“Howzat!” came the cry and Eames had to watch as the ball sailed over his head, quite happily heading for a six, but also, unhappily, heading completely off the playing fields. And he was the nearest fielder by far. He sighed but started jogging off towards the boundary, trying to appear keen, anything that got him a few points with his teammates, or with Jenkins, the sadistic Games Master, was devoutly to be wished. Still, at least no-one could accuse him of failing to catch the bloody thing this time, which was something. After all, explaining for the umpteenth time that he really just wasn’t cut out for cricket, or anything athletic at all really would cut no ice with anyone. At least this was Sixth Form and in less than a year, assuming A’ level results went well, he’d be out of here and installed in a much more pleasant university – Cambridge if he was lucky, but Imperial would do in a pinch. And then no-one would expect him to do anthing more athletic than kick people’s arses at World of Warcraft. He frankly couldn’t wait.
However until that time, the ball was being recalcitrant. It surely couldn’t have gone over the enormous looming block that was the Chemistry Tower but he couldn’t find it on any of the paths or on the green verges, the patchy flower beds or even on the tennis courts. Eames was about to give up when instead of looking down, he decided to stretch his back and look up for a change. It then occurred to him – he’d like to think he calculated the angles in his best geometrical manner, but really it was idle luck – that the ball might have made enough height and distance to land itself on top of the swimming pool annexe. Well, it was possible, anyway. He debated with himself, was it worth the climb? Did he care? Well, of course not, but at least this way he stayed out of the line of fire for longer, Eames would swear that the batsman, Smithson, had it in for him – he didn’t know how you could aim a cricket ball at one poor lowly fielder’s head, but he swore that Smithson tried.
Decided by the thought, Eames looked at the rough wooden fence beside the swimming pool and calculated that even he, computer geek extraordinaire, could climb up using it. It was but the work of a moment to shimmy his way there, wriggling his arse in a way that would put Craig Revel Horwood to shame, but landing him on the flat felt roof in no time. Eames was about to congratulate himself when there was an aborted movement in his peripheral vision and his head snapped around. A thin boy, a year or two younger than himself, was sat back against the brick wall of the Chemistry Tower, where no-one from below would ever see him. He was glaring at Eames, which Eames supposed was fair. He’d hardly want his sanctuary invaded by random oafs either.
“Um. Hello?” Eames ventured, as it seemed rude to ignore the chap. He was trying to place him, but was coming up blank. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen…?”
The kid held up the ball, the worn red leather was being held gingerly between his fingers as though it was catching, as though some sporting fever would transmit itself by osmosis if he held on too hard.
“Oh. Thanks.” Suddenly Eames heard the distant snap of leather on willow and a muffled cheer. It sounded like they’d given up on waiting for Eames and had started again with a replacement ball. He debated it quickly, he could probably get away with staying here, saying it had taken him a long time to think of the roof, that it had taken him a while to climb it, all plausible reasons, most of them even true.
He scrambled over the roof until he was crouched in front of Arthur, not wanting to stand up straight in case he was visible from the school grounds. The glare hadn’t lessened. Eames plucked the ball from between the boy’s fingers before plonking himself next to him, so close their elbows could be brushing if the kid wasn’t huddling away from his touch.
“Cheers, mate, that makes it easier. If I went back empty-handed Jenkins would claim I’d been taking the piss. This means he’s less likely to give me detention.” Not that Eames minded detention, it was a nice quiet time when he could get his homework done.
“I’m Eames, by the way.” He held out his hand for a shake, only mildly taking the mickey, because it felt like something his father might do, but the boy studiously ignored it.
“Arthur,” he muttered instead, as though answering personally offended him, but he couldn’t think of a way out of it, and Eames answered with a “Nice to meet you, Arthur,” that was only mildly sarcastic.
So Arthur was American, was he? Well, that meant that Eames could place him then, there weren’t that many American boys at the school. Which meant that ‘Arthur’ was in fact Arthur…
“Hey, why aren’t you using your surname?” asked Eames, abruptly, “This is public school, you know – you get drummed out of the tuck shop for that kind of thing!”
This time the sideways glance was positively withering. “Because Arthur is my name. Do you have a problem with that?”
Eames held up his hands in the universal ‘who me?’ position. But he also took a good look at Arthur, even as he fussed with the ends of his school tie, ran a hand through his hair and generally messed about in a distracting fashion. Arthur was thin, rake thin even, although Eames didn’t think it was necessarily a worrying skinniness, maybe he just didn’t like spotted dick, or treacle tart and custard, because lord knows if you did it was impossible to have a figure like Arthur’s at boarding school. But that kind of stick-to-your-ribs stodge probably wasn’t what Arthur was used to, being from… California, wasn’t it? And then there was the fact that Arthur was up here without his blazer, in just a shirt, his tie stuffed roughly in his pocket, and some kind of shapeless woolen hat on his head. What was that? Fashion as rebellious statement? Rebellion masquerading as fashion? It had a tiny logo on it which Eames resolved to look up later.
“I’m sure Arthur is a positively scrummy name, darling, don’t let me keep you from it.”
Which actually got Arthur turning towards him and looking absolutely murderous. Eames was charmed. “What did you call me?”
