Title: A Photograph of the Artist as a Young Man - Chapter 1b
Artist: Abhauen (the story to her blindchild!au)
Rating: PG for language (this part)
Note: DO NOT START HERE! read part 1a first! :)
Part One Continued.
True to his word, Alfred arrived to the first day of the photo-shoot early.
In fact, he was so excited he could barely sleep the night before and woke up at four in the morning unable to go back to sleep. He got up, had some milk (because his mother always gave him warm milk when he couldn't sleep) went back, rolled around on his bed, got back up, ate some crackers, went back to bed and watched the sunrise through the muted hotel curtains. At about six he decided to get dressed and ended up drinking three cups of coffee at the breakfast bar downstairs.
On hindsight, perhaps so much caffeine right before the shoot was a bad idea.
They were shooting in an old English manor house on the outskirts of London. He took a taxi because the bus routes and sub-way things were confusing and he didn't want to make a mistake and end up in France or something. As they drove away from the centre of London, Alfred could see the sky widening out as the buildings because smaller and less cramped. Green grass and trees filled his windows, painted against the grey morning sky.
As the taxi wound to a stop at the end of a long gravel driveway, Alfred was glad today's shoot was indoors because it was pouring with rain. He took the last few steps at a run and ducked gratefully under the cover of the high stone roof leading to the sweeping front doors. Shaking out his umbrella (and himself), he looked out over the water drenched garden. A few soggy looking flamingos were huddling under the trees. Alfred stared.
The flamingos stared back.
And the staring contest would have gone on if not for a sudden interruption that shook Alfred out of his rain-drenched daze.
"Oi. You Alfred Jones?"
Alfred spun around.
A man about his age had appeared, half his body obscured by the door. From the half Alfred could see, he was dressed in a sharp looking suit, the jacket's sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He was wearing a blood red shirt with a stiff collar and a thin black tie. There was a gold pin in his lapel and he looked a lot like one of those Hollywood Italian mobsters. A short Italian mobster. A short angry Italian mobster.
"Yep, that's me!" said Alfred, thrusting his hand out with a smile. The man glared at him for a moment longer then rolled his eyes.
"That would explain why you're standing outside like a fucking idiot. Fucking Americans, retarded, the lot of you." The man held the door open a little wider. "Hurry up and get in then!"
"Uh…." said Alfred, letting his hand drop. As he walked past the mobster, his umbrella was snatched out of his hand.
"Give me that – seriously, fucking Americans. Fucking English weather, tea drinking pussies, no wonder the weather is so pissy…" the vicious muttering carried on as the man stalked across the brightly lit entrance hall and into the foyer. "…should leave you all to drown on your stupid island…"
Hesitantly, Alfred followed. Their footsteps echoed on the tiled floor.
"OI YOU WINE BASTARD," the man shouted, making Alfred wince and the crystal chandelier tremor, "THE AMERICAN IS HERE. WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU ANYWAY WE'RE NOT YOUR SLAVES YOU KNOW-"
"Lovi, Lovi!" A man Alfred recognised his stylist from the day before appeared at the top of the staircase, "Don't shout!"
"I'll stop shouting when wino stops bossing me around!" said the mobster – Lovi? – looking, if possible, even more pissed. Alfred wondered who he was, and sincerely hoped he wasn't someone who was required to come very close to Alfred's person.
"Aw, I'm sure he didn't mean to!" said the stylist. Antonio, that was his name, "And they're in their dressing room right now – can't hear you anyway. Why don't you check of Helen is here with the belts? Please?"
"Fuck you!" said 'Lovi', but disappeared into an adjacent doorway, slamming it with a crash. Both Antonio and Alfred winced.
Antonio sighed and descended the stairs.
"Alfred! Sorry about that, my Lovi has been running around all morning setting up. You're very early."
"Yeah," said Alfred, staring after the mobster, "I thought I'd be earlier just in case. Um. Should I go into hair and makeup or something?"
Antonio pulled out his smartphone and tapped something.
