Author's Note: Hello again readers! It's that time once again! Time for another rousing chapter of 'Till Death Do Us Part, and one we have all been waiting for! Oh yes, good old bushy brows rears his ugly head again! Also, my apologies. This chapter is quite late because I was traipsing all about the state of California looking for work, but I am happy to report that I found it! I got a job, woohoo! Only problem is, my new place of employment will be in the Bay Area and I currently live in So Cal :T So now I will also be preparing to move 7 hours away and packing up my life, so the next update after this one maaaaay be a while off as well. :C But not to worry! This is a nice long and meaty chapter to chew on while I am busies so do enjoy! You can also now follow me on Twitter if you are so inclined! I'll be tweeting about useless crap as well as fic updates, so check out AGentlemanCrow if you are interested!
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
Francis, or rather Alfred, depending on whom was asked, was forced to endure another week in the hospital before his doctors would even consider releasing him, much to his dismay. He yearned to see Arthur again, to get straight to his ethereal mission and to planning just how he would go about the delicate issue of winning back his icy, stony heart. Yet he remained imprisoned in the drudgery of the hospital, still not knowing where his beloved was, how he was faring, and not even able to truly inquire. However, Matthew was still there every day to sneak in contraband treats and keep him company through the awful daytime television shows, endless tests and CAT scans. Unfortunately, Alfred also proved to be an obstinately loyal companion, particularly at night when they could converse freely with no one the wiser, as he didn't especially need anyone catching him appearing to be talking to himself when he was attempting to prove he had fully recovered from a catastrophic head injury. Eventually, however, after that torturous week the medical professionals were forced to concede that there was no more reason to keep him confined and gave the release orders at last.
Francis had practically leapt for joy, and nearly blown his cover by bursting into one of his favorite French folk songs in celebration and grabbing the nearest person into a gallant, impromptu waltz as he usually would have done. Matthew, as reserved and quiet as he usually was, practically did too. He moved a bag into Alfred's apartment, cleaned up for him, and even made sure to call Arthur on his behalf just to make doubly sure that his job at the editing firm would still be waiting for him upon his return. It was wholly unnecessary, but Francis said nothing and let him do what he needed to feel like he was taking care of him. As belligerent and testy as he could be, Francis knew Arthur to be a gentleman of honor and would never stoop so low as to bar him from employment after an accident; even as ridiculous and laughable an accident as it had been. Sure enough, though Matthew seemed relieved and surprised to hear it, once he had been released he was free to return to his job in the mailroom at the very same publishing firm where his beloved was chief editor.
Or rather, Alfred's job in the mailroom.
The self-admittedly vain Frenchman was forced to set aside his initial disdain for the mundane position and thank the forces of fate that Alfred just so happened to have worked for the same company as Arthur for many years. It would be an incredible advantage, not to mention a dearly needed bastion of sanity, to be able to see the man he loved every day. He could plan tiny hints, effortlessly flirt the way he once did with him, cast him those infamous smoldering glances, perhaps even get one of the furious slaps across the face that had won his heart the first time around, and fill his life once more with the electric atmosphere of their love. There was no way he could lose. Especially not with ample time to plot with Alfred.
The extra week in the hospital actually turned out to be rather the accidental boon. Alfred was able to fill him in on his life, his mannerisms, even his past in order to make occupying his existence just the slightest bit less miserable than it already had to be. More than that, somehow, in their scheming and collaboration and sometimes friction, they found they actually were more than capable of getting along. Alfred consented that Francis was more than just a snail sucking, wine guzzling, sexual deviant who only showered on alternate Tuesdays, and Francis admitted that Alfred was far more than a soda swilling, celebrity worshipping, willfully ignorant boor with a hero complex who subsisted solely on hamburgers and fries. Something profound, mystical, and spiritual connected them through their ordeal, and they could both feel it so viscerally they had no choice but to look at one another in an entirely different light. Though Francis would still never figure out how to get his new head of unruly sandy hair to behave. After enduring Alfred's laughter one too many times through his stay in the hospital and one final time the morning Matthew was to take him home he finally just threw in the towel, bid a farewell to vanity, and let the accursed cowlick have its wicked way. The Superman t-shirt and tattered jeans Matthew had brought for him to go home in, lovingly iterating he knew it was one of Alfred's favorite outfits out of the goodness of his heart, put the final nail in that coffin as well.
Mercifully, Matthew arrived right on time that glorious day, signed all the right papers, and at long last Francis ripped the hospital bracelet off his wrist, hoisted his duffle bag of meager belongings, and slid the rectangular glasses onto the bridge of his nose to step out into the world as Alfred F. Jones. He was immediately whisked away to his apartment, which, as he expected, was a veritable pig sty of dirty laundry, Alfred's X Box 360, Playstation 3, and Wii and every game he owned for every system piled in front of the television in a web of tangled cords, empty beer cans and all manner of fast food refuse. The younger Jones apologized profusely for not having cleaned up more, but Francis' only reaction was to shoot the spirit of Alfred floating near the ceiling a disbelieving glance in horror that this was the way his apartment looked after an attempted cleaning. Alfred just shrugged, and they all went about their delightfully ordinary business for the day, which was more of a relief than Francis expected after his dealings in the hereafter.
The rest of the day was spent with Matthew urging Francis onto the couch to continue to rest, movies, trying his best to ignore the offhanded, and frequent, often banal remarks from the true Alfred only he could hear, ending with a home cooked meal with the food Matthew had attentively stocked his kitchen with. After the usual round of late night talk shows and a bag of popcorn, Francis urged his sweet friend to go home and get some rest, as they were both direly in need of it. He was to be starting his job once again the following day and he was just going to go straight to bed, there was no need to hover and worry, he reasoned with him. Hesitant at first, it took surprisingly little insistence to get Matthew to agree and leave, but as he went the resigned, heartbroken look on his face almost made Francis call out for him to stay.