“Surely you can’t object to my version of a name the school wouldn’t approve of?” asked Eames, carelessly, “That would be awfully unfair of you.”
“I’m not interested in fairness. Just don’t call me… that.”
“Well, I can’t promise. But I can pretend to try.”
It was just on the tip of his tongue to add another pet name but Arthur’s gaze was swinging wildly backwards and forwards between the fence and Eames, as though he was torn between leaving his hideaway or putting up with Eames any longer. And this had been rather fun. Eames was loath to let the most interesting thing he’d seen in absolutely eons get scared away, just because he couldn’t hold his tongue for thirty seconds. Well, it was rather difficult, but Eames could manage, he was sure.
Instead he settled down more comfortably against the wall, his arm just brushing Arthur’s, wriggling happily in the late afternoon sun. “So,” he asked, at last, having judged Arthur sufficiently appeased, “What is up with that hat anyway...?”
It turned out that Arthur was rather an odd duck, as it happened. Eames was delighted with him. When among their fellow students, Arthur didn’t deign to speak to Eames, which was fair enough, Eames thought. A nerd like him? No-one wanted to talk to him, and he was ok with that. He had his friends among his fellow nerds and geeks and that was fine – but Arthur was something else. Something strange and fey and fascinating. It was partly because he was American, of course, but it wasn’t just that, he always seemed to know odd things in class, snippets of information that were pertinent but kind of weird. He listened to music as much as he could on earbuds that hung mostly inside his shirt half hidden under his slightly-too-long-for-regulation hair. Eames had never seen the teachers confiscate them either which meant that Arthur was exceptionally lucky or exceptionally careful to only use them at allowed times. Eames was betting on careful - Arthur didn’t strike him as a boy who relied on luck very much.
Then there were the t-shirts. Eames had begun to realise that Arthur always wore t-shirts with slogans or images under his school shirts. The shirts were white so if Eames paid a lot of attention then he could almost make out what some of them said. Almost. It was enough to drive a man potty.
And it would have driven him even more insane, if it hadn’t been for the other Arthur. The boy he met when he’d shin up the fence and take his place on the roof. When he’d kick off his shoes and stretch his toes and settle down next to Arthur’s slim form, sometimes nudging into him just to see his glare or to watch him squirm, sometimes just settling down to play a game on his DS. The boy who grumbled at him but not too seriously, who seemed to hate him being there until Eames actually tried to leave, who one day, when Eames had needled him enough, lifted up his white school shirt and showed Eames a picture of a whale and ‘gone fishing’ in garish red writing. It was ironic, Arthur said, completely unselfconsciously, to Eames’ startled eye. It was vintage. He’d picked it up in a little thrift store in Williamsburg when he was in New York. This should have apparently meant something to Eames and Arthur looked a little crestfallen when it didn’t. Eames tried extra hard to be nice after that, but Arthur just asked if he'd managed to hit his head or something.
Eames didn’t feel up to explaining that when Arthur had lifted up his shirt, just for a split second, he’d showed a thin stripe of smooth pale stomach and just a few dark hairs. Eames saw more than that in any locker room after a rugger match though, so he didn’t know why his mouth had suddenly gone dry and his palms so hot and clammy. Except he totally did know, but Eames was an exceptional liar, particularly to himself – this was the first time anyone had stripped off anything just for him, even something as innocuous as a shirt. And it was Arthur, of course, don't forget that. Because Eames certainly couldn't.
The first time Eames brought his laptop to the roof, Arthur pretended he wasn't interested. He liked to make out that he didn't care about anything that wasn't ethical or old or homemade, but Eames knew better. Arthur's ipod was state of the art even if all he listened to were weird bands that Eames had never heard of. He didn't know why Arthur pretended he didn't care about computers but Eames had never tried to call him on it. He hadn't even really meant to pique Arthur's interest this time by bringing his laptop, only he had a stupid piece of homework he needed to finish and it was lovely and quiet on their roof, unlike his dormitory - he might only be sharing with three other boys this year, which beat the year before, but they were still terribly loud arseholes, the lot of them. Anyway, it meant he could finish the assignment he was working on and then carry on playing World of Warcraft afterwards, if the school's wifi signal stayed strong enough. And if it didn't, then that meant Eames would know for next time and could come up with a plan.
Either way, he hadn't thought about Arthur or his reactions - except in the low level way he always thought about Arthur. The way his black school trousers were slimmer and more fitted than almost anyone else's, for example - Eames suspected him of altering them himself in the Sewing Room, while trying not to think of Arthur, trouserless, bent over a furiously working sewing machine, in case the unbearable hotness of the image caused unfortunate physical reactions. Still, Eames wasn't about to complain when Arthur began to twitch a little, taking tiny glances over at Eames' shiny high-end Dell. He'd upgraded everything he could, streamlined the clunkiness of the original operating system (bloody Windows) and if Eames said so himself, it was a beautiful thing to see. Almost as lovely as Arthur himself. Or equal at least. Or... Oh thank goodness he didn't have to choose.