"Mmm, not yet. See what Francis wants – he's in the dressing room. It's the first room after you pass this landing on the second floor."
"Okay," said Alfred, "thanks!"
"No problem," said Antonio, almost floating across the room. He disappeared through a door and a moment later, Alfred could hear muffled cursing in Italian and Antonio exclaiming – "No, Lovi!"
Shouldering his bag more securely, Alfred made his way slowly up the grand staircase. The carpet was a muted red, a print of gold crests running diagonally down each step. The banister was a dark, polished wood, gilded with intricate carvings of vines and roses. The ceiling was frescoed and there were small chandeliers hanging from regular intervals, illuminating the hallways leading off from the landing. It was the sort of house that was always haunted and had a million secret passages. It probably had a cemetery in the back yard!
Alfred shivered apprehensively. He glanced right, then left, the right again.
Which way had Antonio said?
Deciding just to pick a random room, Alfred knocked boldly. No answer. He tried the door-knob but it was locked. Perhaps not then. Alfred tried the next door along. Also locked.
Ten minutes later, Alfred was lost.
He had managed to get into one room – a huge, hexagonal drawing room that housed a harpsichord and artfully scattered pieces of paper. He assumed this was one of the rooms they were going to be shooting in later that day. Glancing at his watch, he had moved on and simply ended up calling and pushing open doors. Creepy portraits of creepy English people stared at him disapprovingly as he walked faster and faster.
"Hello?" he tried again, spotting one door that he hadn't tried before. He knocked quickly, and receiving no answer, he jiggled the door knob. It twisted beneath his hands and he inched the door ajar. He froze as raised voices floated towards him from the far end of the room.
"…then maybe you should have hired someone else instead of a useless model who can't even – "
It was Arthur. Shouting.
"Arthur. Do not use that word! I would not trade you for the world and you know it. "
Francis was leading Arthur over to one of the mirrors set up against the wall, one hand at his elbow and the other at the small of his back. Arthur had one hand held out tentatively in front of him, running it along the edge of the table before half turning and patting the air behind him until his hand brushed the chair. Only then did he sit slowly, facing the mirrors.
Yet…Alfred was clearly reflected in the mirror and it was as if Arthur couldn't see him at all. Alfred's eyes widened in realisation. It was almost as if…
The door creaked as Alfred sucked in a breath of surprise and Arthur turned his head sharply towards the sound.
Oh my god, thought Alfred, dazed. Arthur Kirkland – the Arthur Kirkland – was blind.
"Indeed," said Francis, and Alfred realised with dawning horror that he had just said that out loud. He back pedalled rapidly.
"Oh shit- I mean, sorry I shouldn't have been – I just got a bit lost so I was looking for you guys I – I got here super early just in case well, I just wanted to make a good impression and so Antonio said to come see you and I must have made a wrong turn or something and…and… oh my god is he really blind?"
Arthur's hand was clenched in a white knuckled fist on the table.
"He is sitting right here, you brat."
Alfred's face flushed with embarrassment.
"I – "
"Mr. Jones," said Francis, stepping in between the two of them, hiding Arthur from view, "I presume you have read over your contract?"
"Yes?" he lied.
"Then I would like to draw your attention to it – in particular the clauses regarding confidentiality."
"You mean no one knows?"
"Of course no one knows," Arthur spat out, voice strained.
"And if anyone does," said Francis, his smile still as pleasant as ever, "I will personally make sure you never work in Europe again."
Alfred swallowed hard, feeling the blood drain from his face. Oh shit.
"Oh shit," he said, "Look Fr- Mr. Bonnefoy, I'm not going to tell anyone! I wasn't – secret's safe with me!"
"Yes, until some tabloid offers you enough cash," said Arthur and Alfred felt rather insulted.
"No!" he said, waving his arms around in agitation, "I'm not like that! I'm not going to tell anyone, not even my mum! Hero's promise!" Oh shit what if they cast someone else and he loses the shoot? He turned back to Francis, "Please don't black list me or something? I'm - I'm sorry I burst in I really didn't- I mean-"
Francis held up a hand and Alfred closed his mouth.