But he knew better. He had become a player in a supernatural love opera even he barely understood. Poor innocent Matthew need not become tangled in the sordid affairs of angels, demons, and wayward souls that had strayed from the path to eternity. It would be a grueling test of his heart and resolve, of that he had no doubt. The urge to throw his arms around Arthur, to kiss him, bid him the final farewell he deserved and tell him everything that had happened, to smile for him always, and not to mourn for him any longer would be almost too much to resist, but with some downright heroic cheering from Alfred as he prepared for bed he knew he had to have faith in his own words and his own end of the deal. His love could withstand anything and his task was embarrassingly simple; he just needed to find a way to prove it.
Easy for a couple of snarky supernatural beings and a grotesquely optimistic ghost to say.
Francis tried not to let his thoughts weigh on him as he slipped into Alfred's bed and burrowed under the covers, so instead as he closed his eyes and bid his boisterous spirit familiar goodnight, he turned his thoughts to Arthur for comfort. Emerald green eyes alight with confidence and infuriating smugness, his favorite loving insults in that charmingly uptight British vernacular he always reamed him with, and between the usual verbal sparring matches, quips and jabs, the tender little moments like falling asleep in front of the television with their fingers ever so loosely twined, a tender kiss in public behind an umbrella, newspaper, or any other convenient blockade, and the times they would just so happen to catch one another's eye and simply look, green and blue irises brimming with unspoken love felt so intensely for just a single moment in time before Arthur would finally smile for him ushered Francis into a peaceful sleep. The beautiful visions and memories continued through his dreams as the moon traversed her usual path across the sky and bowed to the majesty of the sun rising behind her.
The sovereign rays illuminated Applewood in brisk golden light that spilled through each and every window until it reached the bedroom of a soundly slumbering Francis. Warmth touched his eyelids and peaceful face, gently rousing him from his pleasant dreams and ushering him back into the realm of consciousness with a loving hand. A moment later his alarm clock went off, but needing just a moment to bask in the calm of the morning before the day as usual, Francis hit the snooze button and rolled over with a content sigh. He listened to the birds twittering outside in the trees and the morning traffic just starting to bustle in the streets. He breathed in the freshly washed scent of the bed linens and let the soothing symphony of apartment living in the morning complete his serenity. Such simple things were rather the extraordinary pleasures having lost his life and been sent back and he was more than glad to take a moment to appreciate the gift he had been given. Just the way he wanted to begin the morning of his greatest adventure.
"Wait for me, Arthur. I'll make everything right for you, I promise," he thought to himself with a smile.
Just a few more moments of tranquility and he would rise, shower and dress, make himself a hearty breakfast and strike back out into the heartbeat of life. Francis was ready, he was eager, and he was feeling once again confident in his ability to save his soul and bring a smile back to Arthur's face. He drew in a deep breath, turned back over, and waited for the gentle music of the alarm clock he had set to herald the start of his day.
"Goooooooood morning, Frankie! Today's the big day! Rise and shine, up and at 'em, lets rock and roll!" instead of violins and sweet angelic singing, Alfred's piercing voice shattered his reverie into a thousand nerve grating pieces.
Francis' eyes snapped wide open and stared straight into the beaming face of the owner of the offending voice not an inch away from his. A garbled yelp wrenched from his throat as he pitched backward and hurled himself over the bed in a tangle of limbs, blanket, and pajamas, and hit the ground hard on his back. He lay there, stunned, his legs akimbo in the air against the mattress, head spinning, as Alfred's translucent form drifted slowly overhead with a grin.
"Whoa careful there, pal! The old noggin is still sensitive after all! Don't wanna be screwing around with that!" he chirped, holding up a helpful finger.
Francis shot him a venomous glare as he gingerly hoisted himself up off the ground.
"It would help not to be roused like my bed is on fire or there is a homicidal maniac standing over me…" he grumbled.
"You were totally gonna go for the snooze again, I know it!" Alfred smugly lectured.
"But I still have plenty of-!" Francis started to protest, but stopped himself with a sigh, "No… No never mind. I'm up, I'm up. I'm going to get ready, I trust you can occupy yourself for a few minutes!"
Extricating himself carefully from the tangle of blankets, he replaced them as neatly as possible and excused himself to the bathroom with a flamboyant farewell flourish of his hand, leaving a dismayed ghost in his wake.
"W-Wait! Hold up, Frankie! Occupy myself? I can't even work the remote! What am I supposed to do? Haunt the TV?" he whined plaintively, though his ire was quickly replaced with curiosity.
"Can I do that…?" he wondered aloud, thumbing his chin and grinning, "Only one way to find out!"
Alfred cackled brightly and threw himself through the still closed door of his bedroom, leaving Francis in peace in the bathroom where, once again, he saw Alfred's reflection looking back at him in the vanity mirror. The lack of luscious sunbeam golden locks, attractively masculine stubble Arthur had relentlessly teased him about, and piercing blue eyes that saw beauty in everything gave him pause only a moment before a sly little smirk that was distinctly his own crossed those borrowed lips. With a toss of his messily cropped hair he proceeded to strip theatrically out of his pajamas. He did a few nude turns in front of the full-length mirror, admiring his new body and feeling more than a little scandalous for it. All in all, he had to admit Alfred was rather an attractive young man, and with a little of his debonair flair he just might make something of him yet. A wink and a kiss blown from his first two fingers ended his brief primping, and he promptly hopped into a warm, refreshing shower.