So Eames angled the screen so Arthur could see what he was doing - which was coding, and while Eames didn't think it was boring, sadly he suspected Arthur might. He hesitated briefly, before bringing up the web and his myriad tabs in another window. He could multi-task, of course he could, quickly clicking through to some videos on YouTube he found funny and setting one to play while he tried to carry on working. The window was tiny now though, only half the screen, and that was the problem, right, not the fact that Arthur had pushed himself even closer and was half leaning over Eames, their arms constantly brushing, the warmth of his skin bleeding through the wool of his trousers where their legs were pressed together. Eames could feel Arthur's chuckle when he huffed with quiet laughter as though it was squeezing his own chest. He found he'd almost stopped breathing with the intensity of it all. His code was probably going to absolutely shit bugs at this rate.
Eames took a breath. This was ridiculous. He wasn't quite a grown man yet but it wasn't like he was a blushing virgin. Well, he was, technically, but there was a hell of a lot of internet porn under his belt, so to speak, and he'd snogged more than one boy behind the bike sheds. Or at his sister's 18th birthday at least, plus Kevin at Computer Club, plus... Well, the point is, he shouldn't be feeling this way, not Eames, he knew what he was doing, he had a plan, he'd promised himself that he wouldn't get into anything serious in his last year before university because that way lay madness and heartbreak and massive regrets. He couldn't have such a huge crush on Arthur, ok? It just wasn't allowed.
But he still ended up shutting down his coding and opening up a larger browser window, smiling dutifully at the video of cat yodelling, but really only feeling Arthur snugged up against his side.
It was after supper and the sun was slanting low over the chestnut trees around the playing fields. Eames looked up from his book to see Arthur's eyes hidden by sunglasses, very large and black. He blinked and watched a fuzzy reflection of himself blink back at him. It was weird, as though Arthur was trying to hide again, like being on their roof but alone all over again. Eames didn't like it one bit.
"Yes, what is it, love?"
Eames had got Arthur to accept the pet names in the end, by dint of sheer persistence really. He'd worn him down enough that Arthur barely even twitched these days but Eames didn't want to give the joke up, for private reasons that he suspected were something to do with it not actually being a joke at all anymore.
"Have you ever wondered what it feels like to die?"
What? What the bloody everloving fuck? The question came so out of the blue that Eames felt like someone had shot half a million volts straight up his spine. His heart was suddenly beating a mile a minute and he had a terrifying urge to rip off Arthur's sunglasses so he could see what he was thinking. Well, try to, at any rate.
"What the hell? Where did that come from?" Eames managed at last, after gaping, probably unattractively, for more than a few seconds.
Arthur shrugged and turned away. There was a petulant slant to his mouth, as though Eames had disappointed him in some way. He certainly didn't look like someone who was contemplating offing themselves in the near future. Surely no-one with those kinds of dark thoughts was going to look as prettily pissed off as Arthur always did?
"It's just a question. A theoretical question. Surely you've thought about it some time?" Arthur shrugged with one shoulder, as though it didn't matter to him one way or the other. "The only certainties are death and taxes, remember? I might have asked if you wondered what it felt like to kill someone instead, but it doesn't mean I'm going to go out and murder people tomorrow."
"I should hope not. Terribly messy business, murder." Eames could tell his voice was too high-pitched, because he didn't like Arthur's follow-up thought either. Was that really the direction his mind was tending? Towards murder and suicide? Well, he supposed Arthur was American, and he was in the equivalent of high school. Dazed and a little bit scared, Eames found his mind leaping unwillingly onto thoughts of Columbine and other school shootings. No, that was crazy, Arthur wasn't depressed or anything. He might have been a little bit of an outsider here at the school but not enough for that. Surely? Anyway he had Eames, didn't he? And... Surely Arthur had other friends? Eames racked his brain for other boys Arthur hung around with and failed to think of anyone that stuck out as being particularly close to him. Shit.
"Look, I've never really thought about it," said Eames, desperately feeling like he was picking his way through a minefield. "At least not like that. I've never really believed in the live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse philosophy, but that's as far as I've got. I'm looking forward to the rest of my life too much, I suppose."
Arthur knew this. Eames had waxed lyrical about his university hopes at great length. Ridiculous length really. Anxiously, Eames wondered if he'd perhaps gone a bit too far.
Arthur made a hmm noise of agreement, but it didn't seem as though he was offended, just contemplative.
"It must be cool," said Arthur, at last, "Looking forward to what you're going to do when you leave here. I bet half our class mates don't even have a clue what they want to do."
"You've got another year yet to decide," said Eames, "That's plenty of time."
Arthur shrugged and nodded but he still didn't take off his sunglasses. Eames tried not to read anything into that. Maybe Arthur was just having a bit of a crisis about his future? He'd never quite looked at things in a straightforward way and yet he always needed to plan everything out in intricate detail, Eames knew that. And that was hard to do with the rest of your life.
Maybe he still wasn't quite easy in his mind but there was one thing that comforted Eames. This wasn't LA or New York, after all - this was a boarding school in the home counties, nestled in the heart of the English countryside. He was sure that even Arthur couldn't get hold of a gun.
Well, mostly sure.
