fishwrites (fishwrites) wrote,
fishwrites
fishwrites

fic: A Photograph of the Artist as a Young Man - 2A

Title: A Photograph of the Artist as a Young Man - Chapter 2A
Author: fishwrites
Artist: Abhauen (the story to her blindchild!au)
Wordcount: ~8.5K
Pairing(s): Arthur/Alfred
Rating: PG for language (this part)

Summary: Rising fashion model Alfred Jones is cast along side the famous but reclusive Arthur Kirkland for a GQ UK editorial. He quickly discovers that the fashion world's new golden child is actually blind. (A story of high fashion, of cats in the snow, of brothers and violins. A story of being in love and being blind. A story of an artist and his photographs.)

Part 1A | Part 1B | Part 2A | Part 2B |



:i:
{| TWO |}

:i:

"Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear

and the blind can see."

– Mark Twain

:i:

London, 4 years ago.

That day, it was raining.

After three and a half hours on his feet, Arthur paused in the kitchen and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. Even with the closed door, he could still hear the chatter and bustle of the teahouse as the rain pounded the roof in an endless, thunderous roar. Sighing, he uncapped his water bottle and took a long gulp. Checking his watch, he noted that he had another half hour to go before his shift finished. Capping the bottle, he stuffed it back in his school bag before pushing open the 'staff only' door and emerging behind the counter. As soon as he appeared, Lucy, one of the other girls working this shift, spotted him.

"Arthur!" she called, stuffing a tray into his hands. "Can you run this to table fifteen for me? I've got to take the scones out."

"Of course," said Arthur, trying to balance the tray and re-tie the laces of his apron, which had somehow managed to get undone. Pushing past the swinging wooden door that separated the counter and the rest of the shop, he quickly spotted the wooden '15' on one of the tables near the window and hurried over.

"Earl grey and strawberry tartlet for you, ma'am?" he asked, the words rolling off his tongue from months of repetition. The old lady at the table gave him a delighted smile. She was wearing a voluptuous hat – Arthur couldn't figure out whether there were any live birds in between all the floral decorations.

"Well aren't you just a charming lad?" she said, voice warbling as she fumbled with her purse. Arthur set the cup, saucer and plate down, along with the spoons. The lady slipped a five-pound note onto the tray as Arthur straightened up.

"Go buy yourself something nice, to ward off this horrible weather, poppet," she said, smiling. Arthur smiled back, tucking the money into his pocket.

"It is rather wet," he said, "Don't hesitate to call if you need anything else, ma'am."

The lady tittered, and waved him away. Following the scent of freshly made tea, Arthur made his way back to the counter. He wiped the tray down with a smooth, practiced motion and stacked it with the rest. Rolling his sleeves up more securely, he got to work, sighing a little at the influx of patrons who had obviously ducked into the shop to avoid the pounding rain outside. Lovely. It didn't look like the crowd was going to thin out any time soon, thanks to the weather. That meant Arthur was probably going to be running off his feet until the very end of the shift. Awesome.

It wasn't that Arthur hated his job. He held two, in addition to class – tutoring English and History around the schedule of his part time job at the Royal Tea House. And the pay wasn't bad, as far as jobs went, especially since he got to surround himself with the scent of tea and freshly made scones most of the time. Washing duty was a little less pleasant.

Despite being called the Royal Tea House, they also served coffee for those who were stupid enough to drink it. Arthur glared at the cup in his hands as he poured out a careful measure of cappuccino. Setting the silver jug back on the table, he grabbed a clear bottle and sprinkled soft chocolate dusting over the top of the foam. There. Perfect as something that was not tea could be.

Arthur never drank coffee. Though the scent of it was alright, he supposed. Readying the napkin and spoon, he passed the tray to the runner and returned to making the next order.

It was still raining half an hour later when Arthur hung his apron from the hook in the cramped staff room and shrugged his school blazer back on. Digging around the bottom of his bag, he pulled out his trusty collapsible umbrella.

"See you tomorrow," he said. Lucy pouted at him from where she was cutting a cake into thin, even slices.

"You're off?"

"Yeah," said Arthur, "My brother's picking me up."

"Jealous," said Lucy, "Your brother's hot."

"He's nearly a decade older than you, Luce," said Arthur, rolling his eyes.

"Whatever," said Lucy, waving a hand, "Have a good birthday!"

"Thanks," said Arthur, grinning despite himself, "Ta."

Closing the staff door, he made his way out of the back of the tea house. Unfurling his umbrella, Arthur jumped over a particularly large puddle only to accidently step in another.

"Bloody hell," he cursed.

The rain was torrential, dripping in a steady stream off the edge of his umbrella. At this rate, his bag was going to get wet. He quickly made his way around the side alley and onto the main sidewalk. Ducking under the awning, which stretched in front of the tea house, Arthur scanned the roads for a sign of his brother's car. A glance at his watch told him that his brother was five minutes late. Arthur frowned. Cars zoomed past, throwing up water where it had flooded the shallow gutters.

Ten minutes later, he spotted his brother's beat up car. It honked at him, double parking right outside the tea house. A taxi driver made a rude gesture as he swerved past, and Arthur smirked as his brother made an even ruder gesture in return. Snapping his umbrella closed, he wrenched open the car door and flung himself inside.

"Hey Iuan," he said, stuffing the bag in front of his seat. Iuan leant over, ruffling Arthur's hair with one hand while pulling quickly back into traffic with the other.

"Hey shortie," said Iuan, "Happy 17th! How was school?"

