fresh out of the shower in front of the mirror in his room, dressed only in a pair of black boxer briefs, while Mal and Yusuf lounged together on the bed behind him.
"Really, Eames," Mal was saying, "I had no idea that this was what you were hiding underneath those ghastly sweaters. If I weren't so madly in love with my Dom, I'd almost regret your lack of interest in women."
"When did you get so fit?" he asked. "Last summer, you could have hid behind a lamppost, you were that skinny, and now look at you. I mean, I knew you'd put on weight, but I never thought it was all muscles."
Eames shrugged, feeling embarrassed. He was aware that most of the people who saw him made the same assumption that Yusuf had made, that he was a bit chubby. He'd never been too bothered with correcting them. The truth was that there wasn't much for him to do at home, but to read and work out. He'd built himself a gym in the attic, where none of the rest of the family ever went, and he'd spent countless hours there during the past year, working off his agressions. It was really all too easy to imagine Nash's face on the boxing ball he'd bought and snuck up there last Christmas, or that it was Peter's soft stomach and not the homemade boxing bag that his fists sank into. His time in the gym functioned as an outlet for all his anger and his hatred for his so called family and it helped him to keep his calm during the rest of the day. The changes it had wrought on his body were more of a pleasant side-effect, imbuing him with the confidence that he could hold his own, should it ever come to a fight.
Mal had risen and was coming to stand behind him.
"Really, mon cheri, this hiding, it must stop! You are too good for it! Arthur will take one look at you tonight and fall at your feet, or he is an imbécile and not worthy of your time."
This made Eames laugh. He turned around and kissed her cheek.
"I don't know what I'd do without you," he told her.
"Nothing, probably," she replied, her eyes twinkling, "and wouldn't that be a shame. Now get dressed, before your luscious body makes me forget myself and I decide to ravish you myself."
"Promises, promises," Eames grumbled, but he was grinning as he put on the brown slacks and aubergine shirt she handed him. A darker grey jacket completed the outfit and when Eames looked at himself in the mirror, he hardly recognised his own reflection.
Mal had made him wear a narrow headband to hold his longish hair back from his face, despite his protests that it was girly and ridiculous. (“The alternative," she had told him sternly, “is to use gel and that is no good. It’s enough that one of you will get your hands all sticky when you bury your them in each other’s hair.”) His glasses had been replaced by the contact lenses he wore when working out and the result was quite startling. Without anything to hide behind, his face felt almost obscenely naked. His eyes were too clear, his mouth too full and his cheekbones too defined. It was as though he was looking at a male version of his mother and it made his heart ache with longing. Without thinking, he raised his hand to touch the locket that always hung around his neck and that was his most valued possession, having once belonged to her. As always, it brought the memory of her face before his eyes and soothed the aching hollowness in his chest. He smiled at the mirror, but it was her smile that was reflected back at him. For the first time in his life, he felt as handsome as she had been beautiful and he wasn’t quite sure what to do with that sensation.
"Blimey!" Yusuf breathed from the bed, breaking into his sorrowful musings with his usual tact. "If I hadn't seen the transformation, I'd never have recognised you."
Mal was beaming beside him. She put her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder, her dark beauty forming a sharp contrast to his own light colours, but both of them sharing the same sort of innate sensuality in their looks. They made a lovely couple and for the umpteenth time, Eames sent up a prayer of gratitude to whoever was watching over him for sending him such wonderful friends.
"Tu es magnifique!" Mal told him. "Tonight, you will take Arthur's breath away and probably his heart as well."
Chapter 2: Arthur
Arthur was standing on the grand porch of his parent's mansion-like villa, looking out at the crowd that milled about on the well-kept lawn like a horde of buffaloes, trampling down the grass. His dad was going to kill him when he got back. Well, maybe not kill him, but he'd definitely have a lot of explaining to do and he'd probably be grounded for a month. Normally a party like this would be worth it - the night was still young, but it was already being declared the party of the year - but tonight, Arthur wasn't sure. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves, but for some reason, he couldn't get in the mood.
He had tried getting drunk, but even that had seemed to require too much effort and far from improving his mood, it had only plunged him further into what could only be described as a fit of sullenness, so he had quickly given up on that attempt. Dancing wasn't his thing and none of the conversations he'd overheard had been interesting enough to draw him in. He was feeling bored and jaded and longing for either true solitude or some stimulating company, neither of which he was likely to find tonight.
He had to admit that part of his problem was undoubtedly the desertion of his best friends. He knew that they were around somewhere, since they'd spent the afternoon together, but as soon as other people had begun arriving, they had both vanished into the crowd. Dom had been the first to disappear, undoubtedly in search of Mal, and shortly afterwards, Robert had been dragged off by Ariadne, leaving Arthur on his own, feeling lost and isolated in his own home. The three of them had always been inseperable, ever since their parents had more or less forced them together as children, but lately, the dynamics had changed and they were seeing far less of each other.
Arthur couldn't exactly blame his friends. Dom had been in love with Mal for ages and it was obvious that she felt the same. They were like two halves of a whole finally coming together and seeing them apart made them seem incomplete. Robert and Ariadne didn't quite have the same feeling of destiny about them, but there was a quiet glow of contentment that surrounded them when they were together and Arthur couldn't recall ever seeing Robert so relaxed. Even his frequent fights with his overbearing father seemed to faze him less. Arthur was happy for him, truly he was, just as he was happy for Dom. He just couldn't help the feeling of abandonment he was experiencing at being left behind, nor could he help being jealous of his friends' happiness.
In the end, that’s what it all came down to. Arthur was jealous of his friends and although he hated himself for it, he was a bit resentful of their happiness. It hurt to always be the fifth wheel, to be the one sitting on the sidelines, looking in. He wanted so badly to have someone for himself and to experience what his friends had. The trouble was that there wasn't much chance of that happening.
He let his eyes travel across the crowd, searching, without finding, for a face on which to linger. It wasn't as if there were no volunteers. Arthur was rich, good-looking and intelligent. He and his friends were considered the height of cool and many of their schoolmates were willing to do anything to become part of their clique. He had had his fair shares of offers, a few of which he had accepted, but only briefly. He wasn't just looking for anyone; he was looking for the one. And the only one ever to have caught Arthur's eye was one of the few that seemed immune to his charms.
With a sigh, he straightened from where he had been leaning against the railings and turned around to go inside. Instead, he found himself almost colliding with Andrew Nash and his older brother Peter Browning. Arthur suppressed a groan. Think of the devil... Nash was one of his most eager volunteers and also one of the least tempting. His manners were as greasy as his hair, his sense of humour was incomprehensible at best and he seemed to think that copying off Arthur's test papers was an acceptable form of flirting. There were also other, more personal reasons for Arthur's distaste, but he'd rather not think of those tonight.
"Arthur," Nash was saying enthusiastically, in a way that made it clear he'd been looking for him. "Awsome party, man! People'll be talking about this one."
Arthur forced a smile. He didn't even try to make it genuine.
"I'm glad you're enjoying it, Nash," he said, then nodded at the silent boy standing behind Nash. "Peter. I thought you were away at college."
"I'm back for the weekend," Peter said. "Where's Robert?"
Arthur shrugged. He was suddenly glad that Robert wasn't with him. For some reason, Peter had appointed himself Robert's guardian, ever since he'd stopped some of his classmates from stealing Robert's lunch when they were children. Arthur knew that Robert wasn't too fond of Peter's company, but he was too kind to say anything and so Peter continued to believe that his interest was appreciated.
"He's with Ariadne," Arthur replied. "I think they're around somewhere."
Peter blinked and frowned.
"Ariadne?" he repeated. "I thought Robert agreed with me and his father that she isn't appropriate company for the future leader of Fischer Morrow."
Arthur didn't bother to reply. Instead he said,
"I need to find Dom. You guys have a fun evening!"
With that, he pushed past the brothers, ignoring Nash's disappointed confusion and Peter's stern disapproval, and went in search of his best friend.
It wasn't as difficult as he'd feared to find Dom. He was in the living room, standing in the middle of the impromptu dance floor that had appeared there, doing something that only vaguely resembled dancing. Mal was next to him, her head thrown back in laughter as she tried to control Dom’s movements with her hands and her body.
Another boy was dancing beside them. He was far better at it than Dom, his body moving in a way that was both fluid and rhythmic at the same time. His back was to Arthur, so all he could see was a head of soft-looking hair held back by a headband and a pair of broad shoulders above a frankly perfect behind. Still, there were plenty of sexy bodies around, so he was at a loss to explain the sudden thrill that ran through his body as he made his way towards his friends.
Mal saw him first and her beautiful face split in a huge smile. Seeing her open affection for him always made Arthur feel even more guilty over his petty jealousy. He knew that he was lucky that both his friends had fallen for girls that he got along with so well and who were both so eager to ensure that he never felt excluded.
"Arthur!" Mal exclaimed, letting go of Dom so she could kiss his cheeks. "We were wondering where you'd disappeared to. Viens, mon cher! Dance with us."
Arthur shook his head, smiling.
“I don’t dance, Mal," he told her.
“Nonsense," she said. “Neither does Dom and look at him now. You can hardly tell me you’d be worse at it.”
Arthur looked at his best friend, who was currently swaying side to side and bobbing his head to the music, and had to admit that she had a point.
“No," he agreed, “probably not.”
“Wonderful," Mal said. “By the way, have you met my friend?”
She nodded to the strange boy, who was now standing beside Arthur. Arthur turned to look at him and his breath caught in his throat. The boy was even more gorgeous from this angle. His eyes were some indefinable colour that seemed to be a blend of blue, green and grey; his cheekbones and jaw were clearly defined, and his lush mouth was the very image of temptation. It was as though some higher power had listened to Arthur's earlier thoughts and had summoned this embodiment of his every desire from some celestial realm to taunt him.