His new crown of unruly hair did what it wanted, as usual, and Francis begrudgingly allowed it. Instead he focused on cleanly shaving, though Alfred had nothing but a disposable razor and market brand shaving cream with which to make do. He grimly wondered if he could sneak in his usual brand of aftershave and face cream without arousing too much suspicion or ridicule from Alfred, but proceeded to perfectly coif himself to devastatingly handsome with the crude tools he had. He thought he had done rather the skilled job given the ridiculous instruments he had been forced to use, until he opened Alfred's closet and saw what he had to work with for the rest of his look. Nothing but tattered jeans, printed t-shirts, and a well-loved leather bomber jacket with a black fleece trim hung from the hangers. A desperate dive into his drawers produced nothing better, even a few things heinously worse, but ultimately Francis managed to scrap together a simple pin striped shirt and a pair of unused tan trousers he strongly suspected Arthur had purchased for him when they had been together.
Upon arriving back into the living room, tying a simple black tie he had miraculously unearthed from the pile of comic book character ties, neon colored atrocities with patterns that would offend even the colorblind, and gag ties meant only for drunken frat parties, he found the television set on and flickering ominously between the channels. Hearing his footfalls, Alfred's head popped abruptly up from the top of it, grinning with sheer childish delight.
"Check it out! I totally CAN haunt the TV! I've got some sort of weird freaky poltergeist connection with it or something. It's wicked cool! Watch, watch!" he announced.
His head plunged back down into the screen, and Francis allowed the unavoidable smirk of amusement to adorn his face. The television cycled through the various morning news programs, cartoons, and the obligatory banal talk garbage accompanied by Alfred's tinny commentary through the electronics consisting of a variety of quips along the lines of, "Boring!", "Lame!", "Gay!", "Seen it!" or snoring sounds.
"That's nice, Alfred," was all Francis gave him in dismissively amused reply.
Meanwhile, he searched the pantries for anything fit for human consumption for breakfast. After a long, exhaustive search, all he managed to unearth was some eggs and bread among the pop tarts, sugar cereal, and cinnamon rolls in their garish cartoon boxes. Grateful even to find that, Francis counted his blessings and rummaged through the remaining drawers and cupboards to find a pan or any other cooking implement he could fashion a meal with. Finally he extricated a battered old frying pan out of a bottom cabinet and put it on the stove, but the second most vital contraption to his usual morning routine seemed to be glaringly absent. Nowhere in his gutting of the kitchen did he uncover coffee, the coffee maker, or even anything to suggest Alfred was merely out.
"Okay," he started testily, rubbing his temples, "I'll forgive you your gluttony and these concentrated wads of artificial dyes and sugar you call breakfast, but at the very least don't you have any coffee?"
Alfred's head popped back out of the television, brow furrowed.
"Coffee? What? Are you kidding me? The stuff's nasty! And why would you make it, anyway, when you can get it at any fast food place you want?" he asked.
Francis felt a headache already creeping insidiously through his brain, and he hadn't even tangled with Arthur yet.
"They sell coffee… At fast food places…?" he groaned in disgust.
"'Course they do!" came the all too quick response, "Mattie always gets it when we have McDonald's breakfast! It's pretty good from what I hear! Sheesh Frankie, I know you're French and all, but they have McDonald's in France!"
A boisterous, teasing laugh erupted from the spirit, not alleviating the tense pounding in his skull in the slightest.
"I KNOW they do! But unlike some people I refuse to eat that garbage," Francis retorted, opening the refrigerator in desperation.
A fresh carton of milk sat in the door rack alongside some orange juice, but otherwise the entirety of the chilled compartment veiled in wispy condensation was filled with brand new boxes of every flavor of soda imaginable, lunchmeats, and instant meals.
"If you're that desperate for a caffeine fix I probably have a Rockstar or two left in there! Now there's a morning pick me up!" Alfred piped helpfully.
"Rockstar? Seriously? You mean those hideous energy drinks?" Francis queried before he spotted the very logo of the aforementioned drink.
An entire box sat complacently on the shelf with a tiny post-it note in Matthew's delicate writing tacked to the front that read, "I still think these are terrible for you." Francis and the inanimate box engaged in a brutal staring contest for several moments, and then he slammed the door shut with brutal finality.
"That does it, we are leaving now, and we are stopping in a café on the way to work for a proper breakfast," he announced and promptly hurled everything he had already hauled out back into their respective drawers.
"Huh? Already? But I just got this thing really cookin'! I think I'm picking up HBO!" Alfred mourned as he drifted up from the television.
The loud jabbering interspersed with explosions of the cartoon Alfred had been watching suddenly clicked off as Francis picked up his car keys and darted out the door. All he wanted was to see Arthur again and if death had not quite stopped him from doing so, then breakfast most certainly would not be allowed the satisfaction. Alfred's rusted old jalopy of a pick-up truck parked haphazardly in his spot nearly succeeded where pop tarts had failed. Francis mustered the courage to board the creaking contraption and after a few twists of the key and desperate gasps of the engine was finally on his way to his new place of employment with a still thoroughly amused ghost in the passenger seat toying with the radio and the air conditioner. Though as he had promised, he stormed a local coffee shop he knew well with a look on his face that seemed to seethe, "Relinquish a café au lait and a croissant immediately on penalty of death, which is really not at all pleasant let me tell you because I would know," without actually saying as much and terrifying the poor barista as he approached the counter. Coffee and satisfactory breakfast in hand, he got back in the car, ignored Alfred's jests about his gourmet palette, and trekked the last leg through downtown Applewood to the office.
