fishwrites (fishwrites) wrote,
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A Photograph of the Artist as a Young Man - Blindchild!au - Chapter 2B

Title: A Photograph of the Artist as a Young Man - Chapter 2B
Author: fishwrites
Artist: Abhauen (the story to her blindchild!au)
Wordcount: ~7K
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:       


London, 4 years ago.

There were days when Arthur thought he would never get used to the darkness.

But most days, he didn't care anymore.

"Arthur?"

He lay in his bed, as if still asleep.

After a long moment, Francis sighed and set something heavy down on the bedside table. It clinked and smelled savoury. Soup, maybe.

"I'll leave it here just in case you're hungry," said Francis.

Arthur waited. But Francis only stood there, unmoving for a few minutes his gaze prickling the back of Arthur's neck. Each breath was too loud in the quiet room, like the unwanted ticking the second hand, ushering in another hour – another day.

He could imagine Francis in every detail, the long shadow he would have thrown across the bed from the door left ajar (if only Arthur could see it). He could imagine the clothes Francis' was wearing right now – comfortable slacks and a loose shirt. But the collar would still be pressed and clean, as white as the roses on the balcony. Francis was immaculate like that, careful with things one could see, feel and touch. Francis…

Footsteps. The squeak of the door opening wider, then the soft thud of it being closed. Lather, rinse and repeat; one week, two weeks, four.

Arthur exhaled.

There was a physical ache inside him, where the world had become a blank, black page where things that were once clear…got lost.

He turned over beneath his blanket, stretching his arm out until it hit something soft. Fingers curling around one plush limb, he drew the stuffed rabbit close to himself. He ran his index finger carefully along the arm of the rabbit; it's head, little button nose and thread-sewn eyes. It had a line of stitches around its left leg, where it had started to come off and Iuan and mended it back together. It's ears were floppy, the fur on them worn with age and love. There were two plush wings on the bunny's back and Arthur stroked them.

He knew Mint Bunny was green. He knew. But even now, as he clutched to his face, Arthur couldn't quite recall the particular shade of green in his minds eye. Was it more like the grass in the park, or his favourite faded sweater? Was it green like Iuan's mug, still sitting in the dishwasher? Or was it paler than that?

An unbidden sob rose in his throat, tired and soundless. He should have looked more carefully, when there had been more time. He should have looked.

Eventually, Arthur fell asleep. (He dreamed of Mint Bunny, drinking from the bowl of soup on his bedside table. But when Arthur woke again, the soup was gone, and Mint Bunny was damp with tears.)

Sometimes, Arthur had nightmares about forgetting Iuan's face. Sometimes, it's his own, his parents'…his little brother Peter's, who died in that house fire. He would find himself flicking through a photo album full of places and blank faces – as if the people themselves were out of focus, their features evading the tips of his fingers. How long had it been? Arthur could not remember. But not long, not long at all.

It often woke him up in cold sweat, the blank faces – and he wondered how long it would be before he forgot what his own face looked like.

Shivering in the cool night air, Arthur raised a hand to trace the shape of his own face. Straight nose, dry lips, a scar near the edge of his jaw. He ran the pad of his finger over his own closed eyelids, the arch of his eyebrows. Like living caterpillars, Francis had said when they first met and Iuan had laughed uproariously, throwing his head back and ruffling Arthur's hair.

The thought of his brother made his chest and throat constrict painfully, and he quickly pushed it away. Feeling around the bed, Arthur sought out Flying Mint Bunny, grasping it gratefully when he finally found it, half buried under his blanket.

Arthur wondered if he looked any different; or whether he was just as ugly as before. In his minds eye, his reflection scowled and turned away. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Arthur let himself fall back onto his pillow with a sigh. It was probably morning. He couldn't really tell.

A knock at the door.

"Mon cher?" Francis' voice filtered through the wood.

Arthur kept his eyes closed. He did that a lot, nowadays. He didn't bother answering, knowing that Francis would come in regardless. He heard the door handle twisting, the telltale squeak of the hinges. Footsteps (one, two, three, four, five – pause). A sigh. Something being set down on the table (again), the clink of silverware (his mother's). Arthur felt the bed dip as Francis sat down – and tensed instinctively when a hand came to rest on his shoulder.

"I made lunch. Are you hungry? You missed breakfast this morning."