"Arthur?" Dom's voice was filled with amusement and when Arthur was finally able to rouse himself from his mesmerised state, he was met by two huge grins and a very fetching blush. His own face felt uncomfortably hot and he tore his eyes away from the stranger with a muttered,
Mal waved away his apology with a grin like the cat that ate the canary. Arthur wished he could shake the feeling that he was the canary in this scenario.
"Arthur, this is-"
"Ash," the stranger introduced himself hurriedly, with a sharp look at Mal. He spoke with a crisp British accent that was unspeakably sexy. "Or Ashling, really. My mother's poor idea of a joke. She always said I was born of the ashes of her and father's love for each other."
Arthur smiled, although he couldn’t help but wonder at the past tense.
"Like a phoenix," he said.
"Yes," he agreed, "although I'm not sure that would have been a better name."
"It would suit you, though," Arthur said, before he could stop himself.
"Fiery hot?" Dom asked with a smirk, still swaying slightly.
Arthur shot him a glare and Mal elbowed him in the ribs.
"Beautiful and mysterious," she corrected. "N'est-ce pas, Arthur?"
"Something like that," Arthur agreed, lowering his head to hide his blush.
When he raised his eyes again, he found Ash staring at him with a small but happy smile on his face. They stood gazing at each other shyly for a while and Arthur was just working up his courage to ask the boy if he wanted to go somewhere else to talk, when the moment was interrupted by someone walking up to stand on Ash’s other side, stealing his attention away from Arthur.
"Thanks for the warning, Mal!" the intruder was saying. Arthur recognised him as Mal's friend Yusuf and had to force himself not to instinctively look around, as he usually did when he saw the boy. At Mal's questioning look, Yusuf clarified,
"Ariadne and Fischer. You might have mentioned something."
Mal looked somewhat abashed, which was unusual for her.
"I'm sorry, Yusuf!" she said. "I forgot. There were other things on my mind."
She glanced meaningfully at Arthur and Ash. Arthur frowned, wondering what she meant. Yusuf seemed to understand, however.
"Right," he said. "Nevermind, then. What did I interrupt?"
"Oh, nothing," Mal replied, but her glittering eyes belied her words. "Dom and I were just thinking of getting something to drink, weren't we, chéri?"
Dom's startled look clearly said that he, at least, had had no such thoughts, but as usual, he followed his girlfriend's lead.
"Yes, of course," he said, sounding relieved to finally be allowed to stop swaying. "I'm very thirsty."
Yusuf caught on just as quickly.
"Brilliant," he said. "I'm parched."
With a nod to Arthur and Ash, he followed the couple into the house, leaving Arthur alone with the boy of his dreams, who seemed to be trying not to laugh.
"Subtle," he commented.
"Not really," he said, "but in their defence, I don't think they were trying to be."
"No, probably not," Ash agreed. He had turned his beautiful eyes back to Arthur, whose heartbeat sped up. He was grateful to his friends for giving him this opportunity, but at the same time he was terrified of messing it up. Surely there was no way such a perfect creature could ever want someone as ordinary as him.
"So," he said, not knowing what to say, but wanting to keep Ash from leaving.
“So," Ash repeated with another smile. “I hope you don't mind that I crashed your party. Mal said that you wouldn't."
Arthur almost laughed, the idea seemed so ludicrous.
"Mal was right," he replied. "I'm glad you came."
There was that adorable blush again.
"She's talked about you," Ash said. "A lot."
"Not all bad, I hope," Arthur said, although he knew Mal wouldn't badmouth him behind his back.
"Quite the contrary. She made you sound like quite the saint. Clever, witty, kind, sweet..."
There was a strange quirk to Ash's lips, as if he knew how inaccurate that last word was as a description of Arthur and it made Arthur suspicious. Had Dom said something? He shrugged it off, however. There were more pleasant things to focus on.
"I wish I could say the same," he said, "but I'm afraid I didn't even know you existed before tonight."
This time, Ash's smile was tinged with bitterness.
"I know," he said. “No matter, though. I believe there was talk of dancing.”
Arthur couldn’t repress a groan, but when Ash held out his hand, he allowed himself to pulled closer and did his best to follow Ash’s lead. He had to admit, as Ash did a spectacularly sexy move, that this dancing thing might have its advantages.
Arthur quickly grew tired of the crowded dance floor, however. The music was too loud to allow for any proper conversation and they were constantly jostled apart by the other dancers. Arthur found it strange and somewhat suspicious that they were never pushed together, until he discovered that the person closest to him was Nash. After that, he gave up the dancing as a lost cause and somehow worked up the courage to ask Ash if he wanted to go somewhere else.
He led Ash out onto the veranda, where there were two sofas facing each other in shadowy corner. Arthur sat down in the one facing away from the door to the house and was delighted when Ash sat down next to him. After a few awkward moments of silence, Ash began asking him about his family and after that, the conversation flowed naturally.
Like Arthur, Ash was highly opinionated and as their opinions did not always coincide, they ended up spending the evening in a series of discussions (arguments, to anyone who was listening). Their friends came and went, but Arthur took little notice. Other people moved around them and Arthur knew that the gossip mill would be hard at work, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Nor did he care that there was something about Ash that tugged on his subconcious, making him feel as though there was something really obvious he was missing.
The truth was that he was falling headlong and he knew it. It was a dizzying sensation, terrifying and exhilirating, sort of like throwing oneself off a cliff without having checked one's parachute. He only wished he knew if Ash felt the same.
It was close to midnight by the time Arthur had finally worked up the courage to find out. He knew that Ash liked boys, had made him admit it by steering their conversation in that direction, so that wasn't a concern. Unfortunately, it didn't immediately follow that he'd like Arthur.
Ash's hand was resting on the seat between them, hidden from view for the people around them by the back of the sofa. They were alone at the moment and it seemed like the perfect time for Arthur to make his move. His heart was pounding so loudly, he felt sure Ash could hear it, as he slowly moved his own hand closer. Ash was talking, but there was no way Arthur could hear him over the rush of blood through his ears. He hardly dared to breathe as his fingers inched closer and every moment he expected Ash to move his hand away, but either he hadn't noticed what Arthur was doing or he didn't mind. Arthur prayed that it was the latter.
Finally, Arthur's little finger brushed against Ash's, just the tiniest bit of contact as their hands rested beside each other. Ash's skin was warm and soft and Arthur was almost giddy with relief. Surely this was a sign that his interest was reciprocated, otherwise Ash would not have allowed the lingering touch of their hands, slight though it was.
Nervous but hopeful, Arthur raised his eyes to look at the other boy. Ash had stopped talking and was looking down at their hands and smiling. Slowly, almost torturously so, his little finger moved. It slid across Arthur's finger in a careful caress that burned like fire against his skin, until their little fingers were linked together. Arthur bent his fingers until Ash's finger was secreted away against his palm. Ash's smile grew and he glanced up to meet Arthur's gaze.
"Do you want to go somewhere else," Artur asked, "somewhere less crowded?"
"Sure," he said. His voice was slightly hoarser than before and Arthur's heart sped up again, struggling against his ribs.
Reluctantly, he let go of Ash's finger as he stood up. Not that he thought that they were fooling anyone, but this was something he didn't feel like sharing with his schoolmates just yet. This was between him and Ash.
Forcing himself to walk as calmly as ever, he led the way into the house and up the stairs to his room, glad for his foresight in locking the doors to the upstairs bedrooms before his guests had arrived. Admittedly, it slowed their progress, as he and Ash had to more or less climb over the people who were strewn across the hallway floor - some of them engaged in acts that were certainly not suitable for such a public setting - but it also meant that his own bedroom was blessedly empty once he unlocked the door.
"Here we are," he said and winced internally both at the redundancy of the comment and the gruffness of his voice. Fortunately, Ash didn't seem to mind, as he simply closed the door, that same soft smile still on his face. Arthur's heart, which was getting quite the work-out this evening and might feel a bit sore tomorrow from all the exercise, leapt into his throat when the other boy locked the door behind him.
"Indeed," Ash replied and although he looked very calm and collected, there was a hint of nervousness in his eyes. "Alone, as promised."
Arthur nodded. He didn't think he'd be able to speak past his heart thumping in his throat. Slowly and carefully, he moved closer to Ash, until they were standing with the toes of their shoes almost touching, and reached out to take one of Ash's hands in his. To his great relief, Ash immediately linked their fingers together.
"I've had fun tonight," Arthur said, once his voice had returned. "I really like talking to you."
"And I you." Ash was almost whispering. His thumb was caressing Arthur's hand.
"I like looking at you too," Arthur confessed.
"And I you." Ash was grinning now.
"But what I'd really like to do right now" - Arthur had to swallow hard, before he could continue - "is to kiss you."
"So why don't you?" And yeah, there was a definite quaver in Ash's voice. For some reason, it soothed some of Arthur's anxiety and made him feel more relaxed. It was good to know that neither of them was as confident as they tried to pretend.
Arthur took another small step forward, until he was pressing Ash up against the door with their whole bodies in contact. He raised his free hand to run the back of his fingers over Ash's cheek, then moved it to run his index finger across his slightly parted lips. Ash's eyes had fallen closed and Arthur could feel the puffs of his breath against his finger as he traced that ridiculously full mouth. To his horror, he made a soft, needy sound in the back of his throat when Ash suddenly puckered his lips to kiss his finger, a hint of tongue sneaking out to taste it.
"Christ," he exhaled, letting both his hand and his head drop, until he was resting his forehead against Ash's and his hand on Ash's hip.
"Didn't you say something about a kiss?" Ash sounded as wrecked as he felt.
Arthur made a slight sound of agreement that was fortunately far less embarrassing than his previous noise. He moved his head ever so slightly and felt Ash move in the opposite direction, until finally, finally their lips were touching.
Arthur had kissed before, quite a few times, in fact, although he had never gone further, and he knew from the reactions he had got that he was good at it. He'd always been under the impression that kissing was kissing and it was the technique, not the emotion behind it, that determined how good the kiss was. When Dom had talked about his first kiss with Mal, how amazing and electric it had been, and how it hadn't mattered that she perhaps wasn't the best or the most experienced girl he had kissed, because she was the one and that had been all that mattered, Arthur had snorted and called bullcrap. He realised now that he owed Dom a serious apology.