It was nearly the end of term. Eames didn't know how he felt about that. On the one hand, only two weeks to go and he would have nine glorious weeks to mess about at home before finding out his A' level results and the lucky university that got to accept him and his (hopefully) glorious grades. On the other hand, he only had two weeks left in which to vacillate, pine and generally enjoy the company of Arthur, one slightly weird, gorgeous and mysterious pain in the backside. Eames was torn, he didn't mind admitting it.
He'd never thought he would ever regret leaving school. When he was boarding he missed his home and his parents, and even his annoying little brother, which wild horses wouldn't get him to admit aloud. He acted out a little by being loud and obnoxious, baiting the teachers and making the other boys laugh, when he wasn't lost in his own little geeky world. Either way, he knew he had his coping strategies, but never, not in a million years, had he ever expected to do more than miss the place a bit, in a nostalgic best-years-of-your-life sort of a way, and that not for a long time. But Arthur made everything different. It made Eames want things to be different too somehow, and not just because he wished he knew what Arthur looked like naked. Well, he wished for that too, of course, but not only that.
It threw him, being so worried for another person. He wasn't used to it. Boarding school life made you good at protecting yourself by necessity, made you independent and self-reliant, all of that crap. He wasn't sure he liked being so concerned about another human being, so much so that it made Eames want to do silly dangerous stuff like grab Arthur's hand when he was looking particularly closed off, just to remind him there was someone who cared. Or made him want to talk to him in public, when they were off their roof, even though Eames knew that was a bad idea and a terrible upset of the school social order.
He compromised in the end. Which was his style all over, he knew that, but considered it to be just good self preservation. He wrote Arthur a note. His heart was beating stupidly fast and his hands were clammy as he shoved the folded piece of paper into Arthur's hand as he brushed past him in the East corridor. He'd never felt more ridiculous but the smile he sent Arthur's way was wide and guileless, and while Arthur's suspicious frown didn't go away, Eames rather fancied he saw his eyes soften, with perhaps even a hint of a dimple peep out. It was enough to have the butterflies in Eames stomach decide to jump around like elephants in concrete boots.
The butterflies hadn't put down their Doc Martens and power tools by the time late evening rolled around. There were whispers all around him and rustling noises as people got ready. The air of suppressed excitement was only added to as other boys started trickling into Eames' dorm room. Eames sighed - it was a traditional event, he'd been going to other dorm's midnight feasts all term, but it was a bit different when it was your own. Lights-out was hours ago, but all it took was the click of a torch and as simply as that the ordinary little room was transformed into a place of mystery and wonder. Eames grinned back at him as Barnes, one of his dorm-mates, held the torch up under his chin to better enhance the spooky effect. Then torches were being clicked on all over the place, and Eames added the beam from his own Maglite before spreading out the picnic blanket some enterprising oik had nicked from their mum's cupboard.
The party was in full swing now, Eames thought, and everyone seemed to be having a tremendous time. Their do would be talked about as bloody good fun, he reckoned, as Earnshaw had somehow managed to smuggle in a bottle of gin and Eames himself had managed a small bottle of vodka - parties with alcohol were always the best. The only thing that could make it better was if Arthur would actually show his blasted face. Eames worried at it, like a dog with a bone - it wasn't a properly public occasion and the unspoken social rules were always more relaxed at midnight feasts. Any bugger could come if they found out about it or heard about it, and there'd be no questions asked and free cake - what more did any self-respecting teenager need? Of course, Arthur didn't have to come if he didn't want to, Eames knew that, but he really, really hoped that Arthur would take that stick out of his arse long enough to relax and allow himself the luxury of saying yes. To Eames. To his personal invitation, that he'd dithered about but ultimately risked. Fuck.
Eames was prepared to admit that he was both grumpy and sad, and just about ready to try and drink himself into a coma, if that was possible on the tiny amounts of alcohol he had available to him, when the door opened just one more time. He couldn't help it, when Eames saw Arthur's stupidly uncertain face in the bobbing torch light he sat up and beamed at him, probably like someone demented. Arthur blinked a little before shaking his head. That was definitely a dimple this time, Eames thought proudly, that was very nearly fucking two. He felt like king of the world.
"Alright?" said Eames, trying for casual as Arthur sidled into the room and slid down the wall next to him.
He got a stare that was somewhere between 'Eames, you are an idiot' and the 'I can't believe I put up with you' face. Eames handed him a paper cup and splashed vodka and orange juice into it happily. He didn't care what Arthur thought of him, not really, as long as Arthur was there. It stopped him short a little. That was true wasn't it? Bloody hell.
Oh well. Never let it be said that Eames didn't throw himself into a challenge - and sometimes Arthur felt like the greatest challenge of all. It occurred to him that this technically counted as their first proper date together, and just contemplating that gave him tingles. Asked and answered, Eames thought smugly, he'd take that bet. It didn't even seem like that big a deal any more to act on all these terrible emotional revelations, just the exhilarating feeling of being in freefall. Inspiration struck him then, with the added fear of being proved wrong. Still, it was better to know, right? Rather than pining horribly? And Arthur had come to the party, hadn't he?