"Oui. Fine. I did anticipate that…well. Perhaps this will make things more simple."
"More simple?" Arthur repeated, standing up, "Are you out of your mind?"
"Mon lapin," said Francis, sweeping around and forcing Arthur back into his chair, "The shoot will run much more smoothly, makes my job much easier-"
"Blasted frog are you saying I make your life difficult? I'll have you know you make my life absolutely -"
"Yes, yes," said Francis, running his fingers through Arthur's hair in what Alfred assumed was an attempt to subdue it, "I'm a blight upon humanity, et cetera, et cetera. Now Alfred-"
Alfred looked up.
"Sit," Francis commanded, pointing at second chair in front of the mirrors, "Antonio and Helen will be back soon."
"Yeah," said Alfred. He sat, not really listening. His mind was still whirring with his new discovery, and it felt like there wasn't quite enough air in the room for the three of them. He couldn't help staring, sneaking glances when Francis was busy fiddling with Arthur's hair.
"Keep gawking and I'll break your nose," said Arthur Kirkland.
"Sorry," said Alfred, ducking his head.
"Here is how this is going to work," he began.
They could hear the rain thundering outside, against the window pane.
"It's to see how tall you are, in relation to me," explained Arthur, standing in front of him. They were very close together as Arthur laid a hand on his arm, running up to his shoulder, then to his neck. Alfred shivered involuntarily as Arthur's fingers brushed over his collarbones.
Arthur paused, palm warm against Alfred's jaw.
"Hurmph," he said, "You are tall."
Alfred let out a laugh, "Yeah, I guess. Normal for models right?"
"Hm," said Arthur. The pad of a thumb ran over Alfred's cheekbones. Arthur's hands were curious, palms soft, fingertips calloused.
His eyes were very green, but they stared through Alfred, unseeing.
Two hours later.
If Alfred had been nervous about working with the great Arthur Kirkland, it was nothing compared to the feeling of actually working with the great Arthur Kirkland. And Francis Bonnefoy – who seemed to lose every trace of pleasant charm when behind the camera lens.
"When I said I wanted a gramophone, I meant a gramophone you imbecile! Lovino? Take this ridiculous 'dock' out of my sight."
Out of the corner of his eye, Alfred saw the mobster do as he was told without a single curse word. Shit. One of the assistants finished re-positioning the old brass globe and scuttled quickly out of the frame.
"Don't worry," said Arthur quietly, as Francis strode towards them across the room, camera slung around his neck. The lens looked like a cannon. The kind that blew people up in a war. "He's always like this."
"Did you say something, mon cher?" said Francis, his tone of voice switching from angry dictator to gentle so fast Alfred gaped.
"Only about how hard you are to work with," said Arthur, dead pan.
"Oh you English, always with the sarcasm," said Francis, smoothing Arthur's lapels. He was wearing a dark fitted suit, sombre and the colour of spilled red wine. It made him look very pale. There was a jade green brooch at his throat, the high white ruffled collar stiff against his neck. It matched the colour of his eyes.
"I want to try with you on Alfred's right, to begin with," said Francis, taking Arthur's hand and placing in on the desk, "You'll be standing on this map here –" he nudged Arthur, letting him take two steps away from the desk and then pulling him back, subtly. "- the world is your empire, you see? It is at your feet." He turned Arthur at the shoulder, "Yes, like that."
"Who put the globe here?" he said, frowning. Picking it up, he handed it to Alfred. "Alright, mon petit revolutionarie, lean against the desk for now. Yes – I want you to-"
"If Arthur has the world at his feet," said Alfred, "Do you want me sitting on the ground? Like this!" he proceeded to do just that, curling letting one leg sprawl out and propping his elbow up on his other knee, the globe in his hands. He was wearing a loose fitted shirt, open at the collar and he let one of the sleeves hang over the globe as he turned it idly with a finger.