It was obvious from the way Ash kissed that he hadn't had as much practice as Arthur. His technique was a bit sloppy and involved either too much or not enough tongue. He tried nipping at Arthur's lip and bit too hard, making Arthur flinch, which in turn made Ash apologise frantically in embarrassment, until Arthur silenced him with his mouth again. Ash's hand was resting on Arthur's lower back, stroking smooth, distracting circles over the fabric of his waistcoat, but not moving from that spot, which Arthur desperately wished it would. Where his other hand was, Arthur didn't know. He only knew it wasn't where it was supposed to be, which was on him.
None of this mattered one iota, however. Not when Ash's lips were as soft and luscious as they looked, not when he made these soft sighing sounds into Arthur's mouth or when he went all pliant in Arthur's arms. If Arthur had felt dizzy before, it was nothing to this sensation. His head was swimming, his heart was fit to explode and he couldn't seem to get close enough. One of his hands was caressing Ash's neck and chest, the other had buried itself in his hair after tearing off that ridiculous headband. He felt utterly lost, but he never wanted to be found again - at least not by anyone other than Ash.
He knew that he should probably try to slow things down, that neither of them were ready to go where this seemed to be heading, if the grinding and the panting were any indications, but he really, really, really didn't want to. Instead he wanted to climb inside Ash, to possess him, to share with him the burden of those feelings that were filling him up until he thought he would burst. He wanted to tear at Ash's clothes to reveal every inch of this beautiful boy to his hungry gaze, to throw him onto his bed and to taste every part of him.
With a herculean effort, he tore himself away from Ash's mouth, steadfastly ignoring the whimper that followed him. They were both breathing hard, but it was not nearly as hard as certain parts of their anatomies. Arthur literally ached to lean back in and throw caution to the wind, but he valiantly resisted the urge, choosing instead to let his eyes caress Ash's face.
Without his headband, Ash's hair had fallen forward to frame his face. His eyes were half-lidded, his mouth red and swollen and he wore an expression of almost desperate bliss. The hand that had been AWOL had finally returned to clutch at Arthur's arm and he was staring at Arthur as if he couldn't quite believe he was real. It was a feeling to which Arthur could relate.
Yet, through all of the desire and the amazement that clouded Arthur's thoughts, there was that nagging sensation again that there was something here that he should recognise. There was something almost familiar about the face before him, if only his head would clear enough for him to make it out. It was extremely frustrating.
Ash seemed to be able to read some of his thoughts on his face, because he began to squirm in Arthur's arms and he lowered his head. That wayward hand had gone missing again, but it wasn't until he heard the loud click of the lock that Arthur realised where it had gone. He felt his eyes widen.
Ash's face was miserable as he looked at Arthur with something like pleading in his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, as he began to open the door behind him. "Arthur, love, I'm so sorry! Darling, you have no idea..."
With those words, he tore himself out of Arthur's grasp and disappeared out of the room and down the hallway, pursued by a chorus of pained yelps and indignant shouts from the people he stepped on.
Through his stunned bewilderment, Artur distantly heard the great grandfather clock in the living room chime midnight. He suddenly realised that he was holding something in his hand and looked down to find an old, golden locket with a broken clasp clutched in his grip. Numbly and without thinking, he opened it to find two photos inside. One depicted a small boy with a round, happy face; the other was of a beautiful woman with the same indescribable eyes, full mouth and quirking smile as the young man that had just run out of the room.
Chapter 3: Eames
The weekend that followed the party was the most wretched of Eames’ life since his mother had died. The only good thing about it was that he somehow escaped punishment for having gone out. He would seriously owe Mal for this, since she had been the one to make it happen. On the evening of the party, Mrs Cobol had left before him to go to her dinner engagement with Mal's parents and by the time that he had got back, she had already been asleep. And since Peter and Nash had both left earlier than him and come home later, this meant that his absence had gone unnoticed. After all, it wasn't unusual for a whole evening to go by without Eames leaving the sanctuary of the upper floors of the house and there had luckily been no reason for any of the family to check on him.
Of course, Eames had expected the brothers to tell on him the following morning, since they must have seen him at the party. He hadn’t been so caught up with Arthur that he hadn’t noticed Nash hovering in the background, casting dark, resentful glares in his directions every time Arthur had leaned closer or smiled at something he said. He was therefore highly surprised when he came down to get some breakfast and no one took any notice of him.
He had spent the rest of the day in fearful anxiety, thinking that it must be the calm before the storm and that Mrs Cobol was probably just biding her time and trying to come up with a sufficiently horrific punishment to suit the offence. After all, as Mal had pointed out, she would have to get creative in order to think of something new.
It had taken him all of Saturday and part of Sunday to realise that no punishment was forthcoming, because none of his family knew that there was something to punish. He only discovered this as he was walking past the open door to Nash's bedroom and overheard a snatch of conversation between his stepbrothers, which made him stop and lean against the wall beside the door to listen.
"... stranger who was flirting with Arthur," Nash was saying.
"Why are they looking for him?" Peter asked.
"According to Stephens, he left something at Arthur's and Arthur wants to give it back. Personally, I think he should just throw whatever it is away. If the guy doesn't care enough to come back for it, I don't see why Arthur should put himself out."
Nash sounded unusually peevish, even for him. His brother didn't seem to notice, however. Either that, or he didn't care. Knowing Peter, both alternatives were equally viable.
"Doesn't Arthur know how to find him? They seemed to be getting on quite well."
Peter’s disapproving sneer was clearly audible in his voice. Unlike Nash, who only disapproved of homosexuality in people he didn't find attractive, Peter's loathing for it was general and included everything that could possibly be interpreted as gay. It was another reason for him to hate Eames, as if he needed one. Fortunately for Nash, he also had a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye on anything he did not want to see and so ignored all the glaring proof of his brother's proclivities. It was obvious, though, that he was not willing to extend the same courtesy to Arthur.
Nash made a sound that was equal parts wounded and disparaging.
"Arthur was just being a good host," he said and Eames had to be impressed with his ability for denial. "There's no reason why he should have thought he'd have cause to see the guy again."
"And yet," Peter said dryly, "here he is, frantically trying to find any information he can about him through any means available to him. You'll forgive me if I think his excuse about wanting to return a lost possession is flimsy at best. I find it far more likely that he's just looking for a way to continue whatever sordid affair they began on Friday night."
Nash made another sound that was probably meant to be a snort, but just made it sound as if he was choking.
"Really, Peter," he said, "that's ridiculous! I'll admit that they did seem disturbingly" - he paused, as if looking for a word that wouldn't pain him too much to say - "friendly," he finally settled for, "but you were there; you saw the guy leave. He ran out of there like a bat out of hell. I'd bet you anything that he put the moves on Arthur and that Arthur not only rejected him, but threatened to beat him up if he didn't leave."
This time, the disparaging noise came from Peter and with far better effect than Nash’s.
"He didn't look as if they'd been fighting," he said. "Besides, if that were the case, why would Arthur have brought him to his room in the first place?"
"To show him something," Nash suggested, his voice rising a pitch. "And what do you mean, he didn't look like they'd been fighting? You saw how dishevelled he looked."
"Yes, but not like he'd been fighting. I'm a boxer, Andrew, I know what people look like after a fight and that guy had not been fighting. It looked more like he'd been-"
"Alright," Nash interrupted, in a tone that implied that he was seconds away from covering his ears and shouting "lalalalalala" at the top of his voice. "So they hadn't been fighting. But something obviously went down to make the guy run away like that. It didn't look like the exit of a guy who expects to be contacted again."
"No," Peter agreed, "it didn't. But maybe that was his choice, not Arthur's. Maybe Arthur moved too fast or they had some sort of misunderstanding. Maybe Arthur is seeking him out in order to ask for a second chance. I find that far more likely, given how desperate he seems, than his flimsy excuse."
"You can think whatever you want," Nash said petulantly. "I think Arthur has better taste than to want anything to do with that guy ever again and that he's just trying to get rid of any excuse the guy might have to come looking for him. That’s the reason I find most likely."
With that, he changed the subject to some new Nascar racer that he apparently admired - translation: was crushing on like a thirteen year old girl - and Eames stopped listening. He walked silently back to his room, his head churning with thoughts.
On the one hand, it was obvious that neither brother had recognised him. This was unexpected, but fortuitous, and it made him think that maybe he really would escape punishment. The weight that this lifted from his shoulders was really quite embarrassing, but Eames couldn't deny to himself that he was quite a bit more frightened of Mrs Cobol than he usually liked to let on.
On the other hand, there was Arthur. Beautiful Arthur, who was just as wonderful as Eames had feared; who was clever, funny, passionate and kind. Arthur, with whose touch, taste and scent Eames was now intimately familiar. Arthur, who had obviously fallen for a stranger.
A stranger that had decieved him.
Every time Eames thought of it, he felt ill. He remembered Arthur's face after the kiss, his eyes narrowing and his brow furrowing, as something had tickled his awareness. A moment longer and the game would have been up; he would have realised that the boy in his arms was not Ashling, the dashing and mysterious stranger, but Eames, the school oddity. Eames didn’t even want to think about what his reaction would have been. So he'd fled.
He wasn't proud of it. He knew that Arthur's crestfallen face, the confusion in his eyes and the unvoiced question on his lips, would haunt him for a very long time. If only he could have given him some explanation, some excuse to let him know that he had done nothing wrong. Or better yet, if only he hadn't given in to temptation.
He had known that it was wrong to take advantage of the fact that Arthur clearly didn't recognise him. It wasn't that Eames had any compunctions about lying. He lied all the time, to his family about where he'd been and what he'd done, to his friends about his family and his conditions at home, to himself about... well, anything really that he could make himself believe. It was just this particular lie that didn't sit well with him.