Eames feigned a chilliness he didn't really feel to pull the duvet from his bed around himself and not incidentally, Arthur. Under its cover he slipped his hand into Arthur's, almost holding his breath as he waited to see what Arthur would do. His hand was cooler than Eames, but not much and his fingers was soft against Eames' own. It wasn't everything Eames wanted but it would do for a damn good start - and Arthur hadn't even tried to punch him.
It was all he could do not to leap in the air for a dance of victory when Arthur squeezed his hand in return.
To say the least Eames was nervous the next day. If he could have paced on their roof without being spotted he would have done, but there were secret school hangouts and then there was being hauled up before the headmaster for abusing school property, so Eames contented himself with sitting quietly and biting his fingernails. Terrible habit, but needs must.
It was Arthur, of course. Eames didn't know where they were going to go from here and it was driving him crazy trying to work it out. After all, should he go straight for a snog now? Or should he wait for Arthur to make the next move? Or, worse yet, were they even on the same page? Maybe Arthur held hands with people all the time? Maybe Eames was now lumped in with all the maiden aunts or, or grandmas that Arthur no doubt had stashed away. And there was still Arthur's own frame of mind to worry about, maybe all the wonderfully dubious things Eames wanted to do with him would be too much, too soon? Maybe...
Then Arthur arrived on the roof in a scrabble and a shower of flat roof gravel which was utterly unlike his usual precise and careful self. It sent all of Eames' confused worrying tumbling out his head in the face of an immediate panic.
"Christ, Arthur, you could have given me a heart attack!"
It didn't help when Eames managed to catch sight of Arthur's face which was white and pinched-looking. He wanted to grab hold and never let him out of his sight again. Arthur looked dreadful.
"What's wrong, something's happened, hasn't it? It's not me, by any chance? No, surely not."
Eames always babbled when he was scared. He shut his mouth with a snap as Arthur sat down next to him and then just leaned in, his bony shoulder shoving its way under Eames' arm, his dark head burrowing itself beneath his chin. Not that it wasn't pleasant to have Arthur in his arms exactly where he'd been dreaming him all these weeks but really in an ideal world Eames would have liked to be less terrified when it happened.
"Come on, hey, sweetheart, it can't be that bad," he tried instead.
It was meaningless noise really as Eames just overloaded on all the sensation, the smell of Arthur's shampoo, and the feel of his slim body, as he uncertainly put his arms around Arthur and began to rub soothingly up and down his back. He squeaked a high-pitched gasp of his own when Arthur shifted a little before beginning to kiss his way up the column of Eames' throat. Bewildered but not knocking the idea, Eames lifted his chin to allow Arthur more access, trying not to groan, even when Arthur made it up to side of his jaw and then finally onto his mouth, enthusiastically deepening the kiss to something dirty and finally answering at least one of Eames' nervous concerns - Arthur obviously did know what he was doing. Well, at least as much as Eames did, anyway.
He wanted to lose himself in it, just enjoy the moment, because that's what Eames was good at, he could have been the very definition of 'carpe diem'. When they had come across that phrase in Latin class Eames had liked it, from Horace apparently, and he had resolved right away to seize all the days he possibly could. And then Arthur had come along, who'd shattered that resolve along with everything else.
So he didn't let his hands wander anywhere near as far as he wanted, and when they both rediscovered the need to breathe, he didn't immediately dive back in to Arthur's soft inviting mouth. Eames decided he bloody well deserved a medal for restraint. This worrying for another person just sucked in his opinion. But he didn't let Arthur go either, there were limits to his willpower, and he continued petting him, as much as he dared, running his fingers through the longer hair at the back of his neck, until he felt the tension Arthur was carrying beginning to disperse.
"You want to talk about it now?" asked Eames, softly, "Because I'm not going anywhere, love, and I can wait. For as long as you'd like."
Arthur was quiet, but that wasn't unusual. And at least this way, Eames could revel in the physical contact, marvel at each brush of his fingers against Arthur's skin. It could be worse, Eames reminded himself, after all, Arthur was here for a start and not off brooding god knows where.
"My father's going back to the States." Arthur's voice was low, and he kept his head down as though Eames' chest was as high as he wanted to raise his gaze. "And he wants to take me with him."
Eames' stomach plunged into his sturdy black shoes. Arthur was leaving, he wasn't going remain comfortably here at school while Eames swanned off into the distance, he wasn't even going to stay in the same country. He knew that he was being massively unfair but it felt like Arthur was abandoning him personally. Which was ridiculous.
Eames cleared his throat. "America's cool though, right? And it'll be good to go home, won't it? Shame about your exams though. Can't imagine A' level studies will help much over there."
Arthur's hands were fisted in Eames' shirt front so hard that Eames was a little worried he'd tear the fabric. His voice shook with sudden seething passion. "You don't get it. I hate my dad, ok? I loathe him with everything I am and I don't want to go but I haven't any fucking choice because I'm only sixteen! Fuck! I had a plan, and now it's all ruined."
"What?" Eames felt like he'd been smacked in the head by a piece of two-by-four. Is this why Arthur didn't talk about himself? Is this what was behind the talk of death and murder? Eames reminded himself that lots of people hated their families, it wasn't that unusual. Maybe Arthur was just acting out or whatever? But even as he thought it, he was dismissing the idea, he knew Arthur, he wouldn't do something so serious as declare hatred for a member of his family without good reason. Arthur never overreacted about anything.