Arthur just so happened to be Executive Editor of the American branch of England's premiere publisher of children's books and novels for young adults; Sabrehaven Publishing. He had been transferred some years prior, which is why he had been forced to move to America in the first place under the guise of a promotion. Arthur had initially loathed everything about his new job and his new home, but Francis remembered with fondness the way they had always joked if Arthur had stayed cooped up in London and not agreed to take a risk and move across the Atlantic and if he hadn't decided America was direly in need of a little culinary wake up call and a little touch of French fabulousness, they never would have met. Neither would have dared to cross the tiny little channel that would have separated them in their home countries for eternity. Serendipity in its finest hour.
Francis pulled into the parking lot of Sabrehaven Publishing with tender memories in his heart and a renewed smile on his face as he parked in the spot Alfred instructed him to and struck off toward the employee entrance of the towering, whimsical building. Every inch of the place looked straight out of one of the fantasy novels they purveyed. Painted in bright colors with fantastical decorations, chandeliers, tapestries on the walls and suits of armor guarding entrances, it also sported larger than life statues of some of the company's most memorable characters, including a mischievous gang of gnomes, a noble unicorn, and even a bright green, winged rabbit. Francis knew the place very well after visiting his workaholic beloved after hours quite often, and even more than returning to the plane of the living, returning to the place where Arthur worked diligently to fulfill his passion felt fathoms more like coming home.
In a more observant moment than usual, Alfred noticed the sweet, genuine smile on Francis' lips and the faraway look in his eyes as they walked through the parking lot and grinned as he glided backwards a few inches above the pavement beside him.
"You look happier to be here than you have in a while," he noted.
It took Francis a moment to realize he was being spoken to, but he snapped out of his reverie with an almost sheepish laugh.
"I just… I loved it here. Almost as much as Arthur does. I'd come here to be with him all the time because he was practically having an affair with his job. He'd forget to eat, so I'd bring him something from my bakery I made myself, or some tea, or if he was having a bad day I'd give him a shoulder massage, keep him company while he burned the midnight oil, anything he needed!" he responded, a slight blush creeping over his cheeks, "But… Mostly I loved to be with him here because he was so happy. The way he would light up when he showed me the books they were working with, the art, the stories. It was beautiful."
The faraway, longingly devoted gaze washed back over Francis' face with a mournful sigh.
"At least I'll get to see that, one last time," he whispered.
Alfred winced in sympathy, but swiftly replaced it with his usual bright smile and infectious optimism for the sake of his new friend.
"Definitely, and we'll make sure Artie's smiling until the day he can see you again! I know it!" he declared, pumping a fist into the air.
A crooked smile found its way back to Francis' lips and he nodded with confidence. If nothing else, he would do everything in his power to make Arthur happy once more.
"Yeah… Yeah we will," he agreed, and continued toward the office with a little more purpose in his step.
"That's the spirit! So then what's the plan of attack for today, Frankie? I mean we got all the basics down, but now it's show time, day one, the big opening pitch! Clearly you're none too happy being me, and I gotta say Artie ain't real fond of me at the moment either. Gonna be tough getting a word in edgewise without sending him into full blown destroy mode," he asked mirthfully.
"Ah, funny you should ask, because it is so simple even you will understand, my friend!" Francis began with a confident smile and an elegant twist of a hand, "The angel and the demon, they made a bet that Arthur would fall in love with ME once again, no?"
Alfred nodded, eyes wide in concentration and awe as he listened in rapture.
"So, you have been in a coma for several months, have you not? What better time than that to turn over a new leaf? As they say? To awaken with a renewed sense of life and purpose and to make amends with the one you hurt the most!" he continued merrily.
The gleam of enlightenment flickered in his translucent companion's eyes and he smirked with unholy thrill.
"Ohhhh, I get it! So you're gonna be like new and improved Alfred! By acting like Frankie! Niiiiice. That's pretty slick!"
"I thought so," Francis replied, pleased, "I can still be myself whilst imprisoned in your body, and I have the perfect excuse for my behavior! I suppose the demon really was right about this being the perfect solution. I'll be passing through the pearly gates and strumming my harp and flying laps around heaven before you know it!" he laughed, closing his eyes and thumbing his chin, then adding as an afterthought with a playful wink, "And I'm not as displeased to be you as you think, by the way."
A gentler sort of smile replaced the devious one on Alfred's face as they passed through the hissing automatic doors into the busy lobby and Francis could no longer speak.
"Told you no one could resist this hotness," he commented warmly as the last word, and Francis hit the button to descend the elevator to the mailroom in the basement.
Francis rolled his eyes with a private smirk, drew in a deep breath, and stepped inside the elevator. He entered in the code to take him down to the bottom floors reserved only for employees with Alfred's assistance, and braced himself for the first day of his new life as Alfred F. Jones as it plummeted down into unknown depths and the first real step to finally seeing Arthur again.