Arthur wasn't interested in Eames. Eames knew this. Arthur would never want to spend an entire evening with Eames, much less ask him to his room and kiss him, and yet he had. Eames had tricked Arthur into doing all this and it made him feel dirty. It was as if he'd forced himself on Arthur against his will. And really, wasn't that what he had done? Despite knowing that it wasn't what Arthur would have wanted, had he be in a position to make an informed choice, Eames had taken advantage of the other boy's ignorance to fulfill his own desires.
Yeah, dirty didn't even begin to cover it.
Then there was the locket. His mother's locket, which held the only remaining photo of her that his stepmother hadn't burned. How could he have been so stupid as to lose it? Now Arthur had it and the only way to get it back was to ask for it. Not getting the locket back was obviously unthinkable. On the other hand, letting Arthur know just whom he had been snogging was unbearable. It was quite the dilemma.
He had been surprised to hear that Arthur was looking for him. After the way he'd left on Friday night, the very last thing he'd expected was for Arthur to want to see him again. By all rights, Arthur should be furious with him. Eames knew that he deserved nothing but disdain from him. Yet here Arthur was, apparently engaging all his friends and his extended network to find a boy who had treated him so appallingly, risking gossip and ridicule at school, in order to return a locket, the value of which he could have no way of knowing.
If Eames hadn't already been utterly and helplessly in love with Arthur, this would have done it. As it was, this unexpected and undeserved kindness only served to make him feel even more wretched. The rest of the weekend was spent dreading school on Monday.
"You've been avoiding us." Mal was pouting as she and Yusuf sat down opposite him in the cafeteria.
It was the Thursday after the party. All week, as expected, the halls of the school had been abuzz with gossip about the party, quite a lot of which concerned Arthur and the stranger. Not that this was the first time that Arthur had chatted someone up, nor was it the first time that he had been seen with a boy. The fact that the boy in question had been a stranger made it slightly more interesting, but under normal circumstances, it still wouldn't have been worth more than a few raised eyebrows and some idle speculation. What made these circumstances aberrant was what had happened afterwards.
Rumours about Arthur's search had apparently spread like wildfire to all the students in the school. Apparently, there was something incredibly romantic about Arthur having found his true love, only to lose him on the same evening. Eames had heard the words "star-crossed" and "fairy tale" used more than once. People speculated wildly about who the stranger had been - the theories ranged from a cheeky con man to a disguised prince -, what had happened between him and Arthur - had someone proposed or had they made a proposal, wink, wink, nudge, nudge -, and what the item could be that had been left behind. Eames supposed he should be glad that no had suggested a glass slipper, but he couldn't help but wish that people would mind their own business.
Eames had caught only a few distant glimpses of Arthur. Each time he saw him, Arthur's face looked darker than before and each time, Eames found somewhere to hide. This had garnered him a few odd looks from some of his schoolmates, but he was used to that. Something told him that if Arthur were to set eyes on him, even in his usual outfit, all the pieces would fall into place and he would recognise Eames as Ashling. It was not a risk he was prepared to take.
For this same reason, he had spent the day hugging the walls, trying to make himself even more invisible than usual. Fortunately, it seemed to be working, as no one so much as looked at him. The prevailing opinion was that everybody who was anybody had been at the party and since no one had seen Eames there - or so they thought - it only served to reinforce what a nobody he was.
The only person who had taken the slightest notice of Eames all day was Nash. They had met briefly and accidentally in one of the school hallways, where Nash had pushed Eames into the wall with a sneer.
"Poor Eames!" he'd jeered. "So out of the loop! But then that would suit someone as loopy as you, wouldn't it?"
He had then walked away, laughing loudly at his own joke and as usual oblivious to the forced quality of the laughter of his companions. Eames had merely rolled his eyes and rubbed his bruised shoulder, before continuing to his next lesson.
Eames rather thought he would have got away with it, if he hadn't had to go to the cafeteria for lunch on Thursday. The previous days he had brought his own lunch and eaten it outside, but that morning, Nash had found him preparing his lunch bag in the kitchen and had promptly confiscated it. Since Eames had used up most of what food they had left in the fridge, he would have fought Nash over it, if he hadn't feared that it would raise questions. A stolen lunch bag was usually not enough to incite Eames to violence and he couldn't afford to arouse suspiscion.
Therefore, when lunch hour came, Eames was faced with the choice to either have lunch in the cafeteria or starve. He would have chosen the latter, but he realised that he couldn't keep up this avoidance tactic forever and that someday he would have to risk facing Arthur anyway, so why go hungry?
That was how his best friends finally found him, after a week of hiding from them.
"Mal. Yusuf," he greeted them, before turning to look directly into Mal's eyes. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're on about."
Mal returned his stare with one of her own that told him that she meant business.
"Eames," she said. Nothing else, just his name, but that one word spoke volumes. It told him that she was disappointed in him, that she expected better and that he had better set about restoring her faith in him immédiatement. A brief thought flittered through Eames's mind, just before he gave in, that she would make one hell of a mother.
"I just... I don't know. I guess I just wanted to be alone."
"And to avoid our questions."
"About Friday night."
"And the party."
Eames made no answer.
"Eames," Mal said again, coaxing this time. "Tell us what happened between you and Arthur at the party!"
Eames sighed. He knew that there was no getting out of it, not when Mal had set her mind to it. The truth was that he wasn't even sure he wanted to get out of it. He needed to talk about it or he'd go mad and he knew that Mal and Yusuf would listen and understand. They wouldn't agree with him, but they would understand and that was enough. Besides, he desperately needed Mal's help.
Still, that didn't mean he'd make it easy on them.
"Nothing happened," he said and recieved a disbelieving snort from Yusuf. "Nothing that you haven't already heard or guessed, anyway."
"We've heard a lot of things," Yusuf muttered, but Mal silenced him with an elegant wave of her hand, without taking her eyes off Eames.
"We know that you and Arthur spent the whole evening together," she said. "We know that he asked you up to his room. We're guessing you spent some time there kissing and maybe more..."
"Just kissing," Eames cut in sharply. He didn't care what they thought about him, but he wouldn't have Arthur's reputation sullied by anyone.
Mal dismissed his interruption with that same elegant wave.
"What we don't know is what happened next," she said. "People are saying that you ran out of there as if le diable was at your heels, while Arthur just stood there gaping."
Once again, Eames didn't answer. He pushed an olive around on his plate and did his best to avoid Mal's gaze. For some reason, he didn't feel as hungry anymore and he was beginning to regret his decision to come into the cafeteria.
Mal waited for a minute, until it became clear that Eames wasn't going to say anything. Then she sighed heavily and said, in a voice that was suddenly softer than silk,
"Eames, what happened, mon cher?"
Taking a deep breath, he said,
"I cocked it up."
Eames shook his head.
"You were there," he said. "I shouldn't have lied."
"Non," Mal agreed, "you shouldn't have. Et alors?"
"We kissed. And it was amazing. He's amazing! But then he looked at me and I knew he was seconds away from recognising me. So I ran."
"Oh, Eames!" Mal's voice was sad and both she and Yusuf was looking at him with sympathy in their eyes. Eames couldn't bear it.
"No," he said vehemently. "Don't you dare! I am not the one who deserves your sympathy. I acted like a right prick to Arthur and he had done nothing to deserve it."
"We know, mate," Yusuf said. "That's not why we feel bad for you."
"Because," Mal said, leaning forward to take his hand, "you still seem to think that the lie was necessary. Cheri, don't you see, Arthur fell for you! Not this Ashling character that you were hiding behind, but you! So why would it have been so terrible if he had recognised you? Why couldn't you just have told him yourself?"
Eames shook his head, swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat.
"No," he said, hoping that they would ignore how his voice broke, "just no! Arthur must never know it was me. Please, Mal!"
Mal sighed heavily, but she nodded.
"Comme tu veux, cher, " she said and they all sat silent for a moment, while Eames regained his composure.
"What about the item?" Yusuf asked finally and just like that, the lumo was back.
"The locket," Eames said quietly.
There were two sharp intakes of breath.
"Your mother's locket?" Yusuf asked.
"Oh fuck! Mate!" Yusuf seemed lost for words.
Eames took a few deep breaths and blinked rapidly a few times, before raising his gaze to Mal again.
"That's why I need your help," he said. He felt proud at how steady his voice was. "Please Mal! You have to get it back for me. You're friends with Arthur. Can't you ask him to give it to you? Tell him you'll give it back to Ash."
He didn't realise how firmly he had believed that Mal would come to his rescue once again, until she shook her head and he felt his heart sink to become a leaden weight in his stomach.
"I can't," she said, sounding genuinely sorry.
"Can't or won't?"
"Can't! Arthur won't give it to me. He's determined to find Ash again. If he finds out I know where to find you, he'll insist I tell him. He certainly won't give me the locket until I do. I'm sorry, Eames, I really am! I know how much that locket means to you. You're just going to have to ask Arthur yourself."
Eames nodded, feeling the weight of a thousand worlds settle on his shoulders. There seemed to be no other alternative.
"But why would Arthur want to see me again," he asked, "after what I did?"
Mal gave him a small, loving smile.
"Because apparently," she said, "Arthur is a lot cleverer than you give him credit for. He knows there was more behind what happened than meets the eye and I have no doubt that he wants a full explanation."
"Careful what you wish," Eames muttered, which made Mal tut and frown.
"I'm not sure who you're selling shorter," she said, "yourself or Arthur. Just be honest with him this time. You'll be surprised!"
Be honest, Mal had said and Eames had fully intended to take her advice. What other choice did he have? He had to get the locket back and Mal had been his last hope. The trouble was that in order to be honest with Arthur, he actually had to speak to Arthur and Eames had absolutely no clue how to go about doing that.
His friends weren't much help. Yusuf advocated the direct approach. He thought Eames should just walk up to Arthur and ask for the locket. Explanations would then necessarily have to follow. Eames had to admit that this approach had its appeal; it was rather like tearing a plaster off a wound, quick and painful. He just wasn't sure that he was brave enough.