"Look," Arthur said, his teeth clenching, "I don't want to talk about it, but. He drinks, ok? And, well, isn't that careful with his fists when he does. My sister... I couldn't always protect her. But then Mum came to her senses and divorced him and took Anne with her - it was the best day of my life. Second best was when the bastard decided he didn't want to be bothered to look after me and sent me here. I might have known it wouldn't last. I don't get to be that lucky."
Eames thought he should say something but he honestly had no idea what. He tightened his grip hoping the hug would do in lieu of cleverly sympathetic things to say that would obviously make everything better for Arthur, but inside he was reeling. He'd thought having this monstrous crush on a boy he would never see again was having it hard. He obviously had no bloody idea what he was even talking about - he'd been so selfish. So instead he ducked his head down to hide his face in Arthur's gorgeous hair because he felt so ashamed.
"Yeah, well. That was special. Thanks for nothing. I'll see you round, Eames. Or not."
Arthur began to fight then, pushing his way out of the circle of Eames' arms with a surprising amount of strength and entirely-not-surprising-at-all amounts of viciousness. It was all Eames could do to hold on but he refused to let go. Obviously shutting up had been the wrong thing to do - but how was he to know? He'd never had a proper boyfriend before! But there was a distinct possibility he would lose Arthur forever if he allowed him leave right now and Eames wasn't about to let him to do that to them both so easily. He clung on like a particularly grabby octopus, grunting when Arthur landed a painful elbow in his kidney, but still not letting go. He began to murmur a stream of quiet words, nonsense and endearments, whatever soothing babble his brain could conjure at short notice. It must have worked eventually, because Arthur stilled, his body tense, but not fighting Eames any more.
"I'm sorry," said Eames, as sincerely as he knew how, even though apologies didn't exactly come naturally to him. They were such uncomfortable things, but Arthur deserved them all, many more than Eames knew how to give. For the whole of his life, apparently. "If there's anything I can do, I'll do it. Anything at all that is in my power, it's yours, darling, you must know that. Just ask me."
Arthur was relaxing again, looking up at Eames from under his fringe with dark suspicious eyes. Eames wanted to take all the bastards that had ever hurt his Arthur and shoot the lot of them. In the kneecaps where it would hurt more.
"I want you to hack the Vital Records Department of California and change my date of birth," said Arthur calmly, "Can you do that for me, Eames? Because that's what I really want."
Now hacking had never been Eames' strong suit, but that didn't mean he wasn't willing to give it a go. He did love noodling around on his laptop, and he did love coding, but that was miles away from what Arthur wanted him to do. He'd never thought of himself being the criminal type, but for Arthur... Privately, Eames didn't think it was possible, but since that's what Arthur wanted he was going to try his damnedest to make it work, particularly since there seemed to have been so few people in Arthur's life who had ever put themselves out for him. Well, Eames wasn't going to be one of them. He was going to do his best. If only he could figure out what that was.
"So what do you want me to do?" he asked carefully, the next day. "I mean, how old do you want to be? If I get to change the records." That was a safe enough question, right?
Arthur was still sitting next to him on their roof as though nothing had changed, even though everything had, scowling out at the cricket pitches, although Eames doubted that he was seeing them. "Just a year older. That's all. Just one pathetic year."
"Umm." Eames wasn't sure how to ask this, without setting him off. "What difference does a year make? You still won't be a legal adult. I could make it two...?"
Arthur shook his head, definitively. "No, that's too much. He'd notice it. Getting my age wrong by a year? He might buy that. Maybe. But not two - that's too much. And I can't afford to have him too suspicious or he might... take action."
Eames played about a bit more, looking at registering babies in the United States, looking at Social Security Numbers and passports and medical insurance and... He was getting off track.
"What does it matter then if you're sixteen or if you're seventeen then? I don't understand."
Arthur looked at Eames and his eyes were sharp and hard, as though he'd seen things he wished he hadn't. And then he was just Arthur again, with his too thin shoulders and his stupid smile that just looked lonely right now. He leant against Eames and Eames let him, shifting his body so Arthur would fit into the curve of it. Mostly, Eames didn't think about Arthur being just as young as he was, but this was one of those moments. He couldn't help himself, he bent down for a kiss and Arthur just let him, melting under his mouth into something pliable and soft, until it felt like Eames was going to just burst apart with all these feelings just exploding inside of him.
Eventually, when Arthur's mouth had become pink and wet and altogether delicious, until Eames just wanted to devour him whole, Arthur started to answer the question in that soft voice of his that Eames realised was a private thing, that seemed to be just for the two of them together.
"My mother is English and that means even though I was born in California I have a dual passport, so I could stay here. In theory." Eames' heart leapt ridiculously at the thought, but Arthur hadn't finished. "But I need somewhere to go that isn't my mother's house. My father would look there first and he might start making trouble if I do. I can't risk that."
"You could always come and stay with me, darling, I think my mother would like you very much. She'd pinch your cheeks though, I warn you."