"The same," said Arthur, pulling his seat belt on. He glanced at his brother. "Iuan! How many times do I have to tell you to put your damn seat belt on?"

His brother only laughed and rolled his eyes.

"Yooo-wannn," he said, in a poor imitation of Arthur (in Arthur's opinion), "You're turning seventeen, not seventy. Seriously, you need to stop acting like such an old man, Artie."

"I don't act like an old man!" Arthur protested, crossing his arms, "You're just terribly immature."

"Aww. But I'm still taller than you."

"You're older!"

"Yes. I often wonder when your legs are going to be able to reach the pedals. Maybe this year, aye?"

Arthur scowled the rain that was obscuring the windscreen.

"If you weren't driving, I would punch you in the face. Put your stupid seatbelt on."

"Aye, mother."

His brother made no move towards his seatbelt.

"Iuan!"

Iuan laughed uproariously. It quickly petered off though, as they turned right into another grey street painted dark with rain. Arthur fiddled with the old radio, but after a few minutes of static, gave up and sank back into his seat. The green digital clock beside the dash read 19:40.

"I hope we won't be late for the film," said Arthur, drawing the outline of the union jack on the window. The condensation dripped until the flag was almost unrecognisable. "Are we dropping by home first? I really want to change out of these clothes. And my hair is wet."

There was a long pause, broken only by the sound of the windscreen wipers struggling to clear the rain. His brother's silence made Arthur look around.

"Iuan?"

Iuan had a strange expression on his face. It looked almost guilty.

"Could we see it another day, maybe?" his brother asked at long last.

Arthur felt a stone drop to the bottom of his stomach.

"What? Why?" he demanded, sitting up, "You don't have work tonight! I booked the tickets weeks ago!"

Iuan didn't look at him, instead drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

"I've got to pick up an extra shift at the garage, they only told me yesterday – I tried to get around it but they're laying off some guys at the end of the month and it's really important that I keep the job what with the bills as it is. We can celebrate your birthday tomorrow instead – we'll even go out for dinner at that sushi place you like so much. Yeah?"

Arthur looked at his hands.

There was an inexplicable lump in his throat.

"Fine," he managed to say, the word lodging itself painfully in his mouth, refusing to be spoken clearly.

He caught Iuan giving him a concerned look.

"Fine?" his brother repeated.

Arthur shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. He probably failed miserably.

"Yes, fine."

"I've…um, I've got your present at home. You can still open that tonight."

"If there's a chance that you'll lose your job then you shouldn't have wasted money on a present," said Arthur. It came out sharper than it was meant to, and he bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from saying anything else. But the damage was done.

A flash of hurt crossed Iuan's face, to be replaced to irritation. His eyebrows – as thick as Arthur's own – knotted together.

"Look I'm sorry we can't go to the movies, but you know how important the money from the garage is, I can't afford - we can't afford to - "

"I said it was fine!" snapped Arthur, turning his face away.

"Well you don't sound it," said Iuan, glaring at his little brother across the seat.

Arthur could see Iuan's face in the left wing mirror, red hair a blur of colour due to the rain blotting the window. His own face was pale and translucent in the glass, staring back at himself. He turned his gaze away.

"Well, maybe I'm not!" Arthur retorted, disappointment welling up inside him like a wave, clogging his lungs so he could hardly breathe. He had been looking forward to this for weeks – months, even. And now… "We hardly spend anytime together anymore. I see you when you get home and that's it. Maybe I just thought it wouldn't be a big ask to watchone goddamn film with my brother on my birthday - !"

"It's not my fault that they changed my shift," Iuan replied hotly. The car made a worrying sound as they accelerated, but neither Kirkland paid it any mind, "I tried, Arthur, alright?"

Arthur didn't answer. He watched the buildings race by, their outlines distorted by the water on the window-pane.

"Maybe Francis can go with you instead," Iuan suggested after a long, strained silence.

Arthur didn't answer.

"Artie?"

"I don't want to watch the film anymore," he said quietly. The blue-white shop front of Francis' favourite patisserie ran like watercolour down a canvas as they drove past. A swipe of the paintbrush and it was gone, giving way to road and grey concrete. Even the people were grey beneath that black umbrellas.

"But haven't you already bought the tickets?"

Arthur glared at his own reflection. It was an ugly, pointed thing, which he disliked with a passion.

"Well I suppose they'll just have to go to waste, won't they?" he said, unable to keep the twist out of his voice. He understood the situation – of course he did, he was the one sorting through the bills every month, scraping together the rent – but the disappointment was too bitter, too heavy in his chest for him to ignore right now. He felt childish…but also terribly, terribly let down.

"Can you stop making this so difficult?" said Iuan, sounding thoroughly pissed off now, "I said I was sorry!"

The traffic lights were blurred halos, the red shining brightly, like dropped candy in a puddle. They drove past the traffic light. The car didn't stop.

"Iuan - "

"I know we didn't get to celebrate your birthday last year either but it's not – "

"IUAN!"

There was a terrible, screeching sound of tyres and metal scraping. A jerking sensation as Arthur was thrown against his seat belt, all the air leaving his lungs in a rushing gasp.

There was a blinding flash of pain at the back of his head. The sound of someone screaming –

– then nothing.

:i:

London, 6 weeks later.

:i:

Arthur woke to the sound of rain pounding against the window. It rattled like the breath in his lungs, almost drowning out the steady beep, beep, beep of an electronic heart. It was a long moment before Arthur realised the sound mirrored the pulse on his wrist.