On the other hand, Mal had offered to help him make the initial contact through her friendship with Arthur. This would probably be the most mature solution, but Eames still felt that it would be a bit like hiding behind his mother's skirts. Besides, he wanted to talk to Arthur alone and Mal had a tendency to interfere, although always with the best intentions.
As it turned out, the choice was taken out of his hands.
Eames was sitting with Yusuf on the grass outside the school the following Wednesday, enjoying the afternoon sunshine before he had to go home, when Mal appeared with Dom Cobb beside her, and Robert Fischer and his girlfriend Ariadne trailing behind them. Behind them, his head down and his posture even stiffer than usual, came Arthur, who was fiddling with something in his hands.
Eames's heart made a wild leap and he instinctively made to flee when he realised that Mal was heading straight for them, but Yusuf grabbed his arm and pulled him back down.
"Don't be daft!" he said. "Here's your chance. Just talk to him!"
Eames only had time to shake his head, knowing that he must look like a deer caught in the headlights of an approaching train, before Mal was sitting down gracefully on the ground beside him, the others following her example. Arthur sat down slightly behind Yusuf, still fiddling with the object in his hands. With another jolt of his heart, Eames saw that it was his mother's locket.
Apparently, Cobb recognised it too, because he sighed and said,
"Arthur, come on! Forget about him! He obviously doesn't want to be found."
Arthur ignored him. He had opened the locket and was staring at the pictures inside. Eames caught a glimpse of his mother's face and had to look away, lest he give himself away.
"Cheri, let him be!" Mal said softly. "I'm sure one day soon he will find his love again."
She didn't even glance at Eames as she said this, but he still felt himself blush. To distract himself, he reached into his bag and took out a book. It turned to be Shakespeare's "As You Like It," which he had been reading for English class. The whole theme about lovers in disguise felt a bit too apt, so he hurriedly shoved it back into his bag.
His sudden movements seemed to have attracted the attention of the group, because when he looked up they were all turned towards him. The only exception was Arthur, who was still studying the locket. In order to stop the others' staring, Eames shrugged and gave a crooked smile.
"Homework," he explained. "I can't be buggered."
He realised his mistake before he'd even finished the sentence, but by then it was already too late. Yusuf winced sympathetically, Mal was smirking triumphantly, Cobb and Fischer were both staring at him open-mouthed, and Ariadne had clapped a hand to her mouth to silence her surprised exclamation. Eames barely noticed any of this, however. His eyes were fixed on Arthur, whose head had snapped up at the sound of his voice and who was staring at him with wide, incredulous eyes.
There was no use trying to deny it, Eames realised, as he stared back into Arthur's eyes. The game was up. He allowed one corner of his mouth to quirk up into a small, sheepish smile and shrugged one shoulder almost imperceptibly. Some distant part of his mind noted that he might want to breathe soon, unless he wanted to pass out, but he ignored it. Air was irrelevant. All that mattered was Arthur and how he would react to this revelation.
Eames wasn't left long in suspense. Only a few, though interminable, seconds passed, before Arthur seemed to recover his senses. His eyes narrowed, his lips curled into a sneer and his face flushed furiously, as he flew to his feet.
"Well," he snarled and Eames was torn between the conflicting emotions of dread and arousal, "I guess this belongs to you."
He flung the locket at Eames, who only barely caught it in time to keep it from hitting his head, and turned on his heel to stalk away. Ignoring the shocked gasps and murmurs of their friends, Eames scrambled hurriedly to his feet to go after him. He had no idea what he'd do once he caught up with him, but he knew that he had to at least try to fix this, to explain. The hurt in Arthur's eyes had cut like a knife through his heart and he knew he had to find some way to soothe it.
"Arthur! Wait!" Clearly, Eames realised, as Arthur broke into a run, from now on, he should just keep his mouth shut, since opening it really wasn't doing him any favours. Cursing his own stupidity, he set off after him.
Arthur was faster than Eames had expected, as he ran out onto the school's football pitch and headed in the direction of the car park. Eames knew he had to stop him before he reached his car. Through an effort of sheer will and determination, he put on an extra burst of speed that took him close enough to Arthur to tackle him to the ground. They tumbled down in a tangle of flailing limbs and ended up with Eames pinning a struggling Arthur to the ground. Arthur fought to be free, hissing and spitting furiously, but although his lithe body was steely with muscles, he lacked Eames' bulk and so stood no chance to throw him off.
"Get off me!" he snarled, as he pulled his arm from Eames' grip and tried to punch him in the face.
Eames ducked to avoid the blow and grabbed the offending limb again, pressing it to the ground
"Not until you calm down and hear me out," he ground out between clenched teeth. "Please, Arthur, just let me explain! If you still want to punch me afterwards, I promise I won't duck."
Arthur seemed to consider this for a moment, before he finally stilled underneath Eames. Eames couldn't help but suspect that it might just be a ruse to enable his escape, but he still rolled off the other boy to sit beside him. Arthur sat up more slowly, his eyes dark and wary, and his knees pulled up in front of him like a shield.
Only now did Eames notice that Arthur's face was tired and drawn, with dark circles under his eyes, as if the past week and a half had been as tough on him as they had been on Eames. It made him want to pull a Tyler Durden and beat himself up.
"What is there to explain?" Arthur asked wearily. "You played me. Congratulations! Well done! You really had me going."
"Arthur..." Eames wasn't sure what he was going to say, but it didn't matter, because Arthur interrupted him,
"No, don't bother! What I can't figure out, though, is why? Why go to the trouble? What was in it for you?"
Eames shook his head.
"I wasn't playing you. I never meant to deceive you."
"No?" Arthur raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Then what the fuck were you trying to do, Eames? What was the point of that whole charade? Why didn't you just tell me who you were?"
He sounded as though he truly wanted to know, as if there was some part of him that was desperately hoping that there would be some reasonable explanation for all this. Eames wished so badly that he could give him one, but all he could to was close his eyes against the pain in Arthur's face and whisper,
"God, Arthur, you have no idea..."
There was a rustle of grass and fabric, and Eames opened his eyes to find that Arthur had moved. He was now sitting on his heels, his knees almost touching Eames' bent legs. His dark eyes were fixed on Eames' face, as if he was trying to read his mind.
"You said that," he said, "as you were leaving. You said that I had no idea. So why don't you give me one?"
Eames nodded. He swallowed hard, trying to steel himself for the task.
"Yeah," he said hoarsely "alright. I suppose I can try. I do owe you an explanation. Just bear in mind that I'm not making any excuses. I just want to explain and if you still feel like hating me afterwards, then that's your perogative, although I have to tell you, I really don't think I'm worth it."
Arthur's lips curled slightly at this and his face took on an inscrutable expression, but he didn't speak. Instead he just nodded at Eames to continue.
"The thing is," Eames began, "that I've been watching you. Not in a creepy, stalkerish The Police sort of way; I've just seen you around. You walk around the school with your head held so high, as if you don't care what anyone thinks of you. And why should you? You're Arthur. You're rich, handsome, intelligent and charming; the world is at your feet.
"Me, on the other hand, I'm nobody. You can ask anyone in this school. As far as our secluded little world is concerned, I don't exist. I'm the Invisible Man. And most days, I'm fine with that. Most days.
"There are days, however, when I wish I could change that; that I could be somebody. Somebody that you'd notice."
He took a deep breath and willed himself not to blush. This was his confession and he'd be damned if he showed any signs of embarrassment. Arthur still did not comment, but his face had become softer, less opaque. He seemed to be listening intently.
"When I went to your party, it wasn't with any predesigned purpose to decieve anyone; it never even occurred to me that people might not recognise me. I knew I looked different, but not that different. But when I got there, people treated me like a stranger and it was nice. For once, I could just relax and not worry about people's preconcieved notions of me or the consequences of my actions. So I chose not to correct their assumptions.
"Then you came and you looked at me, and not just looked at me, but you actually seemed to see me, as if I was someone worth your notice. I can't even begin to tell you what that meant to me. Suffice to say that I really didn't want to lose that. So I went along with the lie.
"I told myself that it didn't matter. I wasn't harming anyone; it was just a little white lie. I thought maybe if I allowed myself this, if I allowed myself one evening with you, maybe I could get you out of my head and get over my little 'crush' or whatever you want to call it.
"What I hadn't counted on, however, was that you'd be even more captivating in person. Seriously, Arthur, in all honesty, it's really quite ridiculous how perfect you are. You should really work on becoming more flawed. It'd make life easier on everyone, I think. I know it'd make my life easier. Because rather than getting over you, as I'd intended, I found myself falling deeper in love with you and I was helpless to stop it."
Eames stopped to draw breath and gather his thoughts. He hadn't planned on this becoming some silly declaration of love. His feelings had just sort of slipped out. He knew he was blushing and he couldn't quite bring himself to look at Arthur, so he kept looking down at his hands.
Without realising it, he had taken a coin out of his pocket, as he was wont to do when he was nervous, and was playing with it by letting it travel across his knuckles. It was an unconcious action and as soon as he became aware of it, he fumbled and dropped the coin. When he reached to pick it up, a soft, long-fingered hand closed around his, making him look up.
Arthur was looking down at their joined hands, a slight blush colouring his otherwise pale cheeks. Eames couldn't help the thought that he looked adorable and his heart sank at this further proof of how utterly screwed he was.
Arthur cleared his throat.
"I'm not...," he began, but Eames stopped him, not wanting to hear the end of that sentence. He needed to get his full explanation out and if he allowed Arthur to reject him now, he wasn't sure he'd be able to continue.
"Wait," he said, "please! Just let me finish."
Arthur nodded and raised his eyes to study Eames' face. His expression was unreadable, but it wasn't unkind. Eames found comfort in that and in the fact that Arthur hadn't let go of his hand.