The mailroom turned out to be less of a horrifying pit of drudgery and monotony than Hollywood movies and Francis' imagination had painted it to be. A neat, clean, and organized place with tightly packed cubbies, whooshing air tubes and merrily clacking canvas carts, it was run in Alfred's absence by his gaggle of colorful coworkers, all of whom looked genuinely happy to see him once he entered. A young man with short brown hair and gentle blue eyes leapt up immediately to give Francis a relieved hug. Toris, an old friend and college roommate, as Alfred informed him with a note of affection. He was quickly followed by a taller, boisterous man who crushed him against his chest and noisily purported to be the one who had missed him the most and been the one who said he would come back all along. The third coworker in the room with curly dark hair, an expression of a man who hadn't had a wink of sleep in a week, and a workstation covered in all things feline rolled his eyes quietly in the background, got up, and offered Francis a casual handshake in welcome. Sadiq and Heracles, Alfred added informatively after Francis awkwardly stumbled on names and they immediately began bickering. He returned all their sentiments with gratitude and joy and after the obligatory blow by blow of his gruesome ordeal in the hospital, glorified and embellished to the highest degree to sate morbid curiosities, there was no more time to spare for slacking.
Everyone got promptly to work after welcoming their fallen comrade back properly and so too did Francis; with Alfred's frenetic coaching. He guided him, or rather attempted to guide him, as they went on how to address various internal communications, where each of the tubes went and how to sort the piles of envelopes, packages, and cartons that poured in from the delivery rooms. Francis found it to be not unlike a well-oiled kitchen routine, the processes of which he was intimately familiar, and managed to fall into the swing of their operations with ease. He thought the training would busy him long enough to avoid boredom and the return of the dull ache in his chest whenever he thought about Arthur. Fate once again took glee in proving him grossly erroneous. As he found himself looking frequently at the clock, once a spare moment came his way he inquired of the ghost perched above his workstation just exactly when he would be able to make his delivery rounds.
Alfred thought back a moment, and then cheerfully replied that the executive floor where Arthur's office was located usually got mail in the late afternoons.
Francis nearly collapsed right on the spot. Afternoon. He would have to wait until afternoon to enact his master plan. He would have to go about nearly his whole day, waiting, yearning, and knowing his beloved was in the same building yet petty schedules and masonry would still separate them. Alfred managed to intervene with a few reassuring and comforting words before Francis had an infamous moment of theatric drama and drew unwanted attention, but even as he scowled and pouted and knuckled back down he still cursed the forces of the universe in eloquently scathing French in his head. It was all he could do to stomach the thought of having to dine with his new coworkers at lunch, make small talk, and try not to look expectantly at the door for Arthur to walk in. Arthur very rarely ate in the cafeteria, if at all, that much he knew for a fact. He much preferred to take his meals and afternoon tea in the privacy of his own office, unless of course Francis himself had descended with a bottle of wine and a proper course.
No more could he surprise his prickly love with culinary delights with a side of loving teasing at lunch or dinner without completely blowing it, and so he would have steel his patience and will and wait until his appointed hour. Instead of watching the hellish red second hand march its jerkily mocking parade around the indifference clock face, Francis decided to plan what he would say once he could finally look into those bewitching emerald irises once more; lest he lose his heart and his wit all over again and ruin his crusade before it even began. Only Arthur had ever possessed the power to make his flawless charm falter and his winsome wiles crash and burn into flushed cheeks, rage, and a unique racing of his heart in his chest he still failed to conjure words to describe.
The rest of the day passed in that frustrated monotony with Alfred amusing himself with his new spiritual touch on the world and Francis drifting in and out of reality and his imaginary reunion scenarios, pausing ever so often to assure Toris or Sadiq that he was quite alright. He took lunch with them and made a heroic effort to be bubbly and boisterous, but all the while watching the clock and waiting for the afternoon. The cosmic game could only really begin once all the players were on the proverbial board and the sands had already been slipping through his mortal hourglass counting his borrowed time on Earth for a week. The hours ticked by at their own disinterested pace, Francis went back to work, and finally began loading his mail cart to make the afternoon deliveries.
Envelopes addressed to Arthur Kirkland passed through his hands, his fingers brushing reverently over the letters of his name as he set them aside to lay on the very top of all the rest of the piles of mail that mattered not at all. One step closer. Francis piled parcels and folders and packages into his canvas receptacle as if arming himself for war. Alfred drifted close to his side to direct him to the service elevators, and finally, he wheeled his cart out of the mailroom and onto the battlefield. He needed no reminder as to what floor Arthur's office was on, and held his breath as he ascended the towering skyscraper to the executive level.
Cheerful music floated into the pleasant little lobby of the executive suites as he passed through on his way to Arthur's office. He greeted a few of the passersby he recognized with a smile and a cordial wave, but his feet marched with purpose along their old familiar path over the plush carpet. Down the hall past the entryway with the sentinel bronze of Sabrehaven's collective of colorful characters. A slight right at the fork, and down one last hallway into the main office where all of the executive officers conducted their business. It consisted of a ring of private offices corralling an airy, open area beneath crystalline skylights and rimmed in tasteful foliage where they could meet with the second tier of command seated around communal desks and larger cubicles. Arthur's office was up on the second level, right hand side, third door down. Francis could have walked there with his eyes closed.
It was a trip he had made countless times before, but never with his cheeks burning and his heart racing quite so hard. Arthur's door was just visible from the entryway to the executive suite, and he stood, watching as if gazing into a dragon's den and readying his trusty blade for combat. Alfred drifted overhead, twisted upside down and grinned a gleeful Cheshire grin.
"Ready?" he asked.