The room was silent. And Alfred suddenly realised that he had just ignored Francis' instructions. Arthur kicked him in the back with his boot.
"Ow!– that was just an idea-"
"Hmm," said Francis, tilting his head, "Run with that. Alright we're starting!"
Everyone knew Arthur Kirkland. But people knew very little about Arthur Kirkland. He had been catapulted into fame after he became the face of Bonnefoy at the age of 18 – an unsigned, English boy no one had ever heard of. He quickly became GQ's new golden child, appearing in UK, Italy and France in rapid succession. Everyone wanted to book him. He turned nearly all of them down. All of those, Alfred realised, which cast him along side another model.
His heart was thrumming.
Arthur was like a living statue, carved from cold marble and perfectly poised as Francis took shot after shot. Alfred's eyes were slowly going a little starry from the repeated flashes, but Arthur was eerily still. He moved only when instructed, save for the minute shifts in the angle of his face, his hands, the sharp line of his shoulders and hips.
Alfred almost felt ungainly, next to him.
"Focus!" said Francis, snapping Alfred out of his reverie, "A little more spirit, Alfred, give me unhappiness, give me discontent."
Alfred glared at the camera.
"Oui, c'est manifique– no, no, no stay right there Arthur!"
"Actually someone get me a wine glass – red wine – Arthur, a toast to yourself."
Arthur mimed with his empty hand tucking his other in his pocket. It was a subtle movement, full of lazy grace and a kind of self-awareness explained how Arthur looked so striking in every glossy photograph. He tilted his wrist so that a harsh shadow fell across his sleeve. Alfred was mesmerised.
"Yes, like that."
"This is terribly cliché Francis, even for you."
"Cliché? Cliché? What are you saying - where is that wineglass? And someone fix Alfred's hair, that piece is sticking up again. Godammit why are you all so incompetent?"
If the set allowed it, Francis usually dismissed all the assistants while he worked. It was both unusual and a little impractical. For one, it always resulted in him shouting out demands in mixed French and English and some poor assistant (more often than not, Lovino) running in and out, slamming doors as he went.
The next scene they were shooting was a little simpler, with a lot less props to work with. It was also to be the first of the twelve-page spread. Francis dressed Arthur first, in what felt like heavy brocade and a stiff, elaborately embroidered jacket. As he sat in front of the dressing table to get his makeup redone, he could hear Alfred being verbally abused by Lovino somewhere to his right.
"Maybe you should work out more, burger boy," he was saying. There was the sound of a belt being tightened, leather sliding against metal. Alfred let out a little oof.
"Um," he said uncomfortably, "where's Antonio?"
"Fuck if I know," said Lovino.
It had been nearly a year since Arthur had saw him last, but the man's language was just as colourful as ever.
"You sure that needs to be that tight?"
The rustling of fabric. Then –
"Stand still or I kill you."
"Okay! Okay, Jeez!"
Arthur smiled, eyes closed as the makeup artist retouched his eyelids.
"There," she said, "You're done."
"Marvellous," said Francis, appearing at Arthur's side in a waft of his familiar cologne, "Maybe we can move it to the lounge then? Here, Arthur, a crown. It's light."
"What colour?" asked Arthur.
"It's silver. With lovely onyx stones set in."
He felt Francis set a circlet upon his head, letting strands of his hair fall artfully across Arthur's face. Then there was the familiar sensation of Francis' hand at Arthur's elbow as he led him across the cluttered dressing room and to the door.
"Shooting in five!" he said, "Alfred, tell Helen if that strip of hair is not gelled down I shall cut it off myself."
"What?" Alfred cried, sounding horrified at the every thought, "No, man! Don't cut off my hair!"
Lovi cackled with laughter and Arthur smothered a snigger as they made their way down the hall.
"How are you feeling?" Francis asked, voice low.
"Better than can be expected. It is…perhaps easier that Alfred knows about. My disability. For you to instruct and so forth."
He could almost hear Francis frowning, but the expected rebuke did not come. Instead, he let out a sigh.