"The time that we spent talking together on your veranda was the best time I've had in years. I can't remember ever feeling so happy and so content. At least not since... "
He stopped himself, not wanting to bring up his mother. Faking a cough, he continued,
"I got to talk to you, get to know you, discuss with you. I got to see your eyes light up when you talked about topics that engage you, see them darken when something upset you. I never dreamed you could be so passionate. I even got to make you laugh. You have dimples when you smile. Do you know how adorable that is? And it was enough. More than enough. It was more than I'd ever hoped for.
"But then you took my hand and invited me to your room. And I should have said 'no', I know I should have, but how could I? Could you? If the one you'd been dreaming of, the only one you'd ever really wanted, came up to you and asked you to follow him, could you say 'no'? Maybe you could, you're so strong, but I wasn't strong enough. So I said 'yes', because I wanted to so badly and I could tell that you wanted it too."
He paused, reliving the memory, the way his heart had pounded and his hands had trembled as he'd walked behind Arthur up the stairs. He had felt as though he was walking through a dream and would have pinched himself, if he hadn't been so terrified that he'd wake up.
"You know what happened next," he continued. "I could happily have spent the rest of my life kissing you. You're very good at it, by the way. As you could probably tell, I don't have much experience, but I can't imagine that all kisses are like that.
"But then you pulled away and I could see that something had changed. I don't know if it was my hair or something I did or if your head was clearing, but I knew that you were seconds away from recognising me. And I couldn't bear it, couldn't bear to see your disappointment and disgust. So I ran, like the coward I am."
He ran a hand over his face, feeling suddenly exhausted. Something moved against his other hand and with a start he realised that Arthur still held it in his, that it was his thumb gently stroking Eames' skin. He looked up and was met with a soft, sad smile. The fact that Arthur was still willing to smile at him gave him the strength to finish his explanation.
"You have no idea how painful it was for me to tear myself away from you. I knew that I was hurting you, that you would probably think that you'd done something wrong, and I hated myself for it. I have hated myself for it ever since. But I didn't know how to make it right.
"I didn't dare talk to you to tell you the truth. I honestly thought it would be better if I just let Ash vanish, let him remain a mystery. You'd probably feel angry and hurt for a while, but I was sure you'd soon forget him and things could go back to normal. I could go back to pining from a distance and you'd once again be as out of reach as if we'd lived on different planets. The natural order would be restored.
"That was before I noticed that the locket was missing. My mother's locket. It's one of the few things that I have left from her and the only photo I have of her. And now you had it and you were looking for me to give it back. I didn't know what to do. I even asked Mal to get it back for me, but she said you wouldn't give it to her, unless she told you how to find me."
"She was right," Arthur cut in, that tiny smile still on his lips. "I wouldn't have."
Eames smiled back.
"I didn't think anyone could out-stubborn Mal. Although I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You do seem to show remarkable determination when you set your mind to something.
"I've been wanting to talk to you all week, not just to get the locket back, but to explain and to tell you how sorry I am. I was just trying to work up the courage. I would have done it soon. I just wasn't counting on you recognising my voice.
"Arthur, darling, I'm so sorry! Please believe me! I never meant to lie to you and I certainly wasn't trying to play you. I just got lost in the fantasy. It felt so good to pretend, just for one evening, that I was somebody else. And to be wanted by you."
A long silence followed Eames' confession. He was breathing heavily and his throat was slightly dry after having spoken so much. He couldn't bring himself to look at Arthur, so he kept his eyes on the hand that still covered his.
Despite the tension of not knowing how Arthur would react, he felt relieved. It was as though a weight had been lifted from his chest, now that the truth was out there and he no longer had to hide. He couldn't believe how easy it had been, after all, to tell Arthur everything. Somehow it felt as though they were back on Arthur's veranda, talking and laughing as if they were old friends. He could barely remember why he had feared this so much.
Then Arthur moved. It was only a slight shift of his body, but it was enough to make Eames panic again. Here it came, the crushing rejection that he had been trying to avoid. There could be no more running from it. He only hoped that Arthur didn't feel too disgusted, knowing how Eames felt about him. As if not being able to see Arthur would make it easier, he closed his eyes and waited.
"Christ, Eames!" Arthur said and there was a deep sadness in his voice. "They've really done a number on you, haven't they?"
It wasn't anything near what Eames had been expecting and his eyes blinked open in confusion. Before he could ask, however, Arthur shook his head, saying,
He bit his lip, looking contemplative.
"I think I may have some explaining to do myself," he said, "but I'm not quite sure where to begin. Perhaps it would be best to start by telling you that I'm not as experienced in these matters as rumour may have it. I know I've got something of a reputation for being a love-'em-and-leave-'em kind of guy, but it's not true. Yes, I have kissed before, quite a few times, but it's never gone further than that. I want you to know that."
"I do," Eames assured him. "Mal's always on about what sweet lamb you are and how awful people are for spreading such lies about you. Not that I'd have believed it of you anyway. You're far too responsible for such behaviour."
Arthur let out a snort of laughter, but it sounded equal parts bitter and amused.
"Responsible," he repeated. "Yeah, that's me."
Eames winced and wished that just once, he'd be able to open his mouth without shoving his foot in it.
"I didn't mean it like that," he hurried to protest. "I just meant..."
"I know what you meant," Arthur interrupted him. "It's okay! I’ve just got a personal grudge against that word. It makes me feel so boring and square. I can be irresponsible too and do stupid things. But you're right! I do consider that kind of behaviour unacceptable; it's frivolous and immature. Which isn't to say that I'm opposed to all romantic liaisons - obviously - I just think that it needs to be someone truly special to tempt me to take it further. And to be honest, I've never had an offer from anyone like that.
"And now we get down to it. I guess this is what I really wanted to tell you: In my life, I've only truly been in love twice. In fact, there are only two people I have ever been truly interested in. All the others, as terrible as this will sound, were just idle pleasures."
Arthur gazed at Eames as if he was waiting for some sort of reaction, which Eames was doing his best not to give him. He'd known this conversation would be difficult, had been prepared to face reprimands and rejection, but to be expected to listen to Arthur tell him about the people he'd loved, knowing full well that he would never make that list, was too much. Still, he bit his cheek and kept his face carefully blank as he nodded at Arthur to continue.
"The second time I fell in love," Arthur said, taking a deep breath, "was the Friday before last, when I met the most beautiful British boy. He wasn't just beautiful, though; he was funny, clever, sweet; everything that I've been looking for."
Eames would have felt elated at this confession, if he hadn't sensed a "but" hanging in the air. Sure enough, Arthur's next words proved his instincts right.
"But, he said, "there was something off. As charming as this boy was, there was something about him that I couldn't quite put my finger on, but that bothered me. I had a feeling there was something I was missing. At the time, however, I didn't really care. It was, as you said, enough just to be with him - with you.
“It wasn’t until after you’d left that I truly began to think about it. I couldn’t get rid of that nagging sensation that there was something really obvious staring me in the face and that I was a blind fool not to see it. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t pin it down. So in the end I settled for the easiest explanation, which, conveniently also eased the sting of your rather brutal rejection. Seriously, Eames, let me tell you, having someone run out on you after you’ve just given them the kiss of your life doesn’t exactly do wonders for your self-esteem.”
Eames blushed and would have apologised again, if Arthur hadn’t immediately continued,
“Anyway, I told myself that the reason I felt something was missing was because this guy, however perfect, was still second best. There was someone else that I was already in love with and that I would rather have been with, someone I always want to be with, and while Ash shared a remarkable similarity to him, he still felt like a copy - albeit one made by a master forger. It hadn’t really mattered, while Ash was still with me. This other guy has never shown even the slightest interest in me, whereas Ash seemed perfectly willing to reciprocate my feelings for him, so why would I want to waste my time yearning for someone I could never have, instead of appreciating this incredible being that I apparently could have?”
He paused to catch his breath and gather his thoughts, which gave Eames an opportunity to reflect on what he’d just been told. Even though he had been expecting something like it, it was still devastating to be told that he would never be more than a poor substitute. Ash had been the very best version of Eames; he could never hope to be better than that, and he still hadn’t been good enough.
Arthur’s admission that he had fallen in love with Ash was far more than Eames could have hoped for and he should have been ecstatic, but instead he was almost wishing Arthur had never told him that. It was like stumbling on the finish line, when it would have been far better never to have had a chance at the victory at all, especially when the prize was something so precious as Arthur's heart.
Still, he did his best to hide his disappointment. At this point, after everything he had said and done over that past fortnight, he knew that there wasn’t much left of his pride to salvage, but what little remained wouldn’t let Arthur see just how deeply his words hurt. There was also a small part of him that told him that he deserved this. He had treated Arthur appallingly and if this was to be his punishment, then so be it. If nothing else, it would teach him humility and not to wish for things that he could never have.
It seemed his trials weren’t over, however, because when Arthur continued, his words only served to deepen the wound.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure it would have worked out,” he said, shaking his head ruefully, “even if Ash had been who I thought he was. This other guy... I just can’t stop thinking about him, ever. It’s pathetic. I’m like some sort of freaky Pavlov’s dog; whenever I see his friends, my heart speeds up and I start looking for him, even when I know he can’t possibly be around. But I don’t even know him. I’ve barely talked to him. Before today, I didn’t even know what his voice sounded like. And yet I know he’s the one.
“He’s beautiful,” he continued with a dreamy, distant smile, as if he’d forgotten that Eames was there and was lost in daydreams. “Not that he knows it or if he does, he tries to pretend that he isn’t. With most people, it seems to work, but he can’t fool me. And he’s intelligent. All the teachers love him and I’ve heard several of them talk about what a genius he is. I’m sure he’s funny, because his friends are always laughing at something he’s said. And I know he’s kind. We have a mutual friend, who talks about him all the time, telling me how sweet he is, how charming, how wonderful. That’s how I first noticed him, because I’d heard so much about him, all of it good. Better than good. And I believe it. My friend isn’t exactly one to exaggerate.