Eames was unaccountably cheered at the thought. That way he wouldn't be saying goodbye to his Arthur just after they'd found each other, which would be absolutely marvellous. He ignored the small voice in his head that said his mum would ask them all kinds of questions, especially the longer Arthur stayed. Because that didn't matter either - Eames would work something out. He would.
Arthur was looking at him now with a complicated expression, as though he'd done something wonderful but also something unutterably stupid. Which Eames thought was rather unfair - it wasn't that bad a plan.
"It's a kind offer but I can't accept, or rather..." Arthur's attention seemed arrested as though he was clicking through plan after plan in his head. "Maybe for a little while? Because I don't know how long it will take to process the application. So it might be useful. And it's why I need to be seventeen."
"What do you mean? What application?" Eames had a bad feeling about this. Arthur was trying to avoid his eye which meant he really wasn't going to like it. "Is it some kind of sixth form college, or a foundation year at uni or something?"
"Or something." Arthur, his Arthur, who wasn't afraid of anything, who wore stupid hats and listened to terrible new music. Who loved his hair long and hated treacle pudding with custard. That Arthur visibly steeled himself, pulling himself partway out of Eames' embrace, almost becoming someone else, the aloof untouchable boy he saw around the school, who used his ever-present earbuds like weaponry. That was the Arthur who spoke the fateful words, who told Eames what was really going on, who was already stronger and tougher than Eames could ever be.
"I'm joining the army. I'm sorry."
It made sense. Eames kept running through all he knew of the situation over and over again. And that was the problem, it did make sense. He wanted it not to, quite desperately, but it was logical. In an Arthurish kind of a way, at least. Apparently there was a clause in the divorce settlement, Arthur had agreed to go with his father as long as his mother had custody of his sister and Arthur, rightly or wrongly, believed his father might try to overturn the arrangement if Arthur took refuge with her. He had no money, of course, and any kind of course took cash, if only in living expenses, which Eames would have known if he'd thought things through. And Arthur refused to ask his father for anything and his mother couldn't afford it. So that was that.
Unless you were Arthur. He'd planned this for a long time, Eames realised. It wasn't just a scheme born in the desperation of the moment, it had always been Arthur's intention.
"I'll get an equivalent education this way, one that I know I've earned, and not on his sufferance or his choice. He'll hate that I've done this but he won't be able to stop it. He won't be able to control me any more."
Arthur had stared at Eames and his eyes had pleaded with him to understand. Which he did. Understand, that is - he just wasn't sure that he agreed with the decision. But it did explain why Arthur was desperate to alter his date of birth, because he'd planned on it being later, he'd planned on being left alone to finish school.
Eames might not like it, but it was what he had. He had to face that his Arthur was leaving, whatever the destination, and at least it explained why Arthur's thoughts had turned so dark lately, talking of murder and death and suchlike. The only thing left that he could do was try to have Arthur pleased with him, instead of disappointed, for all his choices were between the rock and the hard place, where instead Eames might have put them both somewhere comfier, with a bed and maybe an endless supply of cream cakes.
The chief problem, amongst so many others, was that he wasn't a hacker and he didn't have time to learn. He couldn't do what Arthur asked, and that somehow was worst of all.
It was the last day of term. Exams were finished, for good or bad, and Eames thought that they had passed rather as dreams might, disjointed and horrible, with odd leaps in time and logic. He hoped he hadn't cocked it all up, but he couldn't bring himself to care all that much, not with the results months away and Arthur leaving now. It was the last day Eames would ever see him, possibly for the rest of their lives. Eames had a lump in his throat that wouldn't subside, however much he cleared his throat, so much so that he could see Arthur's impassive public face soften just a little. It made Eames feel a little better, he supposed, although not enough, not in the shattering face of reality.
It was just a boy, Eames kept telling himself, he was just obsessing over a boy. There'd been others before, and he tried to tell himself there'd be others afterwards, but he didn't really believe it. Arthur was special.
At least they'd had these last few weeks, spending as much of their time together as they possibly could, even while revising, even while Eames frantically sought out another solution for Arthur's problem. At least they'd had that. And now the moment had come.
Eames' parents were on their way, he'd had a text from his brother, the car was probably half an hour out, if that. Around them were hundreds of other boys, all with trunks and rucksacks and mysterious tins, all talking and laughing and making the kind of god-awful racket that only a bunch of teenage boys were capable of making. Arthur wanted to leave, Eames knew that. He didn't want to see his dad, he wanted to make a quick clean escape. He was only staying for Eames' sake, and Eames appreciated that. He did.
Eames stood quietly next to Arthur, who was wearing his beanie again and provided a still, calm presence in the face of the swirling chaos around them. It was time. Eames picked up his backpack and pulled out the papers he'd printed off the website, all correctly filled in and signed. He pushed them at Arthur, barely looking at his face, because he could swear that it physically hurt.
"There you go. It's not what you wanted, but it will do the job. And that's what matters."
Arthur took them, before Eames' too-tight grip crumpled them, and he was glad - he'd spent a long time on time them, and there wasn't time to do another set.