"I think you two work well together," he said, after a moment of silence, "it is not to difficult from the usual?"
"We're not exactly interacting," said Arthur, "You need to relax and trust me."
They stopped as Francis pushed opened another door. They barely took two steps into the room when someone slammed into Arthur from the back, making him stumble. If it hadn't been for Francis' hand, suddenly gripping his arm, he probably would have fallen face first.
"Ack! Shit! Sorry!"
"Alfred!" Francis admonished, "You must watch where you are going. You nearly bowled us over!"
"Sorry – oh my god, Arthur are you okay?"
Arthur shook himself free of Francis' with a scowl in his direction.
"I'm fine. Though whatever possessed you to run like a maniac? We're barely a hundred meters away you git."
"I'm just. Um. Coffee?"
Francis sighed again, sounding put upon.
"Yes, yes. Just be more careful next time, please. Now Alfred, take that chair – do you have the quill and papers –"
Arthur heard the mad fluttering of paper being waved about.
" – good. Rest that on the arm of the chair. Arthur…"
Francis took him by the shoulders and steered him across the room, around various lighting equipment and props. When they stopped, he held both of Arthur's hands and placed them gently on something smooth and arched. Arthur could feel grain of wood against his fingertips, chipped in the corners. The back of the seat. He let his hands run over it slowly, carefully, judging its height and shape. It was a large, high backed chair, not unlike a throne, with old thick velvet on the back.
The chair was an easy anchor for Arthur to work around. It faced the camera and thereby Arthur could orient himself around the chair, it's corners and edges ensuring he knew exactly where Francis (and Alfred) was. It made him feel safer.
"You'll be standing behind Alfred, the Empire controlling his prince, oui? Alfred, please sit down. No that quill has no ink. It is not a pen."
"Sorry," said Alfred, and Arthur heard him sit in a flurry of movement. The back of his head brushed Arthur's knuckles, where he was still holding the chair.
"Good. We will go from here. Lights please!"
Though Arthur could not see, he could feel the heat of the lights emanating from the dishes set up around the chair. It was warm against his face, while the rest of the room fell into cool darkness with the click of several buttons.
"Good. Alfred – look here."
Arthur felt Alfred move, tilting his head up. He tilted his own downwards, 'glancing' up beneath his eyelashes. He curled his fingers over the back of the chair so that the large, jewelled rings on his knuckles would be visible.
"Yes! – keep it there – a little less anger, Alfred, and a little more fear. I want to see vulnerability staring back at me through the picture. No don't pout."
"Try widening your eyes," Arthur suggested.
"Um, like this? Wait give me a second."
Alfred did something odd – perhaps he shook his head back and forth rapidly – but when he stilled once more, it was to Francis shouting –
…and the sound of the camera clicking. After a moment though, Alfred started fidgeting again, and Arthur could tell he had been distracted by someone opening the door. Honestly, where did Francis find this boy? Judging from the photographer's sigh of exasperation, he could tell that he himself had gotten distracted from Alfred being distracted.
"Arthur, darker," said Francis, snapping his fingers, "You're disgustingly rich, it's about power: abuse it - "
Alfred turned his head, presumably to look at Arthur. Having had enough, Arthur stopped him mid-turn by holding Alfred's face with both of his hands and turning him back to the camera. He leaned forwards, hair slipping partially over his eyes.
"Do. Not," he hissed, "Look. Away."
Alfred swallowed, hard, and Arthur could feel his eyes widen in surprise, the skin shifting beneath where his fingertips were digging slightly into Alfred's cheekbones. His hair was surprisingly soft.
"Yes, perfect," Francis exclaimed. "Antonio?"
"Here!" someone said, and the door opened once more with a bang.
"Do you still have those black gloves from Louis Vuitton? Give them to me. The black pair, not the brown."
A moment later, Arthur heard the sound of fast approaching footsteps. Francis handed him a pair of thin leather gloves, which he pulled on, fumbling at the silver buckles.