And the morning before. And the morning before that. Arthur had no appetite. Iuan always made him breakfast before school. Breakfast was Iuan's. The kitchen was Iuan's – seriously the only thing you can do is boil water and make tea and even that's a bit dangerous, aye? – the flat was his, the chair opposite Arthur's was his, and Francis had no business being here.

Arthur said nothing.

"For god's sake, you have to eat!" said Francis, sounding exasperated and tired, "You've been in here for weeks, you won't talk to me and – I don't know what to do with you!"

Then leave, thought Arthur. But he couldn't bring himself to say the words out loud – because what if Francis left? The very thought made fear well up in his throat, cold and unrelenting as the knowledge of being alone in this bottomless blank world. Francis was his last link to before, the only familiar person with a face to their voice. And Arthur didn't know what he would do if that was taken away from him too.

His silence seemed to irritate Francis, who stood up abruptly.

"I know that you are upset. I know it's hard – I can't imagine how hard. But Iuan wouldn't have wanted to see you like this."

Then he swept away, the door slamming shut behind him. The sound made Arthur flinch, fingers tightening around Mint Bunny. He breathed in, slowly, trying to smooth down beginning of tears. He hardly ever cried, before.

His own pillow smelled stale, the feel of cotton sheets as familiar as the sound of his own breathing and the shape of Mint Bunny in his hands. They kept him company, but did nothing to lessen the hollow echo beneath his skin. There was the sound of a car horn blaring outside, and someone swore. For a brief moment, Arthur couldn't recall what the scene might have looked like from his own bedroom window.

….Then he realised he could pretend.

   :i:   

Dallas, Texas, 9 years ago.

Alfred overheard his grandmother on the phone.

"…you promised them you'd be here this year…"

She was speaking quietly, so he creep to the bottom of the stairs to hear what she was saying. But even from where he crouched, Alfred could tell Grandma wasn't happy at all. She was using the tone of voice she used when he accidentally spilled juice all over the rug once. It was the same 'you listen here young man!' voice she used when they broke one of the kitchen windows playing baseball with Grandpa outside. He inched closer, trying to figure out who was in trouble.

"…stayed up all night waiting," she said. Pacing. "…don't you dare give me that excuse!"

"Al! What are you doing?"

Alfred jumped.

"Oh my god Mattie! Don't sneak up on me like that," said Alfred, "I'm listenin'. Grandma is telling someone off."

When that didn't get a reaction from his brother, Alfred clarified, "Someone who isn't me."

Matthew sat down on the step above Alfred with a sigh. He was always sighing and rolling his eyes these days, and Alfred didn't like it. It was as if Matthew thought he knew things Alfred didn't – and even if he did, that was just wrong because they were twins and twins were supposed to share everything. Including secrets.

"She's talking to mom," said Matt, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

Alfred perked up.

"Mom? Is she gonna be here in time for lunch? 'Cus I think grandpa is making hambur – "

"Jeez Al!" Matt snapped, "Mom's not going to be here in time for anything! She always says she will be and she never is. You're so stupid!"

Something hot and ugly flared up inside Alfred. He jumped up from his position next to the kitchen door.

"I'm not stupid! A-and Mom totally will be here she told me herself so there!"

"Mom's busy with work because mom's always busy with work! She wasn't here last year or the year before but you always think she's gonna be - I can't believe you're so dumb Al!"

Alfred clenched his fists.

"I'm not dumb! I'm not stupid! You take that back!"

Matthew had stood up too, face set in a tight frown.

"You know it's true," he said, stubbornly, "dad and mom argue all the time, they're hardly ever in the house and you never notice! She's not going to come!"

Alfred leapt forwards, grabbing his brother by the shirt. His momentum toppled them both back onto the stairs.

"Stop saying – you're always jinxing it! It's going to cancel out my wish - "

Alfred stopped abruptly, hand flying to his mouth. You can't tell what you wished for or it won't come true. Something cold and heavy sank to the bottom of Alfred's stomach – and he could feel the hot tears well up behind his own eyes but he couldn't let Mattie see because heroes don't cry.

But mostly Alfred was just scared that Matthew would laugh.

"Al…"

"Shut up, I hate you!"

"Alfred Franklin Jones, watch what you say to your brother!"

They both spun around. Grandma stood in the kitchen, one hand on her hip, the other still clutching the phone. The world was going a bit fuzzy and Alfred blinked the tears out of his eyes angrily.

"Apologise," said Grandma sternly.

"No!" said Alfred, "Matthew called me stupid and he keeps saying mom wont' be here and I hate him!"

