The shareholder’s meeting wrapped up at twenty-to-three, a full ninety minutes over the schedule. Arthur had a throbbing headache, like a man playing bass drum behind his left eyeball, and he’d had to use the bathroom for at least an hour. Naturally, the first thing he saw when he ducked out of the board room was Ariadne with a stack of files that she probably wanted his signature on, and all hope of relief for his bladder faded from Arthur’s life.
“Need your signature on the papers for the Hicks estate,” Ariadne shoved papers into one of Arthur’s hands and a pen into the other. “And Mrs. Bradley wants to know why her husband hasn’t been served with the divorce papers yet...also –“
“Hold that thought,” Arthur scribbled his name on one of the marked lines and crowds the stack of papers back into Ariadne’s arms. “I really need a bathroom break.”
Ariadne said something Arthur didn’t hear hardly a syllable of before the bathroom door swung closed behind him and he rushed for the sweet relief promised by the nearest urinal. When he came back out a few minutes later, Ariadne barely missed a beat except to roll her eyes.
“Also, Charlie’s school called.”
Arthur’s heart did what was quickly becoming a familiar, cold lurch, deep in his chest. “What? What did they want?”
“They said they needed to talk to you,” Ariadne put up her hands in a don’t shoot the messenger gesture that was all too well practiced. It wasn’t usually directed at Arthur, but Fischer & Browning was a high-stress work environment, and the legal assistants weren’t always safe. “They said it wasn’t an emergency. Something about a visit to the principal’s office; and since we were told not to interrupt the meeting only about a hundred times, I told them to call Eames.”
This time, Arthur’s dread was like a bullet. He shifted right around Ariadne and made a bee-line for his office, nearly running over Dom in the process, and knocking over the garbage can next to his desk as he dove for his cell phone inside his coat.
He dialed Eames’ number so fast that his fingers blurred over the keys, and stood bouncing on the balls of his feet as the cell rang into his ear.
“C’mon, Eames. Pick up, pick up...” But all he got was a recording; a familiar recitation You’ve reached Eames; so sorry I missed you. Leave a message and I’ll ring you back. Arthur had his coat half on and was heading for the door before the beep.
“Eames, we have a deal – remember? I handle the teachers. Please, please don’t do anything stupid. I’m on my way. I’m leaving the office right now.”
He waved at Ariadne as he by-passed the elevator and made for the stairs. He knew he could trust her to make up a decent excuse for him – she had before, after all. He’d bring her coffee in the morning, big and expensive, with a double-shot of espresso and a shot of hazelnut syrup, just the way she liked it.
Arthur tried the house phone as he was pulling out of the parking garage and was met by all three of their voices, going through a greeting that Arthur himself would have found nauseating just a few years ago: You’ve reached Arthur...Eames...and Charlie! We can’t take your call right now so...LEAVE. A. MES-SAGE! Arthur hung up and focused on the two most important things – driving, and not panicking.
When Charlie had started Kindergarten, Arthur and Eames had gone through what Arthur figured were all the typical struggles of parents sending their child off to school for the first time – they’d worried about location, classroom sizes, academic standing (okay, Arthur had done most of the worrying, but Eames had done his best to go along with it and appear supportive) and they had also made one, very important decision: When it came to dealing with the school administration, Arthur was in charge. Eames didn’t do well with authority figures – that was the issue; in the presence of people who were supposed to be unquestionably in charge, he tended to come off as exactly what he was: an unrepentant troublemaker.
And Arthur meant that in the best possible way.
By the time he pulled up in front of Charlie’s school, Arthur was nearly having palpitations with dread over the thought of what he was going to find. If Eames got their son tossed from a school before they were even three weeks in – hell, before Charlie even hit number-grades – Arthur was going to lose his mind.
He didn’t know whether to be relieved or even more terrified when the first thing he saw as he pulled up to the curb was Eames sitting with Charlie on the school’s front steps, playing Angry Birds on Eames’ phone.
“Papa!” Charlie bounded down the steps as Arthur walked up, crushing Arthur’s legs in one of his patented bear hugs. Eames stood and stretched, trailing down behind him and leaning in to kiss Arthur’s cheek.
“Hi – uh – hi.” Arthur ruffled Charlie’s dark hair and lifted him to one hip. He looked happy enough now, but there was a lingering redness and shadow in the wells of his eyes. “Is everything okay?”
“Peachy,” Eames replied with a smile. “All taken care of, nothing to worry about.”
“Daddy said we could have pizza for supper,” Charlie reported, brightly. His huge, slightly lop-sided smile could ease any worry in Arthur’s heart.
“Did he? Well I guess we should go pick some up then, right?”
It wasn’t until much later that evening, after pizza and bath time, a few cartoons and a bedtime story, that Arthur managed to get Eames alone in the kitchen washing dishes, so he could ask what happened.
“Oh, you know,” Eames shrugged, swirling the soapy water around in the sink with one hand, searching for errant cutlery, “boys will be boys.”
“Eames,” Arthur gave him a hard look, nudged him with an elbow. Eames passed him a wet plate, as if that might be a distraction. “You’re going to have to tell me at some point.”
Eames chewed his lip for a moment, contemplating, before he finally confessed.
“Charlie threw a rock at another boy.”
“He did what?” Arthur didn’t know whether to be horrified or outraged, tossing the dishtowel on to the counter and turning to Eames. “That is not boys will be boys, Eames. He could have seriously hurt someone.”
“Well the little blighter would’ve deserved it,” Eames countered, pulling the plug on the sink so that the rush of descending water temporarily drowned out everything else. “You can’t expect Charlie to put up with being made fun of for having two dads.”
For a moment, Arthur thought his heart had stopped. The sink gurgled empty before he managed to get his mouth to catch up with his mind; but all that came out was, “Oh.”
“Right.” Eames picked the dish towel up off the counter and dried his hands, folded it in half and set it back down – careful movements all designed to give himself time to measure out his calm. “Of course I told him that he can’t go ‘round solving his problems with violence; but it was hard to be too sincere about it.”
“What did the principal say?”
“More or less the same thing. Charlie’s not in any permanent trouble, but he can’t make a habit of throwing things.”
“Of course not.” The last thing they wanted was for someone’s eye to be taken out. Arthur was an expert litigator, but even he probably wouldn’t be able to get out of the lawsuit that would come from that.
“She also promised it wouldn’t happen again. The teasing, I mean.”
“And what did you say to that?”
Eames huffed out a soft laugh, “that it better bloody not. We paid good money for a school that was supposed to be zero tolerance for that kind of nonsense.”
Arthur laughed, not really relieved, but imaging the look on the principal’s face. Threats from Arthur probably would have rolled right off her back – half the school’s parents were lawyers of one type or another, ready to sue at the drop of a hat – but a threat from Eames, tattooed and broad shouldered, with a look about him like he was a hooligan even though he wasn’t – probably would have actually rattled her cage a little.
Eames reached out and put his hands on Arthur’s hips, guiding him in close and kissing him chastely. He smelled of the last vestiges of the cologne he had applied that morning, of lemon dish soap, pizza sauce and Charlie’s banana-mango tearless shampoo. Like home, essentially.
“Is Charlie okay?” Arthur couldn’t help but ask. He felt guilty now, for not being there.
Eames pressed his forehead to Arthur’s, smiling. “Of course. He’s tough, like his papa.”
“Tough like his daddy,” Arthur corrected.
“And smart like his papa.”
“Alright,” Arthur smiled at last. “I can live with that.”