"Go back to what you were doing before. Perhaps turn your face towards Alfred a little more, whisper something. Alfred, hold that, I like it."
Arthur flexed his fingers to make sure the glove fit properly – it was like a second skin, quickly warming to the touch – and he placed a hand back to the chair to orient himself. Letting one elbow rest on the sloping arch of the chair, he placed his hands on either side of Alfred's face, thumbs at his temples and fingers curved, spider like over smooth skin.
Leaning forwards, he turned his head so that his lips were barely brushing Alfred's ear. He felt Alfred's breath hitch in his throat. Arthur lowered his eyes, angling it to where he imagine Alfred's collar to be.
"Remember," he whispered, "Don't look away from the camera."
"Okay," he said, voice barely audible.
They broke for lunch around one, by which time the rain had stopped. They had miniature sandwiches, fruit salad and juice. Arthur had Earl Grey served in bone china – something (the only thing) he requested to be present at any and every photo-shoot he did. Right now, the tea was steaming on a silver tray, which Francis was carrying for him.
There was a chink as the food was set down on a table, Francis nudging him into a chair. Arthur resisted, digging his heels into the carpet.
"I thought you said there was a piano," he said, unable to keep the petulance out of his voice.
Francis let out a huff of amusement.
"Harpsichord," he said, but not after you have eaten. "You barely had breakfast!"
"That's because you cooked it," Arthur muttered without any heat. Reluctantly, he felt for the chair behind him and sat down. There was the gentle rush of tea being poured into a cup, immediately filling the air with the scent of Earl Grey. Arthur felt the tension drain out of his shoulders. He traced the edge of the tray with a finger, deft, light, quick – and picked up the cup.
The other chair squeaked a little as Francis sat down opposite. Arthur paused.
"Do you mind if – I mean, leave once I've finished. I want some time alone before being your mannequin for the rest of the day."
"Alright," said Francis, simply.
They ate in companionable silence.
On hindsight, Arthur should have known that peaceful solitude was too much to ask for with one Alfred Jones around.
The nearest McDonalds was more than 20 minutes drive away – 30 in lunch-time traffic. Alfred looked worriedly over the small buffet table that had been set out in the foyer before adding a few more miniature sandwiches onto his plate. They were tiny. How would anyone be full from eating them?
Balancing a Styrofoam cup of orange juice on the edge of the plate, he set out to look for Arthur. Curiosity was burning in his chest like…like…something that burned. Alfred frowned. Vodka? He was half way up the stairs when he spotted Francis coming the down in the opposite direction.
"Be careful with that," said the photographer casually, nodding towards Alfred's cup, "Someone will have my head if these carpets are stained."
"Don't worry, I have awesome balance," said Alfred, grinning. "Um, you haven't seen Arthur around have you?"
Francis paused, one hand on the wooden banisters. He gave Alfred what seemed like a shrewd once-over.
"He's asked to be left alone for lunch," he said, after a long pause.
Alfred's shoulders drooped. He thought the sandwiches curled a little at the edges in disappointment.
"Oh. Oh, okay."
"Though I'm not sure he's got enough food. So if someone were to check in on him – " Francis made a casual gesture at one of the doors down the hallway, " – well. I certainly had nothing to do with it."
"De rien," said Francis, sounding amused, and continued sedately down the stairs.
Taking the stairs two steps at a time, Alfred almost burst through the door in question… before remembering what happened that morning. He skidded to a halt. Balancing the platter of sandwiches in one hand, he raised the other to knock.
Then he paused, tilting his head to listen. Someone was playing music.
The instrument was unfamiliar at first, and Alfred pressed his ear against the wooden door. It wasn't a piano; but the notes dropped to the floor with the same clarity, sharp and crisp like a breath after the rain. It was a dialogue of two voices spinning slowly towards and then away from each other. It faltered a little, as if hesitant, then resumed. And although Alfred didn't recognise the piece, he was pretty sure it was…Bach? It was quiet affair, barely trickling through the door. The music fitted the manor like two pieces of a puzzle, and Alfred could almost feel the notes sinking into the rich embossed wallpaper lining the walls, each phrase disappearing with a sigh into the thick carpet beneath his shoes.