The room was pitch black. He couldn't see anything at all, not even a sliver of light between curtains or beneath a door. He blinked, deliberately – and the sensation assured him that his eyes were not closed.

Arthur tried to move, but everything was sluggish and slow. His left leg was immobile. He could feel the rough cotton of hospital sheets beneath the palm of his hands, the scent of starch when he turned his face towards his pillow.

He heard a crashing sound from somewhere beyond a door – a woman's muffled exclamation. And suddenly, his memory flooded back to him in a rush and he tried to sit up.

The beeping sound grew frantic, but there was something blocking his mouth, he couldn'tspeak.

Then warm hands at his shoulders, a familiar voice saying shhh, shhh mon lapin, Arthur it's me, shhh now.

"Francis?" he managed to croak out. The word slipped reluctantly past his throat. It was dry and tasted like sandpaper. "Francis?"

"Yes, it's me," he said, sounding very close. The hand at his elbow disappeared for a moment, only to return, grasping Arthur's left hand. Arthur tightened his grip, anchoring himself.

"I think he can breathe unaided – give me a moment," someone said, a stranger – the doctor? Why was it so dark? "Mister Bonnefoy, I must ask that you step back for a moment…"

"Of course," said Francis, letting go and disappearing into the blackness. Arthur's hand suddenly felt very empty and very cold. He curled his fingers towards his palm, blinking hard.

A moment later, whatever was obstructing his nose and mouth was lifted away, and he took a gasping breath, coughing a little. He felt someone steady his head, felt the edge of a plastic cup at his lips. He took a gulp, the cold water slithering all the way down to his empty stomach to slosh loudly. There were a million questions on his mind.

"Why is it so dark?" he asked, voice still a little hoarse. A shiver of fear rose, unbidden, inside him and he reached out to the left, hands uncertain in the pitch blackness. "…Francis? Where - "

The sound of footsteps and suddenly there was a pair of hands clutching his own.

"I'm right here, I'm right here."

"I can't see," said Arthur, plaintively, "Why is so dark?"

There was a long moment of silence, punctuated only by the steady sound of machines in the background.

"What do you remember, Arthur?" Francis asked at last. His thumb was drawing a soothing circle on the back of Arthur's hand, over and over. It was a hypnotic sensation.

"Car crash," said Arthur promptly, turning his face to where he thought Francis' voice was coming from, "Car…where's Iuan?"

"The damage to the optic nerves by blunt trauma is quite severe," said the doctor, his disembodied voice forming from somewhere near Arthur's right foot, "I'm afraid we couldn't do much in surgery."

Dread felt like ice, cold and heavy in Arthur's stomach.

"Where's Iuan?"

"Mr. Kirkland – "

Arthur gripped Francis' hand.

"Francis. Francis, turn on the lights please."

"Arthur, mon cher, listen to the good doctor – "

"I want Iuan," he said, shaking his head, "And lights. Someone turn on the bloody lights!"

"Mr. Kirkland!" interrupted the doctor, sounding tired, "the lights are on. I'm afraid you have suffered extensive damage to your optical nerves. We…couldn't do anything more for your eyes."

Arthur could hear himself breathing. The sound was loud in a sightless world, filling his ears with a buzzing rush of static. He touched his own face with one shaking hand, to assure himself that his eyes were indeed open and this was not some…some joke. He took a deep breath, trying to keep the panic at bay. He swallowed, wetting his lips before speaking.

"…is it permanent?" he asked.

Francis was still stroking his left hand.

"At this point…there is very little we can do," said the doctor. The click of a pen and rustle of clothing. Arthur closed his eyes and pretended that it was night-time. It made the darkness a little more bearable, at least for now.

Blind.

He took another breath, then let it out slowly. Did anesthetic always smell this strongly? Perhaps it was just this particular hospital room.

"Arthur?" said Francis, gently.

"Don't," said Arthur, warningly. Then, "I want Iuan."

"Mr. Kirkland – " the doctor began, but then stopped abruptly.

There was a pause, the silence heavy with things Arthur couldn't see. Blind. He wondered why he wasn't feeling more shocked. He wondered why he was so calm. He wondered why it was Francis sitting beside his bed rather than his brother.

"I think it best if I tell him," said Francis at long last.

"Tell me what?" Arthur demanded, something cold gripping once more. He felt sick, "Francis?"

Dimly, he heard the door opening and closing, the messy sound of footsteps. He tightened his grip on Francis' hand, just in case the latter tried to walk away. Unbidden, he opened his eyes.

Everything was still pitch black.

"I. Want. Iuan," Arthur repeated.

A sigh.

"Arthur. Arthur you've been unconscious for almost a month."

His eyes widened.

It was a strange sensation, having eyes but no colour. No light. No sense that time had flown by, leaving Arthur a little lost and a little breathless.

"I don't - "

"You didn't wake up," said Francis, voice breaking at on the last syllable, "They had to go ahead with the surgery. And even after that, you were – we – I had started to think that maybe – "

"Francis," said Arthur, unable to ignore the dread any longer, "Where's Iuan?"

And although Arthur couldn't see Francis' face, he felt the fingers grow still against his own. There was so much silence he thought he was going to drown in it. Then, quietly:

"Your brother's not here anymore."

:i:

:i:

Francis took Arthur home from the hospital three days later. Back to Arthur's flat, not Francis' own because the doctor had said Arthur needed familiar things to help him through this transitional period. To help him acclimatize to being blind. The thought pierced his heart as sharply as it did a month ago, when the doctor had first told them the bad news.

