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Pretend That You're Alone

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Part One

Eames had come to the conclusion that his students had no right being in a university. All they ever seemed to do was sleep or text message one another and that was if they showed up at all. He was beginning to regret ever coming to America to teach, and that was just sad because when he'd shown up fresh-eyed in his twenties, he'd been so excited. Now, at thirty-two, he was beginning to fear he had become his father, sallow-faced and disenchanted with the world.

…but he'd even grown tired of the actors in his plays, uninterested in their lack of effort to show up to practice on time, using their damned phones backstage even though it was a rule not to, and acting had been his first love in life. Psychology had come along in college, but he'd loved to act since he was a child. It was really quite pathetic, actually, how little the rich little arseholes who attended his classes felt entitled to good marks without trying because their parents had paid their tuition.

Sure, he could play himself off as smiley and charismatic, joking with his fellow professors and laughing loud when he and the chemistry teacher, Yusuf, were out for drinks, but underneath the façade he'd carefully put together, he was absolutely miserable. He was a brilliant actor in his own right, he thought, being able to fool so many people into thinking he still was all about molding young impressionable minds when really it was just about the paycheck now because there were no young impressionable minds to mold. He deserved an Oscar, really he did.

It was because of his growing abhorrence for the school that he'd decided to stop eating in his too small office and get away from the godforsaken place and the godforsaken students. He found a spot in the little park across the street, a little park bench that wasn't occupied where he could eat his sandwich or whatever he decided to bring for lunch in peace and just pretend he was waiting for a cast list to be put up or for him stopping for a bite before running off to an audition, to pretend that he was twenty-two and not thirty-two and still full of high hopes and dreams, and he'd been going there ever since for three weeks.

Oh, Lord, all of the melodramatic angst his students were suffering from was starting to rub off on him, he thought as he took his seat and unrolled his brown paper bag. People probably thought he had a wife at home to make the lunch for him, he thought, smirking a little.

He would probably have to go back to eating in his office soon, as much as he liked the view of the city framed by the branches of an oak tree. It was getting cold out. He'd barely been out there ten minutes and his fingers were starting to go numb. The sky had gone that perpetual gray that it always did in the winter, and most of the leaves had fallen off of the trees, but he would stay as long as he possibly could. Maybe he would bring a thermos of soup or coffee with him next time.

It was then that he looked up and realized he was being stared at. At first he thought he was imagining it, but as he pulled out his pudding cup, he was sure it was happening.

It was a kid—well, no, a teenager. He was in a pair of holey jeans and scuffed up tennis shoes, and a too-large gray t-shirt with the writing long faded off. The little fool wasn't even wearing a jacket, trying to stay warm under his shag of dark hair, shoving his hands into his armpits to keep the cold from his extremities.

"You twit," Eames said, shaking his head at him. "What the hell are you doing outside without a coat? It's bloody cold outside."

The boy just jumped a little, as if he hadn't expected to be acknowledged, even though he was staring down Eames's pudding cup like it was made of gold and diamonds.

Eames sighed and tossed it to him. "Here. I brought two of them. Eat the damned thing and then run along home and get warm."

The boy caught it and then approached the bench slowly, mumbling, "Do you mind if I sit here?"

"Free country and all that," Eames said, scooting over slightly to provide more room (not that the boy needed it; he was nothing but a slender stick of a boy).

The boy pulled off the top and licked at the pudding there with a cherry red tongue, and then he squeezed the cup so pudding spilled over the top and licked it away. Eames interrupted by offering him one of the spoons he'd packed.

"Oh," the boy said, accepting it. "Were you expecting someone to share your Snack Pack with?" A corner of his mouth turned up just slightly.

"I used to share with my buddy Yusuf at the university, but I haven't been eating there recently. I guess I'm still not out of the habit."

"Oh," the boy said with a little noncommittal shrug. "Well, uh… thanks, I guess."

They sat in silence for a minute or two, until the boy had absolutely devoured the snack, even diving his tongue inside to lick it off of the sides, and then he grinned cheekily at Eames, a little bit still on his lips, and Eames noticed he had precious, boyish dimples. He actually had a very nice looking face, if not a little pale and a bit dirty (there was a smudge of dirt on his left cheekbone). "So, um," the boy said, licking at his lips until they were clean. "You go to the school over that way?"

"I work there," Eames said, smiling. "I appreciate you thinking I'm young enough to be a student."

The boy smiled again. "Well, I didn't get that good a look at you before."

"Oh, that was below the belt," Eames responded, chuckling. He liked the boy. "I'm Eames, professor of psychology, speech and drama."

"Arthur," the boy replied, extending a hand with overgrown, dirty fingernails to shake.