Pushing past his twin, Alfred ran back up the stairs, back to his room and slammed the door.

 :i: 

London, 4 years ago.

Every Wednesday, Francis went shopping for groceries, returning with at least three plastic bags full of various ingredients for the week. And every Wednesday, it rained without fail. Fucking London weather.

This particular Wednesday was no different. Francis unlocked the door to the flat, setting his umbrella down beside the coat stand. The light in the short hallway was off, and he held back a sigh.

"I'm back," he called to into the perpetual silence.

Toeing off his shoes, he made his way straight to the kitchen, setting the groceries on the bench-top. He took out the milk and other things that needed to be refrigerated. Then he turned back to the counter and the items remaining to be shelved.

"What did you get?"

Francis nearly dropped the jar of sauce he was holding.

Arthur wasn't in his room. He was sitting by the window, curled up in the squashy armchair that he had presumably moved from where it usually sat in front of the television. The coffee table had also been moved – and Francis wondered if it had been knocked over as Arthur dragged the sofa across the carpet.

"You're up," said Francis, a little dazed.

Arthur merely shrugged and turned his face back to the window. His clothes were mismatched – a hideous knitted sweatshirt thrown over pale blue pyjama bottoms. The sleeves of the jersey were too long, and Arthur had rolled them up to free his hands. With a jolt, Francis realised it was Iuan's sweatshirt, all clashing oranges and neon greens. Arthur was cradling a mug of something in one hand and a grubby looking stuffed bunny rabbit in the other.

In that moment, Francis was reminded that Arthur was barely seventeen. Just a baby, really.

Then Arthur turned back to him, breaking the moment, his head cocked to one side in a silent question. His eyes, still green, but glassy, was looking at a vague point somewhere to Francis' left.

"I could make some scones for you," said Francis, "But perhaps dinner first?"

A long pause.

"Maybe," Arthur agreed, voice quiet. His fingers were stroking the rabbit's long floppy ears, over and over. Francis realised he was still holding the jar of tomato sauce and put it down on the counter.

"Perhaps some pasta? We haven't had Italian food yet."

"Whatever, frog," said Arthur – and the familiar insult made Francis smile.

"It won't take long," said Francis. Taking out a packet of pasta shells, he went about searching for a pot to boil water in, setting the plastic packet down beside the sink. Fresh tomatoes, check; olives, check; chicken to be sliced, check; mushrooms; check.

When he turned around, he found Arthur staring at him with blank unfocused eyes from across the kitchen counter. It nearly gave Francis a heart attack.

"Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed, clutching at his heart in an exaggerated motion, "Do not sneak up on me like that!"

Arthur shrugged, tapping his index finger against the table-top. But he looked a little pleased with himself all the same. Francis wondered if the boy had familiarised himself with the room and its furniture in his absence – he had barely made a sound, had not knocked anything over. It was a drastic improvement from the first few days back from the hospital. Arthur had not been able to do anything without Francis guiding him by the hand; and Arthur had not liked it at all.

The pasta shells clattered noisily into the pot.

"I want to help," said Arthur.

Francis paused, the empty packet in his left hand.

"Ah…I don't think that'd be wise, mon cher – "

"Don't patronise me!" said Arthur crossly, folding his arms across his chest.

"But you have never been able to cook," protested Francis, "Even when you – well what I mean is – merde!"

Arthur had grabbed the closest thing he set his hands on – an onion – and lobbed it at Francis. It missed, hitting the wall with a sharp thwack.

5 minutes later.

Francis watched Arthur stir the sauce, keeping an eye on the pasta. He had give Arthur a large plastic bowl, prepared the appropriate ingredients for the sauce give him a wooden spoon with instructions to "stir until smooth". Arthur, instead of arguing, had set about stirring with the utmost look of concentration on his face. The sauce was now velvety red. Francis turned off the stove and went about straining the pasta.

At the sound of water being poured into the sink, Arthur looked up.

"Is it nearly done?" he asked, pausing in his compulsive stirring motion.

"Oui," said Francis, slicing button mushrooms with a practice hand, "We can eat once I prepare the vegetables."

Arthur held out the bowl.

"…is this alright?" he asked.

Francis swiped the edge of his thumb along the rim of the bowl and licked. Then had to stop himself from gagging. He masked the sound behind a cough instead.

"Arthur – did you add anything to this…?"

"Only some pepper. I thought I would add to the flavour."