"Do you want anything in particular for dinner?" asked Francis, in an attempt clear the silence which was suffocating the car. Arthur had not said a single word since yesterday – not even to protest at being made to sit in a wheelchair.

Francis glanced in his rear-view mirror. Arthur had his face turned to the window, forehead resting on the glass. His eyes were closed, but Francis didn't know if he was sleeping or not. There was a little patch of fogged glass from puffs of breath, and Francis listened to him breathe.

"Perhaps something to wash out that 'orrible hospital food from the last few days, mm?"

No answer.

"Arthur?"

Out of the corner of his eyes, Francis saw Arthur frown, a little furrow appearing between his eyebrows. He looked a little too pale in the late afternoon sun, and Francis thought back to that small, white hospital room, and the boy he has come to regard as his own little brother. He suppressed a sigh and turned the corner.

A little while later, they pulled into a small parking lot wedged between tall apartment buildings made of old red brick. It was almost dark – and many of the windows were lit yellow in the early evening shadows. Francis pulled into the space marked '19' – where Iuan's car usually sat. He cut the engine, and the abrupt silence was deafening. Undoing his seat belt, Francis turned around. Arthur still had not moved from where he was resting against the window, arms wrapped around himself.

"Mon lapin," said Francis, gently, "We're here."

No response.

He reached forward to shake Arthur's shoulder – but his hand had barely made contact before Arthur flinched violently, jerking himself back and knocking his head hard against the window. His eyes were wide with alarm, pupils darting sightlessly. Francis did not move.

After a long moment, Arthur seemed to relax a little, exhaling slowly.

"Give me some bloody warning next time," he said, voice hoarse.

"I'm sorry," said Francis.

Arthur fumbled for the door handle of the car, and before Francis could say anything else, pushing himself out of the car. He stumbled a little, one hand on the car door to steady his bad leg. He had broken it badly in the accident, and although it had healed over the past month, being comatose in a hospital bed meant that Arthur had long weeks of physical therapy ahead of him.

And hence really should not be walking around right now.

"Oh really – Arthur, wait until I unpack the chair!" said Francis, hurrying around the car.

"I don't need it," said Arthur, stubbornness peeking through as he let go of the car and made his way hesitantly towards the side entrance. He had his hand held out in front of him, testing the air, a look of concentration and vulnerability on his face. Francis had never seen it there before; the younger Kirkland usually wrapped himself up in a fierce scowl, a shield against everything in the world.

Then he stumbled over an uneven crack in the concrete and nearly went sprawling. Francis grabbed his arm just in time.

"Yes, yes you certainly do."

Arthur shook Francis' hand off his arm angrily.

"Piss off," he said, gritting his teeth, "What are you still doing here? Just give me my bags and I'll be fine."

Popping the boot, Francis hauled the collapsible wheelchair out, unfolding it with a snap and setting it on the ground. Then he took advantage of Arthur's disorientation to take him firmly by the shoulders and shove him into the chair. Arthur hissed like a cat doused with water, one arm swinging up and nearly clocking Francis in the face.

"Bugger off!" he shouted, trying to rise from his seat. Francis buckled him in. "Leave me alone!"

"Arthur, please," said Francis, dodging another flailing fist, "If nothing else…indulge me."

Arthur stilled, sitting straight backed and stiff in the canvas seat. Then he scrunched up his nose.

A moment later, Francis found out why when a fat drop of rain landed on his face.

"Merde," he cursed, pulling both their bags out of the boot and swinging them over his shoulder.

"Indeed," said Arthur, deadpan.

The rain started to beat a steady rhythm on the roof of the car, and Francis quickly took hold of the wheel chair handles, wheeling them both towards the door. A moment searching for the appropriate keys later, they were inside the dimly lit lobby with its grimy windows and half dead plot plant sitting near the elevator doors.

Carding his damp hair back with his fingers, Francis jabbed the 'up' button for the lift and wheeled Arthur in when it arrived with a rattle and a cough.

"This lift is going to break down one day with us inside it," Francis grumbled, watching the numbers light up above the doors. 3, 4, 5…

"How many times have you said that?" said Arthur, rolling his eyes.

"Well, it's true. You wait and see."

"No I won't," said Arthur.

A pause.

"Arthur – you know if you need – "

"I don't need anything from you," Arthur interrupted sharply. The lift chimed to a stop on the seventh floor and Francis pushed the chair out. There was a tiny space separating doors 18 and 19. There was a wooden shoe-rack there, as well as a battered umbrella stand. Unlocking the door, Francis wheeled Arthur into his flat without another word, past the kitchen and into the living area. Arthur undid the buckle and pushed himself out of the chair.

"Look," Francis started, but Arthur ignored him, taking a few steps until his knee hit the sofa.

Francis watched as Arthur laid both hands on it, head turning slowly as he tried to work out where he was in the room. He trailed his hands down the chair, feeling for the table next to it. Slowly, slowly, he made his way to the wall and Francis saw the way his shoulders relaxed a little when his hands found the wallpaper. He made his way forwards this time, one hand on the wall – and Francis wasn't quite quick enough to intervene when Arthur's hand caught on the edge of a framed photograph and it came crashing to the floor in a resounding shatter of splintering glass.

"Mon Deiu!" Francis exclaimed, as Arthur cringed, dismay washing over his face to be quickly replaced by an embarrassed blush. He dropped to his knees, hands patting the ground before him, scrabbling for the edges of the frame.

Francis had had enough.

"Arthur, stop it. Arthur you'll just hurt yourself," he said, pulling at Arthur's arm and dragging him upright, "Why don't you take a nap while I make some dinner for the both of us, mm? Then we can both get some sleep."