"Eames..." Arthur's voice was plaintive, as though this was affecting him too and Eames felt selfishly glad.
"We were looking at it all wrong," said Eames hurriedly, before he lost his nerve or his pride. "It was never a case of changing your date of birth, that was too difficult from the start, too fundamental to who you are. I found the simple way, the expedient way. In the States you have to be seventeen to sign up so you thought that's what you needed, but it's not. You have to think about all angles on a job like this, and you've got a dual passport, Arthur, remember? It doesn't have to be the States, you can join the army here in the UK instead, if you want. You only need to be sixteen with parental consent." He nodded at the papers in Arthur's hand. "That's parental consent, right there. I found your dad's signature in amongst your things and I've forged it. It's rather good I think, since I had plenty of time to practice. That's another skill of mine, you see, better than hacking, much better. I used to do it all the time on sick notes and permission slips back when I was little. Never thought it would come in handy again."
His voice cracked on the last word and he shut up. He always did have that tendency to babble, damn it. He offered a wan smile instead.
Arthur was staring at him, papers in his hand, looking lost. He glanced down at them as though he couldn't believe his eyes. "Eames, I don't know what to say..."
Eames laughed then, because what was there to say? Arthur, skinny, tough, wonderful Arthur was going off to get shot at, and Eames might never even know what happened to him. It was too unbearable to think about for long so he'd been trying hard not to, but that was impossible now.
"Promise me you'll take care of yourself, darling," he said, at last. Clichés were all anybody had at the end.
"I'm going to be the best." Arthur's voice was low and hard, determination in every line of him. "I don't need to promise."
"And I know you will be," said Eames, so proud of him he could spit, "But try for the sake of my nerves, at the very least. Please."
Instead of replying, Arthur took a look around at the groups of their fellow students before very deliberately lifting a hand to Eames school tie and tugging. It wasn't a great wrench, Arthur had done worse in his sleep, Eames could say no, he could stay within the school code of behaviour if he wanted to, but why would he want to? They were both leaving, this was their last chance, their last goodbye, and all at once Eames thought, bugger it, why not? Let's give them a show.
He let Arthur pull him close, dropping his backpack and letting his arms rise to circle Arthur's waist, feeling the warmth of the skin beneath the cotton shirt. He wished just for a moment they were back on their roof but only for a moment, instead losing himself in the feel of Arthur against him, in the strength of his wiry body as he pulled Eames close and then kissed him messily and hard. All that mattered was the taste of Arthur, the feel of his tongue pushing its way greedily into his mouth, the scent of him surrounding Eames like the warmest of blankets. He wished he could stay there for eternity, wished he never had to let Arthur go - but that wasn't the way the world worked.
There was a stillness that was working its way outwards from where they were standing as close as two people could be, still kissing, Eames with his eyes only half shut because he didn't want to miss a second of anything, even the blurry shadow of Arthur's cheek. But nothing lasts forever, eventually Arthur swayed back a fraction of an inch and let go of Eames' tie. He was smirking, Eames could feel it, and it made him want to giggle in return.
"Thank you, Eames," Arthur whispered against his lips, "For everything, for all of it. I'll always remember."
And then he was picking up his stuff and walking away, down the gravel drive to the small town and the train station.
It was over.
Things were a blur for Eames after that. Boys whispered around him but nobody asked him anything, and he barely noticed. His folks turned up and packed his bags into the boot, chattering about the journey they'd had, about how Eames' brother had won a science award and how pleased they were, but Eames stayed quiet, stayed numb. He muttered something in response to questions about how his term had gone, about his exams, but he didn't know what he said. In the end he was allowed to slip into silence in the back seat, permitted to be absent-minded and distracted. And he was grateful in a dim sort of way.
He couldn't stop thinking about it. Arthur doing basic training, with his hair all cut off, awkward-looking in a uniform just a touch too big for him. Arthur being pushed around and hazed, being shouted at by huge men with sergeant stripes on their sleeves. Every war movie he'd ever seen played itself out behind his eyelids when he blinked. He couldn't stop himself shuddering. Just the thought of anything happening to Arthur made his hands clench into fists, just contemplating the huge array of terrible possibilities made him him feel sick, and yet there was nothing Eames could do. He was a geeky kid of average ambition and limited social skills. Maybe he could start getting into shape, take a course in martial arts, in psychology, start becoming the kind of man Arthur would need, but that wouldn't solve the fundamental problem. He didn't have even the slightest chance of being in the right place at the right time. He couldn't be with Arthur.
The car drew to a halt and Eames looked up, at his house and his family and all the comforts of home that he missed when he was away at boarding school. He found that none of it mattered to him any more. Not in the same way. It was like another life, lived by someone else a long time ago. It was funny but Eames realised it was as though he'd already made the decision, a sense of comfort and rightness stealing over him, settling him into place, into his new expectations as he thought everything through. It was coming home of a completely different kind, with his old university ambitions feeling like a distant dream. They wouldn't like it, he knew that, but he was eighteen now, he didn't need parental consent any more, not with his loyalties engaged elsewhere. He took a deep breath, ready to begin.
"Mum, Dad... Terribly sorry about this but I'm going to join the army."