"From what you told me, I get the feeling that you think you're not good enough for me, somehow, that you've placed me on some sort of ridiculous piedestal, but I assure you, I am nowhere near as perfect as you make me out to be. Compared to this guy, I'm nothing! He hasn't had it easy. I know he doesn't want anyone to know, but I've more or less pestered my friend into telling me. But he's so strong, he won't let it break him! My friend tells me it's because his spirit is free and his mind is unlimited; they won't recognise any shackles. That's why I've never believed he could like me. You called me responsible and that's how most people see me, isn't it? Dull and serious, always playing by the rules. Why would someone like him want me?
“Anyway,” he said, shaking himself from his reverie, “I was thinking about him during the party, about how I wished I could have with him what Dom and Robert have with Mal and Ariadne. I was in a bit of a foul mood because of it, to be honest. He’s not the type to go to a lot of parties and I certainly didn’t think he’d be at mine, so even if I’d felt like making a fool of myself by trying to get his attention, I couldn’t have done it that evening anyway. Still, I couldn’t help but miss him. How stupid is that? So I tried to take my mind off him, told myself to stop thinking about him.
“Then I saw Ash on the dance floor and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect distraction. You’re a really good dancer, by the way. Almost criminally sexy! I was practically drooling, watching you. It helped me to turn my mind away from this other guy for a while. I was completely focused on Ash and I was able to stop myself from making any comparisons, which, in hindsight, was probably a mistake. Maybe if I had, I’d have realised who you were sooner.”
Arthur gave Eames a sheepish grin, which Eames was unable to return. He got the feeling that there was something he was supposed to understand, something between the lines of what Arthur was saying, but he couldn't make it out. It was all he could do to listen to Arthur’s explanation with a neutral face, while his insides squirmed and churned. He couldn’t understand why Arthur was telling him this. It couldn’t be out of cruelty. Mal was right; Arthur would never intentionally hurt someone who had done nothing to deserve it, and Eames's behaviour, however bad he may feel about it, had not been bad enough to warrant such a punishment. So obviously there had to be a point to the story and as painful as it was for Eames to sit there and patiently wait for Arthur to reach it, he owed the other boy that much.
“Stuff happened, as you know,” Arthur continued. “I’ve never felt such an instant connection with someone. Normally, I would never have asked anyone up to my room after having known them just one night, but with Ash - with you - I didn’t even think about it. I knew that even though we were moving fast, what we’d found was something that would last.
"Then there was that kiss... Oh my god, Eames, that kiss! You’re right, not all kisses are like that. In fact, I’ve never felt anything that even came close. Dom always tells me that it’s different when you’re in love, better, more intense. I used to tell him he was full of it. He’s really been enjoying making me eat my words, as has Bobby. I guess I deserve it.
“There was something about that kiss, though. I mean, it was dizzying and mind-numbingly hot and I would be lying if I said most of my blood was anywhere near my brain, but at the same time, it stirred my imagination and made me think of things I otherwise would have ignored. I guess it shattered my rational mind, so I had to trust my instincts more. And my instincts told me again that there was something I was missing. I think my subconscious knew who I was holding in my arms, even though my reason told me it was impossible. I came so close to fitting the pieces together and I would have, if you hadn’t read me far too accurately and run away.
“At first, I didn’t even notice that I’d got the locket. I’m sorry about the clasp, by the way; I’ll pay to have it replaced. When I did, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I was so angry and hurt. I felt I had been rejected and I had no idea why. I even considered throwing it away out of spite. I couldn’t do it, though. Somehow, I knew that it was valuable, that it held some sentimental value to you. The photo of the woman is clearly old and the locket’s obviously well-worn. I assume the pictures are of you and your mom? She’s beautiful. You look a lot like her.
“Anyway, I knew you’d be back for the locket, as soon as you realised I had it. It’d be the perfect opportunity for me to give you a piece of my mind and demand some answers. So I swallowed my pride and I did my best to find you. I carried the locket with me everywhere. I couldn’t seem to put it away.
“I was giving up hope, though. It’s been almost two weeks and I know that’s not a very long time, but it’s longer than I’d expected I’d have to wait. I thought maybe I’d been wrong about the locket, unlikely as it seemed. I’ve been in such a terrible mood, you’ve no idea. I think I made a freshman cry yesterday when she asked me for the time. Dom and Bobby have been refusing to speak to me, even though they haven’t gone quite so far as to completely exclude me from their company. Mal’s been more forgiving, but considering it’s Mal, that’s not saying much. I guess she’s been feeling guilty, knowing who you were and not telling me. As well she should.
“Then today, she decided that we should go outside after school and enjoy the weather or some stupid shit like that. I don’t know. I knew something was up, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Not that it would have mattered. What Mal wants, she gets, especially when Dom’s around. I didn’t even watch where we were going. I just followed the others. It wasn’t until they sat down that I realised who exactly was sitting there already. When I did, I nearly ran away. I mean, of all the days to speak to him for the first time... I so wasn’t prepared. But at the same time, I couldn’t resist. I’ve never been that near him before. He was like a star and I was caught in his gravity. I know that sounds lame, but it’s true. I just couldn’t resist this opportunity to be around him, maybe even hear him speak. I’ve been wanting to get close to him for so long.”
Arthur paused again to take a breath. He wasn’t looking at Eames, but kept his eyes downcast, as if what he was saying made him feel insecure. Eames’ eyes, on the other hand, were fixed on Arthur’s face. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, didn’t dare believe that it meant what he thought it must mean. But surely Arthur couldn’t be talking about Yusuf. Then there was that look, earlier, when he'd talked about comparing Ash to this other guy and realising who he was sooner. It was too much to hope for and yet...
Eames couldn’t breathe, his heart was pounding so loudly he could barely hear Arthur’s voice and his fingernails were digging into his palms, but all he could do was to listen intently and pray that he wouldn’t be disappointed.
“And then he did speak,” Arthur was saying, “and it was like everything came together and fell apart at the same time. Suddenly, all the pieces seemed to fit and they didn’t form a pretty picture. I couldn’t believe it and at the same time I was an idiot not to have realised it sooner. He and Ash were the same person. You were Ash! But why had you lied? The only answer I could think of was that it had all been some elaborate game, some sort of stupid prank, and it broke my heart. Twice! Because I’m in love with you and I was in love with Ash and you’d both made a fool of me. So this time, I ran. And I’m so glad you caught me!”
“Arthur...” Eames barely recognised his own voice; it was so soft and hoarse. He still found it difficult to breathe. It was as if his heart had swollen in his chest and was compressing his lungs and making his throat feel too tight. Hesitantly, he raised a hand and took one of Arthur’s. He let out a sigh of relief when Arthur linked their fingers together. There was so much he wanted to say, but his mind wasn’t working properly and he couldn’t find the words.
“Is your first name really Ashling?” Arthur asked.
“I told you, my mum had an awful sense of humour.”
“And all the things we talked about, everything you said and claimed to feel, did you mean it?”
“So in fact, you weren’t actually lying to me at all? It was my own assumptions that deceived me.”
“I should have told you. I should have corrected those assumptions.”
“But you didn’t lie,. You just neglected to point out the truth.”
“Which a lot of people would call lying.”
Arthur shrugged. His face was moving closer, so slowly that Eames wouldn’t have noticed it if he hadn’t suddenly been able to feel Arthur’s breath on his face.
“You say ‘tomato’,” he said. “I say you didn’t lie. And there are no misunderstandings now. No harm, no foul. And now, if you don’t mind, I’ve had enough of talking. I’m going to kiss you again and this time, I’d appreciate it if you don’t run away.”
Eames huffed out a laugh, feeling happier than he could ever remember feeling, even before his mother had died. He was back in the dream, only no dream could be this perfect or make him feel so intensely. Arthur’s lips were brushing against his and his hand had sneaked up to bury itself in Eames’ hair. Eames was just tilting his head for a better angle, when a thought struck him.
“Who has done a number on me?” he asked.
Arthur frowned. Eames felt it rather than saw it, since Arhtur’s face was too close to be anything but a blur in his line of vision.
“What?” he asked, sounding slightly irritated at the interruption.
“You said they’d done a number on me,” Eames said, ignoring Arthur’s obvious impatience. “What did you mean?”
With a sigh, Arthur leaned back to look him squarely in the face. He did not look pleased.
“Seriously?” he said. “Is this going to be a thing with you? This whole romance interrupted thing? I’d just like to know, so I won’t be surprised when my balls turn blue.”
The mention of Arthur’s balls was almost enough to derail Eames’ train of thought, especially since it seemed to indicate that Arthur would be willing to allow Eames near them at some point in their future, but he really wanted to know the answer to his question, so he persisted.
“Don’t worry!” he said. “I promise not to let any part of your body turn blue and I have no intention of interrupting this romance. Just answer the question, please!”
Another sigh and an expert eye-roll - practice makes perfect, Eames thought with a fond smile - accompanied his reply.
“Your step-family. Nash and Peter and Mrs Cobol. I told you, Mal's told me about them and how they treat you. They’ve made you think you really are worthless and not worth noticing, which is stupid. You’re only invisible to blind people, Eames. In my eyes, you shine more brightly than the sun. No matter what they do to you, they’ll never be able to change that. I was right, you know. You’re no Ashling; you’re definitely a phoenix. They can light you on fire and try to smother you in the ashes, but you’ll always rise again, more beautiful and magnificent than before. Now shut up and kiss me.”
With a laugh, Eames obeyed. What else was there to do? It was just as good as their first kiss, although not quite as heated, and Eames almost didn’t notice when Arthur’s hand left his hair to remove his glasses.
“No more hiding,” he murmured against Eames’ lips, brushing their noses together and pressing light kisses to Eames’ mouth and jaw. “Wear contacts or get new glasses. And get a new haircut. And stop wearing such hideous clothes. Your body is mine now and I want to show it off, make people see what they’re missing. You’re going to have to get used to being seen, Invisble Man!”