"Where do you think you'll be sleeping?"

"Well," Francis hesitated, "I can use Iu- the other room, perhaps. Come on; tell big brother Francis what you would like for dinner."

But something in Arthur seemed to crack, like the glass on the carpet. He pushed Francis away, hard, face contorting with anger.

"Stop – I don't need – why won't you just leave me alone?" his voice rose to a shout on the last word, hands clenched at his sides.

"Mon cher, I'm only trying to help," Francis pleaded, exasperation clawing up his throat along with the exhaustion of the last few days. Weeks. Months. It felt like it had only been yesterday.

"No. No," Arthur shouted, "I don't need your help! I don't want it! I'm not a fucking invalid, I – I don't – "

His breathing was becoming erratic, shallow like a bird caught in a trap. His eyes darted around the room, blindly, chest heaving. Francis dared not move, heart clenching painfully in his own chest.

"Stop staring at me!" Arthur screamed, his hands coming up in an aborted gesture, "I'm not…

Who the fuck said you could sleep in Iuan's room? Where's he going to sleep? Where's he going to sleep if you're – I don't – "

Tears were welling up at the corner of Arthur's eyes and he rubbed them away furiously, face twisted with grief.

"Arthur…" said Francis.

"Get out," said Arthur, voice breaking with hysteria, "Get out get out get out get out - !"

Francis pulled the younger Kirkland into his arms, holding him in a tight embrace. Arthur snarled and kicked at his shins, but Francis didn't let go, running one hand up and down Arthur's back as the latter punched him in the stomach.

"Shhh," said Francis, "I'll sleep on the couch. Whatever you like. Hush now."

"LEAVE ME ALONE," Arthur screamed, hands fisted in Francis' jacket. Then, instead of pushing him away, Arthur was clinging to Francis like a child in a thunderstorm, his sobs wracking his entire frame, his voice growing hoarse as he cried.

Eventually, the sobs faded until they were barely audible, muffled by Francis' now damp clothes. Arthur's breathing evening out; exhausted.

They stood there; Arthur slumped in Francis' arms. His hair was tousled and damp from the rain. It probably needed to be washed soon.

He didn't know how long they stood there, but later, Francis managed to carry Arthur to his room. He pulled off Arthur's jacket and shoes, before tucking him into bed. He closed the door to the bedroom quietly, so as not to wake him. In the aftermath, Francis surveyed the living room, now quiet as the night outside. He carefully picked up the broken picture frame, shaking free any loose shards of glass. The photograph was still intact, and thankfully not scratched.

It was a black and white photograph of the two Kirkland brothers. Francis actually remembered taking it two years ago, on a summer visit to the beach. Iuan had one arm slung around his younger brother's shoulder, grinning manically at the camera while Arthur looked thoroughly unimpressed. There were a few freckles on his nose from the sun. In the background, a dog was running after a tennis ball – a frozen blur on the film.

Gently, Francis set the frame on the coffee table sinking into the empty armchair next to it. The clock on the wall ticked incessantly, unrelentingly, counting the minutes to something, somewhere. He wondered why it hadn't stopped.

Francis buried his face in his hands.

:i:

It's strange how your home becomes a stranger's house; familiar things stripped away like Arthur's sight.

To be honest, it wasn't even really a house.

Iuan had bought it when they first moved out of their cousin's place with most of their savings and everything that was in their pockets. It was a small, two bedroomed flat; cramped but cozy. It had a collection of mismatched furniture they had picked out over the years – a squashy armchair that only smelt a little like fur-balls, two tall bookshelves lining the living room wall and a tea table (neither brother drank coffee.) There was a heavy black music stand in the corner, and Arthur could still remember finding it in an old antique store and buying it for his brother's 20th birthday. There was a tiny kitchen with a rumbling fridge taking up most of the space. Their parent's set of china was proudly displayed in the glass cabinet above the sink. A union-jack welcome mat sat in front of the door, the colours faded with use. Arthur had wanted to get a new one…but now, he supposed it didn't matter since he couldn't see it anymore.

There was a second hand IKEA dining table with matching chairs for the two of them.

Now he only needed one.

:i:

Dallas, Texas, 9 years ago.

Alfred woke his brother up by jumping on his bed – which, if he did say so himself, was a no mean feat since Mattie slept on the top bunk. Alfred stilled, for a moment, to mull over just how unfair it was that Mathew always got the top bunk, before resuming his bouncing.

"WAKE UP," he said, pulling the duvet off his brother in a flourish. "Come on, come on it's morrrrnnningggg."

"Ughh," said Matthew, burying his face back into his pillow.

"Don't you want to open the presents?" said Alfred, pushing at his brother's shoulder insistently. "Grandma said she was making pancakes. COME ON MATTIE, gosh you're so slow, jeez come on or I'll eat them without you!"

"Wha'time is it?" his brother mumbled.

"SIX AYE-EM," Alfred announced, pulling at Kuma's legs to try to dislodge him from Mathew's grip. Matthew held on tighter. Alfred pulled harder. Matthew gripped Kuma with both arms, pulling in the opposite direction.

Alfred let go and Matthew, caught by surprise, shot backwards until his head hit the edge of the bunk bed with a rattling clang.

"OWW," cried Matthew, sitting up and rubbing the back of his head. His giant t-shirt, which he always wore to bed, displayed an enormous Canadian maple leaf in the middle. Alfred himself was wearing a Captain America t-shirt (much more badass than any leaf). "That hurt!"