"I haven't seen you around before," Eames said, shaking it, not caring about the dirt because it was seldom in his childhood that he walked around clean.

"Uh… yeah, I'm new to this part of town," Arthur said vaguely, digging a cigarette out of his pocket and shoving it between his teeth. "You want one?"

"Sure," Eames shrugged, taking it. "Why the fuck are you outside without a coat, kid? You know you'll freeze to death like that. I understand how you teenagers like to be rebellious, but that's a tad excessive, don't you think?"

"I'm not a kid," Arthur replied, "and I did have a coat. I left it on a bench for like, a second, and some guy stole it from me."

"What kind of world are we living in that someone would steal a coat from a little thing like you? That's just bloody sad."

"I guess so," Arthur replied, blowing smoke out like he'd been doing it for years.

"So, do you go to school around here or something?" Eames asked, wondering just what the kid was doing out in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe he was cutting class. He didn't seem like the absolute nicest boy around, if the way he was already smoking was any sign of his behavior.

"No," Arthur replied, moving to stand. "Nice meeting you. Thanks for the pudding. I've got to get going now. I have an appointment of sorts."

"Aren't you a bit young to be having 'appointments'?" Eames asked, chuckling. "Are you some sort of child genius or something?"

Arthur blinked, cracked into that same adorable boyish smile Eames had noticed before and said, "I don't know. Maybe I am."

…and Eames figured that was the last he would see of the boy.

He'd only wished that he'd given him his jacket.

Eames returned to the university with a bit fresher of an outlook. He wasn't sure why seeing the boy had made him feel better, but somehow it had. Maybe it was just the whole 'clearly poor, didn't have a coat' thing that made Eames feel more appreciative for the home, the job, the things that he had. Maybe Eames was just a sucker for compliments followed by an adorable snarky comment.

It wasn't weird that he found the boy adorable, was it?

No, no, adults did stuff like that. Eames was surely just nostalgic for his own days of youth.

What difference did it make anyway? Having that moment where someone actually sat down next to him and talked to him, went out of their way just to notice him there by himself (even if it was only for free pudding), it was just nice. It was a little bright moment in his day. Eames was a man of simple tastes after all, and he was tired of feeling like a damned robot that was unplugged at the end of the night after work. It felt nice to smile again.

It was unfortunate how the feeling started to melt away when he stepped into class to find only four of the students had even showed up and one of them was already asleep. He sighed through his nose and banged a ruler on the desk loudly to startle all of them to attention.

"So glad of you to come," Eames said. "Now that you're here, shall we get on with actually learning something, or should I just give all of you failing marks now?"

The only one really paying attention, young and impressionable Ariadne who had come on scholarship and actually appreciated the chance to take classes from highly trained professors, immediately flipped open her notebook and pressed her pen to a new line, ready to take notes. Eames couldn't even feel grateful for her because he could remember a time when all the students were like her. He could remember a time back when he'd first started when he'd been young like the students, had been their favorite teacher, rather than one they'd rather not even see.

It was actually kind of sad.

Actually, it was kind of extremely sad.

They'd lost the will to gain knowledge, so why should Eames bother to give it?

Still, for Ariadne's sake, he taught the class (or what there was of one), though it was with the lackluster quality he just was nowadays. He gave them the notes and informed them that their papers were due soon. He reminded them to let any of their little friends who decided to skip out on class were going to fail if they missed another class. It was an empty threat, mostly—he could only do so much when their parents would pay the dean off to let them through (he really didn't know why they didn't just pay to hand them a degree at that point).

By the end of class, he felt as miserable as he always did. It was just a shame, he thought.

The next afternoon, Arthur was back.

In fact, he was waiting on the bench when Eames got there.

"Well, look who it is," Eames said, smirking. "Back to steal my food again, eh, you little raccoon?"

"Raccoons are nocturnal," Arthur chuckled, "so I'm more like a hawk."

"We're in the city, so you're more like a pigeon or stray cat," Eames replied, sitting down and offering him half of his sandwich. "You know, you should get your mother to pack you a lunch or at least buy you some supplies to make your own lunch."

"Why?" Arthur asked, snorting. "You aren't wearing a ring, and you haven't mentioned any children, so clearly you don't have anyone else to provide for, and you're not exactly bringing kobe beef or anything."

"You're a rude little fucker, aren't you," Eames said.

"It's one of my worst qualities," he said around a mouthful of sandwich, "but hey, you offered."

"I'll keep that in mind and not do so next time," Eames said. "I see your mum didn't get you a new coat either."

"My mom's not really the ah… the helping type," Arthur replied, more than a little bitterly.

Eames wasn't all that surprised. Most teenagers hated their parents nowadays anyway. Hell, most of his students hated their parents, despite all they gave them. Maybe Arthur had a legitimate reason, maybe he didn't.