Francis merely nodded, drew in a deep breath, and tightened his grip on the mail cart. He was as ready as he ever would be. The second major test of his quest loomed, dark and ominous, and he gathered all of his wit, courage, and resolve to shove the cart again and take the first step down the hall and to certain doom or salvation. The first door whizzed past him without a second thought. The second came soon afterward with a clearer view of the largest obstacle that could potentially ruin every meticulous calculation and scripted conversation he had come up with; the desk of Arthur's personal secretary situated immovably in front of the door to his sacred sanctum that no one entered without his permission. Nothing he had not successfully conquered before, even when Arthur had left explicit instructions to allow no one in, so Francis approached the gatekeeper with confidence; a slender, decidedly distracted young blonde seated with legs alluringly crossed in a pleated pink miniskirt, matching vest and tie, and snappy satin pumps. It was a sight Francis was very accustomed to seeing, and one that brought an inevitable grin to his face as he wheeled his mail cart to the side of the desk and leaned over the handle rakishly.
"Afternoon, Feliks!" he called brightly.
Feliks started, looked up from filing his nails after a rousing round of solitaire on his computer, and gasped in delight as recognition flickered in his green eyes.
"Alfred!" he replied with a grin, "It's like, so totally awesome to see you again! We all thought you were for sure, yanno… D-E-A-D."
The young man in women's clothes cupped a hand over his mouth and spelled the word as if he dared not speak it, and Francis laughed. He had always been fond of Arthur's personal secretary, even if the Brit quite frequently wanted to wring his neck.
"Nope, alive and well as you can see!" he answered enthusiastically, patting himself down, "And apparently in one piece!"
Feliks snickered and twirled a finger into his hair.
"Killer! You totes have to lay out all the dirty laundry for me sometime. I bet it was all like, Days of Our Lives drama and junk!" he speculated.
"You don't know how right you are, Feliks. Really," Francis replied with an ironic smirk as he picked up the bundle of Arthur's mail, "Sometime we'll catch up, but I have Arth- I mean, Artie's mail right here for him!"
If Feliks noticed the correction, he took no note of it, and picked his nail file back up to continue preening where he had left off.
"Great! Just leave it in the usual spot and I'll get it to him later. He's in like, the foulest of moods today, I swear to God. Don't tell me men don't PMS. Ever since his boyfriend died he's been a royal pain in the- Oh shit! You tooootally didn't hear that from me, okay?" Feliks hissed to himself until he realized what he had said, clapping hand over his mouth and waving the other frantically in the air.
Francis's chest ached dully once more, but he managed a small, understanding smile.
"Don't worry. I heard," he affirmed sadly.
"What a relief! I don't need him riding my ass for anything more than he usually does, you dig?"
"I quite do. So then, I shall simply hand over his mail personally!" Francis announced.
The color drained visibly from Feliks' cheeks and his jaw dropped open.
"Whoa whoa, hold the phone! Like, rewind! You want to do WHAT? He NEVER lets you deliver the mail right to his office!" he spluttered.
"You said it yourself! He's in a bad mood, he's already annoyed with you, so I'll hand off his mail! I'd really like to thank him myself for giving me my job back, anyway. I do owe him," replied Francis with all the suave coolness of a fox on the prowl he had mastered in his previous life.
Feliks still bore an expression that looked as if Francis had just told him he was going to skip rope in traffic or go for a little swim in shark infested waters. He stared for a moment, but then scoffed with a smirk and pulled a bottle of pink nail polish out of a large collection in his desk.
"Tch. Your funeral, boyfriend," he muttered amusedly.
"Already had one, thanks," Francis quipped under his breath as he breezed past.
"Hmmm?" Feliks murmured, distracted.
"Nothing! Have a lovel- Er, catch you later, Feliks!" came the flippant reply.
Feliks waved farewell with the nail polish brush, and Francis stepped past his desk, the final barrier, and approached Arthur's door at last.
His fingers tightened on the bundle of letters and his throat tightened as he walked slowly toward the door painted with the words, "Arthur Kirkland – Executive Editor" in fancy gilded script. It seemed an entire lifetime ago he had last stepped through that portal and into a realm of love, life, and happiness. He had been to hell and back, quite literally, and yet, it was so unfeasible that beyond a simple crimson plank of wood his love, his Arthur sat, the key to his salvation and the master of his fate. All he need do was open it. But he froze, petrified. One glimpse of Arthur and he knew he would come undone. Francis would take over and he was certain a gaping, flaming chasm would open up beneath his feet to drag him to Hell without so much as a 'thanks for playing!'.
Alfred saw the hesitation on his own face and the tremor in Francis' hand as he grappled with the gravity of the beast that lay in the den beyond. He sailed overhead, landing in a bold pose beside the door, and balled his fists determinedly.
"Come on, Frankie! Don't pussy out now! We talked about this! We practiced! It's just Arthur! YOUR Arthur! Now, do you want to turn around and admit defeat and take the plunge DOWNSTAIRS with demons shoving pitchforks up your ass for eternity? Or do you want to be the ultimate badass and march in there like the Frankie I know and knock this one out of the park?" he proclaimed.
Francis regarded his spectral companion blankly as he railed at him, and remembered at last to breathe. Alfred was very right. He had endured too much, put too much at stake, and come too far to fail right at the moment of truth. Mustering all his faith and all his courage in himself, Francis nodded and marched up to Arthur's door. He grasped the silver handle in his fingers like a weapon, set his jaw, and twisted the knob soundlessly until the latch clicked free.
The door slid open with reverent silence and broke the final obstacle that stood between him and the other half of his soul. Arthur himself was sitting at his desk like a reclusive faerie king, lit from behind only by dimly in the slatted light of his drawn blinds with his chin in one hand, trusty red pen in the other, and his thick brows furrowed in concentration as he read distractedly through the latest edits on a manuscript. Gone was the usual bright glint of genius in his lively, fiery green eyes as he tore into a raw story and crafted it into a masterpiece. His face, too, seemed wan and pinched, but in a tragic, tired way rather than his usual volatile temper. Sorrow and darkness clung to him and weighed his shoulders and aged his beautiful face far beyond his years. A task that had once brought him joy now looked as if it were sheer agony to complete, and Francis immediately quelled the intense desire to announce his presence, flounce in and wrap him in a big, boisterous hug and kiss his troubles away as he always had.