"At least you're awake now," said Alfred unapologetically, "and we can go open our presents!"

"Al, grandma's probably not even awake yet…" said Matthew, still rubbing at the back of his head with a pout on his face.

"She totally isssss," said Alfred, pulling at his twin. "Come on I want to find out what my present is. And grandpa said we can go shoot pheasants now that we're TEN!"

Matthew winced at Alfred's loud voice. He was sure every single pheasant within a five mile radius had probably heard that and was now running for cover. And the thought of his twin with any sort of firearm was just…horrifying. Matthew shivered.

"Fine. I'm up anyway now, thanks to you."

"Yay!" exclaimed Alfred, giving the poor mattress one last bounce, then sliding to the edge of the bed and jumping straight to the ground with a loud thump.

"Oh my god Al!" cried Matthew, scooting to the edge of his bed and peering over. Alfred was on the ground, where he had not quite managed to land on his feet. "Are you okay? Why don't you ever use the ladder?"

Alfred jumped to his feet.

"I'm fine! Only scaredy-cats use ladders Mattie! Heroes never use ladders!"

And with that, Al ran out of the room, his footsteps thundering through the house. A moment later, Matthew heard a distant exclamation of 'GRANDMAAAAA!' and an answering laugh. Sighing, he pulled on a hoodie, changed into jeans and made his way to the kitchen.

True to Al's word, there was indeed a stack of pancakes sitting on the breakfast counter.

"Matthew, honey!" exclaimed his grandmother. "You're up – happy birthday, sweetheart!"

And the next moment, Matthew had been swept up into a huge, floury hug. Grandma smelt like maple syrup, batter, and sugar, and Matthew hugged back tightly.

"Thanks Grandma," he said, smiling so hard his face soon began to ache.

" 'ese'r'soooo'ood," said Alfred. He was perched on one of the tall stools, a plate of pancakes in front of him. Both the pancakes and his mouth were covered in maple syrup.

"Don't talk with your mouth full, dear," said Grandma, wiping at Alfred's mouth with the corner of a tissue. Matthew climbed onto the stool next to his twin and was rewarded with his own plate of towering pancakes. His grandmother placed a bottle of home-made maple syrup beside him.

"Here you go. Don't drown them now!"

Matthew blushed.

They ate their breakfast in relative silence (the pancakes were delicious as usual), while the cicadas chirped up a storm outside. Sunlight was streaming into the house in earnest now, washing the wooden paneling in gold and amber. Everything smelt of summer and sticky sweet syrup. Grandma was drinking coffee (which Matthew found too bitter) across the table, a glossy magazine open at her elbow. Matthew poured another careful dollop of maple syrup across his breakfast. He loved staying with his grandparents – he was allowed maple syrup with every meal.

Predictably, Alfred finished first.

"Where's Grandpa?" he asked, downing the glass of orange juice his grandma handed him. Matthew gave his twin a disapproving look when he finished the entire thing in one go.

"Out with the horses," said Grandma, taking Alfred's empty plate to the sink. "You two should go find him when you're finished. Actually, I'll come with you and take this out." She set a large, glass jug of iced lemonade on the countertop, along with a stack of cups.

Alfred immediately turned to his brother.

"Hurry up!" he said, eyes darting to Matthew's half full plate and back again. Matthew tensed in apprehension and as soon as his brother's hand moved, he shifted his plate further down the table, out of reach. Alfred pouted.

"You've had your own," said Matthew, eating a little faster.

Alfred pouted some more.

By the time Matthew had finished his breakfast, Alfred had also polished off two glasses of lemonade and a banana. Grandma dropped the last few ice-cubes into the newly topped-off jug and handed it to Matthew. Alfred was bouncing on the balls of his feet, a stack of plastic cups in his hands.

"Come on then," said Grandma, dropping hats onto their heads and donning on a sunhat herself.

"Yessss," said Alfred and ran out the door.

Alfred was a firm believer in running. And jumping. And baseball and swimming in the pool in summer. Even though Mattie was three days older (three whole days!) than he was, it didn't mean Alfred was going to be smaller twin. No sir. Even now he was a little bit taller than his brother – if you counted the highest point of Alfred's hair.

The ranch was a wide, sprawling thing, overlooking a large piece of farmland yellow with the hot Texas sunshine. His grandparents owned a stable full of horses, which were in the paddock around the back of the house, past the row of tall apple trees, which dropped small, but sweet apples after a thunderstorm.

Alfred liked climbing trees.

"GRAAAAAAAAAAANDPAAAA," called Alfred, spotting a figure emerging from the wooden stables, a hat in one hand and a red bucket in the other. Putting on an extra spurt of speed, Alfred sprinted across the paddock. Grandpa made an ooof noise as Alfred gave him a running-leap hug.

"Hey, buddy!" said Grandpa, giving Alfred a giant bear hug. Alfred grinned into grandpa's flannel shirt. He smelt like dry hay, horses, and old leather. It was a nice smell.

"Al, you dropped the cups!" came Matthew's disapproving voice once he had caught up. Alfred turned around, shrugging.

"It's only grass," he said, picking up the dropped plastic cups and stacking them back together.

"Hello grandpa," said Matthew – squeaking when he got his own bear hug.

"Grandma made lemonade!" Alfred announced, as his grandmother came within hearing distance – bearing the jug. Alfred thrust out the cups and grandpa chuckled, ruffling Alfred's hair.

"Do you boys want your birthday present first…or lemonade first?" asked grandpa, a twinkle in his eyes.

Alfred dropped the cups again in his excitement.