Eames made a soft noise of agreement, too content to care. He supposed it was time to step out from the shadows, regardless of what his family did to him. Arthur was right; they’d never be able to hold him down. Besides, if things got too bad, maybe Mal still had that spare bedroom that he could use until he was old enough to get his own flat. It was a nice idea to contemplate, as he allowed his lips to travel down Arthur’s beautiful throat. Now that he came to think of it, maybe his life wasn’t all that bad, after all.
Chapter 4: Epilogue
“So I hear somone spilled sulfuric acid on Nash’s pants yesterday,” Dom said casually without looking up from the maths problem he was trying to solve. “He was quite lucky really that it was diluted or he could have been seriously burned. As it was, it was only his pants that were ruined.”
The whole group, except Robert, were spread out on Arthur’s lawn, basking in the sunshine and enjoying another lazy weekend. Eames still found it difficult to get used to the fact that his weekends were actually enjoyable these days. Of course, in order to spend these happy hours with his friends, he had to sneak out of the house before the rest of the family were up and about, or he would be trapped inside by Mrs Cobol’s increasingly cunning schemes to nip his new-found bliss in the bud.
It had not taken long for Eames' relationship with Arthur to become public knowledge, especially since neither of them could be bothered to make any effort to hide it. Once it became known, Nash, being both jealous and spiteful, had wasted no time in informing his mother. She, in a characteristic attempt to prevent Eames' life from becoming too bearable and apparently determined not to allow the good to outweigh the bad, had brought her reign of terror to a level that would make Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar seem benevolent in comparison. Fortunately for Eames, her efforts were largely in vain. One hour spent in Arthur's company was enough to cancel out the effects of a day's psychological warfare from his family and one of Arthur's kisses more than made up for the numerous blows. These days, Eames wore more bruises than a professional boxer, but since Arthur insisted on kissing each of them better, he wasn't too inclined to complain.
Arthur had made him throw out all his old clothes and had made good on his promise to show him off. It hadn't been easy and they'd had to take it in steps. When you've spent years hiding in the shadows, it can be quite startling to step out into the light. The reactions he had got had been more positive than Eames would have expected. Their schoolmates had far more important things to worry about than some nobody suddenly becoming somebody, especially when that somebody had the support of Cobb and his gang. Even Nash had had the sense to keep a low profile and had mostly tried to stay out of Eames' way. It wasn't enough to atone for his past behaviour, but Eames was willing to be thankful for small favours.
Of course, it didn't hurt his feeling of magnanimity that Yusuf seemed to have gained some allies in his struggles to make Nash's high school experience as unpleasant as possible.
“So that’s why he was running through the hallway in only his briefs,” Ariadne said in response to Cobb's comment. “I was wondering about that. I guess he was going to his locker to get his gym clothes.”
Eames raised his head from where it was resting against Arthur’s leg to raise an eyebrow at Yusuf. Yusuf raised his hands as if to show that they were clean.
“Don’t look at me!” he said. “I’m innocent this time.”
Everyone turned to look at Arthur, whose nose was buried in the latest Palahniuk novel. His ears were somewhat pink and he didn't lower the novel as he frowned and muttered,
“He was being a dick.”
“I think I’ve had this conversation before,” Eames commented to no one in particular, before raising himself onto his elbows not to have to look at Arthur upside down. “Darling, Nash is a dick! And quite frankly, that’s enough! We don’t want to risk having to see his dick as well. There’s not enough brain bleach in the world.”
“Amen to that!” she said. “It was bad enough seeing him in his underwear. Although from what I could tell from his non-existent bulge, there isn’t much to see.”
“Probably not,” Eames said, “but all the same, love, the next time you decide to punish Nash for being himself, do you think you could do it in a way that doesn’t punish the rest of us as well?”
Arthur lowered his book and glared at him. Eames gave him a beatific grin, which he had quickly discovered drove Arthur mad, and stretched his neck to give him a peck on the cheek.
“I must say, though,” he added, “that it’s dead sexy having you defend my honour. Don’t,” - as Arthur opened his mouth to protest - “don’t even try to deny it! I know that’s what you were doing. I’m not stupid, you know!”
Arthur continued to glare, but Eames could see that the corners of his mouth were twitching.
“Well, I wasn’t just going to stand there and listen to him make fun of you, was I?” he said defensively. “Besides, I didn’t mean to spill the acid on his clothes; I was going for his notes, but he groped my ass and I missed.”
Eames was about to make a horrified comment about Nash defiling something so sacred, when Robert appeared, looking both appalled and excited.
“You’re never going to believe this,” he said, as sat down beside Ariadne and absent-mindedly accepted her kiss. “I mean, I can barely believe it. I don't even know if it's good news or bad. It concerns your dad, Eames!"
Eames stared at him, bewildered. He hadn't spoken to his father in months and had no idea what he was up to at present. Some part of him that still retained the somewhat naïve belief that blood really does count for something sent a slight frisson of concern through him, which was easily dismissed. Robert didn't look grave enough to be bringing news of death or injury. As it turned out, his news were stranger than that.
"Apparently," Robert continued, "there was an attempt on your father's life. He's fine, though," he hurried to add, clearly believing that Eames would be worried by this news. "The police had been keeping an eye on him. From what I've heard, they'd been expecting something like this to happen for some time, ever since they discovered that your stepmother hired assassins to murder her previous husbands. Now she's being charged with first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The police are on their way to arrest her as we speak. The case against her is supposedly iron-clad, so she’ll most likely be going away for a very long time. Peter too. She involved him in her plan to have your father murdered, so he’s also being charged with conspiracy. They’re lucky this state doesn’t have the death penalty.”
“Ding dong, the witch is dead,” Ariadne sang under her breath. “Now there’s a twist for you. It’s almost unreal.”
The others nodded, except Eames, who was too shocked to react, and Arthur, who was watching Eames closely.
"How do you know all this?" Eames asked, mostly to give himself time to process what he'd heard.
"My dad," he said, as if that would be a sufficient explanation, which, to anyone who'd ever heard of Maurice Fischer, it was.
A tender hand caressed Eames' face and continued to run through his hair.
“Are you okay?” Arthur asked quitely.
Eames shrugged. He didn’t know. It was true that he hated Mrs Cobol and he wasn’t much fonder of Peter. The news that Mrs Cobol was a murderer didn’t surprise him as much as it probably should have. She had certainly displayed enough cruelty towards him to make it believable. As for his father, their relationship was so strained that the news that he might have been murdered didn’t disturb Eames much more than if it had concerned a stranger. Still, this was his family, pitiful excuse for it though it was, and this news would definitely have a huge impact on his existence. What he couldn't quite figure out was whether it would be for the better or for the worse, if the latter was even possible.
“Thank God she never tried to kill you!” Mal exclaimed, breaking into his contemplations. “Mon Dieu! To think that you’ve been living with murderer all this time. If anything had happened to you... I’d never have forgiven myself.”
She burst into tears and had to bury her face in Dom’s embrace. Dom stroked her back and muttered soothing nonsense in her ear, but his eyes remained fixed on Eames with an expression of horror that Eames feared was reflected on his own face. The idea hadn't even occurred to him and yet, now that he thought about, it didn't seem very far-fetched. He was on of the heirs of his father's fortune, after all, and considering that she had already committed, or tried to commit three murders, it was difficult to believe that she'd balk at committing a fourth.
“Jesus H. Christ on a motorbike!” Yusuf breathed. “She’s right! You could have been killed. And here I’ve been, making matters worse by antagonising Nash and encouraging you to stand up to her. Fuck!”
Eames shook his head and sat up straight. It was over and there was no use worrying about what could have happened.
“Don’t!” he said. “I’m okay! Nothing happened. Hopefully, it's over now. I’m just feeling a bit shaken, that's all.”
“Of course you are,” Ariadne said and reached out to put a hand on his arm. “If there’s anything we can do...”
Eames forced a weak smile. He was so lucky to have made such wonderful friends to help him through this. Things could have been so much worse.
“I just need some time to absorb all this,” he said, “and to figure out where it leaves me. I guess I’ll have to contact my dad.”
“Later,” Arthur said decisively, taking his hand and squeezing it. “Think about that later. You’re staying with me tonight and tomorrow we’ll figure out what needs to be done. Just remember, you’re not alone. We’re all here for you and as Ari says, we’ll help you any way we can.”
This time, Eames’ smile was genuine. He leaned forward and kissed Arthur lightly.
“How did I ever get by without you?” he asked.
More gently than Eames had believed him capable of, Arthur returned his smile and his kiss.
“Very poorly, obviously,” he said. “I mean, you even shacked up with a murderer. Who does that? Thank the gods I’m here to make sure you never do anything so stupid ever again! From now on, I’m never letting you out of my sight. It'll be happily ever after from now on.”
His tone was teasing, but there was a tension in his eyes and a tremor in his voice that belied his calm. Eames wound his arms around his waist and nuzzled his cheek. When Arthur’s arms came up to return his embrace, it was with a force that told Eames that Mal’s idea had seriously shaken him. Eames nipped lightly at his ear and stroked his back soothingly, trying to convey without words that he was fine. He felt Arthur relax slightly, though he didn’t loosen his protective hold. Next to them, Yusuf and Robert were discussing the details of what the latter had heard in quiet whispers, while Dom attempted to console the still crying Mal with the far more effective help of Ariadne.
Despite the circumstances and contrary to what he probably should feel, Eames suddenly realised that he felt happy. He was safe. He would soon be free of his horrid family. Mrs Cobol and Peter were going to get what was coming to them. Nash would probably also be out of his life. He had friends who were willing to be there for him, no matter what and, most importantly, he had Arthur.
With a sigh of contentment, he allowed himself to lean against his boyfriend, making him support his weight, and put his head on Arthur’s shoulder. He took Arthur’s hand again and began playing with it fondly.
“I’ll hold you to that,” he said in reply to Arthur’s semi-serious comment. “I am so holding you to that!”