It only made the curiosity burn brighter in his chest, reigniting something decidedly star-struck which he had managed to squash during the photo shoot. As the last notes slowed to a finish, Alfred held his breath, waiting for the music to continue. It didn't. Instead, Arthur's voice called out, clear and irritated.
"Frog, when I said to leave me alone, I didn't mean stand there and listen like a creep."
Alfred winced. Crap. Arthur probably had bat hearing since he couldn't see. There was nothing for it but to fess up. He turned the door-knob, pushing the door open tentatively.
"Um, it's me," he said. Then stared some more.
Arthur was dressed in what looked like his version of comfortable clothes for lunch – pressed dress pants, white shirt and a dark green sweater with a thin grey tie (whereas Alfred was in his favourite comfy jeans). Alfred spotted a smart grey jacket that had been folded carefully over the back of a wicker chair near the window. But what made him stare the most was Arthur himself, hair haloed in sunlight, sitting straight backed in front of what looked like an elaborately painted piano. His face was turned towards Alfred, and looked unspeakably lovely. Alfred blushed.
"Oh. Indeed," said Arthur, sounding disinterested, turning quickly back towards the keys in front of him.
But now that Alfred knew what he was looking for, he wondered how he had not noticed Arthur's…predicament before. His gaze was vague, green eyes unfocused – as if staring at something over Alfred's shoulder.
"What's that?" Alfred blurted out, pointing at the instrument. Then he realised Arthur probably couldn't tell that he was pointing and stepped forwards to tap the lid. There were intricate paintings on the wood leaves and vines curling downwards towards the three legs. There were even little people walking along what looks like the Thames. "And why are the keys the wrong colour?"
"They're not the wrong colour," said Arthur, huffily, "It's a harpsichord. The keys were painted black to show off the hands."
And Arthur's pale skin did indeed look very nice against the black keys. They were pianist's hands, thin with long tapered fingers. Alfred looked down at his own hands, tanned and rough around the edges from sport and too many summers hunting with his grandfather in the Texas heat. He looked at the short nails, newly cut smooth for the shoot. He quickly tucked his hands into his pockets.
"I never knew you played the pia- um, harpsichord," he said, leaning awkwardly against the instrument. Then, wanting to make sure Arthur Kirkland didn't think he was ignorant, he added, "that was Bach, right?"
Arthur tilted his head in his direction.
"Yes, it was. The Goldenberg variations. I'm afraid I don't know how to play all of them…I'm out of practice."
"I couldn't tell," said Alfred, tone hopeful.
Arthur snorted, turning back to the keys again. He played a quick scale with his right hand; a brilliant flutter of notes. But there was a smile tugging at the edge of his lips, and Alfred counted that one as a victory.
"Do you play the piano then?" asked Arthur, after a moment of silence.
"Nah. Well I had lessons when I was little, but gave up during high school."
Arthur muttered something like kids these days and played a few more bars of something wistful.
"I don't own a piano, so I never have much opportunity to practice," said Arthur, then seemed surprised at his own admission, "It's – it's the violin, mostly."
"Really?" said Alfred, letting out a huff of laughter, "Wow, anything you can't do?"
"See." Arthur replied, dead-pan.
Alfred felt like a stone just dropped into the bottom of his stomach; a horrible queasy rush that made his own gaze dart to Arthur's green, vacant eyes. They were a vivid sort of green, even behind half shuttered lids and long eyelashes. Arthur had really long eyelashes, the colour of wheatgrass like his hair. But Alfred couldn't help staring at Arthur's unfocused eyes, his stomach churning uncomfortably.
"I'm sorry. I just – sorry I didn't mean – like I can only play the guitar you know and I just, you're a model and you've only done like, four editorials or something and now you play this harp thing really well too and I'm just – it's a compliment, I mean I can see and I would probably still lose track of all of these keys – oh shit, sorry I - "
Arthur raised an (thick) eyebrow.