"Ah…" said Francis, grimacing openly and thankful for the first time that Arthur couldn't see his expression.

"Don't you like it?" asked Arthur, frowning.

And the conversation was so…normal, so before, that Francis didn't have the heart to even offer a snide remark as he might have done. Arthur had said more to him in the last half an hour than he had in the month they had been living together. He didn't want to upset him.

"It's certainly adds a bit of…punch, cherie," said Francis breezily, taking the bowl from Arthur's (destructive) hands, "Perfect as it is, no need to add anymore!"

"Hmph," said Arthur.

Francis smiled, for the second time that evening.

:i:

Over time, Arthur started noticing little things.

The Francis now was a very different portrait of the Francis from barely two months ago. This Francis was softer, gentler, and dropped French words like sugar cubes in tea and coffee. He was quieter, though perhaps it was Arthur who had forgotten the point of speaking without seeing, of breathing without living.

The scent of his cologne was sharper than Arthur remembered, floating in a cloud around him whenever he walked into a room. It smelt strange, rose petals soaked in wine, but unbearably familiar. His hands were always silk smooth against Arthur's own, fingers lingering at the small of Arthur's back whenever they walked together. This Francis would always look the same – his portrait forever preserved in Arthur's minds eye until time blurred him out of focus.

This Francis wrapped him in affection, generous and warm. And Arthur didn't know how to respond – it forced him to swallow the bitter pull of guilt until it settled uncomfortably at the bottom of his stomach. Because Francis was Iuan's friend, not his. Francis had a life beyond Arthur's apartment, beyond looking after a blind boy who couldn't even wash his own hair without slipping on the shower tiles. With every kind word, Arthur wondered why Francis was even here. With every home-made meal, Arthur wondered if Francis was acting out of guilt too, of a misplaced sense of duty to his dead brother who had died because Arthur didn't know when to be quiet.

Arthur wondered if Iuan would still be here if he had tried harder to convince him to wear a seatbelt, instead of trying to convince him to watch a film.

The windowsill was just wide enough for Arthur's teacup and the saucer for his scone. It hadn't stopped raining since Monday. Iuan had often joked that Arthur controlled the London weather because it had a habit of raining when Arthur was in a bad mood, tired or upset.

But I don't mind, his brother had said, still warmer than Scotland. Plus, rain sounds nice, aye? Good for taking a nap to.

It often rained.

Arthur ran his hand over Mint Bunny's wings. He was aware of Francis sitting in the seat opposite – but it wasn't like Mint Bunny was a secret. Arthur liked how the rabbit slotted snugly into his hands. It gave him something to hold on to.

"The rain should let up soon," said Francis. The offensive smell of coffee was drifting over to Arthur, who wrinkled his nose.

"Mm." He made a noncommittal noise.

"I fancy a walk later," Francis continued, "the park, perhaps. Come with?"

Arthur tightened his fingers around Mint Bunny. Outside, the rain pattered softly against the window pane. The streets would be wet with puddles, glistening in any stray flecks of sunshine. The gutters would be full, and cars would be sending up a spray of grey water whenever they veered to close. The grass would be dull with mud, the trees sending fat droplets onto umbrellas. There would be children running, and the vendor who sold freshly roasted peanuts on the street corner (Arthur walked past him every afternoon on the way back from school; the packets were striped red and white like the union jack). Now he would only smell the peanuts and the smoke from the cars.

"Not today," said Arthur.

Or any of the days that Francis brought up the idea of going outside. The very thought made Arthur cold with dread.

Inside the safety of his (Iuan's) flat the pitch dark was familiar, full of landmarks he was starting to learn by touch. Outside…the dark was unknown. It made Arthur think of drowning in the sea; with nothing but endless, black water around him. No. Not today.

"Maybe it is still rather wet," Francis conceded, not pushing the matter.

Gratitude fluttered in Arthur's chest. He set Mint Bunny down in his lap and reached for his tea, careful to trace his finger along the wood of the windowsill first. Even so, he knocked into the saucer – and it wobbled for a moment, with Arthur's heart leaping into his throat – but thankfully it did not fall.

Arthur took a long gulp of tea.

"The weather is a bit fairer back home," said Francis pleasantly. Arthur could hear the chink, chink, chink of a spoon being stirred. It reminded him of the tea shop, and with a pang, Arthur remembered that Francis was paying all the bills since the accident. He felt his own cheeks flush with shame and hoped Francis didn't notice.