Instead, all he could do was knock politely and at least shatter the spell despair had cast upon him. The sound did not cause him to look up. Rather his fist clenched over his manuscript, the muscles in his jaw tensed visibly, and he bore his teeth furiously in a vicious growl.
"Bloody hell Feliks, I thought I told you-!" he began, looking up and stopping the moment his flashing green eyes met kind, calm blue.
He paused a moment, as if he didn't recognize the young, bespectacled man in his doorway with a bundle of mail in his outstretched hand and a sunny smile on his face. Francis could see his breath catch in his chest, as if he had seen something he should not have, but he quickly recovered, cleared his throat and straightened himself up with dignity and propriety.
"Oh… Alfred. My apologies. I thought it was that daft little dingbat of a secretary they insist upon forcing me to endure," he muttered, slumping back in his chair and rubbing his temples wearily.
"No worries, happens all the time," Francis assured him kindly, taking another step inside.
"What can I do for you?" Arthur continued conversationally with a forced pleasant smile that was painful to watch.
Lifting the bundle of mail again pointedly, Francis cautiously approached his desk.
"Got your mail here for you. I know I usually leave it with Feliks, but I kinda just wanted to say thank you in person, you know? For letting me come back to work?" he offered, forcing himself to breathe evenly and calm his heart to remember to speak like Alfred and keep his distance.
Arthur's brows raised, and a lopsided, more genuine smile took the place of the previous one on his face.
"Thank me? There's really no need for that. It was the right thing to do. I know I have a ruthless reputation, but that's only when it comes to grammar and storytelling. Not clerical matters. As long as you're not a sensitive young author with a terrible book you're feebly trying to get published there's no reason at all to fear me," Arthur laughed softly.
The sound was so small, but warm and sadly genuine, tears pricked at the corners of Francis' eyes and an inexplicable warmth blossomed in his chest.
"Well I'm definitely not that. And definitely not afraid of you. Thank you, Arthur," he breathed, hiding the hitch in his voice, "Thank you so much."
Arthur blinked and frowned slightly at the strange tone and the weight of the seemingly simple, banal little words, especially coming from someone he had not been on particularly friendly terms with. He held out his hand, even as he recoiled back into his chair, and did his best to continue smiling and keep the meeting brief and pleasant.
"Um, you're welcome. I'll just… Take my post now so you can get back to work. Mustn't dawdle on our first day back," he said briskly.
Francis stared in horror at the hand he had so often held, so often kissed, and so often caressed his body and knew he could not bear to leave just yet. Handing off the mail would mean the end of their meeting. The end of Arthur until the lonely day had passed, the sun had set, and he had spent the night alone with nothing but memories only freshened into scathingly painful detail now that he had seen him again, heard his voice, smelled the aroma of old books and ink in his office that followed him coyly home.
"Wait, just one more thing," he cut in smoothly.
"Yes?" Arthur intoned, a hint of irritation bleeding into his voice.
"Allow me the honor of thanking you properly," Francis breathed lovingly, his mind whirring, searching for something, anything to stay near him even just one moment more.
Unfortunately, it had quite the opposite effect. Arthur straightened up and leaned back, lips pressed into an unamused line.
Francis gasped, realizing far too late just how much like charming, flirtatious Francis and not brash, overbearingly friendly Alfred he had sounded and shook his head, laughing nervously.
"No no, I-! That came out badly! I only meant that I want to do something more than just thanks! An innocent gesture of gratitude!" he hurriedly corrected.
Beguiling jade green eyes that only ever saw the truth according to Arthur narrowed suspiciously.
"I er, well-!"
"Caaaareful, Frankie. Total Artie meltdown in ten, nine, eight…" Alfred warned from somewhere overhead.
Francis hazarded an annoyed glance up toward the ceiling, but quickly redirected his gaze to Arthur's crossly expectant face still glaring at him.
"Ahah, well," he began again with a radiant smile, "How about you let me buy you a round of drinks after work?"
It was a perfectly reasonable suggestion. Arthur loved to drink, perhaps a little too much. It would provide them a quiet, intimate setting in which to chat, catch up, and rekindle the flame of affection that had once begun life as a sudden flash fire. Alcohol would loosen the senses, inhibitions, and Francis would be free to work his romantic magic once again. Arthur, however, was not so inclined to go along with the program or believe in its virtue.
"Drinks? Drinks? Are you joking? You really have to be pulling my leg right now, because even YOU are not stupid enough to ask me out for drinks!" he exploded vehemently, cheeks flushing.
Flabbergasted, Francis' jaw dropped and he took a step back.
"What? Wait no! Calm down! Wait a second here! I didn't mean it that way either! Honestly!" he rapidly defended himself, still smiling, "C-Can we talk about this for just one minute?"
"We may not! I know exactly what you're doing! What in the hell was I supposed to think? You breeze in here uninvited with your smug little grin, all thanks and pleasantries and expect me to just roll over and agree to go out with you again? I see not even a traumatic BRAIN injury is enough to change you, Alfred F. Jones," the Brit spat, circling his desk and stalking toward Francis with murder in his eyes.
"God, I hate it when he uses my full name! What, like I'm twelve or something?" Alfred groaned.