"Bad relationship, eh? I know how those are," Eames said.

"You have no idea," Arthur replied.

"I think that I might just. You're what, fourteen, fifteen? You don't know anything about the real world just yet."

"You've got to be pretty fucking stupid to think that I don't know anything just because I'm young," Arthur said suddenly, and he didn't even sound mad so much as he sounded amused. "Aren't you supposed to be a teacher of psychology? You should know that age isn't necessarily the factor in knowledge. I mean, come on, think about it, we learn the most during our first five years of life, and kids are a lot more susceptible to things than adults. Children don't get bogged down by the melodrama of their lives and aren't nearly as distracted by other people's opinions. So… really, if you look at it that way, I'm probably wiser than you are because I am younger."

Eames raised his eyebrows with surprise and couldn't help but actually bark out a laugh. "You're a bit bright, aren't you?"

"I like to read," Arthur replied with a shrug.

"You strike me as the type who likes to be a bit too smart for his own good."

"Is that so?" Arthur asked, forming a smoke ring with the last word before smirking. "You might be underestimating me, Mr. Eames."

He was mocking him, most definitely.

Eames didn't care too much; he kind of just enjoyed the company.

In fact, for the rest of that week, Arthur was always waiting, and he was always there to listen when Eames eventually started ranting about his incompetent students, laughing loudly at how stupid they were around his cigarettes and sandwiches and pudding cups. Arthur didn't talk much, but it was nice to talk to someone who wouldn't go accidentally spilling his dismay to any of his co-workers or students (like Yusuf, the bugger). Eames didn't even really care that Arthur was clearly some sort of hooligan, skipping class to smoke cigarettes in the park, or that he himself probably looked like some sort of pedophile, speaking so candidly with the young, young boy, but… well… Eames's intentions were strictly pure, so anyone who thought otherwise could kindly go fuck themselves.

It only occurred to Eames on Saturday, while he was at home grading papers that Arthur had been dressed pretty much the same every day that week.

It also occurred to him as he set aside another paper that Arthur's theory about the wisdom of younger people compared to older people, while not necessarily true, was more thought out in the five seconds it took for him to come up with it then most of the utter bollocks the students had written three to five pages on.

It was frankly despicable, considering it was a Psych 101 class, and it wasn't even difficult. They had to be trying to be this terrible. He wasn't even sure if it was remotely possible to be that stupid and actually make it out of primary school.

He would have quite liked to have someone like Arthur as a student. He seemed more like the type of person who would actually ask questions rather than just accept things. He gave a shit about what Eames had to say at least, and that was something that Eames hadn't had in a while.

He even sort of missed Arthur.

It was only a passing thought, and he didn't think too hard on it.

Monday, Arthur wasn't there.

Well, apparently that was the end of that… and Eames had gone and made two sandwiches too.

He was a little saddened by it, but he shrugged it off. After all, it wasn't like he and the boy were close or anything. They'd shared lunch a few times and that was all, and he didn't put too much thought to it after that…

At least he didn't until Arthur showed up again on Tuesday, sporting an oversized leather coat.

"Where'd you get that?" Eames asked.

"Goodwill," Arthur said, plopping down next to him on the bench. "I didn't think you'd be back."

"Why?" Eames asked, furrowing his brow.

"You didn't show up for the past two days before yesterday."

"It was the weekend. I live across town," Eames replied, shaking his head at the boy. "Didn't you put the two together?"

"I… didn't realize what day it was," Arthur said awkwardly. "So, you don't live around here then."

"No, I have a place in the downtown area, a penthouse that my parents bought for me about eight years ago."

"Oh. So, you're like… rich or something. Is it because you're from the UK? I hear our dollar is kind of pathetic compared, but I don't pretend to understand that kind of stuff."

"I'm not rich," Eames assured. "My parents are rich. I'm a professor. I really don't make that much. Where do you live anyway?"

"Around here," Arthur replied vaguely, not looking at Eames directly, instead choosing to stare just over his shoulder. "Listen, I ah… I can't stick around. I've got an appointment. Like I said, I honestly didn't think you would be here."

"Then why did you come at all?" Eames asked, not unkindly.

Arthur stood, shoving his hands into his pockets and said, "I sort of… hoped you'd be here. It's nice to have someone who doesn't just pass me off as completely invisible."

Before Eames could so much as make any kind of verbal response to that, the boy had wandered off. He was terribly quiet and stealthy for a kid.

Eames didn't manage to leave his little hole-in-the-wall office until late in the evening, locking up just as Yusuf was leaving his own office.

"You doing all right there, Eames?" Yusuf asked.