"I was simply teasing," he said, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards, "Do you always talk this much?"
Alfred clamped his own mouth shut, staring Arthur's hands.
"No," he lied, "Yes. Maybe. You and Francis are a bit intimidating you know."
"Intimidating," repeated Arthur, definitely sounding amused now, "Really."
"Yeah," Alfred said, feeling a blush creep slowly up his neck. Then he realised Arthur couldn't see blushes, and instantly felt a little better. He didn't know whether it was because he was now privy to Arthur's secret (holy shit, Arthur Kirkland was blind!) or whether Arthur was simply the sort to warm up to people quickly but Arthur was acting decidedly less of a jerk than he was that first day they met. He wouldn't even look at Alfred, and it made him feel like a rather irritating fly, something to be dismissed with a hand wave.
Well, he knew why Arthur couldn't look him in the eye, but still. Perhaps the poor guy was just shy. Or a recluse. Maybe he just needed to go out more, Alfred thought.
"The rain has stopped!" he said, "Wanna go outside?"
"No," Arthur said, bluntly.
"But it's not raining!" said Alfred, perplexed.
"So I observed. My answer's still no."
"No, Alfred. By all means go run around outside by yourself. Leave me in peace."
"Aw c'mon, don't be such an old man! We've been inside all daaaay," said Alfred. Outside, birds were chirping up a loud chorus on the trees, leaves wet with rain. He could see the flamingos shaking out their feathers.
"I'm not –! …How dare you suggest! – I'm only ," said Arthur, a pissy sort of expression settling across his face, "I'm not here to be your friend."
Alfred pouted. Then remembered that Arthur couldn't see him.
"Well then…can we go not-be-friends outside?"
Arthur whole body seemed to sigh – an exasperated gesture that made him slump a little towards the harpsichord. Alfred wondered if Arthur ever went outside – maybe that's why he was so pale. Then he wondered whether it was terribly dangerous for a blind person to be walking around outside period – Arthur didn't seem to have a guide dog. Or walking stick. Or dark glasses. In fact, you couldn't even tell he was blind unless you knew what you were looking for. What if he got run over while crossing the road?
"Do you have a guide dog?" asked Alfred, worried.
"Wh- no, I don't," said Arthur testily, "I don't need one."
"What if – "
"Just because I'm blind doesn't mean I'm an invalid," said Arthur sharply, turning away so Alfred couldn't see his face.
"I didn't mean that!" said Alfred in dismay.
"If you don't mind, I want to keep playing."
Alfred bit his lip.
"Can I stay and listen then?"
Arthur frowned, making his (rather large) eyebrows draw together.
"I suppose you may," he said at last.
"Awesome," said Alfred, grinning, sitting himself down beside Arthur on the long piano bench, "Shuffle over!"
"You -!" said Arthur. He deflated quickly in the face of Alfred's awesomeness. "Fine," he said, "But don't get in the way of that octave or you can sit on the ground."
"I can play the bits you can't reach and - "
Shaking back his sleeves, Arthur placed his hands back to the keys. Alfred watched curiously as Arthur felt for the indent of the lock at the lip of the piano, then traced upwards to middle C in a quick, deft movement that spoke of years of repetition. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
Up close, with their shoulders and knees touching, Arthur smelled like tea and something woody.
The sound of Bach wound its way slowly around their shoulders as they sat, not-being-friends.
On the other side of the door left ajar, Francis smiled to himself.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is part of a collaboration between the lovely artist Abhauen and myself; you may know this as her blindchild!au. Sorry this chapter is so long and boring! There is a lot to cover. The next chapter will have more backstory, how Arthur came to modelling and so forth and it should be updated in the next fortnight. Please visit my tumblr for more updates, ficklest and art <3 much love!
PS: it's also my first Hetalia fic, so with the AU context in mind, I hope I have done an alright job with characterisation! Crit is much appreciated!