"PRESENTS?" he exclaimed.

Matthew winced, picking the cups off the grass.

"But Grandpa has been out all morning…" he protested. Grandpa laughed, kissing Matthew on the cheek.

"It won't take long. Don't think your brother will be able to wait."

"Where is it is it big what is it is it a – " Alfred latched onto his grandmother, "Grandma Grandma do you know tell me telllllllll - "

"Come on, it's over here," said Grandpa, hoisting Matthew up on his hips (even though they were ten – Alfred thought his twin was such a baby sometimes) and holding out his hand. Alfred latched onto him, and they made their way into the dusty stables. Anticipation bubbled up inside Alfred like Coke in a bottle. Alfred paused – Coke: yum.

Most of the horses were out grazing in the lower paddock – they were all very tall and very large and Grandma didn't let Alfred or Matthew near them. Alfred couldn't wait until he was big enough to ride a horse – which was yet another reason to grow up faster. Matthew liked reading about horses…but always remained on the back veranda whenever Grandpa led Delaware over for them to pat.

"Why's Dela inside, Grandpa?" asked Alfred, peering over the top of a stall where the black horse was standing, pawing at the ground. At the sound of Alfred's voice the horse lowered its head over the stall door. Alfred rubbed the white star on Delaware's nose and giggled when the horse blew hay fluff into Alfred's hair. Matthew surveyed them warily.

"'ere she is – Alfie!"

Giving Delaware one last pat, Alfred followed his grandpa to the end of the stables, where there was a wider stall. The door was open, and Matthew and Alfred simply stood there.

Inside the stall, there were two small horses. They both had had dark brown coats with white socks – though one had a long stripe of light brown down its nose, while the other had a splotch on its forehead.

The horses stared at the twins.

The twins stared back.

"Happy birthday, boys!" said grandpa, grinning from ear to ear.

"HORSIE," Alfred gave a whoop of joy. One of the horses looked distinctly taken aback, whinnying a little, flicking its ears back. Alfred tugged on his grandpa's sleeve.

"What are their names?"

"We thought we'd let you name them – they're yours, after all!" said Grandpa, giving Matthew a little push into the stall. Alfred needed no such encouragement, walking straight up to the horse on the right and throwing his arms around its neck.

"Are they girls or boys?" asked Matthew, taking a tentative step forwards.

"That one's a girl," said Grandpa, pointing at Alfred and the horse he was hugging, "and your one's a boy."

"I'm gonna call mine Liberty," said Alfred decisively. "Lady Liberty because she has a crown on her head, see?"

And he could tell that Liberty liked her name because she drooled all over the back of his t-shirt.

"They're twins, too," said grandma, leaning against the neighbouring stall, jug still in hand. She was smiling as well. "You boys were in school, but Dela down there gave birth to twins in spring. Now you boys match! Isn't that sweet?"

"Um," said Matthew, who was engaged in what seemed to be a staring contest with his horse.

"Whatcha gonna name him?" asked Grandpa, crouching down so he was the same height as Matthew. The staring contest continued. Then:

"Kumajirou," said Matt.

Alfred, who was giving Liberty a tummy rub, paused.

"Kuma-what?" he said. "That's a stupid name!"

"No it's not!" protested Matthew.

"What does it even mean? It's so weird."

"It's not!" said Matthew again, sounding upset.

"Now, Mattie can give his horse whatever name he likes, eh?" said Grandpa, "a nice exotic name, that. Kuma…?"

"jiku," Matthew supplied.

Then he gave Kumajirou a pat on the nose. Kuma licked his hand.

"Oh!" said Matthew, withdrawing with an alarmed look on his face, "It wants to eat me!"

"Don't be a baby," Alfred said disdainfully. "He likes you!"

"Don't be mean now. Here, give him a carrot," said Grandma, drawing out two pieces and handing one to Matthew and one to Alfred. "Hold your palm out flat, or he'll get your fingers by accident."

Kumajirou and Liberty ate their carrots. Grandpa, Grandma, Matthew, and Alfred each had a glass of lemonade, the ice-cubes reduced to small slivers of bobbing glitter. They went back to the house because Grandma said it was far too hot and dusty to be riding horses and all you boys – yes Alfred Jones Senior that means you as well – should come back inside and help decorate the cake before Mom and Dad arrive.

Alfred put dibs on being in charge of the icing, and an hour later the kitchen was a lot more sugary than it had been that morning. They finished the cake and put it away in the fridge. Grandpa saddled Liberty and led Alfred around the back paddock while Matthew sat in the shade of the apple trees with Kumajirou (who was getting spoiled rotten with an entire bag of carrots). Then they went back inside to wash up.

Six o'clock came and went.

"Maybe we should cut the cake, dear," said Grandma, glancing at the clock on the wall. It was half past eight.

Alfred scowled.

"No! We have to wait for Mom and Dad. They promised they'd be here."

"Well, I'm sure they won't mind if you boys have a slice first…"

"No, no, no," said Alfred. He was sitting at the foot of the stairs so he could watch the door. He had even turned on the porch light, just in case – but so far nothing had happened. "You can't cut the cake first, it would make the birthday wish not count," he explained.

Grandma sighed.

"How about I show you how to clean my hunting rifle," Grandpa suggested.

"Really?" exclaimed Alfred, momentarily distracted.

"ALFRED," scolded Grandma – and both Alfred and his grandpa turned, looking guilty. "No playing around with guns. They're only ten!"

"I want to go hunting," said Alfred, mind made up.