"France?" said Arthur, trying to distract him.

"Oui. It is lovely in spring. Have you ever been to Nice?"

Arthur shook his head.

"We live about two hours away," said Francis. There was the rustling of fabric. The sofa squeaked. "Well, when I say 'we', I mean my mother and sister. Father's often in Paris, you see."

"…designing coats," said Arthur, remembering a conversation in which Francis had said something about his family being in the fashion industry. It seemed so long ago, now.

"Designing coats. Well, more than that, but yes," said Francis. Arthur imagined him hand-waving in that dismissive sort of way he had whenever the topic of his parents came up. He never liked talking about them, so Arthur wasn't sure why Francis doing so now.

"The town is lovely too, you know. Small, but…quaint I guess. Quiet. All cobblestones and freshly baked croissants in the morning."

"If it's so lovely why did you leave?" asked Arthur. It came out a little meaner than he meant it to, and he bit his tongue to shut himself up. He wished he could see Francis' face, his expression. It was one of the reasons he had refused to venture outside. He could imagine the gaze of every stranger on the street; could feel the imaginary weight of their pity, disdain and –

"The town didn't fit me anymore," said Francis, "It was…suffocating. So I left."

Arthur kept quiet.

"Haven't been back for nearly…oh, five years now."

"You haven't seen your sister in five years?" said Arthur, aghast and breaking his vow of silence.

"I write," said Francis, defensively, "And it isn't as if I couldn't go see her if I wanted to."

Arthur set his cup down with a barely steady hand.

"Yes," Arthur replied, voice stilted, "I suppose you could."

A long pause. A sigh.

"I'm sorry," said Francis, voice subdued. "Arthur - "

"What is your sister like?" Arthur interrupted, not wanting the conversation to turn in that particular direction, "Not as ugly as you, I'm sure that goes without saying."

"Oh!" Francis exclaimed, melodramatic, "How can you say such things? My poor heart. Mon lapin, you are too cruel."

"I say only the truth."

"Non! I'm pretty," said Francis.

Arthur felt something tugging at the edge of his mouth. It tasted like a smile.

"The only good thing about this," Arthur gestured at his own eyes, "is that I don't have to see your ugly mug every day."

"Such insulting comments," said Francis, sounding dour, "You are well on the way to recovery, my dear Brit."

"Piss off," said Arthur, turning back to the sound of rain.

A long, comfortable pause.

"There's a rose garden," said Francis.

"Fat lot of good that will do me, now that I'm blind," said Arthur.

"Oh but they smell lovely," Francis insisted, "Imagine taking your silly English tea out amongst that. There's also a lake. And ducks. You could feed them."

Another pause.

"And I would get to see my sister," said Francis. Then: "It would be like a vacation. Get you away from all this London smoke. What do you think?"

Arthur picked up Mint Bunny surreptitiously. His brother would like the idea of France. He could imagine Iuan and his violin on the corner of some little French street, playing folk music that bounced off the pavement and between the heels of your shoes.

"Yeah," said Arthur, quietly, "it sounds – I mean. I…"

He trailed off, unable to find the words he needed (not to say, but just to have, just to clutch close to his heart). He didn't realise he was crying until he felt Francis lean in close, a handkerchief at Arthur's cheek. Arthur jerked backwards, only to be stopped by Francis dropping a kiss into his hair.

"It's alright," he said, soothingly. And Arthur thought, for the first time, that perhaps he didn't need to say anything at all.

:i:

Later, Arthur would find his 17th birthday present gathering dust in Iuan's bedroom.

It took him a while to unwrap it, being careful not to tear the wrapping paper. The ribbon was satin soft in his hands, the gift in a rectangular box. They felt like books, when Arthur took them out. The titles were imprinted on cloth covers, and he traced the letters one by one, spelling them out.

The Illustrated Collection of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Opening the first book, he fingered the thick, glossy pages. It felt expensive, heavy and quiet in his hands. Arthur wondered how much Iuan had spent on it. Cupping the spine carefully with one hand, he held the book close to his face and breathed in.

It smelt of words he could never read again.

:i:

London, Present Day.

It was their second day of shooting and Francis was starting to regret putting Alfred and live-animals in the same room. Any sign of nerves seemed to have vanished overnight and he was treating everyone he met on set like they were the best of friends. Including the props.

"Can I pet him? Please can I pet him?"

"Actually this one's a lady," said Jack the handler, "And don't shout, mate, it's rufflin' her feathers yeah?"