Eames never could help but shake his head at the chemistry professor, always dressed in mismatched clothes like he chose his clothing in the dark (Eames wasn't much better, but admittedly Yusuf had more ridiculous things to choose from). Not even Yusuf's socks matched, one red and one brown –striped, and his laces in his shoes were also different colors. He was such a mess on the outside, but somehow he always seemed to have his head together. Eames couldn't understand how Yusuf had been working at the school just as long as he had and didn't get burned out.

"Very well," Eames lied as he always did, painting on one of his best smiles, showy and bright and maybe a little bit obnoxious. "Where are you headed off to? Home I'd hope."

"Ah, sleep is for the weak and the old, Eames," Yusuf chuckled, falling into step with him as they made their way to the staircase. "I've got a hot date down at the club, my friend. She is twenty-six, blonde, absolutely stunning—"

"Robbing the cradle, are you, Yusuf?" Eames smirked. "Aren't you about old enough to be the creepy guy at the club now?"

"She invited me!" Yusuf exclaimed, "and she's not that much younger than I am, you know. I'm only thirty-one. Besides, you're only as young as you feel."

"Tell that to me later when you break your back trying to limbo," Eames said, descending the staircase. "I'm not helping to pay for your medical bills when your charming little gold digger steals your credit card and leaves you on the floor by the way."

"Have it your way, mate, but really, we both know you're just jealous."

"She's fucking young enough to be one of your students," Eames replied flatly. "One of your students may have even dated her before you."

"Yes. Jealous."

Eames rolled his eyes, but he was laughing. "Well, I pray to God that she's at least semi-intelligent for your sake."

Yusuf bowed his head in thanks and opened the door, heading for the parking lot. "Do you want a ride?"

"No thanks," Eames said. "I'll catch the bus home. Wouldn't want you to keep your pretty little bird waiting, now would we?"

"I'll tell you about it tomorrow then," Yusuf said.

Eames shook his head at him again and started the trek to the bus stop. The night was bitingly cold, so Eames sank his face into his scarf and tried to keep himself downwind. It was dark too, except for the street lights and the occasional headlight of a car. Eames didn't mind the solitude too much… or rather he'd grown used to it at least. He thought that when he got home, perhaps he'd have a cup of tea and watch the weather in the hope that snow would fall and school would be cancelled.

He groaned inwardly. He really had become his father. God, he was so boring and old.

"Go home!"

"Fuck off, I'm going!"

Eames looked up to see too silhouettes of people at the bus stop, features hidden from the headlights of a police car behind them. The taller one got back into the car and drove off, and Eames watched as the other turned around to give it the finger as it drove off into the night, and that was when Eames realized…

"Arthur?" Eames called out.

The boy jumped at the sound of his name and squinted into the dark as his eyes adjusted to the sudden lack of light. "Oh…" he said awkwardly.

"It is you, isn't it," Eames said, jogging to close the distance between them. It was most definitely him. Even in the dark, Eames could make out his distinctive features and dark eyes. "What the hell are you doing out here? Why was that officer hounding you?"

Arthur looked back at the bus stop's bench, pointing to it. "I was just taking a nap on the bench, and he woke me up and told me to go home. I tried to get him to leave me alone, tried to tell him I was waiting for the bus, but the asshole wouldn't let up, so I decided to move."

"Well, why aren't you at home? A bench is a terrible place to take a nap, especially at this temperature. You'll freeze to death."

The bus pulled up at the station, flooding the both of them with light, and Eames could see Arthur's uncomfortable expression, the slight tremble in his shoulders… and Eames understood.

"Arthur… do you have a home to go to?" he asked hesitantly.

Arthur shifted his bag on his shoulder, and mumbled, "I move around a lot, I guess you could say."

Arthur was homeless.

He was barely a teenager, and he was living on the streets. It explained the clothes and the dirt, everything.

"Come on," Eames said, putting a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Come with me."

"You can't make me call my mother," Arthur said as Eames dragged him onto the bus with him. "She doesn't have a phone. I don't know—"

"I'm not, but I'm not leaving you here. You'll freeze."

"I can handle myself—"

"Just sit down."

Arthur huffed and sat down in a seat at the back. "Fine," he grumbled quietly. "Where are we going?"

"I'm taking you back to my house. You can sleep there and stay warm."

"Why would you do that?" Arthur asked.

Eames hesitated, trying to think of an answer, but all he could come up with was, "because… you're my mate, and I always look out for my mates."

Arthur dug for a cigarette but couldn't seem to find one. "I don't have any money," he said. "Well, not much anyway."

"Don't worry about it."

"Surely you want something."

"I'll come up with something later."

Never once did it occur to Eames that it was a bad idea, because really… what harm could Arthur be? He was just a kid, down on his luck and probably just as lonely as Eames was.

Surely so.