"What did the animals ever do to you?" muttered Matthew, sounding sulky. He was sitting at the dining table with a book propped up against a heavy bowl of pears and apples.

"They taste nice," said Alfred, "Duh. Especially cows."

Matthew looks a little horrified.

"What?" asked Alfred, "You eat cow too!"

"I eat beef!" corrected Matthew.

"Same thing."

"You wouldn't eat Maisie!"

Alfred thought for a moment.

"Nah, she's too young."

"You're mean."

"Where's Mommmmm?" Alfred whined, flopping back onto the stairs and staring up at the wooden ceiling. He hated when his parents were late to things, he hated waiting and most of all he hated being disappointed. No one should be disappointed on their birthday.

Then he heard the sound of a car pulling up to the house, tyres crunching on gravel. Alfred leaped up from where he was lying on the stairs and was at the door so fast he nearly knocked over the hat stand in the hallway. Footsteps.

"Here, honey," said grandma, coming to unlatch the door when Alfred couldn't reach.

"Who is it?" Matthew's voice floated down the hallway as he padded over, book tucked under one hand. The door opened.

Alfred's heart flipped over.

"DAD!" he shouted, tackling him before he could even get a foot into the door, "Dad you're laaaate! But that's okay! Daaaaad!"

His father patted Alfred on the head, dropping his suitcase and a large duffel bag onto the floor.

"Happy birthday, Alfred," he said. His smile was tired around the edges, but it didn't dampen the fluttering in Alfred's chest.

Matthew edged up beside him and dad gave him a brief hug.

"You too, Mattie. Did you guys have a fun day?"

"Yeah!" said Alfred. "We got ponies!"

"Baby horses," Matthew corrected.

"Same thing," said Alfred dismissively, more engrossed in hugging his father around the waist. "Dad, dad what did you get me?"

"Let your father in the house first, sweetie," said Grandma, ushering them into the hall and closing the door. Grandpa emerged from the kitchen.

"Here at last, I see," he said, sounding unimpressed.

"My flight was delayed," said dad, rubbing his jaw with one hand.

They all made their way into the kitchen and Dad sat his big duffel on the dining table before unzipping it and taking out two brightly wrapped boxes. One was tall and rectangular while the other was square and squat. He handed Alfred the squat box…and Alfred was a little jealous of Matthew and his huge tall present until he unwrapped his own and found a genuine cowboy hat sitting in a heavy cardboard box.

"Awesome!" he exclaimed, jamming the hat onto his own head. He somehow managed to knock all the wrapping paper to the ground in the process but no one seemed to mind.

"Thanks Dad!"

"You look like a real cowboy," said Grandpa, giving Alfred the thumbs up when Alfred jumped onto his chair and pretended to throw a lasso.

"Al – careful!" said Dad, reaching out to steady the back of the chair as it wobbled dangerously on its hind legs when Alfred got a little too enthusiastic with his lassoing.

Meanwhile, Matthew had just peeled back the wrapping at the top of his box and was pulling out something long and –

"Are these…?"

"Skates," said Dad, pulling the shoes out of the huge box. "Thought since you always liked to watch hockey on the TV you might like to give it a go."

Matthews eyes were very, very round.

"Oh wow can I?" he said, sounding more animated than he had all day, "Really? Will you teach me?"

His father sat Matthew in his lap and helped him pull on the new skates.

"I used to play ice hockey during high-school," he said, tying the laces. "Your mother thinks it's a bit – Al!"

Grandpa had managed to find a long coil of rope from somewhere and was showing Alfred how to throw the lasso. The loop had caught on the lighting fixture and Alfred overbalanced on the chair. Both chair and Alfred came crashing to the ground.

"ALFRED!" exclaimed grandma.

They ended up eating the birthday cake at half past eleven, with the lights off so that the candles threw flickering shadows on their faces. At any other time, Alfred would have found it scary – but with his grandparents, Mattie and dad all there, he knew nothing was bad was going to happen.

"I get this half," he said, pointing to his side of the cake, "and you get those candles. Don't blow mine okay Mattie?"

Matthew rolled his eyes.

"I won't," he said.

"Don't forget to make a wish!" sang Grandpa as Matthew got ready to blow out his candles. It was a ritual – he went first because he was the oldest twin, and Alfred went second. Alfred didn't mind, so long as Mattie didn't accidentally steal his birthday candle wishes.

Matthew blew out his candles, looking very solemn.

"What did you wish for buddy?" asked Dad.

"Matt can't tell!" said Alfred indignantly. "Or it won't come true! Now shh, it's my turn."

Alfred closed his eyes. He was going to wish for a new video game, but instead he wished that his mother would arrive early tomorrow so at least they had another day to celebrate. He would forgive his mom for being late, thought Alfred, if she came tomorrow. With another cake.

Then Alfred realise that was probably a second wish. Worried that it would cancel out the first one, he quickly re-wished it and blew out the candles.

They cut the cake. It tasted delicious (strawberries, chocolate and cream) and Alfred ate one slice too many so that his stomach felt a little bit funny afterwards. They watched a late night cartoon on the television, with Alfred, Dad and Mattie sitting on the big couch. Alfred wore his new cowboy hat to bed.

But when he woke next morning, his mom still wasn't there.

:i:

  • CHAPTER 2, PART B (to come soon!) - my first time posting fic on tumblr, hope it works okay. Please leave a comment if you enjoyed! + the art belongs to abubu. <3 Any crit regarding characterisation is also greatly appreciated! thankeee for reading. moar soon.

Tags: fic: a photograph of the artist
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