"Oh," said Alfred, dropping his voice conspiratorially, "Sorry!"

Arthur, who was standing off in the corner while Antonio fussed over his jacket, made an unimpressed noise. It was ten in the morning and they were already twenty minutes behind schedule. Lovino and the set assistant was putting the finishing touches on the lavish table, which was laden with extravagant silver platters, sugared confectionary and towers of chocolate artfully arranged so they spilled across the white linen tablecloth. They were in the main ballroom with its high frescoed ceiling, chandeliers and dark parquet floor. A long dining table had been moved in for the shoot, and two rows of white-satin chairs lined its side.

The lighting had been set up. But somehow the idiotic bird would not behave and neither would the clasp on Arthur's jacket. Francis took a deep breath and let it out again.

"Antonio," he called, "Can we have Arthur ready please."

"Yes – yes, yes, done," said Antonio, sounding frazzled. He led Arthur over to the center of the table, pulling out a chair for him. "Here?"

"I can sit down by myself," said Arthur, eyebrows bristling with indignation. Both stylist and photographer ignored him. As soon as he sat down, Helen descended upon Arthur with her brushes to finish some last minute touch ups to his makeup.

"Oui, we can start there," said Francis, "Jack – Alfred needs the eagle on his arm. Will she stay still?"

Jack, who had a hawk on one shoulder and a large, ferocious looking eagle on his other arm, grinned.

"Yeah, she's a good girl," he said, "Though she might get a bit restless later in which case we might hav'ta move her."

Francis imagined a 'restless' eagle wrecking havoc on set, ripping the sleeve of Alfred's Zegna … and felt a headache coming on. He rubbed the side of his face. He fought the urge uncork the bottle of red wine on the table and start drinking – props be damned.

"Francis," said Arthur. He always had a knack of being able to know when Francis was spiraling into a whirlpool of doom and panic. It was psychic, really.

"Don't talk please," said the makeup artist.

"Hmph," said Arthur.

"Right. Alfred, on the table – back to the cake and angled towards where Arthur is sitting, oui?"

"Am I gonna be too heavy?" asked Alfred warily, straightening his sleeves and approaching the table as one would approach a raging rhinoceros.

"No," said Francis, patience wearing thin, "Get on the fucking table."

Placing one foot on a chair, Alfred settled himself carefully in the empty spot on the table, surrounded by food and delicate china. He yelped when he nearly knocked over an entire arrangement of macaroons – and shot Francis a furtive look.

"Do be careful not to break anything," said Arthur, who had both feet propped up on the table and looked every inch the spoiled aristocrat. Francis smiled to himself – Arthur always delivered what he wanted. On the other hand, it always took Alfred some ten frames before he stopped looking like an awkward teenager on a table.

"Here, hold out your arm – steady now," said Jack, "When I say three, I want you to tap your arm with two fingers, alright? Nessa will fly over."

"Okay!" said Alfred, looking like he was going to wet himself with excitement.

Francis looked on, a little worried for the desserts on the table. It would take more time than they had if they had to re-set the table. Jack took a few long strides backwards so there were a good ten meters between him and the table.

"One, two…three."

Alfred tapped the protective leather around his forearm and the eagle leapt into the air, wings snapping out as she flapped them once, twice and came to an elegant stop, claws digging into Alfred's arm.

"Whoa!" Alfred exclaimed, all promises to be quiet forgotten, "That's awesome!"

The eagle turned a large, yellow eye in his direction.

"You're so cool," he told the eagle, "I want to take you home!"

"Okay keep that hand steady," said Jack, "She wont' like it if you wobble."

"Oh my god," said Alfred, delighted, "You're so beautiful. I love you."

"Stop making kissy noises at that thing," said Arthur irritably, "It's not a kitten for heaven's sake!"

"Aw it's okay, I think you're pretty too Arthur," said Alfred, shooting the Brit a sly sort of look. Then he seemed to realise what he had just said and blushed to the tips of his ears.

"You – !" Arthur started, chest puffing up like a peacock whose tail had just been stepped on. Francis intervened before it could get out of hand.

"Jack – I want the hawk on Arthur's right fist. Arthur, elbow on the armrest, lean back."

Arthur did as he was told, crossing his legs so that one heel rested on the edge of the table. Antonio gave him a black, bejeweled glove for his right hand. It was a lovely contrast to his white wrist and the exposed skin of his forearm. His three-quarter Dior jacket was unbuttoned, with a gold pin on his left lapel.