Francis scowled and bit back a comment about not acting like a twelve year old if he didn't want to be treated like one, and continued his slow, backward retreat.
"No really, I swear! My intent is nothing but noble! I just want to go out as friends!" he insisted.
"And what makes you think we're even friends?" Arthur retorted nastily.
"Because! Arthur, I care about you! Deeply! I know that we are no longer- Uh, I mean, I know we're not together anymore and all, and I was a complete ass before, but I still care! I appreciate what you did for me, and I would never try to use it to manipulate you!" Francis continued passionately.
Arthur paused, but said nothing, cocking his head and soliciting further explanation. Francis smiled his best, most charming, soothing and disarming smile he could, and spoke gently to his riled beloved.
"I know how much Francis meant to you, too. I would never try to take advantage after what happened."
He rued the words the instant they left his mouth. Arthur froze and all the life drained in one gruesome moment out of his very form as if he had plunged a cold knife straight through his heart. He recovered quickly, and darkness clouded over his eyes as he looked away in stony fury.
"Get out," Arthur snarled in a chilling deadpan.
"Damn it all. Wait, Arthur, I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have-"
"I said get out! Get out of my office this instant!" he barked, not even allowing Francis to finish.
"But I only meant-!"
"I don't give a damn what you think you meant! Your so-called "noble" intentions are EVER so clear to me now! Get out before I MAKE you get out!"
"Arthur please, please just listen! I can explain! It's kind of a funny story, really!" Francis continued to plead as Arthur continued to back him step by step out of the office.
"Are you deaf AND an idiot? Get out! Get the hell out of my office and my life and don't ever show your face around me again!"
Arthur's threats when they fought had always been grandiose and severe, yet in that very moment, that threat in particular cut straight through Francis' very soul. He could almost hear the demon already cheering in victory along with the angel who never wanted him in the first place and feel the flames of hell licking hungrily at his ankles.
"I-Isn't that just the slightest bit harsh?" he spluttered.
"Harsh? HARSH? I'll tell you what's harsh! Harsh is you traipsing into my office on your first day back, not even having the sense to wait a few days for your sordid little seduction, disobeying explicit orders you have until now faithfully followed, and bringing up my DEAD partner in hopes to charm me out on a sodding DATE with you!"
"No, I didn't! I would never-! I'm not that-!"
"How DARE you. How dare you, Alfred! This is low, even for you! Of all the slimy, underhanded, sleazy things you have ever done, this is the slimiest, sleaziest, and most underhanded of them all!" Arthur seethed, "You ABANDONED me. And you do not get to be my fucking hero now!"
Francis backed out the door, past a horrified Feliks' desk where he had ducked for cover, and collided sharply with the mail cart. He reached out and gripped it for some bastion of safety, and pressed against it as he continued down the hall and to the small flight of stairs leading up to the second level of the executive suite.
"Arthur, you don't understand! Just listen to me! Please!" Francis begged, closing his eyes for a moment and screaming his true thoughts inside his head, "Please, mon petit lapin, mon amour, please hear me!"
Inclined toward the occult and stories of old magic as Francis always knew his love to be, Arthur was tragically most certainly not a telepath and far too stubborn to ever forget a grudge. His rage blazed on unmitigated as he delivered the final blow.
"Not on your life, you rat bastard! For all I care, you can crack your thick skull open again and rot… In… HELL!"
Arthur punctuated each venomous syllable with a jab of his finger into Francis' chest, ending with one last hateful shove. Francis slammed hard into the edge of the mail cart, the front wheel tipped over the first step, and it buckled just enough to scoop him up cordially as he fell with it. He crashed into the cart with a flurry of envelopes and a strangled yelp and rode the nightmarish few stairs down in a jolting, bouncing, out of control ride that ended only when he slammed into a nearby cubicle and was dumped unceremoniously onto the floor. He heard Arthur's furious footfalls retreat to his office and the door slam shut on his hopes, and he sunk miserably into the pile of mail fluttering down upon him in a mocking flurry.
"Dude! Dude! Are you okay? Dude! Buddy! Pal! Compadre! Speak to me Frankie!" Alfred wailed in the wake of chaos, but Francis preferred to stay hidden in his pile of paper for the time being.
"O-M-G. That was like, the gnarliest thing I have ever seen! Are you seriously okay?" Feliks' concerned voice commented shortly afterward, followed by a chorus of other workers who had come to see the scene of the crime.
Francis heaved a sigh, and glanced up into the score of faces gathered above him.
"I'm fine, Feliks. Don't worry about me. Believe me, I've had much, MUCH worse," he muttered flatly.
"Dude, you don't like, ask a guy out when their boyfriend of like a million years just died. That was pretty damn ballsy!" he laughed, "You're lucky this is all you got!"
"Tell me about it," Francis replied and closed his eyes again.
He supposed eventually he would have to move. Everyone would begin to worry, especially over someone who had just gotten out of the hospital, and he was in no mood to cope. On the other hand, being dead had a strange way of making social conventions seem quite inconsequential. For the moment he could lie there, defeated, a great titan of love who had finally met his match all over again, and wonder if he would ever see the famed pearly gates of heaven once his time ran out.
Aaaaand those of you who predicted Francis would end this chapter physically assaulted by Arthur give yourself ten points! Haha! He should have known better, that one. Sheesh. Now what is he to do after Arthur has spurned him so? … Back to the drawing board I suppose. Stay tuned for next time! And if you got this far and have enjoyed this little fic, please do leave me a comment! They really do make my day, and even the smallest little note will make me smile! Thank you X3