"Give'er two taps," said Jack, demonstrating with his own hand, "Make sure he's watchin'."

"On the knuckles," Francis clarified.

They all held their breath as Arthur tapped his gloved fist and the hawk leapt from Jack's own shoulder. The bird stumbled a little, claws scrabbling on the slope of Arthur's hand. It's wings snapped out for balanced, hitting Arthur in the face and making him jerk back in shock. The sudden movement unsettled the hawk, who gave a shrill cry, turning it's sharp yellow eyes (and sharper beak) towards Arthur's face. Everyone seemed to freeze and unfreeze at the same moment.

Francis almost dropped his camera. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Antonio hurrying towards them, whilst Jack was still on the other side of the long dining table.

"Careful – !"

"Steady on mate – "

Alfred put two of his fingers in his mouth and whistled. Both Nessa and the hawk turned their heads sharply to look at him, attention diverted.

Arthur was sitting still as a statue, the lines of his shoulder tense with nerves, eyes darting. Further down the table, a chocolate dipped strawberry threatened to fall from its towering pyramid. Francis held his breath.

The hawk shuffled its feathers, talons flexing. It seemed to settle on Arthur's hand and grew as still as the man himself, save for the eyes which darted between Alfred and Nessa and then back again. Then the hawk blinked, yawning.

Jack let out a relieved laugh, breaking the silence.

"That's what I meant by not startlin' them," he said.

"Blasted bird. Nearly blinded me," Arthur replied, deadpan.

"Did you see what I did there?" Alfred said excitedly, "Yeahhhh who's awesome."

Arthur muttered something incomprehensible. Francis thought he heard the word 'git' and 'gilbert'.

"What?" said Alfred, oblivious. He was grinning.

"I said that was some good work," said Arthur.

"I'm good with animals! They love me."

The hawk leaned over and began picking curiously at the gem at Arthur's wrist. Alfred's eagle watched the whole affair with a distinctly interested gaze, as if she too was deciding whether or not to start scratching expensive designer accessories. Antonio made a sad noise in the background and Francis decided enough was enough.

"Alright. Now that everything is in place. Alfred, facing me – merci."

Obediently, Alfred turned towards him. Nessa was still staring at Arthur intently. The Brit had seemingly gravitated towards the familiar in order to calm his nerves and was picking at a delicate china tea cup which Antonio pressed into his free hand. Rose-coloured tea was poured, matching the blush on Arthur's cheeks.

"Arthur," said Francis after a moment of thoughtful silence, "I need you to slouch a little more…that's it. Now give me a second."

Looking down to tweak his camera, Francis only looked back up when Arthur snapped :

"Don't even think about eating that macaroon, Alfred."

"I wasn't even – !"

"Yes you were. Don't argue with me."

"Stop pouting."

"I'm not pouting!"

"Yes. You're doing it again. Stop it before you ruin all of Francis' photographs."

Alfred mumbled something too low for Francis to hear but a moment later, Arthur nearly jumped out of his seat.

"My eyebrows do not ruin anything you unprofessional idiot!"

"Gentlemen…."

"I'm trying to distract Nessa! She looks hungry."

"She'll be alright, mate."

"Oh."

"…."

"Are you sure?"

"You know," said Francis, "I do like your chemistry. But can we have more shooting and less talking please? Or else your mouths will be open in every photogra – Oui, oui, good bird!"

On Alfred's arm, Nessa had her beak clamped around a strand of Alfred's hair – the piece that stuck up despite all sorts of product and all of Helen's wrath – and was stubbornly not letting go. Alfred attempted pull the eagle away from his hair but the bird had dug in her talons and would not leg go of his arm.

"OW. BAD. BAD - "

:i:

It was only several hours later than Francis realised he hadn't heard Arthur laugh like that in years.

:i:

NOTES: Lots of backstory in this chapter, sorry! :O Backstory is actually about 50% of this fic hahah #onlyhalfjoking but the plot will definitely start moving faster from now on. I just like to flesh things out - if I'm going too slow or being too boring, please tell me! As usual the brilliant art is by abubu

Next Chapter: Alfred uses his google-fu for 'research' XD, we find out how Arthur got into fashion and meet Francis' family as well as the Bad Touch Trio! <3  Hope you enjoyed reading and please drop a comment! 



Tags: fic: a photograph of the artist, hetalia
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